LOST AND FOUND JULY 27, 2010
by I.J. Singer
It is all but required, when introducing the Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer, to identify him as the older brother of the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was, of course the younger Singer brother who would go on to garner the first and only Nobel Prize awarded to a Yiddish writer (a record not likely to be broken). The reputational asymmetry between the brothers Singer is more than a little ironic: while they lived, it was Israel Joshua (1893-1944) who was famous, while Isaac (1902-1991) languished darkly in his internal contradictions and his older brother’s shadow. The irony is heightened when the occasion for the introduction is the welcome reissue of I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi.
It was Israel Joshua, a forceful and bold personality, who had been the trailblazer, preparing the way for the more passive and self-conscious Isaac. It was Israel Joshua who first broke with, more irrevocably than his brother, the Orthodox insularity of the family—from their father, mystical and impractical, a rabbi from a Hasidic line, and their mother, the daughter of a non-Hasidic rabbi and the so-called “rationalist” of the couple. The contrasting flavors of their parents’ religiosity is amusingly caught in a story from I. B. Singer’s autobiographical In My Father’s Court. An alarmed woman brings two slaughtered geese to the father for poskening, the rabbinical decision-making that has the force of Jewish law. Though headless, the geese shriek when struck together. Can the rabbi decree them kosher, or are they possessed by unclean spirits? The father is ready to confer on the geese definitive proof of the supernatural, but the skeptical mother, probing deeper, reaches in and yanks out the windpipes of both birds, who then behave as dead geese do. “Father’s face turned white, calm, a little disappointed. He knew what had happened here: logic, cold logic, was again tearing down faith, mocking it, holding it up to ridicule and scorn.” Isaac, a child watching, longs that the geese will still shriek, “so loud that people in the street would hear and come running.”
As the eldest boy, Israel Joshua was destined for the rabbinate, but he rebelled at the age of seventeen, precociously motivated by the ideas of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, which aimed to turn Jews around from staring fixedly back at the era of the Talmud and re-orient them instead so that they were facing Western civilization, while still retaining their essential identity as Jews. Israel Joshua, who severely interrogates so many presuppositions, does not question Jewish essentialism. For him, a Jew is essentially a Jew, not only in the eyes of the world, which characteristically manifests its perceptions in outbursts of barbarism, but in the core of his being, whether he wills it or not.
His assimilation-aspiring characters betray their Jewish essence despite themselves, in telling details that are often among the most brilliant of I.J. Singer’s characterological brushstrokes. So, for example, in The Brothers Ashkenazi, Max Ashkenazi, né Simha Meir Ashkenazi, tries to shed his Hasidic origins as he propels himself into bourgeois preeminence. But “the checked English suits he now favored in order to lend his figure dignity and elegance quickly assumed the shape of a Hasidic gabardine upon his stooped shoulders.” Likewise Nissan, the Communist agitator in Lodz who is one of Simha Meir’s nemeses, and who, like him, is a former Talmudic prodigy who seeks to escape the claustrophobic confines represented by his father, cannot elude the Jewishness that seeps out of him. Nissan argues the finer points of Marxist doctrine with his finger twirling in the air, as boys bent over the Talmud do, and his messianism has merely been displaced from one conception of improbable redemption to another.
Israel Joshua’s Jewish essentialism coexisted with an utter distaste for the superstitions of religion, which remained pronounced and life-long. Unlike Isaac, he would not have desired the shriek of dead geese. On the contrary, in his memoir, Of A World That Is No More, he wrote with self-revealing disgust of the “stench of religion” that hung heavily over his beginnings. Of the two brothers, Israel Joshua is the rationalist, his intellectual passions a testament to the urgency with which he left religion firmly behind. It was through him that the Haskalah reached Isaac, though its values never took so firm a hold on him as on Israel Joshua. For Isaac, the choice between the old ways and the new is often starkly rendered as a choice between innocent piety and antinomian licentiousness. Israel Joshua’s position was, if equally tormented, a good deal more complicated. (This is not to say that it produced the finer fiction. Literary valuations are not measured in philosophical sophistications.)
Progressive politics also made a claim on Israel Joshua, who was by far the more politically engaged of the two brothers. In 1918 he left for Kiev, to witness for himself what he believed was the dawning of the age of political redemption, the secular Eden in which the proletarian brotherhood would eliminate a major proportion of the world’s injustices, most especially as experienced by European Jewry. He spent four years in Russia, growing ever more disgusted with the general level of savagery and, most excruciatingly, with the robust survival of anti-Semitism. He returned to Warsaw with a jaundiced attitude toward the revolution that would make life difficult for him among the left-wing thinkers in his milieu. Isaac got inoculated against the ideology by proxy, without having to go through the process of disillusionment firsthand, though one suspects that he would never have delivered himself over to such impersonally idealist strivings in the first place. He was, if anything, a conservative by temperament, and inveterately self-protective.
Most importantly, it was Israel Joshua who paved the way for Isaac’s literary career. Israel Joshua published his first collection of short stories, “Pearls and Other Stories,” soon after his return to Warsaw, and quickly became a member of a group of avant garde writers that was dubbed Di Khaliastre, or The Gang. Meanwhile, Isaac had followed in his brother’s foot steps of dropping out of rabbinical seminary and returned to live with his parents in the backwater Galician shtetl of Bilgoray, where his father had found a temporary position as rabbi. Isaac was giving desultory Hebrew lessons to village children, worrying about being conscripted into the army, and so ready to give up that he almost accepted his parents’ plans to find him a bride with a father wealthy enough to ransom him out of the army. (These autobiographical details he used in his short story “Three Encounters.” His stay in Bilgoray yielded him many literary gems.) In the nick of time, Israel Joshua, who had become coeditor of the literary journal Literarische Bleter, or Literary Pages, arranged for Isaac to come to Warsaw to be a proofreader. He even promised his brother publication, if his stories merited it.
Israel Joshua’s brand of harshly unsentimental realism soon caught the attention of an influential figure across the ocean: Abraham Cahan, who was the editor of New York’s leading Yiddish newspaper, Forverts, or the Forward, which in those days had a circulation of more than a quarter of a million readers. Cahan hired Israel Joshua as his Warsaw correspondent, eventually sending him back to the Soviet Union to record his impressions, which were serialized in the Forward and published as a book, Nay Rusland, or New Russia, in 1928. Singer’s sojourns only confirmed the grim conclusions that he had drawn of the Bolshevik paradise. Warsaw’s Jewish intelligentsia found his animadversions intolerable, which, in turn, so embittered him that he eventually accepted Cahan’s invitation to emigrate to New York, where he became a full-time senior staff member of the Forward, which listed heavily toward socialism rather than communism.
By this time he had published another collection of short stories, On Alien Soil, which chronicled the viciousness of both the Red Army’s predations and the Jew-hatred endemic in Poland, as well as two novels, the second of which, Yoshe Kalb, focuses his unforgiving gaze on the corruptions at the heart of a Hasidic court. Israel Joshua was the sort of writer whose literary fire was stoked as much by moral fury as by more tranquil aesthetic ideals, a novelist whose passionate stake in the moral progress of the world seethes beneath his sentences. Yoshe Kalb enjoyed a healthy success, both as a novel and in a theatrical adaptation mounted by the great Yiddish actor and impresario Maurice Schwartz.
Israel Joshua arrived in New York in 1934, already established as a powerful voice in Yiddish literature. By the following year he had arranged to bring his younger brother over to New York, presenting him, on his arrival, with an old Yiddish typewriter on which I.B. Singer would write all his life, though it took him a while to get started on it. Of course, the true gift Israel Joshua had given Isaac, in facilitating his removal from Poland, was life itself. Their mother and younger brother, who was following through on the rabbinical path abandoned by the older brothers, died during the war.
In I.B. Singer’s Lost in America, he describes the paralysis of will that gripped him in his first years as an immigrant. He lived a precarious existence, both practically and emotionally, writing the occasional piece for the Forward, and also working once again at a job as a proofreader that his older brother had wangled for him. Isaac had written a superb book while still in Poland, called Satan in Goray and set in a shtetl much like Bilgoray, though transposed to the seventeenth century—which, in the case of Bilgoray, made little difference. The novel, dramatizing the lawlessness that seizes followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, spins the stark dualism between Orthodox adherence and moral anarchy that I.B. Singer would continue to work to such brilliant effect in so much of his fiction. But Satan in Goray had not received its due. In America, even more than in Warsaw, Isaac’s literary identity was largely defined in terms of “brother of,” and the effect on his authorial voice was devastating, muting it to the point of extinction.
Meanwhile Israel Joshua, though he had suffered the tragic loss of his eldest son, continued to flourish creatively. The vast horizons of the New World suited him very well, and the first novel that he published in America, The Brothers Ashkenazi, reflects the sense of expansiveness. Its ambition and its range were unprecedented in Yiddish literature—how exhilaratingly impudent to pull even Czar Nicholas II into its pages, rendering his embarrassing inanities in the language of the despised Jews! It called forth comparisons to Tolstoy. The critic Joseph Epstein wittily described it as the greatest Russian novel ever written in Yiddish. Translated into English and published by Knopf in 1936, it went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, lingering there together with Gone with the Wind. I. J. Singer’s reputation had reached its zenith, and fans began to fantasize that the committee in Stockholm might cast its gaze on this Yiddish writer, who had made good on the Haskalah’s dream of cross-pollination between Jewish and secular cultures.
There was to be one more novel, The Family Carnovsky, tracing three generations of a Jewish family living in Berlin. The Carnovsky family originally hails from Lithuania. The father, David Carnovsky, is so ardent a devotee of the Haskalah that he relocates himself to the city of Moses Mendelssohn. Singer presents each generation of the family defining themselves less as Jews and more as Germans, an evolution that replicates not only the history of the Mendelssohns but also of countless other German-Jewish families. It is a subtle and complicated work, one which, like The Brothers Ashkenazi, is long overdue for reappraisal. Some have charged that it appears, appallingly, to blame the German Jews for the disaster that befell them, the Nazi vengeance meted out as a punishment for assimilationist excesses, but this is an absurd misreading. Granted, it was written in the early 1940s, before the full facts of the unthinkable were known, but the work is, if anything, a prescient deconstruction of the myth of race as it defines the stereotype of the Jew. The novel was published in 1943, with Maurice Schwartz once again producing an adaptation for the stage. And then, in 1944, Israel Joshua was dead, the victim of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-one. Of A World That Is No More, which had been running in installments in the Forward, was published posthumously.
With the death of the elder brother, the mysterious languor that had held the younger’s literary talent in thrall was suddenly, miraculously, dispelled. Isaac was launched into a period of spectacular productivity that persisted unbroken until almost the very end of his four score and eight. Since some of his works, first appearing in Yiddish, were only posthumously published in their English translations, some joked that I.B. Singer was more prolific in death than are many breathing authors.
The first book to emerge was The Family Moskat, first serialized—as I. J. Singer’s books had been—in the Forward and then published as a Yiddish book in 1945. Its English translation came out in 1950 and was enthusiastically received. By 1950, of course, the magnitude of the destruction of European Jewry was recognized, and I.B. Singer’s novel was read—as, to a certain extent, the remainder of his career would be—through the lenses of that enormity. Richard Plant, reviewing The Family Moskat in the New York Times, wrote that “The scene he depicts is gone forever, and his novel may well be one of its monuments. Still, the novel, reminiscent of Turgenev and Balzac, stands because of its narrative qualities, its completely credible characters, its throbbing vitality.” Thomas Mann was also frequently cited as a literary forebear.
All this is true, but the most salient literary presence is the most obvious one. The Family Moskat is in such close literary dialogue with The Brothers Ashkenazi, that, as the late Joseph Sherman, wrote in a tribute to I. B. Singer published in Midstream in 2004, you must compare the two books closely “to see exactly what he is doing.” Sherman’s tribute underscores the way in which I. B. Singer, in carving out his unique standing as a Yiddish writer in world literature, would systematically minimize his indebtedness to the Yiddish tradition out of which he had arisen, issuing many statements emphasizing “the provincial and backward” writing of all Yiddish writers who had come before him, the sentimentality that precluded genuine artistry. “He got away with his facile disparagements,” Sherman observed, “because he was speaking to English readers who generally knew little about the Yiddish language and less about its literature.”
Of course, Isaac would never have perpetrated such self-serving prevarications had his brother lived. But a far more interesting counterfactual to consider is whether Israel Joseph’s longevity would have blocked Isaac Bashevis’s finding his eventual way to his extraordinary talent. Satan in Goray transposes Singer’s moral dualism to the safe distance of the seventeenth century; but The Family Moskat brings it very much home. He introduces, in the character of Asa Heshel, the first of the many stand-ins for Isaac Bashevis who will people his fiction, a would-be intellectual who languishes in half thoughts and daydreams, a libertine who never entirely sheds the invisible bindings of long abandoned phylacteries. Isaac told one of his earliest translators, Dorothea Straus, that he thought that women caught in adultery should be hanged. Shocked, she asked him whether he really believed this. “No,” he answered, “but I wish I did.” Behold Asa Heshel, and countless other I.B. Singer protagonists.
Perhaps it was not just the intimidating stature of the older brother that kept the younger brother’s powers on hold, but also the thoroughgoing rationalism—“logic, cold logic,”—which the younger brother needed to resist in order to bring forth his art. One can feel the fierce intellect rising off the pages of I. J. Singer’s works, the passionate engagement with historical currents that would send him striding out of the shtetl, without any nostalgic glances backward, prepared to take on the world and to assess it on his own terms. How much more overpowering must he have been in life, that older brother, and how difficult it must have been to take issue with him, to plead the other side, even within the private precincts of one’s own mind, where fiction can take fire only in the purity of perfect freedom to think and feel what one authentically thinks and feels. Hide from your own take on the world in there, and your fiction is doomed.
The acknowledgments page of The Family Moskat reads: “I dedicate these pages to the memory of my late brother I. J. Singer, author of The Brothers Ashkenazi. To me he was not only the older brother, but a spiritual father and master as well. I looked up to him always as to a model of high morality and literary honesty. Although a modern man, he had all the great qualities of our pious ancestors.” There is no reason to doubt this testament to profoundest love and reverence for the brother who had always facilitated his way. And yet—such are the dark mysteries of human nature, which I. B. Singer, of all writers, was prepared to acknowledge—it was only the death of the one brother that brought the genius of the other to life.
And so we return to the irony of introducing I. J. Singer by identifying him as the older brother of I.B. Singer, and most especially in the context of The Brothers Ashkenazi. The large-scale ambitions of this novel not only brought a new scope into Yiddish literature, its fluid plotlines carrying the heft of massive social and political forces, the collisions of its characters deftly tracing turbulent dynamics of history. Fraternal rivalry is itself—irony of ironies—one of the novel’s major themes. It is the competiveness between two brothers, twins separated not by nine years but five minutes, that fuels the outsize ambition. The implacable need that drives the central character, Simha Meir Ashkenazi, to leave his mark on the world is his habit of compulsively comparing himself to his brother, Jacob Bunem, the more physically prepossessing and charming of the two. Jacob Bunem’s acquisitions of love and riches seem to befall him passively, whereas Simha Meir must devote his every waking hour to achieving his dubious goal of becoming “king of Lodz,” a city whose unsavory devotion to the profit motive is the urban counterpart to Simha Meir himself. He is a textile manufacturer whose darting eyes are always looking for an opportunity for gain, and who ceaselessly scrawls figures on any available surface—tablecloths, napkins—enraging his exquisite little wife Dinele, who detests him.
The conquest of Dinele, who becomes Diana as her husband becomes Max, partly explains the rivalry of the brothers. Dinele had hoped that the arranged marriage forced upon her by her wealthy Hasidic parents would yield her the romantic figure of Jacob Bunem as a husband rather than his obnoxious brother. Like many Polish girls, even from Hasidic households, Dinele had been sent to study at a secular Gymnasium, where she had been a great favorite of her Gentile friends, and she finds the ways of the Hasidic men, even her own father and brothers, boorish, degrading, and alarming. (I remember my own father telling me how this rift in the sensibilities of Jewish girls and boys, brought about by their very different educations, was creating societal difficulties in the Poland he had grown up in, the worldly girls turning up their noses at the relatively uncouth yeshiva boys their fathers chose for them. Ironically, it was precisely because, as girls, their education mattered so little that the comparatively affluent among them were shunted off to Gymnasia, the smattering of kultur meant to make them more marriageable.)
Since Simha Meir is known as a Talmudic prodigy, Dinele’s father is willing to pay a small fortune for the dowry, which is what allows Simha Meir to begin his seat-of-the-pants scramble to fulfill his ambitions. “All Lodz spoke of Simha Meir’s victory,” I. J. Singer writes, after a particularly stunning series of betrayals that removes many of Simha Meir’s obstacles to dominance. “ ‘Shrewd as they come . . . smart as salt in a wound. The guts of a pickpocket!’ people said. In Lodz this was the highest possible compliment.”
Both Lodz, the manufacturing and commercial center of Poland, and Simha Meir, its would-be king, present a face of capitalism so disfigured by cunning, greed, and ruthlessness that the reader has no trouble imagining the author as a young man running off to Russia to witness the glories of Bolshevism for himself. Even Simha Meir’s father-in-law, Haim Alter, a warm if weak man, an ardent Hasid who hires only Jewish workers in his factory, is, as an owner, an unrepentent exploiter. He claps his soft hands to the Hasidic tunes that his weavers sing as they work, but he pays them so little that the candles he makes them pay for out of pocket as they work their intolerably long hours represent a major drain on their resources. If anything, Haim Alter emerges as even more despicable than Simha Meir, owing to the smarmy pieties with which he coats his avarice. These are capitalists as an ardent communist might render them—portraits rendered in vitriol.
And yet the fallacious inferences of class ideology that Israel Joshua learned so well for himself in the Soviet Union writhe on the page. Simha Meir is not only played off against his pleasure-seeking twin brother, but also against the almost sympathetic character (high praise in I. J. Singer’ s fiction!) of Nissan, nicknamed in Lodz, “Nissan the Depraved.” The son of a fiercely uncompromising rabbi, with whom Simha Meir, too, had studied, Nissan rejects his father’s world with a vengeance.
Yes, he hated his father, and along with his father, he hated his holy books that spoke only of pain and were steeped in morals and melancholy; his Torah, so complex and convoluted that it defied all understanding; his whole Jewishness that oppressed the human soul and loaded it down with guilt and remorse. But most of all Nissan hated his father’s God, that cruel and vengeful being who demanded total obeisance, eternal service, mental and physical self-torture and privation, and the surrender of all choice and will.
Yet this apparent rejection proves to be merely a form of substitution, as Singer relentlessly hammers home. The father’s avenging righteousness, too pure for pity, has been transferred intact into the son, along with a life steeped in morals and melancholy, an ideology demanding “total obeisance, eternal service, mental and physical self-torture and privation, and the surrender of all choice and will.”
This business of choice and will is at the heart of this complex novel. A tyranny of determinism pushes the characters along, excising the possibility of autonomy, even at those moments when the characters seem to be most forcefully asserting themselves as free agents. This determinism issues both from innate character, announcing itself from the moment of birth—the twins emerge from the womb crying in voices that prophesize their contrasting personalities—and from the larger historical forces relentlessly at work. Simha Meir, in particular, drawing from inexhaustible reserves of ingenuity and drive, serves only to demonstrate, by the very indefatigability of his exertions, the awful fatality and futility of human efforts in a world so thoroughly deformed by injustice–which he is eager to turn to his advantage.
The grandeur of Singer’s deterministic designs leaves his characters little room for self-reflection, narrowing their inner lives into dimensionless spaces. What defeats them is not their internal uncertainties and paralyzing dualities—as in so many of I.B. Singer’s portraits of human futility—but rather the inflexible joining of their innate characters with their historical circumstances. In one brief passage, a little masterpiece of the twisty tergiversations of self-deception, Nissan comes close to rethinking his politics. A demonstration planned for May Day has gone disastrously wrong. The workers, drunk and dangerous, quickly transition from humiliating a hated factory overseer to targeting specifically Jewish factory owners, and from there to beating up random Jews, who are fellow workers, their comrades by class. What was meant to be a demonstration of proletarian solidarity turns into a full-fledged pogrom—heads bashed, women violated, with the Polish authorities cynically waiting it out until the rage is spent. Stunned by grief and guilt at having aroused passions whose outcome he had not foreseen, Nissan briefly considers whether his presuppositions might be faulty:
Maybe man was essentially evil. Maybe it wasn’t the fault of economic circumstances, as he had been taught, but the deficiencies of human character. . . . He drifted off and suffered terrible nightmares replete with blood and carnage. Behind it all resounded his landlord’s words: ‘It shall be forever so . . . .’ Ungroomed, fully dressed, he lay on his cot for a day and a night as if in a stupor. He was roused by the morning sun shining as brightly as it could through the polluted Lodz air and dingy windowpanes. He no longer felt the despair that had consumed him, the apathy and loss of purpose. Instead, there surged within him a will to live, to restore himself, to forge something positive out of the tragedy and disappointment. Like his pious father, whose faith in the Messiah nullified all contemporary suffering, Nissan reaffirmed his faith in the validity of his ideals and pushed aside all negative thought.
Though I.B Singer, in his later attempts to distinguish himself from all previous Yiddish writers, often derided their sentimentality, his brother’s work is so starkly unsentimental as to run the risk of contracting a deadly aesthetic chill. A masterful rendering of the sweep of history, animated by indignation at its senseless cruelties, is all well and good; but a novelist must also swoop down into the living vulnerabilities of his characters and tear out our hearts. A novelist knows what utopians often forget: that human tragedies, no matter their scope, are suffered one life at a time and their ultimate meaning is irreducibly singular.
In the case of I. J. Singer, one imagines that the stench of sentimentality called forth much the same disgust as the stench of religion, making him loath to pull too hard at his readers’ heartstrings. Fortunately, he is artist enough to overcome the near-fatal fastidiousness, and, interestingly, it is often in scenes that involve women characters that he closes the distance, stripping naked the specific throb of the specific wound. The brutal wedding night of Dinele brings us so close to the living vulnerability of this girl as to be almost unbearable. So, too, does the death of a girl at the barricades and the effect it has on her father, Tevye, nicknamed by the workers “Tevye The World Isn’t Lawless,” Nissan’s comrade in arms, the fiery revolutionary crumbling into a grief-stricken father.
If fatalism hangs heavily over all the action of The Brothers Ashkenazi, it hangs particularly heavily over the Jews. The promises of a purely secular world, one that would erase the difference between Jew and Gentile, no doubt seemed to I. J. Singer a lie so outrageous that it would be funny if it were not so painful. After the pogrom, the wives of the Jewish workers berate their battered husbands who had been inspired to strike by Nissan’s preachings, “Didn’t you know it always ends up with Jewish heads bleeding?” I. J. Singer’s adventures in the greater world led him to much the same opinion as the workers’ wives of Lodz. It is not religious backwardness or economic conditions or political theories that are ultimately to blame. It is human nature itself that damns us, in I. J. Singer’s eyes. The possibility that Nissan can only glance at in his utter despair—the corruption mixed with human nature—is Israel Joshua’s conclusion.
Though it might always end up with Jewish heads bleeding, I. J. Singer does not exclude Jews from his cynical reading of human nature. In one section of The Brothers Ashkenazi, he mercilessly portrays the Jews of Lodz succumbing to their own instincts for xenophobia, quickly assembling prejudices toward the Muscovite Jews who pour into their city after Czar Alexander III exiles them from their homes. These Moscow refugees are more sophisticated than the Polish Jews, and are dubbed “Litvaks,” meaning those who come from Lithuania, even though they are not from Lithuania. Apparently, in Lodz, “Litvak” is something of an insult. The two groups quickly get to work dredging up enough differences to support their mutual disapproval.
Traditional Lodz Jews were outraged. The elder Litvaks wore short gabardines, derbies, and fedoras. The younger were clean-shaven. They didn’t sway at prayer. They were more like gypsies than Jews. It was rumored that they could cast spells. When a Litvak moved into a house, all those who could afford to moved out. The Lodz men wouldn’t include a Litvak in a quorum. The Lodz women wouldn’t lend a pot to a Litvak neighbor lest she render it impure.
As Mark Twain famously said, “The Jews are human; that is the worst that anyone can say about them.” Israel Joshua Singer would have concurred.
Toward the end of The Family Moskat, Asa Heshel, accompanied by a communist girlfriend with whom he is cheating on his long-suffering wife, Hadassah, visits the manically expansive friend Abram Shapiro, who has served as something of a (failed) surrogate father to Asa Heshel, taking the young man under his wing as soon as he arrives in Warsaw, another rebellious yeshiva prodigy eager to stretch his talents beyond the Talmud. And now it is the eve of World War II. The murderers are circling, and the communist girlfriend has been offering some warmed-over propaganda, blaming everything on the capitalists. Abram, who has suffered a heart attack and is staring at death straight on, has no more patience for nonsense, and stops her cold. “Just the same as the anti-Semites put the blame for everything on the Jew, that’s the way you Leftists put all the blame for everything on the capitalists. There’s always got to be a sacrificial goat.” In reply, the girl asks, “Then, according to your opinion, who’s to blame for the present crisis?” I have always suspected that Abram’s answer echoes words that Isaac had heard spoken by his late older brother, an answer that is a more accurate, if encoded, testament to the fierce truthfulness of the man than the pious dedication at the front of the book: “Human nature. You can call a man capitalist, Bolshevik, Jew, goy, Tartar, Turk, anything you want, but the real truth is that man is a stinker.”
Bad art, just like bad religion, sins against us by offering us false consolations. In this regard, let it be said that I. J. Singer’s art is sinless.
The Brothers Ashkenazi will be re-issued by the Other Press this fall.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.