On Aug. 3, 2004, I was sitting in the expensive London garden of a rich Jewish friend from my father’s grad school, all too relaxed in her gorgeously lush English garden that overlooked one of the world’s loveliest public parks. I’d spent myself broke three times that summer to engorge myself upon theater and concerts as I never have before or since, briefly living my dream from time immemorial of being of a European whose religion is culture.
Through my contentment I managed my focus to only one thought, that it would be lovely to read something in these surroundings. As I gazed the house’s immaculately curated bookshelves, two books stared at me: “Dubliners” by James Joyce and “The Spinoza of Market Street” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A real European would pick Joyce. I picked Singer, and was never the same.
It was the most intense reading experience of my life. Everybody has a few writers, musicians, moviemakers, who speak to you so viscerally that there’s no explaining their power over you. They call to you, and you answer “Hineni” before you even realize it’s happened.
Isaac Bashevis Singer has a long record of repelling Jews who smile contentedly in Hashem’s will. But for Jews who struggle to justify the ways of Hashem with the world’s brutality, Singer speaks to us like Manna. How can Hashem subject His chosen people to what He has? Singer ends “The Family Moskat,” probably his most famous novel, with the German bombardment of Warsaw, and one character, a secular intellectual, says to the hero of the story — a lapsed Charedi — that he’s become convinced that the bombardment is a sign of the messiah’s imminent arrival. This once fervent believer replies, “What do you mean? Death is the messiah. That’s the real truth.”
Singer told the truth about us, and the truth is not very flattering; that Jews have no more inherent moral character than anybody else. Singer began his life as the son of a Chasidic rabbi studying to be a rabbi himself. He was an expert witness who many Jews think betrayed the defendant. The extremity with which such relatively innocuous stories scandalized Yiddish readers shows there’s some truth to what he wrote. The moral shocks of his stories are nothing next to Philip Roth, but if you think suffering would make shtetl Jews nicer than gentiles, read “Gimpel the Fool.” If you think arranged marriages can minimize abuse, read “A Crown of Feathers.” If you think queer sexuality and gender didn’t exist in the shtetl, read “Yentl.” If you think Jews didn’t think about salvation and damnation the same way Christians did, read … a hundred of his short stories.
I remember my bubbie and zaydie’s superstitions about the Evil Eye too well to think the rationalism of Talmudic discourse prevented shtetl Jews from believing the superstitions of their Christian neighbors. Normative Judaism has little to say about the afterlife, and the majority of shtetl dwellers knew little about kabbalah; but there is no way, living so close to European Christians, that Jews didn’t think about salvation and damnation every day. Singer’s characters are constantly tempted by literal demons who promise them everything they long for. Singer presents the devil’s temptations to us with as much vividness as they’ve ever been rendered.
The key difference to so many Christian depictions, however, is that the rewards for following the path of righteousness are not that great. Normative Judaism never promises much in the way of either salvation or damnation. Judaism merely promises that while we life on earth may be hell, there’s a code of conduct and ethics that can avert the severity of the decree, for you, for loved ones, for the world. The relatively few characters who avert damnation find a small measure of peace and self-acceptance. No extravagant happiness, no transcending the horrible realities of the world, just the strength to bear them.
It is this uniquely Jewish take on a very Christian question that makes Singer the only Jewish writer of anything like the power of The Tanakh or Shakespeare. So many 20th century intellectuals who grew up Christian became atheists and stopped asking the ultimate question that plagues all agnostics: Does life have meaning? But the moment ex-Christians made a religion of atheism was the moment most Jews only began to be troubled by doubts. Singer’s answer was a very Jewish “I don’t know.” And like 2000 years of Jews at Beit Dins and Yeshivas and Cheders and Seder Tables, he realized that the most important part of life was to never stop asking the questions.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.