Singer and the Threat of America
by permssion from Shofar, Spring, 2003
n his 1943 essay "Problems of Yiddish Prose in America," Isaac
Singer discusses the difficulty—if not the impossibility—Yiddish
writers face in writing about life here. One of the major problems has
to do with the words they use. Yiddish words have "too much tradition";
they resonate with the flavor and timbre of the Old World. American
words, conversely, "reek of foreignness, of cheap glitter, of impermanence."
The result is that the "better" Yiddish writers here "avoid
treating American life, and they are subjectively (aesthetically) right
to do so." To make his point absolutely clear, Singer declares,
"Through his language, the Yiddish writer is bound to the past.
His boundaries are, spatially, the borders of Poland, Russia and Rumania,
and, temporally, the date of his departure for America. Here he must,
in a literary sense, dine on leftovers; only food prepared in the old
world can nourish him in the new" (9).
That Singer is such a writer, at least in the popular imagination, seems
unarguable. He is best known for fiction set in the past and in the
distant, often mythic regions of Eastern Europe. Writing about his involvement
with Poland and its past, Agata Tuszynska states in her book on Singer
and Poland, "He lived longer in New York, than he lived in Poland,
but…. His permanent address remained in Poland. He wore the past
like an overcoat, whatever the season" (6). Likewise, Clive Sinclair
in his book on Isaac and Israel Singer says, "America never dominated
the imagination of the Singer Brothers, as it had the generation of
immigrants that preceded them" (56).
As Janet Hadda remarks in her biography of him, however, this popular
image of Isaac Singer as living in a "timeless Shtetl" is
far from the truth. America is a significant element in a number of
his novels, a point Leslie Fiedler speaks to in his 1981 essay "Isaac
Bashevis Singer: or, the American-ness of the American-Jewish Writer."
At the time Fiedler wrote his essay, however, only one of Singer's novels
about America had been published in English: Enemies, A Love Story.
Since then, it has been joined by The Penitent (1983) and the
posthumously published Meshugah (1994) and Shadows on the
Hudson (1998). It seems time, therefore, to examine Singer's American
In his essay, Fiedler speculates about the "American-ness"
of Singer: Is he Jewish-American, American Jewish, and how is he to
be regarded: as an immigrant, a refugee, or an émigré?
When he finally addresses the question, Fiedler's answer is not tentative:
Singer's American-ness is "Minimal, I am tempted to say…almost
nonexistent: an American-ness degree zero" (77). But he does not
stop there. He finds that Singer's America is centered in Manhattan
and boarded by Coney Island and the resorts of the Catskills. And the
figures Singer populates this landscape with are his doubles: Yiddish
writers lost in this "claustrophobic enclave" (77) with hardly
any contact with "white American goyim" (79). His lost souls
inhabit an America, Fiedler feels, that is a "Limbo: a twilight
landscape in which they can haunt only each other, being imperceptible
to the wide-awake inhabitants of daylight America" (80). Although
Fiedler's interpretation is in some ways applicable to parts of Enemies
with its lost and scarred survivors and to such stories as "The
Séance" and "Wedding in Brownsville," it does
not address the fullness of all that Singer has to say about America.
In this essay, therefore, I will offer some possible points to consider
in talking about Singer and America and its effect on Jews.
America appears in several of Singer's novels about Poland, most notably
perhaps in The Manor, but in such novels, his interest is elsewhere;
and the reader gets only a quick, tourist's glimpse of the new world,
much like Clara Jacoby's view of America in that novel. Shadows
on the Hudson is Singer's first full treatment of America. Although
published in English in 1998, this novel predates Enemies, The Penitent,
and Meshugah because it was serialized in Yiddish in The
Forward between January 1957 and January 1958. In Shadows
the American landscape Singer describes is—as Fiedler says of
the landscape in Enemies—"narrow" (77), focusing
primarily on New York City. But it is not the "Limbo" he says
it is. Admittedly, Singer's Jewish characters do not affect "the
wide-awake inhabitants of daylight America," but these Jewish characters
are aware of and eafected by the Americans they come in contact with.
Shadows, an ensemble novel set in the late 1940's, focuses
on a group of survivors (Hertz Grein, Boris Makaver, his daughter Anna
are the major ones) attempting to reconstruct their lives in America.
This work is somewhat surprising given that Singer's own experiences
as a refugee in America—as he describes them in Lost in America—seem
difficult but not impossible. The overall impression of America he offers
in that memoir is fairly balanced, not unlike that of other writers
from Poland, according to Adamczyk-Garbowska's study of "Polish
Writers' Perceptions of America." Shadows, however, is
unforgiving in its condemnation of American society, of America's effect
on Jews, and of assimilation.
One of the central complaints about America in Shadows is that
it is an idolatrous nation. Early, Singer describes Professor Shrage
crossing a Manhattan street. As he looks at the drivers, his thoughts
link America with Sodom and Gehenna: "These were not people hurrying
to get home but the wicked inhabitants of Sodom … whirling themselves
around in the Sling of Gehenna" (57-58). The idols that America
worships are materialism, sex, and violence. Boris Makaver's daughter
Anna—with her business acumen and love of comfort—represents
the voice of materialism in Shadows. At one point, her husband
says, "She's become an American. There's only one love here—love
of the dollar" (253). In fact, she, unlike Shrage, Grein, and Dr.
Margolin, feels at home in New York with its shop windows displaying
the materialistic culture waiting for those with money. Glancing at
them, she thinks, "America is a blessed country." For Anna,
this blessedness has nothing to do with spiritual values; rather it
derives from "the costly goods on display" in those windows
and the people who work "devising new charms . . . to entice customers,
in exactly the same way as flowers decked themselves out in every imaginable
color to attract the bees that pollinated them." Her thoughts have
turned from "goods on display" to sex, which for her seems
a natural progression, for as she says, "Everything was sex"
This belief is borne out in Shadows, as the reader hears its
characters remark frequently on the obsessive sexuality of America,
often linking this sexuality to violence and materialism. In one of
several panoramic descriptions of New York, Grein compares the city
to the capitals of the pagan world. Billboards display the idols of
the culture: "raging murderers, naked whores." In restaurant
windows men stand like high priests roasting meat while "cacophonous
music" mixes with "screams of lust and the shrieks of the
tortured." Over this entire scene presides a gigantic image of
a woman painted on the side of a building. In its doorways her "hirelings"
urge passersby to enter. The sentence which ends this scene confirms
the sense of an idolatrous, bacchanalian orgy: "The air stank of
smoke and slag, of booze and burning" (68).
A former teacher in a Talmud Torah who has abandoned his teaching, Grein
often reflects on the hard impact this idolatrous culture has had on
Jews. When asked why he no longer teaches, he says children reflect
the values of the culture around them, and he has seen what these values
are. The children attend their religious schools, he says, but they
learn nothing "because the Torah isn't in tune with baseball and
the filth they hear all night on the radio" (185). The "spiritual
fathers" of these children are "stock Hollywood characters,"
and the literature these children read is all "trashy novels and
the tabloid press" (90). What the children learn from these spiritual
American fathers is to reject their Jewishness. This younger generation
in Shadows—Anna, her cousin Herman, and Grein's children
Jack and Anita—have forsaken their faith. Wondering what kind
of Jews these children will be, Grein says, "When one removed the
Jew's faith, precious little that was Jewish remained, and even less
that bound all these modern Jews together. Even if they themselves did
not assimilate, their children did. What kind of generation . . . would
his Jack and Anita bring up? A Jew without God is a Gentile " (150).
And Gentiles in the novel, because they have created the idolatrous
culture in which the Jews find themselves, are completely suspect. Speaking
of the American culture of violence, evil, and "ugly deeds,"
Grein says, "Christianity is . . . complicit with this modern culture"
(443). Often in the novel, Gentiles are seen as hypocrites who break
the Ten Commandments, as violent anti-Semites who have "slaughtered
and burned Jews" for 2,000 years, and as people whose indifference
allowed the Holocaust to happen. When a Jewish artist tells Boris's
wife Frieda he is converting to Christianity, she says, when "the
Nazis exterminated six million Jews . . . the Christians were silent.
The murderers carried out the slaughter and the priests looked on"
A fear shared by many of the novel’s characters is that the "all-pervasive"
Gentile influence is seducing the Jews not only into acceptance of the
Gentile culture but also into active participation in the maintenance
and control of this culture. Grein makes this point strongly as he reflects
on the nature of popular culture. Wondering what has happened to Jews
in America, he is amazed that for 3000 years they had been able to resist
idolatry and "now suddenly they had become the foremost producers
in Hollywood, the major publishers of newspapers.... Everywhere Jews
have become the preachers of atheism, the arbiters of fashion, the writers
of slander; they took the lead as political agitators and avidly fed
the evil inclinations in all people. Now they had taken the role of
teaching the Gentiles how to enjoy the pleasure of this world"
(222-23). This movement to embrace Gentile culture is also finally a
movement toward collaboration with Nazism. Talking to Dr. Margolin about
how Jews have "become Men of Sodom" because of their "pursuit
of Gentile culture," Grein links assimilation to Nazism. Following
his statement about how his grandchildren will be Gentiles, he says,
"We've been in league with our murderers. Directly and indirectly
we're allies of the Nazis " (447).
Grein does not believe this movement toward assimilation and Nazism
can be reversed. Near the novel's end, he reasons that he "has
snapped the chain of generations," that he has cut himself off
from the heritage that started with Abraham; and in doing so, he has
cut his children off from this heritage. Asking himself how all of this
came about so quickly, he answers,
Jewishness was not some kind of wild grass that grew on its own. It
was a garden that one had to tend continually. When the gardener forgot
them, or made himself forget, the plants withered…. There weren't
any miracles: if one didn't teach one's children to be Jews, they
became atheists, communists, assimilationists, converts. The biblical
injunction "And you shall teach these words diligently to your
children" was not simply a pious platitude. If this precept wasn't
followed, moral chaos was the result. (418-19)
If the garden is not tended — to mix metaphors — the spark
of Jewishness dies.
Grein's remarks seem somewhat ironic at first. Although he often says
he has lost his faith and is no longer a Jew, and although he also seems
dedicated to the materialistic and sexually-oriented culture he finds
in America (as his obsession with Anna and her business deals suggests),
his faith and Jewishness grow stronger as the novel progresses. This
Jewishness at the novel's end, however, is the "extreme" Jewishness
Singer writes of in his essay on Hasidic Jews, a Jewishness that demands
total separation from American culture. Accordingly, Grein cuts himself
off completely from the "underworld" culture of America with
its Gentile-aping Jews; its "idolatry, adultery, and bloodshed";
its assimilationists who flirt with Nazism. As he says,
wants to serve God must wear God's insignia, and must separate himself
from those who serve only themselves. The beard, the sidelocks, the
girdle worn during prayers, the fringed ritual undergarment—all
these are the uniform of the Jew, the outward signs that he belongs
to God's world, not to the underworld. (545-46)
Grein and other characters in the novel, America is the "underworld"
with all that this word suggests in terms of pagan idolatry, hell, and
the immorality of gangsterdom.
Thirteen years after the serialization of Shadows, Singer published
Enemies, A Love Story, a novel dealing with Herman Broder,
a Holocaust survivor living in New York, and his comic and tragic relations
with his three wives. Although the novel is very critical of American
culture and its effect on Jews, the focus of this discussion is somewhat
different. The talk of America's idolatrous culture is replaced by a
discussion of American freedom and its promise; and the tone of this
discussion is also different, subtler, less diatribic.
In Enemies as in Shadows, Singer frequently describes
various "panoramic" cityscapes as a way of providing a focus
for a character's thoughts on America. Singer is especially intent on
describing Herman's responses to Coney Island and the subway. In the
first extended description of the amusement area, Singer suggests the
possibilities of America. Apparently, there is food, pleasure, and freedom
turned right, and the hot wind struck him with the sweet smell of
popcorn. Barkers urged people into amusement parks and side shows.
There were carousels, shooting galleries, mediums who would conjure
the spirits of the dead for fifty cents. At the subway entrance, a
puffy-eyed Italian was . . . selling cotton candy and soft ice cream
that melted as soon as it was put into a cone.
comments following this description suggest his views on Coney Island
in particular and America in general: "The richness of color, the
abundance, the freedom—cheap and shoddy as everything was"
(21). Coney Island is like the melting ice cream: a fading promise.
fading promise of Coney Island is more than that. It is the fading promise
of America as well, a point Singer makes in his descriptions of the
subways Herman takes. A hungry reader of the faces in the subways, he
wants to understand the society he finds himself in; and what he comes
to understand is that America is not the land of its visionary promise.
In the faces he sees "dullness, greed, anxiety" and a primitiveness
that suggests the failure of America's vision: "The low foreheads,
the troubled gazes, the broad noses with large nostrils, the square
chins, the full breasts and wide hips refuted all visions of Utopia."
He believes evolution has failed work here and that at any moment this
primitiveness may break into anti-Semitic violence: "The right
bit of propaganda could rouse this group into a program-making rabble"
point Singer always comes back to in his descriptions of the subways
is the one he makes at the end of that first Coney Island passage, that
freedom here is as "cheap and shoddy as everything" else.
Many of the passengers seem out of control. Herman cannot remember ever
seeing "such wild faces" in Europe: "Here the young seemed
dominated by lust for enjoyment rather than for mischief. The boys ran
screeching, choking one another like rams" (21). Furthermore, feeling
the masses of people pressing against him as they wait for a train,
Herman feels there is no freedom: "An irresistible force shoved
him into the car. Hips, breasts, elbows pressed against him. Here, at
least, the illusion of free will had vanished. Here man was tossed about
like a pebble or like a meteor in space" (84). The people he encounters
appear to be victims of forces beyond their control.
This sort of pleasure-driven, wild, primitive, out-of-human-control
landscape that the reader sees in the Coney Island and subway passages
in Enemies is not uncommon in Singer's Eastern Europe fiction.
We see very much the same thing in a number of his novels and short
stories set there. A prime example is "The Gentleman from Cracow,"
a short story in which a town willfully allows itself to be controlled
by its greed and lust. In that story, however, the town is pulled back
from complete destruction through the efforts of the rabbi and the small
community of good people who work with him.
The rabbi in Enemies, however, differs greatly from many of
the rabbis of Singer's European fiction. Unlike the tradition-bound
rabbis of novels like The Manor and Family Moskat,
Rabbi Milton Lampert in Enemies is Singer's satire on a new
kind of rabbi surfacing in America. His primary characteristic is that
he is worldly rather than spiritual. He has hired Herman to ghost write
his sermons because he lacks the patience to study sacred books. Instead,
he follows the stock market, gambles, and spends his time satisfying
his sensual desires and exercising his vanity. Just as he has made an
accommodation to this new world, he tries to get Herman to enter fully
into it. When he first appears, Lampert insists Herman get a phone so
he can check-up on his work. Herman argues against this suggestion,
"Anyone who's gone through all that I have is no longer a part
of this world" (28). The Rabbi's response stresses the worldly:
as much a part of this world as the rest of us. You may have been
a step away from death a thousand times, but so long as you're alive
and eat and walk …then you're flesh and blood like everyone
else. I know hundreds of concentration-camp survivors, some of them
were practically on the ways to the ovens—they're right here
in America, they drive cars, they do business. (28)
Lampert's remarks recall the moments in Shadows where characters
speak of their "complicity" (443) with the materialistic culture
of America, the accommodations they have made to it.
Herman, however, feels American Jews perhaps have made too many accommodations
to this new world.
He comes to understand this when he and his lover
Masha stay at a Jewish resort on Lake Placid. Observing the Jews around
him, he asks the question asked repeatedly in Singer's American novels,
"What does their Jewishness consist of?" And Herman's answer
is one Singer's characters in these novels frequently give: "They
all had the same wish: to assimilate as quickly as possible" (107).
And how Herman views assimilation is suggested in the passage in which
he thinks about the training in Judaism that his Gentile wife Yadwiga
receives from her neighbors: they "were waiting … to teach
her the Judaism that remained from their mothers and grandmothers and
which the years in America had diluted and distorted" (137).
In Enemies Singer reveals Herman's complaints about America
and its effects on the Jews but the passages that do this—as compared
to similar passages in Shadows—are relatively limited
in number. Singer gives us Herman's attitudes toward the people on the
subways in only four passages. Similarly, the moments when he complains
about Jews being transformed by America are rare. Unlike Grein, Herman
does not often extend his thoughts beyond his own immediate concerns.
And finally the tone of his remarks is subtler. The "panoramic"
critiques Grein and others voice in Shadows tend toward the
Jeremiadic with their references to Sodom, Gehenna, and idolatry. Herman's
remarks, on the other hand, are relatively restrained.
changes in the following novel, The Penitent, almost every
page of which talks about America and the Jews in a language more reminiscent
of the earlier Shadows. Serialized in Yiddish in 1974 and first
published in English in 1983, The Penitent focuses on Joseph
Shapiro, a survivor who came to the America after the war. Although
financially successful, he flees this country for Israel to join a group
of traditionalist Hasidic Jews. This first-person novel describes his
reasons for leaving and the life he finds in Israel. His overriding
reason appears to be that America "swarm[s] with hate and evil
theories" (52). It is a fallen world of the kind Wolfgang Kayser
describes in The Grotesque in Art and Literature, a world where all
reliable sources of meaning and order—identity, natural law, social
law, and historical order—have become distorted, suspended, or
destroyed (184-85). One of the complaints Shapiro voices throughout
the novel deals with lawlessness in the America. In Enemies,
Herman comments on the chaotic, reckless, uncontrolled behavior of youths
on the subways; but Shapiro points repeatedly at the lawlessness of
the entire American society. For example, he notes that the doorman
of his apartment building is not at his post because he is probably
playing cards with a policeman in the basement. This incident leads
Shapiro into a Jeremiad concerning the law. He says, "You couldn't
say a word about this because, for all the fine talk about democracy,
law, and freedom," only one principle is followed here: "the
principle of might makes right" (30-31).
America Shapiro sees is a society that has been entirely turned upside
He makes this point on a number of occasions by reciting what he finds
in a typical newspaper. One of the fullest examples of this occurs the
morning he decides to leave both his mistress and his wife. As he sits
in a restaurant he reads about "wars, glorification of revolution,
murders, rapes, politicians' cynical promises, lying editorials, acclaim
for stupid books, dirty plays and films." The paper, Shapiro notes,
applauded "every possible kind of idolatry" while it "spat
at truth" (37). Even the obituary page reveals this topsy-turvyness
by being made "to seem optimistic," emphasizing the accomplishments
of the dead, the size of their estate, and the number of trophy wives
they had. As in Shadows, all of this American devotion to materialism,
sex, violence, criminality, and "progress" (118) is an expression
of the essential idolatry of American. In The Penitent as in
the earlier novel, America is presented as a new Sodom (31) in which
people have rejected God and replaced him with "every possible
kind of idolatry" (37). Arguing with Priscilla about the Ten Commandments'
injunction not to serve false idols, Shapiro sets forth a blanket condemnation
of American idolatry:
the jails and hospitals are full of people who sacrificed themselves
for a few dollars, for a woman, for a hazardous game, for a horse
race, for revenge, for drugs, and for the devil knows what else.
Every new invention demands countless new victims. The automobile
has already killed millions of people…. Thousands of women
die of abortions. Countless men and women have suffered and died
and continue to suffer from venereal disease.
this idolatry, Shapiro makes clear that he wants to serve the God of
the Torah and the Ten Commandments, not the American idols of death,
faithlessness, and cruel victimization that demand we "build our
happiness on the misfortune of another" (157). Elsewhere he states,
"The slightest compromise that you make with the pagan culture
of our time is a gesture toward evil, a nod to the world of murder,
idolatry, and adultery" (112).
of the novel's most diatribic passages deal with the consequences of
this adjustment to worldliness, to American society. In one of these,
Shapiro says the modern Jew's desire to ape the Gentile is "directly
contrary to the essence of Jewishness, which is to be as distant from
the Gentile as it's possible to get." He then goes on to discuss
the Diaspora and explains how the isolation it forced on the Jews saved
them as a people. If they had not experienced it, he says, they would
have been "annihilated forever." In arguing for isolation,
he then speaks about Jews, assimilation, and conversion: "It's
just one step from assimilation to conversion, and sometimes no more
than a generation or two from conversion to Nazism" (91). The seriousness
with which he makes this remark is indicated earlier in a passage describing
a dream he had. In it he is dressed as a Nazi, and he feels that it's
his "way of life" (27) that puts him in this uniform. The
message is quite clear: Jewish assimilation into American culture and
society breeds Nazism.
The way in which Shapiro links assimilation and Nazism differs, however,
from the way in which Grein links the two in Shadows. In that
novel Grein says that assimilated Jews will become Gentiles, and these
Gentiles are "Directly and indirectly" "allies of the
Nazis" (447). As I understand this statement, Grein fears that
Jews will become immoral if they abandon their Jewishness. Right after
making his remark about becoming "allies of the Nazis," he
lists some of the sins he feels Jews who have become Gentiles commit:
"Our daughters wander the streets like harlots. Our wives sit in
bars, talk obscenities, and read pornography. They paint their faces
like strumpets and they deck themselves out like tarts and demand that
their husbands kill themselves to keep their wives in luxury" (447).
The sins Grein associates with these "allies of the Nazis"
are sins of the flesh, not sins of the Holocaust. Grein, I suspect,
is being hyperbolic. Shapiro, however, as his dream of himself in a
Nazi uniform suggests, is not. As a Jew moving quickly toward complete
immersion into the excess of an idolatrous culture, Shapiro feels he
is moving toward Nazism and everything it suggests.
What he advocates instead is fundamentally what Grein advocates in the
earlier Shadows: an "extreme Jewishness" (Penitent
43) of isolation. Seeing some Yeshiva students in an airport, Shapiro
judges them approvingly: "They have isolated themselves from the
worldliness more than any other Jews in our history. They were exactly
what Moses demanded: a holy people, guarded by a thousand restrictions,
a people which 'shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the
nations'" (93-94). Shapiro feels too many American Jews have forgotten
this injunction. They are willing to compromise with a corrupt culture,
and he speaks at the novel's end about orthodox colleges and universities
in America that teach a little about how to be a Jew and a lot about
how to be a Gentile. The theory behind this—according to Shapiro—is
that this will help the students "to adjust to both worldliness
and God." Contrary to what Rabbi Lampert says in Enemies,
Shapiro believes the truth is that "once you are adjusted to the
world, you can no longer be adjusted to God" (161).
The nature of American society and its effect on Jews continues to be
an important theme in Singer's posthumously published Meshugah,
serialized in Yiddish between April 1981 and February 1983, and first
published in English in 1994. Coming after The Penitent, Meshugah—although
also focusing on Holocaust survivors—is a very different novel.
Instead of The Penitent's Jeremiad against American culture,
the reader encounters a more balanced view of America, almost as if
Singer—troubled by the response of such readers as Harold Bloom
to The Penitent's negative portrayal of America—had decided
to write a less virulent novel. A typical descriptive passage showing
this shift in Singer's presentation of America occurs in the first chapter
of Meshugah. Its narrator-protagonist Aaron Greidinger writes,
"Outside it was May, and it was already too hot. But I imagined
that together with the odor of gasoline and heated asphalt, I could
smell the fragrance of spring wafting in from the East River "
(10). This scene is a far cry from the bacchanalian streetscapes described
by Grein in Shadows or Masha's statement in Enemies
that "Even in the camps the air wasn't as polluted as it is here"
Admittedly, Singer still allows his narrator to voice complaints. The
most frequent is that America is mad, as the title Meshugah
suggests. At one point Aaron's friend Max sighs and says, "Yes,
this is New York—eternal bedlam" (28). But the statement
does not carry the same imagistic force as Singer's earlier descriptions
of the frenetic immorality and mindlessness of the Gentile culture of
Shadows with its images of the idolatrous world. In fact, he
turns the heat of his complaints down considerably by suggesting not
only America but the whole world is mad. Aaron's lover Miriam, also
a survivor, says to him, "We are a peculiar family. My father is
a maniac. My mother is muddleheaded, and my brother, Manes, was not
quite right in his head . . . It is our luck that we are each peculiar
in some way. I love Max because he is perfectly insane. And I love you
because you write about madmen." When she asks him if he knows
the madmen he writes about, Aaron replies, "For me the whole world
is an insane asylum" (39). Clearly happy with this answer, she
kisses him. Being mad—maybe it's not such a bad thing.
Also uncharacteristically for Singer's novels about America, various
characters in Meshugah say positive things about this country.
Talking about Miriam, Aaron says, "She had faced countless perils
until she found a haven in this blessed land where a Jewish girl could
drive a car, rent an apartment, study at a university, even write a
dissertation on an unknown Yiddish writer" (49). Max also makes
a number of positive comments. As a businessman, he has made money in
this country and encourages Aaron and Miriam to do the same. But it's
not simply the opportunities available here that elicit favorable remarks
from the characters. Later, while bouncing a toddler on his knees, Max
says he should be thankful for being born in "Uncle Sam's land"
and not in Russia with its oppressive regimes (144). Interestingly,
most of the positive comments refer to America's freedoms, an element
that Enemies in particular was critical of.
Singer's less strident, more balanced view of America is also seen in
his portrayal of the effect of America on Jewishness. The novel still
raises the questions "What is a Jew?" (203) and "What
does Jewishness consist of?" (38); but whatever answers the novel
offers, it does not attack America for transforming Jewishness as Shadows,
Enemies, and The Penitent do. In those novels, America
is seen as tempting and seducing Jews with its "all-pervasive"
influence (Shadows 373), distorting and diluting Jewishness
(Enemies 138), and polluting and corrupting Jews who make the
"slightest compromise" with America (Penitent 112).
Admittedly, there is assimilation in Meshugah. At one point,
Miriam says of her Jewish girlfriends: "Even those who got married
or joined synagogues were thoroughly assimilated" (96). Also, as
in The Penitent, Singer does suggest connections between assimilation
and Nazism. In a very early passage in Meshugah, Aaron walks
down New York's Second Avenue and thinks how the Yiddish presence on
the street has diminished over the years: "What the Nazis had done
to Jewishness in Warsaw assimilation was accomplishing piecemeal in
New York—but neither religious nor worldly Jewishness was ready
to become extinct" (10). This statement is not as extreme as Shapiro's
belief that assimilation ends in Nazism (Penitent 91). Shapiro
feels Jews may become Nazis; Aaron feels assimilation is decreasing
Singer's attempt to view the connection between assimilation and Nazism
from a less strident perspective is also evident in the story of Aaron's
lover Miriam. She is the daughter of Polish Jews who had assimilated.
In Warsaw her father had lived as a freethinking Bohemian; her mother
a Communist supporter. When the Holocaust came, Miriam became the mistress
of a German in Stutthof and acted as a kapo for the Nazis. Although
she seems proof of Shapiro's contention concerning the link between
assimilation and Nazism, this is not the way Singer presents her. When
confronted with the knowledge that she prostituted herself to the Nazis
and was "worse than a Nazi," Aaron accepts her:
Whatever she was before—it's all the same to me. Who am I that
I should judge victims of Hitler? I had also heard that among the
kapos there had been decent people who helped the inmates
in the camps. What they all wanted was to save their lives. I was
filled with great pity for this young woman who, at twenty-seven,
had experienced so much of life's bitterness as a Jew. (208-09)
Hertz Grein, Herman Broder, or Joseph Shapiro, Aaron is much more understanding
and accepting even in this extreme situation; and as a result, assimilation
does not appear as dire an occurrence as it does in Shadows,
Enemies, or The Penitent.
I would like to make one last point about the depiction of assimilation
in Meshugah. In the passage quoted above, Aaron refers to Miriam
— despite her parents’ assimilation and her own past —
“as a Jew.” Shapiro in Penitent, however, implies
that one step away from Jewishness is the same as a complete rejection
of it. His inner voice tells him: “All other ways except extreme
Jewishness must lead to the lies and lewdness you despise. If you don’t
believe in the Shulhan Arukh, then you must believe in evil and in all
kinds of empty and bankrupt theories that lead to the abyss” (43-44).
Singer, in Meshugah, however, offers a very different perspective
on the question of “Who is a Jewish?” There is a scene in
the novel where Miriam makes a vow to be faithful to her lovers Aaron
and Max. As if it were a religious ceremony, she covers her hair with
a kerchief, lights candles, and reads a passage of the bible in a chant.
Witnessing this vow, Aaron—whose Jewishness is far from what his
rabbi father's was—senses “something awesome and ancient
in Miriam’s voice and manner” (159) that connects her and
him to the essence of Jewishness and “a sacred place” (160).
There is still a part of him that is Jewish, what elsewhere in the novel
Aaron refers to as “the Jew in Me” (209).
Towards the end of Meshugah, Aaron meets a rabbi traveling
to the States to raise money for a Yeshiva in Israel who speaks about
“something awesome” that defies assimilation and conversion.
Responding to Aaron’s statement that he’s unmarried, the
I know, the enlightened argue as follows: Why bring up new generations
when Jews are always in trouble? They all say this to me. All year
long my synagogue is empty. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they
come. Not all of them; but many. What is the point of it? If there
is neither judgment nor judge, how do the high holidays differ from
other days of the year? I ask them why they don’t marry or why
they have so few children, and they all have the same answer: “For
what? So that there’ll be someone to kill?” The Evil Inclination
has an answer for everything. On the other hand, a spark of Jewishness
exists in every Jew, and a spark can easily become a flame. (213-14)
reference to “a spark,” of course, calls to mind the Cabala
and the belief that in every element of the Universe there is some spark
of God’s light
; and this reference to the spark also serves as counter balance to
the positions Grein, Herman, and Shapiro take on the state of Jews in
America. No matter what happens to them or how much they depart from
Jewishness or how much they question or doubt their faith, they will
still, the rabbi seems to suggest, be Jews.
So where does Singer stand on the issue of America and its effect on
Jewishness? If we look at Meshugah as the last novel in a series
of novels dealing with these issues, we can argue that there is a progression
from the diatribic vehemence of Shadows, The Penitent,
and — to a somewhat lesser degree — Enemies to
a more balanced view. In Meshugah the author seems to have
become open to more liberal positions on America and Jewishness.
However, as with any question involving Singer's intent and message,
the answer is less clear than it looks at first. Several issues, in
fact, complicate any attempt to finally define his position on the impact
of American society on Jewishness. First, there is the possibility that
tirades such as Shapiro's and Grein's are not an expression of Singer's
position, although their prominence in the novels in which they appear
might suggest this. One of the critical debates about The Penitent
revolves around this question. In two separate essays, Joseph Sherman
and Minna Herman Maltz take issue with Harold Bloom who tends to equate
Singer's views and Shapiro's. Sherman and Maltz argue that Singer distanced
himself from Shapiro's positions repeatedly in the novel and its prologue,
and that finally Singer's intent is not to privilege one point of view
but rather to open a discussion and give voice to a diverse set of positions.
What they say about The Penitent, of course, can also be said
about the other three novels.
A second complication is the order in which these novels were published.
If we approach the novels from the perspective of when they were originally
written—Shadows, Enemies, The Penitent,
and then Meshugah—there is a definite amelioration of
Singer's views. However, given the order of publication in English with
Shadows following Meshugah, amelioration is out of
the question; and, in fact, the Jeremiad in The Penitent that
Harold Bloom attacked in his review of that novel seems more justified
while Sherman's and Maltz's reasoned differentiation of Singer's position
from Shapiro's seems less convincing.
A third complication involves the dates of composition and initial publication
of The Penitent and Meshugah. The books appear to
take radically different positions on almost every issue ranging from
the role of American newspapers to the smell of the streets. The differences
suggest Singer had himself radically changed from the time he worked
on one to the time he worked on the other. In fact, however, the periods
during which he worked on the two novels appear to overlap. Penitent
was published in Yiddish in 1973 and translated by Singer in the early
1980's, finally being published in English in 1983. Meshugah
was serialized in Yiddish from April 1981 to February 1983. Apparently,
while Singer was having Shapiro lambaste America and assimilating Jews
in one novel, he had Aaron Greidinger saying it's not such a bad place
and besides Jews will survive the bad that's here.
A final complication is that Singer's "final" words about
America and Jewishness, as they appear in Shadows, may not
have been the final words he would have wanted to say. Although written
in the late 1950's, it was not published in book form until 1998, seven
years after Singer's death. In his essay on Shadows, Richard
Bernstein suggests the reason why Singer did not translate and publish
it during his life was that it was too dark, too pessimistic. If this
was the case, then perhaps he did want us to see the English translation
of Meshugah which he apparently sanctioned (230) as his last
thoughts on American Jewishness. But this too may not be completely
the case: Bernstein also reports that Singer's publisher Roger Straus
thinks that a more likely reason for not translating and publishing
it earlier was that Singer was absentminded or that the project was
too daunting because of the size of the book.
Despite these complications, there are still things that one
can say about the issues discussed here. Clearly, Singer has a complex,
lengthy relationship with America; and this relationship has resulted
in a complex vision of America, a vision that—although on occasion
seeming less critical of America's culture — frequently is extremely
critical. To qualify Fiedler's remarks, Singer's characters may be invisible
to America, but America is not invisible to them, and what they often
see threatens their souls. In all the American novels —
just as in all of his Eastern European novels — Singer fears what
will happen if Jewishness disappears under the pressure a materialistic
culture seems to offer; he fears what Aaron in Meshugah calls
"a spiritual holocaust" (144). The sort of extreme Jewishness
Shapiro and Grein turn to is unquestionably appealing to Singer. His
works and his life attest to that. But they also attest to his inability
to embrace extreme Jewishness. Aaron Greidinger, the character in these
American novels who most resembles Singer, contains the "spark"
of Jewishness but he cannot follow the rabbi who suggests this to him.
Aaron and the other characters in these novels must find their own ways
of carrying their sparks within a society that too often seems an "eternal
Joseph Sherman has written a thorough and informative discussion
of the impulse toward accommodation in this novel in his essay "Guilt
as Subtext: I.B. Singer's Memoiristic Fiction." RETURN
Singer frequently uses the image of upside-down-ness of topsy-turveyness
in his fiction to suggest a world gone totally awry. A more light-hearted
use of this image appears in his children's novel, The Topsy Turvey
Emperor of China.RETURN
Singer's use of ideas and images associated with the Cabala is convincingly
documented in Grace Farrell Lee's From Exile to Redemption: The
Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer.RETURN
Monika. "Myth and Prejudice: Polish Writers' Perceptions of America."
Richard. "Just Like a Singer Tale: Question for a Yiddish Sprite."
New York Times on the Web, January 14, 1998.
Harold. "Isaac Bashevis Singer's Jeremiad." New York Times,
September 25, 1983, p. 26, col. 2.
Leslie. "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Or The American-ness of The American-Jewish
Writer." Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish
Identity. Boston: David R. Godine, 1991
Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University
Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill,
Grace Farrell. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis
Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
Minna Herman. "Point of View in Isaac Bashevis Singer's 'The
Penitent.'" English Studies in Africa 29, 2 (1986)
Joseph. "Author Versus Narrator in The Penitent: Reconsidering
Isaac Bashevis Singer's Tirade." Journal of Narrative Technique
18, 3 (Fall 1988), 243-57.
—-. "Guilt as Subtext: I. B. Singer's Memoiristic Fiction."
Studies in American Jewish Literature 13 (1994) 106-23.
Sinclair, Clive. The Brothers Singer. London: Allison and Busby,
Isaac Bashevis. Enemies, A love Story. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett,
—-. "The Extreme Jews." Harper's, April 1967,
—-. Lost in America. In Love and Exile: A Memoir. Garden City, NY:
—-. Meshugah. Trans. Isaac Singer and Nili Watchel. New
York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.
—-. The Penitent. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
—-. "Problems of Yiddish Prose in America." Trans. Robert
H. Wolf. Prooftexts 9, 1 (January 1989), 5-12.
—-. Shadows on the Hudson. Trans. Joseph Sherman. New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
Agata. Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the
Jews of Poland. Trans. Madeline G. Levine. New York: William Morrow,