Isaac Bashevis Singer in search of love and God in his writings for adults and children


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Isaac Bashevis Singer in search of love and God in his writings for adults and children
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vi, 250 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Gibbons, Frances Vargas, 1939-
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1992.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 244-249).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Frances Vargas Gibbons.
General Note:
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University of Florida
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Full Text







HernAn Vera was instrumental in making my dream of a PHD

a reality. He and his wife Maria Inez opened their hearts and

home to my husband and I, and provided invaluable support. I

am enormously grateful to both of them, as I am to my sister

Manuela Vargas de Mild de la Roca and her husband Napole6n

Mild de la Roca Parrela who introduced us to the Veras.

My special gratitude to my dissertation director, Andy

Gordon. He allowed me to join his already overcrowded course

in the fall of 1989, taught me the new ways of writing about

literature, and encouraged my interest in Isaac Bashevis

Singer. He helped transform my feelings and ideas about Singer

into this dissertation without doing undue violence to my

basically pleasure-oriented approach to the author and to

literature in general. I consider this a feat far surpassing

anything ever accomplished by Yasha Mazur and his inventor. I

also thank Andy and his wife Judy for the good times spent

together as friends.

I am extremely fortunate to have had the advice and

support of a superb committee composed of Bernard Paris, John

Cech, Warren Bargad, and Sheldon Isenberg. I thank Bernard

Paris for introducing me to Third-Force psychology and for

granting me so many hours of productive conference. My sincere


gratitude to John Cech for giving me the critical tools with

which to approach Singer's stories for children and for his

unfailing enthusiasm and warmth throughout this arduous

process. I owe much to Warren Bargad and Sheldon Isenberg who

guided my incursion into Jewish studies and religion with

expertise and kindness. I thank them for helping me increase

my knowledge of a people and culture I have always admired.

My family sustained me throughout. I thank my parents

Ram6n Vargas Palomo and Manuela Acufa de Vargas who have been

exemplary in their indomitable devotion to family life and to

humanitarian values. My siblings Yolanda, Eleida, Martha,

Manuela, Malvina, Ram6n and Alejandro inspired in me the

desire to become an educator and have stood by me lovingly and


I am extremely grateful to my parents-in-law Thomas and

Dorothy Gibbons and to my brother-in-law Douglas Gibbons for

their loving and staunch support. My special gratitude to my

sister-in-law Nancy Griffiths and her husband Albert Griffiths

who provided me with a computer and facilitated my success

during the first crucial semester in the program.

My husband Thomas Wolcott Gibbons supported me

financially, emotionally and morally for the entire three

years of graduate work and lived with this dissertation on a

daily basis. Nothing can adequately describe how much I owe

him for this and much else. I dedicate this work to him.




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS .. .................. ................. ii

ABSTRACT........ ...... *......*........*............. V


LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.......................... 1


III TO BECOME IS TO TRANSGRESS.....G....... o ....... 25

"Growing Up".... ................ .... ..... .* ... 38
"The Milk of a Lioness"...................... 51


"A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw"....................) 69
The Slave ............................. ...... 78
Asa Heshel .......... .... ............. ......... 99

V THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN........................... 103

VI ENEMIES...... .... ....... ... *. .. 153

"Menashe and Rachel" .......................... 195
Shosha ................ ..... *.... ........ 209

VIII CONCLUSION......... .............................. 238

BIBLIOGRAPHY.......................... ............... 244

BIOGRAPHICAL DATA.................................... 250

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy




August, 1992

Chairman: Andrew Gordon
Major Department: English

My dissertation maintains that Isaac Bashevis Singer's

art is useful in the promotion of understanding among

different groups and in the exploration of the conflicts

inherent in the development of human individuality. I attempt

to demonstrate that the unity and continuity of Singer's

oeuvre derive from its being intricately connected with his

own development as a person. My central thesis is that Singer

used his work as an aid to his own growth, and that, through

his novels and children's stories, he searched for a

benevolent God and an idealistic relationship between men and

women. I discuss the children's stories "Growing Up," "The

Milk of a Lioness," and "Menashe and Rachel," as well as the

novels The Slave, The Magician of Lublin, Enemies, and Shosha.

My method is biographical and psychological. I see

personality at the center of art, science, and history, and I

believe that there is a natural, powerful urge toward the

unfolding of the self. I use Third-Force psychology as well as

psychoanalysis to discuss Singer's life and writings.


I also take into account feminist criticism of Singer's

work. Since I believe that Singer could have never been a

feminist in the modern sense, and that there are different

manners of honoring the interdependence of male and female, I

seek to show that despite his predilection for Schopenhauer

and his patriarchal upbringing, Singer regarded women very

highly (though not unambivalently), expected a great deal from

them, and could not conceive of life without the company of




Isaac Bashevis Singer is an example of individuality

triumphing over circumstances and, by so doing, being able to

benefit himself, the Orthodox Jewish family and ethnic group

to which his achievement was an affront, and humanity at

large. His work is one of the best possible tributes to a

world now gone and is probably also more useful for its

imaginary reconstruction and attempted understanding than the

historical documentation.

However, Singer did not act in accordance with

philanthropic plans or impulses, but in response to his own

individual needs. Singer used his writing as a way of becoming

a distinct person in a milieu hostile to such goals, and the

immoderate childhood fantasies he attributed to his fictional

characters were exaggerated blueprints of what he desired to

achieve as an individual. Singer wrote to find an

accommodation in a difficult modern world for which his

traditional Jewish upbringing did not prepare him. Through his

writings, he insistently explored the possibilities of

attaining an idealistic yet paradoxical love relationship: a


suprasocial, intensely sexual yet nonreproductive, growth

promoting relationship between man and woman.

I begin my study of Singer and his work by commenting on

some of the reasons for Singer's importance and I also take

that opportunity to express my fondness for this author whose

work truly puts me in emotional and aesthetic contact

(information alone does not suffice) with a people I was

explicitly trained (at Catechism in Venezuela) to fear and


My quotation from Joseph Brodsky in chapter II reveals

that I see Singer as a fellow exile of the Russian poet.

However, Singer's exile is not from a country or a system of

government. It is the fundamental self-exile of the growing

person from his or her origins. As such, it is a very basic

problem to which it is more painful and more difficult to

respond constructively--let alone creatively and impartially--

than national exile is. Singer negotiated this situation very

successfully by enlisting the assistance of his writing.

Thus the main appeal of Singer's work is that it is

connected with his life and his people and that it is so

without being weakened by sentimentality or tarnished by

partiality. I use The Family Moskat and Satan in Goray to

illustrate Singer's ability to look at his people objectively,

to present versions of himself who, like Asa Heshel, are not

in the least self-flattering, and to create characters of

overwhelming vitality who (like Singer himself) refuse to live


according to what Singer preached in his interviews and


The two novels briefly considered in chapter II are also

important historical documents, but they do not solely record

historical events, they flesh them out and provide analyses of

the occurrences. Satan in Goray looks at religious excess as

mere fanaticism and concludes that, as such, it is ultimately

destructive. The Family Moskat is a touching and powerful

depiction of the difficulties involved in attempting to reach

an accommodation between community and individual, religious

impulse and rationality, old-fashioned values and modernity,

and closely knit and strictly regulated religions and the


Singer grew up amid the tensions his historical novels so

poignantly depict, and in chapter III, I use biographical

information and psychology to illuminate his personal and

professional attainments. What is most remarkable about

Singer's background is that, theoretically, it appeared most

unconducive to the development of any artistic talent

whatsoever and yet it produced three very accomplished

authors: Hinde Esther, Joshua and Isaac. I believe that his

family's high regard for language is at the core of this

achievement. It was a home which, like the third world milieu

I come from and teach in (Venezuela), constructed its reality

mainly out of words. As such, it was also a world with the

inclination toward magic which comes from deifying language


and seeing it as the main tool for the taming and modification

of the "real."

Singer's family appears to have been better at producing

eminent authors than at providing the proper atmosphere for

the unfolding of free, psychologically healthy individuals.

Isaac Singer reacted to the restrictions of the home by

silently plotting his eventual liberation through his art and

through his amorous excesses. Secrecy and transgression became

his means of survival, as in his confrontation with the

universe of competing males of the story "Growing Up." And he

developed a sort of apprehensive devotion (coupled with

irresistible attraction) as his response to assertive females,

who, like the lion-like Nesika of "The Milk of a Lioness" (and

Singer's mother Bathsheba), are awesome and vibrate with

deadly powers but are also the dispensers of life in all its

beauty and milk-like fluidity.

Because of the enormous struggle involved in becoming an

individual and an author, Singer views himself as a species of

hero who, as chosen representative of a chosen people, is

granted access to, and equality with God. Thus, his

protagonists are heroic in the sense that their main

confrontation is with a God they perpetually and

unsuccessfully seek to humanize. Their search for God is

actually a struggle with an enemy they seek to defeat and re-



Singer's protagonists are also heroic in their search for

love. They strive to vanquish both nature and society and to

attain a nonprocreative, noninstitutionalized, ideal

relationship between men and women. There is a hint of what

the heroes desire in the story "A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw" and

it appears to be a relationship of equality, camaraderie,

adventure, and learning. In this story, only the male is

engaged in studying, but in the novel The Slave, it is clear

that acquiring knowledge together is one of the main goals of

the ideal male-female relationship Singer's fiction pursues.

In Asa Heshel, the protagonist of The Family Moskat and

prototype of all Singer's heroes, the idealism concerning love

reaches its logical conclusion. It goes from the private to

the collective with Asa's theory which connects mindless

reproduction with misery and death and preaches "more sex and

fewer children" as the way of solving some of the individual

and social problems of humanity.

Asa reappears as Yasha Mazur in The Magician of Lublin,

where he is stripped of his scholarship and rabbinical lineage

to be granted the liberty of indulging in magic: a secular way

of competing with the God the heroes claim to be searching for

and of trying to attain beyond the human both professionally

and personally. Magic is the expedient of the childlike and of

the desperate. Like a baby in the omnipotent stage of

development who believes, after his crying is repeatedly

followed by the appearance of the breast or bottle, that he


has succeeded in conjuring up these objects, Yasha the

magician has a certain faith in his ability to bend the world

to his purpose, and he feels sure of his dexterity in gaining

love from numerous women and in juggling his affairs with them

successfully. But Yasha overreaches: he juggles too many balls

in the air, and they all collapse. Feeling embittered and

guilty, he retreats. That Singer/Yasha turned to magic in his

attempts to gain his objectives is a sign of desperation, of

giving up on reality as a feasible way of fulfilling the

deepest and highest needs.

However, magic is also the resort of those who trust the

way the world responds to them, and who believe that, within

reason, fantasy and illusion are the beginning of all science

and of all advance.

Yasha/Singer appears lucid about the pros and cons of his

profession but he is plagued by his tendency to go to

extremes. He cannot stay "within reason." Instead, his life is

an exercise in excess and hyperbole. Because of this it makes

delightful reading but is doomed to fail as a search for any

ideal. The book is more Singer's personal catharsis than

anything else; an attempt to exorcise the author's own

omnipotence as illustrated in the childhood fantasies he has

been unable to renounce. The omnipotence is clear in Yasha, as

is its obverse, impotence. The violent and glittering swerve

from one to the other makes this the most exciting of all of

Singer's books. As catharsis the book was effective because,

as I noted above, the closest Singer came to portraying ideal

love in his fiction was in The Slave, which was written

immediately after The Magician of Lublin.

Yasha's failure is a failure of personality. In Singer's

work a person's worst enemy is generally within and his novel

Enemies resumes the search for God and love with a cast of

characters who recognize this but are not able to benefit much

from their knowledge. Herman Broder, the protagonist, recovers

the rabbinical upbringing and the scholarship which

characterize Asa and Jacob, and resembles them more than he

does Yasha. Herman still shares a few fantasies with Yasha but

his stance toward the world is very different. Instead of

aggressively projecting himself into the world as Yasha does,

Herman seeks to hide from it. His life is a journey of

avoidance and evasion. Marriage and reproduction are only two

of the things he wishes to avoid, and he reiterates some of

Asa Heshel's ideas and positions in this regard.

Singer's determination to attain his idealistic

objectives is demonstrated by the fact that the search for

love filters into his children's stories. "Menashe and Rachel"

is a good example of that. The imaginative leap into adulthood

the children make in order to fulfill their desires is

reversed in the novel Shosha, where the author and his

protagonist return to childhood in search not just of love but

also of creativity. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably,

Aaron Greidinger, through the scholarly issue of a rabbinical


home, resembles the uneducated Yasha Mazur more than he does

Asa, Jacob or Herman. The resemblance is most noticeable in

his fantasies, which are as grandiose as anything Yasha ever

came up with.

If Shosha had been Singer's last novel, he would have

retained the prominence and high regard that won him the Nobel

Prize in 1978, and one would be able to assert that the search

had never abated or been distorted but, on the contrary, was

still being conducted with the insistence bordering on

obstinacy with which children play their favorite games. As it

is, one can almost say that, but not quite. His final novels,

The Penitent and Scum, are works of bitterness and

disillusionment and somewhat mar the entire opus. But only




Isaac Bashevis Singer is a writer who should not have

reached wide audiences. He wrote in Yiddish, a language which

is dying, about the world of Polish Jews which was destroyed

during the Second World War. He sprinkles his books with a

profusion of Talmudic knowledge unfamiliar to most readers,

and populates some of his supposedly realistic fiction with

supernatural creatures the modern, rational mind would

normally find unacceptable. Yet he is read with pleasure by

millions all over the world. Singer's work is popular because

it satisfies universal human longings by being deceptively

simple, aesthetically pleasing, and highly sensuous.

While writing about his fellow Jews, Singer depicts our

common humanity very poignantly and he speaks directly to our

human condition. Marcia Allentuck comments that he does this

through his "enigmatic treatments of the titled paradoxes and

grotesqueries inherent in the conflicts between divine promise

and experiential reality, redemption and history, religion and

secularism, tradition and modernism, eroticism and self-


discipline."1 In this manner, Singer transforms the heavy

fare of modern Jewish history into novels and stories which

make us feel at the very brink of being able to apprehend the

mysteries of human nature and of life. The people that he

brings into being are so well-drawn that they elicit a surge

of recognition in most readers. His characters enjoy the

privilege of the special slowmotionness of art, which allows

them to display their emotions and feelings in all their

monumental intensity and import. In Singer's work, there is no

suspension of reality, for life is presented in all its vexing

complexity, but there is a diminution of speed; events and

emotions unfold in a stately manner, creating a similarly

leisurely reflective state of mind in the reader. Time seems

to be elongated as we receive the meticulously detailed

descriptions, register every compellingly conveyed nuance or

overflowing passion, and allow the proper response to swell

unimpeded in our minds and hearts.

In paradoxical reaction to this decrease in speed, I

liken the majority of Singer's novels and short stories to a

spinning top, the toy that figures so prominently in his

stories for children. For like a dreidel, his work is almost

archetypical in its combination of simplicity and

universality. Tops are sensuously powerful and, when one

releases them, they are like things propelled by the self's

'Marcia Allentuck, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis
Singer (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1969) p.xiii


psychic powers to dance one's will upon the world. A dreidel

rotates around its own axle, and in a wider circle around the

available space, regaling the eye with enchanting combinations

of colors and of letters. Similarly, Singer's work is

recognizably the product of a well-differentiated individual

exercising his very strong will and, at the same time, his

work provides the reader with the exhilarating sensation of

swirling tightly around his or her own self, while also taking

a promenade, in ever widening circles, around the experiences

and lives of others: holding one's breath in magical

expectancy of something very new and very familiar all at


Though the beauty and sensuousness of Singer's work are

its own best justification, these attributes--because they

assure wide-readership--also lend his fiction its strength as

a link among people of varied religious and cultural

backgrounds and make his oeuvre humanistically important.

The exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky writes:

Since there is not much on which to rest
our hopes for a better world, since
everything else seems to fail one way or
another, we must somehow maintain that
literature is the only form of moral
insurance a society has; it is the
permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog
principles; that it provides the best
argument against any sort of bulldozer-
type mass solution--if only because human
diversity is literature's lock and stock,
as well as its raison d'etre.2

2Joseph Brodsky, "The Condition We Call Exile," The New
York Review of Books, Jan. 1988: XXXIV # 21-22, p.17.


As a Russian who found it impossible to discard his

individuality and conform to the dictates of his country's

totalitarian system of government, Joseph Brodsky regards

literature as nothing less than a "moral insurance" because,

since literature deals with human diversity, it cannot help

but make it more difficult for any system or any nation to

impose solutions that do not take into account cultural,

ethnic, and individual differences.

Brodsky's ideas about literature assign the author a

function with which Isaac Bashevis Singer completely

disagrees. Singer believes that it is not for the writer of

fiction to be a spiritual and moral leader. "I don't think a

fiction writer has this duty and has this power."3 But he also

says: "I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who

fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons

and perspectives--philosophical, religious, aesthetical, and

even social."4 Like most of us, Singer thinks one thing and

fantasizes another. His work, however, appears to be more in

accord with the fantasy than with the thinking and he does

bring "new horizons and perspectives" perhaps precisely

because he does not purposefully set out to do so. The

humanistic power of Singer's work derives mainly from its

3Paul Rosenblatt and Gene Koppel, On Literature and Life:
An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer (Tucson: University of
Arizona Press, 1971), p.10.

4Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar
Straus, 1978), p. 5.


impartial and affectionate depiction of a vanished people, his

unapologetic utilization of fantasy and literature as aids in

his struggle for individual differentiation and development,

and his belief in the potency of language.

Singer did not seem to have felt that his people and their

history needed the services of a cosmetic artist who would

conceal their flaws and emphasize their virtues. Alfred Kazin

observes that "Singer swims happily in the whole ancient and

modern tradition of the Jews--Jews are his life but he would

certainly agree with Mark Twain's reply to anti-Semites: 'Jews

are members of the human race; worse than that I cannot say of

them.'"' Singer's success is partially due to a similar view

of his people as simply human and to his refusal to write for

the purpose of propagandizing them. He is so unbiased that

some critics mildly disapprove and even believe that "it is

safe to assume that a passionate interest in things Jewish and

in the tragic course of Jewish history"6 is not among the

reasons why Singer attracts so many modern readers. Although

it may be true that Singer's greatest popularity with

sophisticated readers in the USA derives from his "modernist"

short stories, it is "things Jewish and the tragic

course of Jewish history" (Alexander xii) as presented in the

5Alfred Kazin, "Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Mind of
God," Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer
ed. David Neal Miller (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986) p.151.

6Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer; A Study of the
Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990) p.xii.
Hereafter cited as Alexander.


novels which account for his popularity with the masses both

in the United States and overseas. And what may make "things

Jewish" so attractive to the non-Jewish reader (some Jewish

readers may object) is the affectionate candor, the mixture of

love and impartiality with which Singer treats his own people.

Singer's first novel Satan in Goray,7 published in

Warsaw in 1935, for example, emphasizes the horrors of Bogdan

Chmelnicki's Cossack invasion of Poland in 1648, but it also

goes on to "destroy illusions and satirize the potency of

faith by presenting the epoch of Shabbati Zevi in its extreme

superstitious grotesqueness: its depression of reason and

exaltation of unreality, its asceticism and eroticism."8 The

novel relentlessly depicts the degradations and tragedies

which ensue from an excessive reliance on belief, something

Singer's own father engaged in. It shows how, in 1666-67,

people in Goray deluded themselves with messianic expectations

and abandoned their ordinary lives in order to engage in an

emotional orgy which ended in devastating disappointment when

they could no longer deny the news of the false Messiah's

Shabbati Zevi's conversion to Mohammedanism. In its

exploration of the nature of human hope and human vision, the

novel unflinchingly demonstrates that "the Messianic hope

becomes infinitely more devastating and demoralizing than the

7Isaac Bashevis Singer, Satan in Goray Translated by
Jacob Sloan (New York: Noonday Press, 1955).

8Charles A. Madison, Yiddish Literature; Its Scope and
Major Writers (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) p.482.


total despair produced by the savage violence of Chmelnicki

and his followers."9 In doing so, the novel seems to indict

the people who adhered to such hopes, but actually honors and

validates them, as all honest explorations tend to do.

Singer is unsentimental not only in his treatment of his

group but also in his approach to its individual members.

Singer's work has been interpreted as always showing a

movement from the individual to the social,"0 and Singer in

his interviews frequently championed the religion he did not

himself practice, proclaimed his belief in God and in

Providence and expressed forcefully his disapproval of

assimilation. In spite of this, his characters are free

entities who are very likely to do the opposite of what their

author preaches. Indeed, it is this powerful delineation of

distinct personalities which gives Singer's work its main

attraction. Singer's characters happen to have been born

Jewish but they are, above all, restless modern men and women

who irreverently question everything. Many of them are in such

sympathy with the rest of creation that they are natural

assimilationistss." They wonder about the cosmos and about

science and review different philosophical systems, but they

9Edwin Gittleman, "Singer's Apocalyptic Town, Satan in
Gorav" The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Marcia
Allentuck (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1969) p. 68.

1Dorothy Bilik S., Immigrant Survivors: Post Holocaust
Consciousness in Recent American Jewish Fiction (Middletown:
Wesleyan University Press, 1981) p.135.


never reach final, permanent answers. They try to make an art

of what they can control--like lovemaking or storytelling--and

they can also settle for a conventional life of marrying and

bringing up children. They are not just Jews, they are not

just Holocaust survivors. They are like the rest of us--no

worse and no better. They are beleaguered human beings trying

to cope in a bewildering modern world.

The struggle of Singer's characters is the universal one

of seeking "to triumph over the adversities of nature and the

perversities of culture."11 Singer's protagonists are

lustful individuals who nevertheless find it difficult to

acknowledge the lessons of their senses and, like their

author, end up having one set of values to live by and a

different set to promote. They are imbedded in their own

particular social and historical context, but their

developmental process generally "involves a decisive movement

of alienation from the folk and its ways"'2 because they are

examples of the immanence of the opposite in everything human.

Although they value and need their group, they also chafe

under the strictures of their religion and, like most of us,

want to liberate their perceptions and their actions from the

"Louis Wirth, preface, Ideology and Utopia, by Karl
Mannheim (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Publishers, 1936.) p.xii.

12Hochman Baruch, "Isaac Bashevis Singer's Vision of Good
and Evil," in Critical Views of I. B. Singer, ed. Irving Malin
(New York: New York University Press, 1969) p.123.


shackles of the very culture that inspires and sustains them.

The Family Moskat" is a novel which deals with this

tension between individual and group, which reached a climatic

point in the confrontation between the Haskalah and Hasidism

in the eighteenth century. To a certain extent, the leading

characters of this novel are Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), the

remarkable hunchback who almost single-handedly, and "with a

swiftness which defies belief, [transformed] the status, life,

style, and world of the German Jew,"14 and Israel ben Elzier

(c.1700-60), the founder of Hasidism. The Family Moskat is,

among other things, a charting of the ways in which the goals

of Jewish cultural accommodation with the modern world pursued

by the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, clash continuously

with Hasidic otherworldliness, separatism, and with the

Hasidic desire to live outside of time (in an unchangeable

past) and their belief in approaching God through simplicity,

joy, and deep emotions. The novel reflects the tragic way in

which the movements were interpreted as irreconcilable. In a

way, its entire theme is summarized in the imaginary exchange

between Jekuthiel, Tereshpol Minor's enlightened watchmaker,

and the town's rabbi, Reb Dan Katzenellenbogen, after all Jews

13Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Family Moskat (New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950). Hereafter cited as Moskat.

14Sol Gittleman, From Shtetl to Suburbia; The Family in
Jewish Literary Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) p.28.


are ordered to leave town. Jekuthiel is presumed to be saying

to the rabbi: "Where is your Lord of the Universe now? Where

are his miracles? Where is your faith in Torah and prayer?"

The rabbi mentally answers: "Where are your worldly remedies?

Where is your trust in the gentiles? What have you

accomplished by aping Esau?" (Moskat 259-260).

That the upsurge of intellectual and financial

achievement initiated by Mendelssohn came to be seen as (and

in some cases came to be) an aping of the enemy is the malaise

that permeates the novel and plagues its characters. The

Polish Jews of The Family Moskat, who owe their educational

and financial advantages to the impressive transformations of

the Enlightenment, decry the process of which they are a

product and live in fear of losing their cultural and

religious identity. To prevent this loss, they furiously

attempt to hold on to their Hasidic ways, but find themselves

incapable of forfeiting the individual autonomy to which they

have become accustomed. They can neither partake of the

ecstasy of merging with their group nor stand alone and use

their freedom constructively. Murray Baumgarten has observed

that Jewish characters like these have been trained to feel

that "to have a self and be an individual and thereby have the

capacity to choose, is the great scandal and secret of their

expulsion from the communal garden."15 They experience shame

"SMurray Baumgarten, "Clothing and Character," Recovering
the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. David Neal
Miller (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986) p.97.


and guilt which, as it frequently seems to happen with the

newly emancipated, cause them passionately to engage in

negative action. Having been trained to regard individual will

as inimical to the group, they exercise it to the detriment of

their own lives. Thus Asa Heshel Bannet squanders his

possibilities of a formal education and almost purposely

bungles the affair with Hadassah, Adele insists on knowingly

marrying a man who does not love her, Hadassah willingly

consents to her own victimization in an arranged marriage, and

Abram careens through life in compulsive and self-destructive

pursuit of pleasure.

Irving Howe says that "Singer's ultimate concern is not

with the collective experience of a chosen or martyred people

but with the enigmas of personal fate."" In enacting the

basic conflict of personal identity and destiny posited by the

Haskalah/Hasidism confrontation, this novel emphasizes the

difficulties involved in renouncing the Hasidic identity,

which is a meticulously prescribed and unalterable product, to

adopt the enlightenment identity, which is a process of growth

and change highly affected by individual choice. The

characters have lost their faith in one system but are saddled

with its mental habits and afflicted with fatalism regarding

their ability to stand alone and to direct their own


16Irving Howe, I. B. Singer," Critical Views of Isaac
Bashevis Singer ed. Irving Malin (New York: New York
University Press, 1969) p.110.


The predicament of the characters in this novel is

figured through costumes and mirrors. The characters adopt

changes of attire in their attempts to construct new

identities and then, purposely or accidentally, check these

changes against mirrors. Invariably, the mirrors' revelations

are interpreted as proof of the power of attire to transform

an individual not just outwardly but also inwardly.

The basic psychological fragility that is revealed by

this belief in the power of costume to determine personality

is exemplified by Hadassah, who is modern but cannot prevent

herself from experimenting with the uniform and role of a

pious Jewish matron. Hadassah's modernity, her being a product

of the enlightenment, is emphasized by the fact that she both

develops and expresses her individuality by communing, not

with her religious group, but with her diary. Because she is

an individualist, her main connection is with her evolving

self, and her holy book is one of her own creation, a written

self with whom the writing self converses. She is emancipated

enough from Hasidic ways and sufficiently interested in the

world to choose a gentile as her best friend. She is daring

enough to risk running away to Switzerland with Asa Heshel.

However, when the elopement fails and she loses track of Asa,

she succumbs to despair and becomes fatalistic. She hands

herself over to the group, thus transforming the group's

loving desire to embrace and incorporate her into an act of

self-victimization. By being untrue to herself, to her


individual desires, she is untrue to the group and to the

husband who is perhaps the best integrated and noblest

individual in the narrative. Unable to live up to the best in

herself and to the best her group has to offer, she shuns

individual responsibility and contrives to make the group

responsible for her own degradation. She renounces her diary,

which she considers too pure after her self-betrayal, and on

adopting her matron's wig says to herself: "well, I'll wear

it, just as though it were my cross"(p.211). Her language

conflates the two religions of her native Poland into a single


Hadassah is only one of the many characters who does not

succeed at developing a comfortable accommodation between

modernism and Hasidism. For The Family Moskat is not a manual

on how to deal with difficult times but, like a great deal of

Singer's novels, it is a novel which, "like most of the great

constructs of Western thought is inherently dualistic. [It

depicts a situation of] antinomy which presumes some form of

socioreligious determinism, while insisting upon the

existential will of the individual."17

Singer's insistence on individuality in the modern sense,

manifested most commonly in his creation of glamorous and

vibrant characters whose emotional intensity he refuses to

"Max F. Schulz, "Isaac Bashevis Singer, Radical
Sophistication, and the Jewish-American Novel," Critical Views
of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Irving Malin (New York: New York
University Press, 1969) p. 146.


attenuate, accounts for a good part of his work's attraction.

So does the fact that, as soon as one reads any of Singer's

autobiographical pieces or books, it becomes clear that

through all his writing, Singer, in addition to creating art,

is also building, enlarging and revising his own self (thus by

implication making self-building an art form) to the point

that, at times, it is difficult to distinguish between his

fiction and his fact, between the universe created by his

words and the reality of his life.

To better accommodate all of his longings and

curiosities, Singer tried a variety of genres and explored the

realm of the supernatural. Displaying a shade of what Freud

hints is a natural human grudge against monotheism,18 Singer

adopted the supernatural as a sort of polytheism (a

modification and expansion of Hasidic belief in demons,

goblins and the like) in his desire to create more avenues for

the development of his art. The supernatural realm, which he

called the "higher powers," represented the highest reaches of

the imagination, the territory of wishes made words but not

yet substance. For Singer had "an almost superstitious

conviction [in the power and] permanence of words" (Alexander

25), and through them, he maintained his belief in the idea

that fiction (as well as fantasy, wishes, dybbuks and goblins)

could eventually be.

"Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (New York: Vintage
Books, 1967) p.117.


Singer's belief in the powers of the word is very

unfashionable nowadays. Subjected to the tenets derived from

Foucault's and Derrida's work, we concentrate on the opacity

of language (and on the supposed invincibility of structures

designed to subject us) and abdicate our powers as its

manipulators (ignoring the fact that Foucault and Derrida are

clear examples of individuals using language very much to

their personal advantage and prestige), willingly renouncing

our freedom, capacity, and responsibility to put language at

the service of the human spirit. Singer, fortunately, realized

early that, in his desires to assert his strength, "his [best]

weapon [was] not violent social coercion but language."19 In

imitation of his Hebrew God, who as Feuerbach says created a

world which was "the product of a dictatorial word, of a

categorical imperative, of a magic fiat,"20 Singer makes

himself by dint of language and the exercise of the magic-

enamored imagination. He also uses language confidently and

unapologetically to portray the grandiose aspirations and

common human limitations which link us as well as the

individual quirks and peculiarities which make each one of us


"Steven David Lavine, "Rhetoric for the Spirit,"
Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer ed.
David Neal Miller (Leiden: E. J. Brill 1986) p.129.

20Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York:
Harper Torchbooks, 1957) p.115.


Singer's work lives up to the double meaning of the word

sapiencee." It is imbued with knowledge and wisdom, and it has

very good "taste." Because most of his work is not in the

least didactic, it is very useful both socially and

individually. It is a sort of "medicine of cherries,"21 so

intriguingly flavored that it can be consumed with pleasure by

readers who may be extremely different from the people the

work depicts. This is why it can so effectively serve, in

Brodsky's words, as "moral insurance," and be an "antidote to

the dog-eat-dog principle."

2Sir Philip Sidney, "An Apology for Poetry" in Critical
Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Janovich, Inc.; 1971) pp.155-177.



Sinfully Building the Self: The Memoirs.

Fiddle around, if you must
fiddle, but never with ways to
keep things the same, no matter
who, not even yourself.
Heaven, somewhere ahead, has
got to be a change.

Lewis Thomas'

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote journalism, family sagas,

novels centered around amorous philosophers who zestfully

search for personal answers, short stories, memoirs, and

children's books. The boundary between one genre and another

is very permeable in his work, and he crosses this boundary at

will with refreshing unself-consciousness.2 Singer's family

'Lewis Thomas "On Cloning a Human Being," A Long Line of
Cells (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1990) p.145.

2David Neal Miller, Fear of Fiction: Narrative Strategies
in the Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1985). Miller devotes an entire
book to an examination of the ways in which Singer blurs genre
distinctions, to the manner in which he fictionalizes the
factual and historizes the imaginative, thus undermining the
reader's expectations. Even though I am now operating in my
"literary critic" mode (which I consider very different from
my "enthusiastic reader" mode), I would find it very difficult
to use verbs like "blur" and "undermine" to describe what
Singer is doing. I had come up with the idea of Singer's


sagas are, to some extent, fictionalized memoirs, and his

memoirs are sagas of his own family. The short stories are

records of the realistic and supernatural (psychological)

experiences of the author and his people, and many of them are

virtually indistinguishable in content from the memoirs. The

children's stories, although some are composed with obvious

moral/educational purposes in mind, hark back to the memoirs

and seem to complement them.

Isaac Bashevis Singer admitted that all his books were

about him, that they were all himself.3 Although one should

be skeptical about such avowals,4 Singer and his work do

appear to be meshed. David Neal Miller has observed regarding

Singer's interviews that "insistent intertextualities .

"unself-conscious crossing" of "permeable boundaries" before
reading Miller's wonderful little book, and I quote him to
lend support to my much less sophisticated (because more
positive?) view of the phenomenon. Hereafter cited as Fear of

3Richard Burgin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Conversations
Isaac Bashevis Singer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and
Co. Inc., 1985) p.72. Singer tells Burgin: "All my books are
about me. They are myself." Hereafter cited as Burgin.

4David Neal Miller (1985) is particularly skeptical about
Singer's interviews. He claims that Singer manipulates "his
interviewers to his own ends and is rather more inclined
to answer questions about himself than about his works.
Withal, there is little doubt that Singer, and not his
interviewers, is the controlling intellect and, as it were,
author of his many interviews" p.105. And he adds, later on,
that "Singer offers [his] interviews not as biographical
documents but as literary texts--that is, as utterances not
dependent upon a reconstruction of their original instrumental
contexts for proper apprehension" p.113.


undermine the discreteness of any given interview and

encourage the reader to view it as a segment of a single, far

larger, and yet unfinished work" (Fear of Fiction 113). This

"unfinished work" could be said to be Singer's own life. If we

take this to be so, we will be compelled to acknowledge that

the man that is revealed in the totality of Singer's works is

a fascinating individual who is passionately engaged in trying

not to keep things the same. Singer's main characteristic is

an insatiable appetite for change, for experience, for self-

expression, and for life.5 Professionally, Singer has

experimented with a variety of genres in his resolve to live

life to its utmost. Singer bounces across his opus, "half

frightened at [his] own appearance," at the "frenzied

eagerness which [shines] from [his] blue eyes," but determined

to try everything.6 Once called by a prominent critic a master

5Susan Sontag, "Demons and Dreams," Partisan Review
(Summer 1962) 5, p. 462. Singer's extraordinary power of
sensuous evocation has been praised by Sontag, and she refers
to Singer's fictional world as one "whose moving principle is
appetite, whether the appetite for learning and salvation or
for warm flesh and succulent foods and fine clothes and
furnishings, and in this respect most deeply removed from the
world of modern fiction whose principal subject is the failure
of appetite and passionate feeling." See also Paddy Chayefsky,
"Of Dybbuks and Devilkins," Reporter (April 22, 1965) p.41. He
observes that Singer's characters are ravenous in their
approach to the world and that they are so passionate in their
emotions and wants that "Singer must exploit the supernatural
to make them comprehensible."

'Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories for Children (New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984) p. 223. Hereafter cited as


of metamorphoses,' Singer has had three names and three

personas in his literary career--Isaac Warshafsky, Isaac

Bashevis, and D. Segal8--and has adopted many other

personalities (including some supernatural ones) in his

novels, short stories and children's books. The Isaac Bashevis

Singer who produces all these works is only one of his many

personalities, and it is the one we can most readily trace

back to the little boy and young man who make the memoirs so


Even the most cursory reading of Singer's

autobiographical pieces cannot help but detect the enormous

vitality that characterizes them. Born in a home where money

was always short and religious strictures unavoidable, young

Isaac Singer (as reported by the adult author) managed to lead

7Harold Bloom, "Isaac Bashevis Singer's Jeremiad," rev.
of The Penitent, by I. B. Singer, New York Time Book Review 25
Sept. 1983: 3, 26-27. Bloom scornfully calls Singer "a master
of metamorphoses" and angrily declares that The Penitent is a
tirade against humanism, liberalism, the American judicial
system, etc. in a jeremiad which "has no surprises, no wit,
and little variety" p.26. It is hard to disagree, and it is
equally hard to account for the poor quality of the work,
except perhaps in terms of the author's personal need to
"enact" certain things in his work, regardless of the
professional consequences.

8Leslie Fielder," Isaac Bashevis Singer; Or, the
American-ness of the American Jewish Writer," Studies in
American Jewish Literature 1-2 (1981-82: 124-131. Fielder
reminds us that Singer has created for himself two additional
names and personas: the name "Isaac Warshafsky" under which he
signs his contributions to The Daily Forward, and the name
"Isaac Bashevis," in honor of his mother Bathsheba, to sign
his full-length books in Yiddish and in English. David Neal
Miller points out in Fear of Fiction that Singer also wrote
under the pseudonym "D. Segal" at least until the early 1960s.
p. 71.


a rather normal and relatively unrestricted and joyful

childhood. Throughout In My Father's Court,' there is evidence

of a child's bursting with energy and self-direction. In "A

Day of Pleasures," for example, Isaac sets out to spend a

ruble he has earned helping to resolve a litigation at his

father's court, and undergoes a series of delightful

adventures in which his clear perception of the adults around

him and his independence and willfulness are evident.

Following a pattern that partially foreshadows the author's

adult behavior, young Isaac launches his search for pleasure

by evading parental authority and supervision, temporarily

fleeing his original community to seek a place where he can

"afford to act the profligate" (Father's Court 109),

overindulging in sensuous pleasures, and modifying reality

with his fantasies to produce what are normally called lies by

adults. In short, Isaac escapes before his parents can claim

possession of his ruble and takes a droshky ride into an

unfamiliar neighborhood where he gorges himself with sweets.

On the way back home, he declares himself a sick orphan (with

the help of one of those adults who specialize in eagerly

looking for just such dramas to sympathize with) and invents,

for another boy, a story of having gone to Prague to visit an


'Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father's Court Trans.
Channah Kleinerman-Golstein, Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer
(New York: Fawcett Crest, 1966). Hereafter cited as Father's


Isaac's inventiveness scared him; his fantasies seemed so

uncontainable that they made him fear that he was actually

crazy (Stories 223). He told his childhood friend Shosha that

his father was a king. He also claimed that from the cabala he

had learned "holy names of God that when uttered could allow

one to fly like a bird and become invisible," and that he

could, if he chose to, become King of Jerusalem."1

But Isaac's life was not restricted just to fabulous

imaginings. Already incapable of settling only for his

family's religion and culture, he was supplementing his

fantasies with more concrete experiences and admitted to

existing on several different levels: "I studied the cabala

and I went down to play hide-and-seek with the boys in the

courtyard. I read Dostoesvski in Yiddish translation"

(Love and 17). Isaac's "urge to know what the unbelievers or

the scientists had to say grew even stronger" (Love and 20).

He was interested in everything.

Bursting as they are with "lies," questions, and

fantasies, Singer's autobiographical pieces pulsate with the

child's irrepressible drive toward the unfolding of his own

distinctive individuality and talents; Isaac truly seems under

the sway of what psychologists term "the evolutionary

constructive force," which urges human beings "to develop

1"Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and Exile (New York:
Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1984) p.xxvii. Hereafter cited as
Love and.


[their] given potentialities."" But the almost frenetic

person we envision through these works, this trespasser of

genres who later accomplished so many transmigrations and

rehearsed so many diverse lives, did not find it easy to

preserve his vitality and to protect his vocation. Singer came

from a rabbinical home committed to the production of meek

Talmudic scholars. In this milieu, everything outside the

strictures of Hasidism was considered "tref," unclean, and the

choices were very limited.12 In fact, there were only two

choices: one was either a pious Jew or an irreclaimable

sinner. The society Singer's parents represented was one which

was interested in producing individuals who could "deal with

life by adaptation, not by innovation,""3 and to this end,

the "culture controlled] behavior minutely and .

provided] ritual, routine and religion to occupy and orient

everyone" (Riesman p. 26).

Isaac's father, Pinchos Mendel, was a Hasidic Jew who

"knew of nothing but service to God, he spoke no Polish or

"Bernard Paris, ed., Third Force Psychology and the Study
of Literature (London and Toronto: University Presses, 1986)

12H.R. Wolf, "Singer's Children Stories and In My
Father's Court: Universalism and the Rankian Hero," The
Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Marcia Allentuck
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969). Wolf
shows that Singer used universal fantasies as a way of
broadening the atmosphere of "moral encapsulation" in which he
grew up. Hereafter cited as Wolf.

"David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New York: Doubleday
Anchor Books, 1950) p.25. Hereafter cited as Riesman.


Russian, and could not even write his address in the gentile

script. Outside the Torah and prayer, the world was full of

evil spirits, demons and goblins" (Father's Court 50). Pinchos

Mendel was extremely unworldly, would never look at women, and

had a concern for the purity of his soul which "sprang from

his ardent hope that one day he would be able to perform


Isaac's mother, Bathsheba, "might almost have been the

model for Isaac's Yentel, for [she] was something of a

scholar. She was self-taught in both the Hebrew language and

the reading of holy books, [and] is said to have known the

entire Jewish Bible practically by heart" (Kresh 19). Although

she was "the daughter of an opponent of Hasidism and had

inherited some of her father's causticness" (Father's Court

58), she chose to marry the mystically oriented Pinchos

Mendel, instead of the son of a wealthy Lublin family, because

Pinchos was the better scholar of the two (Father's Court 50).

So the home in which Singer and his siblings grew up was

one "where religion, Jewishness, was virtually the air that

[they] breathed. Jewishness was not some diluted formal

religion but one that contained all the flavors, all the

vitamins, the entire mysticism of faith the coming of

the Messiah was taken almost literally" (Love and 3). Growth

was rigidly defined and circumscribed in this type of home,

14Paul Kresh, The Magician of 86th Street (New York: The
Dial Press, 1979) p.18. Hereafter cited as Kresh.


and the children had only two roles available to them: girls

were expected to become pious Jewish matrons and boys could

only be rabbis.

However, children are very proficient at disappointing

their parents' hopes for exact replication and at pursuing,

with what must seem to their elders perverse vitality and

single-mindedness, their own development and differentiation,

and this is exactly what occurred in Singer's home. Although

Pinchos and Bathsheba appeared to have enforced religious and

cultural values with affection, and largely through direct

example, the three children--Hinde Esther, Joshua and Isaac--

all staged their own rebellions against a situation which they

perceived as too restrictive. Throughout Singer's memoirs we

get glimpses of the determination with which, not only young

Isaac but also his older sister and older brother sought to

achieve their personal and professional growth. And we are

acquainted with the manner in which all three of them

attempted to write their way out of the world in which they

were born, refusing, through the assertive appropriation of

language, to be mere cogs in the machinery for the production

of more Polish Hasidic Jews living in poverty, backwardness,

and passive expectancy of their own destruction by Hitler. The

times were propitious for their endeavors, for the Singer

children were heirs of the literary revival which began at the

end of the nineteenth century when "the hold of religion had

begun to decline, the idea of nationality had not yet


reached its full power, [and] Yiddish literature [had become]

the central means of collective expression for the East

European Jews, fulfilling some of the functions of both

religion and the idea of nationality.""5

The first Singer to reach for a nonreligious way of

expression was Hinde Esther. She was born in Bilgoray on March

31, 1891, was thirteen years older than Isaac, and what is

known about her life is enough to cause one to recoil in

horror from all rigid, hierarchical systems of value. Hinde's

first offense was to have been born a girl. Her mother,

Bathsheba, still in her teens and a well-indoctrinated Jew,

disappointed that her firstborn was not a boy, rejected the

baby and sent her to spend the first years of her life with a

wet-nurse, where the baby slept in a crib under a table."

Later, Hinde's relationship with her rejecting mother was

understandably strained and, though she was well-loved by her

father, it was clear that, as girl, nothing could be expected

of her but that she eventually become a good Jewish matron and

mother of sons.

Miraculously, Hinde Esther managed to become an author.

This was probably due to the richness of the home as a place

5"Irving Howe, "Introduction to Yiddish Literature,"
Breakthrough: A Treasure of Contemporary American Jewish
Literature ed. Irving Malin and Irwin Stark (Philadelphia: The
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1965) p. 280.

"Clive Sinclair, The Brother's Singer (London and New
York: Allison and Busby, 1983) p. 11. Hereafter cited as


in which language was highly valued and used with relish. For,

as Clive Sinclair says; "Bathsheba's sharp tongue and Pinchos

Mendel's turn of phrase were a greater inspiration to Esther,

Joshua and Bashevis than their piety" (p.12). Gratifyingly,

instead of allowing the parents' masterful handling of speech

to befuddle them, all three children appropriated language as

their tool for increasing their knowledge and advancing their

freedom. They turned writing into the magic wand which allowed

them to conjure up their own personal histories. Hinde Esther

Kreitman (her married name) was the pioneer in this splendid

deviation from the original culture of the home. She wrote a

romance called Diamonds and a book of short stories, neither

of which was translated. She also wrote the autobiographical

novel Deborah, which was translated by her son, Morris


Hinde Esther's desire for a different life surfaced early

and did not contribute to her happiness at her parents' home.

She read Yiddish newspapers and books, walked with her friends

in the Saxony Gardens, and dreamt of romance, but was

eventually constrained into an arranged marriage (Father's

Court 147). Predictably, and justifiably, she felt that she

was being sent away because of her mother's dislike for her

(Father's Court 149). But there was nothing she could do, and

she eventually married a diamond cutter who lived in Antwerp,

who was willing to take her even though she had no dowry.


Joshua, who was born on November 30, 1893, also in

Bilgoray, was a great deal more successful in his attempts to

break away from the Orthodox prescriptions of the home. He

started to confront his father very early and was accused by

him of being an unbeliever and an enemy of Judaism (Father's

Court 197). While still very young, Joshua had discovered that

"the world was no pit of iniquity riddled with the vanity of

vanities but an incredibly beautiful place abounding in

indescribable joys."17 He was not inclined to meekness and

complained about his fellow Hasidic Jews in very bitter terms:

"you can see what Jews look like--stooped, despondent, living

in filth. Watch them drag their feet as they walk. Listen

to them speak. It is no wonder everyone thinks of them as

Asiatics" (Father's Court 197). He moved away from the

parental home, had an unsuccessful start as a painter, and

then became a famous writer. He wrote and published Steel and

Iron, Blood Harvest, Yoshe Kalb, The Brothers Ashkenazi, East

of Eden, The Family Carnovsky, Of a World That Is No More, and

The River Breaks Up. He was hired by Abraham Cahan as a Polish

correspondent for the Yiddish newspaper The Daily Forward,

came to live in the United States in 1933, and had Isaac join

him in 1935.

Like the third child of the traditional folk tale, Isaac,

born in Leoncin on July 14, 1904, was fated to benefit greatly

17Israel Joshua Singer, Of a World That Is No More (New
York: The Vanguard Press, 1970) p. 37. Hereafter cited as Of
a World.


from his position in the family. Both older siblings, but

particularly Joshua, were proficient handlers of language and

were interested in worldly knowledge and literature, thus

creating the appropriate atmosphere for their younger brother

and providing the secular books Isaac needed to placate his

ravenous intellectual appetite. Isaac read and experimented

with his own writing, while at the same time keeping an

observant eye on the home situation, in apparent search for

his own developmental strategies. Watching Hinde Esther's

ineffectual rebellion may have persuaded Isaac of the futility

of such action. But as a male, Israel Joshua was able to

succeed, thus indicating that Isaac could also do so.

However, Isaac did not choose open rebellion as a way of

attaining his objectives. Perhaps it was no longer necessary

after the slow erosion of parental authority effected by Hinde

and Joshua. Or perhaps rebellion seemed cruel to Isaac in view

of the violent and debilitating intrusion of history in the

home via anti-Semitism, economic problems, and war. Or, more

likely, Isaac scorned to use a strategy already worn thin by

his closest predecessor, his brother Joshua. For as Ruth Wisse

remarks, "in order to step out on his own, Bashevis had not

only to reject the assumptions of his parents, but also those

of his brother who was intimidatingly talented."18 In other

"Ruth R. Wisse, "Singer's Paradoxical Progress," Studies
in American Jewish Literature 1-2 (1981-82):151


words, perhaps it was a domestic, but also professional, case

of the "anxiety of influence."

There are some hints of Isaac's conflicts with Joshua and

other male competitors in the story "Growing Up." The

protagonist of "Growing Up"19 is an eleven-year-old boy who

is being raised in an atmosphere of "enclosure and moral

encapsulation" (Wolf 157). He tries to move out of this

enclosure through "pan-cultural fantasies [which] are

irrepressible, [and can help] an imaginative child, no matter

how isolated, find in himself a larger world, [and]

universalize his experience" (Wolf 157). The most important

universalizing fantasy in "Growing Up" is a fairy tale the

young child wishes to write. It concerns an eleven-year-old

hero named Haiml, who is to save the wealthy heroine, Rebecca,

from a monster who is holding her prisoner. Rebecca is engaged

to Ben Zion, who is about her age, but Isaac\Haiml is also in

love with her, and he is the one with the role of saving her

from the monster.

Like all fairy tales, this little fantasy seeks to arrive

at a satisfactory end in which the protagonists marry and live

happily ever after. But contrary to the tradition, the

resolution of the fairy tale within "Growing Up" occurs

without the participation of a fairy godparent. The story

lacks the normal splitting of a parent into a facilitator (a

19Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories for Children (New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984) pp.217-230.


fairy godmother or father) and an impeder. Instead, there is

a splitting of another figure. In this story, the hero is

split into the eleven-year-old Haiml and the sixteen-year-old

Ben Zion. Enchantingly, and very touchingly, Isaac's efforts

to achieve his purpose in this unconventional manner come to

naught. He has gotten himself into an amusing predicament. The

author/hero, Isaac/Haiml, is in love with the heroine Rebecca,

but the exigencies of the tale require that she marry Ben

Zion, who is her fiance, and is closer to her in age. As Isaac

puts it, "somehow my creative juices dried up at this point

and I couldn't continue the thread of the story" (Stories


Singer was painfully familiar with the horrors of having

his creative juices run dry. He suffered from writer's block

when he first came to the United States in 1935. In Lost in

America, he attributed his problems to the dislocation caused

by moving to a new country. "My coming to America has demoted

me in a way, thrown me back to the ordeal of a beginner in

writing, in love, in my struggle for independence. I had a

taste of what it would be for someone to be born old and to

grow younger with the years instead of older, diminishing

constantly in rank, in experience, in courage, in wisdom of

maturity." 20 But the fact that Isaac's older brother,

20Isaac Bashevis Singer, Lost in America Illustrated by
Raphael Soyer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976) p. 140.
Subsequent references are cited parenthetically using the
complete title.


Joshua, was already a successful writer and was trying to

launch Isaac's writing career seemed to have aggravated

Isaac's block: "A strange force within me, a literary dybbuk,

was sabotaging my efforts. I tried to overcome my enemy, but

he outwitted me with his tricks. The moment I began writing,

a sleepiness would come over me" (Lost in America 270-71).

This may have happened because Isaac deferred to his older

brother. "[Joshua] was not only my brother but my father and

master as well. I could never address him first. I always had

to wait for him to make the first overture" (Lost in America


A great deal may be made out of this view of the older

brother as father, and of the possible conflicts and hostility

concealed behind Isaac's excessive deference. For the moment,

however, we are interested mainly in the manner in which

Isaac's relationship with his older brother is reflected in

"Growing Up" and in the fairy tale within it. Certainly, the

drying up of the creative juices occurred because Isaac did

not create one integrated hero but a split one. In the fairy-

tale tradition, the rescuer of the princess is also the one

whose good fortune it is to marry her. In Isaac's tale, the

rescuer was too young for the heroine and Isaac could not find

it in himself to make him a little older. He asked himself,

"what prevented me from adding a few years to Haiml?" (Stories

222), and then went on to seek other solutions. Isaac was

trying to defer to the other half of the hero, the older Ben


Zion, just as he always deferred to his brother. However, he

had no desire to give up the heroine, and because of this he

was paralyzed and could not finish the story. Isaac, in the

throes of unresolved, and probably unacknowledged, sibling

rivalry, was incapable of effecting the fulfillment of his

fantasies. Because of the reverence under which he concealed

the unresolved conflicts with his brother, the hero ended up

without bride and rich father-in-law, and Isaac ended up

unable to finish the story which was to initiate his literary


But Joshua was not the only male who stood in the way of

Isaac's personal and literary fulfillment. In "Growing Up,"

there is also a visitor, Wolf Bear, an itinerant beggar who

effortlessly produces one fascinating tale after another while

Isaac and family listen. As though this were not enough, there

is an escalation of competition when a sort of duel ensues

between Joshua and Wolf Bear. Every time Wolf Bear says

something that is not factually correct, Joshua interrupts and

calls the old storyteller to task with statements like:

"Stones don't grow, Reb Wolf Bear," or, ". the earth isn't

hollow" (Stories 227-28). Isaac's father intervenes, and

angrily asks Joshua not to contradict, telling him that the

world is full of wonders and "only God the Almighty knows what

happens in other spheres" (Stories 229). Isaac is overcome

with the desire to cry, and rushes to his parents' bedroom,


where he suddenly realizes that he is too young to write a


This momentary withdrawal from the pursuit of literature

may have been caused by the overwhelming increase of

competitors and by the hierarchy that was created by Isaac's

father. Joshua, who was a competitor, but also a model and a

mentor, was openly duelling with Wolf Bear, prompted by a

desire to adhere to facts, but also, perhaps, by some envy at

the fact that a beggar from a small village could create

literature with such obvious ease. Isaac's father sided with

Wolf Bear, thus placing Joshua below the old visitor, and then

proceeded to close any possible mobility within the hierarchy

by placing God at the top.

Throughout his entire life Isaac saw God as his

competitor. In his essay "Yes..." he refers to God as "the

eternal belle lettrist," a writer forever throwing

unsuccessful works into the wastebasket.21 And Isaac claims

to have created his own ethic of protest--one cannot get more

competitive than that--and to be always ready to picket God

for His unfairness and cruelty to men and animals (Burgin 115-

16). If the mature man could view God as such an opposer, one

can imagine that the child would have felt this even more

poignantly, and that the young hero of "Growing Up" retreated

21Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Yes..."Yiddish 6. 2-3, (Summer
and Fall 1985): 59.


in anguish because he could not envision success in the midst

of so many powerful male competitors.

Singer's reaction to his predecessors, to the adults

around him, was to postpone the struggle and to seek refuge

and resolution to his problems in dreaming.

The fantastic dreams started, the wild
adventures. All the fantasies of the day
turned into nocturnal visions. That night
I dreamed that I was Rabbi Joseph de la
Reina. I uttered God's name and the
daughter of the Grand Vizier came flying
to me. She looked like a neighbor's
daughter, Estherel, who lived in our
house on the third floor. In the dream, I
asked Estherel, "What shall we do? And
she replied, "I will become your bride."
(Stories pp. 229-230)

In his dreams, Isaac finally succeeded. He formulated the

question which solved his romantic problems and resulted in a

proposal of love and marriage. The dreams also helped him

overcome the sense of insignificance which had hindered both

his love life and his literary aspirations. In his dreams,

Isaac became a rabbi of great repute who hugely surpassed his

father. And his fantasies were more fabulous, by far, than

anything Wolf Bear had ever come up with. Most importantly, in

the dreams, God was just a name he uttered to make his wishes

come true. Isaac even managed to integrate reality into his

extravagant catalog of desires by having the daughter of the

Grand Vizier look like a neighbor's daughter and by having her

take the initiative in the love affair. He woke up convinced

of his love for Estherel and, only then, only after having

solved the love problems through the assertive behavior of the


heroine, did a literary solution, a solution for the fairy

tale within "Growing Up," present itself to him: "it occurred

to me to name the girl in my book Estherel and that I could

become Ben Zion, who saved her from the cannibal and married

her" (Stories 230).

The solution to the story was also an approach to the

sibling rivalry. The decision to become Ben Zion is a great

improvement over his original split hero, in that it allows

for resolution of the story. It also foreshadows Singer's

development as a writer through introjection of and

identification with his brother rather than through open

competition." In the story, instead of making Haiml older

to compete with Ben Zion on a equal basis, he blends with his

competitor. It is precisely because he finds competition with

the brother more difficult than introjection that he does not

complete his fairy tale. Instead, he draws plans for when he

grows up: "I decided that when I grew up I would write not

just a story book but a whole novel about Estherel and myself"

(Stories 230). Isaac compromised by attaining his goals in the

imaginary realm of future plans, fantasies, and dreams.

22I have found only one written expression of Isaac's
hostility toward Joshua. In Remembrances of a Rabbi's Son,
Translated by Rena Borow with a lithograph by Chaim Gross (New
York: The UJA Federation Campaing, Inc. 1984) p. 22, Issac
fantasizes: "What if my brother Joshua were suddenly to turn
into a chimney sweep with a rope, a broom and an iron ball,
and the children were to stand below and chant to him on the
roof: 'Meat cleaver, kugel-eater,/ Hop, hop,/ Fall off!/'."


In his fantasies and dreams, Isaac may compete with his

father and become a more powerful rabbi than him, but there is

evidence of his being a great deal more sympathetic to his

father's views than Joshua was. Joshua detected very early

that, though their parents had the same ostensible wishes for

their children--that they be rabbis and pious Jewish matrons--

they were not, at a deep level, really operating together

because the two had conflicting and irreconcilable stances

toward the world. The father was, in beliefs and temperament,

a fundamentalist, rather superstitious Jew while the mother

was a rationalist. The mother was a subversive sub-text in

this pious home. In his own struggle for differentiation,

Joshua rejected the father's ways and favored the mother's,

and he thought that his parents "would have been a well-mated

couple if she had been the husband and he the wife" (Quoted by

Kresh, p.35). Joshua became very rationalistic and disparaged

his father's beliefs in miracles, demons, and other

supernatural manifestations.

Isaac's different feelings in this regard can be surmised

from his reactions and behavior in "Why the Geese Shrieked."

After his mother removed the windpipes from two dead geese,

whose shrieking was interpreted by her husband as

incontrovertible proof of the existence of the creator, Isaac

found himself praying "inwardly that the geese would shriek,

shriek so loud that people in the street would hear and come

running" (Father's Court 20). When the geese remained silent,


Isaac had tears in his eyes. He cried in intuitive

understanding of what the mother has destroyed with her simple

adherence to the logic of material things. He mourned the loss

of the father's magical world of self-fulfilling fantasy. The

mother's act was casting them out of the realm in which words

(and desire) were one with the world and God could manifest

Himself through the shrieks of dead geese to satisfy the

wishes of a man piously devoted to the imaginary, to the

search for serenity in one object, to the belief in one

meaning which lent significance to all else. Much of Singer's

fiction attempts to recreate this "powerfully desired world."

This makes his writing "quick with the verve, wit, precision

and crispness possible only to passion."23

Additional evidence of the brothers' different reaction

to their home situation is the view of their parents that they

disclose in their autobiographical works. Isaac's father, who

is the central figure of In My Father's Court, is a saintly

rabbi who attracts people with his benevolence and naivete and

impresses with his religious erudition. In this memoir,

Isaac's mother, Bathsheba, makes delicious food, and Isaac

continually praises her even though he somewhat dreads her

rationalism and skepticism. And the general tone of In My

Father's Court is one of homage to the past and of recognition

of the parents.

23Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the
Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990) p. 119.


In Of A World that Is No More Joshua treats both parents

unapologetically. Joshua, who confesses that he acquired early

a passion for realism (Of a World 13) depicts his father as a

distracted creature who was terrified of life, never managed

to become an official rabbi due to his failure to pass the

required language exams, and "hated responsibilities of any

kind" (p. 17). Pinchos Mendele was not only unable to earn

enough for the family's basic needs but also contrived to lose

whatever money they happened to chance upon. Against

Bathsheba's advice, he invested money inherited from his

family, and originally destined for Hinde Esther's dowry, in

a venture in which he was swindled by his partner. When

Bathsheba then gave him the last of her jewelry to pawn, he

succeeded in losing the money on the way back home (pp.243-

456). Bathsheba, who was the main victim of her husband's

ineptness, struggled valiantly to keep things afloat. She

assured the children a certain respite from poverty by taking

them for interludes of several months' duration at her

father's more prosperous home. But although Joshua sympathized

with her, he showed her flaws and particularly excoriated her

poor cooking.

The most distinctive feature of Joshua's book, however,

is the tone of direct complaint and indictment. He referred to

his father's "obstinately [refusing] to learn the Russian and

the grammar" (p.16) he needed to become an official rabbi,

declared that their home was gloomy because of the "Torah,


which filled every cranny of our house and weighed heavily on

the spirits of those living there" (p.29), and stated plainly

that, at heder, he had only "formed a strong dislike for the

Torah" (p.25). He described heder as a place where little

children were confined and mistreated by totalitarian

teachers, and seems to have intuited early that more flexible

and democratic means would have been more effective in the

struggle against evil than the tyrannical ways of the heder

and of most Jewish religious training.

Isaac could never be as overtly critical as Joshua about

his parents' shortcomings and about their religion. Instead,

he "remained silent, with opinions of [his] own" (Father's

Court 199), and he "practiced [his] theory that one could not

proceed in a straight, direct fashion through the world but

had to constantly smuggle [oneself] through, or muddle

through" (Love and 150). Finding openness impossible, Isaac

adopted surreptitiousness in the pursuit of his developmental

needs. Instead of standing up to his parents to decry openly,

as Joshua did, the rigidity and backwardness of Hasidism, and

to demand more flexibility and enlightenment, Isaac roamed the

streets of Warsaw without permission, listened behind closed

doors, and secretly read secular literature. He told a little

lie here and there,24 overflowed with expansive fantasies and

2Singer's childhood lying is in perfect keeping with
Piaget's assertion that the tendency to tell lies is a very
natural one, "so spontaneous and universal that we can take it
as an essential part of the child's egocentric thought." Jean
Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child (Chicago: The Free


dreams, and played at preserving his imagination in writing.

He learned early to use his stories for the pursuit of

personal goals. Deprived of a legitimate way to develop his

potential openly, Singer did so surreptitiously and

imaginatively. Long before his writing of fiction became his

profession and his livelihood, it was his life; it was both

his way of unfolding the self that refused to be silenced and

stifled and his way of hiding from a world that opposed such

an unfolding. His writing of fiction was simultaneously a

means of expression and growth and an act of stealth.

But surreptitious means "clandestine" and "unauthorized,"

and Singer was never able to forget that. He never lost the

sense of being a full-time transgressor. And there is a way in

which he never ceased to associate human development with sin.

His literary work, which was his growth and salvation, was

also the most unpardonable infraction against everything his

parents lived and died for. Singer was trespassing (just as he

trespasses the boundaries of genre) into territory forbidden

by his father, an act analogous to gaining access to the

equally forbidden mother. This trespass is also a penetration

of the walls dividing Jewish and gentile society. It is a

bursting out of Hasidic space to penetrate a proscribed realm.

Burdened with such great transgressions, Singer struggled to

conceal himself behind his own act of assertion and

expression (or within it, as he later confined his

Press, 1960) p.135.

protagonists in cells, lofts, religious ritual, slavery, and

prison), but the hiding was done so seductively and

insistently that it became its own (no doubt much desired)

unveiling and he got caught by fame and notoriety. Writing as

expression and assertion blew the cover of writing as stealth,

and he found himself the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in

literature, "denounced" to the entire world as the triumphant

author of fiction in which "the devil has the last word"

(Sontag, 62). After this, he became vociferous in his

denunciations of assimilation and strident in his praise of

Orthodox Judaism. As if to atone for the injury to his parents

and for his life as a religious outlaw, Singer used some of

his children's stories to promote religious beliefs. In

addition, in his last books like The Penitent and Scum,25 he

experimented with self-disgust and punishment, in an apparent

desire to undo, or/and be penalized for, the fictional and

real outrages of his youth.

Fortunately, much to the delight of readers worldwide,

most of Singer's work was done by the "transgressor." And most

of his children stories are not didactic but are instead

charming narratives which can help illuminate the struggles

Singer had to wage in order to attain some of his

developmental goals.

2"Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Penitent (New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 1983); Scum (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux,


Life Is a Fairy Tale: "The Milk of a Lioness."

In accordance with Bruno Bettelheim's definition of

fairy tales as "stories [that] are unreal, [but] are not

untrue,"26 "Mazel and Shlimazel: or The Milk of a Lioness"

(Stories 22-40) mixes the realistic and the fabulous with

felicitous results to show how growing people, besieged as the

young always are by a multiplicity of dangers, manage to carve

out precarious but ultimately safe paths for their

development. But in addition to charting the growth of the

protagonists, "The Milk of the Lioness" also hints that Singer

perceived the struggle for growth to be very fierce, that he

accurately assessed the nurturing frailties and inadequacies

of most male and female adults, and that he greatly valued the

help of a compatible, strong female peer in his strivings.

The first revealing thing about the "The Milk of a

Lioness" is that it is a rags-to-riches story in which,

contrary to the tradition as established in stories like

Cinderella (though in accordance with less well-known folk

tales), the protagonist is a boy rather than a girl. Tam is

not only the poorest person in his village, sorely in need of

a princess to grant him the life he properly deserves, but he

is also completely alone and devoid of any energy or

motivation. He lives in a boarded-up hut which perfectly

signifies his state of isolation. He is separated not only

26Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York:
Vintage Books, 1989) p.73.


from the other villagers but also from the world of nature,

from the beautiful, sunny day outside his boarded-up windows.

He sits on a cot, which is as broken down as his spirit, and

he is barefoot and half naked, unequipped for the outside

world. Such is his despair as he describes his condition that

one can read his physical poverty as equivalent to his

psychological inadequacy. This is how he sounds:

I once had parents, but they were
unlucky. My father died of consumption.
My mother went to the forest to gather
mushrooms and was bitten by a poisonous
snake. The small piece of land they left
me is so full of rocks that I can hardly
farm it. (Stories 25)

Such a record of bad fortune made any action on his part

completely useless, and thoroughly justified a state of

dormancy which, as in Sleeping Beauty, is normally a

characteristic of maidens rather than of young men. The influx

of energy needed to shake him out of his lethargic condition

is supplied by his fairy godfather Mazel.

Mazel, the fairy godfather, is the spirit of good luck,

as his name indicates, and possesses only positive physical

and psychological traits. He is young, well shaped, handsome,

fit of limb and mind, and overflowing with good intention. His

only weakness is that he cannot resist the temptation to

compete with Shlimazel, who, of course, is his complete

opposite. Shlimazel is older, has a crooked nose, a contorted

body and a twisted mind. He limps with the help of a knotty-

wood cane, and his long black coat and peaked hat contrast


significantly with Mazel's green jacket, red riding breeches,

feathered hat, and silver spurred boots. The two spirits'

interest in Tam comes as a result of a wager they make to test

their power against each other. Shlimazel threatens to undo in

one second whatever Mazel has accomplished in an entire year.

In keeping with the fairy-tale's traditional splitting of the

parent, they represent the good and bad aspects of a father--

with the interesting twist that even the good parent sees

nothing wrong with his involvement in this power game--and

they take opposite positions in Tam's acquiring yet one more

father figure, the wealthy father-in-law.

Once he is out of his hut, Tam has to rapidly learn to

negotiate his way through a veritable forest of father

figures. In addition to Mazel and Shlimazel, there is the

king, who Mazel transports to Tam's very door, and who brings

him to the castle and serves as a substitute father for a

while. After Tam expands the king's powers by obtaining new

territories and subjects, the Prime Minister Kamstan becomes

the young man's enemy and turns the King against Tam by

alerting the king to the fact that Tam is becoming a

formidable suitor to whom it will be difficult to deny

Princess Nesika's hand.

Until this moment, the king has been kind to Tam, but he

does not wish to marry his only daughter to a peasant. To

aggravate the situation, Nesika occupies the position of a

suspiciously absent wife-mother. "From the King's point of


view, Tam's triumph would entail giving up his daughter, and,

to the extent that he has been without a wife, the

relationship between the king and Nesika has the veiled

quality of a marital relationship" (Wolf 152). Consequently,

although after he becomes ill the King is compelled to enlist

Tam's services in the search for the cure, and to promise Tam

Nesika's hand in exchange, he does all this out of necessity

and never ceases to be Tam's adversary.

As for the two spirits, they are clear personifications

of aspects of Tam's. Mazel embodies activity and overflows

with zest while Shlimazel limps his way through life with the

help of a cane, and engages in activity only to be able to win

from Mazel the wine of forgetfulness. Shlimazel's actions have

one aim: to make it possible for him to drink himself to

oblivion. He seems to be seeking the type of lethargic state

in which we initially find Tam in his boarded-up hut. Or, as

H. R. Wolf has pointed out, these two spirits could be thought

of as Eros and Thanatos struggling for prevalence within the

young man (pp.155-56). While Mazel/Eros prevails Tam moves

easily from one achievement to another in an atmosphere

suffused by the love of the princess and the flattering

attraction of other ladies in the court, and his growth occurs

in an ambiance charged with love and eroticism.

It is through love and eroticism that the story unfolds,

for although adult males are predominant in "The Milk of a

Lioness" (as they are in "Growing Up"), in Singer's work males


are rarely the means to resolution. On the contrary, as Leslie

Fielder has observed in "The American-ness of the American

Jewish Writer," "the emphasis in Singer's work seems to be in

"a desperate metaphysical joining of male and female flesh"

(p.128). Dinah Pladott notes that Singer's heroes discover

facets of their character through their relationship with the

many women in their lives.27 Any reader of Singer's fiction

for adults can ascertain very quickly that his writings are

frenetic voyages of self-discovery through heterosexual love

and sex. Singer has confessed that he has only two idols, "the

idol of literature and the idol of love" (Love and 169), and

we have seen how literature became instrumental in his

personal development very early in life. In "The Milk of a

Lioness," the two protagonists use their love to help each

other move from one stage of growth to another.

The motif of growth is intertwined with the motif of

swift movement in this story. Thus when the king's carriage is

immobilized in front of Tam's hut, Tam fixes the wheel and

gets it rolling again. Later, Tam goes on to work in the royal

smithy, where he puts in motion vehicles that were believed to

be stopped forever. In addition, any horse he rides becomes

the fleetest in the land. This dexterity at getting vehicles

and animals moving is only a manifestation of the drive toward

development which Mazel has awakened. Princess Nesika detects

27Dinah Pladott, "Casanova or Schlemiel? The Don Juan
Archetype in I. B. Singer's Fiction," Yiddish 6. 2-3, (Summer
and Fall 1985): 59.


this immediately--right after he fixes the carriage's wheel--

and she pronounces Tam handsome and feels sure that "many a

prince could learn from him" (Stories 29). Nesika has just

rejected her seventh suitor of royal blood, because his shoes

were foolish, but she is instantly attracted to the half-

naked, barefoot Tam.

In the Uses of Enchantment Bruno Bettelheim discusses at

length the motif of shoes in which the feet can fit perfectly,

and the connection of this motif to the search for the right

bride, from an Egyptian tale over two thousand years old to

Cinderella. In "The Milk of a Lioness," the search is not for

the right bride but for the right groom, and the shoes in

question are Prince Typpish's boots. Nesika argues that she

has rejected Typpish (whose name means fool) because if the

boots are foolish the feet are also foolish, and if the feet

are foolish, so is the head. The prince seems to have been

lacking in seriousness and in substance. He is a fully

developed male--as indicated by the full boots--who does not

fit her in more ways than one. Tam, on the other hand, is

barefoot. His feet, not yet encased in anything, are visible.

What they reveal about his head--his mind--is obviously

positive since the princess takes an immediate liking to him.

One may surmise that Tam's lack of shoes places him in an

earlier stage of development than that of the prince; he is

closer in age to the seventeen-year-old Nesika than is

Typpish. He is a young man whose ideas are still in formation,


and he shows the promise of being flexible because his mind is

still open, unenclosed, like his feet. The princess seemed to

have been looking for this type of husband, one who is not yet

set in incompatible ways.

A couple who do not share flexibility and mental

compatibility cannot grow. Nesika was unconsciously groping

for ways to move forward in her development. From Typpish's

ornate boots she might have gathered that this was a man with

whom she was fated to stagnate not only mentally but also

physically. Tam may be barefoot, but perhaps his feet look

strong enough for a walk, no matter how arduous.

Furthermore, after he fixes the wheel of the carriage, it

becomes obvious that, young and unexperienced as he is, "many

a prince could learn from him" (Stories 29). Finally, Tam's

ability to facilitate quick physical motion also promises a

more dynamic sexual life. Tam seems to offer Nesika both

mental and sexual growth; one of these things cannot be fully

attained without the others.

When the two young protagonists find themselves

confronted with the four male figures, only one of whom

supports them totally (and that only to win a bet), they

intuitively respond by engaging in concerted action;

paralleling the two spirits, they take turns at activity and

passivity. Continuing with the reversal of the fairy tale

tradition, Nesika is the first one to feel love and to talk

about it. But after this initial assertiveness, she recedes


into the background and we hear only that her love for Tam,

which she tried to keep secret, is obvious to everyone,

including the king. During this time, Tam is in the world of

action and of males, proving that he is worthy of the

princess, while Nesika watches lovingly from afar. This

orchestration of the protagonists' growth as they proceed

toward adulthood is a crucial determinant of their eventual

success. For at the end, when Tam momentarily loses speech and

action, Nesika takes the steps necessary to gain a happy


What occurs is that, after obtaining the milk of the

lioness to restore the king's health, Tam is overcome with

enormous anxiety (Mazel's time is up and Shlimazel is in

control) and he tells the king that he has brought the milk of

a dog (Stories 33). This slip of the tongue may be attributed

to a number of psychological causes. The most obvious is the

son's normal fear of destruction by the father (castration

anxiety). But a father is not the only person who can destroy

a young man, and castration anxiety may be elicited by other

people who may or may not represent the father. As noted

above, women are conspicuously absent in this tale, except for

Nesika, who probably served as a substitute wife to the king.

The only mother in the story is the lioness. Thus the female

figure is split into a loving bride, Nesika, and a fierce

mother, the lioness.


To represent motherhood in the figure of the most

aggressive and carnivorous of animals is a provocative act.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has always acknowledged the

autobiographical nature of much of his work. Isaac's mother,

Bathsheba, was red-headed and strong, a woman with a skeptical

turn of mind. She was a fierce intellectual contender and a

determined rationalist married to an aspiring saint, and she

continually defeated her husband's wishful-thinking

interpretations of reality. The firmness and ferocity with

which she adhered to her rationalism awed and depressed

Pinchos and Isaac. But Bathsheba was capable of even more

formidable behavior. As mentioned, she rejected her first-born

child Hinde Esther because it was not a son, and placed her

with a wet nurse for three years (Kresh 129). The Singer

children, including Isaac, who knew this family history, may

have internalized a model of the mother as an awesome being

who is capable of exercising her powers of life and death over

her helpless dependents. Or, to put it another way, Singer may

have gained a keener awareness of this component of motherhood

than most of us do. In the story "Strangers," Bathsheba tells

Isaac that she resembles her own father, and says, "my father

was a lion."28

The wild mother of Singer's experience has to be tamed

into feeding the needy infant and, in Bathsheba's case, the

28Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Strangers" in The Image and
Other Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985) p.


taming seems to have been effected through the magic of

maleness, as indicated by the fact that Bathsheba's two other

daughters did not survive childhood while her three sons--

Joshua, Isaac, and Moishe--grew to adulthood. Both girls died

of scarlet fever, but of the first of these two daughters

Joshua said: "mother was too dry to nurse the infant and it

cried often." Of the second he remarked: "Years later, when

mother gave birth to yet another redhaired girl, she again

sent me to Reb Itche to have him remove the evil eye from the

baby who couldn't stop crying, apparently for the same reason

as her sister" (Of a World 142, 148). The milk of fierce

Bathsheba was as scarce as it was powerful.

Consequently, when the king is seriously ill in "The Milk

of a Lioness," it follows that the medicine should be milk,

that this milk be obtainable only from a powerful and

dangerous mother, a lioness, and that the feat can only be

accomplished by a male. This is precisely what Tam does, but

as soon as he realizes the magnitude of his achievement, he

falls prey to profound anxiety.

There are many possible reasons for this anxiety. Tam

exceeds the king's power by obtaining milk from the queen of

beasts, a symbol of the king's wife. To do this, he narrowly

escapes destruction by the lioness. As though this were not

enough, Tam's perilous action is to be rewarded with marriage

to the assertive Nesika, the future queen. Tam's temporary

taming of the queen of the beasts is to result in permanent


union to the lioness of the kingdom. It is no wonder, then,

that he claims to have brought the milk of a dog, a tame

domestic animal and not the king of the beasts. Up until this

moment, Tam himself had been as loyal and serviceable as a

dog. But after performing the kingly deed of taming a lioness,

thus becoming entitled to Nesika's hand, Tam is overcome by

fear of retribution or destruction (castration anxiety). The

fact that this destruction could come from either King or

bride makes the situation more menacing than the normal father

and son struggle. By comparison, Tam's previous position as

faithful, undemanding, loyal servant to the king seems

infinitely preferable. Better to be safe as a faithful, royal

dog than to incur the dangers of life among the lions.

Immediately after his slip of the tongue, language

deserts Tam; he loses speech and is unable to defend himself.

He is thrown into a dungeon to await death, and Nesika is not

allowed to intercede in his favor; she is not allowed to speak

for him. All language is now in the possession of Mazel and

Shlimazel who, appropriately, wage their last verbal battle

for Tam "in the deepest cellar of the palace" (Stories 34).

In a scene which is obviously intended to represent Tam's

own internal struggle, Mazel and Shlimazel enact the eternal

war between the urge for passivity and/or oblivion and the

dictates of reason and reality. Shlimazel shows himself the

victim of poverty--his father had been only a water carrier in

Paradise, and his mother the servant of a saint (p.36)--and


stupidity by his inability to see that the destruction of the

world (which he advocates), would also mean the disappearance

of his beloved wine of forgetfulness. Mazel has no difficulty

defeating him by feeding him the wine he so badly wants. After

Shlimazel falls into a drunken stupor, Mazel is back in


Tam's plunge into the depths of the dungeon, and of his

mind, brings his voice back. The encounter between the Mazel

and Shlimazel within him dramatizes the dangers of attempting

to elude reality and resist normal growth. Tam acknowledges

this by taking the unavoidable step of confronting the king.

He appeases the monarch with a factual lie which is a

psychological truth. He claims he called the lioness a dog

because that is all a lioness is when compared with the king.

The claim of conscious intentionality is a lie, but Tam did

perceive the king as threatening and lion-like, someone who

could easily destroy him, particularly when Tam was adopting

the position of a rival both in his love for Nesika and in

taming the queen-like lioness. Transforming the lioness into

a dog, by feat of language, removed all heroism from Tam's

action, thus directly signifying Tam's obeisance to the

superior authority and power of the king and, most

importantly, reduced the oedipal weight of the situation

through the oblique renunciation of all claims to the mother.

This lessening of the oedipal dangers is part and parcel of

Tam's sense of the inevitability of growth (the defeat of the


oblivion-seeking Shlimazel in him) and causes the young man to

regain his courage and to claim lionship for himself by

expressing, for the first time in the story, his love for

Nesika. He confronts the father and king without fear and

openly acknowledges his love for the princess, thereby proving

that he was capable of rising to the challenges of life as an


The moment Tam asserts himself to protect his life and to

pursue the princess's hand, Nesika emerges in a nurturing

role. "She herself ran to bring the milk to her father"

(Stories 38), which she had taken care to save because she

never lost faith in Tam. This gesture shows her to be a loyal

daughter, supportive wife, and potentially nurturing mother.

However, as the imagery of the wedding indicates, her

being trustworthy does not make Nesika less lion-like. On her

wedding day, she wears a coronet set with the diamond figure

of a lioness. She continues to be the same assertive creature

who, in a reversal of roles, had taken the initiative in her

love affair with Tam. She is the same fierce person who had

stood up to her father and had rejected seven princes to marry

the man of her choice. Like Bathsheba, Isaac's mother, Nesika

rejected wealthier suitors to marry a poor man. Nesika's

chosen groom also reveals himself through his wedding apparel,

wearing the Order of Selfless Devotion. He is less a lion than

a devoted servant, much like Pinchos, Isaac's father, who led

a life of service to his religion and his community. But also,

like Isaac in the memoirs, he shows devotion to his


As is the case in fairy tales, "The Milk of the Lioness"

presents the truth without disguises. It is a treacherous

world that the protagonists have to contend with, a world of

powerful adult males and females. The powerless young must

seduce the majestic adult female into nurturing and loving

them. They must love and confront the father in all of his

impersonations, and they must carefully, almost stealthily,

find a safe way from one stage of growth to another. It is a

world that corresponds very closely to the experience of

childhood and youth as seen by Karen Homey and by Alice

Miller. The adult world, even at its best, is more interested

in control and power than in the well-being of their young. In

this story, even the fairy godfather is involved in a power


Fortunately, in keeping with the fairy tale tradition and

with third-force psychology ideas regarding the resilience and

strong developmental drives of human beings, the protagonists

find the means to succeed without compromising their basic

characters. Tam and Nesika triumph through love, concerted

action, and assertiveness. This fairy tale completely lives up

to the genre, for "without belittling the most serious inner

struggles which growing up entails [it] offers] examples of

both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing

difficulties" (Bettelheim 6).


However, "The Milk of a Lioness" is not a fairy tale in

one respect; it is not "the result of common conscious and

unconscious content having been shaped by the consensus

of many in regard to what they accept as desirable solutions"

(Bettelheim p.36). This tale is written by an individual

rather than by many throughout time, and it bears his

identifying marks. The story contains interesting implications

regarding Isaac Bashevis Singer's views of, and relationships

with, his father and mother. As fierce as the lioness is, she

still provides (at least for males) the fluids of life. Her

double, the beautiful and assertive Nesika, is both a comrade

in growth and a fierce defender of their interests. The two of

them guarantee an exciting--bordering on dangerous--existence.

This is not exactly the case with the four other males in the

story, for whom Tam was more a pawn in a power struggle than

a human being. Edwin Gittleman argues that the creative writer

in Isaac was "almost sacrificed" (like his biblical namesake)

on the altar of Pinchos Mendele's traditional beliefs and was

saved from extinction by his willingness to participate in the

guilt of his rationalistic and fierce mother. Isaac was saved

by choosing to dwell in "the balcony [which] is the perilous

resort of the biblical Bathsheba a state of mind where

the imagination can range beyond the limits of paternal

control, and where one's traditions can be created and then


examined."29 Something similar occurs in "The Milk of a

Lioness." Tam narrowly escapes destruction in the male realm

of conquest and courage and only finds safety, fulfillment,

and happiness in the admittedly threatening but also

supportive and potentially liberating realm of female

voraciousness and love. This is at the core of the behavior of

most of Singer's heroes.

2Edwin Gittleman,"Isaac's Nominal Case: In My Father's
Court," Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Edwin
Malin (New York: New York University Press, 1969) p.202.



Singer's fictional heroes are variations on a theme. As

we shall see by using as examples "A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw,"

The Slave, and The Family Moskat, they are alternate versions

of Singer's own self, different impersonations of the author

who are devoted to an idealistic search for God and love. They

are, in general, young men of pious background who find

themselves plagued by an interest in their surroundings which

inevitably leads them into the study of secular subjects and

away from the Orthodox Judaism of their childhood. Unable to

resist their appetite for life and for the world, they shed

the outward signs of their past--their beards, earlocks, and

Hasidic costume--and plunge into a generally undisciplined and

unsystematic pursuit of intellectual development and sensuous

pleasures. They read omnivorously and accept their propensity

for doubt as the main attribute of their being human.

Convinced of their own goodness and benevolence, they develop

adversarial relationships with the God whose cruelty they

vehemently decry and seek to replace God with literature and

with erotic love, generally heterosexual love. But they are

not thoroughly convinced, they vacillate and they often react


to their own rebellion with guilty penitence and self-


As a consequence of their deification of love, Singer's

protagonists exhibit a stance toward women which is so complex

that Singer has been accused of detesting the opposite sex and

of seeing women as "creation's most savory form of pork."'

This claim of misogyny oversimplifies his position but could

be documented with incidents of hostility and distaste toward

women present in Singer's work. It is undeniable, as Evelyn

Torton Beck has shown, that through a number of his

characters, Singer "betrays a deep mistrust, revulsion and

hostility toward women, especially those who in any way stray

from their prescribed roles or cease to organize their lives

around men."2 Both Singer and his characters are, after all,

the products of Judaism, which is, in turn, the origin and

paradigm of patriarchal society. Nevertheless, as unsuccessful

as Singer's protagonists are in eluding completely their

legacy of well-established male-oriented ideas and practices,

they still resemble the little boy of "A Hanukkah Eve in

Warsaw" who shows the opposite of misogyny by choosing--as

opposed to merely accepting as Tam does--female company and

complicity to attain his most cherished dreams and objectives.

'Leon Wielseltier, "The Revenge of Isaac Bashevis Singer"
New York Review of Books, Dec. 7, 1978, p. 7.

2Evelyn Torton Beck, "The Many Faces of Eve: Women,
Yiddish, and Isaac Bashevis Singer," Studies in American
Jewish Literature 1, (1981): 115.


"A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw" and Singer's Search for Ideal Love.

The Isaac of "A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw"3 (a memoir,

published as a children's story, in which all members of the

Singer family are named) is only six and sits in cheder

thinking about "Shosha with whom [he] carried on an unspoken

love affair" and whose "childish words held a thousand

delights for [him]" (Stories, 57). He wishes he had a million

rubles to buy chocolate, halvah and tangerines for her and to

treat her to a sleigh ride. Later, Isaac is afraid to go home

because he is steeped in the sins of eluding adult supervision

and of indulging in his favorite lie about being an orphan

(Singer is unself-conscious in portraying these repeated

family-romance fantasies), and he remembers a story Joshua had

told him about a boy who had run away from home and had come

back a grown man and a professor. Fantasizing with delight

about the secular education he could obtain away from home,

Isaac decides to imitate the fictional character of his

brother's story. He dreams of "books about the sun, the moon,

the stars" and about the "telescope through which you could

see the mountains and craters of the moon" (p.63), as he

mentally prepares for his departure. Realizing that he will

miss Shosha, he decides to take her along so that they could

"study together in Berlin" (p.64). This desire for a woman who

is an accomplice in escape and adventure and a person with

3Isaac Bashevis Singer, "A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw,"
Stories for Children (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984)


whom it is possible to conduct a life of study is a recurrent

one in Singer's fiction.

But though Singer as grown narrator perseveres almost

obstinately in his aspirations, he is also very clear-sighted

and does not fail to perceive the difficulties inherent in his

schemes. In the story, he is forced to make a rough re-entry

into the quotidian when Shosha responds to his summons to a

life of love, adventure, and learning by worrying about food

and shelter. He is astounded and deflated, and Isaac's mother

and sister compound the debacle by dragging him back home in

sorry defeat.

Infinitely desirable as they are and indispensable for

the attainment of his particular dreams, women are also his

greatest impediment. From the evidence of his work, however,

Singer rises above the facile expedient of blaming women for

their attention to practical necessities. Instead, he creates

fictional characters who recognize that society polarizes the

roles of males and females and severely hinders the type of

relationship the little boy in "A Hanukkah Eve in Warsaw"

longed for.

Singer's characters object to the strictures of society.

They find it impossible to give up women but are extremely

reluctant to make long-term commitments and strenuously try to

avoid (or escape from) marriage and family responsibility.

They engage in multiple affairs in an apparent effort to find

the type of comrade Shosha could not become--a lover, fellow


adventurer and student mate--and they use language and the

discussion of ideas and beliefs as means of seduction and

foreplay. Pinchos Mendel (the author's father) sought union

with God. Singer's heroes also want union, but not with God.

Instead, they aspire to transcendence through fusion with

another human being. They generally fail because their women

do not view love as the means to move into an idealistic realm

but rather as their way of inserting themselves more firmly

into the fabric of society through marriage and reproduction,

the two things Singer's heroes are determined to evade.

Singer's protagonists appear to hold in common the intuition

that, just as it proves so difficult to achieve

differentiation within the boundaries of the family, it is

equally difficult to attain an ideal relationship between man

and women within the traditional confines of a marriage; true

union cannot be attained without circumventing society.

All the characteristics of Singer's male protagonists

come directly from the author as presented in his

autobiographical volumes. A Young Man in Search of Love, and

Lost in America4 read like dress rehearsals for the romantic

and sexual-philosophical entanglements that characterize

Singer's work for adults. In these memoirs, the frenzied boy

of "Growing Up" becomes a youth who searches for God with

4Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Young Man in Search of Love.
Illustrated by Raphael Soyer (Garden City, New York:
Doubleday, 1972); Singer, Lost in America. Illustrated by
Raphael Soyer (Garden City, New York: Doubleday 1979).


furious aggression and wages war with the creator while

experimenting with love and sex. The memoirs follow Singer's

swerve from piety to worldliness. Isaac betrays the hopes of

his pious father, Rabbi Pinchos Mendel, and slowly emerges as

the unique, independent person whose outline is already clear

in "Growing Up" and "A Day of Pleasures." He discards his

beard, earlocks and long gabardine, becomes steeped in worldly

reading, with a predilection for Spinoza, and goes to work in

Warsaw, where he begins his career as writer and as lover. His

women include Gina, his landlady, who wants to have a child

with him but is past her reproductive years; Marila, the maid

at his second boarding house (multiple boarding houses, which

Singer habitually had because he hated to disappoint his

landladies and landlords, were to become the much analyzed

several homes of some of the novels); Stefa, a married woman;

Sabina, a leftist; Singer's cousin Esther, who moves into

modernity by having Isaac initiate her sexually; and Lena, a

Communist who becomes the mother of his only child, a son he

never wanted to have.

Singer never wished to be a father. He wanted women as

accomplices in the search for pleasure, mental development and

unity, but tried to deny them their desires for marriage and

children. In this he was extremely egotistical and perhaps

even anti-feminist. Like many artists, he was ruthless and

self-absorbed. He was primarily interested in what he could

get out of a relationship, and his longing for a compatible


female was very tied to his own wish to excel as a writer.

Unresolved oedipal feelings may also have contributed to his

reluctance to become a father. His own father failed to live

up to his responsibilities as a provider and was dominated by

his strong wife. Perhaps he feared the same fate for himself.

However, Singer was also an idealist who sought to obtain

freedom, self-realization, and elevation into a higher realm

through sexual communion with a perfect female. What Pinchos

wished to do through religious belief and observance, Isaac

tried to do through sexual love. He wanted complicity with a

woman in his perhaps defensive efforts to vanquish the chaotic

ways of nature. His aim was for the couple to rise together

into the delusional but useful certitude of mastering nature

(the cycle of life and death to which the imagination is

hostage) through language, love, and learning. Like all

idealists, Singer was frequently afflicted by what Simone de

Beauvoir has called "revolt against his carnal state," by

bitterness about having "fallen from a bright and ordered

heaven into the chaotic shadows of his mother's womb," when he

would have preferred to "be inevitable, like a pure Idea, like

the One, the All, the absolute Spirit."5

Singer strove to overcome the flesh by indulging in it

for pleasure only, not for reproduction. I believe that for

him paternity was too great an acknowledgement and affirmation

'Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage
Books, 1989) p.146.


of limitation and mortality. It opened up the troublesome

issue of man's inferiority to God. God created the entire

universe completely alone but man needs woman merely to

believe that he is assuring his own continuation, when by

reproducing he is, in fact, accepting his mortality. To

aggravate the situation even further, man is never sure of

being a creator of other human beings, never completely

certain of his own individual role in procreation as woman is.

And as if this were not enough, with procreation, the desired

fusion with women is made even more utopian, and man and woman

are forced to curtail, or even to abandon, the activities

designed to attain the unfolding of their two selves' complete

potential. A third self demands the attention of the couple

and the labor now is, necessarily, that of replication of

their own insufficiently developed selves. It is a biological

and social cycle all idealists must find irksome.

In his personal life, Singer was not successful in

attaining his idealistic objectives and was compelled (one has

to presume that he could not help it) to behave rather

heartlessly. He circumvented the reproductive cycle by

irresponsibly allowing his mistress Runya to bring up their

child all by herself--he rejected the baby even more

thoroughly than Bathsheba did Hinde Esther--and by later

marrying a woman who was willing to leave her own two children

behind (thus partaking of his cruelty and guilt) in order to

dedicate her life to him. This, and also evidence from some of


the novels, forces one to conclude that Singer desired

complete devotion from a woman and saw children as rivals

because they would take from him some of the mothering he

still needed and wanted. But Singer's extreme actions seem

born of desperation and confirm rather than negate his

emotional attachment to idealistic notions and aspirations.

Characteristically, instead of worrying about his son's life

without a father, he felt sorrow because the child would be

"weighed down with a heritage (familiar, cultural, but above

all human, I insist in surmising) from which it could never be


His own inherited burden, Singer was very determined to

lighten. From the intensity with which he pursued sex arises

the suspicion that he saw lust as his way of asserting

volition; "I like it" was his preferred way of seizing the

present and of evading the Hasidic call to live in the past in

preparation for "the world to come." He combined love with

learning and pursued them both with a voraciousness of nearly

cosmic proportions, foreshadowing his fictional heroes who

explicitly associate love, knowledge, and the cosmic, and who

use love as their main way to propel themselves out of the

confines of their original group.

In The Family Moskat, the Bialodrevna rabbi says in

reference to Hadassah, "Maybe she's fallen in love--God

6Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and Exile (Garden City, New
York: 1984) p.289


forbid."7 summarizing very forcefully the Hasidic response to

this human emotion. This negative attitude toward love was one

of the things Singer rebelled openly against, going as far as

to use sexual love as the most effective way to push against

Hasidic limitations and to enlarge the restricted options for

individual differentiation and self-definition his background

offered. As Dinah Pladott mentions, Singer's heroes "are

basically inquirers, searching for personal answers," and who

"in seeking to establish [their] role and [their] ties to each

of [their] women, exhibit, and discover, different facets of

[their] character and self[ves]."8

However, some of Singer's protagonists go beyond this

scandalous, but still socially tolerated, modality of multiple

heterosexual affairs. Such was the strength of the author's

hopes regarding love, that he could not be in the least

decorous in carrying out his rebellion, and in his fiction

resorted to devices he himself might not have approved of

completely. Irving H. Buchen has asserted, for example, that

"to Singer, the most serious betrayal of all is the

blurring of masculine and feminine clarity." Nevertheless,

Singer could not refrain from this "betrayal."9 In "Yentl the

'Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Family Moskat (New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1950) p. 87.

8Dinah Pladott, "Casanova or Schlemiel? The Don Juan
Archetype in I. B. Singer's Fiction" Yiddish 6. 2-3, (Summer
and Fall 1985): 59.

9Irving H. Buchen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal
Past (New York: New York University Press, 1968), p.121.


Yeshiva Boy,"'0 the intense attraction between Avigdor and

Anshel/Yentl and Avigdor's realization that it was the

"unfeminine" traits that made him love Yentl, make it clear

that, in his desire for a union of souls, Singer was willing

to make sexual boundaries too indistinct and too permeable for

conventional comfort. Critics who believe that Singer's search

for love in his fiction was conducted exclusively through

heterosexual relationships have ignored The King of the

Fields. In this novel, Nosek, a sympathetic and wise Polish

warrior, confesses that he does not like women because "it is

hard to speak to them" and that he prefers to lie with other

men because "when two men do this, they are friends, not

enemies."'1 Evidently, Singer's interest in love was very

encompassing, incorporating even homosexual love, and it

transcended mere rebellion against religious and cultural

prohibitions. Through love he sought to attain the well being

and potential for growth inherent in intellectual camaraderie

(studying together as Yentl and Avigdor do), conversation, and


"Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" in An
Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus &
Giroux, 1971)

"Isaac Bashevis Singer, The King of the Fields (New York:
Plume, 1988) p.73-74.

The Slave: The Freedom and Captivity of Defiant Attachment.

The Slave, is the novel which comes closest to

articulating and attaining the type of love that Singer and

his heroes so insistently pursued." An indication of the

unusual nature of this love is the fact that two critical

responses to the novel have found it necessary to resort to

rarely used terms and to define the relationship between Jacob

and Wanda as an alchemicall marriage"13 and as a "hierogamy"

or sacred marriage."4

Indeed, The Slave clamors for special treatment since it

is Singer's most satisfying and most beautifully written long

work. The novel's compelling quality and distinction are

partially attributable to its having been translated by the

poet Cecil Hemley. But also, this novel was written after The

Magician of Lublin. The writing of The Magician of Lublin was

act of exorcism which seems to have left Singer in an unusual

state of mind. The Slave is the product of an extended moment

of thoroughly achieved artistic consciousness and personal

serenity. Here Singer's imagination ranges freely beyond the

12Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave, Translated by the
author and Cecil Hemley (New York: Avon Books, 1962).
Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.

"Ted Hughes, "The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer," New
York Review of Books, April 22, 1965, p.10.

14Bonnie Lyons, "Sexual Love in I. B. Singer's Work,"
Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol 1, 1981, p. 69.


boundaries of the internalized stringencies of his Hasidic

past. Instead of the tormented uneasiness he evinces in other

works, such as for example Satan in Goray, which treats also

of 17th century Poland, there is calm assurance concerning

what is really significant in life, and there is a sober and

lyrical celebration of the beauty and happiness that it is

still possible to seize in an imperfect world. Although this

is a story of captivity, it is imaginatively written from the

heights of Isaac's balcony over Krochmalna Street, and it is

the artistic extension of the magic moment when a fluttering

butterfly "was for [him] a greeting from the world of

freedom."'5 Susan Sontag responds to The Slave by flinging

it as challenge to the "modern educated sensibility" to

ascertain whether they still have "some appetite left for the

climaxes of true love and noble death,"16 and she contrasts

this novel with most of Singer's opus in which "the devil has

the last word" (p.462). She comments that Singer is reported

to have said that in The Slave, for a change, God had the last

word. But, as Clive Sinclair has noted, Singer "cannot

eradicate the self, even for the sake of Judaism,"17 and in

15Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father's Court (New York:
Fawcett Crest, 1966) p.169.

16Susan Sontag, "Demons and Dreams," Partisan Review,
Summer 1962, p.463.

"Clive Sinclair, The Brothers Singer (London and New
York: Allison and Busby, 1983) p.99. Hereafter cited as


this novel it is really human will and human love which reign


This is a story of perfect love between two distinctive

and strong individuals who are physically, spiritually and

intellectually compatible but who belong to two opposing

religious and social groups. As they contrive to remain

together against all odds, they discover the double sidedness

of freedom and captivity and of isolation and incorporation

into history and the life of the community. Irving Buchen

believes that in this novel "Singer has stripped Jacob of all

he complexities of society and history so that he may

experience directly the divinity of original creation."18

But it is the divinity within their own persons that Singer

wants Jacob and Wanda to delight in. Thus Singer endows his

protagonists with the exemplary individuality, flexibility,

and mental and emotional receptiveness which allow them to

circumvent most of the pitfalls of society and history and to

carry their love triumphantly to the end.

Singer's work abounds in fantasies and imagery of flight

and heights, and there is a way in which his male protagonists

are all Yasha Mazurs aiming to be perpetually and precariously

aloft on a tightrope of their own devising, only to find

themselves ultimately and irrevocably grounded. In this novel

of captivity, which simultaneously questions and affirms

18Irving H. Buchen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal
Past (New York: New York University Press, 1968) p.155.


individual choice, freedom is, as Frederick R. Karl has noted,

"'freedom to' the philosopher's cry--the phrase

indicating what one can be, sui generis,""1 and we encounter

two protagonists who succeed in their attempts by hovering

above their circumstances. Both Jacob and Wanda are simply

superior to the other members of their particular groups.

At first glance, the protagonists' superiority seems to

be a matter of mere physical appearance.20 Jacob is good

looking, tall, and blond, very different from his fellow Jews,

who tend to be shorter and dark haired. Wanda is beautiful,

strong, clean, and unblemished, while her own peasant family

and group are characterized by dirtiness and unwholesomeness.

But it is soon evident that it is not a matter of just

physical attributes, and that both protagonists maintain their

physical and spiritual superiority by continuously exerting

their will power.

"Frederick R. Karl, "Jacob Reborn, Zion Regained: I. B.
Singer's The Slave," The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer,
ed. Marcia Allentuck (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1969) p. 117.

"Maximilian Novak, "Moral Grotesque and Decorative
Grotesque in Singer's Fiction," The Achievement of Isaac
Bashevis Singer, ed. Marcia Allentuck (Carbondale and
Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univeristy Press, 1969). Novak
has pointed out the connection between physical appearance and
spiritual and moral attributes in Singer's work and mentions
the example of the village priest in The Slave as a case in
which "Singer takes care of [the priest's] moral condition
with a brief grotesque description" (p.58). Jacob's and
Wanda's beauty are a reflection of their inner strength and


After fleeing into the mountains from the Chmielnicki

massacre in seventeenth-century Poland, in which his wife and

children and most of his village is wiped out, Jacob becomes

the slave of Wanda's father, the peasant Jan Bzik. Jacob

manages to hold on to his identity and sanity during more than

four years of captivity by stubborn observance of religious

practices, properly laced with episodes of "silently blaming]

the creator for forcing one creature to annihilate another"

(p.55). He sharpens his intelligence by composing rebuking

addresses to the creator, preserves his Yiddish by talking to

the cows, and maintains his equanimity by regarding nature

with appreciation and respect. Though a scholar by training,

he does his job well and learns to value his body and the

labor it can perform. Wanda, already called by her community

"The Lady," bears the hostility of her mother and siblings,

and is forced to contrive means of deflecting her suitors, who

include Stephan, the bailiff's son. She is a widow who never

liked her brutish husband Stach, and she perseveres in her

love for Jacob despite his initial rebuffs (he feels sex with

her would be a sin against his religion) and the resulting

laughter and mockery of other women in the community.

Jacob and Wanda share more in common with each other than

with their original groups, and they are entirely unique in

their willfulness, in their ability to respect their own

perceptions of reality, and in their determination to live

according to their own psychic and emotional needs. They


exemplify Singer's belief in the importance of not belittling

the emotions and in the fact that "the desire of one human

being for another is not only a desire of the body but also of

the soul."21 Jacob and Wanda are also scandalously self-

aware and self-oriented for their times. Surprisingly, despite

their backgrounds, they believe in free choice. In spite of

the fact that the union of gentile and Jew in their time and

place is penalized with death, they persist in their love for

each other.

The elevated and perilous nature of this love is

beautifully dramatized in the consummation of the

relationship. This occurs, appropriately enough for these

protagonists, in the isolation and prominence of a mountain

top. As Wanda is coming up the hill, she is followed very

closely by an impending storm. Later, lightning illuminates

the barn and "bathed her in such a heavenly glow that it

seemed to [Jacob] the woman he had known before [his first

wife] had only been a sign or a husk" (p.57). Prior to making

love, concerned with ritual matters, Jacob takes Wanda to the

stream to immerse herself and, under the shock of the

extremely cold water, "they clung to each other as if

undergoing martyrdom" (p.59). However, neither the cold water

nor the premonition of suffering extinguishes their internal

21Laurie Colwin, "Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer,"
New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1978, p.I, 24.


fire, and they "burned with the heat of newly lit kindling"

(p. 59-60).

Jacob and Wanda join sexually above a sleeping world

whose every proscription they are cognizant of violating. The

raging storm affirms and symbolizes the tempestuousness of

their feelings as well as adumbrates the turmoil their union

is fated to occasion. They shock themselves with the intensity

of their passion, and find that the cold shock of what they

prophetically apprehend about their future fails to diminish

their desire for each other. The lightning, which was

transmuted by contact with Wanda into a heavenly glow, is but

a mere flicker of the emotional conflagration that makes her

scream with determination that she is ready to convert and to

die for Jacob. It is the shimmering halo of spirituality which

identifies her as Jacob's soul companion, as his fellow

traveler in his journey to ascend above the quotidian. But it

is also the perennial glow which surrounds them in their years

together, the effulgence which constantly threatens to escape

from the thick-walled, windowless alcove in which,"hidden from

the world by a clump of trees" (p.131), they eventually

enclose themselves to study together.

The exchange of knowledge and skills is part of the

relationship from the very beginning. Wanda teaches Jacob how

to reap, shows him how the scythe should be sharpened, and

acquaints him with the stories and legends of her people.

Jacob comes to relish physical activity and, ever since, "his


feet wanted movement, his hands demanded work" (p.205). When

his body also asserts itself sexually, in the mating with the

forbidden gentile woman, he has learned to value his

physicality enough not to be ashamed before God (p.61). Jacob

finds it easy to teach Wanda because she "has a man's brain"

(p.30), and amazes herself and others by uttering words that

have "the pithiness and wit of a bishop's talk" (p.30). His

initial doubts about "a peasant's brain comprehending such

profundities" soon disappear, and he is astounded at her

posing problems that he cannot solve. He quickly realizes that

"she lusted for knowledge almost as fiercely as she did for

the flesh" (p.72) and, for the rest of his life, he remains

faithful to these connected longings which link them. For the

entire twenty years by which he outlives her, he honors the

magnificence of their entwinement by refusing to remarry. As

Dinah Pladott has noted, "Jacob is a man desired by many

females but who nevertheless manages to retain his faithful

love in his purity" (p.60). He imaginatively conjures

Wanda/Sarah up and continues to explain "everything he studied

. to Sarah [Wanda's Jewish name] in Yiddish, sometimes in

Polish, as if she were sitting beside him" (p.237).

The appetites for learning and for each other which

commingle so inextricably in Jacob and Wanda make it

impossible for them to remain apart after Jacob is ransomed by

his fellow Jews. Jacob is happy to regain his freedom but

realizes at once that the differences between him and his


brethren have increased drastically and that, whereas he was

always somewhat intellectually removed from his community (as

Singer was after he had been modernized), he is now a true

hybrid in whose head Yiddish and Polish mingle. He is

embarrassed to speak before his rescuers, and he associates

their smaller size with refinement and his greater height with

coarseness. Inside the carriage which is carrying him out of

captivity, he feels "penned in" (p.86). Later, the new species

of confinement which is foreshadowed in this feeling, quickly

takes its ominous shape. Back with his own people, and

striving to extinguish his love for Wanda, Jacob finds himself

with nothing else to hold on to. He cannot obey the

commandment, "Thou Shalt Love Thy God" (p.91); notices that

the fellow Jews he also wants to love "observed the laws and

customs involving the Almighty, but broke the code regulating

man's treatment of man with impunity" (p.99); and he is

convinced that "the Jews had learned nothing from their

ordeal, rather suffering had pushed them lower" (p.100). He

rebukes himself for having "turned into a peasant" but

remembers that he had always been different from his fellow

Jews, who groaned and sighed without feeling while he burst

with feelings (longing for Wanda and the grave) in silence.

Newly freed from his physical captivity by his fellow Jews, he

is now imprisoned in incompatibility with them and in



Having been brought (by himself and by others) to such an

extremity, Jacob enlists the assistance of his considerable

scholarship to rationalize and sanction his return to Wanda.

He discovers in the cabala that lust is of divine origin, that

"coupling was the universal act underlying everything; Torah,

prayer, the Commandments, God's holy names themselves were

mysterious unions of the male and female principles" (p.111).

He also remembers the analogy between him and his Biblical

namesake, the Jacob who had gone to Haran for love of Rachel

and had worked seven years to win her.

Before Jacob builds a strong scholarly case in favor of

what he desires to do, he has already made this necessary by

having a dream in which he "knows" that Wanda is pregnant.

After he sees in his dream her tear-stained exhortation to do

something for their child, he is sure of the course to take

since "the law obliged him to rescue Wanda and his child from

the idolaters" (p.102). In the dream Wanda brings with her the

smell of fields and haystacks and, as soon as Jacob sets out

to find her, he realizes that "he had missed not only Wanda

but this [the open spaces]. The stale air of Josefov had been

unbearable, windows tightly shut, nothing but books all day .

. the body required use as well as the soul. It was good for

men to haul, drag, chop, run, perspire, to hunger and thirst

and become weary" (p.112). Though he is about to isolate

himself and Wanda in the confines of a socially and

religiously proscribed union, he is breathing again, feeling


both the power of his body and the irrepressibility of his

questioning mind--as he wonders about infinity and time

(p.113)--and of his playful imagination.

Having perceived the freedom bought by his ransomers as

a more grievous form of captivity than his previous state,

Jacob goes back to the daughter of his previous confiner and

with Wanda, now named Sarah, he begins a life of self-imposed

captivity in the freedom of their defiant attachment.

Wanda/Sarah has to pretend she is mute to conceal her non-

Jewishness, and she is forced to patiently listen to the

slander and ridicule the other women in town (assuming that

she is also deaf) feel free to express in her presence.

Jacob has to build a house with very thick walls and lives in

terror of their being discovered. He muses that "his years of

enforced slavery had been succeeded by a slavery that would

last as long as he lived," and justifies himself for the

transgression of marrying a gentile by remembering that "he

had saved a soul from idolatry" (p.132). But, on the other

hand, they have the pleasures of studying together, "whispered

to each other for hours without tiring" (p.133), and found

their time together so precious that they would deem an

evening wasted if they had guests because then "there would be

no studying of the Torah" together in the windowless alcove

(p.165). Wanda/Sarah is so happy that she sometimes terrifies

Jacob. She forgets that she is supposed to be mute and breaks

into song (132). She also "often wished that the night would


last forever and she could continue to listen to his words and

receive his caresses" (136). Jacob, though oppressed by the

fear of discovery and of imperiling not just himself and

Wanda/Sarah but also the Jewish town in which they live,

willingly conceals his scholarly knowledge and status. He

seems perfectly satisfied to conduct himself as a scholar only

with his wife, is half scandalized, half amused by her

mistakes, and frequently laughs at her mispronunciations of

Yiddish words. They are quite happy and Jacob is tolerant

enough to overlook the fact that Wanda's head is not shaven;

in violation of Jewish practice, she cuts her own hair

(p.132). The beautiful, riotous ringlets are the symbol of

their love and their peril. They are barely contained under

the kerchief and frequently succeed in spilling out. Wanda and

Jacob know that like the gorgeous hair, their affair will

inevitably out.

Childbirth, just as Jacob always feared, is the event

that denounces the loving couple. In the throes of a difficult

labor, Wanda\Sarah, angry at the insensitive comments of the

many women in the room, forgets that she is supposed to be

mute and yells in Yiddish: "don't bury me yet, I'm not dead"

(p.184). Suddenly, history catches up with Jacob and Wanda.

Their room, in which through sexual love, intellectual

communion, and artful concealment they satisfied their craving

for emotion and for intimacy, is now a theater of natural and

social life. They cease to be two individuals in love who have


attained great happiness in secret spaces of their own

creation, and become part of their community; they are claimed

by history and by nature.

At this point The Slave can be clearly seen as the

counterpart of Satan in Goray. In both novels a woman's

bedchamber becomes the center stage of the community; a dybbuk

takes, or is presumed to take, a protagonistic role; there are

revelations of the hypocrisy and sinfulness concealed under

righteous surfaces; and death in childbirth or its equivalent

is the fate of the females.

In Satan in Goray, Rechele "fell prisoner in the net of

the Outer Ones and a dybbuk possessed her."22 The entire

community, including the town elders, crowd into the room as

Rechele "lay with parted legs like a woman in labor" (p.206).

The dybbuk, speaking through her with a man's voice, first

recounts Reb Gedaliya's sins, accusing him of having defiled

his own wife, Rechele, and of having polluted the entire

community. Later, the dybbuk also "reckoned up the secret sins

of each one and called them by name and no one dared

give the dybbuk the lie and he grew bolder and discovered

things that had lain hidden, giving clear signs of proof"

(p.216). Eventually, the dybbuk is exorcised and "there is

such a press for very terror that many folk were trampled"

(pp.220-221). In a scene which merits sober feminist

22Isaac Bashevis Singer, Satan in Goray (New York: Fawcet
Crest, 1980) p. 206. Subsequent references are cited
parenthetically in the text.


attention, the dybbuk, which had originally entered Rechele

through the vagina, leaves the same way as a flash of fire

which "flew through the window burning a round whole in the

pane" (p.221). Rechele, whose strength had come from the

spirit, dies after a couple of days.

In The Slave, as soon as Wanda\Sarah goes into labor, she

and Jacob lose all privacy and their room is filled with so

many people that there is "a crush in the room {and} the bed

on which Sarah lay was almost broken" (p.185). When

Wanda\Sarah had spoken in Yiddish the women in the room had

interpreted the event as a miracle. However, when the language

changes to the Polish of a gentile, everybody agrees that it

is a dybbuk speaking. More confusion ensues, people jam the

room and even schoolchildren try to shove their way in.

Wanda/Sarah, in pain, seeing her end near, and irritated by

the situation, behaves like a dybbuk and tells the truth:

"'you call yourself Jews but don't obey the Torah. You pray

and bow your heads but you speak evil of everyone and begrudge

each other a crust of bread. Gershon, the man who rules you,

is a swindler. He robbed a Jew whom the Cossacks killed and

because of that his son-in-law is a rabbi'" (p.187).

Wanda/Sarah dies soon after giving birth to a son.

Before she dies, however, she and Jacob have one last

moment together. They once more elude the reality which, as

shown by the birth scene, they had been right in deflecting

because it could have permanently brought some of the


corruption of the world into their lives. Once the baby is

born, people return in fear to their own homes (Wanda's crime

is a capital one according to gentile law), and Jacob and

Wanda/Sarah are able to return to the proscribed and private

realm of their transgressing but sustaining love. Wanda/Sarah

has earlier told Lord Pilitzky that she loves Jacob and

regrets nothing (p.192), and now Jacob sees her dying and he

realizes that she "is a better representative of true

Judaism than are most of the Jews.""2 He is sure that she is

"a saint, a thousand times better than any of the others"

(p.196), and that "if such as she must burn in Gehenna, then

there was even inequity in heaven" (p.197). He feels "a love

such as he had never known before" (p.198), and his only

desire is to die with her.

But instead of dying, Jacob is taken prisoner by Polish

soldiers, remembers his son as he is being led away in chains,

realizes that "nowhere was it written that a man must consent

to his own destruction" (p.206), and escapes. In his dreams,

Wanda/Sarah comes to him with promises of protection and, from

there on, she never seems to abandon him. He recovers his son,

takes him to the holy land, brings him up to be a scholar, and

then comes back to Pilitz to retrieve her bones. There he dies

and is buried next to Wanda/Sarah under the epitaph: "Lovely

and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not

23Theodore L. Steinberg, "I. B. Singer: Responses to
Catastrophe," Yiddish 4 (Spring, 1975): 10.


divided" (p.254). He and Wanda Sarah finally reach "unity

beyond the limitations of time."24

Though the novel ends with a burial, it validates the

love of two protagonists who never clipped the wings of their

inclinations and affections, and who remained, if not openly

defiant of conventions (since that was never their intention),

at least certain of each other, of the fact that they belonged

together physically and spiritually. For Jacob and

Wanda/Sarah, "sexual love is a mark of [their] personal

psychic integration, wholeness and well-being."25 This is

demonstrated by their religious sincerity and enlightenment,

which makes them admirable people and also hints at benefits

for others. Their love for each other as well as the

hybridization both of them underwent in order to stay

together, are transformed by the author into a bridge between

two traditionally contending cultures and faiths.

People can come together by recognizing what is good in

others and by regarding one's own creeds skeptically and one's

own group impartially. David Seed says that "Jacob's spiritual

idealism brings him into conflict with those around him." 26

This is true about Jacob, particularly with fellow-Jews when

24Mary L. Collar, "In His Father's House: Singer,
Folklore, and the Meaning of Time," Studies in American Jewish
Literature 1, (1981): 49.

25Bonnie Lyons, "Sexual Love in I. B. Singer's Work,"
Studies in Jewish American Literature 1 (1981): 61.

26David Seed, "The Community in I. B. Singer's Fiction,"
Yiddish 4. 2 (1980): 12.


they dwell in envy and jealously instead of loving one

another. Goodness and holiness are qualities Jacob values; he

detects and acknowledges these attributes in others, whether

Jew, gentile, or atheist, and at crucial points in the novel

good non-Jews lend him a helping hand. Thus the peasant Jan

Bzik enslaves him but is also a good Christian who protects

him. When Jacob journeys to find Wanda, an old man wearing a

rosary and a crucifix shows him the way and blesses him, and

Jacob thinks that "if it had not been for the cross he wore,

the old man might have been mistaken for the prophet Elijah"

(p.112). Of course, he also considers the possibility that the

old man might be "an emissary of Esau, sent by those powers

who wished Jews and gentiles to mate" (p.112), but that

doesn't interfere with his gratitude, nor does it deviate him

from his purpose searching for Wanda. Later, when Jacob is

running away from the gentile law, Waclaw, the ferryman, gives

him food and allows him to hide in his hut, even though he

suspects that Jacob's "head must be worth a couple of

grivniks" (p.214). Waclaw is an atheist who asserts that "God

owns everything but the rich receive it all" (p.211), and he

provides an invaluable service by engaging in a discussion

about slavery and freedom which emphasizes the enslaving

nature not only of property but also of sexual desire and of

affection. Jacob falls asleep after this and wakes up thinking

about what to do concerning the baby still left with a wet-

nurse in Pilitz. An emissary from the Holy Land, who later