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Teaching I.B. Singer’s Old Jews and Their Moral Tales at a Catholic College

Are the lessons and pleasures of the Yiddish master’s ‘The Son From America’ lost on a new generation?

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(Tablet Magazine)
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Forty years ago, on February 17, 1973, The New Yorker published the Isaac Bashevis Singer story “The Son From America.” In it, Singer tells the tale of generational and cultural misunderstanding between a son, absent 40 years from his native village, returning as an American success to visit his aged parents who live simple lives of duty and piety in Lentshin, Poland. (Singer, who died 22 years ago today in Surfside, Florida, was born in Leoncin.) Set at the turn of the 20th century, the story of Samuel’s surprise return to this village of subsistence farms and nearly impoverished shtetl Jews was even more distant from New Yorker readers of 1973 than those readers are to us, yet Singer’s story lives on for a new generation—in particular the students in my freshmen English composition class at a Catholic college in the New York metropolitan area, where I recently assigned the story. They were to read it and understand enough to formulate a thesis, construct a short persuasive argument, marshal evidence with supporting quotations, and draw a conclusion.

I was the only Jew in the class. In the limited time available for discussion, I encouraged my students to think not only about the story, but also about its context: when it was written, when and where it is set, and what about the author might bear upon the text. In short, I had to remember that my students, fresh out of public and parochial high schools, were not deeply grounded in American or world history, and most had limited contact with cultures outside their frame of reference. What would they make of Singer’s story without any knowledge of shtetl life or of Irving Howe’s “world of our fathers”—and our mothers? How would 18- and 19-year-old non-Jews see in historical context Singer’s enclosed Eastern European universe in a “fable” as dreamlike and elusive as a Marc Chagall painting of a bride and groom floating in the night sky?

***

Singer’s story is deceptively simple: Old Berl and Berlcha—“wife of Berl”—live off “the garden, the cow, and the goat” which “[provide] most of their needs.” Berlcha also sells “chicken and eggs.” Their son Samuel left for America 40 years earlier; he sends them a monthly money order that the couple cash “three times a year” in the larger neighboring town. They keep the money hidden in their one-room hut but otherwise do not worry about its safety. “There [are] no thieves in Lentshin”—an assurance by Singer’s narrator so patently contrary to human nature that I began to read the story not for factual accuracy but for its aroma of golden-hued remembrance, something closer to folklore, allegory, or parable.

When Samuel returns, dressed in fine raiment and dropped off by a coachman, his mother at first takes him for a nobleman. Her teenage boy has matured into an unrecognized man of physical stature. When he identifies himself, she is overcome, cackling “like a hen, ‘My son!’ ” Berl enters from the woodshed and is likewise dumbfounded.

Eventually, Samuel, who has prospered in New York and speaks a version of Americanized Yiddish that his parents strain to understand, discovers that the old folks have hidden the money he sent over the years in a heavy boot stuffed with straw. Berl reveals the boot’s contents despite the Sabbath injunction against touching money. Samuel is stunned by his father’s amassed “treasure.” Samuel asks his father why they didn’t spend any of it.

“On what? Thank God, we have everything.”

And they didn’t travel?

“Where to? This is our home.”

As for Samuel’s suggestion that the town build a larger synagogue, Old Berl promptly replies, “The synagogue is big enough.”

All of Lentshin’s inhabitants hold similar views. They are content with their modest share and celebrate the son’s return, curious only to know if he has remained a Jew, while his own offer to help his aged mother prepare for this now-special Sabbath is spurned: “What! You are my darling son who will say Kaddish for me”—and she weeps.

For many of my students who read in haste and without the least skepticism, Samuel came across as an overconfident know-it-all seeking to steamroll the pious inhabitants of a utopian backwoods hamlet. (The narrator had told us, “it was said” in Lentshin that Samuel “became a millionaire” in America, and many of my students took this as fact in their draft papers, instead of understanding rumor.) When they pointed to Samuel’s arrival “in a beaver hat and a cloak bordered with fur,” they saw this as a confirmation of his vast wealth—although I pointed out that this, too, is largely relative to the simplicity of the isolated villagers who live a step up from abject poverty. To be sure, Samuel is a man of means—but I reminded my students that he worked his way up—“I was a baker for many years in New York,” he tells his mother as he rolls up his sleeves, offering to help her prepare the Shabbos feast to accommodate the curious town visitors.

I reminded my students that the adult Samuel’s visit to Lentshin, as a representative of the Lentshin Society in New York, which had “organized a ball for the benefit of the village,” had charitable purposes. After his proposal to build a larger synagogue is dismissed, he suggests to his father “a home for old people.” But Berl simply replies, “No one sleeps in the street.”

For more than a few of my students, Samuel is seen only as an American businessman of overweening pride. Instead of visiting his native village to throw his money around, a few suggest, why couldn’t he understand that it was his visit, his very presence, that was his greatest gift? His arrival was a delight to his parents—and wouldn’t the Lentshin Society in New York do better to send its members back to their native village for a visit to their kinfolk than sending a single representative to try to change their way of life?

But the crucial break between my students’ understanding of Singer and mine centered on a series of moments that comprise the end of the story. Before the Sabbath meal, father and son go to synagogue and head for home again in the middle of a heavy snowfall. It is then that Berl, at Samuel’s urging, shows his son the boot filled with the cache of “gold coins,” the product of Samuel’s devoted money orders sent over many years.

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Teaching I.B. Singer’s Old Jews and Their Moral Tales at a Catholic College

Are the lessons and pleasures of the Yiddish master’s ‘The Son From America’ lost on a new generation?