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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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The next evening, Samuel strides out for a walk and a smoke but remembers that a pleasurable cigar is forbidden on the Sabbath. Seeking company, he enters the shul where an old man sits reciting psalms. He asks the man if he is praying, to which the old fellow claims there is nothing else to do at his advanced age. Samuel inquires if the old man “makes a living.” Hard of hearing, the pious fellow replies, “If God gives health, one keeps on living.”

Samuel is later alone with his mother while his father leaves for evening prayers. Berlcha sings a “solemn” welcome to the coming week as the Sabbath ends: “Let it be one of health, wealth, and good deeds.” To which Samuel replies, “Mother, you don’t need to pray for wealth. … You are wealthy already.” It is here that my students and I part company in our interpretations.

***

To the majority of my students, Samuel has revealed himself as an American materialist. To them, Samuel is saying that his mother needn’t pray for wealth since she and his father have all that money he’s been sending them all these years. Singer has set them up to this belief: Didn’t Samuel view the gold coins as a “treasure” that his father could have used to buy things, to take trips, or to impose improvements on the town? Berlcha in fact turns away from her son when he reminds her that she is “wealthy already,” as if his comment is an embarrassment. And then, Singer has Samuel touch the passport, checkbook, and letters of credit he keeps in his jacket pocket. Says the narrator, “He had come here with big plans. He had a valise filled with presents for his parents. He wanted to bestow gifts on the village”—more proof of the materialist ethos of Americans.

But I saw it differently. If Samuel’s encounter with the pious old Jew in the synagogue does not produce some interior echo, if Samuel at the end of the story is insensitive to the spiritual integrity of his parents and their neighbors, then Singer is painting a portrait of an American Jew, presumably from the very town in which he himself was born, as a moral oaf. I thought not, but I also wasn’t sure. To me, the old Jew’s misunderstanding reply about how he makes “a living” teaches Samuel, our “American” protagonist, a fundamental truth: “God gives us our very living.”

So, when Samuel tells his mother she is “wealthy already,” he is no longer referring to the cache of gold coins she and Berl have hidden for decades. Instead, the comfortable Jewish avatar from New York appreciates the spiritual wealth of the home his mother and father maintain. When he touches the documents in his pocket that signify his own American material comfort, it is with a sense of rue—he recognizes the failure of his intentions to help those who, thanks to the proud integrity of their simple lives, do not require his aid or that of the distant Lentshin Society that, founded in the New World, has lost touch with the soil from which its membership grew.

The word wealth is intentionally ambiguous, but it is not the only thing to turn over. The reason Samuel’s visit to Lentshin comes as a surprise is that the cable he sent did not arrive in time to announce him. Indeed, Berl asks, “Why didn’t you let us know that you were coming?” When Samuel asks if he received the cable, the narrator informs us simply: “Berl did not know what a cable was.”

Singer’s narrator has already informed us that the old couple does not believe in “newfangled gadgets”—and therefore they have no kerosene lamps: “What was wrong with a wick in a dish of oil?” Thus, they turn their backs on modernity, stubbornly adhering to the old ways. Unlike my students, who see Berl and Berlcha’s uncompromising adherence to cultural and religious tradition through Singer’s admiring golden haze, I see this resistance as both admirable and foolhardy. In the end, the cable arrives—“a gentile from Zakroczym brought a paper”—the next day after the Sabbath meal.

I did not remind my class that 40 more years after the story is set, modernity would catch up with shtetls like Lentshin. The Nazis would march in, its Jews would be removed, they would die en masse. “Modernity”—the cruel mechanized killing of the 20th century, would catch up with all the Berls and Berlchas, and they would be unprepared for it.

***

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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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