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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.

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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