For scholars of Yiddish, it’s hard to get past the roadblock of Isaac Bashevis Singer. When I was in graduate school, he constantly stood in my way, hovering between me and any decently literate person I met who asked what I was studying. “Yiddish literature?” well-meaning strangers would stammer at me, clearly disappointed by the lack of small talk this topic offered, until they would brighten and announce, “Oh, Isaac Bashevis Singer!” Bashevis, as he’s known to Yiddish readers, is not merely the only Yiddish-language Nobel laureate. He’s also more or less the only Yiddish author whom English readers have ever heard of. This would be unremarkable—after all, few writers from any language become known in translation—except that Bashevis himself exploited this fact, presenting himself to English readers as the sole voice of a lost world.
The cost of Bashevis’ half-century-long domination of Yiddish literature for non-Yiddish readers is quite high, and includes not only a distorted view of the Yiddish-speaking world, but also the reputations of more than a few of his contemporaries whose work never achieved anything like his level of fame. Here I’d like to make the case for a writer I regard as a much better novelist, Bashevis’ older brother Israel Joshua Singer, whose early death 76 years ago today in New York took him out of the competition. Exhibit A is the elder Singer’s masterpiece, his monumental novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, first serially published in 1934-1935.
I first read The Brothers Ashkenazi by accident as a teenager, stumbling upon an ancient translated copy long before I’d learned Yiddish; I saw the name “I.J. Singer” on the cover and unironically assumed it was some sort of mistranslation or typo. None of this mattered once I began reading. I was utterly enchanted, and I remained haunted by the story’s ending for more than 20 years. Reviewing a new translation of the novel for Tablet a decade ago, Adam Kirsch emphasized its ample faults: its one-dimensional characters, its social-realist fiats, its relentless predictability. He’s right about all that. But for me, the book nonetheless had an almost irrational staying power, nearly all of which came from its final pages and their sickening transformation of everything that came before. After rereading it this year in that original 1936 translation, I’m even more haunted by it, though for much more disturbing reasons.
Technically speaking, I’ve never been to the Polish city of Lodz. But if you read The Brothers Ashkenazi, you’ll not only have been to late 19th- and early 20th-century Lodz, but you’ll also have lived there for 50 years. (If you follow this up with Chava Rosenfarb’s devastating Tree of Life trilogy, you’ll become a Lodz lifer, and will feel yourself die with it.) By the mid-1930s, Lodz was nearly one-third Jewish—which is almost impossible to imagine when you consider that New York’s Jewish population has never topped 15%.
Singer takes his readers through the story of how this Polish Podunk grew from a tiny village to a major industrial center that became the chief textile producer for all of Europe. The novel is ostensibly about the titular brothers, but the Polish city is also a character in it—and in the end, the decisive one. It is this decisiveness, at the very end of a sprawling book that sucks your soul into its story, that devastates me now in entirely new ways.
For most of its 600 pages, The Brothers Ashkenazi really is about those brothers, and they are both hideous and captivating. Simcha Meyer (later “Max”) and Jacob Bunim (later “Yakob”) are twins, but they resemble each other about as much as the biblical Jacob and Esau. Simcha Meyer is a genius, a child prodigy who runs circles around his Talmud teachers, but he is ugly inside and out: physically stunted and unambiguously malevolent, and devoting his brains to nothing but his own financial gain. Jacob Bunim is the opposite: stupid, handsome, profligate, and extravagantly unambitious. Their pious father asks his rebbe for a blessing for the newborn twins, hoping they will grow up to be men of Torah. To the father’s dismay, the rebbe predicts only that the boys will be rich.
As the boys grow into men and Lodz grows into an industrial boomtown, the rebbe’s words prove true. The twins start out trapped by their father’s piety, but their marriages as young teenagers soon take them out of traditional life and into the stark Lodz business world, where they each play very different games.
Simcha Meyer’s goal is to become the city’s undisputed manufacturing king, and his pursuit of this is deliciously diabolical. He lends money to and gradually bankrupts his inept father-in-law until the older man is forced to hand over his small textile factory; he runs the factory so ruthlessly that he jump-starts the city’s Jewish labor movement; he secures political favors for a German manufacturer in order to seize control of an enormous steam-run business from the man’s inept sons, whom he also gradually bankrupts; he shuts down a workers’ strike by paying police to arrest the organizers and send them to Siberia.
Jacob Bunim, meanwhile, to his brother’s rage, manages to stumble into comparable success through blind luck. A wealthy heiress marries him for his looks; he charms his way into running a factory that happens to be his brother’s biggest business rival; he racks up political favors simply through his willingness to humor officials over cards and drinks.
Over the book’s hundreds of pages, we watch, captivated, as each brother weathers the many cataclysmic events that seize the city, ranging from workers’ insurrections to brutal pogroms to two major wars and the Russian revolution. No matter what history throws at them, it seems, these two will brilliantly come out on top.
Both brothers are appalling in different ways (brace yourself for Jacob Bunim’s truly creepy incestuous affair), but Simcha Meyer’s relentlessness is positively perverse—and for the reader, enthralling. As I became engrossed by the ongoing train wreck of Simcha Meyer’s malevolent ambition, I felt an unexpected rush of envy for Yiddish writers like Singer. As an English-language novelist who writes about Jewish culture, I often find myself looking over my shoulder, wondering if the way I depict a character could be misconstrued by my non-Jewish readers. But Singer, writing for an exclusively Jewish audience, had total freedom to create a convincing and multidimensional Jewish villain. In fact, the villain Simcha Meyer is the engine of almost every event in the book, until the very end.
I’m going to go ahead and “spoil” the novel’s ending, because its ending is only one element of a fantastic epic—and if you know anything about European Jewish history, it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that things end about as well for the Ashkenazic twins as they did for every other Ashkenazi in Lodz. The fact that the ending still feels shocking is a testament to Singer’s hypnotic powers as a storyteller, how he succeeds in lulling us into thinking that we are reading a novel in which the Jewish characters are the main ones, that the city of Lodz and Poland itself aren’t the characters who actually matter.
Near the book’s end, the brothers find themselves at a train depot on their way back to Lodz, crossing from Russia into a newly independent Poland, where the brothers’ first sight on Polish soil is of a group of thugs beating up an elderly Jewish man—a scene which prompts Jacob Bunim to dryly remark, “Well, we’re definitely ‘home.’”
Polish border police welcome them by forcing Simcha Meyer, at gunpoint, to perform what Polish Jews knew as a mayofes tants. This was a degrading song-and-dance routine, mocking a traditional Jewish melody that begins with the words mah yofis (“how beautiful,” describing the Sabbath), that non-Jews forced Jews to perform for their entertainment. It was a brand of humiliation common enough that it spawned a Yiddish expression, mayofes yid (mayofes Jew), a term akin to “Uncle Tom” among African Americans. When asked to debase himself this way, Simcha Meyer, goal-oriented to a fault, instantly complies. Jacob Bunim refuses, and is instantly shot dead.
This ending disturbed me when I first read the novel years ago, as it has surely disturbed all its readers since 1935. By invalidating 600 pages of storytelling via a two-bit hater’s whim, Singer essentially enacted on his readers what was already happening to Polish Jews, trapped well before the Holocaust in a society that refused them dignity.
But as I reread this novel in 2019, when anti-Semitic trolling of every variety has resurfaced for the first time in my personal memory, I was startled to find myself anticipating that ending with a profound sense of dread—not for Jacob Bunim’s death, but for the choice presented to the brothers, the demand for a demonstration of loyalty, the request that one participate in one’s own humiliation. The starkness of the Ashkenazis’ lives, thankfully, remains utterly unfamiliar. But the most basic version of the brothers’ final choice surfaces each time one decides how to respond to that newly familiar and relentless trolling, in whatever form it takes.
I was stunned, in 2019, to realize that that choice felt nowhere near as foreign as 19th-century Lodz—and grateful to know the work of this magnificent writer, whose short career allowed him none of the indulgent romanticism that came to define his more famous brother’s work.
The Singer brothers also had an older sister who was a novelist, and who had plenty of her own to say about the scarce nature of human dignity. I’ll return to her work soon.