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I.J. Singer’s newly reissued The Brothers Ashkenazi may not be on par with the greatest realist epics, but it is an eerie foretelling of Eastern European Jewry’s eventual fate

Adam Kirsch
January 18, 2011
Israel Joshua Singer in 1938.(Library of Congress)
Israel Joshua Singer in 1938.(Library of Congress)

In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list. The first was Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, a panoramic, melodramatic historical novel that would shortly become a classic movie and that has never been out of print. The other was The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer, which has never been made into a movie and has gone in and out of print periodically over the years. It has now been reissued in paperback by the increasingly indispensable Other Press ($16.95), with an old introduction by Irving Howe and a new one by Rebecca Goldstein.

Singer’s novel is considerably more literary than Mitchell’s, but it is surprising how well the adjectives that apply to Gone with the Wind also suit The Brothers Ashkenazi. Singer’s book, too, is a sweeping historical novel, covering several generations in the life of a family and leading them through world-changing events. And Singer, too, is more interested in big, impressive set-pieces than in characterization—the major figures in The Brothers Ashkenazi tend to be forcefully one-dimensional, with little interior life or capacity to change.

The reason for the different fates of these bestsellers, of course, has to do with the particular histories they bring to mythic life. In writing about the Civil War and Reconstruction, Mitchell tackled the central American experience, and despite her racist sentimentalizing of the antebellum South—or, perhaps, because of it—she has never stopped appealing to American readers. Singer, on the other hand, wrote in Yiddish about the central modern experience of Eastern European Jewry: the violent transformation of Jewish civilization, from 1880 to 1920, under the pressures of secularism, industrialism, nationalism, and Communism. It is no coincidence that the family at the center of the book is called Ashkenazi; Singer set out to write the archetypal story of Ashkenazi Jews, on the same scale as epic novels like War and Peace and Les Misérables.

The novel’s vantage point on this crisis is the city of Lodz, sometimes called the Manchester of Poland. In the late 19th century, Lodz was transformed from a small village to an international capital of the textile industry—an industry dominated by Jewish manufacturers, merchants, and laborers. Singer captures this reckless, explosive growth in a cinematic sequence in the novel’s first pages: “Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers … like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to exclude them.” Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.

The patriarch of the Ashkenazi dynasty, Abraham Hersh, gets rich as the chief salesman for the Gentile-owned manufacturing firm of Huntze. Just as he is an employee of capitalists rather than a capitalist himself, he seems to be in the new Lodz without being of it: He remains a traditional Hasid, spending as much time as possible at the court of his rebbe. He uses his wealth to do mitzvot like buying Passover supplies for the poor and ransoming Jewish prisoners.

Yet Singer is by no means an admirer of this traditional Hasidic culture, and he blasts it with all the standard criticisms that enlightened Jewish writers had been making since the days of Haskalah. Abraham Hersh’s piety, though sincere, is shown to be harsh and superstitious, and it entails a total contempt for women, especially his own wife. “If he loved her in his own fashion, he showed it only in their bed, as the Law prescribed. Otherwise, he was quite rigid about a woman’s role in life. She was to bear children, rear them, observe the laws of Jewishness, run a household, and obey her husband for life.”

Abraham Hersh’s priorities are made quite clear when he leaves his wife alone, even though she is about to give birth, while he makes his usual Passover pilgrimage to his rebbe. She ends up having twin boys—Simha Meir and Jacob Bunem, the brothers of the title. Singer does not waste time setting up the temperamental and physical contrast that will define these characters for the rest of the book, and end up determining their fates. Simha Meir, the older by five minutes, is small and frail, bites the nipple while nursing, and turns into a solitary, clever, manipulative boy. Jacob Bunem, a vigorous baby, is also his brother’s opposite in every other way: athletic, charismatic, and not too bright.

It is hard to decide whether such blunt dualism is simple, like a myth—Singer clearly wants us to think of Jacob and Esau—or simplistic, a melodramatic convention. In any case, the reader never has to wonder what Simha and Jacob will do in any given situation, and one reason The Brothers Ashkenazi is so easy to read is that its complications are all sociological, seldom psychological. For instance, it is fated that Simha, the prodigy, will end up claiming the desirable Dineleh as his wife, even though she loves Jacob; and it is equally fated that the marriage will be full of mutual contempt and sexual coldness, since Simha’s defining trait is that he is impossible to love.

Likewise, we see enough of Simha as a greedy boy, cheating at cards and loansharking to his friends, to predict that he will grow up to be a ruthless and successful businessman. The rise and rise of Simha Meir—who in time drops his Yiddish name and becomes simply Max—dominates the first half of the novel. Singer, knowing he has a great villain on his hands, clearly relishes the scenes in which the young Simha coldly bankrupts his father-in-law, in order to take control of his business, and then gets his own father fired, so that he can take over his job. Eventually Max Ashkenazi gains control of the Huntze factory and achieves his dream of becoming “King of Lodz.”

But the cost of his ambition is not merely personal. All along, Singer shows that the rise of Lodz’s Jewish bourgeoisie takes place at the expense of the Jewish workers, who spend endless shifts at their factory looms and still don’t earn enough to support their families. The Brothers Ashkenazi never quite manages to become a great realist novel, in the tradition of Balzac or Zola, because Singer doesn’t write concretely enough about the realities of labor and commerce—he tends to offer emotive formulas in place of precise observation. But these are enough to keep the reader on the side of the proletariat against the bosses:

The more agile among the workers managed to filch some bread from the pantry, but those less bold starved. A piece of meat was never seen; the chicory substituting for coffee was served with a mere lick of sugar. The work went on all through the night by the dim light of oil lamps and smoking wicks. The smoke from the stoves irritated the eyes; the boss’s children cried; the women cursed and bickered. When the red eyelids could no longer be held open, the men stretched out on the dirty floor with a piece of goods as a pillow and dozed off, freezing in the winter, steaming in the summer, eaten alive by fleas, flies, and bedbugs.

Yet even as he mounts this Marxist critique of Lodz-style capitalism, Singer is convinced that Communism, too, is a dead end for Eastern European Jews. If Abraham Hersh shows the bankruptcy of tradition and Simha Meir the bankruptcy of capitalism, the bankruptcy of socialism appears in the character of Nissan, a rabbi’s son who becomes a strike-leader and revolutionary conspirator. Nissan earns the nickname “the depraved” for his open rejection of everything his puritanical, pious father believes in. Yet as Singer shows, with blunt irony, Nissan’s own longing for revolution is the mirror image of his father’s messianism, and he annotates the margins of Das Kapital just as his father annotated volumes of the Talmud.

Jewishness, Singer insists, is inescapable, and it makes any real comradeship with Polish workers impossible. When Nissan launches a strike against Lodz’s factory owners, it quickly degenerates into a pogrom. “Didn’t you know it always ends up with Jewish heads bleeding?” the townspeople reproach him, and while Nissan can’t accept this truth, Singer clearly does. The Brothers Ashkenazi takes its characters through all kinds of social upheaval, culminating in World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. But anti-Semitism never changes, and it makes a mockery of every attempt to break the impasse of Eastern European Jewish society. In the novel’s very last chapter, the funeral liturgy—“Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”—is echoed in the hopeless refrain of Lodz’s Jews: “Everything we built here we built on sand.”

This somber, trapped, helpless conclusion now seems horribly prescient. A few years after The Brothers Ashkenazi was published, the thousand-year-old Ashkenazi civilization would be annihilated in the Holocaust. Lodz itself became the second-largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, with some 250,000 residents, most of whom were murdered at Chelmno and Auschwitz. In some ways, the world of the Lodz ghetto can be seen as a nightmare sequel to the world of The Brothers Ashkenazi, with sweatshops transformed into labor camps and Simha Meir, the “king of Lodz,” giving up his throne to Chaim Rumkowski, the infamous head of the Lodz Judenrat, who was derisively known as “King Chaim.”

I.J. Singer himself left Poland for America in 1934, taking a job at the Forward, New York’s socialist Yiddish daily. The following year he brought over his brother Isaac Bashevis Singer, then a fledgling writer. Emigration saved their lives—their mother and younger brother were killed in the Holocaust. Yet as Rebecca Goldstein points out in her introduction, it was not until Israel Joshua died of a heart attack, in 1944, that Isaac Bashevis began to flourish as a writer: “it was only the death of the one brother that brought the genius of the other to life.” And the prodigious success of the younger Singer, culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature, has cast a retrospective shadow over the older brother whom he idolized: “To me, he was not only the older brother, but a spiritual father and master as well.” The Brothers Ashkenazi does not, I think, have the same literary power as the best of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, but it remains a powerful and indispensable document of Yiddish civilization.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.