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Breaking the Chains

Isaac Bashevis Singer, evil spirits, and the injustice of ‘chained women’

Rokhl Kafrissen
November 17, 2023

Inset image: Wikipedia

Inset image: Wikipedia

It might make you feel old to be reminded that (possibly) the greatest American horror movie ever made, The Exorcist, turns 50 this year. If it makes you feel any better, or younger, the earliest Yiddish story attesting to dybbuk possession goes all the way back to 1602. “The Possession” was included as one of many stories in Jacob ben Abraham of Mezritch’s Mayse Bukh (Story Book). Translator Joachim Neugroschel includes it in his indispensable volume The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination, A Haunted Reader, where I encountered it this fall, when I taught it and other dybbuk tales to my undergraduate students.

The Mayse Bukh was meant to provide moral education (musar) in an accessible, compelling format; it was a pioneer in edutainment and wildly successful in its mission. “The Possession,” however, the Mayse Bukh’s foundational dybbuk tale, strikes a somewhat ambiguous note in its moshl, or moral. An evil spirit has entered a young man, and a couple of wise men are brought to speak with him. The first thing the evil spirit tells the men is that because he drowned at sea, his wife is now an agune, a “chained woman” whose husband has disappeared without granting a divorce. Such a woman could not remarry under Jewish law. The evil spirit tries to convince the wise men that his wife should be permitted to remarry. After all, there he is, a disembodied spirit, giving miraculous proof of his own death. Shouldn’t that be enough? The wise men are unmoved.

The story quickly moves on to the spirit’s sins and his accusations of sin against a second group of men who have entered the scene. How did the spirit know of their sins? The spirit says, “It is written that whatever a man does is inscribed in his hand.” (Yes, it’s true, The Body Keeps the Score.)

Perhaps because I grew up watching The Exorcist instead of The Dybbuk, I expected more from the actual exorcism part. Instead, the narrative yada-yadas over what we might expect to be the climax of the story, saying only, “The wise men finally managed to exorcise the spirit from the young man, and the spirit flew away.” The end. There is no neck-cracking, heroic struggle between good and evil, no testing of faith and ultimate self-sacrifice. Just ordinary sin and understandable fear of punishment. Almost like real life.

Of course, the point of the story isn’t the exorcism at all. Rather, it’s the spirit’s cathartic confession of his own sin and his scandalous revelation of community sin, specifically, when the spirit reveals that one of the young men has been sleeping with other men. But there is another, grave sin revealed, right at the top of the text. The wise men, the spiritual leaders of the community, refuse to unchain the spirit’s wife from him, even with proof that he has died. She is thus regarded as a “whore” under Jewish law, as the story implies that she has taken a new partner without obtaining a divorce first. While the various men in the story affirmatively chose to sin during their lifetime, the wise men, too, have sinned, perhaps even more gravely. Despite holding all the levers of power, they refuse to act on an obvious injustice completely within their power to correct. How could such a story hang on the passivity of heroes like these?

Though the Mayse Bukh was intended as moral education, a story like “Possession,” with its multiple layers of sin and culpability, presents us with something more subtle than the genre might initially suggest. In a strange coincidence, just after teaching “Possession,” I picked up a new volume of essays in translation by Isaac Bashevis Singer, in which the very first piece was Singer’s own lament for the enduring problem of agunes in traditional Eastern European Jewish society. This new book is the first of a planned three volumes, featuring new translations of Singer’s journalistic essays for the Forverts, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939-1945.

Given Singer’s global fame as the only Yiddish writer to win a Nobel Prize, and his status as the icon of Yiddish literature for American Jews, a volume like this one (and its future companions) is long overdue. For the greater reading public, Singer’s work is highly mediated, presented not just in translation, but as a product of his many and varied translator collaborations. His English translations themselves form their own corpus, often deviating from the original Yiddish in ways large and small. Most importantly, what English-language readers engage with is Singer’s “literary” output, short stories and novels, mostly.

Singer the journalist, however, published hundreds of pieces of journalism, under various bylines, across decades. The selected essays in this new volume are presented chronologically, each with thoughtful introductory text from editor-translator David Stromberg. And while not all of his belletristic work necessarily rises to the same level as the literary, the pieces Stromberg has chosen present a fascinating window onto the writer and the time period, and will be considered essential for any serious reader of Singer’s work.

Not surprisingly, dybbuks haunt Singer’s journalism, though they don’t appear by name in the opening essay, dated July 1939: “Agunot—Wives of Missing Husbands Whom Jewish Law Does Not Allow to Marry.” Nonetheless, it was a rather eerie read for me, so soon after reading the 1602 “Possession.” In the essay, Singer writes, “If a man drowns in the sea, the woman should—according to the law of the Talmud—not remarry, even if witnesses saw the man fall into the water and not come out. … The woman could have a thousand indications that the drowned man is her husband. Yet, the Tannaim believed that people can only be identified by their foreheads and noses. If the nose is gone, there’s no proof that this is the same person.” That a woman could recognize everything about her husband in the drowned man, despite a missing nose, is still irrelevant. She must remain an agune.

What’s most interesting about the essay, though, is that Singer goes beyond the injustice produced by the law. He points out how common the status of agune was and how it was used by husbands as a threat against their wives. “‘I’ll go away and leave you a lonely aguna!’ Such a threat left a Jewish woman scared to death … The great fear of becoming an aguna has always loomed over Jewish women.” Traditionally, dybbuk stories flowed from a belief in punishment after death, and that wicked spirits, especially male spirits, would do whatever they could to avoid it. It was a natural fit for musar literature, which sought to instruct readers in proper conduct during their lives. But in Singer’s essay, we are confronted with a quotidian horror, that Jewish law was used by feckless husbands to threaten women with punishment, not after death, but for the rest of their natural lives.

Of course, not all agunes were created by desertion, or by dramatic acts of sea. Times of war produced their own share, a fact Singer touches on in the essay. The heavy price of war would have been on his mind in the summer of 1939, a few short months before the German invasion of Poland, and the destruction of the world from which he had come.

Last year, I wrote about a strange article Singer published in the Forverts in November 1941. In it, he goes on at great length about the sexual perversions of the Nazis, and Germans in general. In the course of this rather lurid screed, Singer brings in the work of pioneering German Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. He quotes one of Hirschfeld’s books, “supposedly showing how during WWI, German women lost all sense of morality. And as much as the German soldiers exhibited a wild barbarity, so did the German women show their own depravity.” It’s an extremely uncomfortable read, but as I said at the time, it seemed to capture some of the brain melting horror of watching the war unfold from afar. The November 1941 piece is also quintessentially Singer (or rather, Varshavski, his primary Forverts pseudonym): It combines his interest in scientific explanations for human behavior with his own tendency to the grotesque.

I wasn’t going to touch on any of Singer’s wartime writing when I taught our unit on the Yiddish press with my undergraduate students. Drawing on Eddy Portnoy’s essential book on the Yiddish tabloid press, Bad Rabbi, I had planned on focusing on the sensationalist (and fun) 1920s and ’30s. But that unit happened to coincide with the outbreak of the current, dreadful violence in Gaza and Israel. I struggled as to if, and how, to address today’s violence, as well as its inescapable connection to the past. Truly, as if a dybbuk had guided my hand, I picked up the new volume of Singer’s wartime essays, turned to “Each Jewish Street in Warsaw Was Like a Town of Its Own,” from July 2, 1944, and reading aloud, shared it with the class.

“When people are struck by great misfortunes, by very powerful blows,” Singer writes, “they are in no condition to immediately take stock of what’s happened to them. It can often take weeks, months, or even longer for people to be able to comprehend the scope of their tragedy. … The human mind can perhaps comprehend the cruelty of a single murder. But when it comes to mass murder, when we hear of thousands of children being buried alive …” and men, women and children murdered in every way, “[t]he nervous system can merely register such facts, but it can’t respond to them … We are left standing motionless before an abyss.”

I thought about how today, we are inundated with raw images of unspeakable horrors, and flooded with a stream of something that looks like news, but does little to clarify or inform. I am frightened of the way that our unfiltered access to war seems to be robbing us of our ability to think clearly, whether about what has happened or what is to come.

“How is it possible that a shtetl in Poland has no synagogue or study house? … The imagination refuses to submit to logic. And another thing: this writer cannot imagine that all of his relatives, all of his friends, everyone he knows and holds dear and whom he left behind, lie dead, slaughtered and incinerated. … Our eyes can’t see the extremely short ultraviolet rays. Our ears don’t hear sounds that are too high pitched. We don’t possess the senses needed to feel the greatest human sorrow multiplied by hundreds of thousands or millions.”

I often come back to the cosmic lesson that, it seems to me, there is no lesson to the Holocaust. Suffering is not earned nor is it ennobling. Our only lesson, I think, is to reject passivity from those leaders who hold the levers of power and somehow, someway, refuse to be overwhelmed by our own suffering, nor to ever become numb to that of others.

MORE ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: Purchase Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939-1945, published by the Yiddish Book Center’s own imprint, White Goat Press. … If you happen to be in Stockholm, you might be interested in “Dancing with Demons: The Singers,” an international symposium on the Yiddish world and writing of Esther Kreitman, Israel Yehoshua, and Isaac Bashevis. Dec. 2-3. Presented by Jiddischsällskapet i Stockholm och Judisk kultur i Sverige. More information here.

ALSO: My friend Caraid O’Brien is celebrating the publication of her translation of the “Underworld Trilogy,” three Yiddish plays by Sholem Asch. Join her and some special guests for a dramatic performance from this translation, in person or virtually, Nov. 29, at YIVO. More information here … Rumshinsky and Shor’s “Shir Hashirim” (Song of Songs) is a little heard 1911 Yiddish comic operetta by two masters of American Yiddish music. Enjoy a concert performance of its music, Dec. 11, at YIVO. Tickets here … Take a virtual exhibition tour of “Modern-ish: Yonia Fain and the Art History of Yiddishland,” Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. More information here … And make sure you’ve got your tickets for this year’s Yiddish New York Festival, Dec. 23-28.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.