The Brothers Ashkenazi

Other Press  2010

It is all but required, when introducing the Yiddish writer I(srael) J(oshua) Singer, to identify him as the older brother of the Yiddish writer I(saac) B(ashevis) Singer. It was, of course the younger Singer brother who would go on to garner the first and only Nobel prize awarded to a Yiddish writer (a record not likely ever to be broken). The reputational asymmetry between the brothers Singer is more than a little ironic; while the two brothers lived, it was Israel Joshua (1893–1944) who was famous, while Isaac (1902–1991) languished darkly in his internal contradictions and older brother’s shadow. The irony is heightened when the occasion for the introduction is the welcome reissue of I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkanazi. It had been Israel Joshua, a forceful and bold personality, who had been the trailblazer, preparing the way for the more passive and self-conscious Isaac. It was Israel Joshua who first broke, and more irrevocably than his brother, with the Orthodox insularity of the family, their father, mystical and impractical, a rabbi from a Hasidic line, their mother, the daughter of a non-Hasidic rabbi and the socalled “rationalist” of the couple.

As the eldest boy, Israel Joshua was destined for the rabbinate, but he rebelled at the age of seventeen, precociously motivated by the ideas of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, which aimed to turn Jews around from staring fixedly back at Babylonia, the era of the Talmud, and orient them instead so that they were facing Western civilization, while still retaining their essential identity as Jews. Israel Joshua, who severely interrogates so many presuppositions, does not question Jewish essentialism. For him, a Jew is essentially a Jew, not only in the eyes of the world, which characteristically manifests its perceptions in outbursts of barbarism, but in the core of his being, whether he wills it or not. His assimilation-aspiring characters betray their Jewish essence despite themselves, in telling details that are often among the most brilliant of I.J. Singer’s characterological brushstrokes. So, for example, in The Brothers Ashkanazi, Maximillian Ashkanazi, né Simha Meir Ashkanazi, tries to shed his Hasidic origins as he propels himself into bourgeois preeminence. Nevertheless “[t]he checked English suits he now favored in order to lend his figure dignity and elegance quickly assumed the shape of a Hasidic gaberdine upon his stooped shoulders.”

The Brothers Ashkanazi was the first book that I.J. Singer published after arriving in New York from Warsaw in 1934. Its ambition and range were unprecedented in Yiddish literature— how exhilaratingly impudent to pull even Czar Nicholas II into its pages, rendering his embarrassing inanities in the language of the despised Jews—and it called forth comparisons to Tolstoy. The critic Joseph Epstein has wittily described it as the greatest Russian novel ever written in Yiddish. Translated into English and published by Knopf in 1936, it went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, lingering there together with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I. J. Singer’s reputation had reached its zenith, and fans began to fantasize that the committee in Stockholm might cast its gaze on this Yiddish writer, who had made good on the Haskalah’s dream of cross-pollination between Jewish and secular cultures. But by 1944 the author was dead, felled by a massive heart attack. With his death, the talents of his younger brother, who had been somewhat lost as an immigrant, languishing in the shadow of his powerful brother’s reputation, were transcendentally unleashed.

And so we return to the irony of introducing I. J. Singer by identifying him as the older brother of the late Nobel laureate, and most especially in the context of The Brothers Ashkanazi. The large-scale ambitions of this novel not only brought a new scope into Yiddish literature, its fluid plotlines carrying the heft of massive social and political forces, the collisions of its characters deftly tracing turbulent dynamics of history. But also—irony upon irony—fraternal rivalry is itself one of the novel’s major themes. It is the competiveness between two brothers, twins separated not by nine years but five minutes, that fuels the outsize ambition. The implacable need that drives the central character, Simha Meir Ashkanazi, to leave his mark on the world is his habit of compulsively comparing himself to his brother, Jacob Bunem, the more physically prepossessing and charming of the two. Jacob Bunem’s acquisitions of love and riches seem to befall him passively, while Simha Meir must devote his every waking hour to achieving his dubious goal of becoming “king of Lodz,” a city whose unsavory devotion to the profit motive is the urban counterpart to Simha Meir himself, a textile manufacturer whose darting eyes are always looking for an opportunity for gain and who ceaselessly scrawls figures on any available surface. I.J. had been an early admirer of Boshevism, curedof his infatuation by a trip to Russia during which he saw Boshevik anti-Semitism up close. His fury makes the pages of The Brothers Ashkanzi hot to the touch.

I.B. Singer, in carving out his unique standing as a Yiddish writer in world literature, would systematically minimize his indebtedness to the Yiddish tradition out of which he had arisen, issuing many statements emphasizing “the provincial and backward” writing of all Yiddish writers who had come before him, the sentimentality that precluded genuine artistry. Isaac would never have even considered such self-serving prevarications had his brother lived. I. B. Singer’s influence on so many Jewish novelists of this generation has been enormous. We should all be glad of the opportunity to read, with pleasure and illumination, the writing of the other brilliant Singer.

Be sure to check out the Jewish Book Council's "Yiddish Literature" book club reading list.

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