The Broth­ers Ashkenazi

I.J. Singer
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
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 Haskalahs 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.
Rebec­ca New­berg­er Gold­stein received her doc­tor­ate in phi­los­o­phy from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her award-win­ning books include the nov­els The Mind-Body Prob­lem, Prop­er­ties of Light, and Mazel, and non­fic­tion stud­ies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spin­oza. She has received a MacArthur Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship and Guggen­heim and Rad­cliffe fel­low­ships, and she was elect­ed to the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Sci­ences in 2005. She lives in Massachusetts.

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