For my year of 100 books, my goal is to read at least 25 that relate to the culture or religion of Judaism.
This week, I dove into Jewish literature with “The Slave” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the original Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemly.
I was introduced to Singer by my Zeide (grandfather). I read 500 pages worth of Singer’s short stories last summer while working on the search for my own Jewish identity. Reading the literature of a culture offers a different insight into its essence, as opposed to learning the history or laws that the culture affords.
Singer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978 for his Yiddish writings. He was born in 1902 in the village of Leoncin near Warsaw, Poland under the military partitions of the Russian Empire, according to the official website of the Nobel Prize. The son of a rabbi, Singer studied in rabbinical school for two years. He began his writing career as a journalist in Warsaw in the years between the wars and immigrated to America in 1935. He passed away in 1991 in Surfside, Florida after several strokes.
“The Slave” tells the story of Jacob, a learned Jewish man from the town of Josefov, who becomes a slave in a semi-pagan Polish village after his family was killed in the Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky) Uprising of the 1600s. He falls in love with his master’s daughter, Wanda, converts her, marries her and runs away to a Jewish community in another part of Poland. Throughout the novel, Jacob rationalizes his decisions while trying to keep his wife’s identity hidden.
Singer’s descriptions in this story are wonderful. Every other description makes some kind of religious reference while being artistic. He describes mist as “tenuous curls” that make Jacob think of Samson and a bird’s flight as appearing to be “flying without interruption since creation.”
Singer also describes Jewish life simply. On just the first page, he writes about morning rituals and prayers. He captures the thoughts of the learned Jacob as he deals with gentiles, Jews, beggars and lords. The novel ponders whether one can truly know their path and whether people can be the true judges of one another.
“The Slave” incorporates major events in Jewish history as a way to explore their effects on the psyche of the Jewish people. In Jewish history, the Chmielnicki Uprising resulted in pogroms that killed tens of thousands of Jews between 1648 and 1656. The tail end of the novel discusses Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi who claimed to be the Jewish messiah then later converted to Islam.
What surprised me most was how similar the difficulties faced by Jacob were to those faced by many Jews today. The novel was published in 1962 with the intention of making a parallel between the uprising and the Holocaust. Singer criticizes the idea of being extra strict in commandments between man and G-d, while treating fellow people inappropriately. He deals with interfaith marriage and the contrast between the religious and secular worlds. He even dedicates some time to discuss vegetarianism. “The Slave” is a pleasant, quick read that will both entertain and inform about Jewish culture.