Friday, August 16, 2013

The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother, Israel Joshua wrote a very gritty tragic novel about Jewish Lodz, Poland's manufacturing center.

Fundamentally, its a Jewish story of the effects of assimilation, how expectations of acceptance never accompany the Jew when he sheds his Jewish ways. It is a story of Divine Providence about two disparate brothers; one a prodigy always scheming and plotting driven by raw ambition and the other a happy go lucky hulking simple spirit who seems to find good fortune at his every turn.

The blessing of these fraternal twins given by the family's Hasidic rabbi at their Bris, circumcision does not include "'God fearing", a clear foreboding of the adoption of gentility at the expense of their Jewish ways.

The Brothers Ashkenazi is a description of the intersection of conflicting values.  It describes the lure of the emancipated outside world affecting the Hasidic and non Hasidic Jewish communities.  It is the story of the conflict between capitalism and Marxism, the bosses vs. the workers and role many Jews played in the struggle for freedom under the capitalist's vise, yet exposing the Bolsheviks no better and just as oppressive. The book describes the irrationality of the Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe.

In a climactic scene of grief when Max Ashkenazi cries out against his brother's reflexive response of punching an Anti-Semite resulting in Yakuv's murder - Max concludes that the Jew's survival has never been the adoption of "the hands of Esav" but rather the "voice of Jacob", a biblical reference to Isaac's response to his son's deception, "The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esav!"  Biblical Jacob's identity is revealed by his voice, whereas Esav's identity is seen by how he uses his hands.   Jewish survival depends on "intellect" not physical prowess.  Singer argues through the protagonist that whenever the Jews adopt the ways of the gentile, he disappears.  Assimilation destroys.

Singer's narrative style is rhythmic and lyrical, I can only imagine how much more pleasurable it would be to read in its original Yiddish.  It is a novel that constantly refers to Jewish traditions and cultural references in contradistinction to the hostile Polish world.  There is a realism to this novel that makes it incredibly authentic.

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