A Monument Made of Words

by Mark Chmiel

Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court
June 1998

After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time.  One son died, a daughter fell in love with a young man of low origins and Asher was deeply grieved.  I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  He probably died before that.  But such Jews as these were dragged off to Treblinka.  May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs.

This is a memoir consisting of 50 or so short (6-8 page) vignettes on the author’s boyhood in Warsaw at No. 10 Krochmalna Street and in Bilgoray, a (patriarchal) world that has vanished. He includes accounts of  his family and occasional adventures, but mostly he attends to the characters in his father’s court.  The locals with their disputes would come to his Enneagram 5-ish rabbi who would adjudicate the antagonists.  Our hero-narrator often is dismissed from the room, since the matter concerns grown-ups, but young Yitshok has a penchant for overhearing,  spying, and keeping near a halfway open door.  The irresistible  Beth Din “was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, a psychoanalyst’s office where people of troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves. 

Of course, one of the things that occurred to me in reading it is how Singer could remember with such specificity from a remove of sixty years. Of course, he couldn’t, he had to create it  and make it up, i.e., voila, a fiction!  Also, he wrote this pre-67, which occasioned the outbreak of loquacity about the Holocaust; this subject is handled  here with restraint by several references to a character who ended up being “murdered by the Germans.”

Some themes I encountered previously chez Wiesel are here:  the yearning for Palestine, the hoping in the Messiah, the Kabbalah, the 36 righteous, the never-forget-your-ancestors imperative.  But unlike Wiesel’s world, this one teems with all kinds of characters and curses, not just sweet, pious Jews longing for the Messiah.  

I suspect Harold Bloom chose this for  his Western  canonical  “Chaotic” list because of his own familial losses during the Holocaust, and maybe even some Yiddish and Old World nostalgia, because I don’t think this is a great work.

I might reread the stories noted below, but I don’t think I would read the whole thing cover to cover, unless I was doing a binge study on Singer… but then why would I spend my time doing a study of Singer, when I should be following his example, and writing about my own issues, “characters,” and questions?  

So, for rereading:  A Major Din Torah (theme of worldliness v. study, but such an easy choice); The Purim Gift (with a dead mouse, a cake of shit, and a wise rabbi-father); The Divorce (the cycle of death and remarriage, life goes on); A Boy Philosopher (IJ’s conversations and arguments with his mother in the kitchen, he being a strong adherent of emancipation); The Strong Ones (life in heder, various characters, his lust for study); The Recruit (IJ as soldier, then defector; theodicy issue); The Studio (father’s traditional study with holy books and commentaries v. emancipated artists);  Old Jewishness (the perennial ways still alive and untouched by modernity in Bilgoray); The New Winds (he discovers Spinoza).

Last,  here’s an anecdote about what can be accomplished by daily, steady, modest effort: “A professor had a wife who never had dinner ready on time and every day he had to sit around waiting.  Suddenly it occurred to him that he could utilize this time and he began to write a book.  A few years later he published the work he had composed entirely in the time spent waiting for dinner.  Now if scholars can show such   diligence in secular knowledge — for which there is no divine reward — how much more important is such effort in the study of Torah?”