Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jewish Book Review: "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

My (non-Jewish) dad loves Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I discovered Singer when perusing the "library" at my parents' house. ("Library" is a little too grand to describe what's actually a spare bedroom crammed with bookshelves, and which doubles as a guest bedroom.) I may or may not have liberated several of his books from there. Ever since I first read Singer's stories--long before I officially converted or even knew I had any ancestral connection to Judaism--I've been moved by his way of mixing of depictions of shtetl life with magical realism (not that it was called that at the time), all flavored with a touch of dark humor and whimsy.

Like many of his stories, several of the short stories in this collection have supernatural elements. Lilith and Asmodeus, as well as a host of other, lesser demons feature in here, tempting a vain young woman to sin and dooming a middle-aged couple. Singer has a way of writing morality tales that would in less-skilled hands be dull and preachy. Part of this is the aforementioned dark humor: the sly wit with which an imp tells the reader of his plans to ensnare the weak. Sometimes it's more serious, as in "The Gentleman from Cracow," where temptation and desperation nearly lead to the destruction of a village, and does cause the deaths of their young children. No matter what the tone is, it's always engaging enough to make you want more.

Singer's stories often have a kind of timeless feeling, as if they could have taken place anytime from the seventeenth century on.

Or anytime until 1933, that is. In the "The Little Shoemakers," the protagonist's timeless little village is bombed by Nazis, shattering this illusion. Gimpel the Fool (this collection of short stories, not the story that gave the book its name) was first published in 1953, and according to the acknowledgements, all of the stories within it were written between 1943 and 1953. The only exception is "The Old Man," which was written in 1933. In any case, all of the stories were written during or immediately after the Shoah. I cannot critique the way Singer depicts the Shoah. You should read his works for yourself.

The story that I found most moving in this collection was "Joy." It's about an elderly Hasidic rabbi whose children have all died young. Grieving and bitter, he pushes everyone away, everyone except the local heretic, whom he shocks with his blasphemy. Then he sees a vision of his long-dead daughter. Realizing that it's his time to die, he makes merry with his remaining followers before following his family. It's the kind of thing that in lesser hands would've been sickeningly saccharine sentimentality. Written by Singer, it's poignant and sweet, yes, but not cloying.

I will warn that "The Gentleman from Cracow" contains some offensive ideas about Romani people, implying that they associate with the Devil. To make matters worse, the English translation refers to them using the g-slur. I have no idea what the original Yiddish is, but regardless, it's an issue.

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is from the short story "Gimpel the Fool:"

"After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year . . ."