Arts & Culture

The New Jew Canon: The Family Moskat, The Manor & The Estate, Shadows on the Hudson

The New Jew Canon is a long-term project that seeks to canonize essential Jewish (and some Non-Jewish) reads as recommended by extraordinary rabbis, experts, and cultural leaders. Suggestions are welcome via comments or email. Title: The Family Moskat, The Manor … Read More

By / April 21, 2008

The New Jew Canon is a long-term project that seeks to canonize essential Jewish (and some Non-Jewish) reads as recommended by extraordinary rabbis, experts, and cultural leaders. Suggestions are welcome via comments or email.

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When I was in college, I took a popular course affectionately called “Yid Lit,” in which we were assigned, among other works, the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I. B. Singer was born in 1904 in the town of Radzymin, Poland, the son of a rabbi and grandson, on his mother’s side, of rabbis. He started his career as a journalist in Warsaw between the two world wars, and emigrated to the United States in 1935. He wrote exclusively in Yiddish and died in 1991.
The stories I read in college—“Gimpel the Fool,” “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” “Taibele and her Demon”—depicted small-town rustics amidst all their confusion, superstition, religious fervor, hope, and poverty. The stories are both strange and charming, with a large dollop of magic. It wasn’t until I happened upon a copy of The Manor in the library of my synagogue that I was even aware that Singer had written longer, multi-generational, epic novels. Two pages in, and I was hooked.
I can’t recommend the Singer novels highly enough. Masterpieces of world literature, they do what great fiction is supposed to do: they depict an entire universe, which, in the case of Singer, involves not only the passions, but also the nature of faith, obsession, romantic and sexual love, ambition, wealth, and poverty—all of it played out against the backdrop of the lost world of Polish Jewry. Singer’s prose is both straight-forward and vivid, and there is no feeling of being high-jacked by overly-styled or self-conscious writing. Instead, you are just carried along by the majesty of the interwoven stories themselves, which are conveyed in prose so clear and brilliant that you don’t even notice it—until, of course, you do.
Each of the novels takes as its subject a family caught in the grip of history—the particular and tragic history of European Jewry. Along the way, the reader gets a real sense of lives lived in places that no longer exist, most notably bourgeois, comfortable, merchant-class Jewish Warsaw, a place of lushly-decorated apartments (and Catholic servants), vaulting ambitions, snow, carriages, and duplicity. His characters range from despotic Polish counts to despotic rebbes, saintly teachers, lovelorn young women, raging housewives, and impoverished poets. All his characters are rendered so fully, with all their human yearning and striving as well as human sinfulness and failure, that you can not only see and hear them, but feel that you know them personally. The books are not for the lazy or faint of heart, however, as they demand attention, and, while often very, very funny, they are also very, very sad. Nothing is left out: There is carnality and lust, ambition and violence, spirituality and cruelty, kindness, love, generosity, confusion, depression, and innocence.
The last of his epic novels, Shadows on the Hudson, is set among Jewish refugees and survivors in post-war New York. But like the other major novels, its ethos and animating spirit is pure Yiddishkeit.
Singer’s long novels have been compared both to the early work of Thomas Mann—most notably Buddenbrooks (which I loved)—to the work of Leo Tolstoy. I wish he had written twenty more.
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Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is the author of the books, Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou and Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom. Her articles, essays, travel writing, Op-Eds, and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Commentary, Bon Appetit, Town and Country, Salon, Poets and Writers, The Jerusalem Report, Moment, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Parenting, The Pushcart Prizes, The Gettysburg Review, The Antioch Review, Story, The Ontario Review, and many other publications. Her paintings have been shown at Nicholls State University, Louisiana State University, the Acadiana Center for the Arts, the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, the Inside Out Gallery at the Interact Center of Minneapolis, and the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe, Louisiana.

The New Jew Canon is a long-term project that seeks to canonize essential Jewish (and some Non-Jewish) reads as recommended by extraordinary rabbis, experts, and cultural leaders. Suggestions are welcome via comments or tips.

Previously: Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, recommended by Rabbi David Wolpe