Sunday, January 22, 2012

A rabbi's son in Poland

In My Father's Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer

I am always interested in how people find books, and in how they decide what they want to read.  I have gotten a lot of great recommendations over the past year from the blogs I follow, and from the on-line book groups I belong to.  Reading a review, on a blog or in a magazine, sometimes makes me think, "I need to read that book too!"  I also tend to read by association.  That is, something I see or read reminds me of an author, of a character or setting, which leads me to a particular book.

Last weekend I watched A Film Unfinished, a documentary about film footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, shot just before the ghetto was liquidated in 1942.  The film, which was never completed, was probably intended for Nazi propaganda.  The film crew staged every-day events like shopping and eating in restaurants, which for ghetto residents at that time were far from ordinary life, as well as rituals of Jewish life like Sabbath services and the mikvah baths.  Healthy, well-dressed men and women were posed next to ragged beggars, and the corpses of those who died of starvation were carefully filmed.  Some of the footage ended up in East German archives, other parts in the United States and Russia.  It was brought together to create this powerful documentary, with commentary by survivors of the ghetto and the Holocaust.  I can't forget the elderly woman who said she was watching the street scenes, hoping for a glimpse of her mother in the crowds.

The film reminded me of this book, In My Father's Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer's memoir of life in Poland in the early 1900s.  He was born in 1902 in eastern Poland, then under Russian control.  He was a young child when his family moved to Warsaw, where his father, a rabbi, served a poor Hasidic community.  The elder Singer held his rabbinical court, the Beth Din, in the family's home, and the young Isaac had a front-row seat on marriages and divorces, disputes over broken engagements and debts unpaid, and theological discussions over heaven and hell and everything in between.  The first chapters tell stories of the cases and of the individuals who brought them to the Rabbi.  Singer also describes the neighborhood of Krochmalna Street, its residents and shops.  He then takes the reader back into his family's history in the small towns around Warsaw, and the religious divisions between Hasidic Jews, each group following its own rabbi (I found the divisions a little confusing and hard to follow).  His memoir is not a chronological narrative, but a series of self-contained vignettes; individuals rarely reappear in later stories.

Life was difficult for the family in Warsaw, where his father's income on fees from court cases sometimes shrank to almost nothing.  There was also tension in the family as the oldest son, Israel Joshua, began to question both the oppressive social order (with its ingrained anti-semitism) and religion itself.  When war broke out in 1914, Israel Joshua was conscripted into the Russian army.  War brought additional hardships to their lives with food shortages and epidemic diseases in the city.  In 1917, Singer's parents made the difficult decision to split the family up.  Mrs. Singer took Isaac and his younger brother Moishe to her family's home in the village of Bilgoraj, which had come under Austrian control.  Isaac reveled in his new home, where for the first time he was surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins.  He was enchanted with the country setting, far from the effects of the war, though there were hints of economic and political problems looming.  Here the book ends.

Also looming over this book is the shadow of the Holocaust.  In describing his Bilgoraj cousins, he mentions one family of seven children, of whom "Samson - the only one to survive the Nazi holocaust - was the same age as I."  One of the most moving chapters is the story of "Reb Asher the Dairyman," a hard-working and generous neighbor who served as the cantor for his father's small congregation on the High Holy Days, and who also gave the young Isaac rides around Warsaw in his milk wagon.
     "The friendship between my father and Reb Asher grew ever stronger, and during the war years, when we were close to starvation, Asher again helped us in every way he could.
     After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time. . . I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  He probably died before that.  But such Jews as he 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 book indeed serves as a monument, to people and places, to a way of life that would vanish in the Holocaust.  Like A Film Unfinished, it opened for me a door to an unfamiliar, fascinating world.  I will be looking for more of Isaac Bashevis Singer's work, and I'd welcome any recommendations of where to start, in his many books, or a good biography of him.


  1. This is completely off topic, except insofar as you introduced the post by mentioning how you sometimes find books, with one thing leading to another. I am reminded that the late Laurie Colwin, the fiction writer, was an editor and translator of Singer, and she also wrote some food books that I have not read. Must make time for those.

    You might enjoy his children's stories. I have not read a lot of Singer but enjoyed the stories.

  2. I think those kinds of book connections are always so interesting. I don't know Laurie Colwin, I'll have to look her up. I did see several of Singer's children's books listed, so I might start with those.

  3. Lisa, I recently read Tevi the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son (in one volume) by Aleichem Sholem, which sound similar. Fiddler on the Roof was based on the first book, and the second gives an account of a Polish shetl family moving to America in the early 20th century. Very interesting as social history as well as good stories.

  4. Michelle Ann, I read the Tevye stories last year, in an edition that also included another set of connected stories, called "The Railway Stories" (without Tevye). I loved both sets. Then I recently came across the edition that you read, combined with the Motl stories, and I couldn't resist adding that to the TBR pile. You're right, such an interesting mix of story and social history.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!