Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, worked in both mediums. I’ve never read any of his novels (if anyone can recommend one, please do), but his short stories are of the highest caliber. Singer, though he had emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1935 (and thereby as a Polish Jew surviving the holocaust) wrote his works in Yiddish , though fluent in several languages. Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of central and Eastern Europe. Today I believe it is limited to the Hasidim and Orthodox Jewish communities.
“Grandfather and Grandson” is a wonderful story which brings the reader into the Hasidic Jewish world of Reb Mordecai Meir. “Reb” in Yiddish is a title of respect equivalent to “Mister” and does not imply the man is a rabbi. . It does not seem to say (unless I missed it) that Meir is or is not a rabbi, but he is most definitely an extremely religious man.
Reb Mordecai Meir was a small man with a yellowish-white beard, a broad forehead, bushy eyebrows, beneath which peeped a pair of yellow eyes. On the tip of his nose there grew a little beard. Wisps of hair stuck out of his ears and nostrils. In the course of time his back became bowed and he always looked as if he were searching for something on the floor. He didn’t walk but shuffled his feet. All year round he wore a cotton caftan with a sash, low shoes, and a velvet hat over two skullcaps. He spoke in half sentences, only to the initiated Hasidim.
[Excerpts taken from The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1982. “Grandfathers and Grandsons” is translated by Evelyn Torton Beck and Ruth Schachner Finkel.]
I worked through college in a supermarket in a Hasidic community, and I have most definitely seen older Hasidic men just like that. And yes, the really religious hardly ever talk to the non-Hasidim. I used to think they were just snobs, but as you’ll see from this story speaking to non-followers of the Torah is defilement, an act causing impurity.
Even among the Hasidim, Reb Mordecai Meir was known as an impractical man. Though he had lived in Warsaw for years, he was not at all acquainted with the streets of Warsaw. The only road he knew was from his home to the Hasidic house of prayer and back. During the year, he occasionally traveled to the Rabbis of Alexandrow, but he always had difficulty finding the trolley to the railway station, changing cars, and buying tickets. In all this he had to be assisted by the young men who knew their way around. He had neither the time nor the patience for such externals.
At midnight he arose for study and prayer. Very early each morning he recited the Gemara and the Tosephot commentary. After that came psalms, more prayers, delving into Hasidic books, and discussing Hasidic matters. The winter days were short. Before one had a bite to eat and a nap, it was time to return to the study house for evening prayers. Even though the summer days were long, there were not enough of them. First it was Passover, then the Feast of Omer, and before you could turn around it was Shevouth. After that came the seventeenth of Tammuz, the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, the nine days of refraining from meat, and then the Tishe b’Av, the Sabbath of Comfort. These were followed by the month of Elul, when even fish in water tremble. Later there was Rosh Hashanah, the ten days of Penitence, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, the Day of Rejoicing in the law, and then Sabbath of Genisis.
As a boy, Reb Mordecai Meir had already realized that if one wanted to be a real Jew there was no time for anything else. Prasied be God, his wife, Beyle Teme, had understood this. She never asked him to assist in the store, to concern himself with business, to carry the burden of earning a living. He seldom had any money with him except for a few guldens which she gave him each week for alms, the ritual bath, books, snuff, and pipe tobacco. Reb Mordecai Meir wasn’t even certain of the exact location of the store and the merchandise sold there. A shopkeeper had to talk to women customers and he knew well that it was only one short step from talking, to looking, to lecherous thoughts.
The street on which Reb Mordecai Meir lived teemed with unbelievers, loose women. Boys peddled Yiddish newspapers which were full of mockery and atheism. The saloons swarmed with ruffians. In his library, Reb Mordecai Meir kept the windows shut, even during summer. As soon as he opened the transom of the window, he immediately heard the playing of frivolous songs on the gramophone and female laughter. In the courtyard, bareheaded jugglers often performed their tricks, which he felt might be black magic. Reb Mordecai Meir was told that Jewish boys and girls went to the Yiddish theater where they made fun of Jewishness. There emerged worldly writers, writing in Hebrew and Yiddish. They incited the readers to sin. At every turn the Evil Spirit lay in wait. There was only one way to defeat him: with Torah, prayer, Hasidism.
What an amazing characterization. If I were to use a Catholic analogy, Meir lives a monk’s or some other religious recluse’s life, but within a surrounding city teeming with elements that penetrate into his spiritual cocoon. What I find fascinating there is how Singer slights Meir as “an impractical man” and yet is sympathetic toward him by showing his desire to be “a real Jew.” The details support both those authorial stances, but ultimately we have to look at Meir as someone has isolated himself, and though we can sympathize with his holiness, we can see the detriment to those around him. Meir is not a monk or some unconnected recluse but has a family. The world will attempt to break into the cocoon.
As an aside, I found that passage remarkable for how similar a devout Jew’s life is with a devout Catholic. A priest’s life is not that much different in reverential behavior, though a priest is engaged with the society at large and would not have built such a cocoon.
And so life goes on. Meir’s only living child, a daughter, Zelda Rayzel, dies. His wife becomes melancholy, even complains to God, and finally dies as well. He sells his store, arranges for a cook and house cleaner, and so resolves to complete his living days in full faith. The cocoon is now complete. If you look at the story as structured in what in classical music is called Sonata-Allegro Form, theme A is now complete. Meir and the building of his cocoon is theme A. The contrasting theme B disturbs the equilibrium.
One summer morning, while reading The Generations of Jacob Joseph, he dozed off and was awakened by the sound of knocking. He opened the door and saw a young man without a beard, a head of long hair over which he wore a broad-brimmed black hat, in a black blouse tied with a sash, and checkered pants. In one hand he carried a satchel and in the other a book. His face was pale and he had a short nose.
Reb Mordecai Meir asked, “What do you want?”
Blinking his widely separated eyes, he stammered, “I am Fulie…You are my grandfather.”
Reb Mordecai Meir stood dumbfounded. He had never heard the name Fulie. Then he realized that this was most probably the modern variation of the old Jewish name Raphael. It was Zelda Rayzel’s eldest son. Reb Mordecai Meir felt both pain and shame. He had a grandson who tried to imitate the Gentiles. He said, “So come in.” After hesitating a moment, the boy came in and put his suitcase down. Reb Mordecai Meir asked, “What kind—is that—?” and pointed to the book.
“Of what use is that to you?”
“What’s new in Slonim?” Reb Mordecai Meir asked. He didn’t want to mention the name of his former son-in-law, who was an anti-Hasid. Fulie made a face as if to indicate that he did not fully comprehend his grandfather’s question.
“In Slonim? Just like everywhere else. The rich get richer and the workers get nothing to eat. I had to leave because…” and Fulie stopped himself.
“What will you do here?”
“Here—I’ll look around—I’ll…”
Well, a stutterer, Reb Mordecai Meir thought. His throat scratched and his stomach started to turn. It was his daughter Zelda Rayzel’s son, but as long as he shaved his beard and dressed like a Gentile, what would he, Reb Mordecai Meir, do with him? He nodded his head and gaped. It seemed that the boy took after the other side of the family with his high cheekbones, narrow forehead, and wide mouth. His bedraggled and famished appearance reminded Reb Mordecai Meir of the recruits who starve themselves to avoid conscription.
“Wash your hands. Eat something. Don’t forget you are a Jew.”
“Grandfather, they don’t let you forget.”
And through Fulie, we see the outside world force its way into Meir’s cocoon. Fulie is obviously running from some trouble in his home town. We learn he is a socialist or possibly communist agitator. He is passionate, carries a gun, and is an ideologue. He stays with the grandfather for an indefinite time, the grandfather allowing him only reluctantly. Their lifestyles do not mesh well and they reach a point where they barely speak to each other, each just carrying out their personal business. Until one day, and there we start the development section.
The Sabbath meal was prepared by another neighbor. Reb Mordecai Meir lit the Sabbath candles himself. He ate at the table alone, in his threadbare satin coat, worn-out fur hat, chanting Sabbath chants, dipping a piece of hallah into the glass of ritual wine. The boy (which was what Reb Mordecai Meir called Fulie) didn’t show himself on the Sabbath. The neighbor’s daughter brought in rice soup, meat, carrot pudding. Reb Mordecai Meir half sang, half moaned.
If the old rabbi were still alive, Reb Mordecai Meir would have gone to live with him. But Reb Henokh was dead. The new rabbi was still a young man who cared more for the young Hasidim than the old. It was whispered that he was learned in worldly affairs. Many of the older Hasidim had died out and no new ones joined.
One Sabbath day, when Reb Mordecai Meir was sitting at the table murmuring, “I shall sing with praise,” he heard the crack of a gun and a hideous scream. In the courtyard there was a din. Windows were thrown open. The sound of a police whistle pierced the air. A neighbor came in to tell Reb Mordecai Meir that the “comrades,” the strikers, had shot one of their own, a bootmaker who was said to have denounced them to the police. Reb Mordecai Meir trembled.
“Who did it—Jews?”
“It is the end of the world.” And Reb Mordecai Meir immediately regretted his words. It was not permitted to be sad or utter words of despair on the Sabbath.
There is no need to outline the story development further. I don’t want to spoil the denouement for readers who haven’t read it, and there isn’t much to gain from going further. The characters, the themes, and the conflict are enough to give a full description of this story. However, the final paragraphs are important to capture the full pathos of Meir’s life. After some calamitous event, Meir is being taken to the police station.
It was not customary to say Kaddish without a quorum or for someone who had not yet been buried, but Reb Mordecai Meir knew that he had little time left. He mumbled the Kaddish. Then he recited a chapter from the Mishnah which he knew from memory. “At what time is it permissible to recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter the Temple to eat their food offerings. So sayeth Rabbi Eliezer. And the sages say: Until midnight.”
“Hey, you, Jew, old dog, who are you talking to, your God?” the policeman asked. Somehow Reb Mordecai Meir understood these few words. What does he know? How can he understand? Reb Mordecai Meir defended him in his thoughts. Since no evil can come from God, those created in His image can’t be completely wicked. He said to the policeman, “Yes, I am Jew. I pray God.”
Those were all the Gentile words Reb Mordecai Meir knew.
What makes this story so well told is the clean and clear structure, the distinct central characters of the Grandfather and Grandson, and the super rich detail of the world of a devout Hasidic man. There is no free e-text of the story, but if you can find it, it’s well worth reading.