Searching through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s archives, the literary scholar and translator David Stromberg discovered the Yiddish manuscript of a previously unknown story titled “The Boarder,” together with a typed English translation. While neither text bears a date, Stromberg speculates that both the original and the translation were produced in the mid-1950s, and that Singer did the translating himself or with assistance from a collaborator. The story—available here—involves a conversation between an older, devout Jew, Reb Berish, and his younger, impious boarder, Melnik, about the possibility of faith after the Holocaust. In an interview with Deborah Treisman, Stromberg comments:
Reb Berish’s faith may be seen as contributing to his isolation in America, but he clings to it, perhaps because, no matter how alone he may feel, his commitment to God and Judaism gives him a sense of connection to generations that have come before him. This may not seem like much from Melnik’s modern perspective, but, when an atrocity as unfathomable as the Holocaust becomes an unequivocal reality, this faith—which solves nothing—seems, at least, to offer a viable counterbalance to the despair of doubt.
This is what makes it possible for these two men to engage in dialogue. It doesn’t really matter which perspective is right or wrong. What comes to the fore is that, their personal beliefs aside, these two refugees both find themselves on the margins of American society, each coping to the best of his ability with his personal trauma and pain. . . . I imagine that Singer understood and empathized with the perspectives of both. He shared the cynicism of Melnik, but also believed in the regenerative power of Reb Berish’s faith.
Reb Berish is stubborn about his faith. . . . So how much more must he cling to it in the face of Melnik’s bitterness! And yet the fact that this bitterness is rooted in pain and anger also leaves open the door to repentance. Reb Berish engages him because, in his Jewish tradition, the way back to religion is always open, and also, if Melnik returns, Reb Berish will have evidence that faith can overcome doubt. . . .
If “The Boarder” was indeed written in the 1950s, as I suspect, it would fall within Singer’s own “return to faith,” not as observance but as a literary memorialization of his parents’ faith. The major expression of this was a series of pieces that was later published as the memoir collection In My Father’s Court, which first appeared in Yiddish, in 1955. This story seems to be in line with his own struggle between faith and doubt, against a brutal God but in support of the miracle of human faith.
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