The Other Great Yiddish Novelist Named I. Singer, and His Lesson for Our Time

February 13, 2020 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

No Yiddish writer is as well known to today’s English-reading public as Isaac Bashevis Singer, but his entrance into the Yiddish literary scene was preceded by that of his elder brother Israel Jacob Singer, whom Dara Horn and many others believe to have been the greater talent. In his 1935 novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer tells the story of the titular twin brothers, Simcha Meyer and Jacob Bunim; the former is brilliant and ruthless, the latter dull but charming and handsome. At the book’s end, set in the aftermath of World War I, the brothers return from Russia to their native Poland, which has recently gained its independence. Horn finds in the final scene wisdom for the Jews of today:

Polish border police welcome them by forcing Simcha Meyer, at gunpoint, to perform what Polish Jews knew as a mayofes tants. This was a degrading song-and-dance routine, mocking a traditional Jewish melody that begins with the words mah yofis (“how beautiful,” describing the Sabbath), that non-Jews forced Jews to perform for their entertainment. It was a brand of humiliation common enough that it spawned a Yiddish expression, mayofes yid, a term akin to “Uncle Tom” among African Americans. When asked to debase himself this way, Simcha Meyer, goal-oriented to a fault, instantly complies. Jacob Bunim refuses, and is instantly shot dead.

This ending disturbed me when I first read the novel years ago, as it has surely disturbed all its readers since 1935. By invalidating 600 pages of storytelling via a two-bit hater’s whim, Singer essentially enacted on his readers what was already happening to Polish Jews, trapped well before the Holocaust in a society that refused them dignity.

But as I reread this novel in 2019, when anti-Semitic trolling of every variety has resurfaced for the first time in my personal memory, I was startled to find myself anticipating that ending with a profound sense of dread—not for Jacob Bunim’s death, but for the choice presented to the brothers, the demand for a demonstration of loyalty, the request that one participate in one’s own humiliation.

The starkness of the Ashkenazis’ lives, thankfully, remains utterly unfamiliar. But the most basic version of the brothers’ final choice surfaces each time one decides how to respond to that newly familiar and relentless trolling, in whatever form it takes.

Read more on Tablet:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now