THE LIVING FAITH: A STUDY OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
SETTON, RUTH KNAFO
Doctor of Philosophy
To examine Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing as fairly and profoundly as possible, we must see him as a Jewish story-teller, a man with ghosts in his eyes. His life's mission is to resurrect, in the pages of literature, a tiny world that was brutally, senselessly extinguished from the face of the earth: that of the poverty-ridden ghettos and shtetls inhabited by the Jews of Eastern Europe--and in particular, Poland--before the Nazi Holocaust. What the Holocaust tore asunder, Singer the artist attempts to mend. He is the last survivor, as it were, and there is no one left but him to write an epitaph for the Polish Jews who were massacred. Singer is haunted by a moment frozen in time, branded on the mind. Wherever he is, the flimsy veil of reality is torn, revealing the grim vividness of Poland before Hitler. In his books, Singer is always a boy and Warsaw is always on the verge of destruction. The mere existence today of the Jewish religion and the survivors of the Holocaust is a miracle, an enigma, unaccounted for in a world that seems bent on their obliteration. Judaism, for Singer, is primarily a living faith--one that has managed to survive despite countless obstacles from both within and without because of pride, isolation, acceptance of its tradition and the will to believe. Examining Singer's art in the context of his living faith is an exhilarating and poignant experience that takes us through all his major novels that have been translated in English: Satan in Goray, The Family Moskat, The Manor and The Estate, The Slave, The Magician of Lublin, Enemies and Shosha. Each of the five chapters is devoted to the study of one or two of his novels, emphasizing those aspects which most emphatically illustrate his view of Jewishness. Through his breathtaking prose, Singer has reminded the modern Jew--and indeed all men--of the priceless secret of survival: that it is only by studying the past and learning from it that the Jew can hope to carve a noble, proud destiny. He has given the modern Jew "a certain bridge" leading directly from his past to his future. Singer's tales, which are simultaneously timeless and contemporary, provide a means of keeping the Jewish dream alive, of building up the mythology of the Jews, thereby giving them pride in their heritage. His ardent faith is based on survival, but its heart lies in the concept of recreation. As Singer's life is dedicated to reviving Polish Jewry through fiction, his protagonists are faced with the enormous responsibility of re-creating Judaism in the void, after a pogrom or the Holocaust have literally swept their people away. In an effort to fight oblivion--to keep their faith alive--these men, literally or symbolically, echo Moses on Mount Sinai by engraving the Jewish laws in granite and in their hearts. The tree of life is Singer's metaphor for the living faith as it is reborn in his writing. After winter comes the spring with its lush re-creation of nature; although the tree of life is constantly in the process of being destroyed, it is as constantly in the process of being renewed--either through the miracle of faith or the art of literature. Like the phoenix the house of Israel rises from its ashes.