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Before the Law | The Nation

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Before the Law

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The stories number in the hundreds, and they are the work upon which Singer's reputation will ultimately rest. In many of the novels Singer allows himself long, conventional debates among his characters--religious and philosophical--that drain the work of dramatic strength. The stories, on the other hand, are magic. In the hands of this master tale spinner, they become an embodiment of the mesmerizing ignorance with which all inner conflict is saturated. The sheer primitivism of our unknowing selves is cause for wonder. Stories like "Taibele and Her Demon," "Blood" and "Zeidlus the Pope" are astonishing not for where they take us (more often than not it's nowhere in particular) but for the richness with which characters who are driven by hungers they can neither name nor resist are brought to life. Usually it is sexual desire that is making them crazy; but sometimes it is the mad appetite for another kind of "forbidden" knowledge that accomplishes their requisite doom. "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" is the great example here:

About the Author

Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

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After her father's death, Yentl had no reason to remain in Yanev.... She knew she wasn't cut out for a woman's life.... Her father Reb Todros, may he rest in peace, during many bedridden years had studied Torah with his daughter as if she were a son. He told Yentl to lock the doors and drape the windows, then together they pored over the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the Commentaries. She proved so apt a pupil that her father used to say:
  "Yentl--you have the soul of a man."
  "So why was I born a woman?"
  "Even heaven makes mistakes."

Yentl, as we all know, determines to right heaven's mistake. Out of her unholy need, she disguises herself as a man and becomes enmeshed in one surreal situation after another, until finally she has "committed so many transgressions that she would never be able to do penance." As the story moves toward its appointed end, all the principals suffer an increasing sense of dementia as Yentl's inappropriate desire forces on them an unwanted encounter with knowledge that brings them perilously close to a mental brink. Singer himself seems as frightened as his characters are of coming to consciousness: "Only now did Yentl grasp the meaning of the Torah's prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex. By doing so one deceived not only others but also oneself...the soul was perplexed, finding itself incarnate in a strange body." In short: To long for independence of mind is to risk outraging the cosmos even more so than the pursuit of sexual satisfaction.

Some readers may think Singer is being ironic; I do not. Singer is happy, not to say relieved, only when he can bring the story to a close with a nod in the direction of Judaic proscription. When Yentl pleads that she acted as she did only because "her soul thirsted to study Torah," the narrator shrugs, "All [her] explanations seemed to point to one thing: she had the soul of a man and the body of a woman." That's it. End of report. A woman studying Torah defies the ordained order of things, and although Yentl is as appealing a creature as Billy Budd, however sympathetic the cause of her trespass, she must be denied redemption. At the end of the day the Law is the Law.

Many of Singer's novels devolve on the same dilemma, only without the magic; and when at the end of their day the Law is the Law, the reader is left somewhat less than enchanted. In the stories, women and men alike are leveled by shtetl life: variously glorified, condemned or redeemed, in accordance with the requirements of the tale being told, while the author's touch--sure, light, authoritative--makes us yearn toward them all. In the novels, the settings are most often urban, the protagonists men, and the melancholy of soul-saving is pursued without humor or irony. Three of these novels in particular trace the extravagant suffering that is meted out to those who abandon the Law, even though they can no longer live by it: The Family Moskat, Shadows on the Hudson and Enemies: A Love Story. All have as protagonists the same wavering luftmensch, raise the same hand-wringing questions, come to the same dismal conclusion and--as women are invariably the instrument of temptation--leave the same trail of female destruction in their wake. But here, the reader feels an unmistakable absence of authority. The brooding power--indeed Dostoyevskian--necessary to sustain a book-length investigation of God, Man and World is simply not there. What we have instead feels derivative and uncertain: as though Singer does not know his own protagonist well enough to speak for (or of) him.

In The Family Moskat, set in Poland between the two world wars, Asa Heshel Bannet leaves the shtetl for Warsaw, wearing the long gabardine and earlocks of the Orthodox Jew. He had been a student of great promise--a seeker after truth that took him to secular as well as religious texts--but Asa's spirit had been uneasy (even tormented), causing his mind to enter a hovering state of indecisiveness from which he could not emerge: "But years passed and little came of his undisciplined efforts. He began courses of study but never completed them.... The eternal questions never gave him rest: Was there a God or was everything, the world and its works, mechanical and blind? Did man have responsibilities or was he accountable to no higher power? Was the soul immortal or would time bring everything to oblivion? In the long summer days he would...go off into the forest...and daydream. Each day he would make up his mind anew to leave the town, and each day he stayed." Finally the day does come. In Warsaw Asa instantly cuts off the earlocks, puts on a suit and wonders, "Is it here I will learn the divine truths? Among this multitude?"

The rest of the long novel (involving a cast of thousands) follows Asa as he spends the next twenty years struggling with these questions. The result is the same as in the shtetl: His legendary indecisiveness prevents him from making a life. Repeatedly, he finds himself living alone in furnished rooms, earning a marginal living, never fulfilling his intellectual promise, always seeking release in books--and in sexual passion. Along the way, he falls desperately in love with one woman, marries another, runs off with still a third, in the end ruining them all because--as is often the case with unformed women--each remains haunted by the poetic loser who, no sooner is she his, than he flees. It is Asa's estranged wife who finally delivers the authorial message: "It occurred to [her] that she had never been able to understand what it was that tortured him.... She was on the point of asking him, but suddenly she knew: he was not a worldly man by his very essence. He was one of those who must serve God or die. He had forsaken God, and because of this he was dead--a living body with a dead soul. She was astonished that this simple truth had eluded her until now." At the end, the Second World War has begun and Asa, who could have fled, walks back into the city as German bombs start to fall on Warsaw. Finally: no more choices.

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