The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer reprinted

People tend to imagine Eastern European Hasidism as existing as some circle of modern new age spiirtualists sitting around discussing Kabbalah. A few years ago, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern wrote an excellent article arguing for a greater sense of history, folklore, and ordinary people in the study of Hasidism; he sharply argued that the star-struck study of Hasidism does not spend enough time in the study of earthly Hasidism.

Turning to Polish Hasidism, in the era of Kotzk, Izbica, and Gur, those who are not historians can gain a sense of the era by reading the newly-reissued The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer. Poland modernized with trains and factories between 1840-1860, and then was subject to Russian taxation after 1860. The Jews were almost all immigrants from other regions, litvaks, galitzianers, daitchers and entering the new era of productivity. Over time Jews settled in the suburbs of larger cities, Kotzk, Tomoshav, Alexsander, Gur. Singer presents older Hasidim as cruel factory owners who went to Hasidic courts, the younger Hasidic generation as raised in the seemliness of modern urban life-gambling, brothels, and fighting. And then the 20th century generation leaving Hasidism. Singer was no longer religious but was stuck in that felt that neither secularism or Hasidism had solutions. If one can see beyond Singer’s pro-labor bias and know that he is no longer Hasidic, then one gets a window into the later part of the era not available elsewhere. He preserves many details of ordinary life even if his plot development is biased.

The book has a new introduction by ex-orthodox secularist Rebecca Goldstein, who notes the gender gap, the avarice, the regional differences and the fatalism.- available here and here.

The conquest of Dinele, who becomes Diana as her husband becomes Max, partly explains the rivalry of the brothers. Dinele had hoped that the arranged marriage forced upon her by her wealthy Hasidic parents would yield her the romantic figure of Jacob Bunem as a husband rather than his obnoxious brother. Like many Polish girls, even from Hasidic households, Dinele had been sent to study at a secular Gymnasium, where she had been a great favorite of her Gentile friends, and she finds the ways of the Hasidic men, even her own father and brothers, boorish, degrading, and alarming. (I remember my own father telling me how this rift in the sensibilities of Jewish girls and boys, brought about by their very different educations, was creating societal difficulties in the Poland he had grown up in, the worldly girls turning up their noses at the relatively uncouth yeshiva boys their fathers chose for them. Ironically, it was precisely because, as girls, their education mattered so little that the comparatively affluent among them were shunted off to Gymnasia, the smattering of kultur meant to make them more marriageable.)

Both Lodz, the manufacturing and commercial center of Poland, and Simha Meir, its would-be king, present a face of capitalism so disfigured by cunning, greed, and ruthlessness that the reader has no trouble imagining the author as a young man running off to Russia to witness the glories of Bolshevism for himself. Even Simha Meir’s father-in-law, Haim Alter, a warm if weak man, an ardent Hasid who hires only Jewish workers in his factory, is, as an owner, an unrepentent exploiter. He claps his soft hands to the Hasidic tunes that his weavers sing as they work, but he pays them so little that the candles he makes them pay for out of pocket as they work their intolerably long hours represent a major drain on their resources. If anything, Haim Alter emerges as even more despicable than Simha Meir, owing to the smarmy pieties with which he coats his avarice. These are capitalists as an ardent communist might render them—portraits rendered in vitriol.

In one brief passage, a little masterpiece of the twisty tergiversations of self-deception, Nissan comes close to rethinking his politics. A demonstration planned for May Day has gone disastrously wrong. The workers, drunk and dangerous, quickly transition from humiliating a hated factory overseer to targeting specifically Jewish factory owners, and from there to beating up random Jews, who are fellow workers, their comrades by class. What was meant to be a demonstration of proletarian solidarity turns into a full-fledged pogrom—heads bashed, women violated, with the Polish authorities cynically waiting it out until the rage is spent. Stunned by grief and guilt at having aroused passions whose outcome he had not foreseen, Nissan briefly considers whether his presuppositions might be faulty:

Like his pious father, whose faith in the Messiah nullified all contemporary suffering, Nissan reaffirmed his faith in the validity of his ideals and pushed aside all negative thought.
If fatalism hangs heavily over all the action of The Brothers Ashkenazi, it hangs particularly heavily over the Jews

I. J. Singer does not exclude Jews from his cynical reading of human nature. In one section of The Brothers Ashkenazi, he mercilessly portrays the Jews of Lodz succumbing to their own instincts for xenophobia, quickly assembling prejudices toward the Muscovite Jews who pour into their city after Czar Alexander III exiles them from their homes. These Moscow refugees are more sophisticated than the Polish Jews, and are dubbed “Litvaks,” meaning those who come from Lithuania, even though they are not from Lithuania. Apparently, in Lodz, “Litvak” is something of an insult. The two groups quickly get to work dredging up enough differences to support their mutual disapproval.

Traditional Lodz Jews were outraged. The elder Litvaks wore short gabardines, derbies, and fedoras. The younger were clean-shaven. They didn’t sway at prayer. They were more like gypsies than Jews. It was rumored that they could cast spells. When a Litvak moved into a house, all those who could afford to moved out. The Lodz men wouldn’t include a Litvak in a quorum. The Lodz women wouldn’t lend a pot to a Litvak neighbor lest she render it impure.

The book was first reviewed in the NYT and The Nation in 1936. Adam Kirsch, who is unfamiliar with the material, still offered at the Tablet these insights such as “Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.”

In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list. The first was Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, a panoramic, melodramatic historical novel that would shortly become a classic movie and that has never been out of print. The other was The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer, which has never been made into a movie and has gone in and out of print periodically over the years.

The novel’s vantage point on this crisis is the city of Lodz, sometimes called the Manchester of Poland. In the late 19th century, Lodz was transformed from a small village to an international capital of the textile industry—an industry dominated by Jewish manufacturers, merchants, and laborers. Singer captures this reckless, explosive growth in a cinematic sequence in the novel’s first pages: “Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers … like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to exclude them.” Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.

The patriarch of the Ashkenazi dynasty, Abraham Hersh, gets rich as the chief salesman for the Gentile-owned manufacturing firm of Huntze. Just as he is an employee of capitalists rather than a capitalist himself, he seems to be in the new Lodz without being of it: He remains a traditional Hasid, spending as much time as possible at the court of his rebbe. He uses his wealth to do mitzvot like buying Passover supplies for the poor and ransoming Jewish prisoners.

Finally, here is the real historical account as read by few readers of Kotzk and Izbitz from Urbanization, Capitalism, and Cosmopolitanism: Four Novels and a Film on Jews in the Polish City of Lódz Delphine Bechtel. Prooftexts. Bloomington: 2006. Vol. 26, Iss. 1/2;

Lódz is a crossroad. The city was under the rule of the Russian Empire. At first, the cotton industry had been introduced there to serve the interests of the Russian market; production, however, was in the hands of Germans, Jews, and a number of Poles. The Jewish merchants mostly came from Russia. Remember the scene in the theater: when people hear that such and such has become bankrupt in Odessa, the breakdown is immediate in Lódz. The cotton itself was coming from Turkmenistan. But slowly, American cotton flooded the market, transiting through Hamburg. The situation of such a city has something fascinating. It is Metropolis, a cosmopolitan Metropolis.”

Urban multiethnicity in Central and Eastern Europe has been a highly distincative feature of this region, although the phenomenon has only been rediscovered by academic researchers in the last two decades. Nonetheless, cities such as Prague, L’viv (Lemberg, Lwów), Chernivitsi (Czernowitz), Bratislava (Pressburg, Pozsony), or Gdaðsk (Danzig) have formed living examples of shared history and crossa cultural fertilization for centuries, though this feature has often gone unnoticed. Nazi ethnic cleansing and genocide, followed by years of officially monoethnic, Communist controlled states behind the Iron Curtain, had seemingly driven their multifarious past existences into oblivion.

Lódz, located 120 km southwest of Warsaw and accurately dubbed “Polish Manchester,” was promoted by tsarist decree in 1820 from an obscure village with 767 inhabitants to a “factory city,” the center of the capitalist textile industry of the Polish Kingdom, soon to serve the vast Russian market. Most towns in east Central Europe developed in the Middle Ages through the combined skills of German craft workers and Jewish merchants, who often formed the core urban population while facing a predominantly Slavic peasantry. But in Lódz, this development was forced upon the city belatedly, in a programmatic and swift way that turned the city into an unquestionable symbol for hasty urbanization, rabid capitalism, and cosmopolitanism. German settlers, including skilled weavers and masters of cotton mills from Saxony or Bohemia, were encouraged to settle there, followed by Polish villagers as well as Jewish artisans and petty merchants. Each of these groups was lured into the “promised land” to provide mass, cheap labor. The town attracted newcomers like a magnet, and grew like a mushroom, on sand, swamp, and peat bog.

This hasty foundation resulted in a gigantic population boom: the total number of inhabitants rose to 314,000 in 1897, and again to 506,100 in 1913. At the same time, the Jewish population rose from 259 in 1820 (representing 33.8 percent of the total) to 92,400 in 1897 (29.4 percent) and 171,900 in 1913 (34 percent).

4 responses to “The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer reprinted

  1. Look, there were, are and will be all kinds of people out there. To take the vitriolic, ideology driven slanderous portrayal of hassidic society as completely true is just as immature and naive as idealizing it completely.
    Other books will give you a different protrayal. Singer has an agenda.

  2. Is there a thematic or some other connection between this I.J. Singer book abd Singer’s “Family Carnovsky”
    Echoes of Thomas Man”s “Buddenbrooks”?

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    There are two translations of The Brothers Ashkenazi, an older one by Maurice Samuel and a newer one by Singer’s son.The newer one is slightly abridged. Someone ought to compare the two translations. I remember reading one very interesting chapter in the Samuel translation where a revolutionary is being interrogated by a member the police. It is missing from the newer translation.
    I enjoyed reading the novel very much, but agree with Avakes that its unremitting negative outlook is a serious artistic blemish. Buddenbrook’s, it’s not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s