Before the Deluge
The Family Moskat.
By Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Translated from the Yiddish by A. H. Gross. Knopf. 611 pp. $3.95.
Two Yiddish writers have supplied us, from a wide experience and observation, with the best introduction to Jewish life in Poland before the Extermination. In The Brothers Ashkenazi, the late I. J. Singer wrote a bulky saga of the industrialization of Poland and its effect upon the Jewish masses and particularly upon Jewish capitalists. The Family Moskat, by the younger Singer brother, deals with the evolution, the rise, and the final disintegration of a wealthy and prolific Jewish clan of Warsaw. Perhaps the two novels may be regarded as complementary, for the first is industry-minded, the second commerce- and speculation-minded.
The differences between the two books are as striking as the similarities. The social and cultural changes incident to industrialization were etched memorably in The Brothers Ashkenazi, which grew to the stature of an imaginative and mature work of history. The Family Moskat is much rather anthropology than history. What it lacks in continuity and analysis it makes up in variety and color of cultural and folkloristic detail. The manners and morals of the quickly risen rich, the widening gap between old and young, the face, ways, and vocabulary of the ghetto street, the running debate between modernists and traditionalists, Zionists and socialists, cosmopolites and provincials, and the infinite and self-winding quibbles of the Hasidim and Orthodox—these spectacles crowd a vivid review, almost a circus, of Jewish mores. But whereas history can meet fiction on the common ground of story, anthropology and sociology cannot of themselves supply a forward-driving impulse. In The Family Moskat, the conveniences and necessities of plot and character are so often sacrificed by the author to the temptations of still another detail, and yet another dab, that the novel is finally jerked out of alignment with its own meaning and objective.
Indeed, so crowded is the scene that only two characters manage to find room enough to act out their passions and their destiny: Hadassah, the lover and second wife of the hero, and her full-blooded and Rabelaisian Uncle Abram. They are all caught in a maelstrom of intrigue, vanity, lust, selfishness, and corruption that, however insistently the author dilutes it with elements of generosity, taste, and reason, constitutes a satiric indictment of Jewish society in pre-war Poland. The realism of the novel is only apparent; a symbolism rises gradually to the surface and perhaps supplies the key to the puzzle of why the central figure is also the least realized. Asa Heshel is introduced as the more or less typical idealistic student, not to say typical yeshiva bocher, since he has rebelled outwardly as well as inwardly against the Orthodox environment of the small town of his birth and set out in search of secular enlightenment. The ecstatic irony with which Abram greets him establishes Asa Heshel as the representative of the familiar tradition:
‘He came to Warsaw to study—the grandson of a rabbi—a prodigy.’
‘Really? There are still specimens of that kind around? And I thought they’d gone for good, the whole species extinct, like the aurochs, if you’ll forgive the comparison. Let me take a look at him. Tell me, professor, what sort of blessing does one recite over such a rarity? What does he want to study?’
‘He has a letter, from Zamosc.’
The irrelevancy of the answer seems to anticipate the airiness of the character. Asa Heshel achieves the mood of cosmopolitanism, but the discipline of secular learning eludes him. He never matriculates at the Swiss university in whose shadow he lives a while, and he never completes the work of his imagination and ambition. Yet he is no run-of-the-mill intellectual luftmensh. There is too much explosion and steel in Asa Heshel. His stormy love affair and marriages, his obstinate impulsiveness, and his defiance of emotion as well as of convention, endow this man who can hardly persuade us that he is alive with a glow of impervious individuality and supreme conquest. He is, at worst, the abstracted and generalized hero of a certain type of Jewish fiction and serial, and at best, a historical symbol. Asa Heshel is not known of men, even of himself. Here he is, parting finally from his first wife:
At this moment, as he sat leaning against a pine tree, it seemed to her that there was a strange delicacy in the outlines of his face. Golden strands of hair trembled on his high forehead; from the clear blue eyes a childish simplicity looked forth. Only on the sharp lips a bitterness lay. It occurred to Adele that she had never been able to understand what it was that tortured him. Was it the failure to have had a career? Did his heart long for someone? She was on the point of asking him, but held herself back. She knew it would be useless. He would say anything that came into his head at the moment, perhaps because he himself did not know the answer.
He is indistinct, yet portentous. At the last seder (!), he alone plainly descries the course of impending Fate:
What did they talk so much about miracles for, Asa Heshel thought. ‘They kill them in each generation. If not for the slaughterers and pogroms, we’d number in the hundred millions by now.’ He looked at Yezhek, Stepha’s son, and Dacha, and the other children. They were all doomed. The brandy that he had taken earlier began to lose its effect.
Did Asa Heshel remember the frustrated promise that the Jews would be as the sands of the sea? Is he the reflective, questing, self-willed—the Eternal Jew?