Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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The Magician o f Lublin,
fo r example, is a rem arkab le story,
dazzlingly told and full o f passion, lyricism and sadness. Yasha
Mazur is the magician. He is 40 years old and looks ten years
younger. He is married to a b a r ren wife and as he perfo rm s in city
af te r city in Poland (he himself is from Lublin), he wins mistresses
wherever he goes. One o f his mistresses, Zeftel, is married to a
gangster and it is th rough Yasha’s relationship with Zeftel tha t he
meets Jewish gangsters. Zeftel’s husband has d isappeared and she
is suppo r ted by various Jewish gangsters, a g roup o f men who
exist beyond the law. Except fo r Isaac Babel, the Russian-Jewish
short story writer, who else has written abou t Jewish gangsters?
T h e sequences in which Singer depicts a social ga thering o f
these lawbreakers are hum o rous and disquieting. He evokes a
complete society, a special atmosphere in which the men and
women are lost yet secure in the ir own environment.
But it is no t Singer’s aim in this novel about Yasha Mazur to
create a Jewish Don Ju a n among thieves. He is telling a moral tale
in his own fashion. Yasha is an excellent th ie f — he thinks — bu t
when he attempts to rob a rich old man, he discovers — irony o f
ironies! — tha t he, a magician, cannot force the old m an ’s simple
safe. One mistress, constantly faithful to him, has hanged herself.
He is now a fugitive and — in a nightmarish scene o f runn ing ,
runn ing , runn ing — finds tha t even Zeftel has betrayed him with
one o f his gangster friends. He can walk on his hands, eat fire,
swallow swords, tu rn somersaults and, like Houd in i, break locks
and escape from impossible situations. But Yasha has no luck: he
cannot escape his fate as a thief.
As he runs , he finds occasion to en ter a synagogue, twice. He,
who always has been alien to his Jewish heritage, finds a sort o f
fulfillment among the old Jews observing the ancient rituals. He
looks closely at the men with the
sidelocks, skullcaps and
sashes. “But,” he asks himself, “was one able to serve God without
dogmas? How had he, Yasha, come to be in his p resen t predica­
ment?” He continues to reflect: “A religion was like an army — to
opera te requ ired discipline. An abstract faith inevitably led to sin.
T he prayer house was like a barracks; the re God’s soldiers were
mustered .”
In a characteristic Singer twist, Yasha alters his en tire way o f
life. In a remarkable conclusion, the thieving magician, full o f lust
and scorn, becomes a saintly Jew! Within the context o f the
novelist’s complex and imaginative mind, this end ing is logical