Page 19 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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RIBALOW / DEVILS, JEWS AND I. B. SINGER
11
and credible, bu t you have to read the novel carefully to ap ­
preciate the a r t with which the conclusion is reached.
T
HE SLAVE’
One can analyze and comment on each o f S inger’s novels and
on his sho rt stories which, generally, rep resen t his finest work.
Before tu rn ing to some o f his tales, I should like to rem ark on
ano ther Singer novel in which, I believe, he displays his greatest
abilities.
The Slave
is most characteristic o f his art, his imagination
and his deep knowledge o f Jewish life, lore, customs and trad i­
tions. It is a folk tale and full o f symbolism. I t is concerned with
good and with evil, with Jewish suffering and with relations
between Christians and Jews.
Its hero is Jacob, a 29-year-old Jew living in slavery in 17th
century Poland. When the story begins, Jacob had been enslaved
fou r long years by primitive moun ta in folk, who could not read or
write and looked upon Jacob with suspicion and some fear. “He
was without prayer shawl and phylacteries, fringed garm en t or
holy book. Circumcision was the only sign on his body tha t he was
a Jew .” But he was a pious Jew and how does such a Jew hold onto
his faith in a totally alien and enemy world?
H ere Singer’s imagination takes a long leap. He recreates a
grubby Polish mounta in hovel more than two hun d red years ago,
places us at its center and convinces us tha t Jacob is able to remain
a practicing Jew. Jacob had remembered his prayers, snippets o f
the Ta lm ud , chapters o f the Mishnah and fragments o f the Bible.
He had committed these passages to memory and recited them
daily. By examining the heavens and observing the passing o f the
seasons, he calculates the dates o f the Hebrew calendar and
celebrates and observes the Sabbath and the various holidays and
festivals. He is a cowherd, living in filth and grime, bu t somehow
manages to keep himself personally clean. He does no t eat the
meat o f pigs and lives according to the ethics o f his fathers.
This section o f
The Slave
is, I think, the most effective, evocative
section o f writing in all o f Singer’s canon.
T he rest o f the novel, a love story between Jacob and Wanda,
the d augh te r o f his master, is beautiful bu t slightly less unique
than the passages describing Jacob’s efforts to rema in a Jew.
Wanda, who later converts to Juda ism (and takes the convert’s