By Israel Drazin
By I. J. Singer
Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944), the older brother of the Nobel Prize Winning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer (who was born in 1902) wrote two great novels, two masterpieces: The Brothers Ashkenazi and The Family Carnovsky. Yoshe Kalb is not as good, but it is almost so, and those who read it will enjoy it and also learn about Jewish life in eastern Europe before the period of enlightenment.
Israel Joshua Singer, a Yiddish writer, like his brother, and like the more famous Shalom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, has a different writing style. His brother’s tales are filled with demons, ghosts, and other other-wordly figures; Shalom Aleichem’s stories contain subtle humor; I. L. Peretz’s short stories are intellectual, witty, sarcastic, such as his best tales If Not Higher and Bontshe the Silent. I. J. Singer, in contrast, presents realistic portrayals of eastern European Jewry.
The Chassidic Movement began in the early 1700s in this area as a reaction against the idea that only Jews who spend their time studying will merit the world to come. Chassidim felt that one could approach God with joy. Their idea had merit, but it soon deteriorated. Soon many ignorant charismatic leaders, who called themselves Rebbes, to distinguish themselves from rabbis, created dynasties with thousands of followers. Some were good, truly pious men, but many were not. They were interested in gathering money and living a good life.
Singer tells of some of them in this novel. He describes with insightful and telling details the atmosphere of the petty courts of several Rebbes; their foolish, naïve, and superstitious clients; intrigues; commercial nastiness; the sensuality and ignorance of the Rebbes, the courts, and of Jews and non-Jews generally. We read about bizarre beliefs: the notion that Rebbes have divine powers; a Rebbe would not only not dare touch a woman, he would not even mention a woman’s name; God would punish the uncovering of a strand of a woman’s hair from her head covering or wig by killing many people in the community; men and women were so fearful their words could bring calamity that they frequently said the opposite of what they meant, thus when they thought there was so much evil that the world would end, they said the world will not end; an oath was taken before a rabbinical court when a black, not a white candle was lit, a shofar was blown, and in front of a board upon which dead bodies was washed; and many people, Jews and non-Jews, were certain that dead men walk among the living.
This story focuses on an old money-hungry Rebbe whose three previous wives died and who wants to marry a young girl, a virgin. But he feels that he cannot do so unless he first marries off his youngest daughter, a cloistered uneducated girl, who is very naïve and very superstitious. He arranges a marriage for her with the son of another Rebbe, Nahum, who is also very naïve, superstitious, introverted, overly pious, interested in mysticism, desirous of saying Psalms daily, and, like his wife, un-worldly.
The two marriages are disastrous. Some very dramatic events occur. Nahum leaves his wife and runs away. He has deep feelings of guilt. He hides his identity and calls himself Yoshe. Because he is so reclusive and always sitting alone reciting Psalms, people call him a Kalb, a Yiddish word meaning a calf or loon; a loon being a worthless, sorry, lazy, or stupid fellow. And because he is so naïve, so immersed in Psalms, so out of touch with what is occurring around him, he finds himself in a worse situation than when he was in the Rebbe’s court married to his daughter.