It is very hard to write about this book because it is quite simply one of the most brilliant books that I have ever read.
I have had the pleasure of reading Singer’s work before but I have never experienced the depth and complexity of a book like this.
This novel tells the story of a Jewish man called Jacob who finds himself sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Jacob, a devoutly religious Jew, spends years isolated on a mountain, working for pagan peasant farmers. Every day the farmer’s daughter, Wanda, climbs the mountain with food for Jacob who despite his slavery, attempts to maintain his religious observance, abstaining from meat, maintaining a calendar so he knows when Jewish festivals occur and trying to sustain himself by reciting from memory Jewish texts. Over time, Jacob finds himself falling in love with Wanda and despite his ongoing efforts to resist her, he eventually succumbs.
Wanda takes on Jacob’s Jewish conviction, immersing herself in the river as a type of ritual cleansing (called a mikveh). She covers her hair and dons the dress of religious Jewish women. Together they find a village in which to live, Wanda adopting the name Sarah and pretending to be a deaf mute so as not to arouse suspicion about her inability to speak Yiddish.
Despite all that Jacob and Wanda/Sarah have endured in their struggle to survive, they are plagued by the gossip of the village – Wanda’s pretence of deafness leads the women of the village to talk about her in her presence, to mock her and defame her, to ridicule her and make snide comments about her, all the while thinking that she can’t understand them.
Jacob’s experiences with his wife both privately in teaching her about Judaism and in the village where they live, lead him to raise profound questions about his belief and the power of free will.
“But now at least he understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man’s obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn’t Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a Jew to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”
There is so much more to this text. It is filled with internal dialogue, with profound questioning and deep emotions. It explores the most complex passages of man’s conviction as he struggles to maintain a balance between his own desires and how he believes the world should be. I have never read a journey like this and there are elements of this book that will stay with me forever.
Furthermore, this is a book to which I will need to return time and time again in order to ensure that I digest all its complexity and beauty, and to not miss a drop of its essence.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is a clear genius and this, his only self-translated work, defines him as one of the greatest writers ever to have lived.
To read more of Singer’s brilliance, don’t miss his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.