Friday, 22 April 2016

Book Review: Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Today the world of the traditional Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe only lives on in musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, films like Yentl and books like Satan in Goray. The opponents of World War II wiped it out ravaging homes and slaughtering people. Some like Isaac Bashevis Singer, the 1978 laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature, were lucky to get a chance to leave in time, but the great majority was either killed on the spot or transported to deadly concentration camps scattered all over Nazi Germany. However, the holocaust was only the broadest stroke against Jews in the region. There were other pogroms like the Khmelnytsky Massacres of 1648 that serve as starting point of the novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Years later the survivors return to their small town and are only too willing to believe the rather unholy message of a Messiah doing miracles in the Promised Land.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער) was born Icek Hersz Zynger in Leoncin near Warsaw, Congress Poland, in November 1902. As from 1923, he proofread for a Yiddish literary journal in Warsaw and later wrote for it as Bashevis. Another Jiddish literary journal in Warsaw published his first novel Satan in Goray (Der sotn in Goray) in instalments in 1933. Two years later, he followed his brother to New York and became a journalist with a Yiddish daily. Only the short story Gimpel the Fool (Gimpl tam: 1945), however, made Isaac Bashevis Singer known to a wider public thanks to its 1953 translation by Saul Bellow. Most notable among his novels are The Family Moskat (Di Mischpoche Moschkat: 1950), Shadows on the Hudson (Shotns baym Hodson: 1957), The Magician of Lublin (Der Kunznmacher fun Lublin: 1960), The Slave (Der Knekht: 1962), Enemies. A Love Story (Sonim, di Geshichte fun a Liebe: 1972), Shosha (1978), and Scum (Shoym: 1991). In addition, he wrote numerous short stories, children’s books and autobiographical works, all of them in Yiddish although he himself edited their English editions thus producing what he called the “second original”. In 1978, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Isaac Bashevis Singer died in Surfside, Florida, USA, in July 1991.

The horrors of the Chmelnicki Upheaval of 1648 during which Ukrainian Cossacks raged in the small Polish town Goray lying tucked away in the densely wooded hills near Biłgoraj paved the way for the rising of Satan in Goray. The town has practically disappeared from the face of the Earth when seventeen years later those of its Jewish inhabitants who survived the slaughtering and fled to other parts of the country begin to return to what remains of their old homes.
“Last of its citizens to return to Goray were the old rabbi, the renowned Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi, and Reb Eleazar Babad, formerly the richest man in the community and its leader.”
The old rabbi tries his best to restore life according to Jewish laws in town, but times have changed because egotism and fear have taken root. Moreover, rumours that the coming of the true Messiah in the person of one Sabbatai Zevi and the long yearned for redemption are near grow ever louder. Wandering preachers like the packman Reb Itche Mates further spur the hopes of people and drive them into religious frenzy. Rabbi Benish knows that nothing of it is true, but he is old and too weak to bring his people back to their senses. Even the rabbi’s son Levi and daughter-in-law join the Messianic sect and fiercely fight against unbelievers. Reb Itche Mates stays in Goray and asks Rechele, the beautiful though lame and somewhat peculiar daughter of Reb Eleazar Babad, for wife. The betrothal feast turns into an orgy that defies Jewish traditions and laws, so Rabbi Benish rushes out to put an end to it, but on his way he has an accident. When he dies, Levi follows him as rabbi. Then the charismatic ritual slaughterer Reb Gedaliya settles down in Goray and he has an eye on Rechele who begins to have visions.
“Rechele spoke in fits and starts, as though in her sleep, but so resonant was her voice that its echo could be heard throughout the town, and the people of Goray came running. … Calling by name angels and seraphim, she told of the heavenly mansions and the lords ruling in each of them; the cryptic passages in the Book of Daniel so baffling to ordinary minds were explained by her – it was clear to all that the spirit of prophecy had entered into Rechele.”
Following this event the blind frenzy of the population of Goray grows ever more and under the influence of Reb Gedaliya morals become looser and looser…

The original version of Satan in Goray was written and first published in Yiddish like all Isaac Bashevis Singer’s literary work, but since he himself was involved in its translation into English in the 1950s, I reckon that it must be somewhat authentic in style. In fact, the language feels quite archaic and at times almost fairy-tale-like although it’s well suited for a historical novel dealing with the seductive power of salvation from a hard as well as cruel lot on Earth, with religious delusions and superstitions leading to all-consuming mass folly. It’s striking how much the blind belief of the Goray people in the (false) Messiah and in the wisdom of his followers resembles the frenzy that heaved Adolf Hitler into the position of unchallenged Führer of the Third Reich and paved the way for genocide and war. Of course, the author had only seen the very beginnings of the madness because his novel came out already in 1933. Apart from this, Satan of Goray is a Jewish novel through and through. It is rich in impressive images, local colour and references to religious traditions that can occasionally be a bit confusing for a non-Jewish reader like me. For the rest, it’s a quick and pleasurable read.

Admittedly, I decided to review Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer above all because I felt that it was time to feature a classic by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. My first choice was a late novel of Henryk Sienkiewicz, but I changed my mind and I definitely have no reason to regret it. The Swedish Academy gave the award to the Yiddish author “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life”. Having read his Satan in Goray I can only confirm this statement. I enjoyed the novel and believe that it deserves more attention. Therefore I gladly recommend it here.

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