Communication and Society in Jewish American Short Stories: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley and Philip Roth

Examination Thesis, 2005

80 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Is Jewish American literature multicultural literature?.

2. Isaac Bashevis Singer
2.1 Biographical Notes
2.2 The Little Shoemakers
2.3 The Cafeteria.

3. Bernard Malamud
3.1 Biographical Notes
3.2 The Mourners
3.3 Benefit Performance.

4. Grace Paley
4.1 Biographical Notes
4.2 The Loudest Voice
4.3 Listening.

5. Philip Roth
5.1 Biographical Notes
5.2 The Conversion of the Jews.




“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.” (

This quotation by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov deals with two fundamental issues of this paper: “change” and “society”. All of our protagonists will, as is one of the char-acteristics of the short story, be shown at a turning point effecting change in their lives. Also, I am going to concentrate on the relationship between the tales (central) characters and society. Do they need society as a point of reference, or are they leading their lives independently from and with no relationship to the culture surrounding them? Do they come from another, for example Eastern European, background? If yes, can they adapt easily, do they have difficulties adapting or do they not intend to adapt at all?.

Pointing out that Isaac Asimov is Jewish and therefore potentially relevant for this paper is superfluous. Yet not every author who happens to be Jewish can automatically be significant for this paper. For me, a certain amount of “Jewishness”, that is Jewish characters, a piece of Jewish tradition, religion or the presence of a Jewish neighborhood, was required for a tale to be considered..

This restriction would still leave thousands of authors and millions of narratives. Therefore I chose to treat only New York authors and selected their stories, among other criteria, according to setting, that is, their main location had to be New York City. Hence I included Grace Paley and left out perhaps better known writers, for example Saul Bellow, who is generally associated with Chicago more than any other city..

Why then did I leave out Paul Auster and his New York Trilogy? Because I decided to include only short stories. I found the connection between New York City’s fast city life and the medium short story, which provides the author with only a limited amount of space to convey his ideas, describe his characters and depict a decisive moment in the characters’ lives extremely interesting..

Due to the above limitations I have chosen Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, and Philip Roth to be the main protagonists of this paper. All of these writ-ers were either born in NYC or spent an important part of their life in that city. All of them were fascinated by the extraordinary atmosphere of New York City and created stories that could only take place within the unique ambiance of the Big Apple..


“Is a ‘Jewish writer’ a separate genus, as distinct from a writer who happens to be Jewish, as another might be Protestant or a third ginger-haired? […] Does anyone born Jewish necessarily fall into the category?” (Yudkin, 1982: 9)..

All religious communities have their spiritual literature, but within the Jewish community, mostly secular writers are summed up under and described by the term “Jewish American authors”. So why are we not talking about “Islamic American”, “Buddhist American” or “Baptist American” authors?.

For a long time Jewish American literature has been considered a part of “multicultural literature”, the subdivisions of which include genres like “Native American-”, “African American-”, or “Chinese American literature” to name just a few. The characteristics that allow us to designate a certain group of “minority literature” are usually constituted by certain conditions the group in question has collectively experienced in the United States, be it due to mistreatment or the intense experience of cultural differences between their own culture and the culture of their host country. The Native American community, even though it consists of innumerable American Indian nations, feels connected by a shared fate of persecution and expulsion at the hands of white settlers. African Americans feel bound together by the experience of slavery, followed by suppression and the struggle for equality. Chinese Americans, if nothing else, share a common homeland and had to come to grips with the acute differences between their own culture and traditions as op-posed to the circumstances they encountered in the new world. Even more, they suffered much mistreatment and virtual slavery when they were used to build the cross-country railroad system. All of the above groups have experienced unfair treatment of some kind at the hands of white Caucasians, who justified their actions with their own assumed su-periority, which was derived from the color of their skin..

How do Jewish Americans fit into this concept? In point of fact, they do not..

First of all, the American Jewry does not share a common homeland. Some of the most significant contemporary Jewish American writers like Abraham Cahan came from the former Soviet republics, in his case Lithuania. Others like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Henry Roth immigrated to the US from Poland. Still, one could argue, they share the experience of immigration and the juxtaposition of their old lives against a completely new way of living. However, authors like Bernard Malamud, Alfred Kazin, and Philip Roth, who maybe the best known Jewish American writers, were born in the US. What do they have in common with writers who have had the experience of leaving one’s home country and starting a new life somewhere else?.

Since Jewish American authors do not share a common homeland, they consequently do not have a common history either. Tough Singer was born only ten years before Malamud, the history Singer experienced in Poland differs immensely from Malamud’s experiences in New York City and his differs again from Saul Bellow’s, who was born only one year after Malamud in Lachine, Québec..

Consisting of people from all over the world, the Jewish American literary community does not have one common language. In fact, as Leon Israel Yudkin notes in the first chapter of his book Jewish Writing and Identity in the Twentieth Century, there is no “emotionally neutral” (Yudkin, 1982: 11) language. He claims that a Jewish American writer cannot simply decide to write in his mother tongue without having second thoughts. Different languages, he maintains, have a different status and a distinct conno-tation within the Jewish American community. “Language could in itself constitute an ideology” (Yudkin, 1982: 11)..

Even though Ivrit, modern Hebrew, is the official language of Israel today, an author who chooses to write in Ivrit would end up with an extremely limited readership, because Hebrew, modern or not, is still the language of the “learned people”. “Simple people”, or for that matter the better part of the female population, would not be capable of reading his works, or at least not in the original..

The principal language of the Eastern European Jewry was and still is Yiddish. Yet Yid-dish is often considered to be an inferior language. Abraham Cahan writes in his short story Drowning their Sins: “The original prayer they [the women] are saying now is in Hebrew, of which they do not understand a word, but the sogerke reads a Yiddish trans-lation” (Lopate, 1998: 321). Nevertheless, Isaac B. Singer chose to write all of his narra-tives in Yiddish, later acting as his own English translator. Success seems to prove him right..

If authors who lived in the US chose to write in their mother tongue, their mother tongue being anything but English, it could bring with it the label of either not wanting to or not being able to adopt to the new culture. If however an immigrant Jewish American author chose to write in English, he might be accused of trying to forget the “old home-land” and therefore his past, which plays an extremely important part in Jewish tradition..

Argues Andrew Furman:.

“Jewish American writers, the logic goes, may represent a minority population, demographically speaking, but their recent experience in this country can hardly be characterized as a true ‘minority experience’” (Furman, 2000: 6).

It is difficult however to define that so called “minority experience”. One element is cer- tainly poverty. Unfortunately Jews are by and large thought of as being wealthy, and it is generally forgotten that “several poor Jews do exist” (Furman 2000: 6). Another aspect may be suffering, a well-known topos within Jewish America literature I will elaborate on later. Political activist Julius Lester, who is African American and “Jew by choice” (Furman, 2000: 5) elucidates: “No black denies that Jews suffered in Europe, but the Jewish experience in America has not been characterized by such suffering.” (Furman, 2000: 5).

So if Jewish American literature is not multicultural, does it belong to the mainstream? Some claim that by the late 1960s the significance of Jewish American fiction had decreased by such a degree that it could no longer be called mainstream literature (Furman, 2000: 4), the borders of which cannot be clearly defined either..

The discussion about which label to give to Jewish American literature is still ongoing and may never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. It may after all just be too diverse to be summed up under any one category..



Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Radzymin, a village close to Warsaw, Poland in 1904. He lived with his family in a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw until he was 13 years old..

Through his father, Rabbi Pinchos Mendel Singer, Isaac was introduced to orthodox Judaism early on, while his elder brother Israel Joshua, who in 1914 moved into the bohemian culture of Warsaw, and who is thought to have been the main influence on Isaac, introduced him to social-ist and Zionist ideas. When his mother took him to Bilgoray, the town she grew up in, in 1917, he was con-fronted with a typical Jewish shtetl, where time seemed to ( files/singer.jpg) have been standing still. “I had a chance to see our past as it really was. Time seemed to flow backward. I lived Jewish history” (Walden 1981: 133). In that atmosphere he chose to study the Bible, the Talmud, and, even though it was forbidden, the Cabala. His knowledge of and belief in the latter is mirrored in the majority of Singer’s stories, most of which include dybbuks or some kind of “powers”, which, he believed, “you can never escape” (Rinegold, 1981: 162)..

In 1935, the year after he published his first novel, Satan in Goray, he followed his brother to the United States the and settled in New York City (Malin 1972: viii). Being deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, he was so profoundly disturbed to find out that the Yid-dish language seemed to have no future in the country he had chosen to settle in, that he suffered from writer’s block for several years (Walden 1981: 133). In spite of his re-duced capability to write, he started working for the Jewish Daily Forward, the largest Yiddish newspaper in the world, edited by Abraham Cahan, ( 228/0839.html), that same year..

Caught between his old-fashioned Jewish past and his new American future, he ac-cepted American citizenship in 1943, but Poland seemed to always remain his home. Every place he describes in his fiction, argues Alvin H. Rosenfeld in his 1981 article “I.B. Singer: The Good of Stories”, is “some version of Poland” (Rosenfeld, 1981: 85)..

After his brother’s death he regained his ability to write and published The Family Moskat as a serial in the Forward from 1945 to 1948. Even though he became involved in translating his own fiction into English during that time, none other than Saul Bellow translated Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” for its publication in 1953. Singer’s popularity within the Jewish as well as the non-Jewish community began in 1955 when the English translation of Satan in Goray was published (Levitan, 1981: 139). His first collection of short stories, titled Gimpel the Fool, which was published in 1957 (Malin, 1972: viii f.) was widely reviewed and helped further his popularity..

In the foreword to Food for the Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions by Steven Rosen, Singer starts off by saying “Vegetarianism is my religion” ( history/northam20b/singer.html). He goes on to say that “.

When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent.”.

Understandably therefore, the issue of vegetarianism appears frequently in many of Singer’s tales..

The different aspects of Jewish life Isaac Bashevis Singer experienced in Poland and America enabled him to move easily through the mystical spheres of Judaism as well as through the rational world of his own time and the past. In his works, says Thomas Gladsky, Singer “has pictured and saved a world that no longer exists” (Walden 1986: Introduction), but which still serves as “home base” for most Jews in America today..


“The Little Shoemakers” tells the story of a Polish family from Frampol, a little village roughly 100 miles south west of Warsaw, and their incredibly successful emigration to the United States..

The story has a very clear cut structure and is divided into 6 parts, The Shoemakers and Their Family Tree, Abba and His Seven Sons, Gimpel Emigrates to America, The Sack of Frampol, Across the Ocean, and The American Heritage..

The first part, “The Shoemakers and Their Family Tree”, gives a short account of the history of the Shuster family in Frampol. The “founder of the line” (Singer, 1982: 38), who, like our protagonist, was also called Abba, had come to Frampol after Chmielnitzki’s pogroms during the 17th century, and started a successful shoemaking business..

Our protagonist Abba has seven sons, named, as is the tradition within the Ashkenazi community, after their deceased forefathers: Gimpel, Getzel, Treitel, Godel, Feivel, Lippe, and Chananiah (Singer, 1982: 40)..

We get a first taste of Isaac B. Singer’s brilliant humor when he is telling us about Abba’s father Reb Feivel, who has been honored by being chosen to serve as sexton in the local synagogue. To make the choice known, he was walking through the community with a pumpkin and a set of lighted candles on his head, as is the custom in the town of Frampol, but unfortunately he “happened to die […] while dutifully making these rounds; he fell flat in the marketplace, and there was no reviving him” (Singer, 1982: 39)..

Equally funny is Singer’s description of Abba’s appearance, who is described as having the looks “of a sulky hen” (Singer, 1982: 39)..

Abba has been brought up in the spirit of the family heritage and being a very traditional man, he still lives in the house the founder of the line built about 300 years earlier. The fate of the house and the fate of the family inhabiting it are inseparably bound together, even if not as strongly as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”..

Singer describes the progressive decay of the house and closes his account by stating that “It was only by the grace of God that the house was not taken over by disaster.” (Singer, 1982: 38). As we will find out later in the story, the family tradition is in a simi-lar condition, because Gimpel, Abba’s oldest son, has no intention of taking over his fa-ther’s business. For Abba, living in the house of his ancestors symbolizes the survival of tradition. He does not want to renovate the house, let alone build a new one, because it would open the door to progress and effect change, something Abba tries hard to pre-vent. Even by Frampol standards, he is old-fashioned: “He despised the new styles, […] He took […] measurements with a knotted string, as in the old days.” (Singer, 1982: 40)..

Abba’s most significant character trait is also revealed in this first section: He is an ex-tremely pious man. We are told that Abba reads “a chapter of the Torah in Yiddish translation [every day]” (Singer, 1982: 40). Yet by telling us that he is reading the Yiddish translations of the Torah, we are informed that Abba is not very well educated, that is he does not know any Hebrew and can therefore not read the Torah in its original f It is also important to note that Abba is particularly interested in Bible passages. Inde-pendently, both Abba and his wife Pesha imagine themselves to be a different couples from the Bible: “When his wife, Pesha, read to him,[…] he would imagine that he was he was Noah, and that his sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Singer, 1982: 40). Throughout the story, Abba will continuously compare his own situation to biblical stories and search for comfort within biblical references..

The idea that a direct line reaches from his own forefather straight to the Patriarchs is another source of comfort and pride for Abba. His feeling of being a part of the Bible is not as unconventional or arrogant as one might think. The Jewish understanding of history is based on the assumption that “jeder Jude in die Geschichte seines Volkes hineingestellt ist. Die Er-fahrung der Erzväter, der Auszug aus Ägypten, die Offenbarung am Si-nai und die Volkwerdung im Land der Verheißung werden eigene Ge-schichte jedes einzelnen […]. Wie keine andere Religion ist die des Judentums auf Geschichtserfahrungen gegründet, vom Glaube an ein Handeln Gottes in der Geschichte geprägt.“ (Stemberger, 2002: 16).

This understanding of history also explains why Abba, who was born in Frampol, all of whose forefathers have lived and died in Frampol, and who has never left the village, still feels like he was “living in exile” (Singer, 1982: 40)..

Naïve as his belief may be, it also is absolute and unconditional:.

“He often thought that if the Almighty were to call on him to sacrifice his eldest don, Gimpel. He would rise early in the morning and carry out his commands without delay. Certainly he would have left Poland and the house of his birth and gone wandering over the earth where God sent him” (Singer, 1982: 40).

This quotation again emphasizes Abba’s attachment to his hometown, his house and traditions. Leaving Frampol would be almost as big a sacrifice as sacrificing his own son. The scenes Abba can see from his workbench and the image the narrator presents of him at the workbench with the cat huddling by him while he quietly goes about his work, can certainly be called pastoral, a mood that will also return in the course of the story, one time at the most “un-pastoral” moment one can imagine: when Nazi planes are bombing Frampol..

On the whole, Abba Shuster is very religious, pious, faithful, honest, generous, and satisfied man, who sees no need for change or improvement in his world and is not curious to get to know anything outside of it:.

“He knew that the wide world was full of strange cities and distant lands, that Frampol was actually no bigger than a dot in a small prayer book; but it seemed to him that his little town was the navel of the universe an that his own house stood at the very center. He often thought that when the Messiah came to lead the Jews to the Land of Israel, he, Abba, would stay behind in Frampol, in his own house on his own hill. Only on the Sabbath and on holy days would he step into a cloud and let himself be flown to Jerusalem” (Singer, 1982: 41).

In “Abba and His Seven Sons”, we learn more about the family and its position in the community. The shoemaker is a very well respected man and even though he is only a simple craftsman, “they treated him as they would a distinguished man” (Singer, 1982: 42)..

His first born, Gimpel, gets educated not only in the shoemakers trade, but Abba de-cides to send him “to the best Hebrew teachers and [he] even hired a tutor who taught him the elements of Yiddish, Polish, Russian, and arithmetic” (Singer, 1982: 41) In addi-tion, Abba wants his son to be able to acquire some education, especially to enable him to read the Torah in Hebrew. Unintentionally, by providing Gimpel with education, his father furthers Gimpel’s desire to leave the small world of Frampol. The other six sons are not sent to Hebrew teachers, but, although it is not according to family tradition, they, too, learn the shoemaking business from his father. They work for their father as apprentices and by doing so, Abba enables them all to later follow their brother to Amer- ica, because they have learned the same trade as Gimpel and can therefore help him build his factory and make a very good living for themselves..

Yet for now Abba is happy to sit on his workbench with his two youngest children on his knees, sing an old Frampol song, and have the children join in on the chorus. When his wife asks him what he thinks about building a new house, he explains to her that “First of all, he was afraid to tear down the house, because this might bring bad luck” (Singer, 1982: 43). He also claims he is afraid to cause jealousy in the village. What he is really saying is that he does not want to part with any elements of his family past, partly be-cause he is superstitious, and partly because he is not ready to part with any element of his and the family’s past. He loves to go up in the attic, where all his mementos are stored, to experience the connection between himself and his forefathers, and therefore the Patriarchs..

However, his basic statement is that he is not prone to any change whatsoever:.

“No, this was good enough for Abba Shuster. There was nothing to change. Let everything stand as it had stood for ages, until he lived out his allotted time and was buried in the cemetery among his ancestors” (Singer, 1982: 44).

In “Gimpel emigrates to America” we reach our first turning point. It is the first time in approximately 300 years that the oldest son of the shoemaker does not want to stay in Frampol, take over his father’s business and continue to live according to the old ways, but Gimpel has a strong desire to leave and find a future for himself somewhere else in the world. Abba cannot grasp why anybody would want to leave Frampol, let alone one of his sons. He even believes his son got into trouble and is therefore “running away” (Singer, 1982: 44)..

Gimpel tries to explain that what makes his father stay, the tranquility, the (seeming) predictability, and the absence of any progress in the life of the shtetl, is exactly what makes him want to leave:.

“the Hebrew teachers beat the children; the women empty their slop pails right outside the door; the shopkeepers loiter in the streets; there are no toilets anywhere, and the public relieves itself as it pleases, behind the bathhouse or out in the open, encouraging epidemics and plagues. He made fun of Ezrael the healer and of Mecheles the marriage broker, nor did he spare the rabbinical court and the bath attendant, the washerwoman and the overseer of the poorhouse, the professions and the benevolent societies” (Singer, 1982: 45);.

When Abba listens to Gimpel, he can hear the words his son says, but cannot process them in his brain. He finally decides that the only plausible explanation is that Gimpel has become a non-believer. The father remembers “the proverb: A rotten apple spoils the barrel” (Singer, 1982: 45) and tells the son that he is free to leave if that is what he wants to do, all the time believing that this is the only way to save his other sons from Gimpel’s bad influence..

Almost as if he had been able to read his father’s thoughts and prove him wrong, Gim-pel takes with him his prayer shawl and phylacteries - small, square, black boxes con-taining parchment with scriptural passages that are attached with black leather straps to the forehead and left arm (Encarta, 2003). The “theme of ‘memory’” (Ouaknin, 2000: 20) occurs often in the Bible quotations which are contained in the phylacteries. Ouaknin further explains the meaning of the phylacteries in his book Symbols of Judaism: “This is not a reinforcement of identity by seeking the roots which enclose us, but a questioning of our identity. To remember is to be open, to question.” (Ouaknin, 2000: 20)..

Had Gimpel’s father been right, and Gimpel had just wanted to run away, forget his past and forsake his religion, without question the one thing he would not have taken are his phylacteries. Thus he does not leave his tradition and Jewishness behind, but does not see any opportunities for himself in the narrow, backward world of Frampol. He clearly belongs to a new generation of East European Jews who are more than willing to leave the safety of the shtetl and become a part of the Diaspora..

When Abba takes Gimpel to the station and sees the train, he takes the locomotive’s light “for the eyes of a hideous devil” (Singer, 1982: 46). On the one hand, this goes to show how unfamiliar Abba is with any “new technology”, even though locomotives had been used to transport passengers since 1829. On the other hand, his reaction demonstrates what Abba thinks the future has in store for Gimpel. Even though Abba still cannot comprehend his son’s motives, he cannot but give his son his blessings: “At the last moment the boy kissed his father’s hand, and Abba called after him, into the darkness, ‘Good luck! Don’t forsake your religion!’” (Singer, 1982: 46).

On the journey to New York Gimpel tries hard to remain Orthodox. Out of fear of touching improper food, he lives on potatoes and herring during the entire voyage. After his arrival in the United States, he is confronted with the New York Jewry and his determination and conviction slowly fades. He adjusts to the culture that surrounds him and becomes a liberal Jew. “He met a lot of his countrymen in New York; they all wear short coats. He too.” (Singer, 1982: 46)..

In the second letter Gimpel writes home to his parents he reports that he has fallen in love with and is going to marry Bessie, a Jewish girl from Rumania. Naturally the letter is written in Yiddish, but Gimpel cannot think of Yiddish word to describe his future wife’s job: she works “at dresses” (Singer, 1982: 46). His inability to express himself in his mother tongue clearly indicates that Gimpel is beginning to live more in the future than in the past. He has started his own family and is capable of making a living for himself and his wife. He is happy in and comfortable with his new life and surroundings..

In letter number three Gimpel includes his wedding picture. “Abba could not believe it. His son was wearing a gentleman’s coat and a high hat” (Singer, 1982: 46). Gimpel has 12 obviously become an American and is living the American dream. To the people in the village, who all come to look at the picture, America appears to be like the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 4:8), but what they do not, and cannot, realize is that at this point, in America Gimpel is still nothing but a poor immigrant, who is barely getting by..

Impressed by their brother’s success, Abba’s sons, one after another, follow their brother to America. Even though his sons send money from abroad, and he would not have to work, Abba still keeps his routine of getting up at dawn and working all day..

Abba tries to think about what he could have done wrong to deserve this punishment inflicted on him, he assumes, by God:.

“[H]is mind reeled. For generations the little shoemakers had lived in Frampol. Suddenly the birds had flown the coop. Was this a punishment, a judgment, on him? Did it make sense? … ‘So - you, Abba know what you’re doing and God does not? Shame on you, fool! His will be done. Amen’” (Singer, 1982: 47; emphasis added);.

The second turning point occurs in the fourth part, “The Sack of Frampol”. Abba’s wife has long since died, his sons have become rich and keep asking their old father, whom they have not seen in 40 years, to join them in America. Still Abba feels no need to leave Frampol, nor the burning desire to be with his sons. The rest of his life is very well planned and he is destined to go down a tranquil road until his death. He even had his own gravestone raised already. Significantly, the house is just about to collapse, and so is his century old legacy of shoemaking. The neighbors keep begging Abba to move out of the house, quit working, and live on the money his sons are sending. But he simply cannot break with the tradition his entire identity is hinging on. He needs his routine so as to not lose orientation and to give a meaning to his life. The only difference for him in everyday life is that now he has to cook for himself and, when he is singing his shoe-maker’s song, sing the chorus by himself. Yet at least in his thoughts, he does miss his sons: “All his thoughts ran on one theme: What is life and what is death, what is time that goes on without stopping, and how far away is America?” (Singer, 1982: 49)..

After a while the news of anti-Semitic decrees starts reaching Frampol. Abba is surprised to find out that some of his customers “suddenly deserted him and took their trade to Polish shoemakers.” (Singer, 1982: 49), but he, like so many others, does not understand the seriousness of the situation..

When he hears about Hitler’s plan to invade Poland, what goes through his mind is that “This scourge of Israel had expelled the Jews from Germany, as in the days of Spain. The old man thought of the Messiah and became terribly excited. Who knows? Perhaps this was the battle of Gog and Magog?.

Maybe the Messiah really was coming and the dead would rise again!” (Singer, 1982: 49)..

In some strange way and for naïve, maybe even ignorant Abba, Hitler’s arrival is ‘good news’. He believes that the day of the Messiah is near and actually does mistake Nazi planes bombing Frampol for His arrival: “The old man shook to his bones: the blast of the Messiah’s trumpet! But it was not Elijah the Prophet proclaiming the Messiah. Nazi planes were bombing Frampol.” (Singer, 1982: 50)..

Abba steps out of his home to find out what is happening and consequently we are provided with a rather graphic description of exactly what it is that Abba is witnessing. During that scene the reader experiences Singer creating an atmosphere that can only be described as aesthetics of horror:.

“There was a blaze of lightning, followed by a blast that illuminated all of Frampol. A black cloud rose over the courtyard of the synagogue. Flocks of birds flapped about the sky. […] Looking down from his hill, Abba saw the orchards under great columns of smoke. The apple trees were blossoming and burning.” (Singer, 1982: 50; emphasis added)..

Abba decides he has seen enough, he realizes it is not the arrival of the Messiah and knows he is now forced to leave the house of his forefathers. When he does so, he, like Gimpel, takes with him his prayer shawl and phylacteries. The minute Abba leaves the house, it collapses. It has fulfilled its purpose and with Abba’s leaving there is no tradi-tion for it to protect any longer. Abba turns around to have one last look at his home and “saw the shelf of sacred books go up in flames. The blackened pages turned in the air, glowing with fiery letters like the Torah given to the Jews on Mount Sinai.” (Singer, 1982: 50). Again, Abba is looking for parallels between his own life and stories of the Bible..

“Across the Ocean” tells the story of Abba’s journey to New York City. After having left his home and fled into the woods surrounding Frampol, Abba feels his life is “like a story he had read in the Bible. … [He had] gone wandering into the world like Patriarch Abra-ham“ (Singer, 1982: 50). He thinks of the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah, but then what was Frampol’s “sin”? Sodom and Gomorrah had become avaricious and fallen from God. Frampol was still a very religiously centered community. As he is spending the nights in the cemetery, “lying with his head on a gravestone” (Singer, 1982: 50), he comes back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and sees himself as Jacob, the survi-vor, at Beth-El..

Even though the Jews of Frampol had to flee the town and leave their lives behind, they still celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the forest where they are hiding. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, ending in Yom Kippur. In the Jewish faith this is a time to “express man’s inherent capacity to shake up his exis- tence and find new, original paths.” (Ouaknin, 2000: 66). On Rosh Hashanah 1939 the Jews of Frampol were forced to find “new original paths”..

Significantly Abba is the only one who saved his prayer shawl and hence is chosen to lead the prayers. The refugees of Frampol are united by their Jewish faith. If only they keep their faith, they will be saved. Grossbart, one of Philip Roth’s characters in “De-fender of the Faith”, verbalizes exactly that a few years later in an Army camp while training to be sent to war: “‘That’s what happened in Germany,’ Grossbart was saying … ‘They didn’t stick together.’” (Roth, 1993: 174). The Jewish community of Frampol is de-termined to “stick together”..

Singer uses a language too beautiful to describe the horrors of war and imbeds his de-scription in a pastoral like scene. Even the explosions in the surrounding villages become an instrument in the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah in that they represent the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn, which “stirs the being and puts it into question.” (Ouaknin, 2000: 66):.

“A cuckoo and a woodpecker accompanied him [Abba], and the birds roundabout twittered, whistled, and screeched. Late summer gossamers wafted through the air and trailed into Abba’s beard. From time to time a lowing sounded through the forest, like a blast on the ram’s horn. … The horses in the surrounding pastures whinnied and neighed, the frogs croaked in the cool night. Distant gunfire sounded intermittently; the clouds shone red. Meteors fell; flashes of lightning played across the sky.” (Singer, 1982: 51).

Right after that portrayal of life in the forest, the reader is confronted with the whole revulsion of war: “Half-starved little children, exhausted from crying, took sick and died in their mothers’ arms. There were many burials in the open fields” (Singer, 1982: 51). This is again juxtaposed with an apparent silver lining: “A woman gave birth.” (Singer, 1982: 51). Yet one wonders what fate has in store for this infant born in the forest?.

For Abba the circle seems to be about to come to a close. He is now his own greatgreat-grandfather, fleeing from the Cossack pogroms. Like his great-great grandfather, he has left the place of his birth and realizes he has to either die a martyr’s death or find somewhere else to live. He chooses to use his money to help the Jews escape to Rumania by hiring wagons, but also, to keep them capable of walking, he has to come along with them to mend their shoes..

Their escape to Rumania takes place during the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time which is supposed to provide “an opportunity to as-sess one’s actions and thought over the past year, and to question one’s existence, choices, and options in life” (Ouaknin, 2000: 66). Being in the situation they are, Abba and his companions certainly do not have a lot of “options”, but without a doubt they must continually make decisions, choices their lives could depend on, and their bare exis- tence is in jeopardy every single minute of the day..

They get into Rumania the night before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, “the day the human being is relieved from his past” (Ouaknin, 2000: 70). The Jews of Frampol have left their past behind and they understand they can never return to the life they knew and loved. They are in a strange country, a country they know will only be safe for a short period of time..

Abba finds a way to contact his sons, they organize a visa for their father and have him brought over to the US. Like Gimpel, Abba does not eat on the journey out of fear of touching taref. Already weak from fasting, he loses his prayer shawl and phylacteries on the way and with them his orientation. He gets ever sicker, but still finds parallels be-tween his own voyage and for example “the prophet Jonah, who fled before God” (Singer, 1982: 52). He obviously still feels that God’s wrath was what destroyed Frampol and thereby sealed his fate. His greatest worry is that he might not receive “a decent Jewish burial” (Singer, 1982: 52) and therefore won’t be able to make peace with God..

We are never told anything about the way Gimpel felt when he encountered the New World for the first time, but his father is more than overwhelmed. Looking at New York City from the ship, he mistakes the towers of Manhattan for the “pyramids of Egypt” (Singer, 1982: 52). He feels like he has been forced out of his promised land, his be-loved Frampol community, and transplanted to a strange land, where slavery is awaiting him..

In New York harbor Abba is meet by his sons, whom he, still disoriented, does not rec-ognize and takes for “a crowd of Polish landowners, counts and countesses, Gentile boys and girls, leaped at him, hugged him, and kissed him, crying out in a strange language, which was both Yiddish and not Yiddish” (Singer, 1982: 52f.). Apparently their Yiddish has become Americanized to such a degree that Abba can barely understand them..

Gimpel and his brothers drive Abba through New York City in a car - something he has probably never seen in his entire life - going at speed that to Abba feels like “shot arrows” (Singer, 1982: 53). He is even more overwhelmed by the glimpses of New York City that catch his eye as they fly past the window:.

“Buildings rose up and receded, as if by magic, some of the buildings touching the sky. Whole cities lay spread out before him; Abba thought of Pithom and Rameses. The car sped so fast, it seemed the people in the streets were moving backward. The air was full of thunder and light-ning; a banging and trumpeting, it was a wedding and a conflagration at once. The nations had gone wild, a heathen festival … Suddenly he thought of Jacob arriving in Egypt, where he was met by Pharaoh’s chariots. He felt, he had lived through the same experiences in a previ-ous incarnation.”.

Abba must have felt as if he had traveled through time and been catapulted centuries ahead of his own time. He is looking for something to hold on to, anything that is familiar to him. He knows in his head, that the people surrounding him are his sons, but since he cannot recognize them, or tell one from the other, his only resort, his only safe place, is yet again a passage from the Bible:.

“His beard began to tremble; a hoarse sob rose from his chest. A forgotten passage from the Bible stuck in his gullet. Blindly he embraced one of his sons and sobbed out, ‘Is this you? Alive?’ He had meant to say: ‘Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive.’” (Singer, 1982: 53).

The last section is entitled “The American Heritage”. We learn that Gimpel and his brothers have founded their own little community and lead successful lives: “Their seven homes, surrounded by gardens, stood on the shore of a lake. Every day they drove to the shoe factory, owned by Gimpel” (Singer, 1982: 53)..

To honor Abba’s arrival, all of his children and their families stay at home and give a feast according to the Orthodox dietary laws. The father of Gimpel’s wife had been a He-brew teacher in the old land and she, too, has not forgotten all about Jewish Orthodox traditions and is in charge of the banquet. The meal they have in honor of Abba’s arrival is “reminiscent of the Passover Seder” (Singer, 1982: 54). The Jewish Pesach “com-memorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and the end of slavery” (Ouaknin, 2000: 86). The image Abba had upon disembarking in New York Harbor is now turned around. Abba no longer has slavery ahead of him, but his family is celebrating the fact that he has just been saved from slavery, or in the contemporary context, from being deported to a concentration camp..

The daughters-in-law would have liked to see Abba “properly dressed up for the occa-sion” (Singer, 1982: 54), but Gimpel “put his foot down, and Abba was allowed to spend his first day in the familiar long coat, Frampol style” (Singer, 1982: 54; emphasis added). Also Gimpel has invited a photographer, not so he would have pictures of his father’s arrival for himself, but “for publication in the newspapers” (Singer, 1982: 54)..

We can as well observe a typical syndrome of second and third generation immigrants: Gimpel’s children and their children no longer speak Yiddish. They have been taught a couple of phrases, but no serious effort has been made to preserve the language within the family..

Gimpel and his brothers may not have entirely assimilated, but their children are definitely Americans! They no longer feel Polish at all. It is hard to tell whether Abba’s grand and great-grand children still feel Jewish, but they are probably no longer familiar with the typically Orthodox traditions on which Abba raised his sons..

Gimpel and his brothers have found a way of living in the new world without entirely forgetting the old one. They still go to synagogue, in a way they have even created their 17 own little shtetl outside of New York City. Each others’ company helped them to become successful and they are still immensely proud of their past and family tradition, as can easily be seen in the advertisement Gimpel places in the paper now and then (Singer, 1982: 54)..

As Abba is too weak to even leave his own bed, he knows nothing about the environ-ment he is living in. The fact that Gimpel has colored housemaids still puts the image of Egypt, the Pharaoh and Joseph in his head and the phone reminds him of the Nazis bombing Frampol..

The reader starts worrying about Abba, when they are told that he is even too weak to say his prayers, a ritual he did not even abandon when he got extremely sick while he was crossing the Atlantic. In short, he is in total shock, everything new terrifies him, and he is surrounded by nothing but unfamiliar objects: the radio, the phone, the doorbell, and the cars speeding past Gimpel’s house..

In an effort to take his father to a familiar place, Gimpel takes Abba to the synagogue, but even the temple lacks any familiarity:.

“The sexton was clean-shaven, the candelabra held electric lights; there was no courtyard, no faucet for washing one’s hands, no stove to stand around. The cantor, instead of singing like a cantor should, babbled and croaked. The congregation wore tiny little prayer shawls, like scarves around their necks. Abba was sure he had been hauled into church to be converted …” (Singer, 1982: 55);.

The above description almost sounds like the account Gimpel gave us to explain why he was leaving Frampol. Gimpel thought everything in the village was backward and some-thing of a joke. Now as Abba beholds his first synagogue of the new world, it is just as ridiculous to him as the rabbinical court in Frampol was for Gimpel. Clearly nothing of the old traditions has been preserved by Gimpel and his brothers in the new world..

Abba chooses not to adjust to the new living conditions. He does not want to know anything about the world that surrounds him and does not seem to regain his sense of orientation. The daughters-in-law start worrying about what to do about the old man, and finally develop a very clear-cut answer: they “began to hint that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to put him in a home.” (Singer, 1982: 55)..

No sooner have his daughters-in-law minute articulated this idea that we reach another turning point: Abba finds his old shoemaking equipment, which is like a revelation to him. Finally he has found a point of reference, something familiar, and he starts taking up his daily routine again. He no longer spends his days dozing in bed, but gets up at dawn and starts to mend any old shoe he can find in the house. At first Gimpel’s wife Bessie is amused by the old man’s new and unusual activity but “the activity soon proved to be the old man’s salvation” (Singer, 1982: 55)..

Soon Abba is known in the entire community for making the best and most comfortable shoes, a fact, which, no doubt, can be interpreted as a strong statement against moder-nity and progress. The little old shoemaker, who barely escaped the Holocaust, who had never before left his little backward Polish shtetl, who is working with his old-fashioned tools in his old-fashioned way, is producing better shoes than his sons in their modern factory..

Now that Abba is capable of making a living for himself and no longer solely depends on his children, he takes to educating his great-grandchildren in “elements of Hebrew and piety” (Singer, 1982: 56), just as he did with his children in Frampol..

Soon his sons start joining him at the workbench on Sundays. The narrator paints the following scene for us:.

“Abba’s sons spread sackcloth aprons on their knees and went to work … The women stood outside, laughing, but they took pride in their men, and the children were fascinated. The sun streamed in through the windows, and motes of dust danced in the light. In the high spring sky, lofting over the grass and the water, floated clouds in the form of brooms, sailboats, flocks of sheep, herds of elephants. Birds sang; flies buzzed; butterflies fluttered about.” (Singer, 1982: 56).

Again, we are looking at a pastoral scene. In a way, as far as Abba is concerned, he could as well be in Frampol. Even though he still feels that he is living in an unwanted exile, it fills him with joy to find out that his sons “had not become idolaters in Egypt” (Singer, 1982: 56)..

Even though he was a respected personality in Frampol, he does not seem to miss his former community. It does not matter to him where he lives, but how. As long as he can keep up his daily routine of rising at dawn, praying, and producing shoes, he is comfort-able. In the end he is singing his old Frampol shoemaker song and his sons happily join in again..

There are certain parallels between the life of Abba Shuster and Isaac Bashevis Singer, which, in my opinion, should not be overrated. Both loved their home, but both were forced to leave it behind by the Nazi threat. Both went to New York City to join members, or in Singer’s case, a member, of their family. Both lives tell the story of a successful immigration, but while Abba did not care about his surroundings, Isaac studies just that, the events and changes in American society, and more importantly within the American Jewry, in minute detail. While Abba obviously did not feel the loss of his community, but only that of his daily routine, Isaac Singer was deeply disturbed to find out that Yiddish did not seem to have a future in the United States. Ultimately they both found solace in doing something they knew from their old home, Abba in making shoes, Isaac in writing Yiddish stories..


Excerpt out of 80 pages


Communication and Society in Jewish American Short Stories: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley and Philip Roth
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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20th century American Short Stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, New York, immigration, assimilation
Communication, Society, Jewish, American, Short, Stories, Isaac, Bashevis, Singer, Bernard, Malamud, Grace, Paley, Philip, Roth
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Kristina Maul (Author), 2005, Communication and Society in Jewish American Short Stories: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley and Philip Roth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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