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review 2016-01-18 00:58
The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer
The Slave - Isaac Bashevis Singer,Cecil Hemley


Translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley

Description: Four years after the Chmielnicki massacres of the seventeenth century, Jacob, a slave and cowherd in a Polish village high in the mountains, falls in love with Wanda, his master's daughter. Even after he is ransomed, he finds he can't live without her, and the two escape together to a distant Jewish community. Racked by his consciousness of sin in taking a Gentile wife and by the difficulties of concealing her identity, Jacob nonetheless stands firm as the violence of the era threatens to destroy the ill-fated couple.

Opening: A single bird call began the day. Each day the same bird, the same call.

An unusual love story, yet one, thankfully, that doesn't hover on sentimental hogwash. If you love bizarre superstitions including succubi, vampires, Dizwosina and Skrots, then this may just be the book for you.

Drowning Baba Yaga.

Thoroughly disconcerted as to why Poland has willingly returned to media censorship after they fought so hard to slough off the yoke, I go searching for answers in past fiction, well, 'pointers' to be more exact. I read Turkish literature for the same reason, why, after Atatürk's splendid ideals, are there Islamists in government there. So many questions to ponder over, so little time.

Chmielnicki: the Cossack-Polish War 1648-1657: mass atrocities committed by Cossacks against civilian population, especially against the Roman Catholic clergy and the Jews. Relevent to today's world is thisbit snaffled from wiki: it [this war] led to the eventual incorporation of eastern Ukraine into the Tsardom of Russia.

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review 2015-08-13 04:42
Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer - Dvorah Telushkin

"MASTER OF DREAMS" is a story of the 14 years the author spent working for Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Laureate and the chronicler of Yiddish life and culture in the shtetls of Eastern Europe (in his case, Poland, where he lived from 1904 until 1935, when he emigrated to the U.S.), myth, and folklore.


Throughout her long relationship with Singer, Telushkin had kept journals in which she related her experiences with him. They first met in 1975 in New York. Telushkin was 21 and Singer was 71. Telushkin had written a letter to Singer, offering to act as his driver to and from his creative writing class, if only he would permit her to attend the course. An agreement was struck and thus began Telushkin's apprenticeship with Singer. Through the evolution of their relationship, the reader sees Singer in all his complexity. At times, he is like a child, wide-eyed with wonder at the world, joyous and exuberant, always eager to meet with admirers of his works at lectures and speaking engagements in New York and various other places across the country anxious to see and hear him speak. Other times, Singer is petulant, paranoid, cantakerous, capricious, and at times downright hurtful to Telushkin as the following passage will attest: “… when I turned thirty and began to come of age, Isaac was unable to change along with me. I began to study Yiddish and this was taking time away from him. Although he had urged me for years to study Yiddish,… so that I could translate for him, when I actually started doing so, he reacted ambivalently. Sometimes, he praised me. Yet when Charles McGrath complimented my translations, Isaac became ill at ease, at times even hostile. For the translation of 'Matones' ('Gifts') he tried to add his name on the translation credit. I didn't say a word, but the following day I saw that he had erased it."


For me, who only knew of Singer previously from one of his books I saw as a child in my Mom's library and from the movie adaptation of one of his stories (i.e. "Yentl"), this was a book that gave me greater access to the real man, his writing philosophy, fears, relationships with family and friends, hopes, and personality. What's more, "Master of Dreams" is well-written, easy to read, and for the reader who has little or no knowledge of the Yiddish interspersed therein, Telushkin provides footnotes for every chapter, a glossary, and a "Note on Transcription" (which touches upon the various dialects of the Yiddish language).

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-01-18 16:25
Short Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
The Last Demon (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by Singer, Isaac Bashevis (2011) Paperback - Isaac Bashevis Singer

At our meeting this month we have discussed life of Isaac Bashevis Singer and his 3 short stories: "The Last Demon", "Yentl the Yeshua Boy" and "The Cafeteria". 


As a child, Singer was impressed by the Jewish folk tales told by his parents. These tales set the groundwork for many of his fictional characters, he often mined folk tales to convey the 20th century cruelty.

He was always a voracious reader. His earliest influences were Benedict de Spinoza, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyewski. He was also impressed by Kant's philosophy.


In 1978, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for "his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human condition to life". He, himself said about his work: "The storyteller of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social and political ideals. Nonetheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation".


"The Last Demon" is a monologue by a demon, who is the last survivor of the town of Tishevitz after all the human inhabitants have been killed in the Holocaust. This manifestation of human evil and cruelty has made supernatural evil irrelevant, obsolete: "Why demons, when men himself is a demon? Why persuade to evil someone who is already convinced" the demon narrator muses.

He has no one left to prey on, and his only source of substance is and old Yiddish storybook left behind in an abandoned house: "But nevertheless the letters are Jewish. The alphabet they could not squander. i suck on the letters and feed myself... Yes, as long as a single volume remains, I have something to sustain me."

The parallel between demon and writer couldn't be clearer: both are living on language, after the people who spoke it are long gone. We can also notice the similarity between the relationship demon - human and Yiddish language - Jewish existence. Both demon and Yiddish lost their force, their sphere of influence, both have to 'survive' in the world they have not chosen. The story also constitutes a complaint about the incongruity of a demon, or a writer, having to take up the task of commemoration and preservation. 


"Yentl the Yeshua Boy" is a very ambiguous tale, a drama of longing. Near the end of the story the omniscient narrator suggest that the village gossips who insist on prying into the details of Anshel's mysterious disappearance, his leave-taking must finally accept any falsehood as fact: "Truth, itself is often concealed in such a way that harder you look for it, the harder it is to find". Is that Singer's way of cautioning the reader not to pry to deeply into his character's motivations, to accept the tale at the simple level? 

The truth lies in the story title, by which the author proclaims that he is recounting the extraordinary circumstances of a girl, Yentl, who is at the same time a boy through her dedication to God's teaching - an androgynous being with the body of a woman, the soul of a man and desires of both. In a stage adaptation that Singer worked on in 1974, he changed some details to make more clear that Yentl loves Hadass as deeply as she loves Avigdor.


In "The Cafeteria", as in many other stories, Singer plays with the idea that time and space really are just veils over a deep reality, which occasionally shines through. It is deeply philosophical and a bit harder to interpret. In this tale a woman confides to the Singer-like narrator that she has seen Hitler in a cafeteria on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "It had seemed utter nonsense" he wonders at the end of the story, "but now I began to reappraise the idea. If time and space are nothing more than forms of perception, as Kant argues... why shouldn't Hitler confer with his Nazis n a cafeteria on Broadway? Esther didn't sound insane. She had seen a piece of reality that the heavenly censorship prohibits as a rule". 

The way Hitler appears in this story is a sign of what is perhaps the greatest of Singer's strengths: his refusal to allow his understanding of reality to be dictated by the experience of Holocaust - a floating, intercontinental world of Jewish refugees and survivors, in which a face glimpsed in Warsaw decades earlier suddenly turns up in New York or Tel Aviv. The lives of Singer's survivors are lives, full of absurdity and complication and love affairs and sickness. 

We have wondered about some aspects of "The Cafeteria": was the woman in love with narrator? Did she see Hitler because she was about to die and does the narrator see her because of the same reason? We have no definite answers, but I have to say, that personally I would answer "Yes" to both.


To write this entry I have used many sources and, unfortunately, I've lost some of them. If you have the right references, please post it in the comments!












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url 2015-01-11 21:57
Nobel Lecture by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Check out this amazing lecture by Isaac Bashevis Singer!

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photo 2015-01-06 16:55
The Last Demon - Isaac Bashevis Singer

We are back after holidays! Back to work but also back to our meetings. Can't wait for Monday! 

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