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!