Monday, April 27, 2020

I. J. Singer's wandering Yoshe Kalb - “Name the cities you visited.” “They cannot be enumerated.”

I. J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb (1932, tr. from the Yiddish by Maurice Samuel) is another novel about wandering, contemporary with Narcissus and Goldmund.  Goldmund’s wandering was personal, more about finding what is best in life, while poor Yoshe Kalb is expiating a crime, or so he thinks.  He begins as Nahum, a fourteen year-old rabbinical scholar who is married off to the fourteen year-old daughter of a powerful rabbi, and –

I want to interrupt myself.  The world of the novel is that of the Galician Hassidim, by no means representative of other Jewish communities – unrepresentative, even – what I am saying is never marry off fourteen year-olds, to each other or to anyone.  I suppose most of us knew this.

So even the brilliant, well-meaning, pious, but still only fourteen years-old Nahum gets into trouble when jerked out of his home and plunged into what is practically a different culture.  Stricken by his sin, his crime, his mistake, his completely understandable weakness, if it is even that, he wanders Galicia, stripping himself of his identity, becoming the fool Yoshe Kalb.  First half of the novel; second half.  Scholar versus fool, or is it saint, and what is the difference, really?

“Why did you abandon your wife?”

“I had to do that.”

“Where were you?”

“Out in the world.”

“Name the cities you visited.”

“They cannot be enumerated.” (Book 3, 241)

Yoshe Kalb is answering the questions.  Or Nahum is.  Who knows.  He is on trial here, again, near the end of the novel.

I thought the best part of the novel, easily, was the complex satirical depiction of Galician Hassidic life.  It is hopelessly corrupt, with powerful rabbis creating empires based on monetizing the superstitions of their followers, and the sons of the rabbis turned into Machiavellis in their attempt to take over the empire.

Hey, is there a plague in this novel?  There sure is, more or less in the middle, and poor Yoshe Kalb becomes the scapegoat for it.

I. J.’s kid brother wrote an amusing, loving, informative introduction to the 1965 edition of Yoshe Kalb, in which he says that New York’s Galician Jews were thrilled to see themselves depicted in the Forward, where the novel was first published, since the fiction had previously been about the Litvaks, the Lithuanian Jews.  I found this pretty funny, since the picture of Galician Jewish life is so horrible.  I can imagine a reader of the Forward saying to me “Exactly, why do you think I’m in New York now?”


  1. Timely! My wife just finished Brothers Ashkenazi earlier today & was suggesting I should give it a go, though her reports were not unmixed. I'm pretty well read in I. B., but have never read any I. J.

    From her description Brothers Askenazi also portrays Galician Jewish life as pretty horrifying. I don't think of I. B. as naive about it, but there is a bit more romanticizing typically in his looks back at that background.

  2. I like how you write. I am very happy I found your blog.
    I'm going to read your 'this is what i do's now.
    Did I just read you mention John Ruskin??? I love you.

  3. I hope to read Ashkenazi later this year. "Not unmixed" sounds good to me. I am amazed that these books, Yoshe Kalb and Ashkenazi, were big hits, both in English and Yiddish. Different world.

    Emily, thanks. This was once almost a Ruskin fan blog. Reading Ruskin greatly changed my perception of what was going on in the literature around him.

  4. Once took a seminar with Anita Norich (super smart big shot Yiddish scholar) and she *loved* I. J. Singer, especially Ashkenazi. I've both these books here. Let me know if you read Ashkenazi later this year. Going on sabbatical in a few weeks...

  5. A well-earned sabbatical.

    Yes, let's pencil Ashkenazi in for the fall. That sounds great.

    I see that Norich did some of the translations in that great old American Yiddish Poetry collection that I enjoyed so much.

  6. She told us at the time (2014?) that she was only going to be translating from then on. She has done several collections by women Yiddish writers, including one by the Singers' sister.
    I'm slowly watching this series:

    I look forward to the Ashkenazi!

  7. Working on, translating, these Yiddish writers is a form of cultural heroism. So impressive.

  8. 460 pages in the current edition, not crazy for a readalong book.