Like many American Jews, I am curious about the life of my grandparents and great grandparents. On one side of my family, both of my grandparents were born in Europe but my father and his brothers were all born and raised in New York City. My grandparents on the other side of my family, however, were both born in the United States (in New York and New Jersey). I was the first child in my family to be raised in Upstate New York (which, although it is only three hours from New York City, is worlds apart).
Looking back on my upbringing, I identified more with the American side of my hyphenated identity than my Jewish side. I had little choice because I was the only Jew in my elementary school (besides my brother) and when I was in high school (which I had to transfer to because of an anti-Semitic experience) I was only one of three in my grade. We did have a small Hebrew School, a Jewish Community Center, and a Synagogue in Gloversville, New York. I learned enough Hebrew to say my Haftorah at my Bar Mitzvah. But my sense of Jewishness was not solid. My parents and my relatives gave me a vague cultural sense of Jewishness. And when I left high school for university, I wanted to find out more about the other side of the hyphen. Over time, I became a Jewish detective inquiring into my historical and cultural roots. And, as Freud might say, my self-analysis has become interminable.
For years, I have been reading historical accounts and novels about Jewish life in America and Europe. The ones that touch me most deeply, however, had a lot to do with questions I have about my grandfather who was a proud Viennese (Austrian) Jew. He died before I was born and this left me with a huge experiential and knowledge gap. And since my father got in a spat with his family in which one side of the family basically disowned the other (my side), I was only able to meet my grandmother once (when I was sixteen years old) before she died. I had so many questions for her but she was too busy apologizing for the lost years to tell me anything about my missing grandfather.
What do I know? I have gathered that my grandfather was raised in Kalusz, not Vienna. His father was a Rabbi. But when he came of age, he traveled to Vienna, developed his German to high proficiency, went to University there, joined the military, and rose in the ranks. He was a young corporal of a platoon of Jewish-Polish soldiers during WWI. He came to America after the war, in the 1920s, met my grandmother (who was of German and Sephardic descent), married, started a big family (my father was the youngest of four children), and created one of the largest leather companies in the world in upstate New York. What, I wondered, was life like for him when he grew up in Europe? How did he go from being a religious boy in Eastern Europe to a businessman in America? What happened? And, most importantly, how was I to imagine this?
My attraction to the literature and philosophical works of Austrian-Jewish and German-Jewish writers and thinkers can be understood from my need to know what life was like for my grandfather. Many of these books were helpful and gave me a sense of the high level of thinking and culture an Austrian-Jew would have. Their work also gave me a sense of their struggles with being Jewish in a society that was more interested in their contributions as Austrians or Germans than as Jews. But it was only recently when I came across Joseph Roth’s Job: The Story of a Simple Man that I felt that I had finally come across a novel that spoke to my desire to see the process of a man and a family that leaves a life of religious piety in Eastern Europe for America depicted in a deeply symbolic and meaningful manner.
The main character of Roth’s novel is Mendel Singer. He is a humble man. He, like his father and grandfather, was a Torah (Bible) teacher for children:
Many years ago there lived in Zuchnow in Russia, a man named Mendel Singer. He was pious, God fearing, and ordinary, an entire commonplace Jew. He practiced the simple profession of a teacher. In his house, which was merely a roomy kitchen, he instructed children in the knowledge of the Bible. He taught with honorable zeal and without notable success. Hundreds and thousands before him had lived and taught as he did. (3)
Although the main character is situated in Russia, the writer of the tale was, like my grandfather, an Austrian Jew who had made the pilgrimage from Galacia to the city and beyond. His depictions of Mendel and his family have a lot to say about what he left behind and what he wants to leave behind; but it also shows us what he wants to hold close.
While Roth finds something endearing in his utter simplicity, he also finds something very sickly about Singer. To be sure, Roth, like Kafka (in “The Country Doctor”) and many other Austrian writers is fascinated with health and sickness. Many small details are painted with sickness or health throughout the novel. Things are tight and restricted. They don’t grow. And it weighs him and his family down:
His body was stuck into the customary half-long Jewish caftan of the country, the skirts of which flapped when Mendel Singer hurried through the street and stuck with a regular tact like the beat of wings against the shafts of his high leather boots.(4)
The setting around Mendel’s family diminishes as he ages. There is an acute sense of finitude:
When the students grew older they would go to other, wiser teachers. Living became dearer from year to year. The crops were always poorer and poorer. The carrots diminished, the eggs were hollow, the potatoes froze, the soup was watery, the carp thin, the pike short, the ducks lean…and the chickens amounted to nothing. (5)
His wife, Deborah, however, is much stronger than he. She wants a better life. She is a symbol of vitality under duress:
On Friday she scrubbed the floor until it was yellow as saffron. Her broad shoulders bobbed up and down in an even rhythm; her strong hands rubbed the length and breadth of each single board…She crept through the bare blue-whitewashed room like a broad, mighty, and moveable mountain. (5)
All of Mendel’s children, save one, are healthy. One goes off to join the military, the other leaves for America, while his daughter fools around with Cossacks. In other words, he has failed to produce yet another generation of Bible teachers. His last child, his last hope, is Menuchim. We see his birth at the beginning of the novel. But unlike all the other children, he is very sick. Roth’s depicts Menuchim as a monstrosity:
In the thirteenth month of his life he began to make faces and to groan like an animal, to breathe hastily and to gasp in an extraordinary fashion. His great skull hung heavy as a pumpkin on his thin neck. His broad brow was criss-crossed with folds and wrinkles like a crumpled parchment. His legs were crooked and lifeless, like two wooden bows. His meager little arms twitched and fidgeted. His mouth stammered ridiculous noises. (8)
Mendel and his wife pray for the child to be healed, but nothing changes. When given an opportunity to send him to a Russian doctor, the father refuses for fear of them taking his baby away and raising him outside of a Jewish home and into a Russian one. Deborah wants him to go and be cured. Mendel refuses (10). She then goes in search of a miracle for her son:
Deborah undertook pilgrimages to the cemetery; she called upon the bones of her ancestors to plead her cause to the Almighty. Thus would Menuchim become well and no epilectic. (10)
Meanwhile, “the older children grew and grew; their healthiness sounded an evil warning in the ears of the mother as though it were inimical to Menuchim. It was as though the healthy children drew strength from the sickly one, and Deborah hated their noisiness, their red cheeks, their straight limbs. She pilgrimaged to the cemetery in rain and shine….She called upon the dead whose quiet comforting answer she thought she heard”(11).
Deborah goes on to a Rabbi who tells her than she must stay with Menuchin and that her love commitment to the child will eventually yield a miracle. Throughout the novel, things get no better. It reaches a breaking point when their son, Sam, leaves for America and becomes successful. They must choose to go or stay behind with the child.
They decide to go. They leave Menuchim behind with friends. And in America things transform. America is associated with life, health, and abundance. Mendel is overwhelmed when he arrives. It is a physical, sensory overload:
All the smells united in a hot vapour, together with the noise which filled his ears and threatened to split his skull. Soon he no longer knew whether he was hearing, seeing, smelling. He went on smiling and nodding. America pressed down on him; America broke him; America shattered him. After a few minutes he become unconscious. (128)
When he comes to and sees himself in a mirror, surrounded by his family, he feels embarrassed. But his son and his friend Mac – their physical presence – revives him. It has the effect of good luck:
With difficulty he opened his lips and begged his son’s pardon. Mac grasped his hand and shook it, as though he congratulated Mendel on a successful trick or on a bet he had won. The iron clamp of the smile again settled around Mendel’s lips, and the unknown power again moved his head so that it seemed Mendel nodded. (128)
What is most astonishing is the physical transformation of Mendel by virtue of being in America. He and his wife become healthier and seem to have more luck. The possibility of success looms large around them. But as the health grows, so does the memory of Menuchin and his sickness. Deborah, especially, remembers that Menuchin could only utter the word “mama” and this memory truly pains her.
Roth sets up this dialectic between America and the old country by virtue of the health motif. They want to bring Menuchim to America and feel he can become healthy there. When they hear, in a letter, than Menuchim said a few more words (other than “mama”), their hopes are stirred and their desire to return and bring him back is stoked. Could a miracle have occurred?
Mendel returns to his prayerbook and now his worship becomes full of life and vigor:
From the trunk, he fetched his old prayerbook, so familiar to his hand. He opened it immediately to the Pslams, and sang one after another. He had experienced grace and joy. God’s broad, wide, kindly hand arched protectingly over him, too…His heart rejoiced, and his body had to dance. (148)
But in the chapter immediately following this, his health takes a turn for the worse. He becomes sickly again. He no longer “cared” about life his “beard was white; his eyes weak. His back bent; his hands trembled”(149). He becomes small, unrecognizable. While he sees and acknowledges America as a land of miracles (150) he can’t stop thinking about Menuchim and the world he left behind. His nostalgia is unhealthy. And things get worse for him in America.
He and his wife are surrounded by others who – because of their ties to the old country – become sick while living in America. When Menuchin comes back to visit, near the end of the novel, Mendel, like Job is to spent and warn down to enjoy the return and the fact that, miraculously, Menuchim can not only speak but has lived a good life. But there are other problems for Mendel. Where is Jonas? Is he alive? And is it too late? Isn’t Mendel on the cusp of death? And what is he to do now that his wife has passed away? At this moment, Roth has Mendel sink into the must profane moment of exposure and this, suggests Roth, is enlivening:
He himself, Mendel Singer, would have a good death, after many years, surrounded by grandchildren, “old and full of days,” as was written of Job. He felt a curious and forbidden desire to lay aside his old cap of silk rep, and feel the sun upon his skull. And for the first time in his life, Mendel Singer voluntarily uncovered his head, as he had only done in public offices, and in his bath. The few kinky hairs upon his bald head were moved by a gentle spring wind as though they had been rare and tender plants. (236)
Then Mendel asks to see a photograph on the wall with a healthy woman walking through the spring and in the midst of a sweet wind and with children. When he looks out the window he takes the picture up again and realizes that it is the picture of his daughter-in-law (Menuchim’s wife) and his grandchildren. At this point he remembers how, when he was young, his wife Deborah looked, her warmth, her body. It is the photograph which helps him to open his eyes not only to his son and his life but also to his wife who has passed away. These are his last moments before he dies and Roth tells us this is the “greatness of a miracle.”
Mendel’s misfortune had partially blinded him. It had affected his body. But it is a photograph (a secular miracle) that brings him his final revelation and gives him life, not his prayer book. It gives him back the world around him moments before he dies.
Reading this novel, I wonder if vitalism is the right frame for Jewishness. Life in America is certainly vital for the Jew. But I am on the other side of the hyphen. While Mendel knew a lot about what it means to be Jewish, he knew little about what it means to be American. When he found out he got his life back, albeit for a moment in time in which life and death became one. I, on the other hand, lived a full American life and I have, for several years, decided to cross the threshold into the realm of Jewishness. The question, for me, is where I can find a Jewish life that is vital and embodied. Perhaps the hyphen between Jewishness and Americanness is that vitality. It’s the threshold that I must pass. Like Kafka’s “man from the country” in his story “Before the Law” and like Job, I am a simple man with a desire to know and experience the truth. And like them I must pass through if I am to – as Franz Rosenzweig says – step into life (not death).