Literary Notes: On the Jewish Reader in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin”


Sanford Pinsker has argued that the main character of I.B. Singer’s The Magician of Lublin is a schlemiel.    But its hard to see how this can be the case.  In comparison to I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Malamud’s Morris Bober, or any Woody Allen schlemiel character, Yasha seems to be the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  He is cast as a “magician” and an acrobat who is an expert in breaking through locks – like a Houdini – and walking the tightrope.  He is also a hypnotist of sorts.   But while he is well known in Lublin, he is lesser known in Warsaw.  Yasha wants fame, but to have that he must depart Poland for central Europe.

His schlemiel character is complex.  But what makes him a schlemiel are his decisions which, while being good intentioned, are actually disasterous.  At this point in the novel – the first hundred pages – the reader can see it coming.  But, I would add, this disaster would be most apparent to the Jewish reader.  And, after all, that is who the novel was originally written for – it was written in Yiddish and translated into English.
The travesty has to do with the tightrope he walks between different experiences – which, in this novel, is emblematized by different women.     Yasha is married to a woman named Esther. She is the emblem of traditional Judaism.  She is a religious woman who has fallen in love with a schlemiel-magician.   They share a home in Lublin.  He only sees her on the major religious holidays.  The rest of the year he is wandering around the country not only doing circus acts but also spending time with other women.  One woman, his circus partner, is Polish.  Her name is Magda.  He stays at her house and travels with her.  She knows of his other mistresses and is fine with this. But her brother, Bolek, is an anti-Semite and would love to literally kill Yasha.   But she stays with Yasha because she, like all the other women, believes in him.

Along the way, we meet a Jewish widower named Zeftel. She also is in love with Yasha.  He makes promises to her as well.   But she cannot leave with him.  She seems stuck.  But he comes to her in order to lift her spirits and to make love.  But at the end of the road – in Warsaw – is a woman named Emilia.   She is Catholic and she wants him to convert and marry her. But what would this imply about his marriage to Esther? What would this imply about his commitments to Judaism?  These are the questions that would arise in the Jewish reader’s mind.  It seems as if this is the tightrope that this version of the schlemiel walks.  And unlike Gimpel, who is an endearing character, Yasha’s choices are much more irritating. There seems to be an abyss between him and Malamud’s schlemiel, Morris Bober, whose humility and self-deprecation is something a Jewish reader well-recognizes.   Yasha is different.  And perhaps for this reason, his schlemiel character serves to put into question what matters most to a Jew in the modern world.

To be sure, this is evidenced in the text.  The narrator’s descriptions of Yasha’s romantic relationship with Emilia betray a kind of emptiness.  How could he sacrifice his Judaism?  How could he sacrifice Esther for this kind of beauty?

The irony is that Emelia has a “little Jewish blood in her.” But this blood patrilineal (in traditional Judaism, Jewishness is passed on through the mother and is matrilineal).  And it is also the blood of a heretic and a Sabbatean who converted to Catholicism: Elisha Shur (who was a “famous Frankist”).   By embracing her, in other words, he embraces heresy. She is half-Catholic and half Jewish heretic.  His relationship with her requires conversion out of Judaism and into Catholicism:

Now she wore a light, café-au-lait gown. She’d never seemed as beautiful as now: straight, supple, Polish beauty with high cheekbones, a Slavic nose, but with black Jewish eyes full of wit and passion.  Her hair in back was unswept and circled by a wreathlike braid…Her smile was shy, yet wanton.  They had already, in the past, confessed like lovers. She often confessed that it required her self-control to keep herself from complete surrender.  But it was her wish to marry him in church, to begin their wedded life on a pure basis.  He had already promised that, to please her, he would convert to Christianity. (392, An I.B. Singer Reader)

The narrator – raising the stakes – goes on to tell the reader of Emelia’s devotion to Catholic mysticism.  It seems to overpower Yasha’s Judaism.   But she – like Yasha – has a degree of skepticism: “the mysticism had through some strange fashion blended within Emilia with skepticism and a quiet sense of humor”(393).   She falls into this mysticism after her husband had died and she sees Yasha in his image (394).   In her mystical leaning, she believes that her dead husband had sent her “intimations” that Yasha was the one she must marry.

Yasha accepts it all and doesn’t challenge her. He only wonders about the meaning of religion and it seems that he slips into the tragic belief that this situation was “fate.” This, the narrator seems to be telling us, is the trap.  He is mesmerized by her request to convert because he literally worships her.  He is dreaming.

But the smell of coffee in the room – after he is left alone – wakes him up to this strange predicament. When he realizes that he is all alone, he experiences anxiety and doubt doubt his endeavor.  They feed his passion in some way:

The aroma permeated the drawing-room.   Yasha was left alone.  Well, everything is fate, he mumbled to himself.   He was seized by a tremor. With those few words to Emilia (“I’ve come now and we won’t be separated again!”), he had just about sealed his destiny.   But what would become of Eshter now?….Was he capable of changing his religion?  I cannot live without her! He replied to himself.  He was filled suddenly with the impatience of a convict awaiting his release, every hour an eternity.  He stood up. Though his heart was heavy, his feet felt uncommonly light. Right now I could turn not one but three somersaults on the tightrope! How could I have put this off for so long? (396)

In this altered state of resolution to converting and leaving it all behind, Yasha looks out the window and sees a romantic vision of lovers in a “dance of the sexes.” It is as if the only thing that will stave his doubt is an epiphany.

But this vision is interrupted by a memory of Jewishness: “But what was it he saw in her?  And how blue the sky was today! Pale blue like the curtain which hung in the temple during the Days of Awe”(396).  This last image creates a deep anxiety and doubt in Yasha.  However, he seems to dispel them:

Yasha felt a pang of doubt at the comparison.  Well, God was God, whether you prayed to Him in the synagogue or church. Emelia came back. He walked towards her.  (396)

What ensues after they see each other is all lightness.  And, as a reader, as a Jewish reader, one can imagine how fake the words come across.   Whenever Yasha is alone – without her – these doubts rise up.  It seems as if his schlemielkeit can be found in his acting as if Jewishness doesn’t matter at all and that beauty – her beauty – and the call to convert are really nothing at all.

The Jewish reader can see his blind-spot.  But I wonder if this would come across the same to a non-Jewish reader?  The only way it could is if she could see the tension between being a Jew and leaving it all behind.  What Singer seems to be suggesting is that morality and beauty struggle in Yasha’s breast.  His desire to “expand” and become famous includes his becoming Catholic and leaving Lublin behind.  Lublin and Eshter are associated with smallness and tradition.

It seems that the struggle – if it is to be generalized – is between contraction and expansion.  To expand would mean to leave it all behind, to wander and to betray his Jewishness, he would have to grow away rather than to grow within. To do that, however, he would have to stay with Esther, to return to her, in Lublin.  His passion for magic and fame move him away – it seems – from what is best for his Jewishness.  To be Jewish, he has to accept a kind of smallness.   He has to accept that he is a lonely and divided man and that no vision or fantasy will save him from that. Singer associates this division – this tightrope walk – with a struggle of Jewishness and the world.

Pinsker suggests that this schlemiel – to be sure – is shela (sent) m’ (from) el (God). But how is that the case?   Is there a prophetic model for the schlemiel?  And is this a modern kind of prophesy for the Jewish reader?  What is the message that Yasha is sending? Are Jews, like him, on a modern tightrope? What happens when we no longer have memories of Lublin (of the old country)? What can keep Jews…Jewish and prevent them from leaving it all behind if not a kind of memory or devotion to Esther? Is this a metaphor for the female presence of God, the shechina? Is his freedom a  travesty? And how do we read this though a feminist lens?

These are my initial speculations on this matter…at the outset of the novel.  More to come.




One thought on “Literary Notes: On the Jewish Reader in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin”

  1. Pingback: “Don’t Be Like Larry?” On the Schlemiel & the FTX Crypto Scam | Schlemiel Theory

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