On Yasha and the Spiritual Journey of the Baal Teshuva Schlemiel in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin” (Part I)


A Baal Teshuva literally means a “master of return.”  It is the name for a person who seemingly, out of nowhere (perhaps because he wasn’t raised in Judaism, or had broken away from it, or had no knowledge of it) decides to “return” to God and Judaism (or being Jewish).  When I first came across Sanford Pinsker’s argument – in his book, The Schlemiel as Metaphor – that Yasha, the main character of I.B Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, was a schlemiel of faith I paused.  It is one of only two readings I have ever seen of I.B. Singer’s fiction that sees his characters in terms of faith.  While Ruth Wisse see’s Gimpel as the figure of faith (in a diminished sense of secular faith – the belief in goodness), Pinsker takes Yasha as an exemplary schlemiel of faith.

The difference between their two readings – and both schlemiels of faith – is telling because Wisse sees Singer as making the claim that, in the wake of the Holocaust, Gimpel is a schlemiel who preserves the good in a world that is evil (in the story nearly every character lies to him and takes advantage of his trust and goodness).   Gimpel doesn’t struggle with faith.  We (readers) do.  He is the embodiment of the faith.  According to Wisse, he lives “as if” good exists.   By putting those words in scare quotes, Wisse suggests a tension between hope and skepticism.  Why?  Because we want to believe in goodness while, at the same time, known that it may very well not exist.  After the Holocaust evil is palpable and goodness doesn’t seem to rein.  It is fragile.   This is what the schlemiel of faith embodies for Wisse, today (or when she wrote these words, in 1972).

In contrast to Wisse, Pinsker suggests that the schlemiel of faith is caught up in a struggle of faith.   I want to build on his work and suggest a new reading of Pinsker’s figure for this struggle – in the work of I.B. Singer – Yasha.  It requires a geographical trace to understand his journey – the circular journey of a schlemiel of faith – from Lublin to Warsaw and back.  He, like a Baal Teshuva, returns.  But the paradox is that it is a to a Lublin he never knew or perhaps had forgotten.   Perhaps the key to the schlemiel’s faith is this process and struggle and return: of memory and of Jewishness.

He is married to a religious woman in Lublin named Esther.  But Yasha isn’t religious.   Esther loves him and he her, but not her religion.  He is surrounded by religious Jews in Lublin, but he is indifferent to it all.   Yasha lives a different life.  He is a magician and an acrobat.  While he comes home for the High Holy Days, he spends all of his time on the road.   He travels with a magicians assistant – a young Polish girl named Magda, the daughter of Peasants – who he has an affair.  Yasha also has relations with a woman in a city who has become a widower and in Warsaw he falls in love with a widower, noble woman named Emilia.  She poses the greatest challenge to his Judaism because she is Catholic and wants him to convert.

Emilia also loves expensive things and this drives him to commit a crime which fails.   The scene is amazing and marks the pinnacle of his loss of Judaism (because it is a violation of the ten commandments to steal and kill).    I’ll quote the scene to show the altered state he enters when he does this.  His leap into crime, the total antithesis of Judaism, initiates the journey of the Baal Teshuva schlemiel.  Singer turns it into a profound schlemiel moment (a sublime, ecstatic moment, if you will):

I mustn’t fail, he urged himself.  Since I’ve taken the plunge, I must see it through.  He cocked his ears and listened.  Somewhere in the adjoining rooms Kazimierz Zaruski and his deaf servant slept.  He heard no sound.  What would I do if they were to awaken? he asked himself, but he could not supply the answer.   He put his hand on the safe and felt the cool metal.  Quickly we located the keyhole.  He traced it with his forefinger to determine it’s type and contour.  Then, he reached into his pocket for his skeleton key which he had just had in his hand, but it wasn’t there.  Undoubtedly he’d tucked it away in another pocket.  He began to search his pockets, but the key had vanished.  Where could I have put it?  The bad luck is starting already!….The important thing is not to panic! he cautioned himself.  Just imagine that you are doing a performance….Demons? he whispered to half in jest, half in earnest.  He began to feel warm. (An Isaac Beshvis Singer Reader, 453)

In schlemiel-like fashion, one thing he does after another leads to a chain reaction of bad luck and thoughts..  His thought is that the key may be under the landowners pillow – which he is sleeping on, drives him mad:

Suddenly, the thought came to him: a safe must have a key, and undoubtedly the old man kept it under his pillow.  He might wake.  And what assurance did Yasha have that the key was really there?  There were many possible places for the key in the apartment.   But now Yasha was sure that the key lay under Zaruski’s pillow.  (453)

What astonishes me most about this passage is that it suggests that Singer’s novel may be an homage to Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s celebrated story, “The Simpleton and the Wise One.”   The wise one, in that story, is obsessed with certainty.   Much like Yasha, his thoughts of perfection (and his obsession with perfect reasoning) drive him mad.  Ruth Wisse calls the simpleton in that story a schlemiel because he lives a simple life not a life plagued by skepticism, exactitude, and intellectual shrewdness.  The simpleton – because he stays in his small town, never ventures out, makes shoes (some ok, most not) – gives thanks for everything, even his poverty.

In Rabbi Nachman’s story, the two characters remain apart, while in Singer’s story, one becomes the other.   In Singer’s story, the main character – after slipping into a possible crime, and failing to consummate it – goes from being the chakham (maskil, Jewish intellectual) to a simpleton of faith.    While in Rabbi Nachman’s story we see a dialectical tension, in Singer’s story we see a transformation.   We witness it through the vision of a crime.

When he – in a dreamlike fashion – enters the bedroom of the apartment owner (an old man), everything seems suspended as this is when the idea becomes a reality: he must find the key under the pillow, take it, and unlock the safe.  What happens is  more or less a dark primal scene, which is described in profound, poetic, and concrete material detail:

He walked in and found himself in the bedroom.  It was darker here than in the other room, for he could not determine exactly where the window was located, could only conjecture, and then his eyes began to adjust.   From the murky whirls there began to evolve the contour of a bed, bedding, a head upon a pillow  – a naked head with sockets instead of eyes, like that of a  skeleton.  Yasha froze.  Was the old man breathing?  He could not hear his breath.  Was he awake?  Had he just at that moment expired? Was he, possibly, feigning death?  Perhaps he lay there ready to rise and attack him? Old men were often extremely powerful.  And the old man suddenly snored…Yasha stood there a moment, prepared to bolt at the first sound.  I couldn’t kill him! I am no murderer.  (454)

While he could, at that moment, just leave.  Something draws him close to the old man and he breaks the barrier.  He is tempted and enters into great danger when he touches the old man in search of the key under his pillow:

He ran his hand over the pillow, touched the old man’s face unintentionally.  He pulled back his hand as if it had been burned.   The missed uttered a sign as though he had only been shamming sleep.  Yasha paused.  he was prepared to attack, ready to grasp Zaruski by the throat and throttle him.  But no, that man was asleep, a thing piping sound came through his nostrils.  Apparently, he was dreaming.  Now Yasha could see better. He slipped his hand beneath the pillow convinced that he would touch the hey – but there was no key…There was only one course for him.  Escape! something inside him conclude.  Everything has gone wrong!…Maybe you should just choke the old bastard! some presence, partly within and partly outside him, suggested, a puritan of him which di not have the final say, but was in the habit of offering bad advice and perpetrating cruel jokes upon him when he need all his faculties

Well, its a lost cause.  I’m going now, he muttered. He rose to his feet and backed out through the half-opened door.  How light it was here in comparison to the bedroom! He could see every object. (454)

Yahsa tries one last time – after leaving the possibility of murdering the old apartment owner – to break into the safe.  By using utensils – which he now spots, because he has better vision – he tries to open the vault.  Mind you, he is seen and he sees himself as a master musician who can, like Houdini, break through any lock.

But he fails, for the first time, miserably. But this failure is the basis for Yasha (the magian, the chakham’s) transformation:

Failure! A fiasco! For the first time in his life! It had been a terrible night.  He was overcome by fear.  He knew, deep inside him, that the misfortune would not be confined to this night alone.  The enemy which for years had lurked in ambush within him, whom Yasha had had, each time, to repel with force and cunning, with charms and such incantations as each individual must learn for himself, had now gained the upper hand.  Yasha felt its presence – a dybbuk, a state, an implacable adversary who would disrupt him while he was juggling, push him from the tightrope, make him impotent.  Trembling, he opened the balcony door. His perspiring body shivered.  It was as if winter had suddenly arrived. (456)

As in a Rabbi Nachman story of the beggar, we see a weakened Yasha limp over the balcony and fall on the pavement, twisting his foot, and then breaking away as he fears he is being chased. He slips into a room and he discovers that it is a synagogue (“shul”).  It is early morning and the Jews have come to the dawn quorum (minyan) which is called the “Naitz” minyan.

What happens inside of this shul marks the second part of the schlemiel’s journey back to Jewishness.  I’ll be discussing that in the next post.

….to be continued










2 thoughts on “On Yasha and the Spiritual Journey of the Baal Teshuva Schlemiel in I.B. Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin” (Part I)

  1. His leap into crime, the total antithesis of Judaism. Judaism as antithesis of criminal behaviour is a reading. Moses, to Law and Order on NBC, etc.

  2. This is nothing new, Benjay. Read the Talmud, the Midrash, etc. Read Maimonides. Also look to modern critical theory and literature. Irving Howe, Saul Bellow even Nietzsche and Susan Sontag see Judaism in terms of the moral sensibility. Get thee to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals or Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Nothing new with this claim of thesis/anti-thesis in terms of morality and Judaism on the one side, evil on the other.

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