Joseph Epstein on I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi

March 8th, 2009

Cover of first U.S. Edition of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'The Wall Street Journal published one of the very few, I’m sure, pieces in its history devoted to an out-of-print and neglected book recently. Titled “A Yiddish Novel With Tolstoyan Sweep,” the piece, by Joseph Epstein, describes the novel by the brother of the more famous Isaac Bashevis Singer, as “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish.” Epstein, former editor of the American Scholar and one of the best essayists of the last forty years, calls The Brothers Ashkenazi I. J. Singer’s best-known work–which tells you how well the rest of his oeuvre is faring these days. Depicting the contrasting careers of two Jewish brothers attempting to get ahead in the Russian Pale of Settlement before the First World War. It ends with a horrific pogrom that leaves the city of Lodz, in Singer’s words, “like a limb torn from a body that no longer sustained it. It quivered momentarily in its death throes as maggots crawled over it, draining its remaining juices.” Such, he leads us to believe, is the fate of a city that “knew that with money you could buy anything.”

Although Singer’s characters do not find the same solace in religion as many in his brother’s works do, the novel is not all bleakness and despair. Still, Epstein credits I. J. Singer for foregoing “a happy ending to render instead a just one.” One hopes this long-out-of-print novel finds some interest among today’s publishers through this rare mention of a neglected book in such a prominent outlet as the Wall Street Journal.

A much earlier piece from Commentary magazine by Dorothy Rabinowitz, about Singer’s 1943 novel, The Family Carnovsky, can be found on the Featured Books section of this site.

3 Responses to “Joseph Epstein on I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi

  1. Buce Says:

    It does not end with a pogrom. It ends with a total economic collapse, accompanied by a fair amount of Jew-baiting, the real pogrom occurs much earlier in the book. Still, a gripping and bracing piece of work, and all thanks to Joseph Epstein for resurfacing it.

  2. Ned R. Turner Says:

    I will always be grateful that a friend sent me the fine article by Joseph Epstein dealing with I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi. I immediately bought a used copy (quite costly) and enjoyed the book thoroughly. I only wish it had been a 1,000 pages longer. I don’t know enough Yiddish to know if it is the translator or Singer that made this a wonderful experience, but thanks to both, I had a fine experience reading this superb novel. It has led me to other works by I. J. Singer.
    Ned R. Turner

  3. Torsten Herbertsson Says:

    I just read the book in a Swedish translation from 1937. Wonderful novel telling the dramatical history of Germany, Poland and Russia from around 1860 the the end of World War One.

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