The Brothers Ashkenazi by Israel Joshua Singer

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Our member Karen Dunbar writes:

Israel Joshua Singer, elder brother to Isaac Bashevis Singer, weaves the epic tale of twin brothers born into the parents’ conflict and growing up in Lodz after the Napoleonic wars using distant narrative style. The stage is set when their mother purposely names them in a manner that she knows will aggravate her unloving and absent Hasidic husband. Any reader hoping for an in depth look at these characters or any character development in this novel will be disappointed. It takes a while to realize that I.J. Singer is not as engaging as his younger brother became. In fact, in the forward to the book, it is mentioned that the career of the younger Singer, the more famous one eventually, was actually overshadowed by the elder brother. If not for the elder brother’s untimely death at the age of fifty-one, due to a massive heart attack, the literary world might have missed out on the brilliant writing of his younger brother I.B. Singer. That either brother was alive to write at all is due to their emigration to the United States in the 1930’s; their remaining family was wiped out in the Shoa.

I. J. Singer tries to encompass the complicated history of the area (Poland, East Prussia, Russia), a few families, and events surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution in a novel which reminded me somewhat of The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Irving Howe states in the novel’s introduction that the story follows the “curve of the social novel,” something he compares to Great Expectations. Some characters in The Brothers Ashkenazi represent I.J. Singer’s own philosophy, influenced by the Enlightenment, as well as his suspicion of  the possibility that Jews might be treated as equals within the proletariat. One recurring character of interest is that of Nissan, the rebel son of a Rabbi, who embraces Marxism and truly believes in the cause. Nissan becomes confused and disillusioned when the Gentile workers turn on their fellow Jewish employees and savagely attack them in the aftermath of a failed mill worker strike. Simha Meir Ashkenazi who has changed his name to “Max” is the greedy and ambitious director of the German-owned mill. He does not side with the Marxists and only turns to God in his aging years when he realizes that his greed has cost him dearly.

The best scenes in the book are those in which specific events and dialogue occur. However, it is not an enjoyable read due to the fact that I.J. Singer tells rather than shows his readers what he wants them to know. This is frustrating and causes the need to read portions of the novel in as sweeping a manner as they were written.  Although there is much inherent drama set up in the relationships of the various characters, the author never succeeds (nor perhaps did he intend to) in making the reader feel suspense or emotional involvement with the characters. Biblically-rooted themes such as the jealousy between the twin brothers; the greed characterized by Simha Meir, the character whose life is followed most closely; the incest between the daughter of Simha Meir and his brother Jacob; and eventual reconciliation are all present in this novel. Nonetheless, the book’s deepest impact is the sense of the futile existence lived by the Jews as a people unwelcome by any country in which they settled.  One sees the roots of Zionism and how the Jews’ need for a country of their own became such an urgent and seemingly only solution to their survival as a people outside of the United States.