restricted access From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer (review)
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Reviewed by
Grace Farrell Lee. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. 129 pp. $16.95.

One measure of a critic is how well he or she identifies those thematic concerns and narrative techniques central to the fictionist in question. By that important measure, Lee has written a short book on Isaac Bashevis Singer that focuses on the right questions: Why are we born? why must we die? how can we explain evil? how can we account for desire? For Singer, these abiding questions, and his meditations about them, are the stuff of which his extraordinary capacity for storytelling is made.

As Lee puts it, these questions, posed by one Singer protagonist after another, are "intimately connected" to the "exile he endures":

for while the questions concern a search for a source of meaning which might give significance to human life and which might explain the mystery of mortality, the exile can be defined as the separation from humankind from that source of meaning. Ultimately, to find answers to one's questions is to be redeemed from one's exile.

Lee follows this generalization with a parade of analogues: Camus's Sisyphus, the biblical Job, Maimonides, and, finally, the mysticism of Kabbalah. It is here that another measure of a critic—namely, how well he or she informs our reading of a writer's work—comes into play, and, by that equally important measure, From Exile to Redemption does little to sharpen the critical debate about Singer's work.

Consider, for example, Lee's discussion of "Gimpel the Fool," Singer's most anthologized, much commented upon story. As Lee would have it, the key to understanding the story's power is Lurianic Kabbalah as defined in Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism:

In its paradoxical vision of God as both present in and absent from creation, the Zohar [Lurianic Kabbalah's most influential text], simultaneously offers possibilities for both belief and disbelief. In "Gimpel the Fool," Singer holds these possibilities in a precarious balance. Gimpel, a believer who extends his willingness to believe to every aspect of his life, is tempted to disbelieve the stories told to him, to deny his faith, and to enact revenge against those who humiliate him for his gullibility.

The result, in a word, is reductive—a portrait of Singer that imagines him writing with a copy of the Zohar in one hand and Scholem in another. To be sure, Singer wears his considerable Jewish learning lightly, and there is every reason to believe that he knew about Kabbalah long before Schocken books made a translation of Scholem's scholarship available to American academics, but it is equally true [End Page 686] that he knew a famous story by Y. L. Peretz called "Bontcha the Silent." Even more to the critical point, Singer's story gives a new—and I think darkly pessimistic—dimension to the tradition of "saintly fools."

Lee is on much firmer ground when she discusses Satan in Goray, a novel built on the substructure of Sabbatianism's apocalyptic propensities. Here, at least, talk about Kabbalah seems more integral to the novel's complicated vision. But one wonders how much sense, much less how much value, common readers will find in an overly schematic paragraph like the following from Sabbatai Sevi:

Because of its association with the Community of Israel, the exile and redemption of the tenth Sefira, the Shekhinah, becomes of greatest importance in the Kabbalah and in the messianism of Sabbatai Sevi. The sefirot, those attributes or names of Ein-Sof, are pictoralized and personified in the Kabbalah, and in a significant departure from previous rabbinical conceptions of the Shekhinah, this sefira, the immanence of the face of God, is personified as feminine. In fact, the symbolic language of the Kabbalah refers to the exile of the Shekhinah as the separation of a bride from her husband: "Only with the advent of messianic redemption will the perfect unity of the divine sefiroth be permanently re-established. Then . . . the Shekhinah will be restored to perpetual union with her husband."

Using Scholem as her guide, Lee points us, willy-nilly...