Analysis of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Family Moskat

Published simultaneously in Yiddish and English, the novel The Family Moskat uses straightforward narrative as well as letters and diary entries to cover the decline of a well-to-do Jewish family, the Moskats, living in a shtetl (village) in Warsaw, Poland. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s (1904–91) novel follows them from the end of the 19th century to the start of World War II. In a way, the family represents the decline of European Jewry, for many times their troubles are particularly Jewish troubles, and ultimately their fate is a Jewish fate. As with much of mankind’s sufferings, however, the Moskat family’s sufferings are caused most of all by the human heart, by the pangs of the soul, and are not the characteristics of ethnicity. The persecution of the Jews makes these universal sufferings pale by comparison, of course, but as Singer presents it within the staging of individual lives and not the general status of identity, such persecution becomes all the more tragic. The Family Moskat is not so much a novel about Jewish life as it is about human suffering amplified in the lives of Jewish individuals.

The novel begins with the third marriage of the Moskat patriarch, Meshulam Moskat, to a materialistic but endearing woman named Rosa from eastern Austria. She marries not so much for love as for security, for herself but especially for her daughter Adele, to secure an all-important dowry for marriage. Modernized as she is by European schools, Adele finds Warsaw is too “Asiatic,” and like her Jewish identity, the city is foreign and unsettling. Meshulam does not tell his children about the marriage until after he returns from his trip; he does not even tell his right-hand man, the bailiff Koppel. But this air of mystery fits Meshulam perfectly. In the 50-odd years that he has been accumulating wealth and expanding his family, Meshulam has also been accumulating reputations, envy, adulation, and suspicions—a situation that parallels to Jews throughout European history.

Also coming into Warsaw is Asa Heshel Bannet, the prodigal son and grandson of rabbis in Tereshpol Minor, a small village world away from the urban chaos of Warsaw. Asa comes to Warsaw to find his intellectual fortune, and for the rest of the novel the young man squanders whatever worldly, familial, or spiritual fortune happens to come his way to pay for that quest. Intellectual yet undisciplined, he is just modern enough to stray from his Jewish tradition in search of answers to larger looming questions. For the most part, though, he is satisfied with merely formulating the questions, never bothering to take steps to find the answers, out of a lack of passion and a lack of confidence. He runs into Abram Shapiro, son-in-law to Meshulam Moskat, while showing a letter of recommendation to a Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi in hopes of starting a long course of intense study. Jacobi is never seen again in the novel, as if Abram pulls Asa away from a life of purpose to a life of self-satisfaction, actively dodging all responsibility. Readers will recognize the story of Abraham from Genesis; Abram means “father” or “leader,” but he is chosen by God, who tells him, “Your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” As his dissolute life unfolds before the reader, it is clear that Abram will never be an Abraham.

Abram finds Asa a room with Gina, a woman married to a religious fanatic named Akiba, who makes her life unbearable by indulging his mania for purification at every moment and shirking his duties as a husband. Abram brings Asa to the Moskat family’s Chanukah celebration, intriguing two of the Moskat women, Rose’s daughter Adele and Abram’s niece Hadassah. Hadassah and Asa run off to Switzerland; the details of their time there are provided not by the regular narrator but through Hadassah’s diary entries. Hadassah confesses that while she is troubled by the traditional Jewish religion, she cannot let go of her belief in God or in man, while Asa believes that man is morally “lower than the beasts.” She believes that in Switzerland she and Asa will “recover our ideals together.” Here it should be noted that Hadassah is the Hebrew name of Esther, who is celebrated for declaring her faith in the face of persecution, and the celebration of her selfless acts is the Purim holidays, which occur during Hadassah and Asa’s misadventure. Hadassah returns to Warsaw in rags, barely alive, and escorted by police. This event adds to Meshulam’s conviction that his family has been a disgrace to him, and he dies without writing out a will and dividing up their inheritance.

Adele leaves Warsaw for Switzerland, ostensibly to go back to school, but in her letter narrating her time with Asa in that country, she admits that school “wasn’t really on my mind.” The reader has enough familiarity with Asa by this time to know that she is lying to herself as well as to her mother when she talks of how affectionate Asa is, how in love he claims to be with her, and of the surety of their future. Hadassah, meanwhile, has been forced to marry Fishel Kutner, ensuring the disappointment of two more lives.

Years go by, and Hadassah, Adele, Asa, and many other members of the Moskat family are miserable. Despite the unfortunate outcome of their old elopement, Hadassah and Asa are still in love, and they soon begin an affair. Adele is well aware of this, as are the rest of the Moskat family. Abram’s wife, Hama, finally leaves him despite her terror of living alone, while Abram periodically sleeps with his mistress, Ida Prager, who left her husband some time ago to be with Abram. Symbolically, these two adulterous relationships permeate the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; in fact, Hadassah and Asa consummate their affair in Hadassah’s bed on that holiest of days. Adele confronts Asa and tells him that he has talked himself into the affair, but he admits only to himself that he did not run to Hadassah as much as he ran away from the responsibilities of family and the burden of providing for others. Inevitably, he gets the chance to duck those responsibilities when Adele has David, her child by him, and Hadassah has their daughter, Dacha.

At the same time, the Moskats’ former caretaker, Koppel, helps himself to much of the family’s money, since they have never divided up Meshalum’s inheritance. He also helps himself to one of Meshulam’s daughters, Leah, who divorces her husband to run away with Koppel to America. Koppel divorces his wife, Bashele, leaving her and his children to scrape by until Bashele remarries. Koppel and Leah return at the end of the novel to reveal just how successful Koppel has become through bootlegging and other criminal activities in America. Their reappearance in the lives of the Moskat family shows how “modernized” and “Americanized” Leah’s children have become. They return to a Poland weighed down with tension, suspicion, and gloom as the Nazis prepare for their conquest.

The final chapters of the novel take place amid the Passover celebration, playing on the theme of exile and suffering, with members of the Moskat family making the matzo, “the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” Hadassah, true to her name, wonders to herself if the new Haman (a notorious minister in the book of Esther) in Germany will “finish them off.” The novel ends quite eerily, as the bombs are going off around Asa and Adele, and their attempt, along with others, to get to Israel by sea fails. As Asa tells another family member, “the ship wandered about on all the seas, and in the end they sent it back. That’s what’s happening to us Jews—pushed here and there, and then thrown out like garbage.” Throughout the Jews hope for the Messiah to “come quickly while there are still a few pious Jews left,” so when the final words of Gina’s love interest, Hertz Yanovar, are given, among the rubble and bombs of Warsaw and upon news of Hadassah’s death, it seems a cruel joke has been played: “The Messiah will come soon.” Asked by Asa what he is talking about, he clarifies, “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.”

The anguish of these family members form the basis of the novel, as relationships deteriorate or explode, as individuals are torn between love of tradition and the seduction of newer ideas, and as older members regret what has happened to the once strong bonds between families in particular and humankind in general. Outside forces thrust in now and again to turn the anguish into more emblematic suffering, as if to reinforce the real desolation of exile to Jews. As World War II breaks out, gentile neighbors turn on former Jewish friends, and Polish soldiers turn on fellow soldiers like Asa for being “Christ-killers,” while as the Germans enter Warsaw, the Jews who welcome them in hopes of treatment better than they received under the Russians are kicked in the face by their glorious liberators. Masha Moskat, one of Leah’s daughters, falls for a Pole named Yanek, an artist who finds himself drawn to Jews for various reasons. She converts to Christianity, is disowned by the Moskats, and is never accepted fully by her husband. In Yanek’s mind his failures are wrapped up in the treachery of Jews, and as he chooses a military career and becomes successful, he starts to ape the anti- Semitism of others. Masha is led to make a halfhearted attempt at suicide.

The only real light of hope or transport from these sufferings comes, curiously, with the more faithful Jews— not that they suffer less, but that they are less wrenched by it. Hadassah’s infidelity anguishes her husband Fishel, but he takes the situation to be divine choice, placing him where he is needed as he prays for her lost soul and even steps in to distribute Meshulam’s inheritance and assure justice for the family. More tellingly, Jekuthiel the watchmaker and modern intellectual (as if Singer aligns the onslaught of modernity upon tradition with the indifferent progress of time) sarcastically greets a rabbi, who takes the greeting as a jibe at his thoroughly unmodern beliefs. In response, the rabbi takes up his Talmud and reads, wearing a “transported expression on his face,” for “not in a long time had the rabbi found so much sweetness in poring over the ancient texts.”

In the English version, the novel stops at Hertz Yanovar’s declaration that death is the Messiah, with the fate of the Moskats left to the reader’s imagination, stopping at the edge of annihilation. The Yiddish version, however, has one sole Moskat member escaping to Israel, thus leading one to assume that Singer wanted to portray to fellow Jews the undying hope that marks their identity after the Diaspora.

Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Farrell, Grace. Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Collected Stories. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2004.
———. Collected Stories: A Friend to Kafka to Passion. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2004.
———. More Stories from My Father’s Court. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2000.
Wolitz, Seth L. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2001.

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