Zlateh the Goat
Zlateh the Goat
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
The short story "Zlateh the Goat," written by the Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, was first published in 1966 in Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories. The collection is based on old Jewish folktales and is narrated just as a traditional folktale would be. Unlike many of the other stories in the collection, "Zlateh the Goat" is a realistic story that contains no magical or miraculous elements. At the same time, this story sits squarely within the Singer canon in its Jewish and folkloric overtones, which appear not only in Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories but in virtually all of Singer's work. Indeed, Singer is best known as an author writing in the Jewish American or Yiddish literary tradition. His work is mostly written for adults, though he has written numerous short stories for younger readers.
Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories was met with popular and critical acclaim, winning a prestigious Newbery Honor in 1967. The story is ostensibly about a young boy who, due to circumstance, must take the beloved family goat to the butcher, but the boy and the goat are lost in a blizzard on their way there. The story, though written for children, has also captivated older readers. A 1984 edition of Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories is still in print.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born Icek-Hersz Zynger on, according to some sources, July 14,
1904, in Radzymin, Poland, near Warsaw. Some sources claim that Singer was born on November 21, 1902, in Leoncin, Poland, and that his 1904 birth date was a fabrication meant to help him avoid the draft. Singer's father, Pinchos Menachem, was a rabbi, and his mother, Bathsheba (Zylberman) Singer, was the daughter of a rabbi. Singer had a younger brother and two elder siblings (a sister and a brother), both of whom were also writers. The family often moved around Poland, depending upon Pinchos Menachem's changing positions as a rabbi, and in 1908 they settled in Warsaw, where Singer spent most of his childhood, receiving a traditional Jewish education. The upheaval that came with World War I caused the family to separate, and Singer moved with his mother and younger brother to Bilgoraj (or Bilgoray), his mother's hometown.
By 1921, Singer had returned to Warsaw, entering the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary. He dropped out in 1923, deciding that he was not cut out to be a rabbi. Instead, Singer followed in the footsteps of his elder siblings, even working for his brother as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter. By the age of twenty-three, Singer had published his first short story, was translating German works into Yiddish, and was working as a journalist. His first novel, Der Sotn in Goray (later translated as Satan in Goray), was published in 1935. That same year, Singer fled the rising Fascism and anti-Semitism in Poland, immigrating to New York City and parting ways with his first wife, Rachel, and their son, Israel, in the process. Singer married his second wife, Alma Haimann, on February 14, 1940. The couple did not have any children. Shortly after their marriage, in 1943, Singer became an American citizen.
Singer's first novel published in English was The Family Moskat (1950). Other well-known novels include The Magician of Lublin (1960), The Manor (1967), and Shosha (1978). His first, and most renowned, collection of short stories, Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories, was published in 1957. Other notable short story collections include The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), A Friend of Kafka (1970), and The Death of Methuselah (1988). His 1973 collection titled A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories won the National Book Award for fiction in 1974. Four years later, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Singer also wrote several books and collections of short stories for children. Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories (1966), in which "Zlateh the Goat" first appeared, won a 1967 Newbery Honor (awarded to runners-up to the Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious awards for children's books). In fact, Singer won a Newbery Honor for three years straight, receiving it again in 1968 and 1969 for The Fearsome Inn and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories, respectively. Singer's 1969 autobiography for children, A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing up in Warsaw, which was published under the pseudonym Isaac Warshofsky, won the National Book Award for children's literature in 1970.
Singer's prolific writing career was mainly sustained after he immigrated to America, yet he continued to write in Yiddish throughout his life. Only late in his career did he begin to translate his own Yiddish stories, usually with the help of other English translators. Singer died in Surfside, Florida, on July 24, 1991, following a series of strokes. He is buried at Beth-El Cemetery, in Washington Township, New Jersey.
Much like a fairy tale, "Zlateh the Goat" takes place at an unknown time in an unknown place, which makes the story seem more universal, existing largely outside of the constraints of history or nationality. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah has almost arrived, but the snow has not begun to fall, and the winter thus far has been an unusually "mild one." Because of this, Reuven's business is not doing well. Reuven lives in the village and is a furrier, which means that he sells, makes, and repairs furs. People do not need furs when the weather is warm, and since the winter has been mild, Reuven is having a "bad year"; he will not be able to afford all of the Hanukkah "holiday necessaries," such as candles, latkes (potato pancakes), and gifts. Because of this, Reuven decides to sell the beloved family goat, Zlateh, to Feivel, a butcher who lives in the town. Zlateh is old and no longer has much milk, so to Reuven, she is worth more dead than alive. The proceeds from selling Zlateh to the butcher will help Reuven pay for the latkes and Hanukkah candles that he cannot yet afford.
Reuven tells his oldest son, Aaron, to take Zlateh to the town butcher. Although Aaron does not want to, he "had to obey his father." The whole family is upset by the thought of losing Zlateh. Aaron's mother, Leah, and his sisters, Anna and Miriam, start to cry when they hear the news. As Aaron prepares to leave with Zlateh, the goat waits for him serenely: "Zlateh trusted human beings. She knew that they always fed her and never did her any harm." Nevertheless, Zlateh is soon "astonished" to be led towards town, although she quickly accepts this turn of events because she "seemed to come to the conclusion that a goat shouldn't ask questions." Aaron and Zlateh gradually make their way toward town, and Aaron chases away a stray dog.
The mild, sunny weather changes without warning as storm clouds roll in and a hail shower begins, which is rather unusual since it is winter and hail tends to fall in the summer. The storm blocks out the sunlight, and the hail turns into snow. Aaron, who is twelve years old, has never seen a storm like this one, and soon the winding road to town is covered in snow so that Aaron cannot tell the difference between the road and the surrounding farmland. Zlateh, who is also twelve years old, accepts the situation at first, but as the snow gets thicker and deeper, "her mild eyes seemed to ask, ‘Why are we out in such a storm?"’ In the midst of the foul weather, Aaron keeps an eye out for passing carts, but none appear.
Aaron realizes that he is no longer walking on the road and that he has strayed into a pasture. He cannot tell where he is or what direction he is going in, and he knows that he and Zlateh are in danger of freezing to death, lost in the snow. Zlateh, who has gone along with the adventure up until now, "anchored her cleft hooves in the earth and bleated as if pleading to be taken home." Aaron begins to look for a shelter in the storm, which is now a full blizzard. Zlateh's bleats begin to sound like human cries, as "those humans in whom she had so much confidence had dragged her into a trap." Aaron begins to pray for himself and "the innocent animal."
- "Zlateh the Goat" was adapted as a short film by the same title by Weston Woods Studios in 1973.
- Part of the Jewish Heritage Video Collection, the short film Stories from the Jewish Tradition: "In the Month of Kislev" and "Zlateh the Goat" was released in 1995.
- Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories was adapted as an audiobook of the same title in 1974, produced by Newbery Award Records and narrated by Eli Wallach.
Aaron makes out a strange hill in the distance and wonders what it could be, when he realizes that it is a haystack covered in snow. It occurs to Aaron that he and Zlateh can burrow into the haystack to survive the blizzard: "He was a village boy and knew what to do." The hay in the nest also provides food for Zlateh, who quickly begins to eat and is immediately "contented." Indeed, "Zlateh, having eaten her fill … seemed to have regained her confidence in man." The snow covers over Aaron and Zlateh's nest, so Aaron pokes a hole in the snow to make sure they can breathe. Then he begins to eat the lunch that he had brought for his journey to town. When he finishes, Aaron is still hungry and notices that Zlateh's udders are full, so he scoots under Zlateh and begins to milk her straight into his mouth. This seems a little odd to Zlateh, but she accepts it, even appearing as if she is "eager to reward Aaron" for finding her a nest made entirely of food.
Aaron and Zlateh settle in to wait out the blizzard. Zlateh eats hay, and Aaron snuggles with Zlateh to keep warm. Aaron "had always loved Zlateh, but now she was like a sister." Aaron even begins to talk to Zlateh, asking her questions. Her response to each question is the same: "Maaaa." Despite the rather limited conversation, Aaron says, "You can't speak, but I know you understand. I need you and you need me. Isn't that right?" Zlateh in turn simply responds as she always does.
Aaron and Zlateh stay in the haystack for three days as the storm rages, with Zlateh surviving on the surrounding hay and Aaron surviving on Zlateh's milk. Aaron's love for Zlateh continues to grow. He tells her stories, and her ears perk up as she listens to him. Zlateh licks Aaron when he pets her and says "Maaaa." This time, Aaron knows that the sound Zlateh makes means "I love you, too."
Over the three days, Aaron imagines that he and Zlateh have no family and no past, that they are instead "born of the snow." It is silent in the haystack buried beneath the snow, and Aaron sleeps, dreaming of summer. On the third night, the snow stops, and Aaron waits for daylight before venturing out and attempting to find his way back to the road. In the meantime, he gazes at the transformed landscape, "dreaming dreams of heavenly splendor."
In the morning, Aaron hears sleigh bells, and he realizes that they cannot be far from the road after all. The peasant in the sleigh points him home toward the village. Aaron will not continue to town to the butcher's, as he "had decided in the haystack that he would never part with Zlateh."
While Aaron and Zlateh were sheltered in the haystack, search parties unsuccessfully attempted to find them. Aaron's family had assumed that Aaron and Zlateh were dead—lost forever in the storm—and they are overjoyed when the boy and the goat miraculously return. When the family hears how Zlateh kept Aaron warm and fed, Aaron's sisters embrace the goat, feeding Zlateh "a special treat of chopped carrots and potato peels." The family will never again try to sell Zlateh, and because of the blizzard, Reuven's furrier business is booming once again. Now, even without selling Zlateh, the family will have enough money for potato pancakes and other Hanukkah sundries. Even Zlateh gets some potato pancakes.
Although Zlateh lives in a pen, she comes to the kitchen door and knocks with her horns. The family lets her in. While Aaron and his sisters play dreidel (a Hanukkah game), Zlateh lays in the kitchen and watches the Hanukkah candles as they burn. As time goes by, Aaron occasionally talks to Zlateh, asking her if she remembers the time they spent in the haystack. Zlateh responds as she always has, "with the single sound which expressed all her thoughts, and all her love."
Aaron is the twelve-year-old son of Reuven and Leah. His sisters are Anna and Miriam. When Reuven the furrier must sell Zlateh in order to afford the Hanukkah necessities, Reuven instructs Aaron to take the goat to Feivel, the town butcher. Although Aaron does not want to take the goat to be slaughtered, he "had to obey his father." Aaron packs a lunch, wears some warm clothing, and prepares to set off toward town, where he will spend the night before returning the next day with the money from the butcher. On the way to town, Aaron chases away a stray dog.
When the weather suddenly changes from mild and sunny to stormy with hail, Aaron is perplexed. As the impending storm darkens the sky and turns to snow, he becomes worried. The road and the surrounding fields become covered in snow, and it is hard to tell which way he and Zlateh are going. Aaron hopes that a cart will come by, but he and Zlateh are alone, lost in the snowstorm. When Aaron realizes that he and Zlateh have strayed from the road, he begins to fear for their lives. He knows that he and Zlateh may freeze to death in the storm. Aaron begins to pray for himself and for the goat.
Luckily, Aaron finds a haystack covered in snow, and he knows that he and Zlateh can burrow inside of the haystack for shelter and warmth. After making a nest for himself and the goat, Aaron is sure to make a hole for air so that they can breathe while waiting for the storm to end. Aaron eats his lunch, and Zlateh eats the hay, but Aaron is still hungry, so he lays under Zlateh and milks her straight into his mouth. Aaron and Zlateh settle in to wait out the blizzard, and Aaron snuggles with Zlateh to keep warm.
Aaron "had always loved Zlateh, but now she was like a sister." Aaron even begins to talk to Zlateh, asking her questions. Her response to each question is the same: "Maaaa." Aaron says to Zlateh: "You can't speak, but I know you understand. I need you and you need me. Isn't that right?"
Aaron and Zlateh stay in the haystack for three days. To pass the time, Aaron tells Zlateh stories, and her ears perk up as she listens to him. Zlateh licks Aaron when he pets her and says "Maaaa." At one point Aaron thinks that the sound Zlateh makes means "I love you, too." Aaron sleeps and dreams of summer, and when he is awake, he imagines that he and Zlateh are pure, without a past or a family—"born of the snow."
When the snow stops and Aaron and Zlateh are able to leave the shelter of the haystack, Aaron leads Zlateh back to the village instead of continuing his journey toward town, to Feivel the butcher. Aaron "had decided in the haystack that he would never part with Zlateh."
Aaron's family is happy to see him and Zlateh, as they had thought he and the goat might have died in the snowstorm. Of course, no one mentions selling Zlateh after Aaron tells how she kept him warm and fed.
It could be argued that Aaron is the protagonist of "Zlateh the Goat"; however, it seems that much more is made of Zlateh and her actions and reactions throughout the narration of the story. Furthermore, the title of the story may indicate that Aaron is not the protagonist.
Anna is one of Aaron's younger sisters, a daughter of Leah and Reuven. Anna cries when Zlateh is to be taken to the butcher, and she also cries when her brother and the family goat are presumed to have frozen to death in the snowstorm. When Aaron and Zlateh return and Anna hears how Zlateh fed Aaron in the haystack, Anna and her sister, Miriam, kiss and hug the goat. The sisters feed Zlateh "a special treat of chopped carrots and potato peels." During the Hanukkah festivities, Anna plays dreidel with her brother and sister. Anna is only mentioned a few times in the story, and only in concert with her sister. In fact, Anna's character is identical to, and interchangeable with, that of her sister, Miriam.
Feivel is the town butcher; he wants to buy and slaughter Zlateh for her meat, which he can then sell. For the goat, Feivel offers Reuven eight gulden, apparently enough money to help Reuven pay for all of the potato pancakes, gifts, candles, and other Hanukkah supplies that his family needs. Reuven agrees to sell the goat to Feivel, but the butcher never receives Zlateh, as she and Aaron are trapped in a snowstorm on the way from their village to the town. Feivel is only mentioned at the beginning of the story, and he is not referred to after Zlateh and Aaron return to the village. No one seems to care whether Feivel is still waiting for the goat.
Leah is the mother of Aaron and his younger sisters, Anna and Miriam, and the wife of Aaron's father, Reuven the furrier. Leah cries when she hears that Aaron must take Zlateh to the butcher. Leah also cries when her son and the family goat are presumed to have frozen to death in the snowstorm. Leah is only mentioned a few times throughout the entire story, and in those instances she is either crying or cooking. Upon Aaron and Zlateh's safe return, Leah makes potato pancakes every night of the Hanukkah holiday.
Miriam is one of Aaron's younger sisters, a daughter of Leah and Reuven. Miriam cries when Zlateh is to be taken to the butcher, and she also cries when her brother and the family goat are presumed to have frozen to death in the snowstorm. When Aaron and Zlateh return and Miriam hears how Zlateh fed Aaron in the haystack, Miriam and her sister, Anna, kiss and hug the goat. The sisters feed Zlateh "a special treat of chopped carrots and potato peels." During the Hanukkah festivities, Miriam plays dreidel with her brother and sister. Miriam is only mentioned a few times in the story, and only in concert with her sister. Miriam's character is identical to, and interchangeable with, that of her sister, Anna.
Aaron's neighbors search for Aaron and Zlateh when they are burrowed in the haystack. The neighbors do not find them, and Aaron and Zlateh are presumed dead.
After spending three days burrowed in the haystack, Aaron hears sleigh bells and realizes that he has not wandered far from the road after all. The peasant in the sleigh tells Aaron which direction to take to head home toward the village.
Reuven is the father of Aaron and his younger sisters, Anna and Miriam, and the husband of Leah. Reuven is a furrier, someone who makes, sews, and repairs furs. Thus, his livelihood is dependent upon the cold weather, as that is when the other villagers need furs. Because the winter has been a warm one, Reuven's business is not going well, and he will not be able to afford potato pancakes, oil, candles, and gifts for the family for Hanukkah. Because of this, Reuven decides, "after long hesitation," to sell the family goat, Zlateh, to Feivel, the town butcher. Reuven knows that the money from the sale will allow him to pay for the Hanukkah supplies. He tells his eldest son, Aaron, to take Zlateh to the butcher.
Even though Aaron does not want to, he knows he must "obey his father." Even though Reuven's family loves Zlateh, and even though his wife and daughters cry at the thought of losing her, no one dares to challenge Reuven's decision. In a traditional Jewish family like this one, the father is the head of the family, and thus Reuven's decision must be obeyed without question. Zlateh licks Reuven's hand before Aaron begins to lead her toward town.
Although Aaron's mother and sisters cry when they believe that he and Zlateh are dead, Reuven does not cry but instead turns "silent and gloomy." The whole family, including Reuven, is of course happy at the boy and goat's return. No one ever thinks to sell Zlateh again, and Reuven does not insist that his original orders be obeyed, nor does he remark upon the fact that they were not obeyed in the first place. Reuven's furrier business resumes thanks to the very storm that stranded Aaron and Zlateh, and Reuven is able to afford the Hanukkah supplies without selling the family goat. Curiously, this is the last specific mention of Reuven in the story. He is not pictured as taking part in the ensuing Hanukkah festivities.
Zlateh is the beloved family goat who loves and trusts her family in return. Zlateh, like Aaron, is twelve years old. She is blissfully unaware of the family's plans to sell her to the butcher. She stands, "patiently and good-naturedly as ever," as Aaron puts a rope around her neck to lead her to town. She even licks the hands of the man who has sentenced her to her fate, as she "trusted human beings. She knew that they always fed her and never did her any harm." Zlateh is soon "astonished" by the trip toward town, but she later "seemed to come to the conclusion that a goat shouldn't ask questions."
At first, Zlateh accepts the sudden onset of the snowstorm, but as the snow gets deeper "her mild eyes seemed to ask, ‘Why are we out in such a storm?"’ Eventually she stops moving, and her bleats "sound like crying," as if she is "pleading to be taken home." Aaron prays for himself and for Zlateh, who is described as an "innocent animal."
As soon as Aaron makes the nest in the haystack, Zlateh is immediately "contented," and she begins to nibble on the hay. Then, "Zlateh, having eaten her fill …seemed to have regained her confidence in man." Aaron then milks Zlateh into his mouth, which astonishes the goat, though she quickly accepts it, even appearing as if she is "eager to reward Aaron" for making her a nest made entirely of food.
In the haystack, Aaron speaks to Zlateh, telling her stories and asking her questions, and she responds with "Maaaa," the only response she can give. Aaron says, "You can't speak, but I know you understand. I need you and you need me. Isn't that right?" Zlateh simply responds as she always does. Each time Zlateh bleats, Aaron understands it differently: "Yes, Zlateh's language consisted of only one word, but it meant many things. Now she was saying, ‘We must accept all that God gives us—heat, cold, hunger, satisfaction, light, and darkness."’ Later, Zlateh licks Aaron when he pets her and says "Maaaa," and this time Aaron believes that the sound means "I love you."
Over the three days that Zlateh and Aaron shelter in the haystack waiting for the storm to end, Aaron imagines that he and Zlateh have no family and no past, that they are instead "born of the snow." When the storm finally ends, Aaron leads Zlateh back toward the village rather than continue toward town to sell Zlateh to the butcher. He "had decided in the haystack that he would never part with Zlateh."
As Zlateh and Aaron were presumed to have been lost in the storm, their family is overjoyed to see them. When the family hears how Zlateh kept Aaron warm and fed, Aaron's sisters embrace the goat, feeding Zlateh "a special treat of chopped carrots and potato peels." The family never again thinks to sell Zlateh, even letting her into the house whenever she knocks on the kitchen door with her horns. In the house, Zlateh sits by the stove and watches the children play dreidel. As time goes by, Aaron occasionally asks her about the time they spent together in the haystack, and she replies as she always does, "with the single sound which expressed all her thoughts, and all her love."
Although it could be argued that Aaron is the protagonist of "Zlateh the Goat," it seems that much more is made of Zlateh and her actions and reactions throughout the narration of the story. Furthermore, the title of the story may indicate that Zlateh is indeed the protagonist.
Love and Loyalty
Much can be said about love and loyalty in "Zlateh the Goat." Although the family loves Zlateh, they are willing to sell her to the town butcher in order to pay for Hanukkah supplies. The family is not happy to do this, but given the society in which they live, animals are seen as tools for survival, not pets. This does not mean that the family loves Zlateh any less than they would a pet. Perhaps once could argue that they love her more because they depend on her for milk and income. Nevertheless, they do not show any loyalty to her when they decide to sell her to the butcher.
Zlateh clearly loves her family. She licks Reuven's hand as she is being sent to the butcher, and although she seems to question her strange journey, she accepts it because she trusts her family and because she is loyal to them. Although she protests at the thickening snow, she becomes immediately "contented" once Aaron makes them a nest in the haystack. She shows her loyalty when she is "eager to reward" Aaron for finding a shelter. While Aaron and Zlateh are lost in the snow, Aaron prays not only for himself but also for Zlateh, who is described as an "innocent animal." Here, Aaron does show loyalty to Zlateh, as he continues to take care of her even when his own life is in danger.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Do you think that Zlateh or Aaron is best labeled the main protagonist of "Zlateh the Goat"? Write an essay explaining your choice, and be sure to cite passages from the story.
- Research Jewish shtetls (towns or villages) in Poland and in the rest of eastern Europe from the late 1800s to the 1930s. What was life generally like in shtetls? How was it similar to or different from the lifestyle described in "Zlateh the Goat"? Give a presentation on your findings.
- Using a Yiddish-English dictionary, translate your favorite passage from "Zlateh the Goat" into Yiddish and read your translation aloud to the class. Discuss how the process of translating and your translation itself changed your interpretation of the story.
- Read one of Singer's short stories written for adults. In an essay, compare and contrast the story you read with "Zlateh the Goat." Do you think that there are significant differences between Singer's stories for children and his stories for adults? Why or why not?
Zlateh and Aaron depend upon each other through their ordeal, keeping each other warm and fed. Aaron goes from having love for Zlateh
to loving her as if she were a sister. Aaron talks to Zlateh, and though Zlateh can only respond as a goat, saying "Maaaa," Aaron understands that Zlateh is trying to tell him that she loves him as well. Zlateh "comforted" Aaron in the haystack, and "in these three days he loved her more and more."
By the end of the storm, Aaron's love for Zlateh has grown to such proportions that he returns to the village with her, having decided "that he would never part with Zlateh." Aaron's family, who thought that Aaron and Zlateh had died in the snowstorm, are overjoyed to see them. Because Zlateh saved Aaron from starvation, their love for her also grows, and she achieves the status of a family pet. Now Aaron and his family demonstrate the loyalty that was missing at the beginning of the story. Zlateh has helped Aaron through the storm, and they will forever remain loyal to her for this. From then on, Zlateh is "always admitted" into the house as she pleases, and she lies by the stove watching the children play when she visits. Whenever Aaron asks her about their ordeal, she can only answer as she always does, "with the single sound which expressed all her thoughts, and all her love."
Religion drives the narration of "Zlateh the Goat," and there are even a few strong but subtle references to God's will in the story. Aaron and his family are Jews, and this fact defines their life and family structure. The reason that Reuven decides to sell Zlateh is so that they will have the money they need for Hanukkah supplies. Because traditional Jewish families, like Aaron's, have a patriarchal structure, no one openly objects to Reuven's decision. Leah, Anna, and Miriam only cry when they hear of what will happen. Aaron knows that he must take Zlateh to the butcher because he must "obey his father"—one of the Old Testament's Ten Commandments, which Jews live by.
Only a few references to God can be found in the story, but they have a strong impact on the narrative. When Aaron and Zlateh are lost in the snow, "Aaron began to pray to God for himself and for the innocent animal." Immediately following his prayer, Aaron sees a shape in the snow. This shape turns out to be the haystack that will save his and the goat's lives. As Aaron and Zlateh huddle in the hay, the wind outside is described as having "the sound of devilish laughter."
While in the hay, Aaron has what could be described as a religious experience. He becomes "born of the snow," as does Zlateh. On the night when the storm ends, as Aaron waits for morning so that he and Zlateh can return to the village, the world is "all white, quiet, dreaming dreams of heavenly splendor."
Coincidentally, the very storm that prevented Zlateh from being sold to the butcher is also responsible for reviving Reuven's furrier business. Thus, even without selling Zlateh, the family can now celebrate Hanukkah properly. It seems as if some religious lesson can be gleaned from this turn of events. Perhaps that lesson, as Zlateh's bleating during the storm seems to indicate to Aaron, is precisely that "we must accept all that God gives us—heat, cold, hunger, satisfaction, light, and darkness."
Anthropomorphism is a term for the giving of human traits to animals. There is a great deal of anthropomorphism in "Zlateh the Goat." Zlateh is usually discussed in human terms, not animal terms. At the beginning of the story, she is described as patient, good natured, trusting, and loving. She is credited with knowing how humans treat her. When Aaron begins to lead Zlateh toward town, the goat looks "astonished," but then she appears to "have come to the conclusion that a goat shouldn't ask questions." All of these feelings and qualities, and the ability to reason, are human traits. Even Zlateh's bleating in the snow takes on the sound of "crying."
Zlateh's conversations with Aaron in the haystack are also entirely humanized. In the haystack, Zlateh seems to tell Aaron that she loves him and that "we must accept all that God gives us." In the last line of the story, Zlateh is anthropomorphized once again: she bleats at Aaron "with the single sound which expressed all her thoughts, and all her love."
Indeed, nearly all of Zlateh's looks and bleats are ascribed with human feeling and meaning. In fact, the human characters in "Zlateh the Goat" are not given nearly as much attention in the narrative as the goat is given. Aside from Zlateh, only Aaron's thoughts and feelings are acknowledged by the narrator. None of the other character's inner thoughts are even mentioned.
"Zlateh the Goat" is based on old Jewish folktales, and the story retains much from its original folk roots. The story has religious or moral lessons embedded within it, as most folktales do, and these moral lessons are of a traditional nature, touching on love, loyalty, and survival in the face of powerful forces. The third-person narrator is omniscient, able to report on the inner thoughts of the story's characters, and this stylistic trait is also typical of folktales. The diction, or language style, is simple and straightforward, like a fairy tale in its generic tone. The story opens with a phrase that is akin to the classic "Once upon a time" beginning; the opening phrase of "Zlateh the Goat" is "At Hanukkah time."
Folktales are meant to be universal, transcendent of time and place, and "Zlateh the Goat" adheres to this tradition. The town and the village are not named, and even the era in which the story takes place is unknown. The people in the story are not complex; their reactions are especially simple, as they are mostly described as being sad, scared, or happy. Much like a traditional folk or fairy tale, this story has a happy ending. Aaron and Zlateh survive the storm, and the family is able to buy Hanukkah supplies even without selling Zlateh to the butcher.
Yiddish and Eastern European Jews
Long after Singer immigrated to America, he continued to write in Yiddish, and his stories were translated into English before publication. Singer is known as a Yiddish writer, and his writing is part of the canon of Yiddish literature. Yiddish is a very interesting language because it is not the official language of any one country, though it was once almost the official language of an entire religion, spoken throughout Europe by most Jews. It is also relatively singular in that it contains word parts from many other languages. Its idioms, or sayings, are also known for being very colorful, which makes it an ideal language for writing literature.
The history of the Yiddish language also reflects the history of Jews and their migrations as a population. Several theories about this process abound, but it seems certain that many among the Jewish population in Eastern Europe were the descendants of migratory Jews who had been exiled from Jerusalem by the Romans over the first few centuries of the Common Era. Another large portion emigrated from Western Europe in the Middle Ages during the Black Plague (for which they were blamed) and the Crusades. Yiddish emerged as a language in these populations, an amalgamation of Arabic, Hebrew, German, and romance languages.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
Early 1900s: European Jews live in shtetls and speak Yiddish. They are effectively segregated from the non-Jewish populace.
1960s: The majority of European Jews who were not killed in the Holocaust have immigrated to America and Israel.
Today: Most survivors of the Holocaust have died from old age. Their descendants rarely speak Yiddish.
Early 1900s: Hanukkah is not the most holy or important of the Jewish holidays.
1960s: In America, the growing commercialization of Christmas begins to affect Hanukkah as well. Both holidays occur at the same time, and the celebration of Hanukkah becomes more prominent as a result of this coincidence.
Today: Gift exchanges on Hanukkah are exceedingly common, although this is not a traditional part of the holiday celebration.
Early 1900s: A lifestyle like that of Aaron and his family—one that entails living in the country, raising and selling livestock, practicing a trade (making furs), and traveling by foot—is not uncommon. There are no cell phones, cars, or televisions.
1960s: More and more people move to cities or suburbs and enjoy reliable transportation via automobile; they have telephones and televisions, and fewer people farm or raise livestock.
Today: Urban and suburban lifestyles predominate in the developed world, and the now-foreign country life is often romanticized by city dwellers. Given the availability of cars and cell phones, few would find themselves trapped in a snowstorm like Aaron and Zlateh.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large populations of Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls that were exclusively Jewish. Even in the larger towns, Jews lived in segregated neighborhoods. All spoke Yiddish on a day-to-day basis. Hebrew was considered a language of religion, much like Latin is to Christians, and while most Jews also spoke their national languages, such as Polish, Russian, and German, they were able to transcend national boundaries because of their common language as Jews. When early twentieth-century Jews across Eastern Europe were exterminated in pogroms (acts of violence perpetrated against individual villages) and through the Holocaust, Yiddish began to die out. After survivors emigrated, their children did not continue to speak the language. In the present day, Yiddish is considered a near-dead language. Singer, who was himself a Jewish emigrant, was aware of the slow death of Yiddish, and this is why he chose to continue writing in the language, telling tales of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. In a journal article, Jill P. May quotes Melvin Maddock's interview with Singer in Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations: "By his own admission he writes ‘as if none of the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people during the last two decades really did occur."’
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah takes a prominent role in "Zlateh the Goat." Reuven decides to sell Zlateh so that he can afford oil, potato pancakes, and other sundries necessary for the celebration. Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a holiday that is celebrated over eight days and nights, beginning annually on the twenty-fifth of Kisev on the Jewish calendar. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the holiday begins on a different day of the Western calendar each year. For the most part, however, the holiday takes place in December, and it has gained significance in the Western world as a holiday that is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas.
Sometime around 167 BCE, the Greeks desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem. The Jews fought back, and after expelling the Greeks, they returned to the temple in hopes of relighting the menorah, which was meant to burn ceaselessly as a symbolic reminder of God's eternal presence and of the Jews' covenant with God as a chosen people. The Jews found only enough oil to light the lamp for one day, but miraculously, the lamp burned for eight days and eight nights until more oil could be found.
In celebration of this miracle, Jews light a menorah each year at Hanukkah for eight nights. Traditional foods eaten during Hanukkah include potato pancakes and donuts, which are made by being fried in oil. Another holiday tradition is playing dreidel with gelt (money). A dreidel is a four-sided top with a different symbol on each side. Each symbol indicates an action, such as taking half the money in the community pile, adding money to the pile, and so on. It is essentially a gambling game. When the Greeks occupied Jerusalem, they forbade Jews from studying the Torah. Jews gathered to study anyhow, and to avoid detection they would appear to be playing dreidel, tricking the Greeks into thinking that they were not studying but gambling instead.
Singer and his work are almost universally lauded, and Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories, in which "Zlateh the Goat" first appeared, is no exception. The collection won a prestigious Newbery Honor in 1967. By that time, Singer was already well established as a writer for adults; Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories was his first book for children. Writing about this transition in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Joseph Sherman comments that "the stories enable Singer to be openly didactic in a way he rarely was in fiction addressed to adults." Indeed, Sherman goes on to note that Singer's stories for children contain "unambiguous wish-fulfillment tales in which the good are rewarded and the wicked punished." Sherman furthermore states that Singer's "work for children also allowed him to express, for the first time in English, a poignant nostalgia for his own childhood and for the Poland in which it had been spent."
Writing specifically of "Zlateh the Goat," the critic Eric A. Kimmel, referencing Anton Chekhov's famous play The Cherry Orchard, notes in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers that the story's "smells and textures are so rich they might have been wafted from the Cherry Orchard." Grace Farrell Lee, writing in the Hollins Critic, calls Singer a "master story teller," observing that "in large measure Jewish mysticism and folklore structure his vision and determine his style." Jill P. May, writing about the story in the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, quotes Alida Allison's Isaac Bashevis Singer: Children's Stories and Childhood Memoirs, in which Allison states that in Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories, Singer "demarcated and transmitted his lively world in full dimension, establishing from the first page … the complexity and originality of his use of his native material." Writing of the collection's title story, the Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Dirda calls the tale "a little masterpiece" in which Zlateh's "bleating comes to embody a love, devotion and understanding beyond mere words."
Tieger is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she explores the religious undertones, themes, and symbols in "Zlateh the Goat."
"Zlateh the Goat" is unlike much of Singer's other work because it is not overtly religious or mystical. The religious themes in "Zlateh the Goat" may be subtle, but they are nonetheless powerful. Indeed, they are so powerful that school textbooks reprinting the story have attempted to gloss over, or downplay, the religious content. For instance, the New York Times contributor Edward B. Fiske reports that a version of "Zlateh the Goat" that was reprinted in Catch the Wind, a 1975 Macmillan textbook, had all references to God removed. One of the key phrases in the story, one that could in fact be described as summing up the story's theme, is "We must accept all that God gives us." According to Fiske, the Macmillan textbook changed the phrase to "We must accept all that is given us."
Even more astounding is the fact that the change was made without Singer's knowledge or permission. Fiske relates that Singer called the deletions "barbarism" and felt "ashamed that [the publishers] are doing that." Singer's response to the changes themselves shed further light on the religiosity inherent in "Zlateh the Goat": "In all my stories there is an element of faith in God. To take out the idea that there is a plan in creation means to take away the very essence of the story." This is a very telling statement. What at first glance appears to be a simple tale about a boy and his goat (replete with a ‘once upon a time’ beginning and obligatory happy ending) is, at second glance, a religious parable about faith and love.
One could claim, of course, that the bond between Aaron and Zlateh is closely related to "the idea that there is a plan in creation." The bond would be a part of that plan, but it could also be considered a response to or result of that plan. It seems obvious enough that Aaron and Zlateh's bond grows because they must weather the blizzard together, relying on one another for survival. But what is the blizzard in the story if not a symbol of God's will? The snowstorm is undeniably imbued with many supernatural qualities. It arrives unexpectedly, delivering a hailstorm out of season. Furthermore, the storm is unlike anything Aaron or Zlateh has ever seen. The flurries of snow appear "as if white imps were playing tag on the fields." Other mystical elements are also attached to the storm; the wind "wailed, first with one voice and then with many," and it occasionally resembled "devilish laughter."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Singer's memoirs are collected in Love and Exile: A Memoir (1984), which sheds much insight on Singer and his work. The collection includes his three full-length autobiographical works, A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light, A Young Man in Search of Love, and Lost in America.
- A notable Yiddish writer who influenced Singer is Sholem Aleichem. A good introduction to this renowned author's work is The Best of Sholom Aleichem, which was published in 1979.
- Another Yiddish literary great who is one of Singer's predecessors is I. L. Peretz. His Selected Stories (1974) provides a good starting place for familiarizing oneself with Yiddish literature.
- Edited by Marvin Herzog and others, the three-volume set The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry was published from 1992 to 2000. The series presents a comprehensive overview of Yiddish and its rise and fall as a language.
It is during this storm that one of Zlateh's bleats is interpreted as meaning "We must accept all that God gives us—heat, cold, hunger, satisfaction, light, and darkness." This statement, the story's greatest lesson (and the one censored by Macmillan), is delivered by the circumstances of the storm. As if to stress this point, the ordeal of the storm is given further religious undertones when Aaron perceives himself and Zlateh as being "born of the snow." This symbolic purification and rebirth are typical of religious epiphanies and experiences. When the storm is over, the world, too, is purified; it is "all white, quiet, dreaming dreams of heavenly splendor."
Other religious elements in the story are more straightforward. When Aaron and Zlateh are lost in the snow, Aaron begins "to pray to God for himself and for the innocent animal." Immediately following his prayer, Aaron sees a shape in the snow. This shape turns out to be the haystack that will provide Aaron and Zlateh with shelter, and Aaron knows that he and his goat are now "saved." Shortly after settling into the hay, the narrator notes, "Thank God that in the hay it was not cold."
Yet another important religious component in the story is faith, as Singer himself notes. Zlateh is almost a paragon of faith; she "trusted human beings," unsuspectingly licking the hand of the very man who has sentenced her to her death. Zlateh's faith in people could be seen as a metaphor for faith in God. Zlateh cannot truly understand humans or their plans for her, just as humans cannot understand God or God's plan for them. Other evidence of her faith is that she decides "she shouldn't ask questions" of what comes her way. This mirrors the relatively traditional religious teaching that people should not question God's will.
Religious faith is often coupled with religious love. Traditionally, people with faith in God also love God, and, according to some religious teachings, God loves those who love him in return. This religious tenet is reflected in Zlateh's relationship with Aaron. Zlateh's bleats may mean many things, but in one of the story's more significant moments, Aaron knows that she is saying, "I love you." Zlateh's ability to communicate her love for Aaron is reiterated in the last words of the story, as she makes "the single sound which expressed all her thoughts, and all her love." Aaron, like God, returns the love of the faithful. As Aaron and Zlateh survived together in the hay, "he loved her more and more."
Following this same chain of reasoning, one could also claim that Zlateh experiences a crisis of faith and that Aaron's growing love for Zlateh is a result of Zlateh's return to faith. Indeed, there is a famous religious parable that describes God as a shepherd. This same parable holds that God loves the sheep who get lost from the flock but return even more than those who never leave the flock in the first place. Certainly, the idea of Zlateh as a figure whose faith is lost and then found again is reinforced by Aaron's growing love for the goat, for where "he had always loved Zlateh … now she was like a sister." But what, exactly, is Zlateh's crisis of faith?
Zlateh appears "somewhat astonished" as Aaron leads her toward town, and she looks at him "questioningly." Nevertheless, she ultimately concludes "that a goat shouldn't ask questions." This episode is the first evidence of Zlateh's fragile faith. When the snow begins to fall, Zlateh accepts the situation at first, but then her faith falters once again, and "her mild eyes seemed to ask, ‘Why are we out in such a storm?"’ Eventually, she gives up entirely: "she anchored her cleft hooves in the earth and bleated as if pleading to be taken home." Her bleats begin "to sound like crying," and it is implied that she feels as if "those humans in whom she had so much confidence had dragged her into a trap." This latter sentiment shows not only a loss of faith but also a sliver of blame or accusation.
Aaron, however, shows no such tendencies. He reacts to the storm with surprise but keeps calm and does not panic. He accepts the storm's presence and is practical about it, vainly hoping to run into a villager in a cart. Even when Aaron realizes that he and Zlateh are lost, he does not panic (and it is at this point that Zlateh does panic). Aaron, knowing the serious situation that they are in, is hardly even able to "admit the danger" that he and Zlateh face. While Zlateh cries, Aaron prays "to God for himself and for the innocent animal." His prayers are immediately answered in the form of a haystack.
Zlateh's crisis of faith ends only when her fear, cold, and hunger are assuaged, and yet she is later portrayed as communicating to Aaron that these are the very discomforts that "we must accept." Once in the haystack Zlateh is again "contented," having "seemed to regain her confidence in man." Like a penitent sheep returning to her flock, Zlateh appears "eager to reward" her savior. Lost in the snow, Zlateh must place her faith in Aaron, and she fails, recovering her faith only when she is led toward food and shelter. Aaron, however, cannot put his faith in a goat; he can only put his faith in God, and he does not fail. This is the essential difference between Zlateh and Aaron. It is all the more interesting, then, that Zlateh is the character who seems to tell Aaron that "we must accept all that God gives us." What one says with a bleat, the other does in deed.
Source: Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on "Zlateh the Goat," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Rahn argues that through works such as "Zlateh the Goat," Singer contributed to the increasing visibility of Jewish characters in children's literature.
In 1986 the celebrated illustrator Trina Schart Hyman delivered a plenary address at the thirteenth annual conference of the Children's Literature Association. Instead of a formal presentation, Hyman gave her audience an insider's look at the picture book she had just completed, The Water of Life, with slides displaying her illustrations. The text was a straightforward adaptation by Barbara Rogasky of the German folktale in which a prince seeks for the Water of Life and finds a princess in an enchanted castle; the illustrations, on the other hand, like those in Hyman's Snow White (1974), The Sleeping Beauty (1977), and Saint George and the Dragon (1984), expressed an interpretation very much her own. Her princess, for example, was depicted as, in Hyman's words, "an equal opportunity employer," with illustrations showing "a black guy and a woman as the heads of her guards" (10). One of the enchanted princes in another illustration was also black. Most remarkable, however, was the beautiful, dark-haired princess herself, first seen as the hero discovers her in her room, studying books and maps. "Now I'll have you know that this is a Jewish princess," Hyman announced.
This princess went to Bennington and Sarah Lawrence, and she's smart as well as beautiful. I mean, she hasn't just been sitting around this castle waiting to be rescued. She's been reading books and trying to find out how to break the spell herself….And those are her books, and all her Christian symbols up on the bookshelf. After all, if you were a Jewish princess in those days, you had to disguise the fact pretty well. (8)
The "Christian symbols," incidentally, are icons, including one of the Virgin and Child.
Hyman's odd decision to create a Jewish heroine known as such only to her (and to several hundred members of the Children's Literature Association) may be seen as one idiosyncratic manifestation of a much larger phenomenon—the widespread "invisibility" of Jewish characters in mainstream English-language children's literature. This has been, for the most part, an invisibility of absence; until thirty years ago, Jewish characters of any sort were extremely rare. Often, however, their invisibility has resembled that of Hyman's princess. Jewish characters, whatever the author's private intention, were not explicitly identified as "Jewish," which meant that as far as most young readers were concerned, they might as well not be Jewish at all. Clues of physical appearance, speech, dress, and nomenclature which—often stereotypically—might spell Jewishness to an adult reader would be illegible to most children….
Major change in the depiction of Jewish characters, however, did not take place until the 1960s, when the entire field of children's literature was beginning to break through the taboos of the 1950s and expand in new directions. Internationalism flourished once more; stories set in foreign—and often non-European—countries became more common, as did stories translated from other languages. Israel, past and present, became a familiar setting (Posner 123-24). In 1966, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, with its poignant illustrations by Maurice Sendak, became the Newbery Award's first Jewish Honor Book. Historical novels were widening their range as well, giving children the opportunity to see Jewish characters in a variety of historical contexts. British author Josephine Kamm, for example, in Return to Freedom (1962), introduced children to the plight of English Jews in the Middle Ages; in Red Towers of Granada (1966), another British novelist, Geoffrey Trease, contrasted the treatment of Jews in thirteenth-century England with that in Moorish Spain, where religious tolerance resulted in a unique flowering of civilization. Jewish-American author Shulamith Ish-Kishor painted a dark but memorable picture of life in a sixteenth-century Jewish ghetto in A Boy of Old Prague (1963). In its unrelenting portrayal of prejudice and persecution, and in its tragic ending, A Boy of Old Prague foreshadows novels of the Holocaust to be written in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s by such children's authors as Jane Yolen and Myron LeVoy.
The raging beasts of the mob had made a human bonfire. They had dragged the Jews out of their houses, men, women, and children, and brought them down to the market place. Scores of bodies were found in a heap, outside a mass of ruined houses. When I went there the wind was blowing the black flakes and fragments here and there. (88)
Yet invisibility still recurs in the children's books of this period. In The Winged Watchman (1962) by Hilda Van Stockum, an engrossing story of the Nazi occupation of Holland, a boy and his mother watch an entire family being loaded by S.S. men into a van:
Mother flung her apron over Joris' head—he was still very small then—but he peeked underneath and saw it all. The old grandfather, who could hardly walk, was taken. He had a little black cap on his head and a big yellow star on his coat. Then came Mr. Groen, two boys and a little girl, all wearing stars. Last of all came Mrs. Groen, and Joris would never forget her face. When she saw Mother she made a sign to her, pointing to her garden. (58)
When the van has gone, Joris's mother finds the baby that Mrs. Groen had hidden in the bushes, takes it home with her, and raises the little girl as her own child. The word "Jew," however, is never used in this moving scene, nor at the end of the book, when Mrs. Groen returns—the only survivor—and little Rachel is given back to her.
By the 1970s, however, the invisibility that had hung like a mist over Jewish characters for nearly a hundred years had finally dissipated for good. Hilda Van Stockum herself, in a second novel set in Nazi-occupied Holland, The Borrowed House, confronted anti-Semitism in 1975 far more directly than she had in 1963. In this story, it is the young protagonist who is a Nazi, a dedicated member of the Hitler Youth who sincerely believes that Jews are evil, though (as far as she knows) she has never seen one. "‘I think they're like the Nibelungen dwarfs in our play …sly and dangerous,’" she naively informs her friend Greta. "‘It's the Jews in England and America that are fighting us"’ (10). Janna's gradual enlightenment, when she makes friends with a Jewish boy hiding in the house her parents have commandeered, is what this book is about. At first, she does not perceive Sef's Jewishness, because he does not fit her stereotype; she assumes he is merely a member of the Resistance. Then, when she discovers his yellow star, she is horrified and must overcome her own longheld beliefs. Finally, she accepts and loves Sef for what he truly is. Though he must still stay hidden until the war is over, the Jew is no longer invisible to Janna, or to the reader.
The invisibility of Jewishness in characters clearly envisioned as Jewish by such children's authors as Hilda Van Stockum, Robert Heinlein, and Noel Streatfeild seems related to the issue of Jewish assimilation with which so many Jewish-American authors have been concerned (see, for example, the articles by June Cummins, Jonathan Krasner, and Leslie Tannenbaum in this issue). Invisibility made it possible to imply, for an audience of non-Jewish children (though not for their parents), that Jews were essentially no different from themselves, helping to ensure that these children would grow up free from the prejudices of the parents, or even of the authors. At the same time, British and American authors who believed that the best possible outcome for British and American Jews was to be wholly assimilated into the mainstream culture could thus create a kind of assimilation before the fact.
However, the growing cultural prominence of ethnic identity, encouraged in America by the civil rights movement and in Britain by immigration from former colonies, has led to a new openness about ethnicity, and to the increased presence of all ethnic groups in English-language children's literature. Since the 1980s, the publicity given the Holocaust and its incorporation into school curricula has made Jewishness particularly visible. Most importantly, a new array of Jewish children's authors has not only identified itself as Jewish but produced a wonderful variety of characters who are Jewish, too. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kathryn Lasky, Uri Shulevitz, Maurice Sendak, Marilyn Sachs, Eric Kimmel, Lynne Reid Banks, Maxine Rose Schur, Sonia Levitin, and many more fine authors and illustrators have vastly expanded the range of Jewish experience depicted in mainstream English-language children's literature. Today, Jewish characters are no longer exceptional—or invisible—and young readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, are free to share their imaginary lives.
Source: Suzanne Rahn, "‘Like a Star Through Flying Snow’: Jewish Characters, Visible and Invisible," in The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 27, No. 3, September 2003, pp. 303-23.
Jill P. May
In the following excerpt, May provides an analysis of the relationship between Singer and Maurice Sendak, the illustrator of Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, suggesting that each man attempted to "revive the dead" in their work.
Maurice Sendak and Isaac Singer devoted much of their careers to the recreation of a Polish community, hoping to bring alive lost villages and people for a youthful audience. At the same time, both men sought resolutions for their past, and they "revived the dead" in order to answer personal questions about ethnic survival and religious annihilation. These two men returned to earlier stories from Polish villages and recreated their Jewish families in these isolated communities.
Neither Singer nor Sendak lived in Poland when it came under Nazi rule. Sendak was born in Brooklyn; Singer fled Poland prior to World War II and re-settled in New York City. As a youth, Sendak heard stories about his family's past in Poland, while Singer remembered the country of his childhood and his youth. Sendak's Poland is dominated by relatives who would never make it out alive. Because he was a boy growing up in America during World War II, Sendak's Jewish community extends beyond the boundaries of Europe and Nazi occupation. It has much to do with an American childhood in New York City. Singer left contemporary Poland and the Nazi regime behind him when he arrived in the United States. Written at the end of his career, his children's literature most often contains adolescents struggling with making sense of their world within their Jewish villages, and the events end prior to World War II. Singer rarely depicts the Nazi regime in his literature written specifically for children. Their journeys, therefore, reflect two different perspectives of the Jewish experience, and the worlds they bring alive hold a different sense of realism for their youthful audiences.
Isaac Singer won the Nobel Peace prize for his writing in 1978. By then he had received the Newbery Honors for Zlatech the Goat and Other Stories, The Fearsome Inn and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and was awarded the National Book Award in Children's Literature for A Day of Pleasure. Singer never won the coveted Newbery Award, and his Nobel Prize was not given to him because he was a children's author. As an author of adult literature prior to turning to children's literature, Singer won his Nobel Prize for "his impassioned narrative art which, with its roots in Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life" (Noble 162).
When asked what caused him to write about Poland, he reasoned: "the lost world is the world of my childhood, of my younger days…. We are bound to write about the things of our younger days and to remember them better than the things that happened yesterday or the day before…. I write about people from Poland—Yiddish-speaking Poles, Jews—I do this to be sure that I write about people I know best" (Teicholz 219-220). Singer left Poland when the country was on the ebb of war; it was not yet a country with the political practice of Jewish termination. He was a young man who had fathered a son and divorced his wife. Singer and his older brother Joseph, also a writer, chose to immigrate in the mid-thirties, and they settled in New York City.
Once in America, Isaac Singer did not immediately feel comfortable. His memories of a vibrant Jewish community with a rich heritage led him to have certain language and cultural expectations. Singer later explained: "When I came to this country I lived through a terrible disappointment. I felt then—more than I do now—that Yiddish had no future in this country. In Poland, Yiddish was still very much alive" (Blocker and Elman 14). Although he chose to emigrate to America over going to Israel or Russia, Singer remained an exiled Jew for the major part of his life. After visiting Singer in 1967, Melvin Naddocks observed:
What a strange amalgam Singer is! Hunched over a 32-year-old Yiddish typewriter in New York City, in 1967, he writes of the Polish past—of dybbuks he does not believe in and of shetls (East European Jewish villages) long disappeared. By his own admission he writes "as if none of the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people during the last two decades really did occur." (33)
Singer is thus depicted as an alienated Jew who lives in his past, in a time prior to World War II, and who refuses to acknowledge that the people he left behind are truly dead.
Singer's fiction was first published in the Jewish Daily Forward, New York's Yiddish-language newspaper; throughout his career, Singer wrote in Yiddish. He once quipped: "Yiddish is a sick language because the young people don't speak it. And many consider it a dead language. But in our history between being sick and dying is a long way" (Anderson 101). Singer admitted in A Little Boy in Search of God that he was aware of injustice throughout his life:
I had heard about the cruelties perpetrated by Chmielnicki's Cossacks. I had read about the Inquisition. I knew about the pogroms on Jews in Russia and Spain. I lived in a world of cruelty. I was tormented not only by the sufferings of men but by the sufferings of beasts, birds, and insects as well. Hungry wolves attacked lambs. Lions, tigers, and leopards had to devour other creatures or die from hunger. The squires wandered through forests and shot deer, hares, and pheasants for pleasure. I bore resentment against not only man but against God, too…. It was He who had made man a blood thirsty creature ready to do violence at every step. I was a child, but I had the same view of the world that I have today—one huge slaughterhouse, one enormous hell.
Born in Radzymin, Poland, on July 14, 1904, Isaac Singer grew up hearing two kinds of stories. From his father, Rabbi Pinchos Menachem, he heard stories with a moral, stories about religious beliefs and practices. From his mother he heard tales "so pointless that you really could learn nothing from them" (Children's Literature 9). Although the expectations for their listeners were different, both parents would be considered to be excellent storytellers throughout Singer's life. Oral storytelling and community traditions became significant elements to Singer in his own storymaking. Often, during interviews, Singer would talk of his family's conversations about religion and of his parents' fear that he and his older brother were becoming too cosmopolitan. Both boys read secular novels and European philosophy that had been translated into Hebrew and Yiddish. When asked once if his parents approved of his writing fiction, Singer replied: "They considered all the secular writers to be heretics, all unbelievers…. Everybody who read such books sooner or later became a worldly man and forsook the traditions. In my family, of course, my brother had gone first, and I went after him. For my parents, this was a tragedy" (Blocker and Elman 13).
When Isaac Singer left Poland he chose to break with his rabbinical heritage, but he did not lose his belief in the Jewish traditions he grew up in or his need to be thought of as an Eastern European Jewish writer. At one point he explained the significant difference between western literature and Yiddish literature as one of characterization, noting that the western hero "is the Superman, the Prometheus character" while the Yiddish hero is "the little man. He's poor but proud, always struggling against his personal, financial, and political odds to maintain his dignity and status" (Flender 42-43). Singer never suggested that his stories were simple adaptations of the stories he learned as a child, but there are obvious strands of his childhood reading and his Jewish upbringing in his writing for children. Shlemiel is a prominent character in his stories, as are witches and spirits; many of the stories also take place in Chelm where the wise men live. Concerning those elements found in all of Singer's writing, Howard Scwartz commented:
Singer was born into a rabbinic family in Leoncin, a village in Poland, in 1904 and grew up in Warsau, where he began his writing career in 1925. It is important to emphasize the crucial role played by his older brother … in the career of his younger brother.
Singer's emigration to the United States in 1935 and the subsequent destruction of the Polish Jewish communities by the Nazis in World War II created a situation in which he had to turn, of necessity, to his memory and imagination for subject matter. So great was his success that for many readers Singer's descriptions of life in prewar Poland form the basis for their conception of this period. To his detractors, Singer's character portraits … are overworked and exaggerated. But Singer has always emphasized the primary role of the imagination in his stories and novels. (184)
Singer liked to talk about his need to write beyond orthodoxy. In one interview he attested: "The truth is that the Yiddishists don't consider me a writer who writes in their tradition. Neither do I consider myself a writer in their tradition. I consider myself a writer in the Jewish tradition but not exactly the Yiddish tradition" (Howe 126). Singer maintained that stories are not universal creations, that each person's rendition is his own, and this gave his writing personal impetus: "After all, these folktales were invented by someone; the people did not tell them all…. I say to myself, ‘I am a part of the folk myself. Why can't I invent stories?’ … Sometimes I hear a little story, a spark of a story, and then I make from the spark a fire" (Children's Literature 11). Efraim Sicher explains Singer's need for a personal sense of creativity within a Jewish folklore tradition as his haunting by a legendary dybbuk, "a wandering spirit of a deceased person who returns to fulfill some uncompleted task or undo a wrong" (56). As a folkloric figure, the dybbuk seeks tikkum. Sicher feels that tikkum forced Singer to "grapple with the past, with the unprecedented revelation of evil in the Holocaust." Thus, he reasons, Singer's creative freedom caused him to consider that "the demonic existed in the lost East European community of belief" and allowed him to "exorcise" his past through his writing, admitting his "schizophrenia" between his desire for spiritual perfection and acknowledgment of human defilement (57).
Singer hoped to keep his Jewish heritage intact. Once, in an interview, he argued: "If we reach a time when Yiddish and Yiddish customs and folklore are forgotten, Hitler will have succeeded not only physically but also spiritually. … I wish Yiddish could be as alive today as when I was a child and that there were many young talents writing in Yiddish" (Lottman 123). Because he lost those who remained behind in Poland, Singer was forced to recreate that other time and place, to resolve the loss of a spiritual and intellectual community.
Throughout his life, Singer tied reading and religion together. At one point he argued that one need not worry about the particular social system where one lived as much as why God "created the world the way it is," adding, "It's He who has caused all these troubles, and I often rebel against Him. But the fact that I rebel against Him shows that I believe in Him and I really do" (Anderson 106). Grace Farrell Lee observes,
… while Singer fills his fiction with a wide variety of folk figures—comic angels and imps, maliciously demonic narrators, dream phantoms and apparitions—the significance of the demonic in his fiction is always related, not to traditional notions of sin and retribution, but to his major theme of exile and the problem of meaning. (32)
Singer's sense of injustice would not allow him to create an idealized world. All of his writing, even that written specifically for children, contains links between local customs and provincial attitudes within the everyday lives of simple peasants and the cabalistic spiritual world. Singer's children's literature falls into two categories: that built around the mundane events of a Yiddish Polish village and that inhabited by spirits. The mundane stories depict the Jewish peasants in the small village where as a teen he lived with his mother. This community is isolated and seems oblivious to the dangers without. Humor is often found in Singer's village. Yet, it is barbed humor, usually pointing out the foibles of blind trust and the worries of persecution from those who live just beyond the village, while relating the humorous escapades of a likable anti-hero.
In Zlateh the Goat, Singer writes: "Literature helps us remember the past with its many moods. To the storyteller yesterday is still here as are the years and the decades gone by….For the writer and his readers all creatures go on living forever" (xi). Within this collection, logic is often misconstrued as simple faith in what one is told….
In her book-length study of Singer's children's fiction, Alida Allison calls Zlateh the Goat Singer's "standard" children's work, adding, "In it he demarcated and transmitted his lively world in full dimension, establishing from the first page …the complexity and originality of his use of his native material" (31). When discussing his writing for children, Singer once commented: "In real life many of the people that I describe no longer exist, but to me they remain alive … with their wisdom, their strange beliefs, and sometimes their foolishness" (Toothaker 532). While he was alive, Singer's writings were defined by Leo W. Schwarz as stories tied to "a pre-modern culture" and he concluded: "Singer has come to terms with himself; he is committed to the hallowing of man and life" (12).
Maurice Sendak is probably the best-known children's illustrator of the twentieth century. Although his fame has evolved from his illustrative work in the United States, his talents are not limited to this genre. Sendak had been described as the Picasso of children's literature in the popular press, as an American artist whose work looks "like something out of Brueghal" by Paul Heins, one of the early authoritative reviewers for Horn Book Magazine, and as an illustrator who has manipulated the heroic journey towards self discovery in his psychological fantasies, by Canadian children's literature critic Roderick McGillis. His contributions also reflect a Jewish author/illustrator who lived through World War II and, as an adult, determined to write and illustrate books for the American city child he had watched belittled as he grew up in New York City….
Sendak has admitted that when he was young he knew there was a war going on, but he believes he better appreciated the darkness in Disney's Pinocchio. "I was only a child," he recalls, "but I knew something dreadful was happening in the world, and that my parents were worried to death. And it seems to me that something of the quality of that terrible, anxious time is reflected in the very color and dramatic power of Pinocchio" (Caldecott & Co. 112). Unlike Jack Zipes, who writes that Disney reshaped the material to "‘Americanize’ the representation of boyhood itself; and to simplify the plot so that his moral code of success based on conforming to the dictates of good behavior and diligence could be transmitted through story, dance, and rounded images of tranquillity" (83), Sendak has called the film a wonderful re-write of the Italian classic….
His personal memories of Pinocchio suggest that the fantasy provided him an alternative ending for his family's reality. In 1941, on the day of his bar mitzvah, his father received a letter informing him that his own father was dead. Sendak ties his growing up to his cognizance that those ancestors his parents worried about might ultimately be killed. Later, he revived the lost relatives:
Both my parents lost everybody, practically, in the Holocaust…. And many of the pictures in Zlateh [the Goat] are portraits taken from photograph albums of people I never knew, because they died in concentration camps…. I gave some of the characters their faces so I could surprise my parents. They were deeply touched because they recognized this one and that one. Those lost people were alive again in the book, they would always be alive in the book, they would always be characters in Isaac Singer stories. (Sendak's Western Canon 1)
Sendak has commented that his bar mitzvah was a day of happiness and resentment for him. His celebration was a somber time for his parents, and the war continued to affect his family. His sister lost her fiance' in the war, and his brother was sent to the Pacific (Lanes 23).
Sendak lived in a neighborhood inhabited by Eastern Jews and Italians. Within the books, magazines and newspapers being published, Sendak's ethnic world was being negatively discussed as a replication of "the life which the Jews had led in eastern Europe" (Hendrick 108). In The Jews in America, first published by Doubleday in 1922, Burton Jesse Hendrick discussed the ethnicity of the eastern Jewish community in America, and he concluded: "the process of ‘Americanization’ is going to be slow and more difficult with this class of immigrants than with any other, except perhaps the Southern Italians. … Until this mass is brought into harmony with American traditions and American instincts it would certainly be folly to add considerably to it" (170-171). Such assertions would cause anxiety for Sendak's family. Indeed, the possibility of their relatives immigrating to America would have been bleak….
Sendak's work relies on his childhood memories and on his understanding of the child's integration of popular culture images, modern song and dance, and community adult attitudes, reflected in their fears and pleasures when they are parents. His Jewish neighborhood is a replica of the one in America that was inhabited by the "unchosen" in the American social ambiance of the thirties and the forties.
The works of Isaac Singer and Maurice Sendak resolve the reverie of an immigrant survivor by allowing the artist to return to his family traditions and redefine his loss of ethnic heritage by preserving his family in art. As they wrote and illustrated the Jewish life that was ostracized and destroyed in Poland, ignored and diminished in America, Singer and Sendak documented Polish Jewish families who faced cultural extinction within socially sanctioned policies, both in and outside the United States. As they worked with their skeletons of religious doubt and persecution and publicly acknowledged the personal sufferings of their families, they conveyed a new sense of the Holocaust and of Shoah. Efraim Sicher has spoken about narrative as a way to revisit the Holocaust's "blanks and disorder" and redefine the writer's life within his collapsed family and society (6). Leo Schwarz has commented that within the best Jewish works there is "a sense of immediacy and warmth in human association … rooted in the Jewish tradition of their childhood" (17). Schwarz argues: "Jewish education taught them, not merely about Judaism, but, above all, to be a Jew…. This means, not copulating with death but coping with life, and this, in turn, means facing the crises and paradoxes of existence and making hard decisions on questions of right and wrong" (17). Alan Berger has disclosed the need for second-generation Americans who suffered the Holocaust and Shoah by observing their families to produce art, explaining, "For example, many feel guilty for not having been in the Shoah. Others feel guilt, quite undeservedly, for the fact that their parents suffered during the Holocaust. Still others feel a sense of guilt for not being able to comprehend the meaning of their parents' suffering and their own Holocaust legacy" (65).
Singer, the grandson and son of rabbis, escaped Poland, and while he saw the world skeptically, he believed in God's goodness. At one point, he commented: "No man in his right mind unless he is a silly liberal believes that we can change the world…. But I feel that the cosmos cannot be all evil, that the creator of all these galaxies could not just be an ice cold sadist who plays around with little creatures. There must be something great, good, eternal" (Farrell 135). Singer refused to revisit the destruction of his people in books for youthful readers. Instead, he rebuilt the Polish villages as they existed when he was young in short fiction for children. Sendak has continually regarded his parents, siblings and himself as lucky survivors. He recently remembered his journey to Amsterdam where he visited Anne Frank's home, and he admitted: "I had the uneasy, chilly feeling that I could get on a plane and go home, but for her there had been no escape. And that kept reminding me of my father and my mother, and the whimsicality of their coming here. I had cousins who died in the Holocaust the year of my bar mitzvah; they had no bar mitzvah, and I knew all the time that it was luck" (Sendak's Western Canon 11). Sendak's Jewish community lived in New York City during the war; they faced the prejudice of people like Burton Hendrick in their everyday lives. They held few hopes that their relatives would get help to flee Nazi persecution. Sendak's work is defined by Alan Berger's suggestion that second-generation artists have not forgotten the past. Rather, they are trying to remember and mourn the dead, express their personal sense of loss, and live as Jews after facing the twentieth century's indifference about earlier plans for Jewish annihilation (19).
Source: Jill P. May, "Envisioning the Jewish Community in Children's Literature: Maurice Sendak and Isaac Singer," in Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, Winter 2000/2001, pp. 137-51.
In the following excerpt, Allison describes the role of Singer's translator, Elizabeth Shub, in the writing of "Zlateh the Goat," a story that "would never have come into existence" without Shub's persuasion.
In an essay reprinted by the American P.E.N. Center in its 1987 book On the World of Translation, Isaac Bashevis Singer makes a joke. Someone, he writes, once asked him at a lecture, "What would you do if you met God face to face?" Says Singer, "My answer was, ‘I would ask him to collaborate with me on some translations."’ Tellingly, he adds, "I would not trust him to do it himself." Beyond linguistic and creative considerations, the topics of metaphysical translation, the inevitability of error, and the struggle to get it right—all were of interest to the philosophical Singer.
In regard to Singer's children's stories, there was a highly noteworthy collaboration: not with the God, but with the translator, Elizabeth Shub. Without her, "Zlateh the Goat," Singer's first venture for children, would never have come into existence. Singer had many translators in his long career, from Saul Bellow to his own nephew Joseph Singer. But only Shub thought of him in regard to children's books. As Singer recalls:
I had been writing for forty years and it never occurred to me that I would ever write for children…. But my friend, Elizabeth Shub, who was then an editor of juvenile books at Harper, had different ideas. For a long time she tried to persuade me …that I was, at least potentially, a writer for children.
The net result was that she translated many stories into English from Yiddish and now, whenever I get a check, she gets a check. Which proves that sometimes altruism pays off.
Translation had always been crucial for Singer. Yiddish was a minority language if ever there was one, and his worldwide fame rested on his works in translation. Once he acquired an English-reading audience, he became, as he says, "one of those rare writers who works with his translators … I check my translators constantly—I mean those who translate me into English or Hebrew. What happens to me in Italian, Portuguese or Finnish I will never know."
Elizabeth Shub had known Singer since she was a teenager and he a young new immigrant to New York. Singer spoke no English when he arrived in 1935. By the time he began writing for children 30 years later, his English was fluent. But his was not native English; Shub's was. "It just seemed natural," Shub said, "when he asked me to translate for him." In addition, Shub worked in and knew children's literature; Singer did not; as he observed, "It did not exist among the Jewish people in my time." Shub's skills, her already having translated many of his adult stories, her tact with Singer, and, significantly, her familiarity (though second generation) with the world Isaac Singer had come from—all contributed to a solid working friendship.
Oddly enough, however, there was one thing Elizabeth Shub could not do; she could not read Isaac Singer's handwriting. "Other translators of Singer, such as Mirra Ginsburg, worked alone," Shub said. "Her Yiddish was better and she could read everything." Shub spoke Yiddish and read it in typeset, but Singer's longhand was beyond her. As a consequence, Shub says:
The way we mostly worked, at least on the first draft, is that he would come to my house and read it to me in Yiddish. He would sit in a nice easy chair and I would sit at the typewriter and do a rough immediate translation. If there was a word I didn't understand, he was there to help me. Then I would read it to him and he would correct whatever he didn't think was right. Then I would type the whole thing out clean and I would edit it to correct anything that I thought was wrong. And then he would go over it and correct anything he didn't like. Then I would read it to him and he would make corrections again or if I felt something wasn't working, he would immediately, if he agreed, fix it.
Bringing the manuscript over didn't mean that as he read to me he didn't change things. He never felt that the manuscripts he brought over were just as they had to be. Once it was done, however, it was done. He wasn't a writer, like some of my others, who went back and said, "Oh, I hate this."
Until I got used to working with him I would sometimes not understand what he was doing. I would have a questioning look or frown a little bit. He'd get very angry and he would say "Why do you look like that? How can I work when you look like that? …" I would smile and say, "I'm sorry." And then, by the end of the story, usually he had pulled it together and what didn't have any meaning to me in the middle certainly meant exactly what he wanted it to at the end. And that was a lesson I learned … not to take anything for granted till the story was finished. His instinct for the right word in another language was very, very keen.
The spontaneous oral exchange between author and translator drew out the best of Singer's storytelling ability. Alternately he and Shub served as on-site audience. "My translators," says Singer, "are my best critics. I can tell by their expressions when they don't like a story of mine or any part of it." Telling the stories aloud also drew out from him what Roderick McGillis calls "the speaking voice" of literature, the narrative cadences of his young days in Eastern Europe as the son of a rabbi to whose drawing room all kinds of people came to tell their stories. Singer has often depicted himself in his memoirs as a child who listened carefully and consciously to the ways in which people told their stories.
Elizabeth Shub remembers when Singer finally agreed to try his hand at writing for children. He brought his first attempts, Hanukkah poems, to her apartment. It took her until the next day to find the courage to reject the poems, a response Singer wasn't at all pleased about.
Shub continues, "It was maybe a day and a half later when I got this phone call. He said, ‘I wrote another story.’ ‘Oh great, that's wonderful, do you want to come to my house?’ ‘No, meet me at Famous’ (his favorite deli on 72nd Street). So I met him in the cafeteria and he handed me ‘Zlateh the Goat’ and that's how we got started."
Since Singer's debut as a children's writer won the first of his three Newbery Honor Medals—all three won for books Shub translated with him—theirs was a very good start indeed.
Briefly, "Zlateh the Goat" is about the Russian Jewish family of Reuven, the furrier. An unusually warm winter spells disaster for them, and reluctantly they are forced to sell their beloved old goat Zlateh to raise a few gulden for necessities. The task of taking her to the town butcher is laid upon young Aaron, but no sooner do he and Zlateh set off than they are caught in a blizzard. Their salvation appears in the form of a mound of snow, covering, Aaron realizes, a large haystack. He tunnels a way in for him and Zlateh and, during the three days they share there, they converse in their own way as Zlateh eats the hay and Aaron drinks her milk. The family is overjoyed when they return. The snow has alleviated the economic situation and Zlateh remains at home. The elements of Singer's own roots, family love and sacrifice, human/animal dependence, the warmth of the holiday, and harsh reality—economic and environmental—are all part of his first children's story.
New York University's Fales Library holds all the original English drafts of the seven stories of Zlateh the Goat, plus the stories Singer wrote specifically for A Day of Pleasure, his National Book Award-winning autobiography of childhood in Poland. The drafts are concrete documentation of a creative process that word processing has rendered quaint. Figures 1 through 3 reproduce draft pages from Zlateh the Goat….
There is very little editing on figure 1. The large signature on top is Singer's, appended when he donated the manuscripts; interestingly, it looks as if he spelled his last name wrong. The rest of the handwriting is Elizabeth Shub's. The editorial improvement is clear: midpage, "For that money one could buy Hanukkah candles" becomes the more resonant "Such a sum would buy Hanukkah candles," and below, "began to cry out" becomes "cried out loud," and finally "cried loudly."
In figure 2, the collaborative translating is more evident; there is much more revision in Shub's hand. Midpage, one sees the dramatic "She could walk no longer" replacing the bulky and flat "She no longer wanted to or was able to walk"; the strongly cadenced "did not want to admit the danger" replaces the polysyllabic "was reluctant to admit the danger." And at the bottom of the page, "a large hay stack which the snow had blanketed" is the revised version of the bland "a large stack of hay covered with snow." The final page of the manuscript, figure 3, shows how spontaneous the working out of the story had become. In Shub's hand is written the final flawless paragraph of Zlateh: one can see "utter bleat" crossed out, replaced with "come out with a single sound which expressed," and the perfect last sentence is refined through crossings out from "all her feelings, all her thoughts, and all her love" to "all her thoughts, and all her love." Love is a feeling, after all, so why be repetitious?
There is a particularly lively page from one of the several draft versions in Shub's possession of Singer's 1983 The Fools of Chelm and Their History. The novella is an Orwellian Yiddish political comedy about the famous folklore fools, the so-called sages of Chelm, and the consequences of their harebrained imperialism. Humor is notoriously difficult to translate, and as Singer says, "Yiddish is a language with a built-in humor … [it] can take a lot of overstatement … English or French must be much more precise, logical, lean." The deadpan and parody that begin with the inflated opening of the "history" of Chelm, that "God said, ‘Let there be Chelm.’ And there was Chelm" does translate, in no small part because of the tightening, the precision, of the editing. Artist Uri Shulevitz told me he was so tickled by Singer's opening that he chose to expand upon it in his illustration, which is the frontispiece of the published book: the illustration "Let there be Chelm." About two-thirds down the page in question, for example, is humor that takes on evolution itself—all of history, from sea creature to Chelmite, is seen to have happened only to provide an explanation of why Chelmites like gefilte fish. At the bottom of the page, sentence structure and delivery are refined: "It is said that the first Chelmites were primitive people, or maybe just fools" becomes "It is said that the earliest Chelmites were primitive people. Some said they were just plain fools." Wording is definitely punchier the second time around. Singer's stories are good enough to be good in any language, but Elizabeth Shub made them good in English.
A theory of language contained in The Fools of Chelm and Their History effects a transition from a study of primary sources to a few preliminary Singeresque speculations about Language and Translation as metaphors for human—and divine—struggle. Indeed, language and translation were more than practical and artistic issues for Isaac Singer; they were central metaphors imbued with cosmological meaning.
Describing living and cultural conditions in Chelm, Singer writes:
They walked around naked and barefoot … and hunted animals with axes of stone…. They often starved or were sick. [And this is Shub's writing] But since the word problem did not exist as yet, there were no problems and no one tried to solve them.
After many years the Chelmites became civilized. They learned to read and write and such words as problem and crisis were created. The moment the word "crisis" appeared in the language, the people realized there was a crisis in their town.
These are the same Chelmite sages who, in another Singer story set during a year of deprivation when there is no sour cream for Hanukkah but plenty of water, solve the problem by decreeing that everyone call sour cream "water" and water "sour cream." Thus, there is plenty of sour cream, and who cares if there's no water?
We—who are of course not fools—we know water is not sour cream no matter what it is called, and that the crisis exist whether we name it or not. But such is the manipulability of words and the possibility of confusion within one language—much less among languages—that words are associated literally and metaphorically not only with great power but with mistakes as well. Singer's example of a translator's error is the rendering of "She cried like a woman in labor" as "She cried like a woman in the Histadruth (union movement)," which has a certain logic to it, ultimately, but is nonetheless wrong. With word, with existence, with the creation of the actual, comes the probability of error.
Singer had a lifelong passion for mystic ideas that embodied what George Steiner calls (in the "Language and Gnosis" chapter of After Babel) the affinity between Judaism and mystical linguistics: "Starting with Genesis 11.11 (the story of the tower of Babel) … Jewish thought has played a pronounced role in linguistic mystique, scholarship, and philosophy."
In his Flora Levy Lecture, "My Personal Conception of Religion," Singer uses the mystical metaphor of God as primal writer of the universe, an idea derived from the Sefer Yezirah. Grace Farrell discusses this in her essay "Belief and Disbelief: The Kabbalic Basis of I. B. Singer's Secular Vision." Singer writes in his Levy lecture that, as an artist, God is prone to all the strengths and weaknesses of authorship; Singer's God "experiments eternally … He creates and he fails—perhaps. He makes artistic errors, then rectifies them … God keeps on improving Himself … Godliness is struggle."
In a typically Jewish fashion, I would like to base my conclusion on a quotation. This one is from an 18th-century Hasidic master whom young Singer would certainly have read, one Menahem Mendl of Vibetsk. Rebbe Mendl said: "Man is the language of God." A beautiful and thought-provoking statement, it is based on a belief in the primacy of language and humanity in the divine scheme. A Taoist teacher in Hong Kong compressed the same idea into three characters: Yun Yan Ji—"Profound ('s) Seal Man"—With "seal" in the Chinese sense of a carved signature. In other words, humanity is the imprint of God. Existence is the Creator talking.
Typically Jewish, however, as opposed to Taoist, is the idea of a screw-up somewhere along the line. This experience-based attitude complements the exaltation of "Man is the language of God" with a resigned "So?—if man is the language of God, maybe it would have been better all around if God had kept his mouth shut."
But God did say, "Let there be," and from that a chain of linguistic imagery follows. For, if, as Mendl says, man is the language of God, then we can say that the writer, the author, is the language of man, the one who actualizes the human experience of existence, puts it into words and thus into memory and thus into as close to immortality as we humans can get. Steiner points out that language is a strange combination of the ineffable with the corporeal. God chose to express his creative power through the medium of flesh and bone, the stuff of speaking, vocal cords and tongues, while the author requires the things of the flesh to give concrete form to his or her creativity. The writer imagines what he or she will, but to put that vision onto paper requires exactly that, paper, pen, hands typing, synapses coordinating: these are necessary … but they are prone to error.
To stretch this metaphorical string, if man is the language of God and the author is the language of humanity, can we then say the translator is the language of the author? The author requires the physical agency of another being in order to speak, to actualize, in another tongue. Singer understands translation in the broadest sense, as does Steiner, as the communicating not only of language but of ideas and arts: "In every field of human endeavor we are in need of translations." Man is dependent on God, the author is dependent on humanity, and the translator is dependent upon the author, for the material circumstance. But God is dependent upon humanity to be expressed in a new world, and authors are dependent upon translators to make them exist in another universe of readership. But at the same time he or she opens a world, the translator creates the possibility for more error.
The world as a Translated Text is, as Singer's famous fool Gimpel says, at least once removed from the true world; this secondary world is one of flaws and deceptions. In his essay "On Translating My Books," Singer brings the metaphorical and the mundane acts of translation together: "I sometimes suspect that the Universe is nothing but a bad translation from God's original. My cabalistic theory is that God trusted Satan to translate His creation and it was published before He had a chance to correct the proofs."
Steiner says that translation is doubly removed from God—once because humanity has been exiled from the garden in which Adam spoke the language of God and himself named the animals, and again after Babel when humanity's linguistic oneness was forfeit to its arrogance. The fact that we don't speak the same language reveals a spiritual state distanced from not only direct communication, but communion and community. How do we humans—and here the typically Jewish moral aspect entwines with the metaphorical and metaphysical—how do we get that already-once-translated world as right as possible yet again? How do we avoid error? More practically still, how do we live with inevitable error?
Just as these questions occupied Singer, they will continue to occupy Singer scholars, philosophers, and translators. Singer was not as trusting as God in regard to translation; "I am not going to make the same blunder," he wrote; "all translators must be closely watched." Struggling with his translators personally to get it right was Singer's way of watching. For Singer, whose native tongue necessitated translation and whose career depended upon it, the ultimate justification, however, for struggling so much with translation was not so much fear of being misunderstood, or as he put it, "that if I'm going to be translated one day into Chinese that no one will understand what a Hasid is and what a rabbi is." Singer desired—as directly as possible—to speak his own creation into being in another tongue: "What I do worry about," writes the Nobel Prize winner, "is that my work will be good enough to be translated or to be read, and I work accordingly."
Source: Alida Allison, "Manuscript and Metaphor: Translating Isaac Bashevis Singer's Children's Stories," in Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Grace Farrell, G. K. Hall, 1996, pp. 180-90.
Dirda, Michael, "Tales for a Winter Night," in Washington Post Book World, December 9, 1984, p. 8.
Fiske, Edward B., "The Push for Smarter Schoolbooks," in New York Times, August 2, 1987, Section 12, p. 20.
Johnson, George, "Scholars Debate Roots of Yiddish, Migration of Jews," in New York Times, October 29, 1996, p. C1.
Kimmel, Eric A., "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Overview," in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th ed., edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press, 1995.
Lee, Grace Farrell, "The Hidden God of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in Hollins Critic, Vol. 10, No. 6, December 1973, pp. 1-15.
May, Jill P., "Envisioning the Jewish Community in Children's Literature: Maurice Sendak and Isaac Singer," in Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn 2000-Winter 2001, pp. 137-51.
Sherman, Joseph, "Isaac Bashevis Singer," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 333: Writers in Yiddish, edited by Joseph Sherman, Thomson Gale, 2007, pp. 278-89.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis, "Zlateh the Goat," in Stories for Children, translated by Elizabeth Shub and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984, pp. 45-52.
Gold, Ben-Zion, The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust: A Memoir, University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Several of Singer's stories attempt to recapture the world of Polish Jews that was irrevocably lost following the Holocaust. Like Singer, Gold was a Polish Jew, and he portrays this same world in his memoir.
Hadda, Janet, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1997.
In one of the more recent biographies of Singer, Hadda takes a psychological approach to the author's life and work, declaring that he was a neurotic individual.
Scharfstein, Sol, Understanding Jewish Holidays and Customs: Historical and Contemporary, Ktav, 1999.
This volume offers a great overview of Jewish holidays, beginning with each holiday's history and attendant customs and moving into a discussion of how those ancient customs have evolved through the present day.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis, Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories, Noonday Press, 1957.
This collection of short stories was the first that Singer published in English, and it remains one of his most renowned. The title story is still held as a shining example of Singer's oeuvre in particular and of Yiddish literature in general.
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