Monday, May 31, 2010

One big, wrong family

Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel for his writings about Jewish life, for the "Polish-Jewish roots" in his writing. "The Family Moskat" picks apart life in Poland from before WWI until the German invasion in 1939. The purpose is similar to that of many "great" novels - view the changes and details of a society or group of people. Here, the Moskats represent Hassidic Judaism as a whole, with each member of the new generation breaking off in a different way.

"The Family Moskat" is a book that, I presume, will mean something different to everyone who reads it - Jew vs. non-Jew, religious vs. secular, conservative vs. liberal, etc. The moral dilemmas reach out to the reader in that everyone is always wrong. Every character is incredibly real in that sense - they all have their glaring faults. It is difficult to find the character with the moral high ground; if one is not doing the right thing, he is saying something else that's terrible.

This made "The Family Moskat" both a fascinating read and a difficult one. It's hard to swallow some of the downfalls, like the amount of adultery committed, or the thefts, or the lies, or even the religious twists and turns. On the other hand, nothing is quite as thought-provoking as poor decisions. So many aspects of the book can be discussed. Like the world he's writing about, Singer's story can be broken down into all its little parts.

One thread continues to hit me. One of the Moskat cousins at some point coverts to Christianity. This puts her in the mind of her family (some of it, at least) as dead. In Judaism, little is as terrible as leaving the faith. Soon, it becomes clear that the conversion does little to help her in the eyes of others (including the husband for whom she converted). On the Hassidic side of things, modern education is blamed for this travesty. Looking at this story from a Jewish perspective reveals wrongs, while looking at this from a culturally liberal viewpoint will highlight wrongs on the other side. Each direction provides the reader with enough food for thought to last several months. "The Family Moskat" is rich in that sense. But like dark chocolate, too much can be a bad thing too.

This is a minuscule epic and an incredible view into the drama of the time. Singer's writing, it seems, developed with his later stories. Perhaps, but this one holds its own.

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