Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Report: The Brothers Ashkenazi

I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi is fantastic.  The fictional biography of two brother spans what can only be described as the most important period of modern Jewish life.  As a student of modern Jewish history and a sucker for a good story, this book was a perfect novel to get me excited about reading quality literature.

The characters are developed so completely and the story line weaves expertly in and out of the home town, the book’s main location.  The period aspects of the book come through perfectly and the translation lends itself well to its original Yiddish, or so I suspect based on sentence structure and flow.  It was easy to forget that this was written in the 1930s rather than during the Brothers’ life times or in the present day.

I am not sure if I would have liked this novel as much if I did not have the history background to understand the nuances.  A somewhat expansive understanding of turn of the century Eastern European history and a working knowledge of the Haskalah are almost a pre-requisite to enjoying this book.  Familiarity with Capitalist, Unionist, Socialist, Bundist and Bolshevik political theory also help.   I would like to thank Dr. Hoffman and Professor Biale for the help in this regard.

Now I am sure Zionists will take offense in my saying that this period in Poland is the most interesting and important period in modern Jewish history.  To them I say you are wrong.  Without this period in Germany, Poland, and Russia (East to West, no value) there would be no truly modern Jewish life.  The Jews who pushed off the yoke of ancient restrictions and those who adapted it made it possible for all the other movements and experiences to take place.  Without these events and what came after them, Israel would be nothing more than a dream without will.

I enjoyed every aspect of this book.  Some of the life cycle transitions were a bit short but I believe that makes perfect sense considering Singer’s upbringing and his immigration to the United States.

Read this book. That is all. 

Five Out of Five Stars


Larry Kaufman said...

Donnie, I too just read The Brothers Ashkenazi, and enjoyed it greatly, although I'm not sure I give it the same historical significance you do.

If you are into catching up on the rich legacy of Yiddish fiction, beyond Tevye and Bashevis, my hearty recommendation is Chaim Grade's collection of three short novellas, originally published as Rabbis and Wives, later re-issued under another name which escapes me.

dcc said...

Thanks Larry. I will check it out. I think I am going on a Yiddish kick.

As to the historical significance issue: I don't think the book is that important, while it was very good. I believe the generation of the Brothers was the most significant era of modern Jewish history in that it was situated in a time of upheaval both politically and socially and it enabled Jews to do all sorts of new and exciting things. It was not yet a given that anything would or would not happen.