The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Slave My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I should admit, from the start, that this novel is really not to my taste. This largely explains my rating, which is entirely subjective and no indication of the quality of Singer’s writing or story. For me, The Slave was also a lesson in Jewish history and culture, of which I know very little. It’s perhaps because of this that I couldn’t really appreciate the novel, didn’t find it as engaging or touching as others seem to have. Whatever my personal reaction though, The Slave is a beautifully written tragic love story and an evocative tale about a man’s struggle with religion.

Jacob and Wanda are good people in every respect, and it is hard not to like them. They don’t allow themselves to be degraded by the harsh circumstance they find themselves in. Jacob is incredibly pious and takes every opportunity to study his religion yet does not hesitate to question it. Even as Jan Bizik’s slave at the start of the novel he remains true to his religion and even tries to etch what he remembers of the Torah into a rock. Unlike most people though, his faith keeps him humble, rather than making him pretentious and self-righteous. For this I admire him, but for the most part I found his piety silly (a thousand tiny rituals, worries bordering on neuroses), and even unkind – for example, despite his love for Sarah/Wanda he forces her to disown her family, even her beloved father, so that she can convert and they can be together. On another occasion, he is upset that he must remind her that she cannot touch him or eat with him when she has her period. However, I try and remind myself that this is not a flaw in Jacob, but in his religion and the superstitions accompanying it, to which he is a slave, as much as he was Jan Bizik’s slave, as much as he is a slave to his love and lust for Wanda/Sarah. In addition, both he and Wanda/Sarah are slaves to the demands of society – unless she becomes a Jew, there will be no way for them to be together, and Jacob is too devout for anyone to even consider the idea that he would convert instead.

The novel takes a very critical approach to the supposedly pious people of the communities Jacob and Wanda/Sarah live in. It shows them to cruel, petty, greedy, exclusionary. In Wanda’s villages, Jacob is abused and often has his life threatened because he is a Jew. He and Wanda must keep her conversion secret because the punishment for converting a gentile is death. Everywhere Jacob goes he is angered by the cruelty and depravity of people, saddened by other Jews’ hypocrisy. They may claim to be devout and will adhere to every minor rule and ritual, but still give in to their petty human weaknesses:

“Jacob was continually astonished at how many Jews obeyed only one half of the Torah. The very same people, who strictly observed the minor rituals and customs which were not even rooted in the Talmud, broke without thinking twice the most sacred laws, even the Ten Commandments. They wanted to be kind to God and not to man; but what did God need of man and his favors? What does a father want from his children but that they should not do injustice to each other?”

These people do not embody the goodness their ‘faith’ should imply. Although they seem devoted to God because of the rituals they perform to please him, they disregard more important laws and fail to treat other people kindly and fairly. One passage I particularly liked was this one:

“But now he at least understood his religion: its essence was the relation between man and his fellows. Man’s obligations toward God were easy to perform. Didn’t Gershon have two kitchens, one for milk, and one for meat? Men like Gershon cheated, but they ate matzoth prepared according to the strictest requirements. They slandered their fellow men, but demanded meat doubly kosher. They envied, fought, hated their fellow Jews, yet still put on a second pair of phylacteries. Rather than troubling himself to induce a few to eat pork or kindle a fire on the Sabbath, Satan did easier and more important work, advocating those sins deeply rooted in human nature.”

These two passages are what I found most memorable and valuable about the novel, but as a whole it failed to engage me. Conceptually, I thought it wasn’t bad, but in the actual reading of it I struggled to empathise with a man so pious (although he was likeable), and the simplicity of the story sometimes left me bored. But perhaps it’s simply the wrong story for me.

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