Like Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction, this poignant memoir of his childhood in the household and rabbinical court of his father is full of spirits and demons, washerwomen and rabbis, beggars and rich men. This rememberance of Singer's pious father, his rational yet adoring mother, and the never-ending parade of humanity that marched through their home is a portrait of a magnificent writer's childhood self and of the world, now gone, that formed him.
The book is presented as a series of short vignettes, each from five to seven pages in length, told more or less in chronological order, with Singer’s narrative evolving as the small boy begins to grow and to question his surroundings. In the early remembrances, the perspective is kept very tightly on his father’s fierce devotion to God and to Jewish biblical and rabbinical law, custom and mysticism. The tales told are about the people who arrive in the Singers' home, what their problems are, and how his father deals with them. There is a somewhat otherworldly glow about it all, the result, I thought, of Singer’s representing the viewpoint of a small and overawed boy as well as the effect of the author’s journey back through decades of his life.
Soon enough, however, the outside world begins gradually to intrude. The family moves from a small town to the crowded streets of a Jewish Warsaw slum. Next come rumors and then the realities of World War One, with its uncertainties and sharp deprivations. Singer’s older brother becomes more worldly, and young Isaac begins asking questions himself and longing for information about the outside world. Zionism and socialism begin to be discussed among the young, further eroding the hold of the old ways over the community as a whole.
Also, about halfway through, Singer begins dropping in reminders of what we all know will be the ultimate fate of this community. The chapter “Reb Asher the Dairyman” ends thusly:
“After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time. One son died, a daughter fell in love with a young man of low origins and Asher was deeply grieved. I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. He probably died before that. But such Jews as he were dragged off to Treblinka. May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs.”
The reader is brought up sharply by this passage, because it is the first time Singer raises his focused view from the era he's describing to the greater disasters awaiting. After that, though, perhaps every third tale ends with a notation about the fate of one or more figures in the coming whirlwind.
The stories are all told with affection, humor, with a delightful touch for detail and phrasing. Throughout, we experience Singer’s deep love and respect for the faith of his father and grandfathers, of their longing for the coming of the Messiah, and of their certainty that this miracle will only occur if Jews hold firmly to the path laid out for them by their God. Petty disputes are interlaced with genuine compassion. As Singer’s father often says of the poorest wretch who comes to his chamber, “Who knows? She may be a hidden saint, one of heaven’s elect.”