The Dead Fiddler by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1968
The magic trick:
Using short, clipped sentences often without context
Dropped right into the middle of the Haight-Ashbury 1960s came this Old World fable of religion and the supernatural. Talk about out of the step with the times, right? I’d argue: dead wrong, actually. Singer’s story is a story for times old and new.
Singer roots the story in the Old World, there is no doubt. This is a setting devoid of technology, where women are sold off into marriage by their parents with a dowry, and men measure their piety by the length of their beard. He tells the story simply and linearly, like an oft-told fable. The narrator contributes no point of view that makes this particular telling of the story unique to any other.
However, there are subtle little modern reminders. The spirits who invade Liebe Yentl speak with a 20th century wit. They are uncouth and sinful. Singer plays their banter up for comedy. They also remind me of a younger generation’s stubborn, sometimes-immature, and often foul-mannered rejection of their parents’ codes. It is fitting then that they appear when Yentl’s parents have found her a new prospect for marriage. She is still mourning the death of her fiancé. She is attached to romance and love. She rejects their old ways, and the demands they put upon her to subdue her emotions.
Yentl wins out in the end. She is able to walk off, albeit in death, with her fiancé. Her rebellion might take place in Old Poland, but in many ways it reflects the turbulent 1960s. The old ways are anachronistic in a changing world. And that’s quite a trick on Singer’s part.
That night Reb Sheftel recited the Shema of the Holy Isaac Luria. He slept in his fringed garment with The Book Of Creation and a knife under his pillow – like a woman in childbirth. But in the middle of the night he woke and felt invisible fingers on his face. An unseen hand was burrowing in his beard. Reb Sheftel wanted to scream, but the hand covered his mouth. In the morning Reb Sheftel got up with his whole beard full of tangled braids, gummy as if stuck together with glue.