‘Disguised’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1986

Disguised by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1986

The magic trick:

Making characters go to extreme lengths in order to both stay true to their own desires and live within religious edict

Every story brings its own set of codes and judgments. With “Disguised” it’s tough to say exactly where those ethics fall. Is this story of transvestitism one of gay pride? Or is it really more about cheap homophobic laughs? I’m inclined to say both – which makes for a very weird tone, particularly from a then-octogenarian author.

What is clear, however, in this story is a pushback against the constraints of conservative Judaism. The rules that motivate the central characters’ actions seem arbitrary and produce absurd situations. The story’s judgments about those action remain ambivalent, but the message against inflexible religious rules is not. And that’s quite a trick on Singer’s part.

The selection:

Shocked as Temerl was, she heard him out. She told him there was only one redeeming act for him, and that was to divorce her and free her as quickly as possible. Pinchosl agreed immediately, but said that the divorce could not take place in Kalisz, where he was known as Elkonah’s wife. “You could’ve done this from the very beginning,” Temerl reproached him. “And spared me all the misery I went through.”

“We know that we will be punished, and we are ready for the fires of Gehenna,” Pinchosl said. “Passions, too, are fires. They are Gehenna on earth, perhaps the Gate to Hell. Meanwhile, come let us have a glass of tea together.”

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