I am taking the liberty of reviewing three days in advance of its publication Irving Fineman’s novel, “Hear, Ye Sons,” to be brought out by Longmans, Green & Company.
“Hear, Ye Sons” is the phrase with which Jacob addresses his sons on his death-bed. It is a beautiful title for Mr. Fine-man, of the generation of sons speaking with sympathetic understanding in the name of the fathers. It is a beautiful title for a beautiful book.
In the first chapter, which is both prologue and epilogue, and in which is sounded the leit-motif of the work, the ostensible teller of the story, a successful New York lawyer of Russian Jewish descent and birth, tells us of his seven children, emancipated, assimilated, indifferent, if not hostile. To the old man the lives of his children lack savor or meaning. They are like the young men and the young women, of whom Mr. Fineman, giving me an explication of his theme, said that they escape from Jewishness without knowing what it is, whether it is good or bad.
The body of the book tells the story of the father’s childhood, boyhood, youth and early manhood in the old country and in Jewishness. The book tells us, in the form of a human being’s record, what it means to be a Jew. It tells us, in effect, what it means when a creed is a thing so alive and so meaningful that it can penetrate with beauty and significance one’s daily life, one’s daily routine, and the occasions which mark with red letters a normal life. “Hear, Ye Sons” tells us what a living creed may be when it is joyfully accepted as a part of life, as the essence which gives life meaning, rather than when it is put on, and taken off, as a Sabbath suit. The latter-day Ludwig Lewisohn may be called the spiritual father of this work, but it is from Walter Lippman, curiously enough, that Mr. Fineman extracts the phrases by which his book is justified beyond its story-content, and those phrases are: “By the dissolution of their ancestral ways men have been deprived of their sense of certainty as to why they were born, why they must work, whom they must love, what they must honor, where they may turn in sorrow and defeat. They have left to them the ancient codes. . . . But there is gone that ineffable certainty which once made God and His plan seem as real as the lamp-post.”
The ostensible autobiographer begins his account with the stories and the verses that he learned at his mother’s knee, and in cheder, from which came his first certainties and his first doubts. He tells us how, as he went on living and studying, irreconcilables became reconciled, through the reasoning of Talmud, but, chiefly; in the radiance which Jewishness shed upon workaday life. Perhaps if Joseph of Mishienitzâ€”as our story-teller is knownâ€”were not the kind of person who could find his reason for being and the fulfillment of his personality in Talmud and Torah, this would be another kind of story. But the triumph of Mr. Fineman is that he makes Joseph credible within his spiritual and physical atmosphere.
The book is steeped in the lore and legend of Jewish East Europe. I give you as example the chapter on the false Baal Shem, who came to the village as a wonder worker and left as a thief. There are generous quotations from Talmud and examples of typical Talmudic reasoning which even Gentile Jews should find delightful, as when Joseph, impressing his prospective father-in-law and the rabbi from the neighboring town he has brought with him, explains why he to whom you say Sholom Aleichem (Peace be to you) reverses the greeting in returning itâ€”Aleichem Sholom (And to you, peace.) But perhaps the most beautiful chapters of all are the chapters on the wedding ceremony and the account of the first months of marriageâ€”wherein human love takes on a peculiarly exquisite beauty through the direction which the Law gives it and the sanctions which it derives from a higher source.
And the most bitter chapters are those in which Joseph is trapped into the Russian soldiery and in which are told how, even as a soldier, he cherishes every comma of his faith until a command to do a forbidden thing on Rosh Hashonah drives that most peaceable student of Torah into rebellion, and he escapesâ€”to his village, in secret, and then to America.
I cannot escape the conclusion that the beauty and meaning of Torah and Talmud as they are represented in the life of Joseph who becomes the successful New York lawyerâ€”the novelist makes no pretext at bridging that hiatusâ€”derive in part from the confinement and the oppression inflicted upon the old world Jew of Tsarist Russia. The beauty and the meaning are enriched by contrast and one does not know whether one should welcome the evil for the good that may be extracted from it. But in America Joseph did not remain Joseph but became a successful lawyer who could not convey to his children the beauty he had found in his youth. In effect, a good deal of that meaningfulness of Torah must have come from nostalgic retrospect. And perhaps one of the causes which gives “Hear, Ye Sons” that lyrical pastoral quality is that the writer himself has no first-hand Old World recollections to draw upon, so that his image need not be disturbed by inconvenient recollections.
But the fact that Mr. Fineman, born and bred in America, should be able to write a book of the singular beauty and simplicity of “Hear, Ye Sons,” without possessing personal references to the life of Russian Jewry is a tribute rather to his imaginative power than cause for reproach. Cavil how you will at details, “Hear, Ye Sons” remains a beautiful work.
“HASIDIC ANTHOLOGY” DUE
A monumental “Hasidic Anthology”, compiled by Rabbi Louis I. Newman, in collaboration with Samuel Spitz, will be published in the late fall by a New York publisher. It is the first authoritative collection in English of Hasidic lore, and contains the parables, folk-tales, fables, aphorisms, epigrams, sayings, anecdotes and exegetical interpretations of the leading Hasidic sages. These have been translated from over 200 Hebrew and Yiddish books into the language and phraseology of current English usage. Rabbi Newman and Mrs. Spitz have assembled not only many of the original documents of Hasidism, but also the pamphlet material of Eastern Europe containing the utterances attributed by the folk to the foremost Zaddikim.