Review by Barbara Solomon Josselsohn
Having emigrated in 1935 from Poland to New York, Isaac Bashevis Singer escaped the worst years of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Yet in Shosha, his novel of pre-war Warsaw, he captures the exquisite human drive for pleasure and transcendence that continues even in the face of certain doom.
Originally serialized in Yiddish in 1974 and translated into English four years later*, Shosha follows the life of Aaron Greidinger, the son of a Hasidic rabbi. We first meet Aaron as a precocious boy living in a Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw in the years before the First World War. Down the hall lives Shosha, an intellectually-impaired young girl who is widely considered a “little fool.” Aaron, however, finds her irresistible. He revels in her rapt attention to his stories until the families relocate and the children lose touch.
Years pass, and as the 1930s unfold, Aaron returns to Warsaw as an aspiring writer. He discovers that his old Jewish neighborhood has become a hotbed of illness, crime, and burgeoning Communism; he is drawn elsewhere. Gaining admittance to the city’s Writers’ Club, he meets a range of older sophisticates and embarks on a series of sexual adventures, including a dalliance with the mistress of an American businessman. Still, sensing an inevitable Nazi invasion, Aaron seems ambivalent and unsettled.
Unexpectedly, he meets up with Shosha. She hasn’t changed, and Aaron is captivated once again. Ultimately, he must decide: Does he accept the American businessman’s offer of an escape hatch to New York? Or should he stay behind and marry Shosha?
Some reviewers have criticized Shosha for its heavy-handed philosophical discussions; to be sure, some arguments run for extended paragraphs. Some have also faulted Singer for failing to dig deeper into Aaron’s motivations. Still, there is much to love about this expressive and remarkable novel. Principally, the originality and sheer charisma of Singer’s characters are stunning, as are the author’s insights into humanity, however misguided and flawed it may be:
Well, but the sky was summery blue, the trees on both sides of the street were lusciously green, the ladies wore the latest styles of dresses, hats, shoes, purses. The men looked them over with expert appraisal. Their legs in nylon stockings still promised the never-realized delights. Although I was doomed, I too glanced at hips, calves, breasts, throats. The generations that will come after us, I said to myself, will think that we all went to our death in repentance. . . . Actually, every one of us will die with the same passions he lived with.
In a brief note to readers, Singer maintains that Shosha is not meant to represent the Jews of Poland, but is the story “of a few unique characters in unique circumstances.” Certainly, we can take him at his word. Yet his novel continues to resonate and no doubt will do so for years to come, so long as the world remains a dangerous place but the sides of the street stay lusciously green.
*Editor’s Note: Our reviewer based her review on the 1996 paperback edition of Shosha (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in which Singer’s note to readers also (partially) credits the work of translation: “A great part of [the novel] was translated into English by my nephew Joseph Singer. A number of chapters I dictated to my wife, Alma, and to my secretary, Dvorak Menashe. The entire work was edited by Rachel MacKenzie and Robert Giroux. My gratitude and love to them all.”
Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer. Her story, “The Stranger at the Passover Table,” appears in the anthology New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family (Reclaiming Judaism Press, 2014), and her posts appear often on ReformJudaism.org. She has recently completed her first novel.