By Issac Bashevis Singer.
New York: Farrar – Straus – Giroux, 1983.
170 pages

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2002

Also see my comments on Singer's THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN

An author makes a visit to Jerusalem and is accosted on the street by Joseph Shapiro who recognizes him from his lectures and photos. He wants to tell the author his own story of how he went from being a rich worldly non-religious Jew to the status of penitent and finally to becoming a practicing conservative Jew. The author agrees to hear Shapiro’s story and what follows is Shapiro’s tale.

The story is mainly well-told by Singer with a minimum of exaggerations though those are a bit distracting. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s story is rather gripping. We learn of his New York days as a successful and rich businessman, married with no children, both of them being survivors of Nazi Germany and the second world war in Poland. In boredom and worldliness Shapiro takes a Gentile mistress with a nearly grown daughter (who it is hinted would also be his mistress). But Shapiro is restless and convinced their must be more to life than his materialism and sophisticated decadence. When he catches Celia in an affair with her professor he is shocked into action and decides to just walk away from it all, albeit with a pot full of money.

He flees to Israel and seeks an old-world conservative Judaism as a way to find meaning in life. He succeeds, remarries a younger woman who is also conservative and they have several children.

This is the bare bone of Shapiro’s story, but the story is not as much in the historical facts of his life as the motivations and inner life. It is here that Shapiro’s tale is fascinating and that Singer explores one important response to the modern world.

In some senses one could read this as Singer’s own view. But there is evidence one can’t. Later on he gave an interview in which he held views strongly attacking the position of Joseph Shapiro, and even in the building of the character there is no doubt that Singer makes him deeply serious and committed, but he has him exaggerate his case in ways that one can’t help but see that no matter the level of sincerity of Shapiro, he is a less than profound thinker.

Yet Shapiro is interesting in that at least he is dealing at fundamental levels with the meaning of his own existence and struggling to find a way to live his life that will give it purpose. He’s gone the route of modern success. He’s had lots of money, lots of women, and all the material comforts a human could want. But his life is unsatisfying and he feels very alone and lost. He turns within to try to figure this out and address the problem.

No matter what answer Shapiro would then come to, this is a first step that so very people seem to take on seriously. Shapiro does that. He longs for his life to have significance and he longs for the stability of belonging to something larger than himself. His own experience as a youth growing up in the Jewish ghetto in Poland has left him with the experience of one such reply: a turn to very conservative forms of Judaism. In so doing he joins a “people,” his people and has a structure laid out for his life which provides community, stability and meaning. Shapiro seems not very aware that this is simply one form of reply to his question among others. And yet he is somewhat aware since he raises this question himself and announces that clearly the route of becoming a “real” Jew is his path, his history has prepared him for it.

What Shapiro can’t deal with at all is the view of meaninglessness, that human existence has no purpose, but just is. He must have meaning. It’s one thing to adopt and create meaning in the face of meaninglessness, and Friederich Nietzsche’s work is primarily concerned with this issue. It is another to demand of the world that such meaning is an objective fact simply because one needs or wants it. Joseph Shapiro’s inability to deal with this set of questions is something that sets him apart from author Singer, who does deal with these questions in other places in his work.

Nonetheless, once adopting the position of finding meaning, Shapiro is impressive in his commitment and discipline in moving toward it. He shows a certain practical wisdom is sensing that he can best do so within the tradition that his past has prepared him for and for which he already possesses a nostalgic attraction.

The Penitent is a simple book of a simple man, yet an unusual person. Joseph Shapiro has taken hold of his life, given it personal meaning and is proud, even righteous about his choice. The Penitent is a decent read done in the personal detail that makes his rather evangelical stance both understandable and tolerable.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett