I first became aware of Isaac Bashevis Singer from his short stories published for many years in The New Yorker magazine. In 1978 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and I was surprised that he was so well known.
He was an unusual Jewish-American writer who wrote in Yiddish, so all of his works I read were translations. He grew up in Poland and came to the United States to escape Nazi Germany. He died in 1991 in Florida. I enjoyed his stories because they were so plot-driven at a time when most New Yorker pieces were light, airy, atmospheric fiction with seemingly no plot or point. His style was long stretches of dialog where the characters describe their unusual histories. The stories also had an appealing strangeness for me—their settings were in a world of old Ashkenazi Judaism, full of unfamiliar rituals, rabbis, yeshivas, tzitzits, and dybbuks.
He became better known when Saul Bellow translated “Gimpel the Fool.” Gimpel, near the end of his life, is speaking to us in a first person narrative. He admits he is a fool, and everyone in the town has always treated him as one. They tell him outlandish things, and he believes them, or at least gives them the benefit of the doubt. They tell him his parents have risen from the grave and are looking through the town for him. Gimpel does not believe them, but runs to the town anyway, just to be sure. He tolerates the townspeople’s jokes because, he tells us, “everything is possible, as is written in the Wisdom of the Fathers.” Besides, confronting them just makes them angry and solves nothing.
He seeks advice from the rabbi who tells him, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools, for he who causes his neighbor to feel shame loses Paradise himself.” On his way out, the rabbi’s daughter asks if he has kissed the wall yet.
“No, what for?” he asks.
“It’s the law; you’ve got to do it after every visit.”
He thought it easier to do so than to argue, and she bursts out laughing.
His neighbors convince him to marry the town harlot who, they assure him, is chaste. Her infant boy is her brother, they tell him. Gimpel has doubts, but reasons no one can pass through life unscathed, nor expect to. Four months after the wedding, she gives birth–to his child, she says, just a little premature. But Gimpel loves the child, so what’s the harm? She eventually has five more children, none resembling Gimpel.
“All kinds of things happened,” Gimpel tells us of his marriage, “but I neither saw nor heard. I believed, and that’s all. The rabbi recently said to me, ‘Belief in itself is beneficial. It is written that a good man lives by his faith.'”
After many years, his wife dies, confessing all. Later, he sees his dead wife in a dream, in a shroud, face blackened, and she assures him she is paying for her deceptions. Finally, Gimpel tells us:
After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make?
We are left to decide for ourselves, Was Gimpel the town fool or the wisest of them all?