Singer plays a unique role in Jewish American literature. He immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1935, when he was in his early thirties, and continued to write in Yiddish, his native tongue. Although he would become an American citizen and live in the United States for the remainder of his long life, much of his work continued to look back and memorialize a vanished world, that of the shtetl (small town), which was characteristic of the lives of so many Eastern European Jews in the early part of the twentieth century and before. That world was to disappear forever as a result of historical events such as wars, revolution, and industrialization as well as the Holocaust during World War II, in which millions of Jews from Eastern Europe died. Singer’s other main concern as a writer was to portray the lives of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States. In ‘‘The Son from America,’’ Singer manages to bring these two worlds together, drawing in just a few deft pages the sharp contrast between the prosperous, Americanized Jew Samuel and the traditional simple piety of his parents in the shtetl. The village is probably based on Singer’s memories of his childhood and youth, especially the period from 1917 to 1921 when he lived in his grandfather’s village, the shtetl Bilgoray. This was the period when he studied Hasidic culture and its timeless ways. In an interview with Joel Blocker and Richard Elman in 1963, Singer acknowledged the influence of these years in Bilgoray, calling it a ‘‘very old-fashioned’’ town: In this simple, brief exchange is the entire difference between two cultures and two ways of seeing the world. To this old man, Samuel might as well be speaking a foreign language.
In his book, God, Jew, Satan in the Works of Isaac Bashevis-Singer , Israel Ch. Biletzky quotes a passage written by Singer’s brother, I. J. Singer, that identifies Lentshin (the name of the village in ‘‘The Son from America’’) as the small town of Singer’s birth, which is usually called Leoncin. I. J. Singer describes it as follows: Biletzky comments that this passage accurately describes many of the villages in Poland in which poor Jews managed to live ‘‘a full Jewish life.’’
When Singer comes to write about such a village in ‘‘The Son from America’’ he idealizes the shtetl almost to the point of myth or fable. It becomes a kind of pastoral paradise in which, despite poverty, there is no such thing as want or suffering, and spiritual and natural life flow smoothly together in a serene, timeless rhythm. Whether there was ever a Jewish village (or a non-Jewish one, come to that) that actually embodied all these qualities is beside the point. Singer makes it a reality in this imaginative story because he wants the best possible contrast with another kind of life that certainly did exist—that of the Jewish immigrant to America who prospered and developed a different set of values than he had grown up with in the shtetl. The story thus revolves around the collision of cultures in one suddenly reunited family.
Singer is known as a masterful writer who can create whole characters and worlds in short stories of only a few pages, and this is what he does in ‘‘The Son from America,’’ telling the story with great economy but opening up worlds of thought and behavior in a few key phrases. A good example of this is the paragraph in which the narrator describes how remote the land of America is to Berl and Berlcha and how a Talmud teacher who once came to Lentshin explained that ‘‘Americans walked with their heads down and their feet up.’’ (The Talmud is the collection of ancient writings that interpret the laws and traditions of Judaism.) What the teacher meant by walking with one’s feet up is obscure, but walking with one’s head down is surely intended as a metaphor for a kind of individualism, a certain way of life in which people are preoccupied with their own pursuits, confined in their own private worlds, oblivious to wider community concerns. The phrase certainly creates an evocative picture of people in America walking around looking downward, unaware of others and their needs—or so it might seem. America in such a view is the land of individualism, where fortunes can be made by those who pursue their own interests with sufficient zeal, like Samuel, the immigrant boy who made it good and is now reputedly a millionaire (and a millionaire one hundred years ago, when a dollar could buy a lot more than it can today, was certainly very rich).
Berl and Berlcha do not have a clue as to what the Talmud teacher means—they think he is speaking literally—but they conclude, ‘‘But since the teacher said so it must be true.’’ This captures in a phrase an entire way of thinking in tradition-bound rural environment.
would never occur to anyone in this village to question the word of a religious teacher, who is a trusted interpreter of the scriptures and a wise man in all other respects. For the residents of Lentshin, those who interpret the divine laws set out in the Torah and the Talmud have an absolute authority, and these villagers would no more question or doubt them than they would ask the sun if it was rising at the correct time in the morning. Things that cannot be understood must just be accepted, as the sympathetic narrator wryly notes in a paradox: ‘‘From too much thinking—God forbid—one may lose one’s wits.’’ This is a community that lives by faith, not rational human understanding. As one character says in ‘‘The Recluse,’’ another Singer story A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories that is set in Eastern Europe a long time ago, ‘‘The Torah was not given to us to exercise the brain, but to serve the Almighty.’’
Another example of Singer’s ability to say a great deal in a short space occurs in the incident in which Samuel goes for a walk alone after the Sabbath meal. Wanting to find someone to talk to, he enters the synagogue, where he finds an old man reciting psalms. Samuel asks him if he is praying, and the old man replies, ‘‘What else is there to do when one gets old?’’ Samuel responds with a question: ‘‘Do you make a living?’’ But the old man does not understand the question. He simply replies, ‘‘If God gives health, one keeps on living.’’ In this simple, brief exchange is the entire difference between two cultures and two ways of seeing the world. To this old man, Samuel might as well be speaking a foreign language. Samuel’s question has relevance only in a world in which people must participate in an economic system in order to prosper, to ‘‘make a living.’’ But the old man, who can speak only from what he knows, does not regard living as something a person can ‘‘make.’’ Life comes from God, who may extend it or withdraw it as he pleases; it is not something that a person can create for himself. Once again the reader is made aware that in this village, everything the people do is a kind of prayer: a thought, word, or action that is connected to something larger—to the Torah, to God. If it is not, Berl and Berlcha might say, why would one do it? Samuel, however, has for forty years been busy making a living—as he understands the phrase—in the huge metropolis that is New York. He has made it his business to store up wealth, some of which—to his credit— he intends to use for what he thinks is a noble purpose, but Samuel finds that he and the people in the village live in distinct cultural worlds that barely intersect. One world is upheld by faith; it looks beyond itself to a God who protects his people through their observance of prescribed rituals and practices. On the other hand is a world lodged in the here and now that carries with it the imperative to acquire and accumulate the things of this world. One world relies on an eternal birthright mediated through tradition and faith; the other is lived in terms of material acquisition and the restless desire always to improve, to enlarge, to make things better in a material sense.
The wealthy Samuel therefore gets a huge shock when by the end of the story he has realized that the village needs none of his gifts or the development projects he had in mind. Singer gives little clue as to how Samuel feels at this moment or the thoughts that are going through his mind. The author prefers to let his themes reveal themselves through his characters’ words and actions. In this case, image which story extremely powerful. Samuel stands silently in his parents’ home, touching in his pocket his checkbook and letters of credit, while his mother, seemingly oblivious to his presence, sways and recites a prayer that she ‘‘inherited from mothers and grandmothers.’’ The prosperous New Yorker, steeped in his commercial world of getting and spending, is suddenly being reminded that all good does not necessarily flow from a checkbook.
Bryan Aubrey, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2010