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Saturday
Aug012009

1974

A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories

By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Original and Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Harold Augenbraum writes:

When I was a boy I used to go to synagogue with my father every Saturday morning. For years, near the end of the service, an old man in a black suit and hat would stand up and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Never knew who he was, never knew why he said Kaddish every week for years, until one day I asked my father and he identified the man as a paid mourner. In some odd way, he seemed as if he were out of his time period. I immediately wondered about his life outside the synagogue. Did he have another job? Was he married? Did he have children?

So I’m reading Singer’s stories and I think of that man, not Sholem Aleichem, but Singer, whose writing seems like a cross between Aleichem and Spinoza, testing the edges of apostasy with characters who betray, shun, abuse, flagellate, characters whose motivations are hard to gauge but whose actions stand in high relief to the background subculture: yentes, schlemiels, schlemazels, schnorrers, writers, intellectuals, socialists, anarchists, free thinkers, radicals, spells, séances, Ouija boards. And those are just the Jewish Americans. In Poland, there are the shabby peasants, the superstitious, the golems, the lantuchs. Back and forth he goes in this collection. In one story you are in Poland with adultery, abandonment and abuse, and in the next you are in New York with adultery, abandonment and abuse. The narrator happens upon an old acquaintance who tells him a story (the story within the story). The internal story ends, and then later the narrator runs into the storyteller, who is transformed. He is now rich. Or he was rich and now he is poor. “The door opened and in came someone I recognized.” Serendipity rewarded. A count sleeps each night in a coffin. One night there is a flood and he is washed away. Eight years later a peasant woman appears with a young boy in tow and says the boy is the count’s son. He had floated away in the coffin and washed up at the woman’s house. The woman’s husband had died in the flood, so he became a substitute. There are unexplained customs and rules: “The marriage was dissolved. Divorce in Shebrin was not permitted because the river had two names and there was some doubt as to which name to use in the divorce papers.” No explanation beyond that. Acceptance.

But there is also the lost world of the Eastern European shtetl and its New York cousin, the Lower East Side, and the Garden Cafeteria at 165 East Broadway, across from Seward Park, the Educational Alliance, a few remnants like the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Katz’s, and Yonah Shimmels. Boy does it bring back memories when I read, “We ate onion rolls with sour cream, drank coffee in glasses.” And can someone tell me what a “kosher virgin” is?

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9780374516246

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Doris Betts for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories
  • John Cheever for The World of Apples
  • Ellen Douglas for Apostles of Light
  • Stanley Elkin for Searches and Seizures
  • John Gardner for Nickel Mountain
  • John Leonard for Black Conceit
  • Thomas McGuane for Ninety-Two in the Shade
  • Wilfrid Sheed for People Will Always Be Kind
  • Gore Vidal for Burr
  • Joy Williams for State of Grace

Fiction Judges that Year:

  • Donald Barthelme, James Boatwright, Truman Capote, Timothy G. Foote, Cynthia Ozick

The Year in Literature:

  • The Pulitzer Prize was not given for Fiction.
  • Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer was a prolific writer of novels, children’s books, memoirs, essays, and articles, but he is best known for his short stories. One such story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," was made into the popular film, “Yentl,” starring Barbara Streisand.
  • Singer was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

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