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What to read. Our recommendation.

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

The Yiddish novel "Der bal-teshuve" ("The Penitent," in English) by Yitzhak Bashevis-Singer was written in 1974. It is a monologue by a hero named Yosef Shapiro, a native of Warsaw, who during the war managed to escape to the USSR and survive the Holocaust.

After the war, while in Lublin, he met his beloved from pre-war Warsaw. They made it to Germany together, got married, and then moved to New York. Yosef Shapiro became a successful businessman. He worked hard, but at the same time did not deny himself any pleasures. His life turned into a constant pursuit of money and pleasure.

However, one day he learned that he was betrayed by both his wife and his lover, and decided to break out of the vicious circle of immoral existence and return to the faith of his fathers. Having wandered into a small Hasidic synagogue in one of the side streets of Brooklyn, he suddenly felt at home, felt the call of previous generations, of Jewish tradition, and the desire to end his aimless existence.

Shapiro decides to leave for Israel, but in Tel Aviv and on the kibbutz he is again faced with the same materialistic way of life, the eternal pursuit of material goods, and endless carnal pleasures based on absolute disregard for the norms of traditional morality.

Only in Jerusalem, in the Hasidic environment, Bashevis' hero finds peace of mind. He marries the rabbi's daughter and begins to lead an orthodox and religious lifestyle.

The hero's monologue is full of deep philosophy and subtle psychology. It touches upon numerous dilemmas and problems facing modern man and society as a whole, such as: Finding a balance between the spiritual and the material, multilateral discussion of relations between the sexes, marriage and betrayal, traditional and modern literature, Israel in search of a synthesis between Jewish and universal values, the foundations of the family in modern society, the philosophical meaning of vegetarianism, Hebrew and Yiddish, the relationship between parents and children, the falsity of modern political trends, the pursuit of fashion and its consequences, and much more.

It is these philosophical and psychological excursions that make the novel gripping and touching the soul and mind of every reader. He poses an eternal dilemma for the reader: How to live in the modern cosmopolitan world, and still remain a Jew?

Photo: Israel Press and Photo Agency (I.P.P.A.) / Dan Hadani collection, National Library of Israel / CC BY 4.0

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