Who are you, The Black Doba?

By Mordechai Yushkovsky


Dealing with a work of fiction, literary scholars are curious to look for an answer to the question: where truth ends, and fiction begins? Such issue may be especially intriguing in analysing memoir prose. After all, the memories of any author shed light upon his personality, the environment in which he grew up and lived, the conditions for the formation of his creative nature.

The only Yiddish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978), Yitzhak Bashevis-Singer, has left the major memoir book “Mayn tatns beys-din-shtub” (“My Dad's Religious Court”). This collection includes 60 stories, in which the author describes his childhood and adolescence, spent in the house number 10 on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw.

The Singer family moved there at the beginning of 1908 from the town of Radzimin. The apartment they lived in became the spiritual center of that impoverished area, as the head of the family, Pinchos-Mendl, was a rabbi and a dayan (religious judge).

That area of Warsaw was densely populated by both the Jewish poor and the underworld. Residents from all over the neighborhood came to the Singer house: among them there were artisans, small traders, beggars, madmen, thieves, pimps, and stolen goods traders. Street-walkers also appeared there, for there were many brothels around. They all came for advice in problematic situations.

Pinchos-Mendl performed the trial in accordance with Halakha (a set of Jewish religious laws). Weddings were celebrated in the Singer's house, and divorce proceedings were conducted too.

Yitzhak grew up in an environment of complicated human relations, of various dilemmas and searching for their solutions. Thus, the book "My Dad's Religious Court" is replete with descriptions of strange heroes, non-standard life stories, and non-trivial human actions.

One of the most gripping stories in the book is “Eyn Khosn un Tsvey Kales” (“One Bridegroom and Two Brides”). One day two men and two girls came to the Singer's house. One of the men was an elderly soyfer (scribe of sacred texts), reputed to be a very righteous man. The fear of God even left an imprint on his face, which resembled an ancient parchment with sacred writing. He was a very poor widower. His kapote (a traditional long black coat) entirely consisted of patches. He was accompanied by his daughter, of about forty, a very pale maiden with a blurry figure, she even was half-blind. Her father dreamed of marrying her at least before his death.

A divorced Jew of about sixty just turned up. He also showed up in Singer’s house. This man looked like a craftsman, his clothes were stained with glue.

The soyfer did everything according to the Jewish tradition, signed a "tnoyim" (marriage contract) with a potential groom and, even with all his poverty, promised a modest dowry.

But it turned out that the "groom" already had another bride, that's what it was about ... She also appeared at Pinchos-Mendl’s court.

The story does not contain names of any of the characters, but provides a fairly detailed description of them all. The portrait of the "second bride" is the shortest of the four: "She was tall, thin, and black as a shovel." Later on, the author calls her "di shvartse moyd" ("the black maiden"). We get some more information about her: “She worked for a baker from house number 12 and used to stand in the street with a basket, selling buns. She was also about forty. In the neighborhood she was believed to be not very clever, she was treated like a fool."

Describing her speech manner, the author makes use of his favorite technique: he stops writing in the literary normative Yiddish and switches to the Warsaw dialect.

Although Bashevis-Singer is one of the most frequently translated writers, any translation of his works loses a great deal in expressiveness compared to the original, since the direct speech of his characters, transmitted in the dialect they used to speak, adds much authenticity and truthfulness to the narrative.

The “groom” in the story claimed that the “black girl” had pestered with him, had invited him for coffee and a bun; he had told her that he already had a bride, but the girl went on insisting, therefore he promised to marry her too ...

Dayan (judge) Pinchos-Mendl was beside himself with such behavior and ruled that since the soyfer’s daughter had become a bride earlier, the "black maiden" should give in, and in case she incurred any material costs, every penny should be returned to her. The "black maiden" got angry, cursed, but finally gave in and left slamming the door, manifesting that she could not be bribed with a few pennies.

Subsequently, it turned out that the "groom" was not divorced at all but possessed a wife and three children. When the soyfer came a couple of weeks later to tell Pinchos-Mendl about that, both pious Jews with tears in their eyes began to complain about the present world and the shameful behavior of people in it, crying out with pain: “Vey, vey, this is the end of the world ... Messiah must come already!"

It is fascinating that in another Bashevis-Singer’s story we meet the same heroine; let us compare the facts given in both stories. The second story, called “Der Shpinozist” (“The Follower of Spinoza”), was published in July 1944, when the writer already lived in New York. In this story, the "black maiden" has a name: Di Shvartse Dobe (The Black Doba). The beginning of her description here almost word for word coincides with the portrait given in "One Bridegroom and Two Brides": "Doba was tall, thin, like an inverted shovel." The consequent description finally convinces that we are talking about the same heroine: “Her nose was broken. A small moustache pierced the upper lip. She spoke in a hoarse male voice; she wore men's shoes. For many years the black Doba was standing at the gate with a basket selling bread, rolls, and bagels. Then she quarreled with the baker and traded cracked eggs in Janusz's yard. The Black Doba was not a stupid girl, but she had no luck with men. She happened to be the bride of two of the baker's apprentices, but twice she was returned "tnoyim" (that is, the marriage contract was terminated before wedding). Then she almost arranged a marriage with an elderly Jew, a glazier, who assured her that he was divorced, but it turned out that he had a "dunderhead wife."

It is noteworthy that Bashevis wrote this story during the Second World War, when the whole world was becoming aware of the tragedy of Polish Jewry, in particular of the fate of Warsaw Jews. Obviously, at the beginning of the work he was trying to restore and perpetuate the panorama of Jewish Warsaw at the beginning of the 20th century. Here we find a detailed description of Krochmalna Street, its colors, smells, its polyphony consisting of the shouts of merchants advertising their goods, the voice of a cantor rehearsing prayers in front of Rosh Hashanah, a song rushing from a gramophone in a night pub and so on. The author listed the goods that were being sold in the local market; with single strokes he depicts the types of policemen, thieves, merchants, women with crim-like manners...

On the background of this picturesque painting, we meet the second protagonist: Dr. Nochum Fischelson, who had got his Ph.D. in Switzerland, specializing in philosophy, knew many languages, and devoted his life to the study of Spinoza's teachings. He was not young, nor very healthy, unsociable, lived in an attic apartment on Krochmalna Street. In that neighborhood he is shunned, considered a missionary, since he stubbornly speaks German and not his native Yiddish, and does not visit a synagogue, although he comes from a rabbinical family. Looking down from the window of his attic apartment, he only sees "little people with their petty stupid worries."

After completing his degree, Dr. Fischelson stayed for a while in Berlin, where he arranged a monthly stipend which was sent to him by the Society for the Promotion of Education among Eastern European Jews. On this scholarship, he had been existing many years. He was very worried when his money transfer from Berlin had not come to Warsaw for a couple of months. He went to the post office every day, but in vain. On the day described, he again went to the post office with the last hope of receiving the expected money, since he had no money left for buying the most necessary food: oatmeal, dried mushrooms and cottage cheese. Arriving at the post office, Fischelson learned that the First World War had begun and the German army was moving in the direction of Warsaw. In this situation, he makes the "best" possible decision: to lie down and to wait for death.

When the scholar was already lying in his little room in a hungry swoon, his neighbor in the attic, the black Doba, came to him with a request to read a letter from her cousin from America. Her cousin had borrowed money from her for the trip and for a couple of years had been promising to send a steamer ticket to America. Doba could neither read nor write, so she decided to go to the "missionary" and ask him to read her a letter. Pushing the door open, she saw a man in agony ...

On this day Doba decided not to go trading, but to do a mitzvah (good deed). She literally saved a philosopher who was not adapted to the hardships of life, brought him water and food, prepared for him oatmeal, served him tea with breadcrumbs, made his bed, helped him to change clothes and so forth.

Thanks to her devoted care, the scholar was gaining strength day after day. Doba actually brought him back to life, visited him several times a day, cooked, cleaned up…

Surprisingly, a deep emotional interpenetration was developing between these two alienated characters. Dr. Fischelson was an intellectual, who had seen many countries and cities spending time in philosophical meditation on the universe and the eternal laws of this world, whereas Doba was an uneducated woman who had received multiple blows of fate. Her living space was limited to a basement at 19, Krochmalna Street, where she was born into a poor family, and an attic at 10, Krochmalna Street, where she was dwelling.

At the age of 10, she was given to serve a stolen goods dealer who tried to "resell" her, but she managed to avoid the "crooked path". Her brother died during the street unrest, her sister died in childbirth, she was repeatedly robbed; in addition, she was slandered in order to turn her suitors away from her.

There was not even (almost) a common language between these two heroes. The scholar was speaking German, and Doba was answering him in juicy Warsaw Yiddish. This bilingualism imparted a special relish to the story, which, alas, is absolutely lost in any translation.

A dialogue was being established between these people, representing non-contiguous galaxies. They spend evenings in conversations, telling each other about themselves, talking about faith and about God... Doba was extremely moved by the mere fact that Dr. Fischelson asked about her life: this was the first time ever that someone was showing genuine interest in her. The doctor, while listening to Doba's story, was amazed that there was a woman living next door for years, who had to go through hell.

“When the black Doba came to the Vinkl-Moyre-Horoe (local spiritual mentor) who lived in the same courtyard, telling that Dr. Fischelson wanted to marry her, the rebetsn (rabbi’s wife) thought that the girl had gone crazy... "

The story contains a detailed description of the wedding, which apparently took place at the home of the Singer family. This is not indicated directly in the text, but there are hints of that. This wedding was so unusual that many people came to gaze at the weird couple. The baker, for whom Doba worked before, brought a sack of flour as a gift (note that the action took place during the First World War, and this was the most valuable gift). His apprentices brought cakes and pies.

“When the bride and groom entered the beys-din-shtub” (the religious court, which is another hint that the wedding took place just in the Singer's house), “there was a whisper among the guests... “It was not the same Doba. She wore a wide-brimmed red hat hung with cherries, grapes, plums, a white silk dress with a train, and gilded high-heeled shoes. There was a chain around her thin neck, and rings with stones on her fingers. Her face was covered with a veil. She looked like a rich bride in the Vienna Hall. The baker's apprentices took their breath away. "

The union between these characters seems to their milieu as something devoid of common sense, contradicting normal logic. Two people, having absolutely nothing in common, create a family. But this is only a superficial look at the situation, behind which there are deep moral and ethical aspect. Bashevis-Singer refers to the unity of the two pillars of our existence - Yiddishkeit and Mentchlechkeit, that is, to both Jewish and universal moral values: caring for one's neighbor, compassion and mutual assistance – the concepts which, unfortunately, are getting less and less popular in the modern pragmatic world.

A simple illiterate woman, repeatedly offended by fate, has not harden her heart, so she was able to literally save and return to life an educated, but lonely, sick, and elderly person. In fact, the union between them became possible entirely thanks to the kind heart and broad soul of this very Doba.

The story ends after the first wedding night: Dr. Fischelson comes up to the window of his attic apartment and, looking at the sleeping Doba, addresses Spinoza (to whose teachings he had devoted his whole life): "Borukh Spinoza, forgive me, I have become an old fool ..."

This exclamation is ambiguous, it can be interpreted in different ways. In my opinion, Dr. Fischelson, a man who had shunned the real world all his life, trying not to come into contact with "little people with their petty worries", suddenly discovered simple human virtues, such as compassion, willingness to aid one's neighbor - and all this happened thanks to the "black Doba", whose spiritual generosity and kindness had not been perceived by anyone before him.