Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Philosophy of Protest

Huldah sits quietly in the corner, eyeing Herman Gombiner. Days have passed since he had last given her something to eat. What could be the matter with him, she wonders. She sees a woman bustling about—she had arrived at their door with such a furious knock that it had made Huldah jump. She isn’t used to visitors. For as long as she has known her friend, he has never had anyone over except for the occasional neighbor who wouldn’t step inside the apartment but stand hesitantly in the doorway, asking in heavily accented English if Herman needed anything or had a letter she could post for him. In fact it is the recipients of his letters with whom he’s found the deepest connection. Their names and addresses come from magazines on occultism Huldah would watch him pour over, filled with stories of readers’ encounters with the souls of the dead that would strengthen Herman’s belief in “the world beyond.” He would write letters to these female contributors, as long as they lived far away. More than the bread and cheese and eggs the delivery boy would bring, their correspondence nourished him. Until now.

Herman can’t seem to get out of bed. Huldah knows he stopped working when the small publishing house of Hebrew texts, where he had worked for three decades, had recently folded. But all this sleeping is unexpected, even for her reclusive friend. Huldah is hungrier by the second, her stomach aches. She has always been grateful for his sharing water and food, and for his company—and regarding her as no lesser creation than the stars and the planets. She looks at him with indebtedness and devotion, although she has been well aware her dependence on him has been a risk. Yet he has never forgotten her, even when she could hear from his murmurs and his prayers that his concerns were more profound, pondering the souls of his family whose lives the Nazis had execrably snatched. He would sit in the growing darkness of the winter evenings as if waiting for a message, inviting one of his relatives to reach across the barrier of time and a dozen universes to visit him. Perhaps he is now dreaming of his parents and his sisters, his brother and his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But Huldah is losing weight, she’s weak and tired, and like her friend, she is no longer young. She’s scared to go into the room, she’s scared the woman—this pen friend who seems to have materialized out of a breeze to take care of Herman, giving him medicine and alcohol rubs—might shoo her away or even try to kill her. What if she thought Huldah was filthy?

The winter, however, is settling in. The New York City streets mounded with fresh snow are impassable and the outside cold has turned in, Huldah has no place to go. She’s almost at her end when she hears Herman cry, “I should not have forgotten her! I should not have! I’ve killed her!” And just when Huldah wonders who is he speaking of, he begins to pray for her:

Well, you’ve had your life. You’ve served your time in this forsaken world, the worst of all worlds, this bottomless abyss, where Satan, Asmodeus, Hitler, and Stalin prevail. You are no longer confined to your hole—hungry, thirsty, and sick, but at one with the God-filled cosmos, with God Himself… Who knows why you had to be a mouse?


If Isaac Bashevis Singer had written The Letter Writer[1] from the mouse’s point of view, the plot might have gone like this. I [re]imagine. The Nobel laureate was not only one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers he was also one of the most humane. His compassion toward all creatures reverberates in his work. Throughout his life he questioned unremittingly why animals are tortured, why animals have to suffer, especially to the benefit of man. He deplored God for allowing it. This was Singer’s “philosophy of protest.”

[1] First English translation, Alizah Shevrin, Elizabeth Shub, The New Yorker, 1968

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