Friday, July 02, 2010

Singermann

My essay on Myron Brinig’s 1929 novel Singermann is up this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.

If the novel is ever reprinted, as it should be, it will be because of its transvestism and homosexuality. The best thing about the novel, though, is that it tells a more typical Jewish story—a story that no other Jewish writer ever seemed interested in telling, despite its significance to American Jewry.

Singermann documents the career of a Jewish emigrant from Central Europe who becomes a peddler in the Middle West, and then travels further west to open his own clothing and dry-goods store—the makings of a successful department store. Many if not most of the local department stores in small to mid-sized American cities were established by Jews (the stores have largely been swallowed up by larger chains). The stores, and the Jewish merchants who created and ran them, anchored both the communities in which they were located and the Jews who came there to live and to establish Jewish institutions.

Most of the midwestern Jewish communities in places like Butte, Montana (the novel’s setting), have disappeared. And with them a chapter in American Jewish history. Singermann is one of the few remaining traces.

2 comments:

R. T. said...

About twelve or thirteen years ago, Rabbi David Ostrich, formerly of Pensacola and now in Pennsylvania, talked with me (during a classroom discussion) about the dilemma faced by Jewish merchants in American history. Faced with the responsibility of providing for themselves and their families, Jewish merchants who owned and operated businesses in American towns and cities had to open their stories on Friday evenings and Saturdays because the overwhelmingly Christian population used those times for their weekly shopping trips; however, the Jewish merchants also had to contend with seemingly inflexible imperatives from the Torah to keep the Sabbath holy. As Rabbi Ostrich noted, this was not an easily resolved problem, even though it had been an issue for centuries (in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere). Obviously, how the merchants resolved that dilemma (one that continues today) is fertile territory for fictional representation. Does the author you talk about deal with that topic? Do other authors?

Shelley said...

What you say about stores is true even of the part of West Texas that I write about. And I might add that there is a little-noticed and respected Jewish shopkeeper in To Kill A Mockingbird.