In this essay I want to examine to what extent the main protagonist of The Magician of Lublin, Yasha Mazur, struggles with the ethical values of the Jewish religion, reluctantly being a Jew himself, and the final acceptance and embrace of his forefather’s heritage. These values, as Gabriner has shown us in this course on American Jewish literature, permeate the Jewish culture and hence the work of the authors we have read and discussed. After a summary of the novel’s content and its implications I will endeavour to draw parallels and seek contrasts between the various characters in this novel and The Slave, by the same author, while I will also attempt to do the same with some of the other works that were incorporated in this course.
Finally, I cannot escape a thoroughly motivated categorization.
The Magician of Lublin is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer which was published serially as Der Kuntsnmakher fun Lublin in the Yiddish-language daily newspaper Forverts in 1959 and published in book form in English in 1960.
The entire novel did not appear in Yiddish in book form until 1971. It is set in late 19th-century Poland, in and around the cities of Lublin and Warsaw, the era is clearly pre-modern but other wise nonspecific. It is exactly this last notion that lends this novel an ‘unreal’ quality which I find at times confusing, something I also experienced while reading The Slave. This confusion, I realize now, stems from the tension between memory, evoking the European past, a real past the author had experienced, and current events, his immigration to and living in America.
This accounts for the powerful way in which you are sucked into these characters’ lives; they, and their struggles, become so real and timeless that the reader is hardly able to distinguish between a contemporary setting and a historical one.
The story concerns Yasha Mazur, an itinerant professional conjurer, hypnotist and tightrope walker, who lives “his whole life as walking the tightrope, merely inches away from disaster” (46). He loves no less then five women, including Esther, his barren and pious wife, whom he takes for granted most of the time, Magda, his pitiable non-Jewish performance partner and lover while living in Warsaw, whom he maligns, Zeftel, the deserted wife of a thief, whom he simply lusts for but feels most comfortable with and Emilia and her daughter, Halina, widow and daughter of a deceased professor, both of whom he idealizes. To support himself, his assorted women, and his future plans to escape to Italy with Emilia and Halina, he attempts a robbery at which he loses his nerve for the first time and consequently fails to open the safe. At his escape he seriously strains his ankle and is almost caught by the police; he manages to avoid being apprehended by seeking refuge, for the second time in the story, in a synagogue.
The pressure of not being able to perform in the circus (the show was scheduled to start within a week from the burglary) the tensions in his relationship with Magda, resulting in her suicide, the fact that Zeftel is lured to Buenos Aires by a white slave trader, whom she marries in the end, and his breaking up with Emilia through his lack of funds eventually result in a crisis of conscience and Yasha returns to his wife. There, in his backyard he builds a simple brick shelter and locks himself in, becoming a recluse. People begin to refer to him as Jacob the Penitent, and they flock to him as if to a holy man. Yasha studies the Torah and the Talmud and prays and meditates but continues to dream about all the women whose lives had been so bound up with his. He feels guilt, pity, lust, and longing for them, but no longer dreams of escaping.
In The Magician of Lublin Singer’s protagonist, a once-famous escape artist, finds that his personal flaws slowly begin to dominate his life and he is able to escape from anything but himself. Yasha Mazur is clearly introduced to us as a Jew, but one who only went to the synagogue when he was in Lublin and then “only on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur” (8). His wife, “Esther, on the other hand, wore the customary kerchief and kept a Kosher kitchen; she observed the Sabbath and all the laws” (8). “Yasha spent his Sabbath talking and smoking cigarettes among musicians. To the earnest moralists who attempted to get him to mend his ways, he would always answer: “When were you in heaven, and what did God look like.” It was risky to debate with him since he was no fool, knew how to read Russian and Polish, and was even well-informed on Jewish matters” (8). Most of his life, however, he spent away from his wife, either in Warsaw or touring the surrounding shtetls. “Yasha played the atheist but, actually, he believed in God. God’s hand was evident everywhere” (11).
But in Yasha’s view maybe God was the sun because it was just as evident that this body had a lot to do with the changing of the seasons. The main character’s half hearted attempts at his religion stretch as far as his total being. “He was half Jew, half Gentile – neither Jew nor Gentile. He had worked out his own religion” (11). Yet, there may be a premonitional tinge to the fact that the reader meets Yasha on this very morning just before Pentecost, the feast on the seventh Sunday after Easter commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, because the Holy Spirit descents onto Yasha in the end. It seems quite plain that a man who is ruled by lust (Yasha has two lovers besides his wife) cannot be called a devout Jew. From his conversation with Schmul in chapter three, about adultery and having children, we learn that Yasha is not undisturbed by his cheating on his wife; a possible longing for children of his own is not explicated. His soul-searching about his life style had transformed him “into a regular philosopher” (18). He has always been honest to other women; his marriage remained sacred to him. Not coincidentally, Schmul calls him a master of deception; yet, he only deceives himself.
However, Schmul is, in this fragment, talking about his magical tricks and not about his relations with women. Yasha also tricks himself into believing that ending his affairs will only result in making his mistresses unhappy; he thinks they depend on him. In fact they partly do because he showers them with all kinds of gifts (from food to jewelry). He is moderately successful and he has enough money, although we later learn that he has borrowed a lot as well from various people, and he, I think, genuinely cares. His feelings of responsibility for the other are strong and he behaves accordingly (tzedekah). On the other hand, Yasha also longs for even bigger successes on a larger European, if not American, scale and thereby performs ‘avodah zerah’, idolatry of the false idols of success and money (the American dream), making him another representation of the seductions of the modern assimilated Jew. The main character is far removed from the boy Yasha who had once studied the Talmud, as we learn at the end of chapter one, for in stead of continuing this education, he “joined a traveling circus” (11).