Old Books Reading Challenge: Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’ve said it once and I will say it again–I’ve had fantastic luck when it comes to finding really good books at church rummage sales. Over two years ago I stumbled upon one sale while I was out running errands and it netted me a rather nice assortment of books, one of which happened to be a copy of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. (As a matter of fact, I would enjoy Egan’s book so much it would later end up making my Best of List for 2011.) This summer I hit a couple of church of rummage sales and one of the books I purchased (along with a somewhat weather-beaten trade paperback copy of Howard Dully’s 2007 memoir My Lobotomy) was a 1974 Avon/Bard paperback edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray. Originally published in Yiddish as a series of installments in the literary Globus in 1935, it would take almost 20 years before it would appear as a novel in 1954. Set in the Polish village of Goray in the mid-17th century, it tells the story of beleaguered rabbi, a wandering merchant turned cult leader, his deranged wife and other villagers as they are swept up in the apocalyptic fervor inspired by reports emanating from the Ottoman Empire of a Messianic figure known as Sabbatai Zevi. As the residents of Goray eagerly anticipate the End of Days common sense and decency are quickly cast aside. To quote the novel’s translator Jacob Sloan, Satan in Goray is much more than a fictional account of the ravages of unchecked Messianism: “It is the vivid detailing of the convulsions that render human beings when the fabric of a stable society is torn to tatters by a revolutionary drive towards the Impossible.”

Even though I’ve been dying to read some translated Yiddish literature ever since I read Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (both books are superb and I highly recommend them) I was a little apprehensive to read Satan in Goray, fearing it might be too dated or sectarian for my tastes. Thankfully, I was wrong. With the exception of the novel’s ending, I enjoyed Singer’s dark piece of fiction. I’d like to read more of his stuff or for that matter more Yiddish literature in translation. Maybe in 2013 with luck I will.

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3 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

3 responses to “Old Books Reading Challenge: Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer

  1. Pingback: 2012 In Review: My Favorite Fiction | Maphead's Book Blog

  2. I took an Introduction to Judaism class in college and for my major project I read several works by Isaac Bashevis Singer including this one. I actually don’t remember much about Satan in Goray. I think I liked the beginning a lot but I vaguely remember being disappointed in it too. I remember liking The Slave and also The Family Moskat.

    • After reading Satan in Goray, I’d like to read more from Isaac Bashevis Singer. Lucky for me I have a couple of his short story collections in my person library.I think I’d also like to read a few of his novels, especially the ones you mentioned.

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