Book Review: Shosha, Isaac Bashevis Singer

Kind of a review. Kind of a philosophy chat.

I’ve been married twice, and both times my wife got tired of me wanting to name a daughter Shosha. I still remember buying the book: it was winter in Maine, and cold. Back home in Seattle, people were shivering under REI down jackets in 40 degrees and overcast. Here? Everything was covered in frozen snow and frigid, and I worried that my car tires wouldn’t roll. I was twenty-something and working in Wiscasset for a couple of months and needed something to do. The local bookstore was – and is – always the answer. 

By the great Isaac Bashevis Singer, it’s an odd story from a Jewish section of some city in pre-WWII Poland about a boy and girl who grow up together and then apart and then come together again. I laugh, giving the same caveat about many books I review: if you love the action and sex in the genre-of-the-week, this isn’t for you. But, if you like…say, how Pasternak wonders aimlessly in and out of the philosophy stacks at the library, this will be more to your liking. I’ve reviewed it before – I’ll try to find the review – but was struck this time by two things.

First thing

First is the theme that snakes through all the book and maybe all of Singer’s work. Maybe through all of Hebrew Scripture: G makes the mouse, and G makes the cat.  

Shosha’s world of ragamuffin pre-war Polish Jews.

I see this everywhere now and have taken it as my own. Last week I was in the Post Office, behind an older lady – older than me – who was having a fit. I only know this because she announced it to the entire building, but every year some financial institution in Europe sends her and her husband their annual wad of cash. Usually, they get a check in the mail, but this year, with security and all, the dirty rotten oafs want her to pick up her check at the embassy. 

She is incensed. And so is her husband, she says, who has to wait in the car. From disability or from the fear of being seen with this woman, I can’t say. Me? I’m sitting in line wondering what kind of largess you have when your bank wants you to pick up your check at the bleedin’ embassy?

There’s no way she’s driving to DC, so she made some kind of deal with who-knows-who and is sending them paperwork to release the money to her. All this is played out for the very nice people of my town and the Post Office, all making $8.75 per hour. In a huff, and not being used to this kind of rough treatment, she pays to send the letter and storms out.

“Next.”

I carry my box to the counter, hoping that any residual anger in the clerk stays bottled up, though I consider it a Christian’s job to be a shock absorber for this kind of silly business. The clerk looks like she’s already had a lousy day, and it’s only 11:00.

I grimaced and spouted my new philosophy. “Well,” I said, “ G makes the mouse, and G makes the cat.”

She chuckled with me, and I was glad to relieve some of her built-up pressure.

It’s a forgiving philosophy, and an acknowledgment that G made you as you are. Love yourself and forgive yourself. Do the same for others. G made them, too. It’s a harder pill to swallow in Shosha, with the Jews knowing what comes with Hitler. I think of it now, reading about the Babylonian exile and how bad moderns can be on history. We think it was bliss back in the good old days when America was great, but would we – would I? – sing a song about how G makes us all when being separated from my family for maybe the last time? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

Second thing

Also in the book – spoiler alert – Shosha dies. The boy and girl are married now, and WWII looms, so they meander on rough dirt roads, carrying everything they own in suit cases, out of the city. Shosha walks with her husband until finally, she sits down, and dies. Just gives up the ghost. She’s tired of trying so hard to carry her load. She’s had enough.

Settling in for some great reading.

This time though, the sentiment resonates in me. I am no fan of any death and swear to my wife that G will have to strike me down and that I will fight for every breath. Only once, during my hospital stay because of my accident, did I not care if I woke. It wasn’t for me, but for my wife and family that I cared about dying, knowing that death would cause more grief. 

So, my takeaway here? G made the mouse and the cat. Learn it, and meditate on it, and the next time someone treats you wrongly, repeat it under your breath. Don’t try to figure out who’s who: it’s just a dance, and we’re all players.

Selah

***

See the book here on Amazon.
Here at Barnes and Noble, my hometown bookstore.
Go here to Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore.
Or you can see if your hometown indie bookstore has it or if they can order it for you.


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