In my continued reverse-alphabetical-by-title exploration of Harold Bloom's western canon list, I recently read Israel Joshua Singer's Yoshe Kalb (1933). I am pretty sure I've read some short stories or something by I.J.'s better-known younger brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, but this is the first Yiddish novel I've ever read.
Yoshe Kalb has the feel of a religious parable or mythic oration mixed with a political satire and a dash of romance novel, although the main character is, at least according to I.B.'s introduction, based on an actual man who lived in the Chassidic community in Galicia. This man, Nahum, who doesn't start out with the name of Yoshe, is married off to Serele, the youngest daughter of the charismatic Rabbi Melech, when he is only 14. He is delicate and scholarly and doesn't fit in well at all in the earthy and backstabbing court of the great Rabbi. Rabbi Melech was anxious to marry off his youngest daughter so that he could take a fourth wife (his third, and most beloved, wife having recently died). The Rabbi marries the young and headstrong Malkah, who also doesn't fit in at court or with her much older husband. Unfortunately for everyone, she and Nahum fall into an uncontrollable lust at first sight. Now it is a pretty big sin to lust after anyone who is not your wife, but it is an extra super big sin to lust after your step-mother-in-law, especially if you are very serious about your faith like Nahum.
As you might imagine, things don't end well. And they don't end well in a particularly spectacular way.
Nahum eventually leaves the Rabbi's city in the middle of the night, starts wandering and reciting the Psalms, and lives as a beggar. A series of events leads him to a place in the house of the Beadle in a town across the border in Russia where he is given the name of Yoshe the Loon. More things don't go well and Yoshe finds himself forced to marry the Beadle's daughter, who isn't playing with a full deck.
So after 15 years, Nahum/Yoshe, who is now so quiet and spiritual that no one can ignore him, goes back to Serele. And when a man from the other village recognizes him as the husband who ran out on the Beadle's daughter, someone's got some explaining to do.
I still do not completely understand the ending of this book, but I liked it quite a bit. You should read it too, so we can talk about it. Anyone? I feel like I simultaneously gave too much away and didn't say enough in my review here, but this is really a fun read with wonderfully written characters (none of whom are all that admirable).
[As an aside, Yoshe Kalb was adapted as a play for the Yiddish theatre, where it was a huge success, and I could really see it working in that format.]