In the Polish city of Lodz, the brothers Ashkenazi grew up very differently in talent and in temperament. Max, the firstborn, is fiercely intelligent and conniving, determined to succeed financially by any means necessary. Slower-witted Jacob is strong, handsome, and charming but without great purpose in life. While Max is driven by ambition and greed to be more successful than his brother, Jacob is drawn to easy living and decadence. As waves of industrialism and capitalism flood the city, the brothers and their families are torn apart by the clashing impulses of old piety and new skepticism, traditional ways and burgeoning appetites, and the hatred that grows between faiths, citizens, and classes. Despite all attempts to control their destinies, the brothers are caught up by forces of history, love, and fate, which shape and, ultimately, break them.
First published in 1936, The Brothers Ashkenazi quickly became a best seller as a sprawling family saga. Breaking away from the introspective shtetl tales of classic nineteenth-century writers, I. J. Singer brought to Yiddish literature the multilayered plots, large casts of characters, and narrative sweep of the traditional European novel. Walking alongside such masters as Zola, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, I . J. Singer’s premodernist social novel stands as a masterpiece of storytelling.
The children loved the yard, no one more so than Jacob Bunem.
“Sima Meir,” he would cry in a loud voice that expressed his lust for life, “come play tag.”
“I don’t want to,” Simha Meir would say brusquely and turn away.
The twins didn’t get along.
Jacob Bunem would have preferred it otherwise. He was bigger, stronger, full of laughter.
“Jacob Bunem, why do you always laugh?” others asked.
“Cause I feel like it,” he would say, and laugh again so that the others felt compelled to join in.
He put his whole heart and soul into the childish games. No one could run faster, or find better hiding places in the foundation when they played hide and seek, or catch the ends of the cord the roper dragged through the courtyard. He could excavate the biggest rocks and raise them overhead. He never grew tired of the games. Not only did he enjoy playing, but he wanted everyone, especially his brother, to do the same. But Simha Meir would have none of it.
Excerpted from The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer. Copyright © 2010 by I. J. Singer. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
"A wonderful novel."
“The book has the grand sweep of Tolstoy…pitch perfect artistry and pace.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“The Brothers Ashkenazi rates a place on any shelf devoted to modern works of art.”
“A very powerful story has been seized upon by a very powerful story-teller…Singer has a stirring gift of narrative; he always writes with verve, sometimes with intensity; his book has magnitude and color and, as it were, a consciousness of its weighty theme.”
—The New York Times Book Review