Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Short Friday and Other Stories”: Singer on Sex

This third collection of Singer’s short stories collected by The Library of America was published in English in 1964.  Sex is a powerful theme in many of Singer’s stories.  One one end, it is a normal, expected, and celebrated part of life for married couples.  On the other end, it is the window to temptation and the commonly-used weapon of demons to possess the souls of Jewish men and women.  I am here making a humble effort to reflect on what we can learn about sex from Singer’s dilemma.  It is quite clear to me that Singer is a strong moral conservative.  As I wrote about in the earlier postings, Singer seems to reflect the conservatism of the rural moral economy.  His stories suggest a fear of outsiders, the importance of remaining uncorrupted by sin, capitalism, and change.  Often his heroes are the rabbis to stick to their spiritual orientations despite a changing or besieged world.

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In “Taibele and her Demon” an abandoned woman tells her friends the story of a demon who visits a woman and seduces her and lives with her as “man and wife.”  A man in the community, a teachers assistant, her the story and visits Taibele disguised as “Hurmizah” a demon.  He tells her that he will comes twice a week.  She begins to relish the encounters which are not only sexually satisfying but entertaining, as “Hurmizah” tells her stories of the demonic world.  “Thus Hurmizah described his wives, and told Taibele how he disported himself with them, playing tag over roofs and engaging in all sorts of pranks.  Ordinarily, a woman is jealous when a man consorts with other women, but how can a human be jealous of a female devil?  Quite the contrary.  Hurmizah’s tales amused Taibele, and she was always playing him with questions.” (338)  The relationship starts to have broader effects.  The teacher’s assistant remains unmarried despite being a widower.  (Taibele is abandoned herself and the demonic affair takes on the character of a second marriage for both).  While on one level the story works as a playful celebration of sexual freedom and rule-breaking  (Does she really think he is a demon or does it become an excuse to sustain a fulfilling affair?)  The story is also a warning against these transgressions.  The teacher’s assistant career suffers as rumors spread that he is becoming a werewolf.  In fact, he was becoming sicker due to his excessive late-night rendezvous.  While Taibele begins to become fond of the demonic world.  “Taibele knew that it was sinful to pray for devils, that one must curse them and blot them from memory; yet she prayed to God for Hurmizah.  She cried out in anguish: ‘There are so many devils, let there be one more.'” (342)  Eventually, Hurmizah stops coming, for the teacher’s assistant died and Taibele’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Sexual transgression is explored in “Blood” as well, but here it is overshadowed by the passion of a man for the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  To story begins as an affair between a married woman Risha and a widower butcher Reuben.  The story begins “The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason ‘Thou shall not kill’ is followed by ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.'” (353)  Risha is almost immediately attracted to the honesty of Reuben’s brutality and indifference to the victims of his profession.  “If someone has to eat meat, someone has to do the slaughtering.” (356) She hires him as a private ritual slaughterer for her family’s estate.  Under a pretext, she returns to Reuben.  Their erotic encounter is mixed with the imagery of slaughter.  “He forced Risha down on his beach-bed and she, thrice married, had never before felt desire as great as on that day.  Thought she called him murderer, robber, highwayman, and reproached him for bringing shame to an honest woman, yet at the same time she kissed him, fondled him, and responded to his masculine whims.  In their amorous play, she asked him to slaughter her.  Taking her head, he bent it back and fiddled with his finger across her throat.  When Risha finally arose, she said to Reuben: ‘You have certainly murdered me that time.'” (358)  She finally got Reuben on the estate by opening a butcher shop, selling low-cost meat.  She helped Reuben work as a slaughter and seamlessly connected those acts with her sexual indiscretion.  They are aroused by the slaughter and often has sex near the dead and dying animals.  “One transgression begets another.  One day Satan, the father of all lust and cunning, tempted Risha to take a hand in slaughtering.”  From this point Risha began to expand her crimes by slaughtering meat herself instead of the kosher-slaughter Rueben.  “She got so much satisfaction from deceiving the community that this soon became as powerful a passion with her as lechery and cruelty.” (361)  This made her rich, especially since she commonly deceived her customers.  “The steaming blood gurgled and flowed.  While the beasts were bleeding, Risha threw off all her clothes and stretched out naked on a pile of straw.  Reuben came to her and they were so fat their bodies could barely join.  They puffed and panted.  Their wheezing mixed with the death rattles of the animals and made an unearthly noise.” (363)  This event was witnessed by a spy of the now unemployed butchers and exposes all of Risha and Rueben’s sins.  When confronted she converted and continued her life as a non-kosher butcher.  She did this only after almost immediately adopted all the worst anti-Semitic claims of the local Gentiles. She dies in the end, having become a “werewolf.”  She had taken to the woods and turned into a “carnivorous animal lurking about at night and attacking people.”  Rueben meanwhile had become a vegetarian.

Singer, a vegetarian who had disgust for the slaughter of animals connected this with adultery and sexual indiscretion.  Again, we find the dangerous association of sexuality with decadence, sin, and crime.

Well, how do you feel about transgression?  Where is the line between resistance to cultural norms, hierarchies, tradition, and patriarchal expectations on monogamy?  When does resistance to consumer culture cross into tyrannical Puritanism?  What is the role of sexual and moral transgression (and in this I suppose we could include meat-eating as vegetarianism/veganism often is often quite Puritanical in practice – based on self-restraint, moral mandates, and denial) in resistance to capitalism?

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