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 19th-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 pre-modernist social novel stands as a masterpiece of storytelling.
Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944)was born in Bilgoraj, Poland, the son of a rabbi. He contributed to Yiddish newspapers in Warsaw and Kiev, where his short story, “Pearls,” was published, which brought him immediate recognition. He came to the United States in 1934, and within two years The Brothers Ashkenazi was published, a work that was not only an instant success but was also destined to become a classic in its time.
©1937 I. J. Singer. © renewed 1965 by Joseph Singer. English translation © 1980 by Joseph Singer. Foreword © 2010 by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. (P)2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“The book has the grand sweep of Tolstoy…with pitch-perfect artistry and pace.” (Wall Street Journal)
“One of the great books…It can be compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace without condescension.” (New York Sun)
“The Brothers Ashkenazi rates a place on any shelf devoted to modern works of art.” (Newsweek)
What a great book! Looking at reviews this book seems often to be pigeonholed as a book by a Jew and about Jews almost implying that it is for Jews. This is a great travesty. That’s like saying Crime and Punishment is by a Russian and for Russians, or Ulysses is by the Irish and for the Irish. This is a wonderful book about greed, oppression, and men pushed to the limits of life. Some parts are heavy and dark, some tender and loving, and often laced with bits of humor. I don’t think anyone will truly like the Ashkenazi’s, but I for one respect them in the same way as the protagonist of other great works. It will forever be in my group of favorite books.
The story of three generations of the Ashkenazi family and set in 19th and 20th Eastern Europe, its themes are specific to that time and place, yet also universal. Illuminates the clash between traditional Judaism and the Jewish enlightenment, orthodoxy and progress, capitalism and workers rights, accepting the world as it is and risking your life to change it.
Good narration, with the exception of mangling some of the Yiddish.
Marxism, Anti-Semitism, & Life
Nissam the Depraved's moment of understanding that the values he worked so hard for were undermined by the various tendancies of man.
Great knack for capturing the feel of his characters.
Max, Jacob, Tevia the lawless, Nissam
Great book from a great author! The book describes a lost world. It is a tribute to the jewish life in Eastern Europe, that was destroyed by the evil.
People say I resemble my dog (and vice-versa). He can hear sounds I can't hear, but I'm the one who listens to audiobooks.
Written during the 1930s, this book by I.J. Singer, older brother of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, proves to be a remarkable look back at Jewish life in Poland during the late 19th and early 20th century. What makes it so remarkable to us today is that it was written before the Holocaust and is therefore not seen through the prism of that horrific event, as is anything written afterwards.
The Brothers Ashkenazi presages the Holocaust without knowing that it was about to happen. But more importantly, it is a complete examination of what life was like for Jews in Lodz without being tempered in its honesty by the subsequent advent of the Lodz Ghetto and its brutal dissolution by the Nazis (which my father experienced as a teenager).
The breadth and depth of I.J. Singer's book is epic. Orthodoxy goes up against assimilation, capitalism has its inevitable collision with communism, Jews clash with Poles who clash
with Germans who clash with Russians, and everyone seems to hate the Latvians and Lithuanians. There is also an unexpected look at feminist issues through the lens of the forced marriages of the era.
The Brothers Ashkenazi is breathtaking -- in its scope and its pace and its characterizations -- from the start when German refugees of the Napoleonic era (not Jews, Germans) settle in Lodz, through the Industrial Revolution, the rise of unionism and socialism, economic ups and downs, the German occupation during the first World War, the Russian Revolution, and the outburst of extremely virulent and violent anti-Semitism after the war that rarely occurred previously.
This book has been called the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish. So the first point of comparison, based on title alone, is The Brothers Karamazov. In scope, perhaps War and Peace, about an earlier era, and Doctor Zhivago, written later, are more apt touchstones. Probably the best book to compare it to is I.B. Singer's novel The Family Moskat, equal in its epic scope, examining the same era in Jewish history, but written after the Holocaust and therefore viewed through that prism (I haven't read it yet, so I'll have to get back to you later on how good of a comparison that is).
But for contemporary audiences looking for a contemporaneous point of comparison, allow me to go way out on a limb and say this is like the Downton Abbey of Polish Jews, but with even more heartache and violence, because of the anti-Semitic pogroms that are so vividly depicted.
Considering how prolific he is, especially in science fiction, one of my favorite audiobook genres, I have not listened to Stefan Rudnicki before, but looking at his titles, I'm sure I will be listening to him often down the road. His sci-fi work caught me by surprise, because The Brothers Ashkenazi was written in Yiddish, and even in translation, Rudnicki captures the rhythm of the Yiddish voice so well. He must be that versatile to get so many diverse reading gigs.
Despite its title, this book is really about one of the two brothers, Max Ashkenzi. And as fascinating as his experiences are, he is such a despicable character that you want to forget him as quickly as possible. Of all the tragedies that occur in the book, his is one that was most deserved, even if it came far too late in his life to be satisfying.
There a myriad other characters that compare and contrast to Max in deed and temperament, starting of course with his much more likeable twin brother and including his maligned first wide, not to mention his father and his business partners and his competitors and his workers, etc. etc.
But for me, the most memorable character of all is Nissan. He is a relatively minor figure compared to Max, but he is the true counterpoint. Both started out as rabbinical students, both turned on their fathers, but that is where the likenesses end. Where Max is the ultimate exploiter of people, both as an industrialist and in his personal life, Nissan is the idealist. Where Max is the capitalist who embraces apostasy as a negotiating ploy, Nissan is an apostate who embraces socialism and communism for their humanistic ideals.
The scenes where Nissan and Max collide are among the best in the book. Nissan is the only person who can honestly tell Max where to get off. Even when Max talks sense about the economic realities of capitalism (i.e. having to make at least some level of profit), Nissan knows just how to reject him. Best of all, after the Russian Revolution, when Max tries to make nice to Nissan (in his own self-interest, of course), Nissan's rejoinder is devastating in its directness and simplicity.
Unlike Max, Nissan does not deserve what he gets in the end. Selflessly devoting himself to the cause of the working class, enduring beatings and prison sentences and humiliation in pursuit of that cause, he is instantly betrayed by the direction the Soviet Union takes in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It is one thing to see a bad guy like Max get his comeuppance, but it was disheartening for me to see a sincere humanist like Nissan betrayed so completely in what should have been his moment of vindication.
Based on what I heard in the afterword, it sounds as if Nissan's experience, in rejecting his rabbinical father's Orthodox Judaism early in life and communism in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, mirrors that of the author himself, which is quite interesting.
Not to take anything away from I.B. Singer, but it seems a shame that his older brother has been overlooked. He died prematurely of a heart attack in 1944 after having published only a handful of works. His now more famous brother started writing in earnest after his death, but at the time, The Brothers Ashkenazi was popular enough to battle it out with Gone With the Wind for the top spot on the NY Times best seller list.
How is it that I.J. Singer is not read widely? His story-telling skills are on a par with Tolstoy. His characters are rich and varied just as in War and Peace and cover as much war, geography (Poland and Russia), labor relations, class struggle, and individual turmoil.
Reading how traditional societies morph into secular culture and revolutionary movements.
Nissan. He's the son of an ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi, but he is not religious. Instead, his creed is Marxism. He's so pure in his beliefs and clearly the hero of this multi-layered novel.
I wish more of Singer's books were available on audio.
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