The stories collected in A Day of Pleasure are more than autobiographical sketches or memoirs. They reveal the vivid imagination and intellectual curiosity, the conflicts and dilemmas of a sensitive boy brought up under trying circumstances in an environment at once fertile and threatening. Isaac’s love of adventure moves him to explore the city and the countryside around Warsaw in ways that, for a person of his age and background, are both dangerous and daring. But in every instance, the author shows the boy trying to learn from his experiences, to relate them to important ethical, religious, or ethnic issues. Singer offers acute perceptions, such as Isaac’s grasp of worldly vanities in “The Satin Coat,” his appreciation of the exceptional virtues of Reb Asher the Dairyman, and his understanding of the unfortunate situation of Reb Meir the Eunuch.
Singer originally wrote his stories in Yiddish, the language of East European Jews, but the English translations have much of the conciseness, color, and wit of the originals. One not only sees but feels what it was like to live on Krochmalna Street in those days. The stories never bog down in unrelieved pathos or solemnity, for Singer invariably introduces humor or some alternative perspective. For example, an episode of wry humor concludes “Hunger,” a story otherwise characterized by grim descriptions of freezing and starving people-including the Singer family-during the German occupation of Warsaw in World War I. Isaac’s mother gets a cat to help rid their apartment of the mice that threaten to overrun everyone and everything, but the cat appears utterly indifferent and ignores the mice. Rabbi Singer cares for the cat and speculates that she might be the reincarnation of a saint: “The earth was full of transmigrant souls sent back to correct a single transgression.” This being the case, he treats the cat respectfully, and she behaves “with an air of majesty.” How could she be expected to go after mice?
Singer’s knowledge of the Bible and biblical commentary is extensive, and he draws adept analogies to illuminate a situation, such as his reference to Joseph and his brothers in “The Strong Ones.” Although devoted to Judaism, Singer is no chauvinist: he shows Jews in both good and bad light. While sensitive to the kinds of prejudice and hatred that culminated in the Holocaust, he provides a balanced view of Gentiles and of Gentile-Jewish relations. The non-Jewish title character in “The Washwoman,” for example, is one of the most compelling and inspiring portraits Singer has drawn.