The Slave (Singer novel)

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The Slave
First English edition
AuthorIsaac Bashevis Singer
Original titleDer Knecht
CountryUnited States
PublisherFarrar Straus Giroux
Publication date

The Slave (Yiddish: דער קנעכט‎, translit. Der Knecht) is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer originally written in Yiddish that tells the story of Jacob, a scholar sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres, who falls in love with a gentile woman. Through the eyes of Jacob, the book recounts the history of Jewish settlement in Poland at the end of the 17th century. While most of the book's protagonists are Jews, the book is also a criticism of Orthodox Jewish society.[1] The English version was translated by the author and Cecil Hemley.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Jacob, the hero of the book, was a resident of Josefov, a Jewish town in Poland. After the Khmelnytsky massacres, in which his wife and three children were murdered by Cossacks, Jacob was sold as a slave to pagan peasant farmers. Throughout his several years of slavery, he struggled to maintain his Judaism by observing as many Jewish rituals as possible and by maintaining high ethical standards for himself.

While in captivity, Jacob fell in love with his master's daughter, Wanda. While Jewish law and custom forbids Jews from even touching a woman a man is not married to and also forbids Jews from cohabiting with gentiles, Jacob's love for Wanda was too powerful to overcome and they engage in sexual intercourse. Later, Jews from Josefov came to ransom him by paying off Wanda's father and he returned Josefov. While in Josefov, Jacob dreamed of Wanda. In the dream, Wanda was pregnant and asked Jacob why he abandoned her and left the child in her womb to be raised by pagans. Jacob decided to return to the pagan village, take Wanda as a wife, and help her to convert to Judaism. Jacob and Wanda reached another town, Pilitz, where Jacob made his living as a teacher. In Pilitz, Wanda became known as Sarah and Jacob instructed to be pretend that she was deaf and mute so as not to reveal her origin as a gentile. Sarah thirsted for knowledge and at night, Jacob taught her Jewish beliefs, myths, and practices. She suffered in silence as the women in the town gossiped about her right in front of her, as they thought that since she was deaf, she would not hear them. Her secret was finally discovered when she screamed loudly during the birth of her and Jacob's son. Sarah died during the difficult birth, and was given a "donkey's burial" outside of the Jewish cemetery.

Jacob called his baby son Benjamin (he likens himself to the biblical Jacob whose wife, Rachel, died in the childbirth of the biblical Benjamin); he traveled to the Land of Israel with the infant. Benjamin grew up to become a lecturer in a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

20 years later, Jacob returned to Pilitz and discovered that the town grew and that the cemetery had grown so much that the place where Sarah was buried was now within the bounds of the cemetery. The place where Sarah was buried was not prominently marked and unknown to the Jews of Pilitz. Jacob was weak and died during the visit to Pilitz. By coincidence (or perhaps, by a miracle), as a grave was being dug for Jacob, the bones of Sarah were found. The town decided to bury them together, side by side.

Stage version[edit]

The book was adapted by Yevgeny Arye and Yelena Laskina into a play that had its theatrical premiere at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2004.[3]


The book was published in 1962, a time in Jewish history in which the magnitude of the Holocaust was beginning to surface. The book's setting during the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres could be seen as a historical parallel to what many American Jews were thinking and feeling during the early 1960s.[4]

The book contains criticism of the hypocrisy inherent in a narrow-minded interpretation of Judaism. The Jews of Pilitz in The Slave make a point of keeping commandments between man and God, but many treat Sarah and Jacob in ways that does not square well with Jewish ideals. The character of Gershon is especially cruel and often gets his way simply by bullying others, yet he keeps a strictly kosher home.

Also prominent in the story is the theme of vegetarianism. Singer himself was a passionate vegetarian and Jacob's attitude towards animals during his captivity and his explanation at the end of the novel of his vegetarian philosophy could be seen as Singer writing autobiographically.[1]

Critical reception[edit]

Writing in the New York Times, Orville Prescott called the novel a 'Jewish Pilgrim's Progress', in which the hero keeps his faith despite all setbacks. Prescott liked the pacy, eventful plot but criticised the way the characters were portrayed as symbols rather than human beings.[5]

Rafael Broch[6] notes how the purity of the rural scene and of the hero's faith contrast with the vulgarity of the 'lewd peasants and prejudiced landowners'. Broch calls this a Romeo and Juliet tale in 'circumstances even less permissive'.

For Ted Hughes[7] the book is 'burningly radiant, intensely beautiful'.


  1. ^ a b Seth L. Wolitz (2002). The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. University of Texas Press. pp. 79–92. ISBN 0-292-79147-X.
  2. ^ Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1974) The Slave. Harmondsworth: Penguin
  3. ^ Neil Genzlinger. "Lincoln Center Festival Review; Speaking in Varied Tongues, To Audience (and to a Cow)". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Alexander, Edward. "The Holocaust and the war of ideas." Google Books. 31 March 2010.
  5. ^ Orville Prescott, Book review, New York Times, 6 July 1962
  6. ^ Open Democracy, book review, 5 February 2007
  7. ^ 'The genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer, New York Times, 5 April 1965

External links[edit]