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One of the world's great storytellers learned early

More Stories from My Father's Court

By Isaac Bashevis Singer Translated from Yiddish by Curt Leviant Farrar, Straus & Giroux 216 pp., $22

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In his novels, short stories, memoirs, and children's tales, the late Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer explored many aspects of Jewish life: folklore, mysticism, village life, city life, the experience of emigration, the lure of sexual passion, and the conflict between religious tradition and modern skepticism. It is surely possible that Singer's lifelong love of storytelling began when he was a young boy listening to the people who came to his father's rabbinical court to seek help, advice, and judgments on a great variety of personal, familial, and religious issues.

On Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, in the Singer family's modest apartment, Singer's father, a rabbi, held court. Jews from the neighborhood - and sometimes from farther away - came to consult him on matters of religious observance, marriage, and divorce. Singer's mother, like many a rabbi's wife, also took an active role, listening to people's problems and offering her advice.

Young Isaac, not surprisingly, was the proverbial little pitcher with big ears. Even when his parents made him leave the room because a problem under discussion was what we'd now call R-rated, the future author of "The Family Moskat" and "Satan in Goray," and "Enemies: A Love Story" did his best to overhear as much as he could.

Singer recounted his experience as a rabbi's son in his memoir "In My Father's Court," published in 1966. But there was more material. The 27 "More Stories from My Father's Court" now being published posthumously in English translation and in book form, originally appeared in Yiddish in a column Singer wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward in the years 1955-1960. More sketches than stories, they may not represent Singer's most impressive work, but in some respects, they show us the roots of his lifelong passion for storytelling.

People with problems, as he soon discovered, are stories waiting to be told. Sometimes, what young Singer heard shocked not only him but his parents as well, especially his father, an unworldly, pious man who tended to think the best of people. Other times, even a perfectly unshocking case, like that of a man returning to seek formal forgiveness from a woman he jilted years before, could be enough to fire Singer's imagination with feverish fantasies of passion and romance.

Young Singer learns to discern the difference between true piety and religious hypocrisy, between humble devotion to study and a pretentious display of erudition. Some stories conclude with the author praising his father's upright character and traditionalist faith, others with the author expressing his own youthful wish to explore a wider, more exciting world.

But perhaps the greatest pleasure for the reader resides in the all-too-human drama of ordinary life that parades through the Singer family living room: a woman bewailing the fact that her husband never buys her presents; a couple, happily married for 40 years, asking the rabbi for a divorce; a saintly old scribe horrified that his daughter's fiance is also engaged to another woman; a traveling salesman unhappy that his wife entertains another man in their home, but reluctant to take action against her.

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And for comic desperation, few can match the plight of one hapless husband: "All night long I work nonstop in the bakery, but when I come home in the morning, instead of being greeted by my wife, a dog comes bounding toward me. He barks and jumps on me.... He opens his mouth like a lion. He can crunch a hard bone.... Poor people used to come to my house and I would give them what I could.... But this dog drove all the poor people away.... Rabbi, I work long hours for [my wife] - and it's the dog she kisses." Fortunately for the baker, Judaism is a religion that favors people over dogs - especially the more savage specimens, but it takes more than a rabbinical ruling to get this particular dog out of the house.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society