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PENITENT Paperback – 15 May 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (15 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780374531539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374531539
  • ASIN: 0374531536
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1 x 21.6 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,917,375 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Powerful tale of one man's spiritual journey 5 July 2002
By Michael J. Mazza - Published on
Format: Mass Market Paperback
"The Penitent," a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, tells the story of a Jewish man named Joseph Shapiro. Joseph flees Poland during the era of Nazi aggression. He comes to America but eventually embarks on a spiritual journey that brings him to Israel. This is a relatively short book (117 pages in a paperback edition).
"The Penitent" is masterfully written by Singer. The book actually consists of one story "nested" within another; the "frame" story is told by a first-person narrator, a writer who meets Joseph in Israel at the Wailing Wall. This brief frame story leads into the main part of the book: Joseph's first-person narration as told to this frame narrator. Thus the book could be read as an extended character study.
Joseph turns from worldliness to orthodox Judaism, and "The Penitent" is essentially the story of this spiritual journey. Joseph's story is fascinating. He is a very opinionated narrator, and although you may disagree with many of his declarations, I found his voice to be consistently compelling. In his story he touches on many significant issues: sexual and ideological temptation, the complex linguistic world of the Jewish people, the relationship of the Jewish Bible to rabbinical writings, vegetarianism, etc. The shadow of the Holocaust is a key theme in Joseph's story.
Throughout the book Joseph is a harsh critic of the modern world, especially of its literature and sexual values. Joseph has constant arguments with "the Evil One" throughout the book. Are these actual conversations with a demonic being, or just representations of Joseph's inner psychological state? Whichever they are, this device is used brilliantly by Singer. "The Penitent" is a richly peopled, remarkable work of fiction.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Recommended 7 April 2000
By Kelley Hunt - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a very short novel about a holocaust survivor who later moves to America and becomes a successful businessman. Eventually he becomes disgusted with his immoral lifestyle. He decides to get away from immoral influences by moving to Israel. Once he is there, he finds that there are immoral people everywhere, even in the Holy Land. Throughout the book he struggles with a little voice that tells him not to worry about morals and to just have fun no matter what. When he finally does meet some moral people in Israel he decides to stay there and commit his life to being a good person. This is a book that most people can relate to. We struggle to be good and often blame our immoral actions on the bad influences of others. There is probably not one person in the world who is not in need of some improvement, so I recommend this book to everyone.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An interesting and thought provoking tale 9 Feb. 2010
By Israel Drazin - Published on
Format: Paperback
Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Penitent is a story of a dissatisfied and disillusioned and purposeless man, a holocaust survivor who is overwhelmed with the suffering in the world who wonders whether religion will answer his concerns. It can be read as an interesting and frequently humorous story of a single individual or as a parable of people seeking relief and salvation in religion. Singer is the noted writer who wrote his books in Yiddish and who won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Joseph Shapiro was appalled when he discovered on the same day that both his wife and mistress had lovers and decides that he needs to abandon his current hedonistic unreligious life. His first change is to become a vegetarian, for how can people justify butchering animals to satisfy their hunger. He thinks that he should observe all the detailed rabbinical laws of Judaism, but is stopped short when he realizes that he has no faith that God exists and that the laws were revealed by God.

By coincidence, as he wonders about, he chances upon a small synagogue of extremely observant Jews, feels at home with them, and decides to seek more Jews of the same ilk by traveling to Israel. During the trip, he meets a beautiful girl who is open to sex and Shapiro momentarily forgets his resolve.

However, he arrives in Jerusalem, Israel, and chances upon a rabbi from an extremely Orthodox Chassidic group who is totally divorced from what Shapiro thought were the joys of life. The rabbi invites him to his home for a meal. While there, Shapiro is enchanted by the rabbi's very chaste daughter. When Shapiro tells the rabbi of his various chance meetings, the rabbi criticizes him and insists that Jews do not believe in coincidences.

The novel raises many questions. Can people be religious if they lack faith? Is vegetarianism a form of religion? Is it in a sense a deeper religious consciousness than other observances? Why do so many people who convert or who are "penitent" or "born again" turn to an extreme version of their religion? Is it really necessary to abandon all the joys of life to be religious? Is it possible for people to maintain their extreme religious views while questioning why there is so much suffering in the world, why God allows so much pain and why there are so many tragic unnecessary and seemingly unjust deaths? Is the rabbi correct that coincidences do not exist, that God controls the world? Is it necessary to be religious to live a good life?

In his Author's Note, that follows the novel, Singer admits that he could not accept the religion that Shapiro encounters and he explains why. Readers of The Penitent will be stirred to address the questions we raised, think about their own lives and decide if they accept Singer's view of religion.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Master of Turning 21 Dec. 2008
By Carlos Van Etten - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have read The Penitent several times over through the years and find it a rich and symbolic story. Singer is one of my favorite authors because he combines a love of life and nature with the longing to move beyond this world in order to embrace God Himself. This story is particularly meaningful today as we face tremendous crises in the material world. The Penitent (original Yiddish title is " The Master of Turning") shows the way to turn from empty self-seeking to a life aligned with God's purposes. In this case, he finds a way to do this through obedience to the Law of Israel or Torah. He and his first wife are living a life of financial success and acedemic accomplishment. Their moral life together is a life of extreme poverty. The Penitent knows this and has known it all along. Finally, in a break with the past he makes an end to his New York life. He yearns for and leaves for Israel. He faces constant temptation of the flesh and of the spirit, but makes his way to the Beautiful Land and finds a worthy mate as well. Piety and devotion, prayer and study replace greed and self-will which he formerly has found to be profoundly toxic for him. The penitent is ultimately nostalgic for the life of holiness to be found in Hasidic Judism. He is described by the narrator as a man with a shining and intelligent presence.
Joseph Shapiro Renounces Worldliness. 29 Sept. 2009
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In 1969 I.B. Singer goes to the Wailing Wall for the first time and meets a man wearing ritual garments named Joseph Shapiro. Shapiro survived WWII in Poland and Russia, moved to the US and became a successful business man in New York. Over the next couple of days he tells Singer how he came to renounce his old life, move to Israel, and become an observant Jew.

In NY Shapiro lived a life that disgusted him. He was a philanderer. Everything around him seemed venal. One night, he comes home after having an argument with his mistress and finds his wife with a professor of her's. At this point he decides to change his life. He walks out into the cold Winter night. He soon resolves to go to Israel and live as a Jew. It's a protest against the evils of the world.

As he goes to Israel and tries to make a new life he battles Satan, who he calls The Great Dialectician. Satan mocks him and his desire to change himself. Much of the book is his battle against The Glib One (another of his names for Satan) and his hopes for a righteous new life.

It's a compelling story and Singer tells it in his signature Modern Folk Tale style.
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