Written in Yiddish, Polish-American author and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s historical novel The Magician of Lublin
(1960) tells the story of a Jewish traveling magician in the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland at the turn of the 20th century. In 1979, the book was adapted into a movie directed by Menahem Golan, starring Alan Arkin. In a 2010 review
commemorating the book's fiftieth anniversary, The New Republic
's Adam Kirsch calls the book's reissue "very welcome, because the novel is one of the clearest examples of the ways this modern urban intellectual writer makes use of the materials of the Jewish past."
The story is set in the late 19th century when Poland was under the rule of the Russian Empire. Yasha Mazur, a magician from the Polish city of Lublin, travels the country performing for audiences. Although he is Jewish, Yasha is not terribly devout: "Yasha spent his Sabbath talking and smoking cigarettes among musicians. To the earnest moralists who attempted to get him to mend his ways, he would always answer: 'When were you in heaven, and what did God look like?'"
His wife, Esther, on the other hand, is very pious: She "wore the customary kerchief and kept a kosher kitchen; she observed the Sabbath and all the laws." Because Esther is unable to have children, Yasha never develops the kind of stake in his community that most fathers do. Thus, Yasha behaves in a state of arrested maturity, often acting like an overgrown man-child who only visits with Esther a few days at a time between magic tours. Meanwhile, he carries on an affair with his assistant, Madga, a Gentile with a Bohemian lifestyle and attitude. Their affair is so intimate that Magda is more like Yasha's common-law wife than his mistress. Even Magda's mother treats Yasha like a son-in-law. While on tour, Yasha also carries on romantic dalliances with Zeftel, a young Jewish woman from the town of Piaski; and Emilia, a middle-class Catholic widow from Warsaw, the capital of Poland and its largest city.
On the way to Warsaw for a big performance, Yasha stops in Piaski to visit Zeftel. Once in Warsaw, he drops in on Emilia and her daughter, Halina. Unlike his other wives and lovers, Emilia refuses to sleep with Yasha unless they are wed. He proposes to marry Emilia, vowing to move to Italy with her, convert to Catholicism, and divorce Esther. While Emilia agrees in theory to his proposal, neither has the money needed to overhaul their lives like that.
Zeftel arrives unexpectedly where Yasha is staying in Warsaw. She tells him she has just moved to Warsaw with her companion, Herman, whom Yasha suspects is Zeftel's pimp. Worried about both her safety and her fidelity to him, Yasha accompanies Zeftel to Herman's home. Rather than try to protect her from Herman, he spends the whole night drinking and carousing with the pimp. While walking home after a long night of drinking, Yasha decides to use the lock-picking skills he developed as a magician to rob Emilia's wealthy neighbor, Zaruski, to have enough money to run away to Italy with Emilia. Although he breaks into the house without rousing Zaruski from his slumber, Yasha's lock-picking skills are not up to the task of cracking the man's safe. Finally giving up on the safe, he flees, jumping off the balcony. However, he miscalculates the length of the fall and twists his ankle, attracting the attention of a nearby police officer. Although the police officer sees him, Yasha evades capture. He spends the rest of the night hiding in a synagogue before joining the worshippers for morning prayers.
Later that day, he visits Emilia who tells him about the attempted robbery at Zaruski's house. When Yasha confesses to being the would-be thief, Emilia angrily breaks off their relationship. Tormented by Yasha's perpetual philandering, Magda commits suicide. Finally, Yasha learns that Zeftel and Herman have become lovers.
Three years later, Yasha has returned to Esther's side in Lublin and given up his livelihood as a traveling magician. Instead, he has become a penitent, having embraced his Jewish faith and the possibility of forgiveness that comes with it. Against the adamant wishes of both Esther and his rabbi, Yasha bricks himself into a small room with only a tiny window through which to receive food. This makes him more famous than he had ever been as a magician, attracting numerous visitors on a daily basis. At the end of the novel, Yasha receives a letter from Emilia who had read about his newfound status as a famous holy man. While she initially felt tremendous anxiety when Yasha disappeared three years ago, Emilia says that she eventually remarried. Finally, she asks Yasha to forgive her for being so hard on him when she discovered he was behind the attempted robbery of Zaruski.The Magician of Lublin
paints an extraordinary picture of Warsaw at the turn of the century while examining issues related to Jewish faith and identity.