Reaches of Heaven
The Story of the Baal Shem Tov
By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981, 108 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 13, 2010
Imagine if the master writer, the Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer would tell us his understanding of the birth, upbringing, marriage, struggles, and children of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the modern Chassidic movement, and how he captured the attention and hearts of thousands of followers. Virtually nothing is really known about this man. Even his birth year of 1700 is conjecture. Yet there is a spirit that is true, a spirit that Singer captures.
Israel was left as an orphan at a very early age. The small community in which he lived felt obligated to support him and did so. He was assigned different houses for his daily food; one of which was the home of a rich man with a beautiful daughter of his age who was fond of him. There was also a son who was older than Israel. The community also felt obliged to educate Israel and the school soon discovered how brilliant he was. This is Singer's view, but other legends say that the school and the community thought he was not too bright, as people thought about Albert Einstein in his youth.
Israel married the girl and the older boy became one of his first followers. Israel's son did not turn out as Israel would have wanted and his daughter married a man from Germany who could not speak the Yiddish that Israel spoke correctly. Israel's followers were convinced that Israel was reading minds and performing miracles, but this perplexed Israel who knew he could not do it.