The Washwoman

Washwoman by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Little Gems of Literature: Holiday reading for Grade 8,9,10 & 11 with bunpeiris in April, August & December at Kandana  0777 1000 60

The Washwoman

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Read this narrative essay or a real-life story so that you would know how to live a full life: a life of honesty and hardwork to the very death. Having read this, set upon the questions that raises your critical thinking and helps you in learning literary analysis. Courage to youbunpeiris

Washwoman by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Our home had little contact with Gentiles [any persons not Jewish]. The only Gentile in the house was the janitor. Fridays he would come for a tip, his “Friday money.” He remained standing at the door, took off his hat, and my mother gave him six groschen [Austrian cent or penny].

Besides the janitor there were also the Gentile washwomen who came to the house to fetch our laundry. My story is about one of these.

She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly, weak, broken in body. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would lift the unwieldy pack, load it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it the long way home. She also lived on Krochmalna Street, but at the other end, near Wola. It must have been a walk of an hour and a half.

She would bring the laundry back about two weeks later. My mother had never been so pleased with any other washwoman. Every piece of linen sparkled like polished silver. Every piece was ironed. Yet she charged no more than the others. She was a real find. Mother always had her money ready, because it was too far for the old woman to come a second time.


Laundering was not easy in those days. The old woman had no faucet where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. For the linens to come out so clean, they had to be scrubbed thoroughly in a washtub, rinsed with washing soda, soaked, boiled in an enormous pot, starched, ironed. Every piece was handled ten times or more. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry. The wrung‑out wash had to be carried up to the attic and hung on clotheslines. In the winter it would become as brittle as glass and almost break when touched. Then there was always a to‑do with other housewives and washwomen who wanted the attic for their own use. Only God knew all she had to endure each time she did a wash!

The old woman could have begged at the church door or entered a home for the indigent aged. But there was in her a certain pride and a love of labor with which the Gentiles have been blessed. The old woman did not want to become a burden, and thus she bore her burden.

My mother spoke a little Polish, and the old woman would talk with her about many things. She was especially fond of me and used to say that I looked like Jesus. She repeated this every time she ,came, and Mother would frown and whisper to herself, her lips barely moving, “May her words be scattered in the wilderness.”

The woman had a son who was rich. I no longer remember what sort of business he had. He was ashamed of his mother, the washwoman, and never came to see her. Nor did he ever give her a groschen The old woman told this without rancor. One day the son was married. It seemed that he had made a good match. The wedding took place in a church. The son had not invited the old mother to his wedding, but she went to the church and waited at the steps to see her son lead the “young lady” to the altar. I do not want to seem a chauvinist, but I believe that no Jewish son would have acted in this manner. But I have no doubt that, had he done this, the mother would have shrieked and wailed and sent the sexton to call him to account. In short, Jews are Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles.

The story of the faithless son left a deep impression upon my mother. She talked about it for weeks and months. It was an affront not only to the old woman but to the entire institution of motherhood. Mother would argue. “Nu, does it pay to make sacrifices for children? The mother uses up her last strength, and he does not even know the meaning of loyalty.”

And she would drop dark hints to the effect that she was not certain of her own children: Who knows what they would someday do? This, however, did not prevent her from dedicating her life to us. If there was any delicacy in the house, she would put it aside for the children and invent all sorts of excuses and reasons why she herself did not want to taste it. She knew charms that went back to ancient times, and she used expressions she had inherited from generations of devoted mothers and grandmothers. If one of. the children complained of a pain, she would say, “May I be your ransom and may you outlive my bones!” Or she would say, “May I be the atonement for the least of your fingernails.” When we ate she used to say “Health and marrow in your bones!” The day before the new moon she gave us a kind of candy that was said to prevent parasitic worms. If one of us had something in his eye, Mother would lick the eye clean with her tongue. She also fed us rock candy against coughs, and from time to time she would take us to be blessed against the evil eye. This did not prevent her from studying The Duties of the Heart, The Book of the Covenant, and other serious philosophic works.

But to return to the washwoman: that winter was a harsh one. The streets were in the grip of a bitter cold. No matter how much we heated our stove, the windows were covered with frostwork and decorated with icicles. The newspapers reported that people were dying of the cold. Coal became dear. The winter had become so severe that parents stopped sending children to the heder, and even the Polish schools were closed.

On one such day the washwoman, now nearly eighty years old, came to our house. A good deal of laundry had accumulated during the past weeks. Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingers were gnarled from work, and perhaps from arthritis too. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power. Mother counted and wrote down the list: men’s undershirts, women’s vests, long‑legged drawers, bloomers, petticoats, shifts, featherbed covers, pillowcases, sheets, and the men’s fringed garments. Yes, the Gentile woman washed these holy garments as well.

The bundle was big, bigger than usual. When the woman placed it on her shoulders, it covered her completely. At first she swayed, as though she were about to fall under the load. But an inner obstinacy seemed to call out: No, you may not fall. A donkey may permit himself to fall under his burden, but not a human being, the crown of creation.

It was fearful to watch the old woman staggering out with the enormous pack, out into the frost, where the snow was dry as salt and the air was filled with dusty white whirlwinds, like goblins­ dancing in the cold. Would the old woman ever reach Wola?

She disappeared, and Mother sighed and prayed. for her.

Usually the woman brought back the wash after two or, at the most, three weeks. But three weeks passed, then four and five, and nothing was heard of the old woman. We remained without linens. The cold had become even more intense. The telephone wires were now as thick as hawsers. The branches of the trees looked like glass. So much snow had fallen that the streets had become uneven, and on many streets sleds were able to glide down as on the slopes of a hill. Kindhearted people lit fires in the streets for vagrants to warm themselves and roast potatoes over, if they had any to roast.

For us the washwoman’s absence was a catastrophe. We needed the laundry. We did not even know the woman’s house address. It seemed certain that she had collapsed, died. Mother declared that she had had a premonition, as the old woman left our house the last time, that we would never see our things again. She found some torn old shirts and washed them, mended them. We mourned, both for the laundry and for the old, toilworn woman who had grown close to us through the years she had served us so faithfully.

More than two months passed. The frost had subsided, and then a new frost had come, a new wave of cold. One evening, while Mother was sitting near the kerosene lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a gigantic .’bundle, entered. Under the bundle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. A few wisps of white hair straggled out from beneath her shawl. Mother uttered a half‑choked cry. It was as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her pack. She was even thinner now, more bent. Her face had become more gaunt, and her head shook from side to side as though she were saying no. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.

After the old woman had recovered somewhat, she told us that she had been ill, very ill. Just what her illness was, I cannot remember. She had been so sick that someone had called a doctor, and the doctor had sent for a priest. Someone had informed the son, and he had contributed money for a coffin and for the funeral. But the Almighty had not yet wanted to take this pain‑racked soul to Himself She began to feel better, she became well, and as soon as she was able to stand on her feet once more she resumed her washing. Not just ours, but the wash of several other families too.

“I could not rest easy in my bed because of the wash,” the old woman explained. “The wash would not let me die.”

“With the help of God you will live to be a hundred and twenty,” said my mother, as a benediction.

“God forbid! What good would such a long life be? The work becomes harder and harder‑my strength is leaving men do not want to be a burden on anyone!”

The old woman muttered and crossed herself, and raised her eyes toward heaven. Fortunately there was some money in the house and Mother counted out what she owed. I  had a strange feeling: the coins in the old woman’s washed‑out hands seemed to become as weary and clean and pious as she herself was. She blew on the coins and tied them in a kerchief. Then she left, promising to return in a few weeks for a new load of wash.

But she never came back. The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by an indomitable will to return the property to its rightful owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.

And now at last the body, which had long been no more than a broken shard supported only by the force of honesty and duty, had fallen. The soul passed into those spheres where all holy souls meet, regardless of the roles they played on this earth, in whatever tongue, of whatever creed. I cannot imagine Eden without this washwoman. I cannot even conceive of a world where there is no recompense for such effort.

he washwoman by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Critical thinking

[a] Respond: Why do you think the washwoman gives so much & asks so little in return?
[b] Draw Conclusions: What does the wash-woman’s eventual return tell you about her
[c] Can truth change: How do you describe the character of the wash-woman at teh
begining of the story and then at the end?
How do her relationships grow?

Literary Analysis: Narrative Essay

1.[a] In this narrative essay, what difficulties does the washwoman face?
    [b] How does she respond to those challenges?
    [c] What inspirational lesson does the author take away from the story?

2. [a] Use the chart like the one shown to record three significant details that Singer uses
          to describe the washwoman and her son.
    [b] What impression of each character does each detail create?

 The Washwoman   The Washwoman’s Son


The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Isaac Bashevis Singer [1902-1991], the famous Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize winner [1978] wrote with a ‘harem’ of dozens of translators behind him. Beyond simple translation, these women were a vital source of his creativity. The inspiration he drew from them came in many forms, often mixing romance with professional aspirations. Today nine remain to tell his story. Intimate, poignant interviews and exclusive archival footage combine to portray the unknown story of an author who charmed and enchanted his audiences, just like he charmed and enchanted his translators. A film about both the very art of translation and one of the great figures of twentieth century literature.

Background for the essay
Jews in Poland
“The Washwoman” takes place in the early twentieth century in what is now Poland. Centuries earlier, many Jewish people had settled there, drawn by the promise of religious tolerance. By Singer’s time, Poland had been conquered by other countries. Yet, Poland’s Jews held on to their traditions, continuing to speak.Yiddish, a language blending German with Herbrew and other languages.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Storytelling always had an important place in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s life. He grew up in the city of  Warsaw in what now is Polond. Singer’s father was a rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish faith and laws. Advice-seekers streamed through the family home, telling their stories as the fascinated young Singer listened and observed.
“Life iself is a Story” Fleeing persecution against Jews, Singer left Poland for New York City in 1935. In New York, Singer began to make a name for himself as a writer. He set many of his tales in the world of Eurpean Jewry he had left, ironically, as he wrote, World War 11 devastated that world. Villages like the one of his birth were wiped off the face of the earth even as Singer brought them to life on the page.
Little Gems of Literature: Holiday reading for Grade 8,9,10 & 11 with bunpeiris in April, August & December at Kandana.  0777 1000 60
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