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Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only writer in Yiddish ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, was among the most popular and widely read authors of the twentieth century. Singer’s extensive body of work expresses his preoccupation with the destruction of the lost Orthodox Jewish world of Eastern Europe. The tension in Singer’s fiction is generated by the conflict between faith and rationalism. His typical protagonist is a man like himself who abandons the regimen of strict, devout Orthodox Jewish observance in which he was raised and embraces the secular, modern world but is unable to find contentment there.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life and Education
The son and grandson of rabbis on both sides of his family, Singer was born Icek-Hersz Zynger, the second son of strictly observant Orthodox Jewish parents, on July 14, 1904, in the village of Leoncin, a provincial town northeast of Warsaw in Poland, where his father, Pinkhos-Menakhem Zynger, was the resident rabbi. Singer’s father was a learned and devout follower of Hasidism, a movement that developed among East European Jews in the eighteenth century. Singer’s father’s strong emotional bent was sharply counterbalanced by the uncompromising rationalism of his wife, the practical and studious Basheve. She and her family were misnagdim, unbending opponents of Hasidism and its ecstatic, mystical, and hierarchical traditions. Both were apparently gifted storytellers, but their opposed conceptions of how the physical world operated, aggravated by the family’s bitter poverty, led to conflicts.
When Isaac was four years old, the family had moved to Warsaw, where his father established his rabbinical court. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Singer’s mother sought safety for Isaac and his younger brother Moshe (both his mother and Moshe would later perish in a Soviet work camp during World War II) by returning to her birthplace, the Polish village of Bilgoray, where her father ruled his strictly observant community uncompromisingly—barring all manifestations of modernity. Bilgoray was a town with a long-established scholarly reputation, and there Singer acquired an intimate knowledge of the minutest observances of Jewish Orthodoxy, of ancient Jewish folk customs and superstitions, and of a rich range of Yiddish—his native language and the language he would write in—idioms. Yiddish is the thousand-year-old form of German developed by Jews, using the Hebrew alphabet and incorporating ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words. Its vocabulary expanded by adapting words from European languages with which Jews had contact, including Russian and English. During the Middle Ages, it became the language for daily speech among Jews, especially in Eastern Europe.
Like all Orthodox Jewish boys of his time, Singer received his early education in traditional religious schools. His older brother (by eleven years), Israel Joshua—who also became a highly respected writer and intellectual— had a profound impact on Isaac’s education, supplying him with secular books and Yiddish translations of popular literature. Israel Joshua’s devotion to rationalism would essentially divorce him from all religious beliefs, and he would later challenge Isaac to take the same steps, though Isaac would never fully disavow religion.
Since his parents expected him to enter the rabbinate, at the age of seventeen, Singer enrolled in the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw. However, he remained a student for only one year, between 1921 and 1922. Following his unhappy stint in seminary, Singer taught Hebrew for a short while before deciding he would try to devote himself fully to writing.
Israel Joshua had established a growing reputation as a journalist, and in the summer of 1923, he introduced his brother to the Warsaw Yiddish Writers’ Club, where Isaac would find an artistic home but feel permanently ill-at-ease with the favor, which would contribute to a guilty, yet intense, sibling rivalry he maintained with Israel Joshua. Like his brother, Singer worked as a proofreader for the distinguished Warsaw Yiddish journal Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages) between 1923 and 1933, and supplemented his meager income by translating several mainstream European novels into Yiddish, including Di vogler (The Wanderers)and Viktoria, by Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer whose novel Hunger had sustained Singer in the dark days of his rabbinical studies. Hamsun’s novel dealt with a desperate, nameless hero estranged from Christiania (Oslo) society; the hero, nevertheless, is deeply, if invisibly, rooted in the life and culture of Norway. This theme of simultaneous separation and connectedness would echo through Singer’s own body of work.
Identity and Early Successes
Singer began work on his own writing in Yiddish, which appeared in Warsaw to some acclaim. In 1925, his first published work of fiction, a short story titled ”Oyf der elter” (”In Old Age”), won a high-status prize offered by Literarishe bleter. This debut story was also the first to be signed Yitskhok Bashevis, the pseudonym by which Singer elected to be known to his Yiddish readers. This name had several intentions; he was dissociating himself from the family name under which his brother had become famous and admired, partly in an attempt to cut himself free from the debts owed to Isaac Joshua’s influence and generosity. Moreover, the name he chose publicly declared his intellectual kinship with his rationalistic mother. In Yiddish usage, the name Bashevis is the possessive form of the name Basheve, so Singer became, ”the one belonging to Basheve.” He used this name exclusively for his fiction in Yiddish.
The various ways he chose to sign different genres of his writing remained a matter of great importance to him throughout his creative life. To distance himself further from his brother, he became a regular visitor in the home of Hillel Tseytlin, the conservative leader of Warsaw’s intellectual religious community, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his son, Arn, with whom he would found the Yiddish literary journal Globus. Singer would serialize his first novel, Satan in Goray, in Globus. The connection with Tseyltin put distance between him and his brother, who was antireligious at this point. Between 1926 and 1935, Singer lived with, but never married, Rohkyl Shapira, by whom he had one son, Israel Zamir, born in 1929.
Immigration and the Progress of Translation
The complications of Singer’s personal life had merged with the deepening crisis in world affairs. His father had died in 1929; the mother of his son was a fervent Communist, an ideology Singer detested; Hitler’s rise to power in Germany had led to an intensification of Jew hatred in Poland. Israel Joshua had immigrated to the United States in 1934. There his reputation and ability had established him as a senior member of the staff of the leading Yiddish daily, Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward). With Israel Joshua’s help, Isaac Bashevis immigrated, alone, to the United States in 1935 and settled in New York. His son and Shapira settled in then-Palestine. In 1940, Singer married Alma Wassermann, a German Jewish immigrant, and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1943. His beloved brother Israel Joseph passed away in 1944, and shortly thereafter, Singer became a columnist at Forverts. He would remain loyal to the newspaper for the rest of his life; in it he published the greatest part of all his work in Yiddish.
Singer called Yiddish ”my mother language and the language of the people I wanted to write about,” but soon after his arrival in America, he realized that he would have a limited future if his work were only published in a language with a steadily diminishing readership. Determined to follow the example of Sholem Asch, the first Yiddish writer to gain international recognition and a mass readership in English translation, he began to translate his work, consciously addressing two differing sets of readerships. It was these translations that catapulted his celebrity, though massive amounts of it remain untranslated to this day.
After his immigration, Singer wrote fervently about the horrors of the Holocaust and the issues concerning the fate of Yiddish. He condemned all attempts in Yiddish to create modern literature, arguing instead for a return to the ”hidden treasures” of the age-old Jewish folk culture. He argued that, since in America the Yiddish language had become obsolete, it could no longer realistically depict contemporary American life, but should instead renounce the present in favor of the past by recording and preserving the destroyed world of Eastern Europe. He began work on his long saga novel, The Family Moskat, which aimed to depict, through the fortunes of one family, the decline and fall of twentieth-century Polish Jewry. He dedicated the English translation to Israel Joshua.
Short Stories and Serializations
During the 1950s, and until the end of his life, Singer found his short stories in great demand; they appeared prominently in such high-profile magazines as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Esquire. In 1966, Singer produced Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, the first of his many books for children and based it, in part, upon old Jewish folktales. Wittily illustrated by Maurice Sendak, this book was well received and won Singer his first Newberry Honor Book Award.
Singer would eventually publish, in English, ten collections of short stories. His novels typically began their life in Yiddish, in Forverts, where they would take on a unique structure—smaller, plot-driven scenes that would play well in serializations. These short stories and novels would be a forum for Singer to work on, and work out, his demons. Directly exposed for the first thirty years of his own life to those twentieth-century intellectual, political, and social upheavals that radically undermined traditional Jewish identity, Singer set out to weigh what the Jewish people had gained against what they had lost by surrendering the traditional observances of their faith. By shifting the settings of his fictions over a period of nearly four centuries, Singer forced his readers to recognize the value of what had been lost, but also compelled them to question whether its recovery was either possible or desirable.
In 1978, Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and accepted it, seemingly, on behalf of Yiddish itself. This appalled the majority of native speakers of Yiddish, among them his fellow Yiddish writers and poets. They objected to the fact that Singer had become known exclusively through English translation and had, therefore, done nothing to promote Yiddish itself. They argued that his subject matter—particularly his use of demons and sexuality—was unwholesome and designed to cater to predominantly non-Jewish mass tastes and that Singer had no respect for the Yiddish literary tradition, which he denigrated, together with its leading practitioners, at every opportunity. Singer changed little about the way he wrote following the criticism.
In 1989, the American Academy of Arts presented Singer with its highest honor, a Gold Medal, and a year later, he was elected as a member of the academy, the first American author who did not write exclusively in English to be so honored. Director Paul Mazursky’s 1989 movie adaptation of Enemies, A Love Story became the first of Singer’s works adapted for the big screen to please the critics: the movie received two Academy Award nominations. By the turn of the decade, Singer was seriously ill with Alzheimer’s disease, and it is unlikely that he played any active role in the translation and publication of Scum, the last of his novels published in his lifetime, which appeared in 1991. As he had aged, Singer spent more and more time with the Jewish community in Miami. He eventually moved there and died following a series of strokes in 1991.
Works in Literary Context
Singer remains among the most influential Jewish writers of the twentieth century. His enormous popularity enabled him to bring to vivid life, and to international attention, the destroyed world of the shtetl. His novels and stories made non-Jewish readers aware of the spiritual depths of the Jewish faith, and of the irreplaceable loss of the Jews of Eastern Europe. For Jewish readers, his primary importance lies in his confrontation with the need to seek a meaningful identity in a secular world far removed from traditional Orthodox observance. For the literary world at large, not least among Singer’s achievements, has been his influence in calling to general attention the valuable body of modern Yiddish literature from which he himself drew so deeply, and to which he contributed so significantly. The writers whom he has most influenced have taken their cues from his longing for the shtetl and his poignant separation
from it. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002), pays a tremendous debt to Singer, as does the work of Cynthia Ozick—another writer with ties to the Yiddish language and an unfailing belief in the art form as the most sensible forum for moral discussion.
Works in Critical Context
By the turn of the millennium, some critical consensus about Singer’s work had emerged. Widely accepted as self-evident is Alfred Kazin’s 1962 contention that ”Singer’s work does stem from the Jewish village, the Jewish seminary, the compact (not closed) Jewish society of Eastern Europe. . . . For Singer, it is not only his materials that are ‘Jewish’; the world is so. Yet, within this world he has found emancipation and universality—through his faith in imagination.” Earlier critical disputes about whether Singer was a modernist or an existentialist have largely been laid to rest. Singer is clearly not modernist in his techniques, and his putative ”existentialism” is now viewed as deeply personal misery about the human condition. In a 1992 article for Judaism, Dan Miron succinctly summed up Singer’s worldview: ”He approached the act of literary creation with a base-experience of underlying awareness that falls under the sign of fatalism and nihilism.”
Gimpel the Fool
The work that brought Singer to the forefront of American literary critical attention was ”Gimpel the Fool,” sensitively translated by Saul Bellow and published in Partisan Review in May 1953. This short story was the piece by which Singer became best known, and in December 1955 it was hailed by the Saturday Review as ”a classic of Yiddish literature.” Its central character, the seemingly naive water carrier, Gimpel, is among the most vividly drawn of a long line of saintly innocents who appear throughout Yiddish literature. Through his subtly nuanced re-creation of the archetypal Jewish folk figure of the schlemiel, or bumbling, unworldly incompetent, Singer poses profound questions about the nature of truth and lies, through which he points to the difference between this world and the world to come. One critic for The New York Times Book Review declared that, with this volume, Singer takes his place with the epic storytellers, transcending geographical and chronological boundaries.”
1978, the year Singer won the Nobel Prize, also saw the English translation of Shosha. Set in the years immediately preceding Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Shosha marks the debut of Aaron Greidinger, Singer’s fictional alter ego. This writer and unapologetic lover of women decides to marry his childhood sweetheart, the titular Shosha, a mentally retarded woman. The scenes of their youth in Warsaw set a tender tone, one that is torn away in the latter part of the book, as the Holocaust approaches.
Shosha suggests that the impotent thoughts and doings that preoccupy the characters of prewar Warsaw is the spiritual dead end into which worldly secularization has led, a familiar Singer theme. The fatalism with which these Jews await extirpation at Nazi hands is presented as a collective death wish, as much as a passive acceptance of political events outside their personal control. Like Singer, the narrator of Shosha was able to escape Warsaw, but his luck, by comparison with the millions who were unable to flee, obviously remained deeply rooted in his psyche. Hence, Aaron Greidinger attempts to memorize every one of Warsaw’s sights and sounds in the hope that by recording them in writing, he will miraculously be able to bring the destroyed world of Jewish Warsaw back to life.
Shosha met with an openly hostile reception from Leon Wieseltier in the New York Review of Books, who dismissed it as a stunted novel about stunted lives.” Alan Lelchuk, however, writing in the New York Times Book Review, pointed out Singer’s unwillingness to confront a true dramatic dilemma, but praised the work as a whole for its entertainment value. ”The author permits [Greidinger] to exit quietly from Poland and eventually take up life anew in America, while an external madness (Nazism) has obliterated the other characters … [But] The way out for Singer is the dream, the fantasy, the mythic, not the real . . . Singer’s aim is to entertain, and by this standard he fully succeeds in Shosha.”
- Allentuck, Marcia. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
- Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Irving, Malin. Isaac Bashevis Singer. NewYork: Unger, 1972.
- Sanders, Ronald. The Americanization of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UniversityPress, 1989.
- Siegel, Ben. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
- Tuszyfiska, Agata. Lost Landscapes: in Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland. New York: Morrow, 1998.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate for His Yiddish Stories, Is Dead at 87” New York Times (July 26, 1991).
- Lelchuk, Alan. ”Sex, Torah, Revolution” New York Times (July 23, 1978).
- Gussow, Mel. ”Theater: Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song”’ New York Times (November 1, 1981).
- Pinsker, Sanford. ”Cynthia Ozick, Aesthete.” Partisan Review 2 (2002): vol. 69. New York Review of Books (December 7, 1978).
- IBDB: The Official Source for Broadway Information. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from http://www. ibdb.com/show.php?id=1596.
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