Singer, Isaac Bashevis (14 July 1904 – 24 July 1991)
Isaac Bashevis Singer (14 July 1904 – 24 July 1991)
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
This entry was expanded by Sherman from his Singer entry in DLB 278: American Novelists Since World War II, Seventh Series.See also the Singer entries in DLB 6: American Novelists Since World War II, Second Series; DLB 28: Twentieth-Century American-fewish Fiction Writers;and DLB 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction.
Satan in Goray, translated by Jacob Sloan (New York: Noonday, 1955; London: Owen, 1958);
Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, translated by Saul Bellow and others (New York: Noonday, 1957; London: Owen, 1958);
The Magician of Lublin, translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer (New York: Noonday, 1960; London: Seeker & Warburg, 1961);
The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories, translated by Martha Glicklich, Cecil Hemley, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961; London: Seeker & Warburg, 1962);
The Slave, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hemley (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1962; London: Seeker & Warburg, 1963);
Short Friday, and Other Stories, translated by Joseph Singer, Roger H. Klein, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964; London: Seeker & Warburg, 1967);
In My Father’s Court, translated by Channah Kleinerman-Goldstein, Gottlieb, and Joseph Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966; London: Seeker & Warburg, 1967);
Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, translated by Elizabeth Shub and Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Harper & Row, 1966; Harmondsworth, U.K.: Longman/Young, 1970);
Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Howe (New York: Modern Library, 1966);
Mazel and Shlimazel; or, The Milk of a Lioness, translated by Shub and Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967; London: Cape, 1979);
The Manor, translated by Joseph Singer and Gottlieb (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967; London: Secker & Warburg, 1968);
The Fearsome Inn, translated by Shub and Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Scribners, 1967; London: Collins, 1970);
When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968; Harmondsworth, U.K.: Longman/Young, 1974);
The Seance and Other Stories, translated by Klein, Hemley, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968; London: Cape, 1970);
A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, translated by Kleinerman-Goldstein and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969; London: MacRae, 1980);
The Estate, translated by Joseph Singer, Gottlieb, and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969; London: Cape, 1970);
Joseph and Koza; or, The Sacrfice to the Vistula, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970; London: Hamilton, 1984);
Elijah the Slave: A Hebrew Legend Retold, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970);
A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shub, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970; London: Cape, 1972);
An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971);
Alone in the Wild Forest, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971);
The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York & London: Harper & Row, 1971);
Enemies, A Love Story, translated by Aliza Shevrin and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972; London: Cape, 1972);
The Wicked City, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972);
A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Laurie Colwin, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973; London: Cape, 1974);
The Hasidim, by Singer and Ira Moskowitz (New York: Crown, 1973);
The Fools of Chelm and Their History, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973);
Why Noah Chose the Dove, translated by Shub (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974);
Passions and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Blanche Nevel, Joseph Nevel, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975; London: Cape, 1976);
A Tale of Three Wishes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975);
A Little Boy in Search of God; or, Mysticism in a Personal Light, translated by Joseph Singer (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976);
Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus, and Other Stories, translated by Joseph Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977);
Yentl: A Play, by Singer and Leah Napolin (New York: S. French, 1977);
A Young Man in Search of Love, translated by Joseph Singer (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978);
Shosha, translated by Joseph Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978; London: Cape, 1979);
Old Love, translated by Joseph Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979; London: Cape, 1980);
Nobel Lecture (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979; London: Cape, 1979);
Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980);
The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980);
Lost in America, translated by Joseph Singer (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1981);
The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982; London: Cape, 1982);
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Three Complete Novels, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hemley (New York: Avenel Books, 1982)–comprises The Slave; Enemies, A Love Story; and Shosha;
The Golem (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982; London: Deutsch, 1983);
Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, translated by Marion Magid and Elizabeth Pollet (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983);
The Penitent, translated by Joseph Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983; London: Cape, 1984);
Love and Exile (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984; London: Cape, 1985)–comprises A Little Boy in Search of God; or, Mysticism in a Personal Light; A Young Man in Search of Love; and Lost in America;
Stories for Children (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984);
Teibele and Her Demon, by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman (New York: S. French, 1984);
The Image and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pollet, and others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985; London: Cape, 1986);
Gifts (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985);
The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Lester Goran, and others (Franklin Center, Pa.: Franklin Library, 1988; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988; London: Cape, 1988);
The King of Fields, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988; London: Cape, 1988);
Scum, translated by Rosaline Dukalsky Schwartz (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991; London: Cape, 1991);
My Love Affair with Miami Beach, text by Isaac Bashevis Singer, photographs by Richard Nagler (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991);
The Certificate, translated by Leonard Wolf (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992; London: Cape, 1993);
Meshugah, translated by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nili Wachtel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994; London: Cape, 1995);
Shrewd Todie and Lyzer the Miser & Other Children’s stories (Boston: Barefoot Books, 1994);
Shadows on the Hudson, translated by Joseph Sherman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998; London: Cape, 1999);
More Stories from My Father’s Court, translated by Curt Leviant (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).
BOOKS IN YIDDISH: Der sotn in goray (Warsaw: Yiddish PEN-Klub, 1935; New York: Matones, 1943);
Di familye Mushkat, 2 volumes (New York: Sklarsky, 1950);
Mayn tain’s bes-din shtub (New York: Der Kval, 1956; Tel Aviv: Y. L. Perets, 1979);
Gimpel tam un andere dertseylungen (New York: Tsiko, 1963);
Der knekht (New York: Tsiko, 1967; Tel Aviv: Y. L. Perets, 1980);
Der kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (Tel Aviv: Hamenorah, 1971);
Mayses fun hintern oyvn (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Perets, 1971);
Der bal-tshuve (Tel Aviv: Y. L. Perets, 1974);
Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975);
Mayn tatn’s bes-din shtub [hemsheykhim-zamlung] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996).
OTHER: “I See the Child as a Last Refuge,” New York Times Book Review, 9 November 1969, VII: 1,66;
“Hasidism and Its Origins,”in Tully Filmus: Selected Drawings (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1971), pp. xi-xx;
“I. B. Singer Talks to I. B. Singer About the Movie‘Yentl’,”New York Times, 29 January 1984.
TRANSLATIONS: Knut Hamsun, Pan; fun leytenant Tomas Glans ksovim (Vilna: Kletskin, 1928);
Hamsun, Di vogler (Vilna: Kletskin, 1928);
Gabriele D’Annunzio, Ln opgrunt fun tayve (Warsaw: Goldfarb, 1929);
Karin Michaëlis, Mete Trap: di moderne froy (Warsaw: Goldfarb, 1929);
Stefan Zweig, Roman Rolan (Warsaw: Bikher, 1929);
Hamsun, Viktorya (Vilna: Kletskin, 1929);
Erich Maria Remarque, Oyfn mayrev-front keyn nayes (Vilna: Kletskin, 1930);
Thomas Mann, Der tsoyberbarg, 4 volumes (Vilna: Kletskin, 1930);
Remarque, Der veg oyf tsurik (Vilna: Kletskin, 1931);
Moshe Smilansky, Araber: folkstimlehe geshikhtn (Warsaw: Yidishe bibliotek farn folk, 1932).
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. By the time of his death at the age of eighty-seven, Singer had received a lion’s share of the world’s foremost literary prizes, including two Louis Lamed Prizes (1950, 1956), the American Academy Grant (1959), the Epstein Fiction Award (1963), the Daroff Memorial Award (1963), the Foreign Book Prize (France, 1965), two National Endowment for the Arts grants (1966), the Bancarella Prize (Italy, 1967), two Newbery Honor Book Awards (1968, 1969), two National Book Awards (1970, 1974), the S. Y. Agnon Gold Medal (Israel, 1975), and the Nobel Prize in 1978. In addition, he had been awarded eighteen honorary doctorates and had been elected to both the American Academy and the American Institute of Arts and Letters, from which he had received the high honor of the Gold Medal.
Singer’s extensive body of work expresses his preoccupation with the destruction of the lost Orthodox Jewish world of Eastern Europe. For Singer, the faith that characterized this world was eroded for Jews by two forces: secular rationalism, coupled with the temptation to acculturate to Western norms, and the physical destruction of the Jews by the Nazis. The tension in Singer’s fiction is always generated by the conflict between the old ways and the new, between faith and rationalism, between the sacred and the profane. 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. The irreconcilable demands of the world of skeptical rationalism and the world of unquestioning faith generate the kind of anxiety and disillusionment that link Singer’s fiction, in content if not in form, with the thematic preoccupations of modernism, the challenge to human existence in the twentieth century.
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 14 July 1904 in the village of Leoncin, a provincial town northeast of Warsaw in Poland, where his father, Pinkhos-Menakhem Zynger, was the resident rabbi. When Isaac was four years old, his father moved the family to Warsaw in search of a better livelihood. There Pinkhos-Menakhem Zynger became a rabbinical judge on poverty-stricken Krochmalna Street, where his meager earnings were wholly dependent upon donations given by those whose affairs he arbitrated. Singer’s father was a learned and devout Hasid with a strong emotional bent that was sharply counterbalanced by the uncompromising rationalism of his wife. Singer’s mother, Basheve (born Zylberman), was herself the daughter and granddaughter of distinguished rabbis, but they were misnagdim, unbending opponents of Hasidism and its ecstatic, mystical, and hierarchical traditions. Moreover, while Pinkhos-Menakhem Zynger was deeply learned only in traditional Jewish holy lore, Basheve Zynger had from an early age immersed herself not only in sacred learning but also, through the Hebrew newspapers she read, in contemporary politics and literature. Isaac’s parents’ opposed conceptions of how the physical world operated, aggravated by the family’s bitter poverty, led to parental conflicts that made a lasting impression on the young Isaac and later found encoded expression in much of his fiction.
Singer was the third of his parents’ surviving four children. His two elder siblings were his sister, Hinde Esther, and his brother Israel Joshua, both of whom became respected Yiddish writers and who, in different ways, exercised enormous influence on him–his sister through her highly volatile temperament and radical mood changes, to which Isaac was exposed when he was only a boy; and his brother through the force of his personality and his subsequent professional success and prestige. The fourth and youngest child, a son named Moshe, became a rabbi and perished together with his mother in a Soviet work camp during World War II. Other influences of his childhood, which Singer felt throughout his life, came from his maternal grandfather, Yankev-Mordkhe Zylberman, and the rabbinical household he dominated. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, when his father went to the shtetl of Radzymin to work as an assistant to the Hasidic rebbe (leader) there, Isaac’s mother sought safety for her children by returning to her birthplace, the Polish village of Bilgoray, where her father ruled his strictly observant community with an iron discipline, uncompromisingly setting his face against all manifestations of modernity. In Bilgoray, a town with a long-established scholarly reputation, young Isaac 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 idioms. As Singer often acknowledged, all this learning formed the raw material from which he shaped his fiction. In a 1963 interview (republished in Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations, 1992), he remarked of Bilgoray:“Not much had changed there in many generations. In this town the traditions of hundreds of years ago still lived. There was no railroad nearby. It was stuck in the forest and it was pretty much the same as it must have been during the time of Chmielnicki. ... I could never have written Satan in Goray or some of my other stories without having been there.”
Like all Orthodox Jewish boys of his time, Singer received his early education in traditional religious schools, where he studied the Bible and the Talmud. The sheltered world of traditional Jewish learning was designed to insulate Jewish boys from the contaminations of the secular Gentile world, but it failed to do so for the adolescent Isaac in the aftermath of the upheavals wrought by World War I.
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 was unable to find his vocation there and remained a student for only one year, between 1921 and 1922. The contrast between his older brother’s secular materialism and his father’s spiritual unworldliness made a profound impression on the young Singer and provided the moral tension that informed most of his mature work. Having come early into contact with the great classics of Western literature in Yiddish translations, and lured by the artistic world of writers and journalists, Singer was nevertheless unable to gain entree into the world of Warsaw Yiddish letters and turned for help to his brother, who had returned from revolutionary Russia disillusioned but with an established and growing reputation as a journalist. In the summer of 1923 Israel Joshua Singer introduced his brother to the Warsaw Yiddish Writers’ Club situated at No. 13 Tlomackie Street, where Singer found a welcoming home and set about establishing a sense of direction for his life.
Like his brother, Singer was determined to be a writer, and he served a kind of literary apprenticeship by working as proofreader for the distinguished Warsaw Yiddish journal Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages) between 1923 and 1933. He augmented his paltry income by translating several mainstream European novels into Yiddish, mainly for the well-known Yiddish publisher Boris Kletskin. Among the distinguished works he rendered, working solely from German or Hebrew texts, between 1928 and 1932 were Pan, Under høststojrnen (The Wanderers) and Viktoria by Knut Hamsun; II fuoco (The Flame) by Gabriele D’Annunzio; Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) and Der Weg zurück (The Way Back) by Erich Maria Remarque; and Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann. The style, subject matter, and construction of these novels, all modern and innovative for their time, would certainly have provided useful lessons to a budding writer.
At the same time Singer began work on his own writing in Yiddish, which appeared in Warsaw to some acclaim in the journals Literarishe bleter and Undzer ekspres .In 1925 his first published work of fiction, a short story titled,“Oyfn 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. His choice of this name expressed his determination to establish an independent identity, and a distinct persona, as a Yiddish writer. At the same time it signaled several other 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 the influence and generosity of his brother, with whom he felt an intense sibling rivalry. 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, as a Yiddish writer, “the one belonging to Basheve.” He always used this name to sign his fiction in Yiddish. The various ways he chose to sign different genres of his writing remained a matter of great importance to him all his creative life. To distance himself further from his brother, with whom he would not even eat at the same table in the Warsaw Writers’ Club, 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 Tseytlin’s son Arn. This connection put distance between him and his brother, who was an antireligious radical.
In 1927 Bashevis Singer published an artistic manifesto in an essay titled,“Verter oder bilder?”(Words or Pictures?) in which he argued for vivid images and stark naturalism as essential for good fiction, demonstrating his theory in more than twenty stories and two more literary-critical essays in ten years. The most typical of these stories included “Shamay Vayts”(1929,“Shammai Veitz”),“Tsvishn vent”(1930,“Between Walls”) and “In letste teg”(1931,“In Final Days”).
Between 1926 and 1935 Singer lived with, but never married, Rokhl (Ronye) Shapira, by whom he had one son, Israel Zamir, born in 1929. Singer did not neglect his literary work, however, and with his lifelong friend Arn Tseytlin became the joint founder and editor of a new Warsaw Yiddish literary journal titled Globus, which appeared monthly between 1932 and 1935. In one of its earliest issues (September 1932), Bashevis Singer published an essay titled “Tsu der frage vegn dikhtung un politik”(Regarding the Question of Poetry and Politics), which condemned the use of literature for sociopolitical agitation. A year later, in “Di shraybers un di zidlers”(The Writers and the Cursers, Globus. September 1933), he further attributed the demoralization of Warsaw’s Yiddish writers to ideological tendentiousness. As a radical conservative, he was unconditionally hostile to leftist sociopolitical agendas and causes.
By this time, although Singer seemed well on the way to literary success–Warsaw’s eminent Yiddish PEN Club had published Der sotn in goray (1935; translated as Satan in Goray, 1953) first serialized in Globus, in book form–the complications of Singer’s personal life had merged with the deepening crisis in world affairs to make Warsaw a frighteningly uncongenial place to live. Singer’s family had irrevocably split up with the death of his father in 1929; the mother of his son was a fervent Communist, an ideology Singer detested; Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany had led to an intensification of Jew hatred in Poland; and Singer felt trapped in a dead end. Israel Joshua Singer had immigrated to the United States in 1934, where his reputation and ability had established him as a senior member of the staff of New York’s leading Yiddish daily, Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward).Singer turned once again to his brother for help, and through Israel Joshua Singer’s influence, Bashevis was also able to immigrate to the United States in 1935. His son and Shapira made a difficult journey through Russia and Turkey to settle in what was then Mandate Palestine, while Singer began carving out a literary livelihood for himself in New York, working first as a proofreader and then as a columnist at Forverts. Singer remained loyal to this newspaper for the rest of his life, and in it he published the greatest part of all his work in Yiddish. In 1940 Singer married Alma Wassermann (born Haimann), a German Jewish immigrant, and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1943.
By then the whole world knew that eastern European Jewry was being systematically exterminated, and Singer published three major works in America in response to the Holocaust. Der sotn in Goray appeared in hardcover together with four new stories; a near-programmatic essay titled “Problemen fun der yiddisher proze in Amerike”(Problems of Yiddish Prose in America) appeared in the literary journal Sviue (Milieu); and his critical essay “Arum der yidisher literatur in poylin” (Concerning Yiddish Literature in Poland) appeared in the journal Tsukunft (The Future). In the four new stories, Bashevis Singer introduced for the first time a demon narrator, as though human speech had now become inadequate to recount the Nazi evil. In the special issue of Tsukunft, published to mourn the catastrophe of the Shoah, Bashevis Singer’s essay strongly criticized both the Yiddish writers in Poland and the Yiddish language itself. He condemned all attempts in Yiddishto create “modern” literature, arguing instead for a return to the “hidden treasures”of the age-old Jewish folk culture. In his essay for Svive, he went even further, arguing 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. Again practicing what he preached, he began work on his long saga novel, Di familye mushkat (1950; translated as The Family Moskat,1950), which aimed to depict, through the fortunes of one family, the decline and fall of twentieth-century Polish Jewry.
Although Singer was aware all his life that, as a writer, he could work genuinely only in Yiddish, which he called “my mother language and the language of the people I wanted to write about,” soon after his arrival in America he realized that he would have a limited future if his work were published only in Yiddish, 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, Singer began encouraging English translations of his work, through which he steadily achieved worldwide celebrity.
The first of Singer’s translated novels to reach an English readership was The Family Moskat, a chronicle of the changing fortunes of the wealthy Polish Jewish Moskat family across four generations. It had first been serialized in Yiddish as Di familye Mushkat in Forverts between 17 November 1945 and 1 May 1948 and appeared in book form in Yiddish in 1950. In choosing to write an extended family chronicle, a form richly exploited by major European writers in the first half of the twentieth century, Singer was not so much following popular taste as writing under the influence of Israel Joshua Singer, two of whose major novels, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) and The Family Carnovsky (1943), had been cast in this saga form. Singer made his professional rivalry with his brother–and his guilt over it explicit by dedicating the English translation of The Family Moskat to “the memory of my late brother I. J.Singer…. To me he was not only the older brother, but a spiritual father and master as well.”
By the time Singer published The Family Moskat, his brother had been dead for six years. Since several of Israel Joshua Singer’s novels had been translated and published in English to generally favorable notices, Singer needed a pen name that would set him apart in the minds of his English readers. In his extensive body of writing in Yiddish, he always strictly maintained a separate name and a discrete persona for the different genres of work he contributed to Forverts. He always signed what he regarded as his most accomplished artistic efforts with the name Yitskhok Bashevis. For work of a more popular kind, he used the pseudonyms Y. Varshavsky (the man from Warsaw) for feuilletons; G. Kuper (the maiden name of his sister-in-law) for gossip and “agony-aunt” columns; and Y. Segal–among others–for subjects such as political and social commentary and the imparting of arcane information to curiosity-seeking readers. For his English readers, he now signed himself Isaac Bashevis Singer. By retaining the name Bashevis he subtly called attention to the fact that he was, and would remain, a writer who wrote primarily in Yiddish. By rendering his first name in its English form of Isaac, he signified his readiness to address a readership that knew little or nothing about Yiddish or its literature. And by reclaiming his family name, he felt able at last to signal both his kinship and his rivalry with his brother.
His first novel in English translation was a major achievement. The Moskat family’s varied interrelationships, transmutations, and final dissolution come to represent the mutations undergone by the whole of eastern European Jewry during the first forty years of the twentieth century. As Singer depicts them, the crises faced by individuals, and the sociopolitical and personal tensions that divide and destroy them, delineate complex shifts in the ways Jews are forced to redefine who and what they are in a rapidly changing world. Inevitably, the novel also questions whether the Jewish people can survive the genocide visited on them by the Nazis. Nathan Rothman, the earliest reviewer of the novel, immediately recognized the despondency implicit in this fictional reconstruction, noting in the 25 November 1950 Saturday Review that “those readers who can plow through the thick and moody substance of this novel will find themselves haunted by an after-image not easily blinked away.”
The Family Moskat bleakly recognizes that, just as all worldly “progress” is powerless to prevent Nazism, so too are faith and piety defenseless against rampant evil. Though all European Jews, pious or “enlightened,” are shown to face the same kind of death in the Holocaust, the novel attempts to assess the relative value of different ways of Jewish life. The worldly unbeliever Hertz Yanovar and the devoutly Orthodox Manasseh David may both perish in the same extermination camp, as the narrative relates, but the novel weighs the disparity in meaning that each of these characters can attach to his death. For the believer, confident in Divine determinism, the coming of Hitler means that “The Messiah is at our heels.” For the secular Jew, bereft of faith, life is devoid of meaning. Since the novel speaks to a predominantly secular readership, the last sentence of the English version is the despairing cry of Yanovar, who shouts out above the sound of Nazi bombs destroying Warsaw: “Death is the only Messiah. That’s the real truth.”
In this novel Singer expresses for the first time his abiding conviction that Jewishness, being a transcendent as well as an earthly condition, endures its greatest threat to survival not in physical but in spiritual terms. The Jews of The Family Moskat, having lost a recognizably common identity, are shown to have a shared identity violently thrust upon them by the Nazis. Though they cannot share the same way of life, they are forced into a shared way of dying to which only a sense of individual moral responsibility can give meaning.
Though it sold moderately well, The Family Moskat did not become a best-seller. 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 The Partisan Review in May 1953. This short story was the piece by which Singer became best known, and two years after its appearance it was hailed by the Saturday Review as “a classic of Yiddish literature”(14 December 1955). 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. As Gimpel remarks at the end of the story: “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world…. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.” During the rest of 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 Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Esquire.
In 1955 Satan in Goray appeared in Jacob Sloan’s much admired translation, becoming Singer’s second novel to reach an English readership. A critic for The New York Times Book Review (13 November 1955) praised it as being “beautifully written by one of the masters of Yiddish prose, and beautifully translated…folk material transmuted into literature.” Through a painstaking re-creation of seventeenth-century Jewish Poland in the aftermath of the savage anti-Jewish massacres in 1648 by the Cossacks under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki, Satan in Goray scrutinizes the shattered faith of persecuted Jews who desperately seek to force the coming of that Messiah for whose redemption they have waited so long. Focusing with near-psychotic intensity on the hysteria provoked among the devastated Jewish communities of Poland by the claims of the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, this novel has been interpreted, notably by Seth L. Wolitz in a 1989 article, as a paradigm expressing Singer’s uncompromising dismissal of the messianic expectations awakened by the Russian Revolution. Ruth R. Wisse asserted in The Modern Jewish Canon (2000) that the book “looms as one of the finest political novels in the Western canon.” There is no question that, in its unsparing depiction of the spiritual self-evisceration of a desperate people, Satan in Goray makes a radically conservative statement of convictions Singer consistently held and restated throughout his work.
Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, Singer’s first book-length collection of short fiction, appeared in 1957 and was received with great admiration. One critic for The New York Times Book Review (29 December 1957) declared that with this volume, “Singer takes his place with the epic storytellers, transcending geographical and chronological boundaries.” Among the tales that appeared for the first time and have been most often republished since are “The Little Shoemakers” and “Joy.” Singer replayed the theme of Satan in Goray with “The Gentleman from Cracow” and introduced English readers to the demon-narrator, one of the hallmarks of many subsequent short stories, with “The Mirror” and “The Unseen.”
Singer’s growing popularity with English readers was clearly demonstrated by the speed with which his next novel was made available in English. Whereas twenty years had elapsed between the publication in Yiddish of Der sotn in Goray in Warsaw in 1935 and its English version in 1955, The Magician of Lublin was serialized in Yiddish in Forverts in 1959 and published in English in 1960. The reviewer in the New Statesman (15 September 1961), acknowledging the meticulous care with which Singer had re-created nineteenth-century Poland in this novel, also called attention to the way in which “this realistic picture is, as it were, gently stretched outwards until it achieves a grotesque or menacing distortion.” Grotesque elements became increasingly evident in Singer’s ensuing work.
In The Magician of Lublin Singer moved from the destruction of an entire community to an individual in psychological turmoil. Humiliatingly confronted by the extent of his own limitations, the central character, Yasha Mazur, a celebrated Jewish circus artist, is obliged to seek a way of surviving in a world that resists his arrogant attempts to dominate it. He tries to balance the conflicting demands of his personal life on a figurative tightrope that parallels the literal tightrope on which he performs his acclaimed acrobatic tricks. Yasha seeks to straddle the mutually exclusive worlds of Orthodox Jewish piety, embodied in his loyal Jewish wife, Esther, and Western secular culture, typified by his Polish Catholic mistress, Emilia. Steadily, Yasha discovers that every avenue of advancement into the secular Gentile world he longs to join is closed to him, so that at the end of the novel he returns to a rigorous observance of Jewish Orthodoxy. To enforce the discipline of his penitential return, he bricks himself up in a specially constructed cell.
Singer was adamant about this coercive manner of denying the material world in order to pursue the spiritual; he restated it several times more in his subsequent work. The first critic tentatively to question the validity of this drastic expedient was Irving Howe, in his review for Commentary (October 1960): “While there is no difficulty in making out what happens…there is a real question as to what it all signifies.” Later critics have more boldly challenged Singer’s seemingly simplistic solution to an enormous existential problem. They suggest that if a life of Orthodox Jewish observance can be lived only within the confines of a prison– whether a monastic cell or a hermetically sealed-off ultra-Orthodox community–then Orthodox Judaism is incapable of speaking to modern people. For Singer, however, there is no moral middle ground between wantonness and the discipline of religion, as Wisse points out: he “insisted, as his parents had done, on the ontological reality of good and evil, but he could not reconstruct the religious discipline that alone could uphold these distinctions. He did not think that what was morally necessary was possible.” This binary opposition informed Singer’s personal and artistic conflict all his life.
In 1961 Singer’s second collection of short fiction, The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories, was published to a generally favorable reception. Howe, writing in the New Republic (13 November 1961), was one of the few critics to voice reservations: “Singer seems almost perfect within his stringent limits, but it is perfection of stasis…he seems to be mired in his own originality.”
In the Fall 1962 Jewish Heritage, Milton Hindus disagreed: “What Howe calls Singer’s ‘narrow’, ’stringent’ limitations are precisely the source of his power…. Singer never loses sight of the fact that his forte is the imaginative transportation of reality.” The title story poignantly dramatizes Singer’s long-standing contempt for barren intellectualism and its impotence to validate human life. The chief character, the aged and infirm Dr. Nahum Fischelson, who has devoted his entire life to the study of Benedict de Spinoza, is granted a meaningful perspective on what it means to be human only when he marries the illiterate cleaning woman, Dobbe. He recognizes the true reality “of that infinite extension which is, according to Spinoza, one of God’s attributes” for the first time in his life when he rises from his marriage bed: “In his long nightshirt he approached the window, walked up the steps and looked out in wonder…. Yes, the divine substance was extended and had neither beginning nor end; it was absolute, indivisible, eternal, without duration, infinite in its attributes…and he, Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this.”
The other stories in this collection reiterated some of the chief moral concerns expressed in Singer’s novels and gave American readers more of the kind of demonism they had earlier enjoyed. “The Black Wedding”and “The Destruction of Kreshev,”stories originally published in Yiddish years earlier, are small-scale reworkings of the material in Satan in Goray, while “Shiddah and Kuziba,” set in the netherworld, presents a mother demon teaching her child that humans are the beings most greatly to be feared.
Critical acclaim was unanimous for the English translation of The Slave, which appeared in 1962. It had first been published in Yiddish as Der knekht in Forverts between 14 October 1960 and 18 March 1961; the English translation was from this serialization. A critic for The Saturday Review (16 June 1962) noted that “few writers since Shakespeare have been able to evoke so harrowingly the nightmare world of savage animals…and of man’s kinship with them.” Many of the earliest readers of the book regarded The Slave as Singer’s most lyrical and perfectly constructed novel. Three years after its debut, the British poet Ted Hughes called it “a burningly radiant, intensely beautiful book,” and Hughes implicitly disagreed with Howe about the supposed lack of development in Singer’s work: “Looking over his novels in their chronological order, the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision” (New York Review of Books, 22 April 1965).
In The Slave Singer reverses the situation of Yasha Mazur, returning for this purpose to the seventeenth-century historical period immediately following Chmielnicki’s pogroms. Jacob, the pious Jew who is the slave of the title, is doubly in exile. He is a Polish Jew, driven with his people from Jerusalem and his homeland, and he is cut off, through enslavement to a Polish peasant, from his native village and the Jewish communal life central to his spiritual practice. By name and nature, Jacob is a paradigm of his biblical namesake, reenacting the age-old struggle of the Jewish people to retain their identity in a hostile environment. He too is a survivor, but unlike those who survive the massacres in Satan in Goray, he follows a strict regimen of prescribed religious observance. As constant as evil may be in the cycle of history, the novel suggests, so too is the power of individual freedom.
Jacob loves and is passionately loved in return by Wanda, the semipagan daughter of his master, and for love of Jacob, Wanda converts to Judaism and dies giving birth to Jacob’s son. This child, the fruit of the union between a passionately believing jew and a pious convert, introduces for the first time in Singer’s work a theme to which he returns several times–the suggestion that the decimated and demoralized Jews of Eastern Europe can hope to renew the vitality of their people only through the infusion of the new blood of devout converts. Singer invokes the biblical paradigm of Ruth the Moabitess, who follows her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to the land of Judah, where she embraces the faith of Israel, a decision so favored by God that Ruth is found worthy to become the great-grandmother of King David, the founder of the royal line from which the Messiah will come.
Trained in the exegesis of sacred texts, Singer found it natural to use biblical quotation, paradigm, and allegory to universalize the particular lives and events that are the subjects of his fiction. His descriptions of the physical world are developed as symbolic extensions of his themes. The order imposed on the events described–their selection, juxtaposition, and emphases, like those of biblical narratives–are all determined by the moral viewpoint of the teller of the tale. Moreover, the interviews Singer gave throughout a period of more than forty years reveal the extent to which he himself is present in much of his fiction. Often characters in his later novels and short stories speak words almost identical to those uttered by Singer on one or another public occasion. The cumulative effect of this blurring of reportage with fiction is to create fictionalized extensions of the author, through which he debates the ambiguities of modern Jewish identity.
By this time, appearing as they did in leading magazines, Singer’s short stories were becoming widely known, and literary critics initiated a debate about whether Singer was better at writing short stories than novels. Interviewers who asked the author which of the two forms he preferred were given an answer that remained unchanged; as he repeated in a 1984 interview with Joseph Sherman: “I like both the novel and the short story. Of course, I would say it’s more difficult to write a good short story than a good novel, because your time, your space is so limited…. To make it short and still good is a great challenge. But actually, we cannot really interchange them.”
Singer’s next collection of short stories, published in 1964 under the title Short Friday, and Other Stories, was also dedicated to Israel Joshua Singer, “who helped me to come to this country and was my teacher and master in literature.” Some critics greeted the volume patronizingly: a review in the The Nation (4 January 1965), for instance, suggested that “For those who suffer nostalgia for what they’ve never known, Singer is a little genre painter offering heartwarming portraits.” The reviewer for The New York Times (14 December 1964) suggested that “the peculiar quality” of Singer’s work “is probably too special for most tastes.” In The New Leader (21 December 1964), however, Stanley Edgar Hyman asserted that with this collection, “it becomes obvious that Singer is more than a writer; he is a literature.” The volume was extremely varied in content and included several stories that were soon recognized as among Singer’s best work, such as “Taibele and Her Demon” and “Yentl the %shiva Boy.” The different kinds of sexual ambiguity presented in these two tales made them immensely intriguing, and both were later adapted for the stage. “The Last Demon” is among Singer’s most powerful evocations of the Holocaust. With an excoriating wit, its narrator sets the chilling tone in his opening remark: “I, a demon, bear witness that there are no more demons left. Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”
The moral universe Singer evokes in this collection is once again starkly divided between piety and wickedness. The simplicity of Shmuel-Leibele and his wife, Shoshe–the devout, accidentally suffocated couple in the title story, “Short Friday”–is set in jarring contrast to the headlong moral descent of the lustful Risha in “Blood.” Her insatiable desire to witness the shedding of animal blood in the slaughterhouse leads inevitably to the indulgence of her voracious sexual appetite, her conversion to Christianity, and her eventual transmogrification into a werewolf, a physical manifestation of her total dehumanization. Similarly, in “Zeidlus the Pope” the genius Zeidel, a desiccated, small-town scholar hungry for worldly glory, converts to Christianity in hopes of becoming pope but is instead reduced to blindness and destitution before being dragged off to the netherworld by gloating demons. Noteworthy in stories such as these is the extent to which Singer, even in English translation, makes an uncompromising equation between Christianity and the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. For those of his characters who abandon the rigors of Orthodox Jewish observance, there is absolutely no worldly reward; there is merely the shattering of grandiose illusions.
For the first time, in this seminal collection Singer also published two stories set wholly in the United States: “Alone” and “A Wedding in Brownsville.” In both, supernatural phenomena are placed in a modern setting. The tales in this collection define the range of Singer’s themes in the work that followed.
The second half of the 1960s was a productive period in Singer’s creative life and brought him praise and remuneration. The Family Muskat was republished in the United States in 1965 and was even more warmly received than it had been fifteen years earlier. In 1966, in response to the urging of children’s book editor Elizabeth Shub, Singer produced Zlathe the Goat and Other Stories, the first of his many books for children. Wittily illustrated by Maurice Sendak, this book was well received and won Singer his first Newbery Honor Book Award. Based in part on old Jewish folktales, these stories, recast for young readers, enabled Singer to be openly didactic; he offered unambiguous wish-fulfillment tales in which the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. In “I See the Child as a Last Refuge,” a piece written for The New York “Times Book Review (9 November 1969), Singer praised the world of children, noting that “their literature is still preoccupied with kings, princesses, devils, demons, imps, werewolves and other old-fashioned creatures.” His work for children also allowed him to express, for the first time in English, a poignant, personal nostalgia for his own childhood and the destroyed Poland in which it had been spent.
In 1966 Howe edited and introduced his own selection of Singer’s short stories, and in the same year, Singer published an English version of his first collection of semi-autobiographical memoirs, titled In My Father’s Court. This book, which had originally appeared in Yiddish in 1956 as Mayn tain’s bes-din shtub, became one of the most popular of all Singer’s writings. Through his vignettes of the way his father carried out his duties as a Jewish rabbinical judge, Singer presents an elegiac portrait of a vanished world of Orthodox religious observance. Some critics later came to feel that these sketches were romanticized. Following the lead given by the distinguished Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, they rebuked the book for feeding into sentimental mythmaking about destroyed Eastern European Jewish life. In his review of the Yiddish serialization of In My Father’s Court the year before it was published in English, Glatstein, always one of Singer’s harshest critics, asserted in Congress Bi-Weekly (27 December 1965) that “rarely has a writer committed to publication such trivial, commonplace and egocentric effusions.” Jules Cha-metzky, however, disagreed in The Nation (17 October 1966), emphasizing that “The last word in the book is ‘love’, and it is with love, dignity and restraint that Singer walks his difficult tightrope and achieves the miracle of art.” Leading American literary critics concurred with this judgment. The overall impact of this memoir on the English-reading public remained profound in its assertion of the potential for virtuous human conduct held out by the precepts of religion to those capable of faith.
The following year, in 1967, Singer published The Manor, the first of two volumes of the English version of another saga novel that traces the history of Polish Jewry from the failed Polish rebellion of 1863 to the outbreak of World War I. The second and concluding volume, The Estate, appeared two years later, in 1969. The Yiddish version, titled Der hoyf, had been serialized in Forverts between 1952 and 1955 but it was never published in book form. The Manor and The Estate complete the historical sweep of those decisive events through which Singer, at this period of his artistic life, explored the crisis of modern Jewish survival. With a huge cast of characters and a mass of precise detail, this epic novel examines the radical mutations within the family of Calman Jacoby, a wealthy and pious Polish Jew who lives to witness the destruction of all he has believed in.
Throughout this novel, Singer shows that all human endeavor yields painful ambivalences. While modern technological progress condemns to scientific ignorance those Jews immersed exclusively in their ancient holy writings, its insistence on moral relativism raises with equal force the question of what Jews can possibly be without their ancient law and liturgy. By drawing a rigid distinction between spiritual and material life, the narrative suggests that what is arrogantly called “progress” can also be viewed as moral regression. Chametzky, writing in The Nation (30 October 1967), pointed out that Singer was offering a vision “of the contemporary void…and a bodying forth of the knowledge that its negotiation requires the most delicate, and perilous, balance between worlds lost and found, known and unknown.”The Manor was nominated for the National Book Award.
In 1968 the appearance of Singer’s fourth collection of short fiction in English translation, The Seance and Other Stories, was greeted with mixed reviews, and for the first time Singer’s work was accused of losing its thematic substance and becoming shallow, anecdotal, and repetitive. One critic for The New York Times Book Review (20 October 1968) suggested that in this newest collection, “too often” Singer’s stories are “merely interested in describing a kind of fiddler-on-the-roof Poland.” Dedicated to the “memory of my beloved sister Hinde Esther,” this collection did, however, break some new ground for Singer and offered some reworkings of old themes. The title story dramatizes, with wit and irony, Singer’s abiding interest in spiritualism. “The Lecture” transforms a commonplace personal experience of travel into a frightening tale of death and dissolution; “The Needle” introduces English readers to the monologue-tale series narrated by Aunt Yentl, a superstitious village gossip; and “Zeitel and Rickel,” depicting the doomed love between two lesbians, develops Singer’s exploration–begun with “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”–of alternative sexualities.
By the 1970s, the decade in which he was most prolific in bringing out the English translations of his work, Singer had reached the pinnacle of his fame and success. He won a National Book Award with the publication of A Day of Pleasure (1969), a collection of nineteen memoiristic sketches depicting the first fourteen years of his life. Fourteen of these stories had previously appeared in slightly different versions in In My Father’s Court, while five were published in English for the first time. The volume was illustrated with intensely evocative photographs of pre-World War II Poland taken by Roman Vishniac, augmented by photographs from Singer’s personal album.
Later in 1970, Singer published his fifth collection, A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, and while one review in The New York Times (20 September 1970) suggested that too much Singer in one volume could lead to “the possible dilution of magic performed in quantity,”Time magazine (21 September 1970) hailed these stories as “miraculous creations…in the highest artistic tradition.”Monologue stories told by unreliable narrators are prominent in this collection: Aunt Yentl reappears to relate the events in “The Blasphemer,”while a trio that resurfaces in later work–Zalman the glazier, Levi Yitskhok in his blue-tinted spectacles, and Meier the eunuch–make their debut in English in “Stories from Behind the Stove.”The operation of supernatural forces, even in the streets of contemporary Manhattan, is demonstrated in “The Key” and “Powers,” and the Warsaw Writers’ Club is satirically recalled in the title story and in “Dr. Beeber.” One powerful tale,“The Cafeteria,” evokes the horror of the Holocaust through the experiences of a survivor in modern New York, and in “The Son” Singer relates a fictionalized version of his first meeting with his son after an estrangement of twenty years. “The Mentor,” the first of Singer’s stories to be set in the State of Israel, permitted him to express some ambivalent, personal views about its significance to Jews of his generation and background.
In 1970 Singer also published two long tales for children: Joseph and Koza; or, The Sacrifice to the Vistula, and Elijah the Slave: A Hebrew Legend Retold. More children’s stories followed in book form: Alone in the Wild Forest and The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China in 1971; The Wicked City in 1972; The Fools of Chelm and Their History in 1973; Why Noah Chose the Dove in 1974; A Tale of Three Wishes in 1975; and Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus, and Other Stories in 1976. All these stories, retellings of well-known Jewish folktales, were published in beautifully designed large-print editions; they reached a wide readership and were much praised. For adult readers, Singer wrote the text for a special limited-edition volume in 1973 titled The Hasidim. Lavishly illustrated by Ira Moskowitz, this book offers a vibrant and respectful celebration of Hasidism, stressing the spiritual significance of the Jewish faith-through-joy movement.
Singer’s mature work appeared steadily during the 1970s. In 1972 came the English version of Enemies, A Love Story, the first of his novels to focus entirely on survivors, to deal directly with the physical, psychological, and spiritual devastation wrought on them by the Holocaust, and to be set in the United States. The original Yiddish version, titled Sonim: di geshikhte fun a libe, had been serialized in Forverts between 11 February and 13 August 1966 but not published in book form. A reviewer for The New York Times (25 June 1972) characterized it as “bleak”and “obsessive,”while a critic for the New York Review of Books (20 July 1972), noting its grotesquely comic elements, nevertheless maintained that Singer “elevates this farce situation into tragicomedy.”
All the survivors in this novel are depicted as simultaneously alive and dead: because they cannot forget their destroyed European past, they are alienated from their re-created present. They feel this disjunction most keenly in the loss of their mother tongue, and in this novel, as elsewhere in his work, Singer exploits the symbolic correspondence between the destruction of the Yiddish world and the Yiddish word, a culturally annihilating perception he also expressed in an important essay,“Problems of Yiddish Prose in America,”first published in Yiddish in 1943.
Several critics have noted that, despite its grim comedy, what gives Enemies, A Love Story its strength is the fact that its chief character, a dislocated moral coward and cheat named Herman Broder, is not the sole, nor even the dominant, voice in the novel. He is classed among “those without courage to make an end to their existence,”hopeless people who “have only one other way out: to deaden their consciousness, choke their memory, extinguish the last vestige of hope.”By contrast, Herman’s first wife, Tamara, a survivor of a death camp, has grown through suffering to a recognition that life makes demands on the living, an acknowledgment that makes her insist on distinguishing between self-indulgence in a godless universe–the escape route seized by Herman–and the duty to exercise the power of positive choice.
The publication in 1973 of his collection of short stories A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories won for Singer his second National Book Award (given in 1974), and high praise from a critic for The New York Review of Books (7 February 1974), who remarked on the writer’s ability to depict, in “a remarkable range of styles and tones,”the “moral and cultural space”that divides people. In his speech accepting this award, Singer made a point of stressing that “Only in such a lavish and giving country as the United States is it possible for a writer who writes in a foreign language to get a national award. No man who lives here remains a stranger.”For the most part, the collection offers few surprises either in form or in content. Only in “The Captive,”a bizarre tale of how a living writer’s identity is subsumed by the posthumous life of a dead painter, does Singer develop further his ambiguous response to some of the demands on Jewish identity made by the State of Israel. In the majority of the other tales in this collection, Singer restates some of his favorite themes, such as the way mysterious otherworldly forces operate in the lives of contemporary people (in “The Briefcase,”a tale drawn from the writer’s personal experiences on the American lecture circuit) and the way the living can be possessed by the spirits of the dead (in “A Dance and a Hop”).
The story “The Beard”from this collection formed the basis of a short documentary/fantasy movie about Singer’s working life, Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard, made in 1972. Directed by Bruce Davidson, with the aid of a grant from the American Film Institute, the movie was aired on public television and won a prize at the 1972 American Film Festival. By the mid 1970s other Singer works were adapted for the stage, television, and cinema. On 23 October 1975 a stage version of Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, written in collaboration with Leah Napolin, opened on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. Despite praise for the leading actress, Tovah Feldshuh, the play was poorly received. Indifferent, and sometimes hostile, reception of his stage adaptations had started as early as 1963, when Gimpel the Fool premiered as a one-act play at the Mermaid Theater in New York. The Yale Repertory Theater adaptation of The Mirror ten years later in 1973 was also poorly regarded, and condemnation climaxed in the reviews that greeted the 16 December 1979 opening, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, of the stage version of Teibele and Her Demon that Singer wrote with Eve Friedman. The common objection in the consistently negative reviews of all of these adaptations was that the ambiguities and subtleties of Singer’s prose fiction were wholly incapable of being transmitted through the medium of the theater.
Singer’s seventh collection of short stories in English, Passions and Other Stories (1975), renewed critical objection to what was now perceived as Singer’s repetitiveness and also to his solipsistic absorption in the events of his own life. A reviewer for The Village Voice (2 February 1976), for example, maintained that Passions and Other Stories “is a recapitulation of all that precedes it”and that Singer’s stories “are a long biography of himself, the good, famous Yiddish writer.”In his “Author’s Note”to this collection, Singer explicitly stressed that his work was a memorial to the destroyed world of Eastern Europe, specifically to “the Yiddish-speaking Jews who perished in Poland and those who emigrated to the U.S.A.”The story that most clearly fulfills this aim is “Sam Palka and David Vishkover,”in which a Jewish immigrant, grown rich and successful in America, nevertheless longs greatly for the impoverished life of the old shtetl, the small market town in Poland in which he grew up. He is even prepared to assume another identity in order to relive some of his past with Channah Basha, a newcomer who rents one of his seedy apartments in Brownsville, where she lovingly maintains all the values, customs, and behavior patterns of old-world Jews. Seven of the twenty stories in this collection are fictional reworkings of autobiographical materials, covering events in Singer’s life both before he left Poland and after he became famous in America. Monologue pieces set in pre-Holocaust Poland are also prominent: the character of Aunt Yentl reappears as the narrator of “The Gravedigger”and “The Sorcerer,”while the entertaining trio of Zalman, Yitskhok, and Meier all contribute to the telling of “Errors.”More than any other, this collection unambiguously articulates Singer’s determination to commemorate the lost past.
The appearance in 1976 of a memoir titled A Little Boy in Search of God; or, Mysticism in a Personal Light seemed to some critics to prove Singer’s intensifying solipsism. Even the format of this book caused puzzlement, particularly about its genre. It appeared under the imprint of Doubleday, rather than of Singer’s long-standing publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in an expensive, large, hardcover edition profusely illustrated with drawings and watercolors by Moskowitz. Unlike the photographs that provide verisimilitude in A Day of Pleasure, Moskowitz’s drawings seem deliberately designed to fictionalize. Nevertheless, this volume of recollections started making available to the English reader that painful wrestling with faith and doubt that Singer’s Yiddish readers had been encountering in the pages of Forverts in several lengthy, serialized memoirs that ran, under different series titles, between November 1974 and December 1978. Joseph C. Landis, in his 1986 study, notes that these memoirs are the voice of “I. B. Singer, the writer of seventy, recalling once again his quarrel with God in yet another autobiographical reprise, retracing the origins of his doubt and trying once again to justify his stance.”
Singer reworked the same autobiographical materials for his next novel, Shosha, the English version of which appeared in 1978, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Shosha met with an openly hostile reception from Leon Wieseltier, who dismissed it as “a stunted novel about stunted lives”and disparaged Singer’s use of the supernatural as a pandering to “that facile infatuation with the demonic that currently prevails in American culture”(The New York Review of Books, 7 December 1978).
Set in the years immediately preceding Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Shosha suggests that the sterile thoughts and impotent doings that preoccupy the characters of prewar Warsaw is the spiritual dead end into which worldly secularization has led. 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. The narrative technique of Shosha calls attention to itself by employing several devices that echo the effect of a yizker-bukh, a Holocaust memorial volume. These were books published by survivors of Hitler’s genocide and intended to memorialize and mourn the various towns and villages of Eastern Europe in which the authors had grown up; they are characterized by the kind of minute descriptive detail in which the narrative voice in Shosha delineates the topography of Jewish Warsaw:
After breakfast I went to Shosha’s [on Krochmalna Street] and stayed there for lunch. Then I left for my room on Leszno Street. Although it would have been quicker to go down Iron Street, I walked on Gnoyna, Zimna, and Orla. On Iron Street you were vulnerable to a blow from a Polish Fascist. I had laid out my own ghetto.
The last sentence of this passage is calculated to shock the reader with post facto recognition, because this route, like all the others detailed in the novel, can be traced on any map of the Nazi-created Warsaw Ghetto. By the time Neshome-ekspedihyes (Soul-Expeditions), the serialized Yiddish version of Shosha, appeared in Forverts in 1974, Singer had been living in the United States for forty years, more than a decade longer than he ever lived in Warsaw; yet, his topographical itemization is painfully accurate. Like Singer, the narrator of Shosha was able to escape this horrifying cul-de-sac, but his luck, by comparison with the millions who were unable to flee, obviously remained deeply rooted in his psyche. Hence, Aaron Greidinger, Singer’s fictional alter ego-making the first of many appearances as the narrator of Singer’s later novels–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.
In 1978, Singer achieved the pinnacle of his career when he was awarded that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. As he noted in his acceptance lecture, this was an honor not only for him personally, but also for the Yiddish language and its modern literature, which had, in the space of little more than a century, produced a body of work that flowed proudly in the mainstream of Western culture. Singer thus implied that, in becoming the first Yiddish writer to be so distinguished, he was accepting on behalf of Yiddish itself. However, much as this award delighted his many admirers who had encountered his work through the medium of translation, first into English, and then from the English texts into other languages, it appalled the majority of native speakers of Yiddish, among them all his fellow Yiddish writers and poets. They objected that Singer had become known exclusively through English translation and had therefore done nothing to promote Yiddish itself, that his subject matter–particularly his use of demons and sexuality–was prurient 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. Since thousands of readers worldwide had derived insight and understanding from Singer’s meticulous re-creation of a lost world and a destroyed morality, it was sad indeed that the dwindling international community of Yiddish speakers and writers were so hostile to an award that, however late, had finally honored their culture.
Undeterred by criticism, in 1978 Singer also published A Young Man in Search of Love, a book he admitted in his “Author’s Note”was “a continuation of A Little Boy in Search of God…. Together, these two volumes constitute a kind of spiritual autobiography which I hope to continue in the years to come.”Although this book was also illustrated, this time with drawings and paintings by Raphael Soyer, Singer’s open acknowledgment of his self-focus drove critics into tracking the autobiographical elements that were becoming more marked in all his new work in English. Meanwhile, Singer remained tireless in expressing his scorn for literary critics. On 11 December 1978, under the title “Why I Write for Children,”The New York Times published as an essay remarks that had formed part of Singer’s address at the banquet in Stockholm following the Nobel Prize award ceremony the night before. Facetiously, Singer gave a list of reasons for writing for children each of which struck at literary concerns of the academic establishment:“Children read books, not reviews…. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt…. They have no use for psychology…. They detest sociology…. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity.”
In 1979, following the publication of his Nobel Lecture in a small book including both its Yiddish and its English texts, came his eighth collection of short stories, Old Love. Reviewing this collection for The New York Times (28 October 1979), Robert Alter remarked on the contemporary value of tales of innocence “in the middle of our terrible century”and summarized the critical consensus about Singer’s work at the end of the decade, concluding that Singer was “a great writer with a decidedly uneven production, who does not work equally well in all the fictional genres he has tried.”Richard Burgin, writing for the Chicago Review (Spring 1980), examined Singer’s literary quarrel with modernism, pointing out that “Singer is a writer, in an age of cultivated ambiguity, who wants us to perceive the epiphanies, doubts, and ambivalence of his characters.”Burgin confessed himself “somewhat baffled by those critics who relentlessly stress Singer’s devotion to traditional literary and ‘moral’ values while ignoring the meanings that are apparent behind the surface simplicity-”
Old Love is marked less by a depiction of love as a redemptive emotion than by what Burgin identified as “the darker side of sexuality.”The story “Two”explores an explicitly homosexual relationship;“Not for the Sabbath” looks at sadomasochism through the prurient eyes of Aunt Yentl; and “The Bus” combines both homosexuality and sadomasochism with a hint of incest. All three stories expose violent emotions in a way strikingly at variance with Singer’s assertion in his “Author’s Note” that “in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and…the art of loving matures with age and experience.” Several of the tales in this volume suggest that not only curiosity about different kinds of sexuality but also active participation in them is, for Singer, part of “the love of the old and the middle-aged.”
Singer opened the 1980s with the publication in English of two more books for children: Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov, once again illustrated by Moskowitz, and The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah. The success of these children’s books demonstrated Singer’s ability to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers and validated his much-repeated insistence that “the oldest purpose of art has been to entertain. A good writer entertains a good reader.”
He followed these books in 1981 with his third volume of memoirs, Lost in America, illustrated by Soyer.
In his “Author’s Note”to this volume, Singer reiterated his autobiographical purpose, though he still insisted that, since he had been obliged for personal reasons to disguise the identities of many of the people he described, he was writing “no more than fiction set against a background of truth.”The line between fiction and autobiography was now so blurred in what Singer chose to publish in English that it was virtually impossible to separate the two. In 1984, his eightieth year, Singer ensured that his three separate volumes of explicit autobiography were published in one book, under the title Love and Exile. Writing in the London Review of Books a few years later (24 October 1991), John Bayley was among many critics who fully appreciated the extent to which, in his autobiographical work as much as in fiction, Singer had succeeded in his self-imposed task of evoking for perpetuity the lost Jewish world of the Poland he had known in his youth:“In one sense, certainly, the language and the life he wrote of may still be alive, in New York and other places: but the kind of Jewishness–incarnate in speech and spirit, in herring and onion roll–where Singer’s characters reside seems a long way either from modern America or from modern Israel.”
The publication in 1982 of another children’s story, The Golem, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, was followed in 1983 by the publication in English translation of what became Singer’s most controversial novel, The Penitent. Where Thomas Sutcliffe in The Times Literary Supplement (23 March 1984) declared it “an honest and compassionate book,”Harold Bloom roundly condemned it in The New York Times Book Review (25 September 1983) as “a very unpleasant work, without any redeeming esthetic merit or human quality.”Most unusually for Singer, he had published Der bal-tshuve, the Yiddish text of this novel, in Israel nine years earlier, and had even gone so far as to claim, in a public lecture in Jerusalem in May 1973, that, as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post noted in a summary published the day after, it was “the book of his which he likes best.”The Penitent is arguably not a novel; it belongs instead to that group of Singer’s monologues that present a varied gallery of contemporary Jews who tell their idiosyncratic personal stories to a visiting Yiddish writer who bears a calculated resemblance to Singer himself.
The chief narrative voice in The Penitent belongs to Joseph Shapiro, a rich profligate who is sickened by the materialism, promiscuity, and violence of the modern world and returns to Israel to embrace a rigidly observant Jewish life. He immures himself in Me’ah She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, in an attempt to cut himself off from all contaminating contact with contemporary evils that in his view have infected even the Holy Land in its reincarnation as the secular State of Israel. What particularly disturbed many readers was the fact that Shapiro expresses his stridently antimodern opinions in words identical to those Singer himself had used in various published interviews. However, since the extended “Author’s Note”at the end of the book is made to form an integral part of the narrative, it sets up a dialectic in which the author appears to be arguing with another version of himself about his deepest concerns. The ending of the novel disturbingly re-creates the same ambivalence as the Magician of Lublin’s determination to immure himself in a cell: can the traditional values of Jewish Orthodoxy be regained only in an isolation ward?
By 1982 Singer was prepared to make a selection of what he regarded as his best stories for a volume titled The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. It includes forty-seven of the more than one hundred tales he had published thus far and gives the reader approaching Singer’s work for the first time a comprehensive view of his dominating thematic concerns and artistic techniques. Among others previously published, the volume included “Gimpel the Fool,”“The Little Shoemakers,”“The Last Demon,”and “The Letter Writer,”as well as hitherto uncollected pieces, including “Neighbor”and “Moon and Madness.”In his introductory “Author’s Note”Singer restated his favorite dicta about the danger of “experimental”writing and his firm belief in the need for the writer to be primarily a storyteller. He also gave a broad definition of what he understood by the concept “literature”:“Genuine literature informs while it entertains. It manages to be both clear and profound. It has the magical power of merging causality with purpose, doubt with faith, the passions of the flesh with the yearnings of the soul…. While it tolerates commentary by others, it should never try to explain itself.”Most critics concurred that this volume includes everything that is most representative of those literary gifts that had won Singer the Nobel Prize. Further honors followed: in 1984 he became the sixteenth member of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, and in 1986 he was the recipient of the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest award.
The Image and Other Stories, which appeared in 1985, was equally well received. A writer for The New York Times Book Review (30 June 1985) asserted regarding Singer that this collection “splendidly confirms his achievement,”and a TlS critic valued Singer’s frequently deployed narrative technique of setting up a listener-narrator of other people’s stories as a useful distancing device,“particularly in the more disturbing or violent stories”(4 April 1986). In the “Author’s Note”that had now become one of his trademarks, Singer made two contradictory assertions. He insisted that a writer “should never abandon his mother tongue and its treasure of idioms,”but he also admitted that “the English translation is especially important to me because translations into other languages are based on the English text. In a way, this is right because, in the process of translation, I make many corrections.”The vexed relationship between the Yiddish originals and the English translations of Singer’s work later became an area of considerable literary debate.
Singer’s engagement, direct or indirect, with stage and motion-picture adaptations of his work was most evident in this period. The movie rights to The Magician of Lublin, which Singer had sold in 1965, were realized with the release of the movie version, directed by Menahem Golan and written by Golan and Irving S. White, in 1979. This cinematic treatment was widely condemned. The Village Voice (19 November 1979) supplied what became the critical consensus:“Squandering some convincing location work, Golan reduces Singer to a Harold Robbins entertainment of florid compositions and bombastic copulations.”Four years later, Barbra Streisand’s screen adaptation of Yentl, written by Streisand and Jack Rosenthal, opened on 18 November 1983. This time, although the movie was widely praised in the media, its harshest critic was Singer. On 29 January 1984, The New York Times published “I. B. Singer Talks to I. B. Singer About the Movie ‘Yentl’,”in which Singer blisteringly attacked Streisand’s treatment of every aspect of his now-famous story. The controversy did no harm to the box-office takings, but it did highlight the extent to which the essence of Singer’s work resisted the performing arts. Also appearing in 1984 was a more successful adaptation by Ernest Kinoy of Singer’s short story “The Cafeteria,”directed by Amram Nowak. This television movie was enthusiastically received and widely praised for its fidelity to the original.
In 1988 Singer published the English version of The King of Fields, a novel unlike any he had written before, and one that disappointed most reviewers; a widely shared opinion expressed in the Kirkus Review (15 August 1988) was that it was “a bad-imitation Clan of the Cave Bear [Jean Auel’s 1980 novel].”The Yiddish text, Der kenig fun difelder, had been serialized in Forverts between 14 February and 26 December 1980. Thematically, this novel was a bizarre departure for Singer. Drawn from old Polish folklore and myth, set in the pagan world of pre-Christian Poland, and focusing on primitives groping toward some concept of ethics, this pessimistic tale questions whether murderous human nature can ever be tamed. The ethical tenets of Judaism exercise no permanent humanizing influence, for Ben Dosa, the sole Jewish character in the novel, makes only a fleeting impression on the feral people he encounters. The Lesniks, the tribe to which the protagonist Cybula belongs, suffer many hardships: they are enslaved by people calling themselves Poles, and, though briefly comforted by Dosa’s teachings, they are thrown into violent confusion by the inflammatory missionary sermons preached by his theological rival, a young Christian bishop. The conflict bred by subjugation and rival doctrine leaves the undeveloped people who suffer its consequences bitterly disillusioned, and the conclusion of the narrative seems once again to affirm the nihilistic conviction that death is a welcome release.
In 1988, to only lukewarm interest, Singer also published The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories, the tenth and last collection of his short fiction. Familiarity with his themes over three decades had sharpened critical awareness of the author’s quirks, and Jay Cantor, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 May 1988), expressed further concern at Singer’s increasingly evident misogyny: “Disorder is too often, and too sourly, identified with the failings of his women characters…this obsession seems crabbed.” Alternative sexuality is once again the theme of several stories in this collection; “Disguised,” for example, indicates again Singer’s interest in male homosexuality. In his “Author’s Note” Singer cites traditional Jewish holy sources to justify his fascination with human sexuality: “According to the Talmud and the Midrash, the corruption [of human beings] was all sexual. Even the animals later became sexually perverted at the time of the flood, and perhaps later in Sodom and Gomorrah.” This collection is interesting also because it includes a much-watered-down English version of “The Jew from Babylon,” a story Singer had first published in Yiddish as “Der yid fun bovl” more than fifty years earlier. How far this story had been reworked and, in the opinion of some critics, eviscerated for an English readership provoked serious scholarly exploration, notably by Wolitz, of the ways in which Singer fundamentally altered the artistic principles and practice he gave his Yiddish readers as Yitskhok Bashevis.
In 1989 the American Academy of Arts and Letters recognized Singer’s lifetime achievement by awarding him its highest honor, a Gold Medal, and a year later he was elected 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, with screenplay by Mazursky and Roger L. Simon, opened to widely favorable reviews and became the first of Singer’s works adapted for the big screen to please the critics: the movie received two Academy Award nominations, for best actress and best screenplay. By this time, however, 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. The Yiddish version of this novel, titled Shoym (Foam), had been serialized in Forverts between 2 June and 16 September 1967 but not published in book form.
Scum focuses on the world-weariness of a rich, assimilated Jewish roue who returns to Poland in search of some connection to a lost past. Muted reviews greeted its publication. A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times (14 April 1991) found it “not quite as surprising or sharp-edged as some of Singer’s more recent books,” while Bayley, in the London Review of Books (24 October 1991), thought he identified in the novel Singer’s “powerlessness to be an original artist and a man outside his race.”
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, Bashevis Singer set out in his work to weigh what the Jewish people had gained when the Haskalah invited them to share the culture of Europe, 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.
His determination to place human action within the absolute categories of good and evil informed the graphic use he made of sexuality, which is never gratuitously sensational. His sexually promiscuous characters are always presented as emotionally withered beings, their damaging condition often painted with bold symbolism. His deployment of evil spirits equally purposefully separates sacred from profane. Demons torment the promiscuous, the blasphemous, and the arrogant; they are powerless against the chaste, the pious, and the humble. They always took measure of the evil of the Holocaust. “Why demons,” asks the demon-narrator of “The Last Demon” (1963), “when man himself is a demon?” To depict a world where moral absolutes prevailed, Singer deliberately set much of his work in pre-Holocaust Poland. There, far from technological advancements and not yet convulsed by what he regarded as the corruptions of the Haskalah, the precepts of the Torah were venerated as unalterably binding. As in all human worlds, there too were sinners, but they did not yet inhabit an arbitrary world without Judge and without Judgment.
Bashevis Singer gazed unblinkingly at a world reduced to moral relativism, speaking of it through his own “survivor guilt” at having lived comfortably in New York while the Jews among whom he had grown up–his own mother and younger brother among them–were destroyed in gas chambers and Soviet work camps. “Fiction is always about a few people. You cannot write fiction about the masses,” he asserted. After World War II these were Holocaust survivors, trying to rebuild their lives in America. Singer compassionately yet shrewdly calculated the damage they had sustained and which they, in turn, would inflict on others, just as he ruthlessly measured the indifference of those who had not suffered. The Holocaust, Singer repeatedly concluded, made Jews neither better nor worse; it merely left the secularized and acculturated floating in a moral limbo as was materialistic America.
From the late 1980s, Singer had been showing increasing signs of mental failure. He died on 24 July 1991 and was buried in the Beth-El (Jewish) section of the Cedar Park Cemetery, Emerson, New Jersey. Clive Sinclair, in TLS (4 October 1991), reminded readers of how closely Singer had been involved in preparing the English versions of his novels. Noting that in Scum “there are uncharacteristically crude devices,” Sinclair went on:“There is much of Singer’s work that remains untranslated. Presumably, that will change now that he is dead. It is important to know when these ‘new’ novels were conceived, and whether their author considered that publication in book form would enhance his reputation.”
Sinclair’s presumption was well founded. Translations of two of Singer’s earlier novels in Yiddish appeared in rapid succession after his death: The Certificate in 1992 and Meshugah in 1994. The Certificate (serialized as Der sertifikat in Forverts between 13 January and 27 May 1967) reworks the all-too-familiar materials of Singer’s autobiography, while Meshugah (serialized as Farloyrene neshomes [Lost Souls] in Forverts between 9 April 1981 and 11 February 1982) records another episode in the post-Holocaust life of Singer’s long-established literary double, Greidinger. Their reception was respectful rather than enthusiastic, calling attention to Singer’s “deceptively spare prose” and his gift for “transforming reality into art with seemingly effortless sleight of hand” (The New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1992). On the other hand, Shadows on the Hudson appeared four years later in 1998 to extraordinary acclaim. One critic for The New York Times Book Review (31 December 1997) hailed it as “a piercing work of fiction…with a strong claim to being Singer’s masterpiece.” The Yiddish version of this novel, Shotns baym Hodson, had been serialized in Forverts between January 1957 and January 1958.
Shadows on the Hudson bleakly examines, through a punctilious reconstruction of the period between December 1947 and mid November 1948, the lives of some Jewish refugees from Hitler fortunate enough to gain new life in America. Their adoptive country, they discover, demands of those who want its freedoms total subordination of their own values to the hegemony of American economic, social, and cultural norms. In consequence, these survivors are emotionally and spiritually dislocated, a condition symbolized by their self-perception as stunted outsiders. Singer’s gift for creating dialogue ensures that the language available or denied to the characters in the novel signifies the identities they possess or lack. Those who command English are fully prepared to lose a definable Jewish identity in pursuit of instant assimilation; those few who cling to Yiddish demonstrate an unshakable sense of Jewish selfhood. Moreover, throughout the novel, the indiscriminate way in which cancer cuts down human life formulates in physical terms the central metaphysical question of the novel: where was God during the Holocaust?
By the turn of the millennium, some critical consensus about Singer’s work has 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.”
The repeated thematic concerns of Singer’s extensive output make clear that three things above all tormented him–his abandonment of his parents’ strict religious observance, his own sexual promiscuity, and his escape from the Holocaust that destroyed the Yiddish language and the eastern European Jewish culture. Outspokenly frank about many other aspects of his thought in scores of public interviews, Singer consistently refused to discuss the Holocaust in any but the most general terms. Yet, at the height of his fame, in the nine years between 1972 and 1981, he presented his readers with English versions of five books that all view the destruction of eastern European Jewry through the eyes of a chief character who, like Singer, is a Yiddish writer. Since Singer escaped the Holocaust and wrote in Yiddish all his life, superficially it might seem that his work preserved both the Yiddish language and its culture. But as the number of Yiddish readers and their commitment to Yiddish culture attenuated, Singer increasingly found himself in the desolate position of writing not only of, but also for, the dead. He reversed this situation by establishing his international fame through English translations of his work, a highly alienating division of experience.
Of his enormous output in Yiddish, Singer permitted only nine books to be published in his lifetime; the rest of it is effectively buried in sixty years of Forverts archives. His English works, however, include more than forty volumes. This disparity is further compounded by the fact that Singer himself carefully selected specific works, from large numbers of others, that he wanted translated into English, and then collaborated with his translators and editors in preparing these English versions. Close examination of these two sets of texts–when these can be located–reveals that Singer consciously addressed two different readerships, with widely differing sets of expectations and concomitantly different attitudes of receptivity.
Singer repeatedly claimed that the essence of his work exists independently in both languages in which he published: “translation, although it does damage, cannot kill an author. If he’s really good, he will come through even in translation. I have seen it in my own case.” Nevertheless, the existence of the Yiddish texts of some of his major work, in readily available book form, has inevitably invited critical comparison of the two versions. While the conclusions drawn from this study remain provisional, they continue to raise challenges.
Much of Singer’s work in Yiddish remains untranslated. Most of this work was published in Forverts, but some unpublished material also exists in Singer’s Yiddish manuscripts among his archival papers housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The bibliographies compiled by David Neal Miller and Roberta Saltzman provide information about the texts of all Singer’s work in both the languages in which he was published. Undoubtedly, more of Singer’s hitherto unknown work will be made available in English. When it is, the question of what texts constitute the true canon of his work will become even more vexed than it is at present.
In 2004, to mark the centennial of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of ten American writers to be awarded the Nobel Prize and perhaps the most influential and beloved Jewish-American author, The Library of America published a three-volume edition of his Collected Stories as a major celebration of his achievement. Beginning with “Gimpel the Fool,” the tale which brought Singer to prominence in America in 1953, and concluding with “The Death of Methuselah,” his final collection published three years before his death in 1991, brought together for the first time all the short fiction Singer published in English in the versions he called his “second originals”–translations he supervised and collaborated on himself, revising as he worked. In addition, Collected Stories also includes thirteen previously uncollected stories from the Singer archives in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The Congress of Yiddish Culture in New York is collecting and preparing for publication a redacted Yiddish volume containing all Singer’s early work, together with several hitherto unpublished Yiddish stories, also from the Ransom Center collection.
Whatever his failings, Isaac Bashevis Singer remains among the most influential and disturbing Jewish writers of the twentieth century. His enormous popularity enabled him to bring to vivid life and international attention the destroyed world of the shtetl. His novels and stories made formerly indifferent, even hostile, non-jewish readers aware of the spiritual depths of the Jewish faith and of the irreplaceable loss sustained by the Nazi destruction of the Jews of eastern Europe. For Jewish readers, his signal 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, 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.
Paul Rosenblatt and Gene Koppel, A Certain Bridge: Isaac Bashevis Singer on Literature and Life (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1979);
Joseph Sherman, “Miami Meeting: An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Theoria, 62 (May 1984): 1-11;
Richard Burgin, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Noonday Press, 1986);
Grace Farrell, ed., Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations (Jackson & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).
Jackson R. Bryer and Paul E. Rockwell, “Isaac Bashevis Singer in English: A Bibliography,” in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Malin (New York: New York University Press, 1968), pp. 220-265;
David Neal Miller, A Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, January 1950-June 1952 (New York: Max Weinreich Centre for Advanced Jewish Studies, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1979);
Miller, A Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1924-1949 (New York: Peter Lang, 1984);
Roberta Saltzman, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Bibliography of His Works in Yiddish and English, 1960-1991 (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002).
Paul Kresh, Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (New York: Dial, 1979);
Lester Goran, The Bright Streets of Surfside: The Memoir of a Friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994);
Israel Zamir, Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Barbara Harshav (New York: Arcade, 1995);
Janet Hadda, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997);
Dvorah Telushkin, Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Morrow, 1997);
Agata Tuszynska, Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland, translated by Madeline G. Levine (New York: Morrow, 1998).
Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Boston: Twayne, 1980);
Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1990);
Marcia Allentuck, ed., The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969);
Alida Allison, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Children’s Stories and Childhood Memoirs (Boston: Twayne, 1996);
Irving H. Buchen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past (New York: New York University Press / London: University of London Press, 1968);
Hugh Denman, ed., Isaac Bashevis Singer: His Work and His World (Boston: Brill, 2002);
Grace Farrell [as Grace Farrell Lee], From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987);
Farrell, ed., Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York:G.K. Hall, 1996);
Lawrence Friedman, Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988);
Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962);
Joseph C. Landis, Aspects of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Queens College Press, 1986);
Irving Malin, Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Ungar, 1972);
David Neal Miller, Fear of Fiction: Narrative Strategies in the Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985);
Miller, ed., Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (Leiden: Brill, 1986);
Dan Miron, “Passivity and Narration: The Spell of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Judaism, 41 (Winter 1992);
Ben Siegel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969);
Clive Sinclair, The Brothers Singer (London & New York: Allison & Busby, 1983);
Ruth R. Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon (New York: Free Press, 2000);
Seth L. Wolitz, ‘“Der Yid fun Bovl’: Variants and Meanings,”Yiddish, 11 (1998): 30-47;
Wolitz, “Satan in Goray as Parable,” Prooftexts, 9 (1989): 13-25;
Wolitz, ed., The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
The primary archive of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s papers is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.