Singer, Israel Joshua

views updated May 23 2018


SINGER, ISRAEL JOSHUA (1893–1944), Yiddish novelist, playwright, and journalist. Born in Bilgoraj, Poland, the son and grandson of rabbis, Singer was the second child of a family of Yiddish writers that included his elder sister, Esther Singer *Kreitman, and younger brother, Isaac Bashevis *Singer. He received a traditional Jewish education and was influenced by the opposing strains of Jewish thought represented by his misnagdic mother and his ḥasidic father. When he was 14, the family moved to the ḥasidic court at Radzimin and then to Warsaw, where Singer worked as an unskilled laborer and proofreader. He studied painting and hid in an artists' atelier to avoid military service. By 1918, when he traveled to the Soviet Union, he had already begun publishing his earliest stories. Returning to Warsaw in late 1921, he was associated with the small, fluid group of writers called Di Khalyastre ("the Gang"), who opposed both social realism and romanticized depictions of Jewish life. Their journal, Khalyastre, included illustrations by Marc *Chagall and poems, stories, and essays by Peretz *Markish, Melekh *Ravitch, Uri Zvi *Greenberg, Y. *Opatoshu, Oser *Warszawski, David *Hofshtein, and Singer. When Singer published his most ambitious work up to that time, a short story entitled "Perl" ("Pearls," in Ringen, 1921), he attracted the attention of Abraham *Cahan, the editor of the New York daily Forverts. Singer served as a correspondent for the newspaper, reporting on his travels throughout Poland, the Soviet Union, and, in 1932, the U.S., where he finally settled in 1934. His travelogue, Nay Rusland ("New Russia," 1928), like his subsequent work, appeared first in Forverts. He wrote fiction under his own name and journalistic essays primarily under G. Kuper, his wife's maiden name.

His early works included Erd-Vey ("Earth Pangs," 1922), a symbolist drama which was effectively staged in 1923 by the New York Yiddish Art Theater; the short-story collections Perl un Andere Dertseylungen ("Pearls and Other Stories," 1922); and Oyf Fremder Erd ("On Foreign Ground," 1925). His first novel, Shtol un Ayzn (1927; Blood Harvest, 1935, and Steel and Iron, 1969), generated considerable controversy about the place of politics in fiction. Accused of not understanding politics and convinced that his critics were merely political hacks, Singer publicly renounced Yiddish literature, turning to journalism instead. But only four years later he published his second and most successful novel, Yoshe Kalb (1932; The Sinner, 1933, and Yoshe Kalb, 1965), a psychologically astute novel about a man who adopts two personalities and remains, until the end, an enigmatic figure. Savinkov: Drame in 12 Bilder ("Savinkov: a Play in 12 Scenes") appeared in Globus in 1933, before Singer's departure from Poland. He published three more novels after his arrival in the U.S.: Di Brider Ashkenazi (1936; The Brothers Ashkenazi, 1936, 1980); Khaver Nakhmen (1938; East of Eden, 1939); Di Mishpokhe Karnovski (1943; The Family Carnovsky, 1969). Adapted for the stage, Yoshe Kalb was performed in New York in 1932 and became one of the most successful plays ever produced in the Yiddish theater; less successful adaptations of his other novels followed: Di Brider Ashkenazi in 1938, Khaver Nakhmen in 1939, and Di Mishpokhe Karnovski in 1943. In addition, a collection of stories, Friling ("Spring," 1937) appeared in Warsaw and two more posthumous works appeared in New York: his autobiographical memoir, Fun a Velt Vos iz Nishto Mer (1946; Of A World That Is No More, 1970), and Dertseylungen ("Stories," 1949).

Singer was a successful and admired literary figure, most of whose works were translated into English during his lifetime. His family sagas, The Brothers Ashkenazi and The Family Carnovsky, written after the rise of Nazism, present a view of Jewish history as inexorably cyclical, repeating itself in every generation, even when the rest of the world moves on. His epic novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi traces the history of twin brothers and of the industrial city of Lodz. Written in the first years of Nazi rule, it ends with World War i, the Russian Revolution, and the establishment of an independent Poland. The fates of the religious and the Marxist, the assimilated and the traditional Jew are all identical. By the time Singer wrote The Family Carnovsky, he was explicitly coming to terms with the early years of what was already being called in Yiddish khurbn ("Holocaust"). The novel traces three generations through half a century, following the family from a Polish shtetl to Berlin to New York and ending almost at the moment of publication. At the end of the novel, Singer leaves his characters' fates uncertain, a sign of the difficulty of conceiving of a coherent conclusion to the conflicts of the novel and current history. Singer's energies were no doubt elsewhere. His correspondence during the period is full of increasing concern about his family's fate under the Nazis (he could not maintain contact with his mother and youngest brother, caught in the war's upheaval; neither survived the war, though Singer died still uncertain of their fates).

Singer's fiction examines the political and cultural upheavals in Jewish life between the two world wars and on two continents. They portray a seemingly endless series of wars, class conflicts, pogroms, shifts in borders, and messianic ideologies, critiquing every one of the many choices available to Jews of the period: traditional religious life, secularism, Yiddish culturalism, Zionism, socialism, even individualism. His primary theme is the ultimately destructive nature of any messianic belief in religious, social, or historical resolutions for the problems that beset the individual and the Jews. His fictions offer no resolutions to the tensions in which his characters find themselves, telling instead of the modern Jewish writer's responsibility to articulate these dilemmas and analyze them.


I. Howe, in: Commentary, 41:3 (1966), 76–82; C. Madison, Yiddish Literature (1968), 452–78; I.B. Singer, Mayn Tatn's Beys-Din Shtub (1950), passim; Yoshe Kalb (1965), v–x (introduction by I.B. Singer); M. Ravitch, in: jba, 26 (1968), 121–3; Sh. Bickel, in: Zamlbikher, 6 (1945), 444–8; idem, Shrayber fun Mayn Dor, 1 (1958), 317–27; lnyl, 3 (1960), 640–6; N. Mayzel, Noente un Vayte, 2 (1926), 233–9; idem, Forgeyer un Mittsaytler (1946), 372–93; B. Rivkin, Undzere Prozaiker (1951), 264–73; A. Zeitlin, in: I.J. Singer, Fun a Velt Vos iz Nishto Mer (1946), 5–12. add. bibliography: C. Sinclair, The Brothers Singer (1983); A. Norich, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of I.J. Singer (1991).

[Anita Norich (2nd ed.)]

Singer, Isaac Bashevis

views updated Jun 08 2018

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Born: July 14, 1904
Radzymin, Poland
Died: July 24, 1991
Miami, Florida

Polish-born American author

I saac Bashevis Singer, a Polish-American author, was admired for his recreation of the forgotten world of nineteenth-century Poland and his depiction of a timeless Jewish ghetto (a city neighborhood where a minority group lives).

Early life

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born on July 14, 1904, in Radzymin, Poland. His family moved to Warsaw, Poland, when he was four years old. Both of his grandfathers were rabbis (Jewish spiritual leaders), and Singer was also groomed for Hasidism, a strict spiritual practice, and attended a seminary (a school to train rabbis). However, he decided on a writing career. His older brother, Israel Joseph, was a well-known Yiddish (a language spoken by Jewish people in eastern Europe) writer. Growing up, Singer was impressed by the Jewish folk tales told by his parents. These tales set the groundwork for some of Singer's fictional characters and religious faith.

After Singer completed his seminary studies, he worked as a journalist for the Yiddish press in various parts of Poland. Moving to the United States in 1935, Singer became a reporter for the Daily Forward in New York City, America's largest Yiddish newspaper. Although he personally adapted to his new habitat, his early literary efforts display an appreciation for the "old country." The subjects seem part of a distant past remembered from vivid tales of Polish storytellers.

First works

Singer's first novel, The Family Moskat (1950), was likened by critics to the narratives of the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (18181883) and the French writer Honoré de Balzac (17991850). Based on Singer's own family, the novel succeeds in translating the reality of an orthodox (traditional) Jewish home into a universal reality. Two short stories, "Satan in Goray" and "The Dybbuk and the Golem" (1955), treat the superstition and foolishness of eastern European peasants (people from the lower, working class). A collection of short narratives, Gimpel, the Fool, and Other Stories (1957), reworked earlier themes but skillfully avoided repetition. Beneath the grotesque and folk elements, Singer included in "Gimpel" a psychological-theo-logical (religious) moral conflict in which an uncomplicated man finds his existence threatened by black magic and sorcery (powers from evil spirits).

Modern man is the subject of Singer's novel The Magician of Lublin (1960), which portrays a protagonist (main character) who dares to violate the holiness of tradition. The novel lacks the superb intricacy of The Family Moskat and the haunting suspense of "Gimpel." Still grappling with the modern experience in his next work, Singer set the eleven short pieces of The Spinoza of Market Street (1961) in a ghetto after World War II (193945; a war in which the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union fought against Germany, Japan, and Italy). Having departed from his quaintly unsophisticated world into contemporary urban madness, Singer revealed the stylistic limitations of his simple, flowing writings. "I've always stayed in my same nook, my same corner," Singer once reflected. "If a writer ventures out of his corner he is nothing."

Later work

Singer's The Slave (1962), an epic about seventeenth-century Poland, recounts the brutal world of Russian Cossacks (peasant soldiers in the Ukraine) through the eyes of an enslaved, sensitive Jew; yet somehow the work appeals to modern sensibilities. Once again Singer's flawless writing recaptures a timeless folk element. When a collection of scenes filled with memories of Singer's childhood in the Warsaw ghetto (an extremely poor neighborhood), A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1969), won the National Book Award for children's literature, Singer remarked that he wrote for young people because "they still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, and other such obsolete stuff." A Friend of Kafka, a collection of short fiction, appeared in 1970.

Recipient of numerous other literary awards, Singer remained an active journalist and critic for the Daily Forward. He always wrote in Yiddish and then worked closely with his English translators (people who change text from one language to another) because of the difficulty in finding equivalents for his subtle writings. His "simple" and "unchanging" fictions have gained in popularity with a new generation possessing a taste for an obscure and sometimes grotesque past which seems more real than an unclear future, for his stories capture the essence of the human condition.

Singer received numerous awards throughout the latter portion of his life. Some of the more noted include Nobel Prize in literature (1978) and the Gold Medal for Fiction (1989). Singer continued to publish new material until his death in 1991.

For More Information

Farrell, Grace, ed. Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Goran, Lester. The Bright Streets of Surfside: The Memoir of a Friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994.

Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Siegel, Ben. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. In My Father's Court. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Zamir, Israel. Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Arcade, 1995.

About this article

Israel Joshua Singer

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic


Israel Joshua Singer