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Isaac Bashevis Singer: Master Storyteller

By Caroline Kim-Brown | HUMANITIES, July/August 2004 | Volume 25, Number 4

In an interview about his early years in America, Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "When I came to America I had a feeling of catastrophe. My only hope was to come to America. I foresaw that there would be no rest in Poland. Many people were too optimistic or blind to see the danger. I foresaw the Holocaust."

When Singer arrived in New York in 1935 at the age of thirty, he spoke exactly three words in English: "Take a chair." It was not an auspicious time to be an immigrant; America was in the midst of the Great Depression. But life in Eastern Europe with the rise of Hitler was even worse.

It was a difficult transition. Although Singer was already established as a rising star in the Yiddish literary scene in Warsaw with the publication of his novel, Satan in Goray, and as the youngest member of the Yiddish PEN club, he was an unknown in the new world.

He had made the voyage under the auspices of his older brother, the well-known novelist Israel Joshua Singer, who had been invited to New York several years earlier to supervise the stage adaptation of his novel, Yoshe Kalb. One of I.J. Singer's enthusiastic fans was Abe Cahan, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, who hired him as a staff writer. In turn, I.J. Singer mediated the sale of one of his brother's stories and sent him a ticket to America.

Singer said of himself, "I felt that I had been torn out of my roots and that I would never grow any new ones in this country. In reality, I considered myself a has-been writer, an ex-writer, a writer who had lost both the power and the appetite for writing."

Singer could not have been more wrong. After his initial difficult years in America, he went on to create a body of work--short stories, novels, memoirs, children's stories, plays, articles--that would place him firmly at the top of America's literary hierarchy. Honors and prizes would adorn him. The greatest of these came in 1978, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But this would have no doubt come as a surprise to the rabbi's son from Leoncin, Poland, as he disembarked in 1935.

This year marks the centenary of Isaac Bashevis Singer's birth and is being celebrated with the publication of a three-volume edition, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Complete Stories, by the Library of America. According to Max Rudin, publisher of Library of America, more than half of Singer's stories are no longer in print. "We felt that the hundredth birthday in 2004 provided an occasion to make the collected stories permanently available as a Library of America series," he says. "The centenary publication of his work seemed like an opportunity to celebrate and explore him and his work as American writing. And at the same time, to deepen and enrich our sense of who an American writer is."

In conjunction with the National Yiddish Book Center, Florida Atlantic University, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, and the Jewish Museum, among others, a host of centenary activities are being planned: conferences, evenings of selected readings, a radio program, and a traveling exhibition of Singer materials from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

During his early years in America, before all the prizes and honors, Singer experienced a deep crisis as a writer. It was a crisis of language. Warsaw during Singer's time flourished as a world center for Yiddish literature. In New York, although it was home to a network of Yiddish schools, theaters, and newspapers, Singer sensed immediately that Yiddish was a dying language. "What he discovers is that Yiddish in America is an obsolescent language," says David Moskies, professor of Yiddish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. "It's no longer a living language. It is only spoken by an ever-smaller group of people. And what's more, that group of people is speaking a patois, a kind of creolized Yiddish. He understands that there was no future for Yiddish as a driving cultural force in America. So he stops writing."

To support himself, Singer contributed to the Forward--reviews, sketches, observations ("Can a Person Change?"; "Why Men and Women Divorce--No Rules But the Cases Are Interesting") and short articles ("What Studies Have Uncovered About Talented Children")--but he wrote little fiction. According to David Moskies, "From the very beginning and throughout his career, he defined himself as a realistic writer who could only write with the materials that were at hand." Singer realized that he was unable to describe Jewish life in America by writing in Yiddish.

"He didn't feel that he could write about characters whose lives and thoughts were not lived in Yiddish," says Morris Dickstein, professor of English at City University of New York. "He thought it was phony. He had a very rigorous literary conscience and he thought it would be false to impose the linguistic resources of a European Yiddish on a partly-Americanized Jewish community whose language and life had been transformed."

Singer tackled the subject in a controversial 1943 essay entitled "Problems of Yiddish Prose in America." He writes, "Words, like people, sometimes endure a severe disorientation when they emigrate, and often they remain forever helpless and not quite themselves. This is precisely what happened to Yiddish in America . . . . The graceful words have too much tradition; the new ones are somewhat strange and tawdry, and ungainly to boot. Americanisms reek of foreignness, of cheap glitter, of impermanence."

To put Yiddish in the mouths of a Jewish doctor or schoolteacher in America would create false dialog. As well, young American Jews "are automatically barred from being portrayed in Yiddish fiction." Singer continued, "Language is an insurmountable barrier. A belletrist cannot work in a language that is inherently untranslatable."

In 1943, Singer began writing fiction again when he found a solution to his linguistic dilemma--renounce America and the present altogether and return to a past where Yiddish was still a living language. For Singer, that world was Poland. He began by reaching back into his own past and culling stories of the shtetl and ghettos, the yeshivas and rabbinical courts from his memory, and going even further back to the folklore that he heard as a child. Though he was returning to the traditions of a Yiddish past, he affirmed that a writer must do so in a contemporary way--unsentimental, never nostalgic. "Yiddish literature must look backwards as often as necessary for theme, plot, setting and character, but this does not mean that it must be old fashioned. . . . Psychoanalysis can be applied to a story from the past just as well as to a slice of life still warm with reality," he wrote in his 1943 essay.

"I think the striking novelty of his work is that he leapfrogged into Jewish traditions that were familiar to the Orthodox but were not part of modern Yiddish literature," says Dickstein. "So he reached back into a kind of tempestuous apocalyptic period which turned out to be very fertile material for modernism. Much more so than the social interests of his brother or other contemporary Yiddish writers. And so his deep traditionalism turned out to be one of the keys to his modernism."

What is traditional about Singer's stories are his settings, the small towns and Jewish city life of Warsaw, and the fact that his characters are rabbis and yeshiva students and simple people like butchers, bakers, and their wives. He had experienced it all firsthand. Born in the small town of Leoncin to a Hasidic rabbi and the daughter of a rabbi, Singer moved with his family to Warsaw when he was four years old. At 10 Krochmalna Street, where his father presided over a rabbinical court and earned a meager livelihood from donations and private Talmud lessons, Singer found rich material for his later stories.

"I keep going back to 10 Krochmalna Street in my writing," he once said in an interview. "I remember every little corner and every person there. I say to myself that just as other people are digging gold which God has created billions of years ago, my literary gold mine is this street. I keep returning to it with the feeling that there are still treasures which I haven't used up."

In 1917 Singer moved with his mother and younger brother, Moishe, to Bilgoraj to live for a time with his maternal grandparents. He had been introduced by his older brother, I.J., to secular writers such as Dostoyevsky, and in addition to his continuing religious education, he read Spinoza, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Flaubert, and Maupassant. At times, this caused conflict. When one of his Hebrew poems appeared in a local newspaper, his family's charitable stipend was threatened. "I had to promise to recant my apostasy," he later wrote, "and return to 'real' learning--to Judaism, the Talmud."

It is in Bilgoraj that he was nourished by the superstitions and Yiddish folktales of devils and dybbuks, by the traditions of the Kabala and stories of seventeenth-century battles over messianism and false messiahs. Out of this sensibility came stories such as "Gimpel the Fool" and "Zeidlus the Pope," where he gave voice to the devil in a literary style Moskies terms "demonic realism," which is, according to Moskies, "Where evil is metaphysical and that metaphysical evil is real."

In another story, "The Cafeteria," Hitler appears in New York to a Holocaust survivor. At first, the narrator simply assumes the woman is insane, but later muses, "I thought about what Esther had told me of seeing Hitler in the cafeteria. It had seemed utter nonsense, but now I began to reappraise the idea. If time and space are nothing more than forms of perception, as Kant argues, and quality, quantity, causality are only categories of thinking, why shouldn't Hitler confer with his Nazis in a cafeteria on Broadway? Esther didn't sound insane. She had seen a piece of reality that the heavenly censorship prohibits as a rule. She had caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the phenomena."

Singer's fascination with the natural and supernatural elements of Yiddish folktales is, ironically enough, what gives his work such a modern sensibility. For he does not simply describe devils and dybbuks, but uses them as metaphors for the contemporary world. "In reaching back to this earlier preliterary folklore," says Dickstein, "he added a dimension to the literature that really wasn't there. Partly he turns them into a typical modernist fascination with the unconscious, with the psyche, with the irrational. Again, it's the paradox of his reaching back to a highly traditional, but neglected material, to create a body of work that in some aspects is ultramodern."

Singer turned to earlier folklore partly as a rejection of the socialist realist trend that defined Yiddish literature in the early twentieth century. He dismissed the notion of literature for social or educational purposes. "He detested Communism. He detested Marxism," says Dickstein. "He felt that those were enlightenment philosophies based on a foolishly optimistic view of human nature. Whereas he felt that the religious tradition, especially this popular folkloric aspect of the religious tradition, had a far deeper and grimmer vision of the nature of man than was to be found in any modern thought."

It also allowed him to write about the Holocaust without doing so directly. In "The Cafeteria," whether Esther, the Holocaust survivor, actually sees Hitler in corporeal form or not, she has witnessed firsthand the evil that he represents. What is important is that the evil is real.

Singer's stories and novels, appearing in the Forward in a serialized form, attracted an enthusiastic audience of Yiddish readers, especially after World War II, when a sizable number of refugees and Holocaust survivors immigrated to New York. But in 1953, he experienced a stroke of luck when Eliezer Greenberg read "Gimpel the Fool" to critic Irving Howe. Howe was immediately taken with the story and pressed Saul Bellow into service as translator. In one afternoon, in a story that has become mythic with time, the three worked together to translate the story into English. Bellow's translation was published in Partisan Review.

The timing was fortuitous. Younger Jewish writers and critics were seeking a past that had been destroyed, says Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College and editor of the Library of America's edition of Singer's complete stories. "His emergence dovetailed with this extraordinary flowering of American Jewish writing. . . which, in fact, created the conditions for the reception and appreciation of his work." Yiddish life in Eastern Europe had been wiped out in one swift stroke by the Nazis; an entire, previously thriving world had vanished. It continued to exist in Singer's work.

Singer's work began attracting the notice of a wider American .audience as he was published in ever more mainstream publications such as Mademoiselle, Esquire, GQ, Harpers, Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy, where he won the magazine's fiction prize in 1967. The New Yorker broke its long-standing policy of refusing translated works and negotiated the option of first serial publication for the English versions of his stories.

"Translated" is a bit of a misnomer for Singer's work later in his career. Although he continued to write in Yiddish, as he grew more successful, he came to think of the Yiddish originals as templates for the finished English versions. Originally, it arose from necessity; most of his translators did not speak Yiddish. "He sat with them, he would dictate or he would orally translate a version to them in English," says Stavans. "And they would type whatever they had, and then go home to turn it into something more polished. Then they would come back and he would approve it. The result was the English was considered a second original rather than a translation."

"As he goes on and becomes more comfortable in English, he begins to work with translators and even to revise the English versions so he develops a very good sense of English idiom," Dickstein says. "When translators translate something too literally, he changes it to sound more natural in English. By the 1970s, when he begins writing for The New Yorker and he has the help and involvement of the editors, his stories begin to read as if they written originally in English." It is the English versions that are then translated internationally into other languages.

By the time Singer won the Nobel Prize in 1978, only the seventh American to do so, he was seen as the elder statesman of Yiddish literature. But a decidedly prickly one. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he was dismissive of his fellow writers--Yiddish, Jewish, or otherwise. "First of all," says Moskies, "he insists that he has nothing to do with the tradition of Yiddish literature. He repeats this over and over and over again. He wanted interviewers to believe that he is unique, sui generis, and that he doesn't come from anywhere."

Dickstein agrees. "He never saw himself as part of any group. He was very ungenerous, for example, towards American Jewish writers who practically worshipped him. He thought they were all second-rate."

Later in life when he was often interviewed, Singer was uncannily astute at creating a grandfatherly persona. According to Moskies, he was easily able to fool his interviewers. "Most of the time, they haven't read his theoretical writings from before so they don't know that he's an avid reader of Dostoyevsky. They don't know that he has a very sophisticated critical vocabulary. They don't know where he's coming from. What they see is this guy who writes stories about the shtetl, who speaks with a heavy accent. So he must be a great Jew from the old country. He's like Gimpel the Fool."

What made Singer successful as a creator of his own persona is exactly what accounts for his greatness as a writer. "He had an extremely natural gift for storytelling. In this respect he was a traditionalist rather than a modernist. He really believed that the core of any fiction was a good story. He just had an extremely natural and incredibly fertile storytelling ability."

It was a seamless progression for Singer to turn to writing children's stories. In the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote fourteen popular books for children, working with illustrators such as Maurice Sendak. In his Nobel banquet speech, he even gave ten tongue-in-cheek reasons for writing for children, among which were "Children don't read to find their identity; they don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation; they don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake; they still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff; and they don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."

What was not illusory was the remarkable achievement of Singer's life and work. Bound to Yiddish all his life, he created a bridge between the old world and the new, between a past that had been violently erased and a present that he often regarded with ambivalence. Through his struggles as a writer, his love of stories and his commitment to literature helped sustain him. And, in turn, his readers. In his Nobel lecture, he said, "While the poet entertains, he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion, he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound, I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet--whom Plato banned from his Republic--may rise up to save us all."

About the Author

Caroline Kim-Brown is a writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

The Library of America received $299,850 in NEH support to create a traveling exhibition, a website, www.ibsinger100.org, and a year of public programs in fifty libraries around the nation marking Singer's one-hundredth birthday.