Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, 1904-91, American novelist and short-story writer in the Yiddish language, younger brother of I. J. Singer, b. Leoncin, Poland (then in Russia). The son of a provincial Hasidic rabbi (see Hasidism), he moved to Warsaw in the early 1920s and became associated with the city's Yiddish literati. He emigrated to the United States in 1935 and worked in New York City as a journalist on the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, which also published much of his early fiction. In 1943 he became an American citizen. Singer's American career was launched a decade later when his story "Gimpel the Fool" was discovered by Irving Howe, translated by Saul Bellow, and published in the Partisan Review.

Singer's work, often frankly sexual, draws heavily on Jewish folklore, religion, and mysticism and frequently deals with shtetl life in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. Many of his later works treat the loneliness of old age and the sense of alienation produced in Jews by the dissolution of values through assimilation with the Gentile world. His novels include Satan in Goray (1933, tr. 1955), The Family Moskat (1945, tr. 1950), The Slave (tr. 1962), The Manor (tr. 1967), Enemies (tr. 1972), Shosha (tr. 1978), The Penitent (tr. 1983), Scum (tr. 1991), and the posthumously published Shadows on the Hudson (tr. 1997).

Singer is also highly regarded for his hundreds of vivid, imaginative, perceptive, and witty short stories. Collections include Gimpel the Fool (tr. 1961), The Spinoza of Market Street (tr. 1961), Old Love (tr. 1979), and The Death of Methuselah (tr. 1985). In 2004 his Collected Stories, in English translation, were published in three volumes. Singer also wrote books for children and several plays, notably The Mirror (tr. 1973). Though he wrote in Yiddish, he was fluent in English and closely supervised the English translations of his works. In 1978 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Yiddish-language author to be so honored.

See his autobiographical In My Father's Court (1966); his memoirs, A Little Boy in Search of God (1976), A Young Man in Search of Love (1978), Lost in America (1979), and Love and Exile (1984); biographies by P. Kresh (1979), C. Sinclair (1983), J. Hadda (1997), and F. Noiville (2006); I. Stavans, ed., Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album (2004); studies by E. Alexander (1980), D. N. Miller (1985), and G. Farrell and B. Farrell, ed. (1996).

Yiddish Yitskhok Bashevis Zinger

(born July 14?, 1904, Radzymin, Pol., Russian Empire—died July 24, 1991, Surfside, Fla., U.S.) Polish-born U.S. writer of novels, short stories, and essays. He received a traditional Jewish education at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary. After publishing his first novel, Satan in Goray (1932), he immigrated to the U.S. in 1935 and wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper in New York. Though he continued to write mostly in Yiddish, he personally supervised the English translations. Depicting Jewish life in Poland and the U.S., his works are a rich blend of irony, wit, and wisdom, flavoured distinctively with the occult and the grotesque. His works include the novels The Family Moskat (1950), The Magician of Lublin (1960), and Enemies: A Love Story (1972; film, 1989); the story collections Gimpel the Fool (1957), The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), and A Crown of Feathers (1973, National Book Award); and the play Yentl the Yeshiva Boy (1974; film, 1983). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer (יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער) (November 21, 1902 (see notes below) – July 24, 1991) was a Nobel Prize-winning Polish-born American author and one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement.

Birth

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncin (the family moved to Radzymin, often erroneously cited as his birthplace, some years later), a village inhabited mainly by Jews near Warsaw in Congress Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. His birthday was most probably November 21, 1902, which would concur with the date and month he admitted in private to his official biographer Paul Kresh, his secretary Dvorah Telushkin (p. 266), and with the historical events he and his brother refer to in their childhood-memoirs. The usual, official date of birth, July 14, 1904, had been freely decided upon by the author in his early youth, most probably making himself younger to avoid the draft. His father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoraj. Singer later used her name in his pen name "Bashevis" (Bathsheba's). His brother Israel Joshua Singer also was a noted writer. Their elder sister, Esther Kreitman, was also a writer. She was the first in the family to write stories. The family moved to the court of the Rabbi of Radzymin in 1907, where his father became head of the Yeshiva. After the Yeshiva-building burned down, the family moved to Krochmalna-Street in the Yiddish-speaking poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw in 1908, where Singer grew up. There his father acted as a rabbi - that is, as judge, arbitrator, religious authority and spiritual leader.

World War I

In 1917 the family had to split up because of the hardships of World War I, and Singer moved with his mother and younger brother Moshe to his mother's hometown of Biłgoraj, a traditional Jewish town or shtetl, where his mother's brothers had followed his grandfather as rabbis. When his father became a village-rabbi again in 1921, Singer went back to Warsaw, where he entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, but found out that neither the school nor the profession suited him. He returned to Biłgoraj, where he tried to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons, but soon gave up and joined his parents, considering himself a failure. But in 1923 his older brother Israel Joshua arranged for him to move to Warsaw to work as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, of which he was an editor.

Writing

Singer's first published story won the literary competition of the "literarishe bletter" and he soon got a name as a promising talent. A reflection of his formative years in "the kitchen of literature" (his own expression) (p. 132) can be found in many of his later works. I. B. Singer's first novel was Satan in Goray which he first published in installments in a literary magazine, Globus, which he had founded with his life-long friend, the Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin in 1935. It tells the story of the events in the village of Goraj (close to Biłgoraj), after the terrible catastrophe of 1648, where the Jews of Poland lost a third of their population in a cruel uprising by Cossacks and the effects of the seventeenth century faraway false messiah Shabbatai Zvi on the local population. Its last chapter is written in the style imitative of medieval Yiddish chronicle. In its stark depiction of innocence crushed by circumstance it appears like a foreboding of the coming danger. In his later work The Slave (1962) Singer returned to the aftermath of 1648 again, in a love story of a Jewish man and a Gentile woman, where he shows the traumatized and desperate survivors of a historic catastrophe with even deeper understanding.

New York City

To flee from approaching fascism, Singer emigrated, once again with the help of his brother, to the U.S. in 1935. In doing that, he separated from his first wife Rachel, and son Israel, who went to Moscow and later Palestine. Singer settled in New York, where he started writing as a journalist and columnist for The Forward (פֿאָרװערטס), a Yiddish-language newspaper. After a promising beginning, he became despondent and, for some years, felt "Lost in America" (title of a Singer-novel, in Yiddish from 1974 onward, in English 1981). But, in 1938, he met Alma Wassermann, born Haimann, a German-Jewish refugee from Munich, whom he married in 1940. With her at his side, he became a prolific writer again and, in due course, a valued contributor to the Forward with so many articles that he used, besides "Bashevis", the pen names "Varshavsky" and "D. Segal".

The Family Moskat

However, he became an actual literary contributor to the Forward only after his brother's death in 1945, when he published "The Family Moskat", which he wrote in honor of his older brother. But his own style showed in the daring turns of his action and characters - with (and this in the Jewish family-newspaper in 1945) double adultery in the holiest of nights of Judaism, the evening of Yom Kippur. He was almost forced to stop the novel by the legendary editor in chief, Abraham Cahan, but was saved through his readers, who wanted the story to go on. After this, his stories - which he had published in Yiddish literary newspapers before - were printed in the Forward too. Throughout the 1940s, Singer's reputation began to grow. After World War II and the near destruction of the Yiddish-speaking peoples, Yiddish seemed a dead language. Though Singer had moved to the United States, he believed in the power of his native language and was convinced that there was still a large audience that longed to read in Yiddish. In an interview in Encounter (Feb. 1979), he claimed that although the Jews of Poland had died, "something - call it spirit or whatever - is still somewhere in the universe. This is a mystical kind of feeling, but I feel there is truth in it."

There were colleagues and readers who were shocked by his all encompassing-view of human nature. He wrote about female homosexuality ("Zeitl and Rickl"; in "The Seance"), transvestitism ("Yentl the Yeshiva Boy"; in "Short Friday"), and of rabbis corrupted by demons ("Zeidlus the Pope"; in "Short Friday"). In those novels and stories which seem to retell his own life, he portrays himself unflatteringly as the self-centered young (or old) artist which he most probably was, yet with a keen eye for the sufferings and tribulations of others.

Singer had many literary influences, including the great writers of Yiddish tradition such as Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, and more modern authors like Dovid Berglson--although he himself considered his older brother his greatest artistic example. Singer was also influenced by European literature, especially the writings of Knut Hamsun, whom he read (and translated) in his youth, and whose subjective approach he transferred to his own world, which, contrary to Hamsun's, was not only shaped by the ego of its characters, but by the moral commitments of the Jewish traditions he grew up with and which his father embodies in the stories about his youth. This led to the dichotomy between the life his heroes led and the life they feel they should lead - which gives his art a modernity his predecessors do not have. His themes of witchcraft, mystery and legend draw on traditional sources, but they are contrasted with a modern and ironic consciousness. They are also concerned with the bizarre and the grotesque.

Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish (almost all of it in newspapers) and then edited his novels and stories for the American version, which became the base for all the other translations (he talked of his "second original"). This has led to an ongoing controversy where the "real Singer" can be found - in the Yiddish original, with its finely tuned language, and, sometimes, rambling construction, or in the tightly edited American version, where the language is usually simpler and more direct. Many stories and novels of I. B. Singer have not been translated yet.

Singer published at least 18 novels, 14 children's books, a number of memoirs, essays and articles, but he is best known as a writer of short stories which have appeared in over a dozen collections. The first collection of Singer's short stories in English, Gimpel the Fool, was published in 1957. The title story was translated by Saul Bellow and published in May 1953 in Partisan Review. Selections from Singer's "Varshavsky-stories" in the Daily Forward were later published in anthologies as My Father's Court (1966). Later collections include A Crown of Feathers (1973), with notable masterpieces in between, such as The Spinoza of Market Street (1961) and A Friend of Kafka (1970). His stories and novels reflect the world of the East European Jewry he grew up in - in its complexity and grandeur, its material poverty and spiritual splendor. And, after his many years in America, his stories also concerned themselves with the world of the immigrants and the way they pursue the American dream, elusive both when they obtain it, as Salomon Margolin, the successful doctor of "A Wedding in Brownsville" (in Short Friday), who finds out his true love was killed by the Nazis, or when it escapes them as it does the "Cabalist of East Broadway" (in A Crown of Feathers), who prefers the misery of the Lower East Side to an honored and secure life as a married man.

Another important strand of his art is inner-familial strife - which he experienced first hand when taking refuge with his mother and younger brother at his uncles home in Biłgoraj. This is the central theme in Singer's big family chronicles - like The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). Some are reminded by them of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks; Singer had translated Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) into Yiddish as a young writer.

One of his most famous novels (due to a popular movie remake) was Enemies, a Love Story in which a Holocaust survivor deals with his own desires, complex family relationships, and the loss of faith. Singer's feminist story "Yentl" has had a wide impact on culture since being made into a popular movie starring Barbra Streisand. Perhaps the most fascinating Singer-inspired film is 1974's Mr. Singer's Nightmare or Mrs. Pupkos Beard by Bruce Davidson, a renowned photographer who became Singer's neighbor. This unique film is a half-hour mixture of documentary and fantasy for which Singer not only wrote the script but played the leading part.

Throughout the 1960s, Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality, and was the target of scathing criticism from many quarters during this time, some of it for not being "moral" enough, some for writing stories that no one wanted to hear. To this he replied, "Literature must spring from the past, from the love of the uniform force that wrote it, and not from the uncertainty of the future."

Singer's own relationship with religion was complex. He regarded himself as a skeptic and a loner, though he still felt connected to his Orthodox roots, and ultimately developed his own brand of religion and philosophy which he called a "private mysticism: Since God was completely unknown and eternally silent, He could be endowed with whatever traits one elected to hang upon Him."

Nobel Prize

After being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978, Singer gained a monumental status among writers throughout the world, and his reputation with non-Jewish audiences is now higher than that of any other Yiddish writer.

Singer and Judaism

Singer's relationship to Judaism, which was complex and unconventional, is hard to describe, mainly because he did not write very much directly about it. On the other hand, he often uses first-person narrators in his fiction which are clearly meant to represent him personally. So these conclusions are based mainly on his fiction.

Singer was brought up in an Orthodox household, where he learned all the Jewish prayers, studied Hebrew, and learned Torah and Talmud. But as he recounts in the autobiographical ' 'In My Father's Court ' ', he broke away from his parents in his early twenties and began spending time with non-religious Bohemian artists in Warsaw (influenced by his older brother, who had done the same thing). Although he clearly believed in a monotheistic God, as in traditional Judaism, he stopped attending Jewish religious services of any kind, even on the High Holy Days. His vegetarianism, which he adopted in 1962[1], when he had the means to do so, and which became a very important part of his later life, can also be seen as a way of avoiding the question of Kosher food. He struggled throughout his life with the realization that a kind, compassionate God would never inflict the massive suffering he saw around him, especially the death of the Polish Jews he grew up with in the Holocaust. In one interview with the photographer Richard Kaplan, he said, "I am angry at God because of what happened to my brother [his older brother died, suddenly, in February 1944, in New York, of a thrombosis, his younger brother perished in Sowjet Russia ca. 1945, after being deported with his mother and his wife to Southern Kazachstan]." In one story, however, his narrator tells a woman, "If you believe in God, then he exists." [Please quote]

Despite all these compexities of his religious views, Singer lived in the midst of the Jewish community throughout his life. He did not seem to be comfortable, unless he lived surrounded by Jews, particularly Jews born in Europe. Although he spoke English, Hebrew, and Polish quite fluently, he always considered Yiddish to be his natural language. After he had obtained some success as a Jewish writer in New York, he and his wife began spending time during the winter with the Jewish community in Miami. Eventually, as senior citizens, they moved to Miami and became closely identified with the European Jewish community there, and a street was named after him (long before his death). He was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery (see below).

Especially in his short fiction, he often writes about Jews of various kinds who are having religious struggles, and sometimes these struggles become quite violent, resulting in death or mental illness. In one story he meets a young woman in New York whom he knew from an Orthodox family in Poland. She has become a kind of hippy, sings American folk music with a guitar, and rejects Judaism, although the narrator comments that in many ways she seems typically Jewish. The narrator says that he often meets Jews who think they are anything but Jewish, and yet they are. [Please quote]

To summarize, Singer is unquestionably a Jewish writer, yet his precise views about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish God are subject to much interpretation. Whatever they are, they lie at the center of his literary art.

[1] Stephen Tree, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Munich 2004, p. 154

Death

Singer died on July 24, 1991 in Surfside, Florida, after suffering a series of strokes. He was buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, Emerson. There is a street in Surfside, Florida named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in his honor.

Vegetarianism

Singer was a prominent vegetarian for the last 35 years of his life and often included such themes in his works. In his short story, The Slaughterer, he described the anguish that an appointed slaughterer had trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job of slaughtering them. He felt that the eating of meat was a denial of all ideals and all religions: "How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood". When asked if he had become a vegetarian for health reasons, he replied: "I did it for the health of the chickens."

In The Letter Writer, he wrote "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka"

In the preface to Steven Rosen's "Food for Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions" (1986), Singer wrote, "When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent. I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, "I'm against vegetarianism!" I would say, "Well, I am for it!" This is how strongly I feel in this regard."

List of works

Note: the publication years in the following list refer to English translations, not the Yiddish originals (which often predate their translations by ten or twenty years).

The Power of Light

Posthumous editions

  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 1 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108261-7
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 2 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108262-4
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 3 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108263-1

see also:

Bibliographies

  • David Neal Miller: Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1924-1949, New York, Bern, Frankfurt/M., Nancy, 1984.
  • Roberta Saltzman: Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Bibliography of His Works in Yiddisch and English, 1960-1991, Lanham, Maryland, and London, 2002.

Secondary literature

  • Paul Kresh "Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street", New York 1979
  • Dorothea Straus, "Under the Canopy. The story of a friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer that chronicles a reawakening of Jewish identity.", George Braziller: New York, 1982. ISBN 0-8076-1028-3.
  • Maurice Carr, "My Uncle Itzhak: A Memoir of I. B. Singer", In: Commentary, December 1992
  • Aleksandra Ziółkowska "Korzenie są polskie", Warszawa 1992, ISBN 83-7066-406-7;
  • Aleksandra Ziółkowska Boehm "The Roots Are Polish", Toronto 2004, ISBN 0-920517-05-6.
  • Israel Zamir "Journey to My Father Isaac Bashevis Singer", New York 1995
  • Lester Goran "The Bright Streets of Surfside. The Memoir of a Friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer", Kent, Ohio 1994
  • Janet Hadda "Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life", New York 1997
  • Dvorah Telushkin "Master of Dreams", A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer", New York 1997
  • Agata Tuszynska "Lost Landscapes", In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland, Transl. by M. G. Levine, New York 1998
  • "The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer", edited by Seth Wolitz, University of Texas Press, 2002
  • Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich 2004 (in German) ISBN 3423244151
  • Jeffrey Sussman: "Recollecting Isaac Bashevis Singer." Jewish Currents Magazine and The East Hampton Star

See also

References

Further reading

External links

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