Isaac Bashevis Singer (right) with two other writers, Warsaw, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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Singer, Isaac Bashevis

(1904–1991), Yiddish writer; in translation, among the most widely read authors of the twentieth century. The son and grandson of rabbis on both sides of his family, Isaac Bashevis Singer was born to strictly observant parents in the village of Leoncin, near Warsaw. With the outbreak of World War I, his mother (from whose first name he later derived his pseudonym Bashevis) took her children back to the village of Biłgoraj, where her rabbi father ruled with iron discipline. There, in a place untouched by modernity, Bashevis, who was educated in traditional religious schools, acquired the profound knowledge of religious observances, folk customs, and rich range of Yiddish idioms that shaped his fiction. At the age of 17, he enrolled for one year in Warsaw’s Taḥkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, after which he taught modern Hebrew in private homes.

Strongly influenced by his older brother, the writer Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944), Bashevis read widely in secular European literature and philosophy. Returning to Warsaw determined to be a writer himself, he worked as a proofreader for the journal Literarishe bleter between 1923 and 1933, and translated several European novels from German. He also published his own work in Literarishe bleter and in Undzer ekspres. In 1925, he won a fiction prize for an early story titled “Oyf der elter” (In Old Age), published under the name Tse. In his subsequent   subsequent work, he used the name Yitskhok Bashevis, a nom de plume he created to distinguish his work from that of his brother. He became a regular visitor in the home of Hillel Zeitlin, the leader of Warsaw’s intellectual religious community, and he formed a lifelong friendship with Zeitlin’s son Arn.

(Bottom) Membership card from 1932 belonging to Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, from the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw, with (top) Singer’s press card as a reporter for Undzer ekspres from the same period. (YIVO)

In 1927, in an essay titled “Verter oder bilder?” (Words or Pictures?), Bashevis argued that vivid images and stark naturalism are essential for good fiction, illustrating his theory by producing more than 20 stories and 2 additional literary-critical essays over the next 10 years. The most typical of these early stories included “Shamay vayts” (Shammai Weitz, 1929), “Tsvishn vent” (Between Walls; 1930), and “In letste teg” (In Recent Days; 1931).

In Warsaw in 1932, Bashevis and Arn Zeitlin founded the journal Globus, which appeared monthly between 1932 and 1935. In one of its earliest issues (September 1932), Bashevis published a second literary-critical essay, “Tsu der frage vegn dikhtung un politik” (In Relation to the Question of Poetry and Politics), condemning 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, attacking them through subtle historical parallelism in his first novel, Der sotn in Goray (Satan in Goray), serialized in Globus between January and September 1933. Two years later, Warsaw’s Yiddish PEN club published this work in book form, declaring it the most promising first novel by a local writer. Set in the aftermath of the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres and making no direct contemporary allusions, the novel implicitly challenges utopian dreams by dramatically illustrating the disastrous consequences of political hysteria generated by messianic delusions.

Later in 1935, Bashevis emigrated to the United States and, through the assistance of his brother, obtained a job working first as a proofreader and then as a columnist on the staff of the Forverts, New York’s leading Yiddish daily. For the rest of his life, he remained a regular contributor to the Forverts, under a variety of pen names in many genres—including Y. Warshavsky, under which he wrote memoirs and belletristic pieces, and D. Segal, under which he wrote agony-aunt columns (offering personal advice in response to readers’ questions) and other ephemera. For most of his creative life, he continued to publish virtually all his work first in Yiddish.

In 1943, the year Bashevis became a U.S. citizen, the world knew that East European Jewry was being systematically exterminated, and he published three major works in America in immediate response to the Holocaust. Der sotn in Goray was reissued in hard covers, together with four new stories; a near-programmatic essay titled “Problemen fun der yidisher proze in Amerike” (Problems of Yiddish Prose in America) appeared in Svive; and his critical essay, “Arum der yidisher literatur in Poyln” (Regarding Yiddish Literature in Poland) appeared in a special issue of Tsukunft.

In his four new stories, Bashevis introduced for the first time a demon narrator, as though human speech had now become inadequate to describe human evil. In the special issue of Tsukunft, Bashevis’s essay criticized the themes chosen by Yiddish writers in Poland, and the inadequacy of the Yiddish language to create convincing “modern” characters and narratives, arguing instead for a return to the “hidden treasures” of age-old Jewish folk culture in their natural vernacular. In his essay for Svive, he went even further, arguing that since the Yiddish language in America 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. Practicing what he preached, he began work on his long saga novel Di familye Mushkat (The Family Moskat), which aimed to depict, by tracing the fortunes of several generations of the same family, the rise, growth and destruction of twentieth-century Polish Jewry.

In America, Bashevis soon realized that he had a limited future as a writer if his work was published only in Yiddish. Following the example of Sholem Asch (1880–1957), he therefore encouraged English translations of his work, through which he achieved worldwide celebrity. By the time of his death at age 87, he had been awarded most of the world’s foremost literary prizes from the United States, Italy, France, Israel, and finally, from Sweden, the Nobel Prize for Literature (1978). In addition, he had been awarded 18 honorary doctorates and had been elected a member of both the American Academy and the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Directly exposed for the first 30 years of his own life to those massive twentieth-century intellectual, political, and social upheavals that radically undermined traditional Jewish identity, Bashevis 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 continually shifting the settings of his fictions over a period of nearly four centuries, Bashevis 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 evaluate human action within the absolute categories of good and evil consistently informed the graphic use Bashevis made of sexuality, which is never gratuitously sensational. His sexually promiscuous characters are always presented as emotionally withered beings, their damaged condition painted with bold symbolism. His deployment of evil spirits equally purposefully separates sacred from profane. Demons torment the licentious, the blasphemous, and the arrogant; but they are powerless against the chaste, the pious, and the humble. They always express the evil in human hearts, though the evil of the Holocaust is too great, even for them: “Why demons,” asks the demon-narrator of “Mayse Tishevits” (A Tale from Tishevits; 1963; translated into English under the title “The Last Demon”), “when man himself is a demon?”

To depict a world in which moral absolutes prevail, Bashevis deliberately set much of his work in pre-Holocaust Poland. There, far from technological advancements and not yet convulsed by what he depicted as the ethical corruptions of the Haskalah, Jews venerated the precepts of the Torah as unalterably binding. As in all human worlds, there too were sinners, but they did not yet inhabit a hefker velt, les din ve-les dayen, “an arbitrary world, without judge and without judgment,” which is how Bashevis consistently presented the moral vacuum of the twentieth century.

Bashevis steadfastly depicted 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 murdered 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 few were Holocaust survivors, trying to rebuild their lives in America. Bashevis 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, Bashevis repeatedly concluded, made Jews neither better nor worse; however, it left the secularized and acculturated floating in a moral limbo such as materialistic America, which he savagely bodied forth in both Shotns baym Hodson (Shadows on the Hudson; 1957) and in Sonim, di geshikhte fun a libe (Enemies: A Love Story; 1966).

The current list of Bashevis Singer’s books in English numbers 13 novels, 10 volumes of short stories, 5 volumes of memoirs, 14 books for children, and 3 anthologies of selected writings. In Yiddish, on the other hand, there are only 5 novels published in book form: Der sotn in Goray; Di familye Mushkat, 2 vols.; Der kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (The Magician of Lublin; 1971); Der bal-tshuve (The Penitent; 1974); and Der knekht (The Slave; 1980); 3 collections of stories: Gimpl tam un andere dertseylungen (Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories; 1963); Mayses fun hintern oyvn (Stories from behind the Stove; 1982); Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen (The Mirror and Other Stories; 1979); and 2 volumes of memoirs: Mayn tatns bes-din-shtub (In my Father’s Court; 1979) and its sequel, Mayn tatns bes-din-shtub: Hemsheykhim-zamlung (In My Father’s Court: Continued Episodes; 1996). For a writer so committed to the dignity of Yiddish, he surprisingly permitted relatively little of his work to appear in book form in the language in which he always wrote. In view of this disparity, scholars are still divided over the question of what constitutes his authentic corpus.

Suggested Reading

Grace Farrell, ed., Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York, 1996); Janet Hadda, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life (New York, 1997); David Neal Miller, ed., Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (Leiden, 1986); David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 266–306; Seth L. Wolitz, ed., The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer (Austin, 2001).