Erd-vey (Earth-woe), by Israel Joshua Singer (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1922). (YIVO)

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Singer, Israel Joshua

(1893–1944), Yiddish fiction writer. Born in Biłgoraj, Lublin province, Israel Joshua Singer was the second child in a family of Yiddish writers that included his elder sister, Esther Singer Kreitman, and his younger brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer spent much of his childhood in another small town, Leoncin, Warsaw province.

Israel Joshua Singer (left), Melech Ravitch (right), Ravitch’s wife, and their two children, Yosl and Ruth, ca. 1925. (YIVO)

Singer received a traditional Jewish education and was influenced by the opposing strains of Jewish thought represented by his Misnagdic mother and his Hasidic father. When he was 14, the family moved to the Hasidic 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 the military. By 1918, when he traveled to Kiev and Moscow, he had already begun publishing his earliest stories.

In Moscow, he was influenced by Dovid Bergelson. But, dissatisfied with his reception among Soviet Yiddish writers and unhappy with their politics, Singer returned to Warsaw in late 1921. Singer associated with the small, fluid group of writers called Di Khalyastre (The Gang), who opposed both social realism and romanticized depictions of Jewish life and who announced a new, though brief, expressionist episode in Yiddish literature. Their journal, Khalyastre, included illustrations by Marc Chagall and poems, stories, and essays by Perets Markish, Melech Ravitch, Uri Tsevi Grinberg, Yoysef Opatoshu, Oyzer Varshavski, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Singer.

When Singer published his most ambitious work to date, a short story titled “Perl” (Pearls) in Ringen (1921), he attracted the attention of Abraham Cahan, the powerful editor of the New York Yiddish daily, the Forverts. Singer served as a correspondent for the newspaper, reporting on his travels to Galicia in 1924, throughout Poland in 1926, and then once again to the Soviet Union in the same year; in 1931 he met Cahan in Berlin and then visited the United States for several months in 1932, before finally settling there in 1934. His travelogue, Nay Rusland (New Russia; 1928), as well as his subsequent work, appeared first in the Forverts. He wrote fiction under his own name and journalistic essays primarily under the pseudonym G. Kuper, his wife’s maiden name. He and his wife had two sons, one of whom died just before the family’s emigration from Poland.

From Israel Joshua Singer in Warsaw to Abraham Cahan in New York, 26 May 1925, granting him permission to make revisions to one of Singer’s stories. He accepts Cahan's suggestion that he should travel to [and presumably write about, for the American Yiddish newspaper Forverts] various cities in Poland, Lithuania, and Western Europe, but points out that it is not possible for Polish citizens to enter Lithuania. Also, it would be better if he visited the other cities (such as Paris and London) that Cahan mentioned in the summer, and then in the winter, the Polish cities, because in the summer, they are "dead." He also suggests adding the Carpathian region in Czechoslovakia to the list because of the unique Jewish way of life practiced there. Singer complains that local newspapers are reprinting items he has written for the Forverts without his permission and without compensating him. Yiddish. RG 1139, Abraham Cahan Papers, F78. (YIVO)

Singer’s first novel, Shtol un Ayzn (1927; in English translation, 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 Communist or socialist party hacks, Singer publicly renounced Yiddish literature, turning to journalism instead. But just four years later, he published his second and most successful novel, Yoshe Kalb (1932; in English translation, The Sinner; 1933; and Yoshe Kalb; 1965). He published three more novels after his arrival in the United States: Di brider Ashkenazi (1936; in English translation, The Brothers Ashkenazi; 1936 and 1980); Khaver Nakhmen (1938; published in English as East of Eden; 1939); Di mishpokhe Karnovski (1943; in English translation, The Family Carnovsky; 1969).

Adapted for the stage, Yoshe Kalb was performed in New York in 1932 and became one of the most critically acclaimed and financially 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 posthumous works were issued in New York: his autobiographical memoir, Fun a velt vos iz nishto mer (1946; in English translation, Of a World that Is No More; 1970), and Dertseylungen (Stories; 1949).

In Yoshe Kalb, a psychologically astute novel about a man who adopts two personalities and remains, until the end, an enigmatic figure—and the last novel he produced in Warsaw—Singer was already pointing toward a new location for his imagination. The novel depicts Polish Hasidic life and religious institutions in unremittingly negative terms and seeks elsewhere for a sense of community and identity. Yoshe is the personification of Jewish rootlessness, wandering without apparent will or goal. Singer never believed that Yiddish culture had a particular geographical boundary or home and, like Yoshe, he sought a psychic and physical locus.

The United States proved to be at least a more open environment than Poland. Only in the midst of World War II would Singer adopt an explicit, if short-lived, ideological stance in sympathy with Zionist goals. In a 1942 essay in Di tsukunft, “A tsvey toyznt yoriker toes” (A Two-Thousand-Year-Old Mistake), he called for a place where Jews could live normal lives, where they were not considered intruders within foreign borders. His reluctant acceptance of a nationalist ideology was an expression of the horror with which he heard increasingly tragic news from Poland and the problem he had long perceived in finding a home for the Jewish imagination. Striking in his short stories is the lack of a material sense of place, even when his characters are men who cultivate the land. The Polish countryside and the Catskills are largely indistinguishable from each other in these stories, no doubt a reflection of the problem of national identity that Jewish writers from Eastern Europe could not escape.

Yiddish writers in a café or restaurant, Poland, ca. 1930s. (Left to right) Yoysef Tunkel, Israel Joshua Singer (in profile), unknown, Borekh-Vladek Tsharni, and others. (YIVO)

After the rise of Nazism, Singer wrote two family sagas that wrestled with the relationship between historical events and their literary representation. Di brider Ashkenazi and Di mishpokhe Karnovski present Jewish history as inexorably cyclical, repeating itself in every generation, even when the rest of the world moves on. The contemporary loss of national identity, the attenuation of cultural identity implied by assimilation, and overt threats to Jewish lives are thus seen as differing in degree but not in kind from past events. This does not, however, suggest any particular way of responding to the growing Nazi threat. His epic novel, Di brider Ashkenazi, traces the history of twin brothers and the industrial city of Łódź. Written in the first years of Nazi rule, it ends with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the establishment of an independent Poland. But for the Jews in this novel, these events have less resonance than the end that is depicted in the infamous 1918 pogrom in Lwów. The fates of the religious and the Marxist, the assimilated and the traditional Jew are identical.

By the time Singer wrote Di mishpokhe Karnovski, he was explicitly coming to terms with the early years of what was already being called in Yiddish the khurbn (the Holocaust). The novel traces three generations through half a century, following a 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 placed 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, Mosheh, caught in the war’s upheaval. Neither survived the war, and Singer died still uncertain of their fates.)

In his prose fiction, Singer was consistent in viewing social reality as the primary constraint on artistic creativity and also its primary subject. He explicated this paradox in numerous essays as well. Also consistent was his disavowal of any political solution to problems besetting contemporary Jews. The corrupting influence of politics always seemed more acute to Singer within Yiddish culture than in other cultures because the Jews were, he explained, always living in extremis, forced to respond to uniquely cataclysmic upheavals. Singer suggested, somewhat disingenuously, that he sought only to tell interesting stories. His fiction offers no resolution 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.

Singer was a remarkably successful and admired literary figure, most of whose works were adapted for the Yiddish stage and were translated into English during his lifetime to much acclaim. His fiction examines the political and cultural upheavals in Polish 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, and socialism. His primary theme is the ultimately destructive nature of any messianic belief in religious, social, or historical resolutions of the problems that beset the individual and the Jews.

Singer’s stories are marked by relentlessly critical attacks on contemporary Jewish life and by a radical pessimism about its future. They compel his readers to identify and confront the multiple strands that formed the fabric of interwar East European Jewish life. For a post-Holocaust audience turning to Yiddish texts as a kind of memorial to the dead, Singer’s harsh depictions of Jewish culture in Poland are jarring. Thus, Singer suffered the fate of many modernist, socially critical Yiddish writers whose texts found no responsive audience after the war when Yiddish literature was often read through the distorting prism of its demise.

Suggested Reading

Zaynvl Diamant, “Zinger, Yisroel-Yeshue,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 3, cols. 640–646 (New York, 1960); Irving Howe, “The Other Singer,” Commentary 31.3 (1966): 76–82; Anita Norich, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer (Bloomington, Ind., 1991); Melekh Ravitch, “I. J. Singer: On the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of His Death,” Jewish Book Annual 26 (1969): 121–123; Clive Sinclair, The Brothers Singer (London and New York, 1983).