Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer who transcended his ethnic category, skillfully employs modernist fictional techniques to pose questions about human beings, God, and existence. In his writing Singer reveals the conflicting elements of his upbringing. His father, Pinchas Mendel Singer, was a Hasidic rabbi who told his son stories of demons and spirits. His mother, Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, whose first name he eventually adopted in its Yiddish form, was on the contrary a rationalist who talked of their Bigoraj relatives. This difference in temperament between his parents is evident in “Why the Geese Shrieked,” one of the tales in A Day of Pleasure. When a woman brings two dead geese to Rabbi Singer because they have continued to make strange noises, he seeks a supernatural explanation; his wife remarks that the sound is merely air passing through the severed windpipe and that if the woman removes the windpipe, the shrieking will cease, as indeed it does.
Singer’s two older siblings also influenced him. His sister Hende Esther, thirteen years his senior, enjoyed telling him love stories. Most important to his literary growth was his brother, Israel Joshua Singer, who also became an important author; for many years Singer was better known as Israel’s brother than as a writer himself. When Singer was four, the family moved to 10 Krochmalna Street, Warsaw, which serves as the setting for Shosha and some of Singer’s best short fiction. In 1917 he and his mother left the Polish capital for Bigoraj to escape the hunger and disease caused by World War I. During the four years he remained in the hamlet, he observed the rural Jewish life that later played so large a role in his writing.
After a brief attempt at rabbinical training at the Tachkemoni Seminary, Warsaw (1921-1922), he returned to Bigoraj, then went to Dzikow, where his father was serving as rabbi. In this village he found the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. One may regard Singer’s fiction as the inverse of Rabbi Nachman’s: Both are haunted by the supernatural,...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland, on either July 14 or November 21, 1904. His grandfathers had been rabbis, and his father was a Hasidic scholar, whom Singer’s mother chose over other suitors for his scholarly excellence. The Singers moved to Warsaw in 1908, and the young Bashevis (a name adapted from his mother’s name Bathsheba) grew up with his sister and two brothers in a ghetto tenement at 10 Krochmalna Street, which was his father’s rabbinical court.
Rabbi Pinchos-Mendel Singer was a warm, mystical, and deeply spiritual man who was loved and revered by the entire community. Bathsheba Singer was a cool, sharp, practical, and rational woman who in many ways held the family together. The young Singer grew up among parental balances and contrasts that inform much of his writing. Singer read widely, including Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) in Yiddish at age nine, and studied languages. In addition, his older brother Israel Joshua, eleven years his senior, was an intelligent and rebellious spirit who very early began to influence Singer’s intellectual development.
In 1917, Singer accompanied his mother to her native Bilgoray, where they lived for four years. There, he taught Hebrew—considered an affront to tradition, as the language of the Scriptures was not to be used for mundane purposes. In 1921, Singer’s father took a rabbinical post in a small town in Galicia; Singer, then seventeen, refused to follow, and instead stayed in Warsaw to study at the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary. He later characterized his stay in Warsaw as the worst year of his life: Undernourished and ill fit to follow in his forefathers’ footsteps, Singer left the seminary after a year to rejoin his family, only to return to Warsaw in 1923. He would never see his parents and younger brother Moishe again.
His father wrote religious tracts, and Israel Joshua wrote secular pieces: It was inevitable that Singer too would write. During his year at the seminary, he had translated Knut Hamsun’s novel Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899). In 1923 he became a proofreader for six dollars a week at the Literarische Bletter, a Yiddish literary magazine. He translated popular novels into Yiddish for newspaper serialization and experimented with writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish. In the late 1920’s, the Literarische Bletter and Warshaver Shriften began accepting his Yiddish stories,...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland. There has long been some uncertainty as to the date of his birth; in Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West Eighty-sixth Street (1979), biographer Paul Kresh quotes Singer as stating that November 21 was, as far as he knew, “more or less” the actual date of his birth. For many years, however, he had celebrated July 14 because his parents had told him that was his birthday to cheer him up after they moved.
He was the third child in a family of four siblings, who included an older sister, Hinde Esther, an older brother, Israel Joshua, and a younger brother, Moishe. His parents were Pinchas Mendel Singer, a Hasidic rabbi from Tomoszov, and Bathsheba Zylberman, the daughter of the Mitnagid—the opposing sect—rabbi of Bilgoray. The couple seemed to be mismatched. Pinchas Mendel, a gentle, pious, spiritual man, was an ardent follower of Hasidism. Bathsheba, a learned, strong-minded woman, was a rationalist and a pragmatist. Israel Joshua, eleven years Singer’s senior, inherited his mother’s rationalism; Moishe, two years Singer’s junior, inherited his father’s piety. The confluence of parental legacies—the mysticism of Singer’s father and the rationalism of his mother—was Singer’s inheritance, reflected in the tensions of his fictive characters: conflicts between the heart and the head, the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the secular.
Four years after Singer’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw, to an apartment on Krochmalna Street. Rabbi Pinchas Mendel became the rabbi of Krochmalna Street, and the Singer home served as its bet din, or rabbinic court. Singer’s memoirs In My Father’s Court and A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1969) and the novels Shosha and “Yarme and Kayle” (serialized in the Forward in 1977 but never published in book form) re-create the intricate life that existed on this cobblestoned shtetl street, a “literary gold mine” to which Singer regularly returns.
In 1917, World War I forced Singer, his mother, and his younger brother to flee the city. They went to Bilgoray, where they stayed for four years. The visit was crucial in his development as a writer. The village of Bilgoray, far removed from the bustle of cosmopolitan Warsaw, appeared to be untouched by modernity. Young Singer witnessed Old World spirituality unblemished by the encroaching Enlightenment. This experience remained with him as an eternal reminder of his rootedness—indeed, humankind’s rootedness—in the past, in history, in that which transcends human nature. Bilgoray plays an important role in many of his works; Singer once said that he could never have written Satan in Goray without having been there. In Bilgoray, he studied the Talmud and modern Hebrew, which in turn he taught in private homes. He also studied the Kabbalah, read the works of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and studied German and Polish. He became immersed in the rural Hasidic folk culture that would permeate his work.
In 1921, Singer entered a rabbinical seminary in Warsaw. He remained for a year and then went back to Bilgoray and supported himself by teaching Hebrew. Shortly afterward, he joined his parents in Dzikow, a shtetl close to Bilgoray, where his father had accepted a position as a rabbi. He found this village stifling and depressing, and he was delighted when his older brother, who was coeditor of the Literarische Bleter, offered him a job as proofreader for the journal. In 1923, Singer moved back to Warsaw to take up this new position. His family was settled in Dzikow, and he never saw his mother or younger brother again.
Singer’s brother Israel Joshua was also a writer and served as Singer’s mentor. He was the person who exerted the greatest influence on the young Singer, encouraging him when he began to write and instructing him in the rules of good storytelling. Although Isaac was given to mysticism, Israel Joshua was a realist who became part of the Jewish Enlightenment, the...
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The son and grandson of rabbis, Isaac Bashevis Singer was born into a pious Hasidic household in Poland, which he would imaginatively portray in his memoir In My Father’s Court. He began his literary career writing for a Hebrew newspaper and proofreading for a journal that his brother, novelist Israel Joshua Singer, coedited. In 1925, Singer made his fiction debut with a prize-winning short story, “In Old Age.” In 1932, he began co-editing Globus, which serialized Satan in Goray, his novel of messianic heresy.
In 1935, Singer emigrated to New York, where he wrote for the...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born on either July 14 or November 21, 1904. Although his birth was recorded in nearby Radzymin, his actual birthplace was Leoncin, Poland, a village near Warsaw. Isaac’s mother was Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, the daughter of the Orthodox rabbi of Bilgoray. His father, Pinchas Mendel Singer, was the Hasidic rabbi of Leoncin. Isaac had an older sister, Hinde Esther Singer, and an older brother, Israel Joshua Singer. Two years after Isaac’s birth, Bathsheba had another boy, Moishe. After Pinchas Mendel Singer had lived in Leoncin for ten years, he and his family moved to Radzymin, where the rabbi was supposed to direct a yeshiva, or talmudic college. There seemed to be no provision for a salary, however,...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer is of great historical importance because it preserves ways of thinking and acting that have almost vanished. In the communities that he describes, religion is the central reality, and behavior is decided on the basis of faith. Although there can certainly be cruelty and deceit within the shtetl—or outside it, as in modern Warsaw, New York, or Miami Beach—when Singer’s characters move away from that faith and that sense of community, they feel a sense of alienation and futility.
Singer’s works are most valuable not as works in a particular tradition, however, but as universal accounts of human frailty, suffering, and, sometimes, of human goodness. Like Shosha,...
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