Isaac Bashevis Singer Essay - Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Introduction

Isaac Bashevis Singer 1904-1991

(Born Icek-Hersz Synger; Yiddish name Yitskhek Bashyevis Zinger; also wrote under the pseudonyms Isaac Warshofsky and Isaac Bashevis) Polish-born American short story writer, novelist, children's writer, memoirist, playwright, journalist, and translator. See also Isaac Bashevis Singer Short Story Criticism

An internationally renowned figure, Singer is widely considered the foremost Yiddish writer of the twentieth century. Although he moved to the United States in 1935, Singer wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish in an attempt to preserve what he considered a rapidly disappearing language. Read primarily in translation, Singer's fiction frequently evokes the history and culture of the Polish-Jewish village or shtetl. Singer's themes, nonetheless, extend far beyond ethnic or provincial concerns; his work emphasizes faith, doubt, corruption, and sexuality, and expresses a profound, if often sardonic, interest in the irrational and the supernatural. In 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.” While he has been denounced by some Yiddish writers and members of the Jewish community for refusing to render a sentimental view of a minority culture that has traditionally been the target of persecution, Singer is generally regarded a consummate storyteller, capable of blending traditional modes of plot, characterization, and dialect with a modernist sensibility.

Biographical Information

Singer was born in the Polish shtetl of Leoncin, near Warsaw, to parents of devout rabbinical families who intended him to become a religious scholar. Singer's interests lay elsewhere, and early in his life he began reading secular literature. This dual exposure to strict religious training and nonecclesiastical ideas is demonstrated in Singer's fiction, where faith, mysticism, and skepticism regularly conflict. In 1908, Singer and his family moved to Warsaw, where he spent most of his youth. In 1917, he and his mother moved to his grandparents' shtetl in Bilgoray, and, upon his return to Warsaw in 1921, Singer enrolled in a rabbinical seminary. Singer left school in 1923, began proofreading for Literarishe Bletter, a Yiddish literary magazine, and later worked as a translator. In 1927, Singer published his first piece of short fiction in Literarishe Bletter, and seven years later his first long work, Shoten an Goray (Satan in Goray), an experimental piece drawing upon his experiences in Bilgoray, appeared in serial form in the Yiddish periodical Globus. Singer emigrated from Poland in 1935, leaving behind his illegitimate son in order to follow his older brother Israel Joshua, who later achieved prominence as a Yiddish novelist. Singer settled in New York City where he married and became a regular staff member on the Jewish Daily Forward. The death of Israel Joshua in 1944 had a profound, if ambivalent, effect upon Singer. While he has acknowledged his brother as his “spiritual father and master,” Singer often felt overshadowed by Israel's achievements, which inhibited his own creativity, and he has admitted, in this context, to feelings of both grief and liberation. Throughout the 1940s, Singer's fiction was serialized in the Forward, and his reputation among Yiddish-speaking readers grew steadily. In 1953 “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer's classic tale of innocence and faith, appeared in Partisan Review, translated by Saul Bellow. Through the efforts of such admirers as Bellow and Irving Howe, through translations of his fiction, and through cinematic and dramatic adaptations of several of his works, Singer was introduced to the American public and in the 1950s garnered an international audience. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Singer continued to publish new material until his death in 1991.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Singer's short fiction draws upon elements of Polish-Jewish folklore, fables, and history, and relies upon an evocative prose style that enables Singer to depict complex situations and events in just a few pages. Frequently torn between their faith in God and earthly temptations, Singer's characters are tormented by demons, ghosts, and dybbukswandering souls that inhabit humans and control their actions, according to Jewish folklore. In a review of The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1982), Michael Levin noted that Singer depicts people as “defenceless, unprotected, and worse still, unable to protect [themselves] before powerful, callous or malevolent forces” that exist inside and outside the individual. The protagonist of the well-known title story from Gimpel Tam un andere Dertseylungen (1957; Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories) typifies one reaction to this worldly situation. As the victim of the town's jokes, Gimpel remains a “divine fool” and “the common man.” Gimpel's naivete, nevertheless, provides humor and also combats evil by conveying a simple goodness for which he is eventually rewarded. Singer has published many short fiction collections, among them The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories (1961), A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1973); Short Friday and Other Stories (1964), Passions and Other Stories (1975), and Old Love (1979). Although accused of repetition, Singer's stories are generally considered to evidence his exceptional narrative skills. Howe noted that Singer “plays the same tune over and over again” but added that “if [he] moves along predictable lines, they are clearly his own, and no one can accomplish his kind of story so well as he.”

Singer's later short fiction collections, The Image and Other Stories (1985) and The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories (1988), continue in the tradition of the fable. The Image reinforces Singer's preeminence as a storyteller, for the tales themselves are often stories told by one character to another. Like his earlier works, these stories, which are primarily set in Eastern Europe and America, relate the dangers of submitting to passion. Critics stress, however, that The Image contains fewer literal dybbuks; in the title story, newlyweds are unable to consummate their marriage because the ghost of the bride's former fiance appears. The bride's mother warns that it was not a ghost but a figment of her daughter's imagination or, even worse, some manifestation of her conscience. The Death of Methusaleh also explores the hazards of yielding to earthly desires for sex, power, and knowledge. The rich details of these compressed dramas are not limited to Eastern European or New York shtetls; many also unfold in Florida, ancient Babylon which serves as background for a retelling of the Faust legendand in Methusaleh's home, where the biblical patriarch dies after allowing himself to be seduced by his slave. In a short preface to this collection, Singer wrote that these stories reflect the corruption that has entered the world through humanity's preoccupation with desire.

While placing greater emphasis on a realistic, straightforward style than his short stories, Singer's novellas similarly explore the themes of community, faith, violence, and identity within the scope of Polish-Jewish history. The novella Satan in Goray, widely considered Singer's best long work, is set in Poland after the Cossack raids of 1638 and 1649 and is often described as an expansive parable. This book explores the conflicts of religious law, faith, and skepticism among the Eastern European Jews who considered Sabbatai Zevi their Messiah. Singer's other novella, Der Knekht (1962; The Slave), takes place in Poland in the same era. The book revolves around Joseph's marriage to Wanda, also known as Sarah, whose conversion to Judaism sets her apart from other Jews in the community. Because it was against the law for a Gentile to convert to Judaism in the seventeenth century, Wanda/Sarah's newly acquired religious identity and training jeopardize her life but also enable her to grow spiritually as she follows the spirit of the laws set forth in the Torah. The Slave also incorporates several stories from the Old Testament, including that of Joseph's bondage in Egypt, and focuses on the problem of being Jewish in a country where religion denotes social status.

Critical Reception

Singer's evocative fiction is consistently praised for its uncanny simplicity and philosophical depth. While Satan in Goray and “Gimpel the Fool” are considered his most effective creative works, many short stories contained in collections such as The Spinoza of Market Street and Short Fridays and Other Stories reveal Singer's narrative talent and metaphysical concerns. Though reproached by some members of the Jewish community for refusing to elevate the Jewish people as a persecuted ethnic minority, Singer's loyalty to Yiddish literature is credited with reaffirming the credibility of the near-extinct language. Other critics accuse Singer of repeating himself in subsequent stories and some cite erotic elements in his fiction as either provocative or irreverent, especially Singer's depiction of libertine characters and unabashed sexual affairs. Despite the unconcealed religious significance of his fiction, Singer's sardonic modernist sensibility and abiding interest in the debilitating effects of spiritual isolation draws frequent comparison to the existentialist writings of Albert Camus. Without resorting to didacticism or dogmatic moral judgment, Singer attempts to reconcile the mystical and absurd in both the Old and New Worlds with compassion, irony, and gentle humor.

Principal Works

*Shoten an Goray {Satan in Goray] 1935

Gimpel Tam un andere Dertseylungen [Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories] 1957

The Spinoza of Market Street, and Other Stories 1961

*Der Knekht [The Slave] 1962

Short Friday, and Other Stories 1964

Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1966

Zlateth the Goat, and Other Stories 1966

Schlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories 1968

The Seance, and Other Stories 1968

A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw 1969

A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories 1970

An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader 1971

A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories 1973

Passions, and Other Stories 1975

Old Love, and Other Stories 1979

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1982

Stories for Children 1984

The Image, and Other Stories 1985

The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories 1988

The Family Moskat (novel) 1950

The Magician of Lublin (novel) 1960

In My Father's Court (memoir) 1966

The Manor (novel) 1967

The Estate (novel) 1969

Enemies, a Love Story (novel) 1972

Shosha (novel) 1978

Nobel Lecture (lecture) 1979

Lost in America (autobiography) 1981

The Golem (juvenilia) 1982

The Penitent (novel) 1983

Love and Exile (memoir) 1984

Scum (novel) 1991

The Certificate (novel) 1992

Meshugah (novel) 1994

Shadows on the Hudson (novel) 1998

More Stories from My Father's Court [translated by Curt Leviant] (autobiographical sketches) 2000

*These novellas are alternately referred to as novels.

†This collection is comprised of a series of columns, originally written in Yiddish, that Singer contributed to The Jewish Daily Forward between 1955 and 1960.

Criticism

David Evanier (review date 1988)

SOURCE: Evanier, David. “Parables that Surprise.” New Leader 71, no. 11 (27 June 1988): 20-21.

[In the following review of The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories, Evanier maintains that the stories of this collection are not as strong as Singer's earlier stories.]

Saul Bellow, an early translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer, has written of the short story in general that it “should be interesting, highly interesting, as interesting as possible—inexplicably absorbing.” By this measure, Singer always comes through for the reader. But Bellow also wrote: “For there is power in a story. It testifies to the worth, the significance of an individual. For a...

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Morton Ritts (review date 1988)

SOURCE: Ritts, Morton. “Musings by a Mystic.” Maclean's 101, no. 32 (1 August 1988): 50.

[In the following review of The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories, Ritts asserts that the stories of this collection are not as original or as powerful as Singer's previous stories.]

At 84, Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer is the Methuselah of contemporary literature: someone who offers the wisdom of the ages but who—as his 10th and latest story collection reveals—tends to repeat it too. Yet if most offerings in The Death of Methuselah only echo such powerful earlier collections and novels as Gimpel the Fool (1957) and The...

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Bryan Cheyette (review date 1988)

SOURCE: Cheyette, Bryan. “Mistakes Made and Mended.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4464 (21 October 1988): 1180.

[In the following review of The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories, Cheyette concludes that Singer's stories continue to hold universal appeal while treating subjects specific to Jewish culture and history.]

Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel The Penitent (1984) was an uncharacteristic tirade against modernity. Since its publication in Yiddish in 1974, Singer has been assiduously rewriting his act of betrayal as a young man in Warsaw in the 1920s, a betrayal which culminated in his departure from the devout Yeshiva world of his...

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Sean French (review date 1988)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Earthly Powers.” New Statesman and Society 1, no. 21 (28 October 1988): 33-34.

[In the following review, French asserts that The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories is “a wonderful collection of stories” by “one of the great tale-tellers of this century.”]

“The Smuggler,” one of the stories in this collection, is little more than an anecdote, just over seven pages long. An autograph-hunter comes to see Singer in his Broadway apartment. Singer asks why he needs autographs. The man explains: “Some little madness everyone must have. If Jack the Ripper were resurrected from his grave, people would run to get his autograph,...

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Lillian Schanfield (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Schanfield, Lillian. “Singer's ‘Yentl’: The Fantastic Case of a Perplexed Soul.” In Spectrum of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald Palumbo, pp. 185-92. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Schanfield compares Singer' short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” to the film adaptation, Yentl, arguing that the element of fantasy in Singer's story is lost in the film's realism.]

Ironically, the recent film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” underscores through its deviations from the original story Singer's own flirtation...

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Janet Hadda (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hadda, Janet. “‘Gimpel the Full.’” Prooftexts 10, no. 2 (May 1990): 283-95.

[In the following essay, Hadda applies the clinical methods of “post-Freudian Self-Psychology” to a reading of Singer's short story “Gimpel the Fool.”]

This essay continues my reflection on the use of psychoanalytic theory and technique in literary analysis. Elsewhere, I have discussed both the validity of employing psychoanalytic methodology for literary elucidation and the important insights that can be gained from psychoanalytic thinking. Now, I take my argument further, showing how post-Freudian Self-Psychology, with its different view of development, yields a...

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Margaret M. Boland (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Boland, Margaret M. “Isaac Bashevis Singer's ‘Tanhum’: An Exegetical Approach.” Tamkang Journal 29 (May 1990): 203-15.

[In the following essay, Boland offers a philological analysis of Singer's short story “Tanhum.”]

Although Isaac Bashevis Singer assures his readers, and his critics, that he is writing without a greater purpose than to just amuse his readers, it is the purpose of this [essay] to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Singer has, indeed, written his work with not only a moral in mind, but also with an entire allegory in place, in keeping with a long exegetical tradition.

Consequently, I shall begin with a...

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Linda Nielson Eppich (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Eppich, Linda Nielson. “Isaac Bashevis Singer's ‘Short Friday’: Semantic Parallels of Happily-Ever-Aftering.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 3 (summer 1990): 357-63.

[In the following essay, Eppich discusses the elements of the fairy tale form in Singer's short story “The Short Friday.”]

“Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.”

We are far too skeptical a readership to consider the fairy tale of a prince and princess who live happily-ever-after in this world. Yet Isaac Bashevis Singer expects us to accept not only this fanciful tale but one even more...

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Martin Schwarz (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Martin. “Two Practitioners of the Grotesque: Sherwood Anderson and Isaac Bashevis Singer.” In The Shape of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Seventh International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Olena H. Saciuk, pp. 149-54. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Schwarz formulates a definition of the grotesque in literature through a comparison of the short stories of Singer and Sherwood Anderson.]

From the Renaissance on, when the term grotesque was used to designate an ornamental style that had come down from antiquity, the word has undergone many variations. So numerous in fact are the definitions of...

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Herschel Levine (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Levine, Herschel. “The Sisterhood of Hedda and Yentl.” Evolutionary Psychology 12, no. 1-2 (1991): 105-09.

[In the following essay, Levin compares the character of Yentl from Singer's short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” to the character of Hedda Gabler in Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.]

On the surface, Hedda,1 Ibsen's gun-toting aristocratic protagonist, is the polar opposite of I. B. Singer's Yentl2 [in “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”], the lower middle class Jewess, whose greatest ambition is to study Torah i.e., Jewish Law on an equal footing with Jewish males. Deeper examination of the personality of each, however, reveals basic...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Our Debt to I. B. Singer.” Commentary 92, no. 5 (November 1991): 31-37.

[In the following essay, Epstein commends the stories of Singer for helping many American Jews to understand better their cultural history.]

I met the late Isaac Bashevis Singer only once, briefly but unforgettably, in 1963. It was in Manhattan, at the apartment of one of his early translators. He was then fifty-nine, no kid, but only just coming into his own in a serious way as a writer now frequently published in English. I had read everything of his I could find. I admired him without qualification—thought him the possessor of a powerful artistic talent, a man...

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Peter Stenberg (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Stenberg, Peter. Journey to Oblivision: The End of East European Yiddish and German Worlds in the Mirror of Literature, pp. 9, 76-78. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Stenberg discusses the ways in which Singer's stories chronicle the dissolution of Eastern European Jewish culture and the Yiddish language in the postwar era.]

The statistics of population sizes of minority linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups in Eastern Europe before the establishment of its current national and demographic makeup are somewhat vague and are very much likely to remain so. Political boundaries changed and census figures concerning ethnic...

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Joseph Sherman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Sherman, Joseph. “What's Jews?: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Androgenus.Prooftexts 14, no. 2 (May 1994): 167-88.

[In the following essay, Sherman explores the quest for spiritual self-fulfillment in Singer's story “Androygenus.”]

1

Na dir a groshn far dem oylem-habe, says a militant Maskil to his disciples near the beginning of one of Singer's monologue stories not yet published in English—bay mir yidishkayt iz oylem-haze. And with this emphatic assertion of what appears to be gross materialism, Singer launches into a remarkable critique of a once-vibrant movement toward spiritual renewal, which has fallen...

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Joseph Sherman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Sherman, Joseph. “Scrutinizing the Shtetl: I. B. Singer's ‘Tseytl un Rikl.’” Prooftexts 15, no. 2 (May 1995): 129-44.

[In the following essay, Sherman examines Singer's short story “Tseytl un Rikl” in terms of its setting in a Jewish shtetl, the narrative monologue, and the themes of sin and virtue.]

1

Among the many ambivalences that vitalize Singer's work is his treatment of the shtetl. In his Nobel Lecture (1978) he lauded it as “a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline, and in humanism,”1 yet, with few exceptions, in his fiction he vigorously interrogated its failure to demonstrate any of these...

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Grace Farrell (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Farrell, Grace. Introduction to Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Grace Farrell, pp. 1-26. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Farrell provides an overview of critical responses to Singer's stories.]

His was a voice unique in American letters. Isaac Bashevis Singer—Jewish émigré from Poland, Yiddish-speaking Hasid—captivated an American and then a world readership with fiction that seemed both exotic, in its evocation of Eastern European shtetl life, and familiar, in its poignant depiction of loss and recovery, exile and redemption. Never easily placed within any tradition, always an outsider, Singer was...

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Nancy Berkowitz Bate (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bate, Nancy Berkowitz. “Judaism, Genius, and Gender: Women in the Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer.” In Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Grace Farrell, pp. 209-19. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Bate considers the representation of women in Singer's stories.]

In 1955 when she was 15 years old, Letty Cottin Pogrebin lost her mother to ovarian cancer. She describes sitting shiva:

One night, about twenty people are milling about the house but by Jewish computation there are only nine Jews in our living room. This is because only nine men have shown up for the memorial service....

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Alice R. Kaminsky (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kaminsky, Alice R. “Gimpel.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik, pp. 215-19. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kaminsky views Singer's short story “Gimpel the Fool” as part of the “schlemiel tradition” in Yiddish literature.]

BACKGROUND

Isaac Bashevis Singer (July 14, 1904–July 24, 1991) was born in Leoncin, Poland, the son of a rabbi, Pinchos-Mendel Singer, and a rabbi's daughter, Bathsheba Zylberman. He lived in Warsaw and was a proofreader for a Yiddish literary magazine, which helped inspire him in 1917 to write in...

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Stephen J. Whitfield (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Whitfield, Stephen J. “Yentl.” Jewish Social Studies 5, nos. 1-2 (31 January 1999): 154-76.

[In the following essay, Whitfield compares Singer's short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” to Yentl, the film adaptation.]

“Where is it written what it is I'm meant to be?”

This is the nearly monosyllabic question that Barbra Streisand sings in Yentl (1983) and that resonates throughout the film, which opens with the camera lingering over shelves of books. Her eponymous protagonist defies the rigidity of gender roles, as prescribed in the “Eastern Europe” of 1904, even as her query implicitly denies that her cherished texts...

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