Among Isaac Bashevis Singer’s prodigious output are several translations; numerous novels, including Der Sotn in Gorey (1935; Satan in Goray, 1955), Der Knekht (1961; The Slave, 1962), and Sonim, de Geshichte fun a Liebe (1966; Enemies: A Love Story, 1972); several volumes of memoirs and autobiographical stories; more than a dozen collections of children’s stories; and a variety of adaptations of his stories or novels for other media, including opera, stage, and film.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, more than any other writer in the twentieth century, kept alive the rich traditions of a vanishing language and culture. Born into Eastern European Orthodox Judaism, Singer witnessed both the gradual assimilation of his generation into gentile culture and the tragic Nazi Holocaust that decimated Eastern Europe’s Jewish populations.
Yiddish, a language written in Hebrew characters and derived from German, with borrowings from Polish, Lithuanian, and other languages, was spoken by millions of Jews. Inextricably connected to it are centuries of traditional beliefs and customs, as well as fascinating folklore, demonology, and mysticism that evolved from religious teaching. Writing exclusively in Yiddish (though translating much of his work into English himself) and mining both the language and the culture, Singer nourished a population stricken with tragedy and dispersed by exile.
His greatest achievement, however, lay in expressing the universality of that very particular milieu. Never did Singer cater to audiences unfamiliar with Yiddish culture, yet, by finding the truly human aspects of the people and conflicts in his stories, he earned impressive popularity among a wide and varied audience. It is no doubt the profound universality of his vision that earned for Singer election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, as the only member writing in a language other than English, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
The first work that Isaac Bashevis Singer published when he moved to the United States was the novel known as “Messiah the Sinner,” which was serialized in 1936 but was never published as a book. It was serialized in three Yiddish daily papers: Der Vorwärts (the Jewish Daily Forward, in New York), the Warshanahaint (in Warsaw), and the Pariser Haint (in Paris). Singer himself considered this work a “complete failure” and never attempted to translate it. In addition to his novels, Singer wrote several memoirs: Mayn Tatn’s Bes-din Shtub (1956; In My Father’s Court, 1966), A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light (1976), A Young Man in Search of Love (1978), and Lost in America (1980). He also wrote more than one hundred stories and numerous books for children. He wrote two works on Hasidism, one in collaboration with the artist Ira Moskowitz titled The Hasidim (1973). His Yiddish translations of works by such noted authors as Stefan Zweig, Knut Hamsun, Erich Maria Remarque, and Thomas Mann are well regarded, as are his many literary essays and reviews. Several of Singer’s short stories have been adapted as plays; “Yentl der Yeshive Bocher” (“Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy”), which was written in Yiddish in the 1950’s, became a Broadway play in 1975 and a film (Yentl) in 1983.
Isaac Bashevis Singer has been acclaimed by some critics as a genius and referred to by others as one of the greatest writers of the modern world. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, which resulted in the obliteration of central and eastern European Jewry, the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer stand as monuments to a vibrant and vital world. Singer’s writing does not idolize this community: He depicts it in its totality, in its full humanity. His people are saints and sinners, believers and heretics, fools and scholars, avaricious merchants and ineffectual rabbis, patient wives and termagants. His imaginative world includes demons, elves, dybbuks, and magicians, mystical figures from a lost folk culture. However, Singer’s fiction does more than recall a world destroyed by the Holocaust. The power of his work, while remaining thoroughly Jewish, transcends the boundaries of cultural and religious ethnicity to raise questions about life that have been translatable across the changing contexts of twentieth century thought.
Singer’s works are written in Yiddish, the language of the shtetl—the eastern European village or town. For Singer, Yiddish is more than the vernacular of the people of the central and eastern European Jewish community. It is, as he stated in his Nobel Prize lecture, “the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.” His Yiddish reflects the influence of three languages, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and contains frequent allusions to rabbinic and talmudic lore. The richness of his prose and its texture, pace, and rhythm...
Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An introduction to Singer’s stories in terms of their themes, types, and motifs, for example: moral tales, holocaust stories, supernatural tales, tales of apocalypse and politics, stories of faith and doubt. Focuses on Singer’s universal appeal rather than his Jewish appeal. Includes a section of quotations from Singer about his work, as well as essays on Singer by Irving Howe and two other critics.
Allentuck, Marcia, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A collection of...