Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027
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, such as “Women,” “Grandchildren,” and “The Village Gravedigger” for publication; meanwhile, his brother Israel Joshua’s first novel, Blood Harvest, appeared in 1927.
Singer became involved with a young Communist woman, Runia; they lived in common-law marriage, and in 1929 they had a son, Israel. They became estranged, however, and Runia and the child left for Russia, then Turkey and Palestine. Singer would not meet his son again for decades.
During the 1930’s, the Singer brothers’ lives and careers became interwoven. In 1932, Isaac Bashevis became the editor of Globus, another literary magazine, and Israel Joshua published Yoshe Kalb, the popularity of which led to serial publication in the Jewish Daily Forward in New York. Isaac Bashevis’s first novel, Satan in Goray, was serialized in Globus in 1933; in 1934, the older brother left for New York to escape the rise of European Nazism and to find success in the thriving Yiddish American community; and in 1935 the younger brother followed.
Singer moved into the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn. The poverty and hunger that he met there were not new to him, but exile brought on an unprecedented spiritual collapse. He felt isolated from his family in Poland, his wife and child in Palestine, and his beloved culture devastated by war and genocide across Europe. He could not write, virtually forgot Yiddish, despaired for the future of Yiddish literature, and even at times became suicidal.
In 1937, Singer met Alma, a married German Jew with a son and daughter, who captured his mind and heart. She was divorced from her husband in 1939, and the following year they married. He was free-lancing for the Forward, which continually encouraged him to resume his writing, in Yiddish. In 1943, he became an American citizen, and in 1944, with World War II raging, Singer was struck by a personal tragedy: His brother Israel Joshua, to whom he was devoted personally and artistically, died suddenly at the age of fifty-one.
The following year, the war ended and Singer began work on a novel, Di Familye Muskat (1950; The Family Moskat, 1950), which was serialized in the Forward over the next three years, broadcast on a Jewish radio station, chosen by publisher Alfred A. Knopf for translation into English, and awarded the Louis Lamed Prize in 1950. He began to write steadily, and in the early 1950’s, nearing the age of fifty himself, Singer came to the attention of the American literary community. Editor Cecil Hemley and his wife Elaine Gottlieb helped Singer in several ways: They translated his stories, got them placed in major periodicals such as Commentary and Partisan Review, and published his novels through their Noonday Press, which in 1960 became part of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Singer produced a steady stream of stories and novels. His stories were published in numerous magazines as well as collections; some collections included reissues of much older pieces; translations appeared under his own hand or those of his nephew Joseph, Hemley, Gottlieb, writer Saul Bellow, or others. In the late 1960’s, well past his sixtieth birthday, Singer took the suggestion of a friend and began writing stories for children as well. He also taught widely, serving as writer-in-residence at such institutions as Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin.
Ironically, though well known in Yiddish and literary circles, Singer did not enjoy mass popularity and recognition until the 1983 release of the film Yentl, featuring Barbra Streisand, based on Singer’s 1952 story “Yentl der Yeshive Bucher” (“Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”). A similar success was enjoyed by the 1989 film Enemies: A Love Story, based on Singer’s 1972 novel.
For much of his later life, Singer lived with his wife Alma on West Eighty-sixth Street in New York; he later divided his time between New York and Miami Beach, where he ultimately retired. He died of a stroke on July 24, 1991, ten days after his eighty-seventh birthday.