Isaac Bashevis Singer Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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, but while Rabbi Nachman’s always have a happy ending directed by God, Singer’s reveal a more...

(The entire section is 894 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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,...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)