Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life Isaac Bashevis Singer

Janet Hadda

Isaac Bashevis Singer

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Janet Hadda begins her biography in 1911, when Isaac Bashevis Singer was seven years old. In this year his older sister, Hinde Esther Singer, became engaged and prepared to leave Warsaw, Poland, for Antwerp, Belgium. To console himself for the imminent loss of his sister, Singer took pieces of paper from his father’s desk and began to scribble. For Hadda, this episode indicates Singer’s motivation for writing: to escape “rejection, depression, and hysteria.” Because she regards Singer’s early life and family as crucial to his development as a writer, she describes Singer’s boyhood world of 10 Krochmalna Street in some detail, drawing heavily on Singer’s own writings. Although located in a city, this Jewish neighborhood was another version of the Jewish shtetl, or village, with peddlers and pickpockets, children playing in the courtyards, and people coming to consult Singer’s father, Pinkhos Menakhem, the local unofficial rabbi who refused to learn Russian and so could not receive government certification. Pinkhos Menakhem came from a family of Chasidim, a division of Judaism that Hadda aptly describes as “ecstatic, mystical, and hierarchical.”

His wife, Basheve Zylberman Singer, was the daughter of the rabbi of the village of Bilgoray, a misnaged who opposed Chasidism. Husband and wife were opposites in many ways: Where Pinkhos was compassionate, Basheve could be cold; where Pinkhos believed in the inexplicable, Basheve was a rationalist. She was solemn, he happy. She was also well educated, and her desire for learning may have inspired the story of “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” which appeared in Singer’s Short Friday and Other Stories (1964). This quest for a manly role also, according to Hadda, made Basheve less interested in her daughter than in her sons. Neither parent readily expressed affection, and Hadda argues that parental aloofness drove Singer to find solace in books and to make up stories.

Singer’s other family members also influenced him. His older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, was his mentor and literary model. Singer dedicated Short Friday and Other Stories to him, calling him “my teacher and master in literature,” and Singer again paid tribute to his brother in his 1978 Nobel acceptance speech. In 1923, Israel Joshua took Singer to the Jewish Writer’s Club in Warsaw and introduced him to many who would play important roles in Singer’s literary development. Aron Tseytlin, for example, would join Singer in founding the Yiddish journal Globus in 1932. Israel Joshua secured an American tourist visa for his brother in 1935 and arranged for him to work at the Yiddish daily newspaper the Forverts (the Jewish Daily Forward), introduced him to other writers at the Cafe Royale on the Lower East Side, and showed him the Brooklyn world of Seagate.

Hinde Esther, who, like her siblings, became a writer, served as a mother figure for Singer. He would portray her many times in his fiction: as Rekhele in Sotan in goray (1935; Satan in Goray, 1955), as Magda in Der Kunstnmakher fun Lublin (1959; The Magician of Lublin, 1960), as Masha in Sonim, de Geshichte fun a Liebe (1966; Enemies: A Love Story, 1972). Like Hinde, all of these women are passionate and unstable.

The isolation Singer felt as a consequence of the marriage of his sister and the seeming indifference of his parents was compounded in 1917 when his mother took him and his younger brother Moishe to Bilgoray. Again, Singer withdrew into literature. Hadda quotes from an essay that Singer published in the Forverts of June 28, 1979. Here Singer recalled, “Every Yiddish book was an event for me, every journal or newspaper that found its way to Bilgoray was a discovery for me.”

Back in Warsaw in the 1920’s, Singer continued to read voraciously. Among the writers he encountered during this period were Leo Tolstoy, Baruch Spinoza, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Mann (Singer translated Mann’s Zauberberg, 1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), William James, and Plato. Although he liked to portray himself as a product of provincial Eastern European Judaism, Singer was eclectic in his tastes. He also read and heard the authors who frequented the Jewish Writer’s Club at 13 Tlomackie Street in Warsaw.

In 1925, Singer published his first story, “Af der elter” (in old age), which won a prize from the Yiddish periodical Literarische Bletter (literary letters). He used the pen name Yitskhak Bashevis, an action that Hadda sees as an effort to separate himself from his father and brother. The name might also reflect an attempt to fuse male and female, mystical and rational, by invoking his mother’s name as well as his own.

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(The entire section is 1967 words.)