Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland. There has long been some uncertainty as to the date of his birth; in Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West Eighty-sixth Street (1979), biographer Paul Kresh quotes Singer as stating that November 21 was, as far as he knew, “more or less” the actual date of his birth. For many years, however, he had celebrated July 14 because his parents had told him that was his birthday to cheer him up after they moved.
He was the third child in a family of four siblings, who included an older sister, Hinde Esther, an older brother, Israel Joshua, and a younger brother, Moishe. His parents were Pinchas Mendel Singer, a Hasidic rabbi from Tomoszov, and Bathsheba Zylberman, the daughter of the Mitnagid—the opposing sect—rabbi of Bilgoray. The couple seemed to be mismatched. Pinchas Mendel, a gentle, pious, spiritual man, was an ardent follower of Hasidism. Bathsheba, a learned, strong-minded woman, was a rationalist and a pragmatist. Israel Joshua, eleven years Singer’s senior, inherited his mother’s rationalism; Moishe, two years Singer’s junior, inherited his father’s piety. The confluence of parental legacies—the mysticism of Singer’s father and the rationalism of his mother—was Singer’s inheritance, reflected in the tensions of his fictive characters: conflicts between the heart and the head, the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the secular.
Four years after Singer’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw, to an apartment on Krochmalna Street. Rabbi Pinchas Mendel became the rabbi of Krochmalna Street, and the Singer home served as its bet din, or rabbinic court. Singer’s memoirs In My Father’s Court and A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1969) and the novels Shosha and “Yarme and Kayle” (serialized in the Forward in 1977 but never published in book form) re-create the intricate life that existed on this cobblestoned shtetl street, a “literary gold mine” to which Singer regularly returns.
In 1917, World War I forced Singer, his mother, and his younger brother to flee the city. They went to Bilgoray, where they stayed for four years. The visit was crucial in his development as a writer. The village of Bilgoray, far removed from the bustle of cosmopolitan Warsaw, appeared to be untouched by modernity. Young Singer witnessed Old World spirituality unblemished by the encroaching Enlightenment. This experience remained with him as an eternal reminder of his rootedness—indeed, humankind’s rootedness—in the past, in history, in that which transcends human nature. Bilgoray plays an important role in many of his works; Singer once said that he could never have written Satan in Goray without having been there. In Bilgoray, he studied the Talmud and modern Hebrew, which in turn he taught in private homes. He also studied the Kabbalah, read the works of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and studied German and Polish. He became immersed in the rural Hasidic folk culture that would permeate his work.
In 1921, Singer entered a rabbinical seminary in Warsaw. He remained for a year and then went back to Bilgoray and supported himself by teaching Hebrew. Shortly afterward, he joined his parents in Dzikow, a shtetl close to Bilgoray, where his father had accepted a position as a rabbi. He found this village stifling and depressing, and he was delighted when his older brother, who was coeditor of the Literarische Bleter, offered him a job as proofreader for the journal. In 1923, Singer moved back to Warsaw to take up this new position. His family was settled in Dzikow, and he never saw his mother or younger brother again.
Singer’s brother Israel Joshua was also a writer and served as Singer’s mentor. He was the person who exerted the greatest influence on the young Singer, encouraging him when he began to write and instructing him in the rules of good storytelling. Although Isaac was given to mysticism, Israel Joshua was a realist who became part of the Jewish Enlightenment, the...
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