Isaac Bashevis Singer 1904–1991
(Born Icek-Hersz Zynger; first name also transliterated as Isak, Isaak, Yitskhok; has also written under the pseudonyms Isaac Tse, Isaac Bashevis, and Isaac Warshofksy [also transliterated as Varshavski, Warshavksi, Warshawsky, and Warshovsky]) Polish-born American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, children's writer, playwright, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Singer's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 23, 38, and 69.
Singer's acclaimed novels and short fiction, especially Der Satan in Gorey (1935; Satan in Goray) and the title story from Gimpel tam un andere Dertseylungen (1950; Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories), are distinguished for their profound insight into philosophical dilemmas concerning personal spirituality, existential alienation, and cultural destiny. While Singer's narratives often feature Polish-Jewish history and traditional life in the Eastern European village or shtetl, by incorporating elements of legend and the supernatural, such stories transcend their provincial settings and subjects to achieve universality. Singer's preoccupation with the paradoxical duality of human nature, particularly surrounding aspects of faith and doubt, suffuses his fiction with a complex moral vision that challenges the assumptions of both biblical tradition and scientific rationalism. A master of Yiddish prose and Nobel laureate, Singer is recognized as a consummate storyteller and a penetrating observer of the human condition.
Born in Leoncin, Poland, a shtetl near Warsaw, Singer was raised in a traditional orthodox Jewish home dominated by pious religious contemplation and instruction; Singer's father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother descended from distinguished rabbis and talmudic scholars. At age four, Singer moved with his family to Warsaw where he spent most of his childhood. Under the influence of his older brother, novelist Israel Joshua Singer, Singer was introduced to secular literature and contemporary intellectuals whose skepticism defied the theological teachings of his upbringing. Singer's development was further shaped by the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza, clandestine readings in the Cabal (a religious text based on mystical interpretation of the Scriptures), and the works of Fedor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and Leo Tolstoy—all forbidden by his father. In 1917, Singer relocated with his mother to Bilgoray, a shtetl near the Austrian border, where he lived for several years with his grandparents. He began formal studies at Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw in 1921, but soon left to take up work as a proofreader for Literarische Bletter, a Yiddish literary journal edited by his brother. Singer published his first story, "Oyf der Elter," translated in English as "In Old Age," in Literarische Bletter in 1927 under the pseudonym Tse. While continuing to write creatively, Singer supported himself by translating popular fiction and several major novels into Yiddish, including works by Knut Hamsun, Erich Maria Remarques's All Quiet on the Western Front, and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Singer's first novel, Satan in Goray, appeared in book form in 1935; it was first published serially in Globus, a magazine for which he served as associate editor, in 1934. All of Singer's subsequent novels were first written and serialized in Yiddish. Singer immigrated to the United States in 1935, permanently leaving his native Poland and an estranged lover, Runya, with whom he had a son. Reunited with Israel Joshua in New York, Singer began work as a freelance writer for the Jewish Daily Forward, for which he became a regular contributor until the end of his life. In 1940, Singer married Alma Wasserman, a German-Jewish immigrant whom he met in the United States. Upon his brother's death in 1944, Singer began the novel Di Familie Mushkat (1950; The Family Moskat) and produced Mayn Tatn's Bes-din Shtub (1956; In My Father's Court), the first of several autobiographic narratives. With the 1953 publication of Saul Bellow's English translation of "Gimpel the Fool" in Partisan Review, Singer garnered an English-speaking readership and an international reputation. An English translation of Satan in Goray appeared in 1955, followed by Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories in 1957. During the next decade Singer produced additional novels, including Kunstmakher fun Lublin (1960; The Magician of Lublin), Sonim, di Geschichte fun a Liebe (1966; Enemies: A Love Story), numerous short stories collected in The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), Short Friday and Other Stories (1964), and The Seance and Other Stories (1968), as well as award-winning children's books. Singer maintained a prolific literary output during the 1970s with several collections of short fiction, notably A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1973) and Old Love and Other Stories (1979), the drama Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy (1974) which was adapted into the popular film Yentl in 1983, and the novel Shosha (1978). Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. He continued to produce highly regarded fiction, children's works, and memoirs until his death in 1991 after a series of strokes.
Singer's fiction typically explores the individual's struggle to realize the limits of human potential and free will in relation to supernatural forces and fatalistic universal law. His first novel, Satan in Goray, contains many recurring themes and narrative devices employed in his subsequent novels and short fiction. Set in a medieval Polish shtetl after the Cossack pogroms of 1648, Satan in Goray chronicles the negative effects of the Jewish messianic movement surrounding Sabbatai Zevi, a charlatan from Smyrna who proclaimed himself the Messiah, though later converted to Islam. Presented as an archaic folk story, the narrative centers on Rechele, a psychologically tormented woman whose satanic hallucinations are mistakenly interpreted by the zealous villagers as prophetic visions. When the Messiah fails to appear and news of Sabbatai Zevi's apostasy arrives, the inhabitants of Goray revert to the orthodox religion and traditions of their community to recover from the apocalyptic excesses of mysticism. As in much of his fiction, Singer incorporates the macabre, divine, and demonic to imbue the story with a fantastic quality that evokes the timelessness of parable. The presence of dybbuks—transient souls who take possession of living humans, according to Jewish tradition—also play an important role in many of Singer's short stories. In "Gimpel the Fool," Singer similarly addresses religious faith in an anachronistic Old World setting. Gimpel, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is duped, ridiculed, and cuckolded by his fellow townspeople because he solemnly refuses to abandon his pious credulity for fear of introducing doubt to his belief in God. In the end, Gimpel's absolute faith sustains him despite the victimization and absurdity he is willing to endure with saint-like stoicism. The Magician of Lublin follows the escapades of Yasha Mazur, an escape artist and magician whose irrepressible sexual urges lead him into multiple extramarital relationships. When his renowned powers of deception fail and he is caught stealing, Yasha enters into a hermetic life to atone for his sins through solitary prayer and meditation. As in Satan in Goray and "Gimpel the Fool," Singer exposes the striking similarities among the attributes of madness, piety, and wisdom. Yasha, as a picaresque hero, also embodies conflicting male desires for power and hedonistic pleasure against domestic submission and diminishing potency, significantly associated by Singer with resistance to the will of God. The Family Moskat, along with The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), represents an epic historical trilogy that recounts the plight of Polish Jews from 1863 to the Nazi offensives of 1939. Modelled largely on Israel Joshua's realistic narrative style, Singer's vivid depiction of Jewish life in Warsaw equates the fragmentation of traditional values and the family with the degeneration of Western society in general, particularly through the central character, Asa Heshel, who abandons talmudic scholarship to become a doomed nihilist. As in other works, Singer juxtaposes the competing claims of spirituality and skepticism in the Jewish community, though the haunting reality of the Holocaust suggests the futility of both. Singer addresses the aftermath of the Holocaust in Enemies, a comical novel about the difficult postwar life of Herman Broder, a Jew who avoided the Nazi concentration camps by hiding in a Polish hayloft during the war years. Racked with guilt for escaping such suffering, particularly as the Holocaust is perceived as a defining element of contemporary Jewish identity, Broder creates vicarious torments in New York through complex relationships with female survivors and demonic fantasies. In Shosha, Singer fuses the realistic style of The Family Moskat with the allegorical tone of Satan in Goray and "Gimpel the Fool." The narrator, Aaron Greidinger, is an aspiring writer who forgoes an opportunity to flee Poland during the Second World War. Greidinger also halts his sexual adventures with various sophisticated modern women to marry Shosha, a captivating young girl who embodies the innocence and cultural tradition of the Eastern European Jews. Tragically, however, Shosha dies at the hands of the Nazis, leaving Greidinger a Holocaust survivor whose devotion to Jewish language and heritage is her legacy. In the posthumously published novel Meshugah, Greidinger reappears as a semi-autobiographic character who lives in the United States and writes serial novels for a Yiddish newspaper. Like Singer himself, Greidinger is a solitary writer who attempts to preserve traditional Jewish culture through stories about the past.
Singer's evocative fiction is consistently praised for its uncanny simplicity and philosophical depth. While Satan in Goray and "Gimpel the Fool" are considered his most effective creative works, The Magician of Lublin, Enemies, Shosha, and many short stories contained in collections such as The Spinoza of Market Street and Short Fridays and Other Stories reveal Singer's narrative talent and metaphysical concerns. Though reproached by some members of the Jewish community for refusing to elevate the Jewish people as a persecuted ethnic minority, Singer's loyalty to Yiddish literature is credited with reaffirming the credibility of the near-extinct language. Other critics accuse Singer of repeating himself in subsequent stories and some cite erotic elements in his fiction as either provocative or irreverent, especially Singer's depiction of libertine characters and unabashed sexual affairs. Despite the unconcealed religious significance of his fiction, Singer's sardonic modernist sensibility and abiding interest in the debilitating effects of spiritual isolation draws frequent comparison to the existentialist writings of Albert Camus. Without resorting to didacticism or dogmatic moral judgment, Singer attempts to reconcile the mystical and absurd in both the Old and New Worlds with compassion, irony, and gentle humor.