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 ambivalent attitude toward Divine Providence.
In 1923 Singer’s literary career began when his brother invited him to become proofreader for the Yiddish magazine he was coediting in Warsaw, Literarische Bletter. To supplement his income, Singer also translated popular works into Yiddish, and he began to write himself, publishing his first story in 1925 in his brother’s periodical. When Israel Joshua left for America, Singer worked for a time as associate editor of Globus magazine. In 1935, convinced that Nazism posed real dangers, he followed his brother to New York, where he began his long and fruitful association with the Jewish Daily Forward.
Singer’s first significant recognition in the United States came in 1950, with the English-language publication of The Family Moskat, a family saga modeled on his brother’s work. Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpl Tam” as “Gimpel the Fool” in the Partisan Review three years later added to a reputation that has continued to grow. Singer went on to win Newbery Awards for his children’s stories (which he did not begin writing until he was sixty-two years old), National Book Awards, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
In presenting the Nobel Prize to Singer, Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy remarked that in his works “the Middle Ages seem to spring to life again, . . . the daily round is interwoven with wonders, reality is spun from dreams, the blood of the past pulsates in the present.” Seven of Singer’s novels and most of his successful short stories are set in the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry, a world he neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes. His chief critics have been Yiddishists who see him as pessimistic and irreligious, but Singer countered that he is merely realistic: Not all Polish Jews were honest,...
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