Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Overview
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

 Jewish American author noted for his short stories
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

. He was one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement
Yiddish literature
Yiddish literature encompasses all belles lettres written in Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazic Jewry which is related to Middle High German. The history of Yiddish, with its roots in central Europe and locus for centuries in Eastern Europe, is evident in its literature.It is generally described...

, and received the Nobel Prize in Literature
Nobel Prize in Literature
Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words from the will of Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction"...

 in 1978. He is also well known for his memoir of his life, A Day Of Pleasure.

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncin
Leoncin
Leoncin is a village in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki County, Masovian Voivodeship, in east-central Poland. It is the seat of the gmina called Gmina Leoncin....

 village near Warsaw
Warsaw
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly from the Baltic Sea and from the Carpathian Mountains. Its population in 2010 was estimated at 1,716,855 residents with a greater metropolitan area of 2,631,902 residents, making Warsaw the 10th most...

, Poland
Congress Poland
The Kingdom of Poland , informally known as Congress Poland , created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, was a personal union of the Russian parcel of Poland with the Russian Empire...

, then part of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. A few years later, the family moved to a nearby Polish town of Radzymin
Radzymin
Radzymin is a town in Poland and is one of the distant suburbs of the city of Warsaw. It is located in the powiat of Wołomin of the Masovian Voivodeship. The town has 8,818 inhabitants .Radzymin was located by Bolesław IV of Warsaw in 1440...

, which is often and erroneously given as his birthplace.
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Quotations

Life is God's novel. Let him write it.

Quoted in Voices for Life (1975) edited by Dom Moraes

I am thankful, of course, for the prize and thankful to God for each story, each idea, each word, each day.

On winning the Nobel Prize, TIME magazine (16 October 1978)

When you betray somebody else, you also betray yourself.

The New York Times (26 November 1978)

I don't invent characters because the Almightly has already invented millions… Just like experts at fingerprints do not create fingerprints but learn how to read them.

The New York Times (26 November 1978)

The analysis of character is the highest human entertainment.

The New York Times (26 November 1978)

A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise… Because that is how life is — full of surprises.

The New York Times (26 November 1978)

The Jewish people have been in exile for 2,000 years; they have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds of languages and still they kept their old language, Hebrew. They kept their Aramaic, later their Yiddish; they kept their books; they kept their faith.

The New York Times (26 November 1978)

Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters.

The New York Times (3 December 1978)

Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.

The New York Times (3 December 1978)
Encyclopedia
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish
Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

 Jewish American author noted for his short stories
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

. He was one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement
Yiddish literature
Yiddish literature encompasses all belles lettres written in Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazic Jewry which is related to Middle High German. The history of Yiddish, with its roots in central Europe and locus for centuries in Eastern Europe, is evident in its literature.It is generally described...

, and received the Nobel Prize in Literature
Nobel Prize in Literature
Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words from the will of Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction"...

 in 1978. He is also well known for his memoir of his life, A Day Of Pleasure.

Early life


Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncin
Leoncin
Leoncin is a village in Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki County, Masovian Voivodeship, in east-central Poland. It is the seat of the gmina called Gmina Leoncin....

 village near Warsaw
Warsaw
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly from the Baltic Sea and from the Carpathian Mountains. Its population in 2010 was estimated at 1,716,855 residents with a greater metropolitan area of 2,631,902 residents, making Warsaw the 10th most...

, Poland
Congress Poland
The Kingdom of Poland , informally known as Congress Poland , created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, was a personal union of the Russian parcel of Poland with the Russian Empire...

, then part of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. A few years later, the family moved to a nearby Polish town of Radzymin
Radzymin
Radzymin is a town in Poland and is one of the distant suburbs of the city of Warsaw. It is located in the powiat of Wołomin of the Masovian Voivodeship. The town has 8,818 inhabitants .Radzymin was located by Bolesław IV of Warsaw in 1440...

, which is often and erroneously given as his birthplace. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but most probably it was November 21, 1902, a date that Singer gave both to his official biographer Paul Kresh, and his secretary Dvorah Telushkin. It is also consistent with the historical events he and his brother refer to in their childhood memoirs. The often quoted birth date, July 14, 1904 was made up by the author in his youth, most probably to make himself younger to avoid the draft.

His father was a Hasidic
Hasidic Judaism
Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism, from the Hebrew —Ḥasidut in Sephardi, Chasidus in Ashkenazi, meaning "piety" , is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith...

 rabbi
Rabbi
In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רבי , meaning "My Master" , which is the way a student would address a master of Torah...

 and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoraj. Singer later used her name in his pen name "Bashevis" (Bathsheba's). His elder siblings—brother Israel Joshua Singer
Israel Joshua Singer
Israel Joshua Singer was a Yiddish novelist. He was born Yisroel Yehoyshue Zinger, the son of Pinchas Mendl Zinger, a rabbi and author of rabbinic commentaries, and Basheva Zylberman...

 (1893–1944) and sister Esther Kreitman
Esther Kreitman
Hinde Ester Singer Kreytman , known in English as Esther Kreitman, was a Yiddish-language novelist and short story writer. She was born in Biłgoraj, Poland to a rabbinic Jewish family. Her younger brothers Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer also became writers.Kreitman had an unhappy...

 (1891–1954)--were also writers. Esther was the first in the family to write stories.

The family moved to the court of the Rabbi of Radzymin in 1907, where his father became head of the Yeshiva. After the Yeshiva building burned down in 1908, the family moved to Krochmalna Street in the Yiddish
Yiddish language
Yiddish is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages...

-speaking poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw, where Singer grew up. There his father acted as a rabbi — i.e., judge, arbitrator, religious authority and spiritual leader.

World War I


In 1917, because of the hardships of World War I, the family split up. Singer moved with his mother and younger brother Moshe to his mother's hometown of Biłgoraj, a traditional Jewish town or shtetl
Shtetl
A shtetl was typically a small town with a large Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe until The Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and Romania...

, where his mother's brothers had followed his grandfather as rabbis. When his father became a village rabbi again in 1921, Singer went back to Warsaw
Warsaw
Warsaw is the capital and largest city of Poland. It is located on the Vistula River, roughly from the Baltic Sea and from the Carpathian Mountains. Its population in 2010 was estimated at 1,716,855 residents with a greater metropolitan area of 2,631,902 residents, making Warsaw the 10th most...

, where he entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary and soon decided that neither the school nor the profession suited him. He returned to Biłgoraj, where he tried to support himself by giving Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

 lessons, but soon gave up and joined his parents, considering himself a failure. In 1923 his older brother Israel Joshua arranged for him to move to Warsaw to work as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, of which he was an editor.

United States


In 1935, four years before the German
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 invasion
Invasion of Poland (1939)
The Invasion of Poland, also known as the September Campaign or 1939 Defensive War in Poland and the Poland Campaign in Germany, was an invasion of Poland by Germany, the Soviet Union, and a small Slovak contingent that marked the start of World War II in Europe...

 and the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

, Singer emigrated from Poland
Second Polish Republic
The Second Polish Republic, Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland refers to Poland between the two world wars; a period in Polish history in which Poland was restored as an independent state. Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland , the Polish state was...

 to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 due to the growing Nazi threat in neighboring Germany. The move separated the author from his common-law first wife Runia Pontsch and son Israel Zamir (b.1929), who instead went to Moscow and then Palestine
Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

 (they would meet in 1955). Singer settled in New York
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, where he took up work as a journalist and columnist for The Forward
The Forward
The Forward , commonly known as The Jewish Daily Forward, is a Jewish-American newspaper published in New York City. The publication began in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily issued by dissidents from the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel DeLeon...

 , a Yiddish-language newspaper. After a promising start, he became despondent and felt for some years "Lost in America" (title of a Singer novel, in Yiddish from 1974 onward, in English 1981). In 1938, he met Alma Wassermann (born Haimann) {b.1907-d.1996}, a German-Jewish refugee from Munich
Munich
Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...

 whom he married in 1940. After the marriage he returned to prolific writing and to contributing to the Forward, using, besides "Bashevis," the pen names "Varshavsky" and "D. Segal." They lived for many years in the Belnord on Manhattan's Upper West Side
Upper West Side
The Upper West Side is a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan, New York City, that lies between Central Park and the Hudson River and between West 59th Street and West 125th Street...

. In 1981, Singer delivered a commencement address at the University at Albany, and was presented with an honorary doctorate.

Singer died on July 24, 1991 in Surfside, Florida
Surfside, Florida
Surfside is a town in Miami-Dade County, Florida, United States. The population was 4,909 at the 2000 census. As of 2005, the population recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau is 4,710.-Geography:...

, after suffering a series of stroke
Stroke
A stroke, previously known medically as a cerebrovascular accident , is the rapidly developing loss of brain function due to disturbance in the blood supply to the brain. This can be due to ischemia caused by blockage , or a hemorrhage...

s. He was buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, Emerson. A street in Surfside, Florida
Surfside, Florida
Surfside is a town in Miami-Dade County, Florida, United States. The population was 4,909 at the 2000 census. As of 2005, the population recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau is 4,710.-Geography:...

 is named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in his honor. The full academic scholarship for undergraduate students at the University of Miami
University of Miami
The University of Miami is a private, non-sectarian university founded in 1925 with its main campus in Coral Gables, Florida, a medical campus in Miami city proper at Civic Center, and an oceanographic research facility on Virginia Key., the university currently enrolls 15,629 students in 12...

 is named in his honor.

Writing


Singer's first published story won the literary competition of the "literarishe bletter" and garnered him a reputation as a promising talent. A reflection of his formative years in "the kitchen of literature" can be found in many of his later works. I. B. Singer published his first novel Satan in Goray in installments in the literary magazine Globus, which he cofounded with his life-long friend, the Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin
Aaron Zeitlin
Aaron Zeitlin , the son of the famous Jewish writer Hillel Zeitlin and Esther Kunin, authored several books on Yiddish literature, Poetry and Parapsychology.-Biography:...

 in 1935. It tells the story of events in 1648 in the village of Goraj (close to Biłgoraj), where the Jews of Poland lost a third of their population in a cruel uprising by Cossacks, and details the effects of the seventeenth-century faraway false messiah Shabbatai Zvi on the local population. Its last chapter imitates the style of medieval Yiddish chronicle. With a stark depiction of innocence crushed by circumstance, the novel appears to foreshadow coming danger. In his later work The Slave (1962), Singer returns to the aftermath of 1648, in a love story between a Jewish man and a Gentile
Gentile
The term Gentile refers to non-Israelite peoples or nations in English translations of the Bible....

 woman, where he depicts the traumatized and desperate survivors of the historic catastrophe with even deeper understanding.

The Family Moskat


Singer became an actual literary contributor to the Forward only following his older brother's death in 1945, when he published The Family Moskat in his honor. But his own style showed in the daring turns of his action and characters, with (and this in the Jewish family-newspaper in 1945) double adultery in the holiest of nights of Judaism, the evening of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur , also known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jews. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue...

. He was almost forced to stop writing the novel by his legendary editor-in-chief, Abraham Cahan
Abraham Cahan
Abraham "Abe" Cahan was a Lithuanian-born American socialist newspaper editor, novelist, and politician.-Early years:...

, but was saved by readers who wanted the story to go on. After this, his stories—which he had published in Yiddish literary newspapers before—were printed in the Forward as well. Throughout the 1940s, Singer's reputation grew. After World War II and the near destruction of the Yiddish-speaking peoples, Yiddish seemed to be a dead language. Though Singer had moved to the United States, he believed in the power of his native language and maintained that there was still a large audience that longed to read in Yiddish. In an interview in Encounter (Feb. 1979), he claimed that although the Jews of Poland
History of the Jews in Poland
The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was the centre of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. This ended with the...

 had died, "something—call it spirit or whatever—is still somewhere in the universe. This is a mystical kind of feeling, but I feel there is truth in it."

Some of his colleagues and readers were shocked by this all-encompassing view of human nature. He wrote about female homosexuality ("Zeitl and Rickel" ("Tseytl un Rikl") in "The Seance and Other Stories"), transvestitism ("Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" in "Short Friday"), and of rabbis corrupted by demons ("Zeidlus the Pope" in "Short Friday"). In those novels and stories which seem to recount his own life, he portrays himself unflatteringly (with some degree of accuracy) as an artist who is self-centered yet has a keen eye for the sufferings and tribulations of others.

Literary influences


Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied there were the folktales he grew up with and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about "Max Spitzkopf" and his assistant "Fuchs"; there was Dostoyevsky, whose Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment is a novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was first published in the literary journal The Russian Messenger in twelve monthly installments during 1866. It was later published in a single volume. This is the second of Dostoyevsky's full-length novels following his...

 he read when he was fourteen; and he writes about the importance of the Yiddish translations donated in book-crates from America, which he studied as a teenager in Bilgoraj: "I read everything: Stories, novels, plays, essays...I read Rajsen
Avrom Reyzen
Avrom Reyzen , Yiddish writer, poet, and editor. He was born in Koidanov . Supported by Yaknehoz , while in his early teens Reyzen sent articles to Dos Yudishes folks-blat in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He corresponded with Jacob Dinezon and Y. L...

, Strindberg
Strindberg
Strindberg may refer to:People* August Strindberg , Swedish dramatist and painter* Nils Strindberg , Swedish photographer* Anita Strindberg , Swedish actor* Henrik Strindberg , Swedish composerOther...

, Don Kaplanowitsch, Turgenev, Tolstoy
Tolstoy
Tolstoy, or Tolstoi is a prominent family of Russian nobility, descending from Andrey Kharitonovich Tolstoy who served under Vasily II of Moscow...

, Maupassant and Chekhov
Anton Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian physician, dramatist and author who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history. His career as a dramatist produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics...

." He studied many philosophers, among them Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher known for his pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the four separate manifestations of reason in the phenomenal...

, and Otto Weininger
Otto Weininger
Otto Weininger was an Austrian philosopher. In 1903, he published the book Geschlecht und Charakter , which gained popularity after his suicide at the age of 23...

. Among his Yiddish contemporaries Singer himself considered his older brother to be his greatest artistic example; he was a life-long friend and admirer of the author and poet Aaron Zeitlin
Aaron Zeitlin
Aaron Zeitlin , the son of the famous Jewish writer Hillel Zeitlin and Esther Kunin, authored several books on Yiddish literature, Poetry and Parapsychology.-Biography:...

. Of his non-Yiddish-contemporaries he was strongly influenced by the writings of Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun was a Norwegian author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. He was praised by King Haakon VII of Norway as Norway's soul....

, many of whose works he later translated, while he had more critical attitude towards Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual...

, whose approach to writing he considered opposed to his own. Contrary to Hamsun's approach, Singer shaped his world not only with the egos of his characters, but also using the moral commitments of the Jewish tradition that he grew up with and that his father embodies in the stories about his youth. This led to the dichotomy between the life his heroes lead and the life they feel they should lead - which gives his art a modernity his predecessors do not evince. His themes of witchcraft, mystery and legend draw on traditional sources, but they are contrasted with a modern and ironic consciousness. They are also concerned with the bizarre and the grotesque.

Another important strand of his art is intra-familial strife - which he experienced firsthand when taking refuge with his mother and younger brother at his uncles home in Biłgoraj. This is the central theme in Singer's big family chronicles - like The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). Some are reminded by them of Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual...

's novel Buddenbrooks; Singer had translated Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain
The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, first published in November 1924. It is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature....

) into Yiddish as a young writer.

Language


Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish – almost all of it in newspapers – and then edited his novels and stories for their American versions, which became the basis for all other translations; he referred to the English version as his "second original". This has led to an ongoing controversy whereby the "real Singer" can be found in the Yiddish original, with its finely tuned language and sometimes rambling construction, or in the more tightly edited American version, where the language is usually simpler and more direct. Many of Singer's stories and novels have not yet been translated.

In the short story form, in which many critics feel he made his most lasting contributions, his greatest influences were Chekhov
Anton Chekhov
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian physician, dramatist and author who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history. His career as a dramatist produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics...

 and Maupassant. From Maupassant, Singer developed a finely grained sense of drama. Like the French master, Singer's stories can pack enormous visceral excitement in the space of a few pages. From Chekhov, Singer developed his ability to draw characters of enormous complexity and dignity in the briefest of spaces. In the foreword to his personally selected volume of his finest short stories he describes the two aforementioned writers as the greatest masters of the short story form.

Illustrators


Several respected artists have illustrated Singer’s novels, short stories, and children’s books including Raphael Soyer
Raphael Soyer
Raphael Soyer was a Russian-born American painter, draftsman, and printmaker. Soyer was referred to as an American scene painter...

, Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak
Maurice Bernard Sendak is an American writer and illustrator of children's literature. He is best known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, published in 1963.-Early life:...

, Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers was an American artist, musician, filmmaker and occasional actor. Rivers resided and maintained studios in New York City, Southampton, New York and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.-Biography:...

, and Irene Lieblich
Irene Lieblich
Irene Lieblich was a Polish-born artist and Holocaust survivor noted for illustrating the books of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and for her paintings highlighting Jewish life and culture...

. Singer personally selected Lieblich to illustrate some of his books for children, including A Tale of Three Wishes and The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah after seeing her work in an exhibition at an Artists Equity exhibit in New York. A Holocaust survivor, Lieblich was from Zamosc, Poland, a town adjacent to the area where Singer grew up. As their memories of shtetl life were so similar, Singer found Lieblich’s images ideally suited to illustrate his texts. Of her style, Singer wrote that “her works are rooted in Jewish folklore and are faithful to Jewish life and the Jewish spirit.”

Summary


Singer published at least 18 novels, 14 children's books, a number of memoirs, essays and articles, but is best known as a writer of short stories, which have appeared in over a dozen collections. The first collection of Singer's short stories in English, Gimpel the Fool
Gimpel the Fool
"Gimpel the Fool" is a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated into English by Saul Bellow in 1953. It tells the story of Gimpel, a simple bread maker who is the butt of many of his town's jokes. It also gives its name to the collection first published in 1957...

, was published in 1957. The title story was translated by Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow was a Canadian-born Jewish American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts...

 and published in May 1953 in the Partisan Review
Partisan Review
Partisan Review was an American political and literary quarterly published from 1934 to 2003, though it suspended publication between October 1936 and December 1937.-Overview:...

. Selections from Singer's "Varshavsky-stories" in the Daily Forward were later published in anthologies such as My Father's Court (1966). Later collections include A Crown of Feathers (1973), with notable masterpieces in between, such as The Spinoza of Market Street (1961) and A Friend of Kafka (1970). His stories and novels reflect the world of the East European Jewry he grew up in. And, after his many years in America, his stories concerned the world of the immigrants and how their American dream proves elusive, sometimes even after they seemed to obtain it.

Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, translations of dozens of his stories were frequently published in popular magazines such as Playboy and Esquire
Esquire (magazine)
Esquire is a men's magazine, published in the U.S. by the Hearst Corporation. Founded in 1932, it flourished during the Great Depression under the guidance of founder and editor Arnold Gingrich.-History:...

, which attempted to raise their literary reputation by publishing Singer, and he in turn found them to be appropriate outlets for his work.

Throughout the 1960s, Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality, and was the target of scathing criticism from many quarters, some of it for not being "moral" enough, some for writing stories that no one wanted to hear. To his critics he replied, "Literature must spring from the past, from the love of the uniform force that wrote it, and not from the uncertainty of the future."

Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.

One of his most famous novels, due to a popular movie adaptation
Enemies, a Love Story (film)
Enemies, a Love Story is a 1989 film directed by Paul Mazursky, based on the novel Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.-Plot:...

, was Enemies, a Love Story, in which a Holocaust survivor deals with his own desires, complex family relationships, and a loss of faith. Singer's feminist story "Yentl
Yentl
Yentl is a play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer.Based on Singer's short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," it centers on a young girl who defies tradition by discussing and debating Jewish law and theology with her rabbi father...

" has had a wide impact on culture since its conversion into popular movie
Yentl (film)
Yentl is a 1983 romantic musical drama film from United Artists, and directed, co-written, co-produced, and starring Barbra Streisand based on the play of the same name by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, itself based on Singer's short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy".The dramatic story...

 starring Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand
Barbra Joan Streisand is an American singer, actress, film producer and director. She has won two Academy Awards, eight Grammy Awards, four Emmy Awards, a Special Tony Award, an American Film Institute award, a Peabody Award, and is one of the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy,...

. Perhaps the most fascinating Singer-inspired film is 1974's Mr. Singer's Nightmare or Mrs. Pupkos Beard by Bruce Davidson
Bruce Davidson (photographer)
Bruce Davidson is an American photographer. He has been a member of Magnum agency since 1958. His photographs, notably those taken in Harlem, New York City, have been widely exhibited and published in a number of books.-Youth:Bruce Davidson was born to a single mother, who worked in a factory...

, a renowned photographer who became Singer's neighbor. This unique film is a half-hour mixture of documentary and fantasy for which Singer not only wrote the script but played the leading role.

The 2007 film Love Comes Lately
Love Comes Lately
Love Comes Lately is a 2007 film written for the screen and directed by Jan Schütte. The film is based on the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.-Plot:...

, starring Otto Tausig, was adapted from Singer's stories.

Judaism


Singer's relationship to Judaism was complex and unconventional. He regarded himself as a skeptic and a loner, though he felt a connection to his orthodox roots. Ultimately, he developed a view of religion and philosophy, which he called "private mysticism: Since God was completely unknown and eternally silent, He could be endowed with whatever traits one elected to hang upon Him."

Singer was raised Orthodox and learned all the Jewish prayers, studied Hebrew, and learned Torah and Talmud. As he recounted in the autobiographical "In My Father's Court", he broke away from his parents in his early twenties and, influenced by his older brother, who had done the same, began spending time with non-religious Bohemian artists in Warsaw. Although he clearly believed in a monotheistic God, as in traditional Judaism, he stopped attending Jewish religious services of any kind, even on the High Holy Days. He struggled throughout his life with the feeling that a kind and compassionate God would never support the great suffering he saw around him, especially the Holocaust deaths of the Polish Jews he grew up with. In one interview with the photographer Richard Kaplan, he said, "I am angry at God because of what happened to my brother": Singer's older brother died suddenly in February 1944, in New York, of a thrombosis, his younger brother perished in Soviet Russia around 1945, after being deported with his mother and wife to Southern Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan , officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a transcontinental country in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Ranked as the ninth largest country in the world, it is also the world's largest landlocked country; its territory of is greater than Western Europe...

. But his anger did not appear to become atheism. In one story his narrator tells a woman, "If you believe in God, then he exists."

Despite all the complexities of his religious outlook, Singer lived in the midst of the Jewish community throughout his life. He did not seem to be comfortable unless he was surrounded by Jews; particularly Jews born in Europe. Although he spoke English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

, Hebrew, and Polish
Polish language
Polish is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland and by Polish minorities in other countries...

 quite fluently, he always considered Yiddish his natural tongue, he always wrote in Yiddish and he was the last famous American author writing in this language. After he had achieved success as a writer in New York, Singer and his wife began spending time during the winters with the Jewish community in Miami. Eventually, as senior citizens, they moved to Miami and identified closely with the European Jewish community: a street was named after him long before he died. Singer was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery.

Especially in his short fiction, he often wrote about various Jews having religious struggles; sometimes these struggles became violent, bringing death or mental illness. In one story he meets a young woman in New York whom he knew from an Orthodox family in Poland. She has become a kind of hippie, sings American folk music with a guitar, and rejects Judaism, although the narrator comments that in many ways she seems typically Jewish. The narrator says that he often meets Jews who think they are anything but Jewish, and yet still are.

In the end, Singer remains an unquestionably Jewish writer, yet his precise views about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish God are open to interpretation. Whatever they were, they lay at the center of his literary art.

Vegetarianism


Singer was a prominent vegetarian for the last 35 years of his life and often included vegetarian themes in his works. In his short story, The Slaughterer, he described the anguish of an appointed slaughterer trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job of killing them. He felt that the ingestion of meat was a denial of all ideals and all religions: "How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?" When asked if he had become a vegetarian for health reasons, he replied: "I did it for the health of the chickens."

In The Letter Writer, he wrote "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka
Treblinka extermination camp
Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland during World War II near the village of Treblinka in the modern-day Masovian Voivodeship of Poland. The camp, which was constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, operated between and ,. During this time, approximately 850,000 men, women...

." which became a classical reference in the discussions about the legitimacy of the compararison of animal exploitation with the holocaust
Animal rights and the Holocaust
Several writers, including Jewish Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and animal rights groups have drawn a comparison between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust...

.

In the preface to Steven Rosen's "Food for Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions" (1986), Singer wrote, "When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent. I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, "I'm against vegetarianism!" I would say, "Well, I am for it!" This is how strongly I feel in this regard."

Politics


Singer described himself as "conservative," adding that "I don't believe by flattering the masses all the time we really achieve much." His conservative side was most apparent in his Yiddish writing and journalism, where he was openly hostile to Marxist sociopolitical agendas. In Forverts he once wrote, "It may seem like terrible apikorses [heresy], but conservative governments in America, England, France, have handled Jews no worse than liberal governments...The Jew's worst enemies were always those elements that the modern Jew convinced himself (really hypnotized himself) were his friends."

Published works


Note: Publication dates here refer to English translations, not the Yiddish originals, which often predate their translations by ten or twenty years.
  • Eulogy to a Shoelace
  • The Family Moskat
    The Family Moskat
    The Family Moskat is a novel written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, originally written in Yiddish. It was Singer's first book published in English.-External links:*...

     (1950)
  • Satan in Goray
    Satan in Goray
    Satan in Goray is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer . It was originally published in installments in a literary magazine called Globus and was Singer's first published work. It is set in the years following 1648, when the Chmelnicki massacres, considered one of the greatest Jewish catastrophes,...

     (1955)
  • The Magician of Lublin (Novel) (1960)
  • The Slave
    The Slave (book)
    The Slave is a novel written by Isaac Bashevis Singer originally written in Yiddish that tells the story of Jacob, a scholar sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres, who falls in love with a gentile woman. Through the eyes of Jacob, the book recounts the history of Jewish...

     (1962)
  • Zlateh the Goat
    Zlateh the Goat
    Zlatheh the Goat is a short story written by Polish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Originally written in Yiddish, which was Singer's language of choice for writing, Zlateh the Goat was published in English in 1966 as part of a short story collection. Maurice Sendak provided illustrations...

     (1966)
  • The Fearsome Inn (1967)
  • Mazel and Shlimazel (1967)
  • The Manor (1967)
  • Zeitl and Rickel (1968)
  • Utzel and his Daughter, Poverty (1968)
  • The Estate (1969)
  • The Golem
    The Golem (1969)
    The Golem is a novel written in 1969 by Isaac Bashevis Singer that was first published in the Jewish Daily Forward. It was rewritten and translated into English in 1981....

     (1969)
  • A Day of Pleasure, Stories of a Boy Growing Up In Warsaw (1969)
  • A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories (1970)
  • Elijah The Slave (1970)
  • Joseph and Koza: or the Sacrifice to the Vistula (1970)
  • The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China (1971)
  • Enemies, a Love Story
    Enemies, a Love Story
    Enemies, a Love Story is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer first published serially in the Jewish Daily Forward in 1966. The English translation was published in 1972.-Plot summary:...

     (1972)
  • The Wicked City (1972)
  • The Hasidim (1973)

  • The Fools of Chelm and Their History (1973)
  • A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories (1974)
  • Naftali and the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus (1976)
  • A Little Boy in Search of God (1976)
  • Shosha
    Shosha (novel)
    Shosha is a novel originally written in Yiddish by Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is about the aspiring author Aaron Greidinger who lives in the Hasidic quarter of the Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw during the 1930s....

     (1978)
  • A Young Man in Search of Love (1978)
  • Old Love (1979)
  • Reaches of Heaven. A Story Of The Baal Shem Tov (1980)
  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer  (1982) (stories selected by Singer)
  • The Penitent (1983)
  • Teibele and Her Demon (1983)
  • Yentl the Yeshiva Boy (1983) (basis for the movie Yentl
    Yentl (film)
    Yentl is a 1983 romantic musical drama film from United Artists, and directed, co-written, co-produced, and starring Barbra Streisand based on the play of the same name by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, itself based on Singer's short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy".The dramatic story...

    )
  • Why Noah Chose the Dove (1984)
  • The King of the Fields (1988)
  • Scum (1991)
  • The Certificate
    The Certificate
    The Certificate is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, published in English in 1992 . David, a poor, young Yiddish writer wishes to emigrate to Palestine from Poland, and because married couples are given preference, he tries to arrange for a marriage certificate to be purchased for him by a wealthy...

     (1992)
  • Meshugah (1994)
  • Shadows on the Hudson
    Shadows on the Hudson
    Shadows on the Hudson is a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. First serialized in The Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, it was published in book form in 1997. It was translated into English by Joseph Sherman in 1998. The book follows a group of prosperous Jewish refugees in New York City following...

     (1997)
  • In My Father's Court

Short stories
  • Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories,trans.Saul Bellow,Martha Glicklich,E.Gottilieb,Nancy Gross,etc.,New York,The Noonday Press,1957.
  • The Spinoza of Market Street,trans.Joel Bloker,M.Glicklich,Mirra Ginsburg,C.Hemley,E.Pollet,J.Singer,Ruth Witman,etc.,New York Farrar,1963.
  • Short Friday and Other Stories,trans.J.Blocker,M.Glinsburg,M.Gliklich,C.Hemley,E.Pollet,J.Singer,Ruth Whitman,etc.,New York,Farrar,1963.
  • The Séance and Other Stories,trans.M.Ginsburg,E.Pollet,Alma Singer,R.Whitman,etc.,New York,Farrar,1968.
  • "The Mistake" The New Yorker
    The New Yorker
    The New Yorker is an American magazine of reportage, commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, cartoons and poetry published by Condé Nast...

     60/51 (4 February 1985) : 36-40. Translated from the Yiddish by Rina Borrow and Lester Goran
    Lester Goran
    Lester Goran is an American writer best known for his works about growing up poor in his hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the neighborhood of Oakland.-Life:...

    .


Posthumous editions
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 1 (Library of America
    Library of America
    The Library of America is a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature.- Overview and history :Founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the LoA has published over 200 volumes by a wide range of authors from Mark Twain to Philip...

    , 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108261-7
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 2 (Library of America
    Library of America
    The Library of America is a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature.- Overview and history :Founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the LoA has published over 200 volumes by a wide range of authors from Mark Twain to Philip...

    , 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108262-4
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 3 (Library of America
    Library of America
    The Library of America is a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature.- Overview and history :Founded in 1979 with seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the LoA has published over 200 volumes by a wide range of authors from Mark Twain to Philip...

    , 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108263-1
  • Burgin, Richard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (1985) ISBN 0-385-17999-5
  • Rencontre au Sommet
    Rencontre au Sommet
    Rencontre au Sommet is an 86-page book containing the complete transcripts of conversations between Anthony Burgess and Isaac Bashevis Singer when they met for a Swedish television documentary in 1985....

     (86-page transcript in book form of conversations between Singer and Anthony Burgess
    Anthony Burgess
    John Burgess Wilson  – who published under the pen name Anthony Burgess – was an English author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic. The dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange is Burgess's most famous novel, though he dismissed it as one of his lesser works...

    ) (1998)


Films Based on Singer's work
  • Enemies, a Love Story (film)
    Enemies, a Love Story (film)
    Enemies, a Love Story is a 1989 film directed by Paul Mazursky, based on the novel Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.-Plot:...

  • Love Comes Lately
    Love Comes Lately
    Love Comes Lately is a 2007 film written for the screen and directed by Jan Schütte. The film is based on the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.-Plot:...

  • The Magician of Lublin (film)
    The Magician of Lublin (film)
    The Magician of Lublin is a 1979 film co-written and directed by Menahem Golan. The film is based on The Magician of Lublin by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The title song The Magician was performed by Kate Bush.-Plot:...

  • Yentl (film)
    Yentl (film)
    Yentl is a 1983 romantic musical drama film from United Artists, and directed, co-written, co-produced, and starring Barbra Streisand based on the play of the same name by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, itself based on Singer's short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy".The dramatic story...

  • "Mr. Singer's Nightmare or Mrs. Pupkos Beard"

External links