Isaac Bashevis Singer: Between Fact and Fiction

The life and work of Yiddish literature's Nobel laureate.

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I was hardly surprised, in 2003, by the commentaries occasioned by the hundredth anniversary of Isaac Bashevis Singer's birth. He was, after all, a Nobel laureate and the Yiddish writer most Jewish-American readers know. Certain Yiddishists, however, felt duty bound to remind people of just how much Singer was not a traditional Yiddish writer how he wrote about an Old World that never was, how Chaim Grade, author of The Yeshiva, was much more qualified to win a Nobel prize, how Singer was--no other word would do--a pornographer, and most cutting of all (at least for Yiddishists) how his Yiddish was hardly refined.

Singer had heard all these charges during his lifetime and he made no bones about the fact that he regarded most Yiddish writing as both sentimental and provincial. Moreover, he made no apologies if certain timid souls were shocked by the X-rated content in some of his fiction. Singer explored the darker sides of human nature, which meant that he wrote about betrayal, greed, murder, and sexual appetite. The same can be said for most great writers, but when Singer chronicled sexuality in both the Old World, and increasingly as his career unfolded, in the New World as well, many Yiddish readers were embarrassed.

And this was before Singer's stories appeared in Playboy.

Early Career

Isaac Bashevis Singer came to America in 1935, already known among Yiddish readers in Poland for Satan in Goray, a quasi-historical novel about zealots who follow a false messiah and, in the process, turn traditional religious values upside-down.jewish literature

Singer was also well known (if not particularly "famous") because his older brother was Israel Joshua Singer, the novelist and staff writer for the Forward, New York City's leading Yiddish newspaper. Singer also wanted to be a Forward writer (a regular paycheck was, after all, a regular paycheck), but Abraham Cahan, the paper's editor, nixed the deal. There was no future, he thought, for Yiddish or Yiddish newspapers once the city's immigrant population learned--as they must--how to speak and read English. So, Singer worked on a piece-by-piece basis, submitting stories about dybbuks (malicious spirits) allegedly spotted in the Bronx, while working on his own stories.

Meanwhile, his wife Alma got a job (and a regular paycheck) at Lord & Taylor's. Singer stayed home and wrote, often in bed, propped up by pillows.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.