Isaac Bashevis Singer: Between Fact and Fiction

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

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There is, however, a considerable difference between being childish and being child-like. Singer was the latter, despite the fact that, in truth, he was a darkly brooding, eminently sophisticated man and not merely the clever fellow who made people laugh at the 92nd Street Y.

In some of his stories the world is likened to a slaughterhouse; in others, jealousy drives characters mad. Shadows on the Hudson (1998), a novel published in Yiddish and only translated into English after his death, is filled with philosophical discussions by Holocaust survivors living in Manhattan. Their ruminations include sharp criticisms of American Jewry.

For all his apparent naivete, Singer guarded his reputation and carefully managed his career. Although gossip-mongers whispered about his mistresses, most of whom, the rumors went, doubled as his translators, the fact of the matter is that most of his translators were exploited financially rather than sexually. A possible reason for this, beyond the fact that Singer was, in most respects, a cheapskate, is that Singer irrationally feared being destitute and never felt entirely comfortable with the money his stories made.

All of this is very different from the persona he put on when he walked out on stage. That Singer is forever lost to us, but Singer, the writer of exquisite paragraphs, remains--not only in the vast amount of material already translated into English, but also in the large cache of sketches and short stories that will likely find their way into print during the next few decades.

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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.