Isaac Bashevis Singer

From Academic Kids

Isaac Bashevis Singer (November 21, 1902 or July 14, 1904 - July 24, 1991) was a Nobel Prize-winning Jewish writer of both short stories and novels.


Isaac Bashevis Singer was born Icek-Hersz Zynger in Radzymin, near Warsaw in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of a rabbi. Singer later used her name in his penname "Bashevis" (son of Bathsheba). His brother Israel Joshua Singer also was a noted writer and was the first and greatest literary influence on his younger brother Isaac.

Singer grew up in the Yiddish-speaking poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw, where his father acted as a rabbi, judge, and spiritual leader, and in Bilgoraj, a traditional Jewish village or shtetl. Singer entered in 1920 the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, but then returned to Bilgoraj, where he supported himself by giving Hebrew lessons. Though his rabbinical studies would remain a strong influence on him, he longed to be a part of a literary community. In 1923 he moved to Warsaw, where he worked as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, edited by his brother Israel. The older brother contributed to the younger brother's spiritual liberation and contact with the new currents of seething political, social and cultural upheaval.

Singer made his debut with Satan in Goray which was first published in Poland in 1932. It was written in the style imitative of medieval Yiddish chronicle and tells the story of the events surrounding the 17th Century false messiah Shabbatai Zvi. The people in this novel, as elsewhere with Singer, are often at the mercy of the capricious infliction of circumstance, but even more so, their own passions, manias, superstitions and fanatical dreams. In his later work The Slave (1962) Singer returned again to the 17th Century in a love story of a Jewish man and a Gentile woman.

To flee from anti-Semitism, and to follow his brother, Singer emigrated to the U.S. in 1935. He separated from his first wife Rachel, and son Israel, who went to Moscow and later Palestine. Singer settled in New York, where he started writing as a journalist and columnist for The Forward, a Jewish newspaper. He wrote nearly all his work in Yiddish and often used the penname Warshofsky. In 1940 he married Alma Haimann, a German emigrant. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943.Throughout his career, Singer would continue to be a contributor and supporter of The Forward, which remains in existence today as a weekly.

Throughout the 1940s, Singer´s reputation began to grow among the many Yiddish-speaking immigrants. After World War II and the near destruction of the Yiddish-speaking peoples, Yiddish seemed a dead language. Though Singer had moved to the United States, he believed in the power of his native language and knew 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 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." Singer's work is undoubtedly much indebted to the great writers of Yiddish tradition such as Sholom Aleichem, but is much more modern in approach and has been shaped by his experience in America. His themes of witchcraft, mystery and legend draw on traditional sources, but they are established in modern and ironic way. They are also concerned with the bizarre and the grotesque.

Singer published 18 novels, 14 children's books, a number of memoirs, essays and articles, but he 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, was published in 1957. The title story was translated by Saul Bellow and published in 1952 in Partisan Review. Stories published in Daily Forward were later collected among others 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), or, A Friend of Kafka (1970). The world of his stories is the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites combined with blind faith and superstition. It appears to include everything - pleasure and suffering, coarseness and subtlety. We find obstrusive carnality, spicy, colourful, fragrant or smelly, lewd or violent. But there is also room for sagacity, worldly wisdom and humor.

One of Singer's most prominent themes is the clash between the old and the modern world, tradition and renewal, faith and free thought. Among many other themes, it is dealt with in Singer's big family chronicles - the novels, The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). These extensive epic works have been compared with Thomas Mann's novel, Buddenbrooks. Like Mann, Singer describes how old families are broken up by the new age and its demands, from the middle of the 19th Century up to the Second World War, and how they are split, financially, socially and humanly.

Throughout the 1960s Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality. One of his most famous novels (due to a popular movie remake) was Enemies, a Love Story in which a Holocaust survivor deals with his own desires, complex family relationships, and the loss of faith.

Singer's own relationship with religion was complex. He regarded himself as a skeptic and a loner, though he still felt connected to his Orthodox roots, and ultimately developed his own brand of religion and philosophy which he called a "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 also a vegetarian for his last 35 years, primarily because of compassion for animals. In his short story, The Slaughterer, he described the anguish that an appointed slaughterer had trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job of slaughtering animals. He felt that the eating 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".

After being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978, Singer gained a monumental status among writers throughout the world, and his reputation with non-Jewish audiences is now higher than that of any other Yiddish writer.

Singer died on July 24, 1991 in Miami, Florida.

List of novels

Note: the publication years in the following list refer to English translations, not the Yiddish originals (which often predate their translations by ten or twenty years).

External links

de:Isaac Bashevis Singer eo:Isaac Bashevis SINGER it:Isaac Bashevis Singer he:יצחק בשביס זינגר nl:Isaac Bashevis Singer pl:Isaac Bashevis Singer yi:יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער fi:Isaac Bashevis Singer sv:Isaac Bashevis Singer


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