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Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1904- ).

novelist, short-story writer, Nobel prize in literature (1978), the first writer in Yiddish so honored. Singer was born in the village of Leoncin, Poland, but when he was young, his family moved to Warsaw which, except for time spent in the shtetl (small village) of Bilgoray during World War I, remained his home until he came to the United States in 1935. His father and paternal grandfather were rabbis, Chassidim--an ultra-orthodox and frequently enthusiastic, mystical branch of Judaism--while his maternal grandfather, also a rabbi, was in the Maskilic, or enlightened, tradition. Singer had a thoroughly traditional Jewish upbringing in which these two elements often collided. More significant influences on Singer's growing skepticism and his ultimate, personal resolution of the various contradictory claims to belief and doubt that he embraced were his elder brother, writer <IR> ISRAEL JOSHUA SINGER, </IR> the pantheistic philosophy of Spinoza, secular and modernist writers like Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, and E.T.A. Hoffman, and his abiding interest in--though by on means uncritical acceptance-of psychic research and phenomena. He once described his credo as "a sort of kasha of mysticism, deism, and skepticism."

His brother I.J. Singer, eleven years Isaac Bashevis's senior, had become converted to science, rationalism, and socialism in pre-World War I Warsaw and was an important member in the 1920s of its lively and modernist world of Jewish intellectuals and artists. Isaac Bashevis was influenced by these ideas and currents but always stood outside and frequently opposed them. As a consequence of the success of his novel Yoshe Kalb, I.J. Singer had become Warsaw correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward, in New York City. Some years after I.J. had come to the United States as a Forward writer, and as the situation of Polish Jews became increasingly ominous, he helped Isaac Bashevis to emigrate to New York in 1935. Isaac Bashevis had by then published only a few stories, sketches, and translations in generally obscure Yiddish journals in Vilna and Warsaw, along with an extraordinary but controversial and not very accessible short novel Der Sotn in Goray (Warsaw, 1935), but he was hired by the Forward. He continued to publish in the Forward for the rest of his life--in the early days, a stream of popular articles and features, usually under the name of Yitskhok Varshavski; later, his stories and serialized novellas and novels, usually under the name Yitskhok Bashevis. Singer did not break through to a wider non-Yiddish audience until the 1950s. In 1950 The Family Moskat, Isaac Bashevis Singer's second novel, became his first publication in English, but his appeal to the imagination of American readers and others did not really begin until Saul Bellow's fine translation of Singer's masterful short story "Gimpel the Fool" appeared in the Partisan Review in 1953. ("Gimpel the Fool" is the title story of the first English collection of Singer's stories in 1957.) There followed rapidly Satan in Goray in English (1955) and The Magician of Lublin (1957). With the appearance of The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories (1961) and The Slave (1962), which is considered by many to be Singer's finest novel, his reputation was ensured. This reputation has been consolidated by at least eight more volumes of short stories and a half dozen additional novels--chief of which are his two epic novels of Polish Jewish life, The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), and his only novel set in the United States, Enemies: a Love Story (1972). His late work has been seen by some critics as repetitious, perhaps diminishing in power--a charge that has been made against Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, and many other major writers. Singer's most recent work, written in advanced age, restates some of his chief themes with power and originality. The overwhelming impression remains that Isaac Bashevis Singer, writing in Yiddish--though always playing a close and vital, occasionally exclusive, role in the translation of his work into English--is a treasure of American and world literature.

Despite the size and variety of Singer's literary work--it includes as well two original plays in addition to stage and screen adaptations by others of several of his works, notably the story "Yentl the Yeshivah Boy" and about a dozen children's books, a form and an audience he takes very seriously--his characteristic themes, concerns, and patterns recur, creating a distinctive Singerian universe. This universe is based largely on Singer's observation of the colorful and raffish, if impoverished, life on Krochmalna Street, the Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw where he grew up and where his father held Chassidic court (richly described in In My Father's Court, 1966). It also is based on his study of arcane episodes of Jewish history--he was fascinated by the so-called false messiahs, Sabbatai Zevi, in the 17th century, Joseph Frank in the 18th--and in his later years on the experience of Jewish survivors transplanted to America.

Paradoxically, Singer's work represents a flowering of Yiddish literature while standing apart from its mainstream. He has often claimed that most Yiddish literature, which began seriously about the 1880s, was stamped by provinciality, sentimentality, and a tendentious social commitment.

This claim is itself tendentious--it can be argued that there were forerunners of Singer in other works and that, for example, "Gimpel the Fool," in which simple faith and holy innocence in the face of every provocation become a reproach to the worldly and merely material, leans on the tradition of the exaltation of the humble and simple evident in much of classic Yiddish literature. Nevertheless, it is true that Singer's prevailing concern with the esoterica of cabala, demons, and dybbuks (spirits of the dead that invade the bodies of the living), and his frank, sometimes obsessive treatment of sexuality and carnality, his special mix of realism and fantasy, burst the bounds of that literature. It may also account for his imaginative appeal to a wider and modern audience.

As if to confound categorization, Singer has written sprawling novels covering generations of Polish Jewish experience--The Family Moskat, The Manor, The Estate--as well as tightly controlled, highly structured novels such as Satan in Goray, The Magician of Lublin, and The Slave. Yet through them all we can discern common concerns--chiefly the unending struggle between the forces of order and the forces of chaos, manifested in the universe, the world, and individual men and women.

In Satan in Goray, in the wake of the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648, Rabbi Benish has left the disorder of the city of Lublin for a fresh start in the village of Goray. He restores a calm and orderly life for himself and the survivors of the massacres, based on strict observance of traditional religious practices. This harmony is shattered by followers of the false messiah, zealots and sowers of discord, who temporarily and disatrously take over the town's life. In The Slave, which also takes place after 1648, the Jew Joseph is sold into slavery to a Polish farm family. He endures three years of bondage--living literally among the beats--through faithful adherence to the rituals of orthodox religious observances and with the love and help of Wanda, a daughter of the farm family. After deliverance from bondage by the Jewish community, he returns for Wanda, whom he secretly marries, and who ultimately becomes Sarah, a converted Jew. She dies in childbirth, and he is expelled from Poland and wanders widely. After a spell as a Zevi follower, he returns in the end to Poland and to a life of traditional observances as a chief element of an orderly existence, though also believing that the inner spirit of the law is more important than the merely ritualistic. The Magician of Lublin displays a similar opposition and balancing of forces, but set in a more contemporary milieu. Yasha Mazur, the magician and confidence man of the title, is a modern existential hero, amoral, skeptical, sensual, seemingly boundless in his belief in his powers of self-fulfillment. His schemes and romantic dalliances end in failure and a kind of despair. He returns to his faithful and pious wife, renounces the world, and devotes his days to prayer and meditation. In the novel's epilogue he is widely regarded as a sage and a rabbi, Reb Jacob the Penitent, despite his own continuing skepticism.

Singer's novels of wide canvas display similar patterns, though they seem to move more in the stream of modern history. The Family Moskat weaves together scores of individual and family histories that touch on the Moskat family of Warsaw between 1900 and 1939. Until World War I the elderly patriarch Meshulam Moskat has presided over the family as its unifying center. After that, the disintegrating forces of history and unrestrained personality and desire dominate. In The Manor and The Estate we follow the fortunes of Calman Jacoby and his family and connections as they rise and fall from 1863--the date of a failed Polish insurrection against Russia--until the beginning of the 20th century. Jacoby has prospered, but he sees his life as a veritable hell. Images of the order and grace of the religious study hall and of the synagogue are juxtaposed against a family history rich in madness, sexual wantonness, and apostasy. Modern secular existence offers no salvation to the Jew, though it is equally obvious that the alternative religious life is hardly a viable one for intellectuals or the masses. At the end of The Family Moskat, as the Germans are nearing the gates of Warsaw, one doomed Jew says to another: "Death is the Messiah. That's the real truth." This chilling note writes finis to the messianic hope that threads its way, in various characters' commitments, throughout this and other Singer fictions. What we are left with is a subtle balancing in his work between the past and present claims of belief and doubt, myths and realities. His dybbuks and demons are images of disorder and the vagaries of human experience, the world and values of the faithful images of order. The bizarre, obsessive, driven quality of many of his characters are testimony to the extraordinary vitality of human desire and aspiration in the face of a baffling universe.

A person of immense sophistication, with the persona often of a naif, Singer in dedicating The Family Moskat to his brother, said something that probably applies more to himself: "a modern man [with] all the great qualities of our pious ancestors." Above all, Isaac Bashevis Singer has been and remains a consummate story-teller, as demonstrated by his last novel to date, The King of the Fields (1988), which is a mythic tale about the origins of the Polish nation and the introduction to it of Christianity.

Singer's other fiction includes Shasha (1978) and The Penitent (1983); and story collections, Short Friday (1964); The Seance (1968); A Friend of Kafka (1970); A Crown of Feathers (1973); Passions (1975); Old Love (1979); The Image (1985); and The Death of Methuselah (1985). Memoirs are A Little Boy in Search of God (1976); A Young Man in Search of Love (1978), and Lost in America (1979). Edward Alexander's Isaac Bashevis Singer (1980) and Paul Kresh's Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (1979) are biographies.
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Author:Chametzky, Jules
Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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