Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish : ; November 21, 1902 – July 24, 1991) was a Polish-born Jewish writer in Yiddish, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. The Polish form of his birth name was Icek Hersz Zynger. He used his mother’s first name in an initial literary pseudonym, Izaak Baszewis, which he later expanded. He was a leading figure in the Yiddish literary movement, writing and publishing only in Yiddish. He was also awarded two U.S. National Book Awards, one in Children’s Literature for his memoir A Day Of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1970) and one in Fiction for his collection A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1974).
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncin village near Warsaw, Poland, under military partitions by the Russian Empire. A few years later, the family moved to a nearby Polish town of Radzymin. 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 rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Bigoraj. Singer later used her name in his pen name “Bashevis” (Bathsheba’s). Both his older siblings, sister Esther Kreitman (1891-1954) and brother Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944), became writers as well. Esther was the first of 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 a flat at ul. Krochmalna 10. In the spring of 1914, the Singers moved to No. 12.
The street where Singer grew up was located in the impoverished, Yiddish-speaking Jewish quarter of Warsaw. There his father served as a rabbi, and was called on to be a judge, arbitrator, religious authority and spiritual leader in the Jewish community. The unique atmosphere of pre-war Krochmalna Street can be found both in the collection of Varshavsky-stories, which tell stories from Singer’s childhood, as well as in those novels and stories which take place in pre-war Warsaw.
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 Bigoraj, a traditional shtetl, where his mother’s brothers had followed his grandfather as rabbis. When his father became a village rabbi again in 1921, Singer returned to Warsaw. He entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary and soon decided that neither the school nor the profession suited him. He returned to Bigoraj, where he tried to support himself by giving Hebrew 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 Jewish Literarische Bleter, of which the brother was an editor.
In 1935, four years before the German invasion, Singer emigrated from Poland to the United States. He was fearful of the growing Nazi threat in neighboring Germany. The move separated the author from his common-law first wife Runia Pontsch and son Israel Zamir (1929-2014); they emigrated to Moscow and then Palestine. The three met again twenty years later in 1955.
Singer settled in New York City, where he took up work as a journalist and columnist for The Jewish Daily Forward (), a Yiddish-language newspaper. After a promising start, he became despondent and for some years felt “Lost in America” (title of his 1974 novel published in Yiddish; published in English in 1981).
In 1938, he met Alma Wassermann ne Haimann (1907-1996), a German-Jewish refugee from Munich. They married in 1940, and their union seemed to release energy in him; he returned to prolific writing and to contributing to the Forward. In addition to his pen name of “Bashevis,” he published under the pen names of “Warszawski” (pron. Varshavsky) during World War II, and “D. Segal.” They lived for many years in the Belnord apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
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, after suffering a series of strokes. He was buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, Emerson, New Jersey. A street in Surfside, Florida is named Isaac Singer Boulevard in his honor; and so is a city square in Lublin, Poland. The full academic scholarship for undergraduate students at the University of Miami is also named in his honor.
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. IB Singer published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in installments in the literary magazine Globus, which he had co-founded with his life-long friend, the Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin in 1935. The book recounts events of 1648 in the village of Goraj (close to Bigoraj), where the Jews of Poland lost a third of their population in a wholesale attack by Cossacks. It explores the effects of the seventeenth-century faraway false messiah, Shabbatai Zvi, on the local population. Its last chapter imitates the style of a 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 woman. He portrays the traumatized and desperate survivors of the historic catastrophe with even deeper understanding.
The Family Moskat
Singer became a literary contributor to the Forward only after his older brother Israel died in 1945. That year, Singer published The Family Moskat in his brother’s honor. His own style showed in the daring turns of his action and characters, with double adultery during the holiest of nights of Judaism, the evening of Yom Kippur (despite being printed in a Jewish family newspaper in 1945). He was almost forced to stop writing the novel by his legendary editor-in-chief, Abraham Cahan, but was saved by readers who wanted the story to go on. After this, his storieswhich he had published in Yiddish literary newspapers beforewere printed in the Forward as well. Throughout the 1940s, Singer’s reputation grew.
Singer believed in the power of his native language and thought that there was still a large audience, including in New York, who longed to read in Yiddish. In an interview in Encounter (February 1979), he claimed that although the Jews of Poland had died, “somethingcall it spirit or whateveris 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 his all-encompassing view of human nature. He wrote about female homosexuality (“Zeitl and Rickel”, “Tseytl un Rikl”), published in The Seance and Other Stories), transvestism (“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 refer to events in 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.
Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied, he grew up with a rich array of Jewish folktales and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about “Max Spitzkopf” and his assistant “Fuchs”. He read Russian, including Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment at the age of fourteen. He wrote in memoirs 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, Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Maupassant and Chekhov.” He studied many philosophers, among them Spinoza,Arthur Schopenhauer, and Otto Weininger. Among his Yiddish contemporaries, Singer considered his older brother to be his greatest artistic example; he was also a life-long friend and admirer of the author and poet Aaron Zeitlin.
Of his non-Yiddish-contemporaries, he was strongly influenced by the writings of Knut Hamsun, many of whose works he later translated, while he had a more critical attitude towards Thomas Mann, 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 known from his youth and embodied by his father in the stories about Singer’s youth. There was a dichotomy between the life his heroes lead and the life they feel they should lead which gives his art a modernity his predecessors did not express. 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 uncle’s home in Bigoraj. This is the central theme in Singer’s big family chronicles, such as The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). Some critics believe these show the influence of Thomas Mann‘s novel Buddenbrooks; Singer had translated Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) into Yiddish as a young writer.
Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish. His novels were serialized in newspapers, which also published his short stories. He edited his novels and stories for their publication in English in the United States; these versions were used as the basis for translation into other languages. He referred to his English version as his “second original.” This has led to an ongoing controversy whether 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 versions, 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 writers Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, Russian and French, respectively. From Maupassant, Singer developed a finely grained sense of drama. Like those of 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.
Several respected artists have illustrated Singer’s novels, short stories, and children’s books, including Raphael Soyer, Maurice Sendak, Larry Rivers, and Irene Lieblich. Singer personally selected Lieblich to illustrate two of his books for children, A Tale of Three Wishes and The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, after seeing her paintings at an Artists Equity exhibition in New York City. A Holocaust survivor, Lieblich was from Zamosc, Poland, a town adjacent to the area where Singer was raised. 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.”
Singer published at least 18 novels, 14 children’s books, a number of memoirs, essays and articles. He is best known as a writer of short stories, which have been published in more than 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 May 1953 in the Partisan Review. 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 in which he grew up. After his many years in America, his stories also portrayed the world of the immigrants and their pursuit of an elusive American dream, which seems always beyond reach.
Prior to Singer’s winning the Nobel Prize, English translations of dozens of his stories were frequently published in popular magazines such as Playboy and Esquire. They were publishing literary works and included his stories among their best; in turn, he found them to be appropriate outlets for his work.
Throughout the 1960s, Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality. Because of the controversial aspects of his plots, he was a 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.”
His novel Enemies, a Love Story was adapted as a film by the same name (1989) and was quite popular, bringing new readers to his work. He featured a Holocaust survivor who deals with varying desires, complex family relationships, and a loss of faith.
Alan Arkin starred as Yasha, the principal character in the 1979 film version of The Magician of Lublin, which also featured Shelley Winters, Louise Fletcher, Valerie Perrine and Lou Jacobi. In the final scene, Yasha achieves his lifelong ambition of being able to fly, though not quite as the magic trick he had originally planned.
Perhaps the most fascinating Singer-inspired film is 1974’s Mr. Singer’s Nightmare or Mrs. Pupkos Beard, directed by Bruce Davidson, a renowned photographer who became Singer’s neighbor. This unique film is a half-hour mixture of documentary and fantasy for which Singer wrote the script and played the leading role.
Singer’s relationship to Judaism was complex and unconventional. He identified 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 short story “In My Father’s Court,” he broke away from his parents in his early twenties. Influenced by his older brother, who had done the same, he began spending time with non-religious Bohemian artists in Warsaw. Although Singer believed in a 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 so many of the Polish Jews from his childhood. In one interview with the photographer Richard Kaplan, he said, “I am angry at God because of what happened to my brothers.” 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 in Stalin’s purges.
Despite 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, Hebrew, and Polish fluently, he always considered Yiddish his natural tongue. He always wrote in Yiddish and he was the last notable American author to be 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 in Miami with its Jewish community, many of them New Yorkers.
Eventually, as senior citizens, they moved to Miami. They identified closely with the European Jewish community. After his death, Singer was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery.
Especially in his short fiction, Singer often wrote about various Jews having religious struggles; sometimes these struggles became violent, bringing death or mental illness. In one story his narrator 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.
Singer was a prominent Jewish 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 , all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” which became a classical reference in the discussions about the legitimacy of the comparison of animal exploitation with 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.”
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 , 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.”
Legacy and honors
Note: Publication dates refer to English editions, not the Yiddish originals, which often predate the versions in translation by 10 to 20 years.
- Satan in Goray (1935)
- Eulogy to a Shoelace
- The Family Moskat (1950)
- The Magician of Lublin (1960)
- The Slave (1962)
- The Manor (1967)
- The Estate (1969)
- Enemies, a Love Story (1972)
- The Wicked City (1972)
- Shosha (1978)
- Old Love (1979)
- Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov (1980)
- The Penitent (1983)
- Teibele and Her Demon (1983) (play)
- The King of the Fields (1988)
- Scum (1991)
- The Certificate (1992)
- Meshugah (1994)
- Shadows on the Hudson (1997)
Short story collections
- Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (1957)
- The Spinoza of Market Street (1963)
- Short Friday and Other Stories (1963)
- The Sance and Other Stories (1968)
- A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories (1970)
- The Fools of Chelm and Their History (1973)
- A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1974) shared the National Book Award, Fiction, with Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- Passions and Other Stories (1975)
- Old Love (1979)
- The Collected Stories (1982)
- The Image and Other Stories (1985)
- The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories (1988)
- Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1966) runner up for the Newbery Medal (Newbery Honor Book)
- Mazel and Shlimazel, illustrated by Margot Zemach (1967)
- The Fearsome Inn, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian (1967) Newbery Honor Book
- When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, illustrated by Margot Zemach (1968) Newbery Honor Book
- The Golem, illustrated by Uri Schulevitz (1969)
- Elijah the Slave: A Hebrew Legend Retold, illustrated by Antonio Frasconi (1970)
- Joseph and Koza: or the Sacrifice to the Vistula, illustrated by Symeon Shimin (1970)
- Alone in the Wild Forest, illustrated by Margot Zemach (1971)
- The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China, illustrated by William Pne du Bois (1971)
- The Wicked City, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (1972)
- The Fools of Chelm and Their History, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz (1973)
- Why Noah Chose the Dove, illustrated by Eric Carle (1974)
- A Tale of Three Wishes, illustrated by Irene Lieblich (1975)
- Naftali and the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus, illustrated by Margot Zemach (1976)
- The Power of Light – Eight Stories for Hanukkah, illustrated by Irene Lieblich (1980)
- Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz (1983)
- Stories for Children (1984) – collection.
- Shrew Todie and Lyzer the Miser and Other Children’s Stories (1994)
- The Parakeet Named Dreidel (2015)
- The Hasidim (1973)
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1967) , In My Father’s Court, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1969), A Day of Pleasure, Stories of a Boy Growing Up In Warsaw, New York: Doubleday. National Book Award, Children’s Literature
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1976), A Little Boy in Search of God, New York: Doubleday.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1978), A Young Man in Search of Love, New York: Doubleday.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1981), Lost in America, New York: Doubleday.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1984), Love and exile, New York: Doubleday.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1999), More Stories from My Father’s Court, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1963), The New Winds, NY.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Spring 1968), Mirra Ginsburg transl., “Zeitl and Rickel”, The Hudson Review 20th Anniversary Issue, 21 (1): 127-37.
- Singer, Isaac Bashevis (2004), Stavans, Ilan, ed., Stories, 1, Library of America, ISBN 978-1-931082-61-7.
- (2004), , ed., Stories, 2, Library of America, ISBN 978-1-931082-62-4.
- (2004), , ed., Stories, 3, Library of America, ISBN 978-1-931082-63-1.