Israel Joshua Singer’s literary reputation has been split by language and time. Before World War II, and for a generation of Yiddish speakers, Israel Joshua Singer was the Singer: I.J. was the brilliant one, the cutting-edge modernist, the unquestioned master of the Yiddish family saga. His novels chronicled the industrialization of Poland while also transforming the historical Hasidic court into a makeshift home for a Jewish courtly romance. Since the 1960s, however, he has been, in Irving Howe’s phrase, “The Other Singer,” in relation to his Nobel Prize-winning brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer. (A third Singer, their sister, Esther Kreitman, later joined the pair when she, belatedly, began to receive recognition for her inventive writing.) Though his fame has waned, and his reputation has faded, I.J.’s books retain their unquestioned brilliance. The Brothers Ashkenazi is a prime example of this fact—every new edition leads a contemporary audience to discover the work.
Overview and Journalism
I.J. Singer was born in 1893 in Bilgoraj, Poland, where he received a traditional Jewish education before his family moved to Warsaw. There he studied painting and worked as a proofreader. He briefly moved to Moscow, where he was inspired by Soviet Yiddish writing. Disappointment with the political climate led Singer to return to Warsaw. He joined the Yiddish avant-garde movement, Di Khalyastre, and contributed to their journals. His writing caught the attention of Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Forverts. Singer became a correspondent for the Forverts, and travelled extensively on behalf of the paper before he settled in the United States. His mature family sagas (The Brothers Ashkenazi and The Family Carnovsky) were both written in the United States, as was another novel, Khaver Nakhmen. A fuller biography, written by Anita Norich, is available from the YIVO Encyclopedia.
Israel Joshua Singer died of a heart attack at the age of 50. His obituary in the New York Times notes the English translation of The Brothers Ashkenazi, as well as the many theatrical productions of his work. The obituary also paints his early years as a starving artist with romantic brush strokes: “At the age of 18 he left home, without money or trade, and lived in poverty for a long time while engaged in the study of languages, history, geography, mathematics and the sciences without the aid of school or tutor. To eke out a bare existence, he canvassed trade for enlargement photographers, tutored children in Hebrew, modeled for painters and sculptors and accepted other odd jobs.”
As part of a series of biographical short-films, the Yiddish author, and former editor-in-chief of the Forverts, Boris Sandler, produced a short video in Yiddish about the life and work of I.J. Singer, with relevant images. It highlights his contributions to the Yiddish press in particular.
English readers are now able to sample I.J. Singer’s Yiddish journalism thanks to two recent translations. First, Ezra Glinter discovered I.J. Singer’s report of “A Nazi Meeting at Madison Square Garden” in 1934. “Truth be told, people warned me not to go to the local Nazi gathering at Madison Square Garden,” I.J. Singer writes. “But my interest in seeing Hitler’s Germany in the middle of New York overcame any reluctance. I bought a ticket with a swastika on it and took myself to little Berlin in New York.” These rich, illuminating details fill the story.
Second, Eddy Portnoy’s new book, Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press, features a translation of a Forverts story by I.J. Singer, written under his Forverts pseudonym G. Kuper: “Warsaw’s Jewish Criminals Mete Out Sentences in Their Own Private Courtrooms.” The amusing, tongue-in-cheek story—from 1927—tells the story of the shenanigans of two beggars and how they got their brutal comeuppance on Warsaw’s Krochmalna Street. It is a humorous example of Singer’s penchant for social commentary, and its ironic look at popular “justice” on Krochmalna Street, where the Singers lived and their father was a judge.
Contemporary Reactions and Singer on Stage
The Brothers Ashkenazi was a bestseller in English translation. It received not one, but two reviews in the New York Times. In the first, Louis Kronenberger describes the book as “a very powerful story…seized upon by a very powerful story-teller.” In the other review, marking The Brothers Ashkenazi as a “Book of the Times,” Ralph Thompson argues that Singer saw his authorial role “as novelist-reporter, not as novelist-judge,” and “in this detachment lie both the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Singer’s work.” He concluded that “it is the scene rather than the people who move upon it that makes Mr. Singer’s story memorable.” In terms of the novel’s historicity, he argues that in the novel, “one feels how inevitable was what actually did happen: the breakdown of an industrial civilization supported by Ashkenazis and their Christian counterparts.”
An unambiguously negative reaction was provided by the Polish authorities—in 1937, they banned the book as “offensive” to Poles. The news report accounts a controversy over the book two years prior, based on two chapters of the novel that aroused the anger of the authorities due to their portrayal of the Polish army and government. There is no reasoning given for the current legal proceedings against Singer, beyond an accusation that the novel is “insulting.” This is a short article that speaks volumes about the antisemitic climate in Poland in the years preceding the Holocaust.
Although the novel was extremely popular, many people experienced Singer’s work as a play. The Museum of the Yiddish Theatre website presents wonderful excerpts and photographs of advertisements for the 1937 stage production of The Brothers Ashkenazi. The play was directed by Maurice Schwartz at the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York. Additionally, the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library has digitized and posted the entire program of the 1937 production.
In a short review of the production, the New York Times compared the Yiddish Art Theatre’s version of The Brothers Ashkenazi somewhat unfavorably to its earlier production of Yoshe Kalb. It “has less sound and fury,” but to its credit, “it has more significance for our time.” Although “the force of the scenes is not cumulative…an excellent cast does a great deal to keep the play interesting.”
The publication of a new edition of The Brothers Ashkenazi led to a number of important, critical appraisals. Adam Kirsch reviewed the novel for Tablet Magazine, situating the novel in its historical and cultural context in America. The Brothers Ashkenazi, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, was a 1936 New York Times bestseller. Kirsch uses this to draw out an unlikely comparison between the two novels, viewing both as sweeping historical works that sought to illustrate broad truths about their settings. He argues that The Brothers Ashkenazi’s “complications are all sociological, seldom psychological,” because its main characters’ actions are so predictable. He is critical of Singer’s novel on this point, calling its characters “forcefully one-dimensional,” but concedes that the novel—with its representation of a critical period in Eastern European Jewish history, and its “prescient” assertion that in Łódź, “everything we built here we built on sand”—“remains a powerful and indispensable document of Yiddish civilization.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein described the novel as “A Yiddish Novel with Tolstoyan Sweep.”
“Robert Lowell called Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier the best French novel in the English language. So, similarly, might one call I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish. The book has the grand sweep of Tolstoy, with a vast and wide-ranging cast of characters, a strong feeling for the movement of history, and, playing throughout, the drama of men and women trapped in the machinery of forces much greater than themselves.”
Jewish philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein used the occasion of the novel’s reissue to offer a more extensive meditation on the different political, religious, and cultural sensibilities embedded in the brothers’ fictions. She presents I.J. Singer as a “harshly unsentimental realis[t]” in contrast to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the nostalgic idealist, even suggesting that I.J.’s pessimism was the driving force behind his choice to immigrate to America (although she frames I.J.’s youthful political choices as naïve and idealistic). She also argues that The Brothers Ashkenazi’s thematic treatment of fraternal rivalry makes it ironic for scholars to compare the two brothers’ work.
“And so we return to the irony of introducing I.J. Singer by identifying him as the older brother of I.B. Singer, and most especially in the context of The Brothers Ashkenazi. The large-scale ambitions of this novel not only brought a new scope into Yiddish literature, its fluid plotlines carrying the heft of massive social and political forces, the collisions of its characters deftly tracing turbulent dynamics of history. Fraternal rivalry is itself—irony of ironies—one of the novel’s major themes. It is the competitiveness between two brothers, twins separated not by nine years but five minutes, that fuels the outsize ambition. The implacable need that drives the central character, Simha Meir Ashkenazi, to leave his mark on the world is his habit of compulsively comparing himself to his brother, Jacob Bunem, the more physically prepossessing and charming of the two.”
Likewise, an earlier rerelease of Yoshe Kalb led to a similar outpouring of terrific writing about Singer. Calling Yoshe Kalb a “minor masterpiece,” Irving Howe nevertheless provided many interesting insights into I.J. Singer’s overall style. Howe argues that I.J.’s Flaubertian “aesthetic distance” reflects not only his personal “coolness” of temperament, but also the broader secularization of Eastern European Jews at that time, as well as Yiddish writers’ parallel search for subject material beyond the shtetl. I.J., Howe suggests, is a “tougher,” “more austere and disenchanted” writer than his brother.
Resources at the Yiddish Book Center
- Israel Joshua Singer’s Yiddish books are available through our Digital Library. Di Brider Ashkenazi was published in three volumes: one, two, three.
- Di Brider Ashkenazi is also available as a Yiddish audio book.
- Among the most exceptional primary resources at the Center for understanding I.J. Singer is the oral history interview with Israel Zamir, the son of Isaac Bashevis Singer. In this excerpt, Zamir recalls Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua’s difficult relationship. In addition, the full two-hour interview is available on our website.
- In 1983, Joseph Mlotek gave the lecture, “Fun di brider zinger biz itzik manger” (“From the Brothers Singer to Itzik Manger”) at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.
- Israel Joshua Singer has been the subject of numerous English scholarly articles. In 2006, Delphine Bechtel offered a comparative view of Singer’s representation of the Jews of Łódź in The Brothers Ashkenazi.
- Anita Norich has long been the leading English-language scholar of I.J. Singer. Her book, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer, was published in 1992. An earlier article, “The Family Singer and the Autobiographical Imagination,” was published in Prooftexts in 1990. The article compares the three Singer siblings’ writing and the relationship of their lives to their work.
- If you would like to access The Brothers Ashkenazi in another format, it is available for purchase as an e-book and an audiobook.
- A footnote to the story: This news article explores Jewish revival in the small town of Bilgoraj, where Singer and his siblings were born (and includes a photo of the replica of the wooden synagogue of Wolpa, Poland, being built in Bilgoraj—the wooden synagogue of Wolpa was also one of the key inspirations for the Yiddish Book Center's building).
—Miranda Cooper and Eitan Kensky