I was sixteen when I discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer on the shelves of our local bookstore. I loved his vivid descriptions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, a world my immigrant grandparents were rarely willing to discuss, and I shrugged off the dybbuks, demons, and imps who populated his pages, such apparitions being unknown to us in New Bedford.
Two years later I got to see Singer in person, when he spoke at Smith College. I was standing in the men’s room prior to the event when an elderly man in a fedora and a long wool coat walked in and stood beside me. His pockets were crammed full of books and papers, and I remember thinking, “That guy looks like he walked right out of a Singer novel.” It was only later, when he took the stage, that I realized he was Isaac Bashevis Singer.
His persona onstage was that of a doting grandfather with a charming Yiddish accent. During the question period, the academics posed highbrow queries about literature, and Singer parried with quips, jokes, anecdotes, and self-deprecating remarks.
“In your novel The Magician of Lublin,” one professor began, “the title character walls himself off from the world. Was that meant to symbolize a return to the womb?”
Singer gave her a quizzical look. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I don’t really know from psychology; all I know is to tell a story.”
That was only half true. He did know from psychology: he was a sophisticated intellectual who spoke half a dozen languages and had read Freud in the original. The second half of his statement, however, was irrefutable: he knew how to tell a story as well as anyone before or since.
A year later, I began learning Yiddish. Our professor, Jules Piccus, allotted a single semester to Weinreich’s College Yiddish and then handed out copies of Der sotn in goray (Satan in Goray), Singer’s first novel. We spent the next two years hacking our way through Singer’s prose, looking up words at home and translating aloud, line by line, in class. It was slow going, but it worked: by the time I graduated college I had a reasonable mastery of Yiddish and a whole new appreciation of Singer.
As best I can remember we didn’t read Singer in graduate school, and I was too busy to give him much thought until a cold day in November 1978. I was deep in research at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library when a commotion broke out among the older Jews who gathered every afternoon to read the latest Yiddish newspapers from New York. The headline of that day’s Forverts announced that Isaac Bashevis Singer had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I assumed the older Jews would be thrilled by the news. After all, no Yiddish writer had won such an honor before, and this was a recognition, albeit a belated one, that Yiddish literature had arrived. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“S’iz a shande far di goyim! [It’s a disgrace in the eyes of the non-Jews!]” one octogenarian proclaimed.
“S’past nisht! [It’s unseemly!]” said another.
“Tfu! Tfu! Tfu!” spat a third.
I looked up from my work as they summarily rejected Bashevis (Singer’s pen name in Yiddish) and began throwing out nominations of their own:
“Grade! They should have given it to Chaim Grade, better!”
“No, not Grade, Sutzkever!”
“And what’s wrong with Sholem Aleichem?”
“Or I. J. Singer?”
“Or Rokhl Korn?”
The deliberations continued for what seemed like ten minutes before they finally reached a consensus: the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature should have gone to I. L. Peretz, the “father” of modern Yiddish literature, who died in 1915. The head librarian, who had come over to restore order, patiently explained that the Swedish Academy could only award the prize to writers who were still alive. Whereupon an old man jumped to his feet and yelled, “Akhhh, antisemitn!”
The controversy didn’t end there. A short time later, the library staged a debate on the question “Is Isaac Bashevis Singer a Yiddish Writer?” The evening was predictably raucous, but it was not a debate: both sides agreed he was not.
As a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, I was baffled. Singer grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in a traditional Jewish community. His father was a rabbi, and two of his older siblings, I. J. Singer and Esther Kreitman, were accomplished Yiddish writers. Isaac himself spent his career writing in Yiddish about Yiddish-speaking Jews. How could he not be a Yiddish writer?
The speakers had their reasons. He was vulgar, obscene, misogynous, and otherworldly. He viewed existential issues against an exotic Jewish canvas rather than concerning himself with Jewish issues as such. At one point, a woman in the audience stood up and, referring to a particularly distressing Bashevis story, proclaimed that she had lived in her native shtetl for more than thirty years before coming to Canada, “and never once in all that time did I see the shoykhet [the town’s ritual slaughterer] and a married woman carrying on in a puddle of blood!”
For all their vehemence, I don’t think the participants that evening managed to articulate the deeper source of their antipathy, and I don’t think I understood it myself until my teacher, Ruth Wisse, explained it to me and later wrote about it in an article in Commentary titled “Singer’s Paradoxical Progress.” According to Ruth, it wasn’t just the supernatural and the shmutsik in Singer’s work that Yiddish readers found so objectionable. Rather, it was his implicit rejection of an essential premise of modern Yiddish literature: that it was possible to move beyond the strictures of Jewish law and embrace reason, humanism, and worldly knowledge and still live as Jews.
In rereading Singer, I am struck anew by Ruth’s perspicacity. Take Satan in Goray, for example. Published in 1935, the novel is set in the 1660s when, in the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky Massacres, the traumatized survivors sought redemption through a self-declared messiah named Shabbatai Zvi. Singer’s story tells what happens when two successive messianic emissaries come to Goray, “the town that lay in the midst of the hills at the end of the world.” The first, Itche Mates, believes that the key to redemption is self-denial. Every morning he chops a hole in the frozen river and immerses himself in the icy water. But even that’s not enough to douse his longing for Rechele, a tall, beautiful, 17-year-old orphan with a lame foot and waist-length black hair who “aroused sinful thoughts in men.” Itche eventually marries her, but he proves impotent; his asceticism can’t satisfy his wife, and it can’t save the community.
The second emissary, the strapping, red-blooded Reb Gedalia, offers a very different path to redemption. Inspired by a mystical notion that the Messiah will come when the world is either all good or all bad, he opts for the latter, gathering followers and leading them into ever more outrageous transgressions. They force Itche Mates to divorce Rechele so Gedalia can marry her instead. The town turns into a “den of robbers,” and before long there are rumors of bestiality and orgies. The debauchery ends only when word reaches Goray that Shabbatai Zvi has been captured by the Turkish sultan and, threatened with beheading, has renounced Judaism and converted to Islam. Gedalia is imprisoned, manages to escape, and becomes an apostate and an enemy of the Jews. Rechele is possessed by a dybbuk and dies. At that point, leadership of the town devolves to its most odious resident, Mordecai Joseph: a cripple, a sadist, “a faster, a weeper, an angry man.” The story ends in archaic Yiddish, with a rhyming admonition:
LET NONE ATTEMPT TO FORCE THE LORD: TO END OUR PAIN WITHIN THE WORLD: THE MESSIAH WILL COME IN GOD’S OWN TIME: AND FREE MEN OF DESPAIR AND CRIME: THEN DEATH WILL
PUT AWAY HIS SWORD: AND SATAN DIE ABJURED, ABHORRED: LILITH WILL VANISH WITH THE NIGHT: THE EXILE END AND ALL BE LIGHT: AMEN SELAH: CONCLUDED AND DONE.
The moral is plain: Jewish tradition, as embodied by Mordecai Joseph, is mean and deformed, but any attempt to change it, no matter how well intentioned, will only make things worse. For Singer, the messianic fervor of the seventeenth century becomes a distant mirror of his own time, when many Yiddish writers, including his own brother, were deeply influenced by radical political movements. According to Ruth Wisse, Satan in Goray “may well be the most powerful political novel of the 1930s. Singer’s hatred of ideologies, those sweeping solutions to the problems of mankind that lack all tolerance for the human reality, animates this ‘ancient chronicle’ and transforms it into a frighteningly modern work.”
Singer fled to America after the publication of Satan in Goray, and he watched from afar as his world was destroyed. After the Holocaust, it wasn’t just redemptive ideologies he mistrusted but humanity itself: people’s seeming inability to live moral lives when left to their own devices. His pessimism found explicit expression in The Magician of Lublin, a novel published in English, in New York, in 1960.
Magicians and writers have a lot in common: they both reshape reality, and here the title character, Yasha, is an illusionist who lives by his own moral code:
He was no fool. . . . He could walk a tightrope, skate on a wire, climb walls, open any lock. . . .
In Lublin they said that if Yasha had chosen crime, no one’s house would be safe. . . .
No, he was not illiterate. His father had been a learned man, and Yasha had even studied the Talmud as a boy. After his father’s death he had been advised to continue his education, but instead had joined a traveling circus. He had worked out his own religion. There was a Creator, but he revealed Himself to no one, gave no indication of what was permitted or forbidden. Those who spoke in his name were liars.
“To live outside the law you must be honest,” Bob Dylan once observed. Having rejected Jewish law, can Yasha remain honest? Can a tightrope walker maintain his moral balance?
The short answer is no. Although Yasha has a devoted wife back home, he spends most of his time on the road, where he pursues affairs with numerous women, including a well-educated, highborn Polish woman named Emilia. Until now Yasha has been able to juggle his many affairs, but when Emilia asks him to run away with her and he suddenly finds himself in need of money, he succumbs to temptation, breaks into the house of a wealthy gentile, and when the victim stirs, he comes perilously close to murdering him. Shocked by his own capacity for evil, Yasha jumps out the first-story window (a feat that should have been child’s play for an acrobat of his ability), loses his balance, and breaks his foot. Like the tradition he rejected, now he too is “crippled.” He becomes a bal-tshuve, a penitent. He returns home, builds a brick hut behind his house, and literally walls himself off from the world.
It would become clearer to him day by day that the Holy Books he studied led to virtue and eternal life . . . while that which lay behind him was evil—all scorn, theft, murder. There was no middle road. A single step away from God plunged one into the deepest abyss.
The assertion that there is no middle road, that our only options are strict adherence to Jewish law or an inevitable descent into debauchery, is the antithesis of everything modern Yiddish literature stood for. Most Yiddish writers believed it was possible to escape the stranglehold of an obscurantist past and still live decent, moral, and, yes, deeply Jewish lives in the modern world. Singer, the renegade, undermined that faith. Was it any wonder, then, that those older Jews in Montreal were so upset when Singer, of all people, was named the first Yiddish Nobel laureate, the face of Yiddish to the world?
It’s hard to believe forty years have passed since Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize. I’m almost as old now as many of those “older Jews” were back then. What’s my take now? Did Singer deserve the prize more than Peretz, or more than Grade or Sutzkever, who were both still alive at the time?
When the New York Times asked Singer to account for his popularity, he said it was because he gave readers what they wanted: “Sex, Torah, and Revolution.” I can’t argue with that. But as I reread him now, I realize that, in his many novels, memoirs, and short stories, he also gave us something more: profound insight into the human condition, and a complex portrait of Jewish life in both the Old Country and the new.
It’s not that the objections voiced four decades ago in Montreal were unfounded; it’s just that with the passage of time they’ve come to feel beside the point. Sex? The scenes that scandalized Yiddish (if not necessarily English) readers in 1978 feel almost tame by contemporary standards. Dybbuks and demons? I’ve come to recognize them not so much as the author’s superstition as a clever narrative device, a way to convey interior struggle and unconscious desires while maintaining a scrupulously realistic voice.
How about the complaint that the Jewishness in Singer’s work was only incidental, a backdrop against which to examine more universal human concerns? That still rings partly true for me—Singer was no Chaim Grade. But if his Jewish canvases were intended only as a backdrop, they were more brilliantly drawn than those of writers who placed such detail at the center of their stories. The writer S. Ansky, for example, had to lead a multiyear ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine to collect the folklore that informed The Dybbuk; Singer, Ruth Wisse wrote, had only to describe his childhood home, where “much of this endangered lore was the daily stuff of his life, his for the taking.” Although Singer lived almost two-thirds of his life in America, he retained an almost photographic memory of the streets, houses, schools, shuls, mikves (ritual baths), food, dress, and above all the language of his youth. His Yiddish is incomparable: rich and earthy, with a mastery of regional slang that few linguists could rival.
His rejection of socialism, communism, and other redemptive ideologies may have incensed Yiddish writers of the 1930s, but given the excesses and depredations that followed, his skepticism now looks more like prescience.
What of the most devastating objection of all: that in rejecting the possibility of a middle road, Singer broke with the central tenet of modern Yiddish literature? It’s true, he did question the limits of reason, but he was hardly the only one. Peretz, for example—the rightful recipient of the Nobel Prize, according to those older Jews in Montreal—brought a profound humanist vision to Yiddish literature, but even he had his doubts. In his startlingly modernist play A Night in the Old Marketplace, written in 1907, a badkhn, a wedding jester, spends a wild night in the shtetl square while every permutation of Jewish experience and every possibility of Jewish redemption parades before him. Not one offers a viable solution. At dawn, overcome with despair, the jester points to the shtetl prayer house and cries out, “In shul arayn, in shul arayn!—Back to the synagogue, back to the synagogue!” Except Peretz didn’t leave it there. As the jester makes his way to the prayer house, his voice is drowned out by the sound of the factory whistle. Modernity, Peretz is telling us, is here to stay, it will intrude whether we like it or not, and tempting as it may seem, retreat to tradition is not an option.
Singer explored similar issues, and when all is said and done, I’m not sure his credo was so very different. In his novels and stories he argued for a return to tradition and raised questions about the power of modern ideas to save us, but in his own life he too recognized that change was inexorable. The son of a rabbi, he left his parent’s home, followed his secular siblings away from observance, donned modern clothes, pursued modern learning, and in an apartment on 86th Street, he wrote modern books. In that sense I believe the debaters in Montreal were wrong; Singer was a Yiddish writer, one of our best—as he demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt when he went to Stockholm to accept his prize.
“The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language,” he said in Yiddish. And he concluded with words that can be read now as prophecy:
Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and cabalists—rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity.
Yiddish has not yet said its last word. And neither, I suspect, has Isaac Bashevis Singer.
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