Bashevis Singer's Work in Our Collections, and a Portrait in Words
The Yiddish Book Center’s collections feature a trove of material by and about Isaac Bashevis Singer, including translations, digitized editions of rare volumes, oral histories, and secondary sources. What follows is an essay about Isaac Bashevis Singer by Saul Noam Zaritt as well as a guide to these varied holdings.
Trickster, Chronicler, Traitor: An Impossible Portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Writing an introduction to the life and work of Isaac Bashevis Singer is a daunting task. Despite being one of the most celebrated and widely known Yiddish writers, and despite his life being captured in multiple biographies and in several of the writer’s own autobiographical texts—or perhaps because of these things—this figure remains impossible to pin down. I even hesitate to choose a particular name to use in this short essay: Should I follow the dictates of copyright and use the name “Singer” emblazoned on the latest reprints of his books, appearing most strikingly on the cover of his three volumes in the prestigious Library of America series? Or should I, in radical Yiddishist fashion, undermine such Americanization by restoring “Zinger” in its original pronunciation? Or do I follow another Yiddishist convention in using “Bashevis,” the pseudonym the writer used early on in his career to distinguish himself from his more accomplished older brother, I. J. Singer?
Even if one does uncomfortably settle on a single name—which I will do here with “Bashevis,” out of deference to my teachers but without any sense of resolution—the floodgates have already been opened. How can one assign a single name to a literary figure who consciously and unconsciously defied categorization? Even sketching out the most basic outline of his literary career exposes the shifting ground of his writerly project.
Born in a shtetl near Warsaw in 1902, the third child of a Hasidic rabbi and a misnagdic mother, young Itsik came of age as a writer among the multiple modernist Yiddish movements of interwar Poland. Taking a less radical stance than many of his contemporaries, he began as a strict realist and later shifted to historical realism—but this initial aesthetic choice did not last. Soon after arriving in the US in 1935, and after frustrating stops and starts, Bashevis began in the 1940s to publish fantastical monologues spoken by demons, retreating from any realism of the present to an imaginative rerendering of the Eastern European past. After a brief respite, he returned to the realist novel, starting with the family chronicle Di familye mushkat, depicting life in Warsaw up until the war; it was initially serialized in the Yiddish press in 1947, as many of his subsequent works, but it was also translated into English—the first, full-length, least successful, but certainly not last of Bashevis’s appearances in the English-language market.
At the same time, Bashevis continued to add more stories to his “demonologies” (borrowing a term from David Roskies) and fill out his version of the Eastern European past throughout the rest of his career. However, these two strategies, fantastical and historical, hardly remained his only modes of literary creativity. Parallel to newfound fame in translation starting in the 1950s, and with a growing interest in the American present, he also began writing short stories and novels of the fraught postwar Jewish American world, with special emphasis on a pseudo-autobiographical Yiddish intellectual. Meanwhile, he somehow also became a best seller in English—in children’s literature.
Throughout all of this, Bashevis published nonfiction daily in the Yiddish press and in literary journals. He wrote under various pseudonyms and under his own name, in all genres and styles, from the sensationalist news item to philosophical reflection, from casual memoir to political commentary. His prolific output both in the Yiddish press and in the most important English-language cultural magazines of the day, and his dogged commitment to translation, likely led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.
What can we make of these multiple literary strategies and genres? Over the years critics, scholars, and even Bashevis himself have tried to come up with a writerly portrait that offers a coherent explanation. But in the desperate attempt to produce a unified vision of Bashevis’s life and work, readers are left with a sometimes confusing set of images, each of which is true to some extent. The following is just one possible portrait of Bashevis.
Most commonly Bashevis is portrayed according to an image he perpetuated himself in the 1960s: an Old World storyteller and sage, tossing seeds to the pigeons at the corner of Broadway and 86th Street and paradoxical bits of wisdom to his readers. The image is reminiscent of one of his most famous characters, Gimpl Tam, and was reinforced by deceptively modernist Old World tales collected later in the volumes Gimpl tam, Mayses fun hintern oyvn, and Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen. But this portrait did not always obscure the memory of his being a mediocre realist in the 1920s and a lost immigrant writer in the 1930s, when he toiled in the shadow of his famed older brother while making ends meet with the odd editing and translation job or the anonymous publication of serialized pulp novels. This older, less idealized image was consistently recalled by his fellow Yiddish writers, who, likely out of some measure of envy, sought to chip away at his postwar worldwide fame.
Despite being committed to the craft of writing and to the redemptive possibilities of literature, Bashevis was also a writer of and for the masses, matching popular psychology, sensationalist journalism, and Old World nostalgia with a translatable literary style. Other Yiddish writers saw Bashevis as someone who had cheapened the Jewish past for its marketability while compromising on aesthetic precision. Bashevis largely ignored this trenchant critique, believing that novels like Sotn in goray, Der knekht, and Der kuntsnmakher fun lublin and autobiographical sketches in Mayn tatns beys-din offered a faithful and artistic chronicle of not only his own life but of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in its broadest strokes. He saw his work as both aesthetically cohesive and, significantly, an answer to the demand to conserve a destroyed civilization. Though not a survivor, he is often referred to by critics as a Holocaust writer for his portrayals of a Jewish world in the shadow of disaster. Above all, he believed deeply in the very project of translation; he felt that he and his team of translators and editors could create “second originals” that would produce, however imperfectly, a new figuration of Yiddish. In this way, Bashevis simultaneously appears as an Old World storyteller, a postwar commemorator, and, improbably, a new American writer.
More than just a chronicler and translator of the past, Bashevis at times portrayed himself as the very voice of Jewish spirituality. In contrast to the cliché of the lonely artist (which he also employed), Bashevis painted himself as a fiercely reactionary traditionalist and even spiritualist, damning Stalinists, socialists, and assimilationists while clinging to a Jewish literary genealogy of his own making. In the novel Der bal-tshuve and in others, Bashevis juxtaposed the lost intellectual with the man of faith, in the amalgam producing a literary figure of both deep philosophical pessimism and deep yearning for divine providence.
A voracious autodidact, Bashevis fashioned himself, in his fiction and outside of it, an expert in both Spinoza and Kabbalah, combining self-made intellectualism in secular and Jewish canons with earnest interest in the occult and the parapsychological. Seemingly serious pursuits were sometimes undermined by cavalier attitudes, making Bashevis a figure of both solemnity and triviality. Always the impish flirt, with women and with interviewers, Bashevis dodged all attempts to pin down his art. Over time he increasingly performed the role of comic writer and lecturer, leveraging his accented English and an American public’s new appetite for “Yiddish humor” to get laughs that covered up any inconsistencies in his positions. Later, upon moving more permanently to Miami Beach in the 1980s, Bashevis struck the image of an ailing, at times lecherous, but still sharp old man, dressed smartly in a powder-blue suit. He frequented a neighborhood cafeteria where, in his famed parsimony, he ordered the least expensive things on the menu.
To hold all of these images together under a single name, clutching at the magic of paradox or some idea of unity through contradiction, is, I think, folly. Bashevis was all and none of these things, beholden both to the demands of the transcendental and to the banalities of the everyday without always finding common ground between them. To read one of the texts linked below is to encounter a sliver of that complexity. Each one constitutes a convergence of Bashevis’s literary selves, his biographical and historical circumstances, and his demonic impulse to zigzag between and beyond all of them. This is perhaps one of the reasons for his success. As a writer of multiple names and performances, Bashevis can be claimed by each reading public according to the image that best fits its needs. It is tempting, indeed comforting, to read Bashevis narrowly as a writer of modern paradoxical faith and faithlessness; as trickster storyteller and modernist; as chronicler and conservationist; as traitor and translator. The challenge, though, is to read these texts multiple times and in multiple directions, to follow Bashevis’s zigzagging not toward some redemptive horizon but into the very thicket of Yiddish literature—its past, present, and future.
—Saul Noam Zaritt
Isaac Bashevis Singer's works available in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library
The books, in chronological order of publication, are:
Der sotn in goray / Satan in Goray (New York, 1943, 2nd edition)
Di familye mushkat / The Family Moskat (New York, 1950, 2 vols)
Mayn tatn's beys-din shtub / In My Father’s Court (New York, 1956)
Gimpl tam un andere dertseylungen / Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (New York, 1963)
Der knekht / The Slave (New York, 1967)
Der kuntsnmakher fun lublin / The Magician of Lublin (Tel-Aviv, 1971)
Mayses fun hinṭern oyvn / Stories from Behind the Stove (Tel-Aviv, 1971)
Der bal-tshuve / The Penitent (Tel-Aviv, 1974)
Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen / The Mirror and Other Stories (Jerusalem, 1975)
Di Nobel rede / Nobel Lecture (New York, 1979)
Mayn tatns beys-din shtub: hemsheykhim-zamlung / In My Father’s Court: Continued Episodes (Jerusalem 1996)
The Yiddish Book Center is enormously grateful to the Zamir Revocable Trust and its representative, Susan Schulman of the Susan Schulman Literary Agency, New York, for giving us permission to digitize these titles.
The Yiddish Book Center’s Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library also contains a number of fascinating public programs and lectures about Isaac Bashevis Singer, including one lecture delivered by Singer. Searching the collection you'll find Professor Ruth Wisse's 1978 lecture A Literary Evening in Honor of Isaac Bashevis delivered following Singer receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature and other recordings that consider the writer and work.
Israel Zamir, Israeli journalist and son of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.