Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Singer, Isaac Bashevis

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1904-1991) Polish- American journalist, novelist, and storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most prominent Yiddish author of his time, turned the insanity of the Third Reich's bloodtide and Stalin's purges into the elements of GOTHIC fiction and FABLE. A Hasidic Jew native born in Leoncin (near Warsaw), Poland, he grew up in Radzymin under control of czarist Russia. He and his brother and sister, authors Israel Joshua Singer and Hinde Esther Singer Kreitman, were the children and grandchildren of rabbis. Singer learned STORYTELLING and eastern European mysticism in Warsaw and, during the German occupation of World War I, in Lublin province at Bilgoray, a target of the German high command in World War I. In addition to the Torah, he read golem monster tales, fantasies about evil spirits, the Russian fiction of FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY and LEO TOLSTOY, Talmudic wisdom, and the form of scripture-based divination through numerology known as Kabbala. At age 16, he studied at the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw, but he rebelled against his conservative upbringing and left to work as a translator and editor for Globus, a Yiddish journal. In the years preceding the formation of the Nazi Empire, he published the novel Der Sotn in Gorey (Satan in Goray, 1932), a tale of illusion he serialized in his Polish literary journal. In the narrative about vibrant 17th-century folk life, a menacing false prophet arises together with satanic rituals and mass terror from the Cossack pogroms of czarist Russia—Hitlerian motifs Singer repeated in the parable “The Destruction of Kreshev” (1942) and The Slave (1962).

At age 31, Singer abandoned his common-law wife Rachel and son Israel and immigrated to New York City. Like his fellow expatriate Jew, NELLY SACHS, who resettled in Sweden, he supported himself as a translator and foreign correspondent for the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward). In the months preceding World War II, he grappled with the horrific situation in Europe, which he described in Enemies, a Love Story (1972) as demonry: “Wasn't it possible that a Hitler presided on high and inflicted suffering on imprisoned souls? He had equipped them with flesh, blood, teeth, claws, horns, anger” (Singer 1988, 53). The author began his fiction career by befriending a lost generation, the traumatized Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, and Russian survivors of the Holocaust who fled to Lower East Side tenements and clustered at coffee shops to whisper their stories of terror.

In his tragicomic novel Meshugah (1994), published posthumously, Singer confessed that, because of the murders of friends and relatives, he lived on the edge: “I had driven myself into isolation and despair. But new springs of energy seemed to have opened up in me” (Singer 1994, 10). He feared that the onslaught of the Nazis on Warsaw Jewry preceded a piecemeal assimilationism in New York, but he clung to the hope that “neither religious nor worldly Jewishness was ready to become extinct” (10). He foresaw the disintegration of orthodoxy in a pre-Holocaust saga, Di familye Mushkat (The Family Moskat, 1950), a vision of a culture being destroyed. He shared dramatic ironies with his readers, who knew what awaited his protagonist, Asa Heshel Bannet, one of the metropolitan Jews who constituted a third of the population of Warsaw. The author's memories of a thriving Hasidic citizenry enabled him to relive a civic solidarity obliterated by “the Nazi hordes” (Singer 2007, 595) poised for attack on the border and to write of conditions in Poland that foreshadowed the Nazi occupation. At the height of savagery, Singer ponders on “Mussolini, Hitler, every Nazi lout who lustily sang the Horst Wessel song [the Nazi Party anthem] and howled for Jewish blood to spurt from the knife” (558). The author also describes his surprise at the numbers of naive Jews who expect a miraculous deliverance.

Years after World War II, Singer used survivors' stories to recreate the lost world that East European emigres left behind. In Short Friday (1964), he fused past and present threats in the stories “Alone,” “The Last Demon,” and “A Wedding in Brownsville,” a tale of a Nazi murder that destroys the expectation of a marriage and new life. In Shosha (1978), he turned an alter ego, protagonist Aaron Greidinger, into a refusenik who chooses to remain among urbanites doomed by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin rather than flee the coming catastrophe. Bashele, Shosha's mother, warns, “These days you can't be sure of your life” (Singer 1982, 105). As proof, she cites a radio speech: “That madman Hitler … screamed so, you could go deaf” (105), an ironic choice of terms for a community filled with Jews who live in denial of virulent anti-Semitism.

The Voice of Suffering

Singer tried to assuage the misgivings of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust by writing in Yiddish, a language blended from German and Hebrew that he feared would soon die out. His dedication to Polish/ Jewish tradition helped him cope with his sorrow at the loss of Jews in gas ovens and Soviet gulags and to the assimilation of former Jews to secular society. He envisioned a hellish microcosm in the short story “The Little Shoemakers.” The narrative depicts Abba witnessing the Nazi test-run bombing of the southeastern Polish village of Frampol on September 13, 1939: “A black cloud rose over the courtyard of the synagogue… . The apple trees were blossoming and burning” (Singer 1960, 50). Like the conflagration of Sodom and Gomorrah, flames consume the holy books in Abba's house. He departs Poland without his shoemaking equipment, losing both his trade and Jewish identity. In his travail, he pictures himself as Jonah, whom God tested in the belly of the whale.

Through jeremiads against world dictatorship, Singer longed to free his family and all humanity from exploiters and murderers like Nazis, Black Shirts, and the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, and to reward Jews with their own homeland in Israel. His objective succeeded when the next generation of Jews began reading Yiddish writings for answers to the sufferings of their parents and grandparents. His selection as a Nobel laureate in 1978 surprised even his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who thought that a specialist in Yiddish fiction had too small a readership to be influential. His readership increased with a revival of his fiction, mainstream theatrical versions of his stories, and film adaptations of his work, notably The Magician of Lublin (1979); The Cafeteria (1984); Enemies, a Love Story (1989); and Yentl (1983), a vehicle for Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, and Amy Irving.


Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. Enemies, a Love Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

----- . The Family Moskat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

----- . An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1960.

----- . Meshugah. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

----- . Shosha. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.