May 3, 2007


I.B. Singer and Me (Terry Teachout, September 2004, Commentary)

The bare facts of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s life make for almost as good a story as any of the fictional tales he committed to paper in the course of his long career. Yitskhok Zynger (he did not adopt the more familiar version of his name until 1950) was born 100 years ago in the Polish village of Leoncin. The son of a hasidic rabbi, he spent his early childhood in a world far removed from modernity, and even after his family moved to Warsaw’s Jewish quarter in 1908, his parents were determined to insulate their children from the corrosive effects of modern life. But Singer, like so many of his contemporaries, felt the near-irresistible pull of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and though his attitude toward it would become increasingly equivocal as he grew older, he immersed himself in Western philosophy, translated contemporary novels into Yiddish while writing short stories in the same language, and led an active, at times alarmingly complicated sexual life. In 1935 he followed his older brother, the author Israel Joshua Singer, to America. He began writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, New York City’s largest Yiddish newspaper, where most of his stories and novels would originally run as serials. His tales of shtetl life in Poland began appearing in English after World War II, and when Partisan Review published “Gimpel the Fool” in 1953, translated into English by Saul Bellow, Singer began to attract attention beyond the narrow confines of the Yiddish-speaking community. For years he published regularly in Commentary, eventually being taken up by mass-circulation magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire, and Playboy. By the 70’s he was famous. He won the Nobel Prize in 1978, and two successful Hollywood films were made from his work in the 80’s, an appallingly inflated Barbra Streisand-directed version of “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” (1983) and Paul Mazursky’s scrupulous adaptation of Enemies, a Love Story, the latter released two years before Singer’s death in 1991.

Now, on the occasion of his centenary, a handsome three-volume set of Singer’s short stories has been issued by the Library of America, the nonprofit house that publishes “authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”* Though it had previously brought out the English-language writings of Vladimir Nabokov, this is the first time the Library of America has published an author whose works were written in a language other than English. In justifying the decision to treat Singer as a full-fledged American writer, Max Rudin, the Library of America’s publisher, cites a remark Singer made late in life: If you ask me from an emotional point of view, I don’t feel myself a foreigner because I love America and I love the American people. And since my own country, Poland, where I was born, almost does not exist as far as I am concerned—it’s a different world there—the U.S. is my real home now. So just as English has become to me a second original [tongue], America is to me my real country.

In writing about Singer, I claim no special competence, nor do I have anything useful to say about his place in the Yiddish literary tradition or the historical accuracy of his often lurid portrayals of shtetl life, two matters over which critics and scholars wrangle angrily to this day.* No doubt the answers are important—but not to me. The composer-critic Virgil Thomson once remarked that the way to write “American music” was to be an American, then write whatever music you wished. Judged by a similar standard, Singer was an American writer, and he was at least as much of a New Yorker as I am, since he spent most of the last half-century of his life in a Manhattan apartment four blocks north of where I live. And though his work may not mean to me what it does to an informed Jewish reader, it is hardly without personal meaning for me.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 3, 2007 7:58 PM
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