What Yiddish Says
The God-haunted fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
ON A FEW OCCASIONS I have been asked who among the writers of the past half century I thought might be read a hundred years from now. I could think of only Isaac Bashevis Singer--chiefly because he is the single writer of our time who might as easily have been read a hundred years before his birth. And yet, most critics prefer not to delve into the reason behind Singer's literary timelessness.
Born in Poland in 1904 and coming to America only in 1935, Singer wrote all his stories in Yiddish and had translators with greater fluency than he. Although his knowledge of English improved greatly over the years, Singer always spoke in a greenhorn's accent. ("It is a rare mark of individuality to be a great writer in a language he speaks so badly," wrote Paul Valéry of Joseph Conrad, who never lost his strong accent, either.)
That Singer wrote in the dying language that is Yiddish makes his case all the more interesting. Three volumes of his stories have now been collected and published in the Library of America. (The only other non-American-born writers in this canonical publishing enterprise are Vladimir Nabokov and Alexis de Tocqueville.) Singer's devotion to Yiddish--the mameh loshn, or mother-tongue--was complete. He insisted it has "vitamins other languages haven't got" and claimed that it is "very rich in describing character and personality, though very poor in words for technology." In his Nobel Prize lecture of 1978, he remarked that the language captured "the pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience, and deep appreciation for humanity" of the Yiddish-speaking people among whom he came of age in Poland. And yet, in the same lecture, he claimed universality for Yiddish, averring that "in a figurative way Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, a frightened and hopeful humanity."
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland, the son and grandson of rabbis. He grew up in an atmosphere of grinding poverty and conflicting piety. The conflict derived from the continuing argument between Singer's father's mystical tendencies and his mother's more traditional, rationalistic Judaism; the poverty, from Singer's father's refusal to take a Russian-language examination required by Czarist law, so that, despite his considerable learning, he was forced to work as, in effect, a clandestine rabbi serving the poorest of Jews.
The central figure in the Singer household was his mother, Bathsheva, after whom Isaac took his middle name Bashevis. The daughter of a distinguished line of rabbis, a woman of genuine Jewish learning in her own right, she was, from all reports, a personality of great force. Singer was said to resemble his mother physically--small-boned, blue-eyed, and red-haired--and, some say, temperamentally; and he reverenced her all his days.
THE OTHER IMPORTANT FIGURE in Singer's family life was his brother Israel Joshua Singer, himself a writer and for many years one of greater renown than Isaac Bashevis. The elder by eleven years, he wrote novels famous in their day, Yoshe Kolb (1933) and The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), and died of a heart attack when he was fifty years old. The Brothers Ashkenazi remains a magnificent novel, one in which the villain is no less than the country of Poland and the first book in which I learned, a lesson often repeated, that the one thing the far left and the far right always come around to agree upon is hatred of the Jews. Although Isaac Bashevis would eventually achieve much greater fame than his brother, and although his talent was more various and fecund, he never came near writing a novel as powerful as The Brothers Ashkenazi.
In fact, Isaac Bashevis Singer is a great writer in part because of the plentitude of his production. Here he was lucky even in his misfortune. His family's poverty caused the Singers to retreat to the backwaters to live, at one point with his mother's father in the village of Bilgoray, where the intrusions of modernity were few, and later on Krochmalna Street, in the slums of Warsaw, where a buzz of urban tumult played out on the street, which Singer later referred to as "my literary gold mine." In both the rural retreats and the intensely urban setting, the young and always observant Isaac acquired material sufficient to sustain him through a long career. His life in New York, to which he came in 1935, a life lived among the Jewish refugees from Hitler and Stalin, gave him yet more material.