By the 1950s, when Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish fiction was beginning to win acclaim in English translation, the future of the Yiddish language looked bleak. Its homeland in Eastern Europe had been destroyed in the Holocaust, and the largest remaining Jewish populations were now being raised to speak different languages: English in the United States, Russian in the Soviet Union, and Hebrew in Israel. The readers Singer had addressed for decades in The Forward, New York’s leading Yiddish daily paper, represented a significant share of the world’s surviving Yiddish speakers. Few of them were younger than him, and their numbers were shrinking.
Singer and his Yiddish readers shared the uncanny experience of being the last bearers of a disappearing culture. For Jewish and non-Jewish readers who encountered him in translation, however, those common religious, political, and personal reference points were obscured. To that larger public, Singer appeared not as a participant in a broader Yiddish culture but as a synecdoche for Yiddish as such, perhaps even a medium with the power to resurrect it. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, the Swedish Academy observed that the world of Eastern European Jewry “has now been laid waste by the most violent of all the disasters that have overtaken the Jews and other people in Poland. It has been rooted out and reduced to dust. But it comes alive in Singer’s writings.”
The writings that the Swedish Academy had in mind were Singer’s novels and short stories. Though he wrote essays and criticism as well, he often published them in The Forward under a pseudonym, and they were mostly unknown to his international readers. This was as Singer wanted it. As David Stromberg notes in his introduction to a new collection of Singer’s essays, Old Truths and New Clichés, his editor, Roger Straus, had proposed a book of Singer’s essays on philosophy and literature in 1963, but the author demurred: “A collection of essays is still a remote possibility, since very few of them were translated until now,” he wrote the publisher. The idea reemerged in the 1980s, but again Singer took no concrete steps before his death in 1991.
In the absence of a definitive table of contents, Stromberg has filled Old Truths and New Clichés with essays and lectures that were “selected for translation by Singer himself.” As with Singer’s fiction, this was a complex process that involved collaboration with translators as well as authorial revision and recomposition. Many of the essays were originally published in Yiddish before being polished into English for delivery on the synagogue and university lecture circuit.
In these venues, Singer’s task was to speak on behalf of Yiddish literature and of literature itself. Readers who think of him as a folk writer, specializing in tales of shtetls and dybbuks, will be surprised by the cosmopolitan breadth of his literary references and his engagement with contemporary cultural debates. In “Journalism and Literature,” for instance, published in The Forward in 1965—the year before Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood helped invent the “nonfiction novel”—Singer wrote approvingly of the convergence of the genres, citing Chekhov, Maupassant, and Poe as literary artists who were also practicing journalists.
Singer’s own lifelong identity as a newspaperman informed his thinking about literature, especially his suspicion of the pretentious and the abstract. “No matter how deep a literary work may be, if it bores the reader, it is worthless,” he declared. The job of the novelist isn’t “to analyze or to probe,” but to report something new about the world—“some sort of revelation, a fresh approach, a different mood, a new form.” As he put it in the essay “Who Needs Literature?,” writers “are entertainers in the highest sense of the word. They can only touch those truths which evoke interest, amusement, tension…. In art, a truth which is boring is not true.”
The worst kind of boring untruth, in fiction at least, was political ideology. “I believe that this generation is possessed by the worst devil the netherworld has ever sent to mislead us. The Satan of our time plays the part of a humanist and has one desire: to save the world,” he wrote in an undated autobiographical note that Stromberg has placed at the beginning of Old Truths and New Clichés. Singer’s anti-totalitarianism was very much in keeping with the politics of The Forward, which under its longtime editor, Abraham Cahan, was socialist but resolutely anti-Stalinist. The dreary regimentation of Socialist Realism, in Singer’s view, showed that literature was doomed when writers “began to feel that what happened in the past was not so important,” that “the main thing is what will happen in the future.”
But any ideology could have the same deadening effect on literature. In the essay “Yiddish, the Language of Exile,” Singer recalled being 13 years old in 1917, the year when “the revolution in Russia and the Balfour Declaration came almost at the same time.” Unusually for a member of his generation, he was drawn neither to Bolshevism nor to Zionism. Rather, Singer wrote, “this was…the time that I decided my fate as a writer,” which meant putting his faith in individuals and stories rather than in collectivities and ideas.
This faith in individual human stories was the reason Singer chose to write in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. In Jewish Eastern Europe, Yiddish was the language of everyday life, but it was traditionally held in low esteem by the learned elite, who wrote their books in the sacred tongue of Hebrew. When a modern, secular Hebrew literature began to emerge in the 19th century, it was the work of that same elite, whose younger members had begun to turn away from religion under the influence of “enlightened” ideas. Jewish nationalism was one of the most important of those ideas, and Hebrew literature was implicitly Zionist from the start. Indeed, the rebirth of Hebrew literature in Eastern Europe preceded the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language among Jewish settlers in Palestine.
By choosing to write in Yiddish rather than Hebrew, the young Singer was declaring his allegiance to the here and now rather than the biblical past or the Zionist future. “After many trials,” he writes, “I decided that I could not convey in Hebrew a conversation between a boy and a girl on Krochmalna Street” in Warsaw, where he’d grown up. One reason this street could only be written about in Yiddish is that it was very poor, and for Singer, “poverty lies in the very marrow of Yiddish. It is the language of those who are afraid, not those who arouse fear.”
For the same reason, Singer insisted that Yiddish could never become the language of revolution, as many Jewish communists hoped. “In their Marxist jargon,” Singer complained, “a rabbi became a cleric, a merchant a bourgeois, a wealthy person an exploiter, a peasant who made a living a kulak.” But the language of ideology, he argued, remained foreign to the spirit of Yiddish. As a “language of exile,” it “was never spoken by military men, police, people of power and influence,” the way English and Russian always had been and Hebrew was beginning to be. After the experiences of the 1940s, almost the entire Jewish world repudiated the ideal of powerlessness, and the Yiddish language with it. But for Singer, this resistance to power was precisely what made Yiddish so valuable. It was a symbol of a future in which “cultures will have no need of armies to defend their uniqueness and when the majorities will no longer attempt to swallow up the minorities.”
For Singer to become famous as the guardian of Yiddish culture was a highly ironic piece of miscasting, since his fiction was subversive of that culture’s traditional pieties. Other Yiddish writers recognized this incongruity and were infuriated by it. Chaim Grade, whom many considered the best of them all, wrote long, realistic books about rabbis and yeshiva students, conjuring the world of Eastern European Judaism in great physical and psychological detail. Why was he almost unknown while Singer published in The New Yorker and toured the country giving readings? Inna Grade, Chaim’s widow, spoke for many Yiddish writers when she told The New York Times, “I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread in which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”
In one sense, Grade wasn’t wrong: Singer in his fiction intended to be a blasphemer, not a custodian of tradition. In his essays he is compassionate, reasonable, humanistic, but in his novels and stories he is drawn to the most dangerously combustible elements in Jewish tradition—to false messiahs, kabbalistic magic, and demonic possession. These things were already at the center of his first novel, Satan in Goray, published in 1935, the year Singer left Warsaw for New York. Set in the 17th century, at a moment when the Ottoman mystic Shabtai Tzvi had convinced much of the Jewish world that he was the Messiah, the novel depicts a Polish village plunged into an antinomian frenzy of sin and death, culminating in a graphic scene of a woman possessed by a dybbuk that wouldn’t be out of place in The Exorcist. It would be impossible to imagine a starker contrast with Sholem Aleichem, whose bittersweet folktales dominated Yiddish literature a generation earlier—or with the realism that made Singer’s own older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, the first famous writer in the family.
Whatever his enemies thought, however, Singer wasn’t merely a provocateur. His story of Poland in the 1660s was pointedly relevant to Poland in the 1930s, when once again a devastating war and widespread spiritual confusion had left Jews vulnerable to messianic ideologies. Singer’s interest in sexual transgression was part of this inquest into the breakdown of Jewish society, influenced by Freudian ideas about how repressive societies breed neurotic backlash. For Singer, as for his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, literature in the 20th century had to take account of the sick, the ugly, and the extreme.
It was this modernist convergence that made it possible for Singer to become famous outside of Yiddish. Readers of Chaim Grade today tend to have a very specific interest in traditional Ashkenazi Judaism, but the spiritual and sexual ordeals of Singer’s characters feel quintessentially modern. The Magician of Lublin (1960) is set in Poland in the late 19th century, but its frantic portrait of a man’s personal and spiritual disintegration has a great deal in common with Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), which takes place in atomic-age Chicago and New York. Both protagonists, Singer’s stage magician and Bellow’s intellectual, are clearly descended from Dostoyevsky’s brilliant neurotics—from Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, and the Underground Man.
As with Dostoyevsky, even the universally modern people and situations in Singer’s fiction still reflect the particular religion and society that shaped him. Alyosha Karamazov isn’t just a fool, but a holy fool in the Russian and Christian traditions. Similarly, Gimpel the Fool, the title character in one of Singer’s first stories to appear in English (Bellow was the translator), is a particularly Yiddish kind of fool: He is a schlemiel, the kind of man everyone feels free to trample on because he is so used to it.
As a child, he is gullible enough to fall for every rumor: “‘Gimpel, the czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen….’ And I like a golem believed everyone.” When Gimpel is old enough to marry, the matchmaker foists on him a bride with a limp and a “fierce tongue.” Seventeen weeks after the wedding, she gives birth, insisting to Gimpel that the child is his: “She swore to it with such oaths that you would have believed a peasant at the fair if he had used them.” And so he does.
In the eyes of the world, Gimpel is weak and contemptible. Yet Singer woos us into seeing that his humility is his greatest gift. “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil,” Gimpel’s rabbi tells him, and in a sense this patient harmlessness was the ideal of rabbinic Judaism. Isaac Babel makes a similar point in Red Cavalry, when an officer tells the Jewish narrator: “What you want is to live without enemies, you’ll do anything not to have enemies.” Babel’s officer means it contemptuously, but for Gimpel, refusing to return evil for evil is more than a survival strategy; it is a path to holiness. On his deathbed, he imagines heaven as a place where fools will be at home, because “Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.”
In the 20th century, Singer knew, praising this kind of foolishness sounded anachronistic or worse. In the 21st, it is still impossible to imagine Gimpel’s heaven emerging from the world we know, just as it is impossible to imagine Yiddish once again becoming a major literary language. But then, Singer reminds us, Judaism itself has always hoped for the impossible: “Like my pious ancestors, I am waiting for a miracle, for a messiah and a redemption.”