I. B. Singer was a beloved presence on the American literary scene for so long that it was hard to imagine that this centennial, including the publication of his Collected Stories in three hefty volumes by the Library of America, would tell us anything new about him. I had been reading his novels and stories all my life, as had so many American writers who envied his almost magical fluency, his unexpected fame and his seemingly bottomless knowledge of Jewish folkways. Besides reading his work, I had been raised in one small corner of his world. As a child, living and going to school on Henry Street, just a block from East Broadway, I had probably passed the Forward building a thousand times and eaten in the Garden Cafeteria often enough to have brushed by Singer himself, seated over a cup of coffee and a plate of rice pudding or stewed prunes. I hadn’t grown up in Eastern Europe, but I knew the Orthodox world he described like the back of my hand.
Yet when I sat down this summer to look at Singer’s work again, I was overcome by an ineffable sense of strangeness, as if, in the years since his death in 1991, he had become a visitor from another planet–a feeling he himself intensely experienced when he landed here in 1935. His world, which already seemed exotic when he first broke upon the literary scene in the 1950s, had now grown unimaginably remote. Not only his dybbuks and demons but the people themselves belonged not simply to another continent but to another cosmos, a distant century. Yet even now, because of his preternaturally sharp memory, graphic fantasy life and huge storytelling skill, they soon became wonderfully immediate, almost leaping off the page. Instead of casually browsing through his work I found myself cascading from book to book, story to story, instantly gripped by whatever he portrayed.
Every reader seems to agree: A Singer story pulls us right in. It never slows down to bathe us in atmosphere or pauses to analyze the characters’ motives and feelings. It unfolds in swift strokes, like flashes of lightning. In their speed and narrative economy, in their rich oral quality, his stories remind us of folk tales or legends, seemingly conventional yet daringly heterodox, and crafted by a cunning verbal artist. They’re relentlessly driven less by plot than by Singer’s almost prurient fascination with the oddities of human behavior. By some peculiar paradox, he seems at once the most traditional and the most modern of twentieth-century writers.
Singer’s childhood and youth were split between small Hasidic towns in Poland like Bilgoray, where a centuries-old way of life had changed little, and the bustling city of Warsaw, where this shy, dreamy son of a rabbi could see con men and fallen women rub shoulders with yeshiva buchers; could hear his older brother Israel Joshua, a rebel and rationalist, arguing with his deeply pious father; and could eavesdrop on his father’s rabbinical court, where it seemed that every human conflict and desire was acted out on a daily basis. In his father’s court Singer first developed his acute interest in human nature, especially the vexed relations between men and women, which would sustain him through the next eight decades. In his father’s books, which he read with the same overweening curiosity, he saw how these passions were translated into folklore, legal prohibitions and mystical conjecture about angels and demons, sin and punishment, God, creation and the afterlife. This rush of knowledge, combined with new sexual feelings and metaphysical qualms, turned Singer into a believer who did not believe, someone who saw a design in the universe but–especially after the Holocaust–one that had gone horribly wrong. He began to think of this rich Jewish mythology not as literally true but as a set of profound metaphors, dyed into the spirit of the people, for a world that God had toyed with or abandoned, where lust, cruelty and deceit would always overwhelm reason and progress.
Singer’s bleak outlook, so typical of writers between the wars, was soon complicated by his early sense of failure. As his older brother built a remarkable career, finding a vast audience for novels like The Brothers Ashkenazy and Yoshe Kalb, the younger Singer felt thwarted and overshadowed. Already in the early 1930s, the Yiddish literary scene in Warsaw seemed to him to be a dying world. The work produced felt less than minor: he later described it dismissively as getlich on a got, veltlich on a velt–godly without a god, worldly without a world. The shadow of Hitler and Stalin loomed over the Jews of Poland; to an anxious soul like Singer, full of grim foreboding, it looked like the end of the line. But even in America, where Jewish life appeared to be thriving, Yiddish itself seemed mongrelized, half-assimilated, watered down–a language he could not imagine using, in a world he could not imagine writing about.
When we think of the sheer copiousness of his later work–some eighteen novels, ten volumes of stories, fourteen books for children–his deep depression and prolonged writer’s block when he first came to America are difficult to fathom. But starting in the mid-1940s, when his revered brother suddenly died and the world he knew had been wiped out, he became its most vital yet most partial witness. Though he argued during the war that the only material for a Yiddish writer lay in the past, in the next decades he even began writing about the American scene as well, at first only for his Forward readers. Gradually he developed a direct, anecdotal style that sat surprisingly well in the pages of glossy magazines. The shy rabbi’s son, the grasping lover often entangled in a web of impossible relationships, sometimes with three women at one time, the delinquent father who abandoned his 5-year-old son to come to the United States, the young writer so tormented by his failures that he gave up writing fiction and even contemplated suicide, had turned into a grandfatherly elf who charmed interviewers and mesmerized photographers, publishing stories in The New Yorker, Playboy and GQ. By then his widely translated work and canny persona had made him one of the most colorful figures in postwar American writing.
Some of the best of his work can be found in his short fiction, including his signature story “Gimpel the Fool,” translated by Saul Bellow, a classic Yiddish shlemiel story but also the overture to Singer’s many tales about the perverse, unpredictable relations between the sexes; “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” an ingenious, touching story about cross-dressing and transgression that has attracted superb actors on stage and screen; and “The Cafeteria,” at once his most resonant American story and the most haunting of his Holocaust stories, which invariably deal not with the Shoah itself, which Singer did not experience directly, but with the fate of refugees and survivors whose troubled lives obsess him as much as their own bitter memories haunt them.
Behind the surface simplicity of these stories are overtones that reverberate long after we have read them. Though Singer rarely had a good word for other Yiddish writers, “Gimpel the Fool,” the parable that became his breakthrough to an American audience, echoes Y. L. Peretz’s famous story “Bontshe Shvayg” (Bontshe the Silent), dealing with one of the holy fools of classic Yiddish literature. Like Bontshe, Gimpel belongs with the insulted and the injured. He too holds his tongue when he is abused, but he is no fool, for he sees more than most people realize. He is rather “Gimpel Tam,” as the Yiddish title goes–simple, innocent, unspoiled. Given the chance to divorce his promiscuous wife, who has presented him with many children not his own, he pulls back, for he loves her as much as he adores them. Tempted to take revenge on the whole town that has tricked and degraded him, he leaves instead, turning into a traveling storyteller and sage, much like the writer himself. It is a story about how (Jewish) suffering is transformed into wisdom, the experience of humiliation into a kind of art.
Another unexpected reversal helps us understand how “Yentl,” like so much of Singer’s work, might have shocked traditional Yiddish sensibilities. A girl, determined not to be relegated to the kitchen, studies the holy books, at first secretly with her adoring father, then disguised as a yeshiva student, mingling with young men, even briefly marrying another woman. But the genius of the story rests not in Singer’s anticipation of same-sex marriage but in his exploration of how clothes and appearances unsettle gender and how the mysteries of gender unsettle the human heart. In the bais medrash, the study hall, poring over tractates of the Talmud in the traditional singsong manner, Yentl develops a bond with her study partner, Avigdor, that is deeper than love, a bond the ancient rabbis might have understood:
Only now did Yentl grasp the meaning of the Torah’s prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex. By doing so one deceived not only others but also oneself. Even the soul was perplexed, finding itself incarnate in a strange body.
In the end, Yentl’s deep disguise, the transformation of her very soul, has left her nowhere to go, a creature wandering between the two sexes. As Ilan Stavans, the editor of the Collected Stories, remarks, she has a man’s soul in a woman’s body. “I’m neither one nor the other,” she tells Avigdor, once he learns her true identity. Barred from true marriage with man or woman, she can only yield her place, joining together two people who love her, whom fortune has kept apart.
Finally, “The Cafeteria” is one of those later works in which a man much like the author becomes the vehicle for someone else’s story, in this case about a woman who claims to have seen Hitler on the Upper West Side, convening a late-night meeting in the same cafeteria where Singer, along with other Yiddish literati, loved to eat, read the papers and talk for hours on end over coffee and danish. But as Hitler and his minions become this woman’s nightmare, the woman herself becomes Singer’s–a figure who disturbs him, perhaps an authentic seer who has pierced the veil of time and space, perhaps simply a madwoman. She may even be a figment of his own troubled imagination, so mysteriously does she disappear and reappear. For Singer, feeling safe but hardly secure in America, the Holocaust, which turned the world he knew into ash, had a quality of near-hallucination, which this story brilliantly recaptures. Why would such a woman not have seen Hitler? How could she ever stop seeing him? Though reason tells us otherwise, Singer and his readers can scarcely set aside what she has witnessed.
Adapting his work at last to an American setting, Singer did not bury what he left behind but dealt with it instead as trauma, as memory, or a series of encounters with ghosts and shadows in a twilight zone he himself imagined, with elements borrowed from the Jewish tradition, from philosophical speculation and from the literature of the fantastic. Like his Hasidic and Kabbalistic forebears, he found in the tradition something more radical, more disorienting, than its rational defenders were able to understand. Without Freud’s help, they saw the human heart as riven by passion, hope, pain and contradiction. And so Singer’s almost archaic traditionalism, with its resistance to all forms of enlightenment and progress, became the deepest source of his surprisingly modern outlook.