Isaac Bashevis Singer
July 14 is the birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in
Radzmin, Poland, in 1904. Singer wrote novels and stories heavily
laden with the supernatural imps and goblins of Jewish folklore, about
growing up in pre-World War II Warsaw and Krakow, and about Jewish-American
The son of a Hasidic rabbi in the Jewish quarter of
Warsaw, Singer was raised in a cramped second-floor apartment. His
curls of fiery red hair hung down from under his round velvet cap, which he
wore with a long satin coat. Not surprisingly, other boys in the
neighborhood taunted him, calling him "Little Rabbi"--and worse.
While Singer's father was in rabbinical school, he refused
to learn enough Russian to pass the rabbinical exam, so he was banished to
low-paying posts for the rest of his life. The family apartment had
one room for sleeping and a second for his father's meetings with the
townspeople, where they would come to unburden their problems and receive
Singer was always suspicious of his father's blind faith in
Judaism and in God. His mother and brother were similarly skeptical.
When Isaac was ten, his older brother gave him his first non-religious book,
a copy of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment
(1866) translated into
Yiddish. His father had forbidden books that weren't about religion,
but that didn't stop the two boys from smuggling in
all sorts of books written by Yiddish, Russian, and French writers.
Singer entered a rabbinical seminary in 1920 but left seven
years later to work as a proofreader for his brother at a Yiddish literary
magazine in Warsaw. He thought most of the stories in the magazine
were boring and poorly written. He decided he could do better, and
soon, the magazine published his first short story, In Old Age.
He took the name Isaac Bashevis as his pen name before publishing his second
story, Women. Bashevis means son of Bathsheba in Hebrew.
Singer's mother's name was Bathsheba.
1935, concerned about the spread of Nazism throughout
Europe, Singer emigrated to America to join his brother, who had come over
earlier and become a successful writer in New York. But young Singer
could write only in Yiddish, so he had to depend on selling his work to the
Jewish Daily Forward as a freelancer. The first collection of
his stories to be translated into English, Gimpel the Fool, was
published in 1957. Since then, he has worked with numerous
translators, including Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow.
Although best known for his short stories, Singer also
penned a series of richly crafted novels, The Family Moskat
(1950), The Manor
(1967), and The Estate
(1969). These extensive epic works have
been compared with Thomas Mann's novel, Buddenbrooks. Like
Mann, Singer describes how old families are broken up by the new age and its
demands, from the middle of the 19th century up to the Second World War, and
how they are split, financially, socially, and physically. But
Singer's chronicles are greater in scope than Mann's novel and more richly
orchestrated in their characterization.
Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, once
remarked, "God gave us so many emotions, and so many strong ones.
Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions."
Isaac Bashevis Singer died in 1991.
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