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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 immigrants. 

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 religious counseling. 

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.

In 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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