Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer crop.jpg
Born(1902-11-21)November 21, 1902
Leoncin, Congress Poland
DiedJuly 24, 1991(1991-07-24) (aged 88)
Surfside, Florida, USA
OccupationNovelist, short story writer
EthnicityPolish Jew
CitizenshipUnited States
GenresFictional prose
Notable work(s)The Magician of Lublin
A Day of Pleasure
Notable award(s)Nobel Prize in Literature
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Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer crop.jpg
Born(1902-11-21)November 21, 1902
Leoncin, Congress Poland
DiedJuly 24, 1991(1991-07-24) (aged 88)
Surfside, Florida, USA
OccupationNovelist, short story writer
EthnicityPolish Jew
CitizenshipUnited States
GenresFictional prose
Notable work(s)The Magician of Lublin
A Day of Pleasure
Notable award(s)Nobel Prize in Literature

Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish: יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער; November 21, 1902 – July 24, 1991) was a Polish-born Jewish-American author. The Polish form of his birth name was Izaak Zynger and he used his mother's first name in an initial pseudonym, Izaak Baszewis, which he later expanded to the form under which he is now known.[1] He was a leading figure in the Yiddish literary movement and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.[2] He won two U.S. National Book Awards, one in Children's Literature for his memoir A Day Of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw[3] and one in Fiction for his collection A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories.[4]


Early life[edit]

Krochmalna Street in Warsaw (2012)

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncin village near Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. A few years later, the family moved to a nearby Polish town of Radzymin, which is often and erroneously given as his birthplace. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but most probably it was November 21, 1902, a date that Singer gave both to his official biographer Paul Kresh,[5] and his secretary Dvorah Telushkin.[6] It is also consistent with the historical events he and his brother refer to in their childhood memoirs. The often-quoted birth date, July 14, 1904 was made up by the author in his youth, most probably to make himself younger to avoid the draft.[7]

His father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoraj. Singer later used her name in his pen name "Bashevis" (Bathsheba's). Both his older siblings, brother Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944), and sister Esther Kreitman (1891–1954), were writers as well. Esther was the first of the family to write stories.[8]

The family moved to the court of the Rabbi of Radzymin in 1907, where his father became head of the Yeshiva. After the Yeshiva building burned down in 1908, the family moved to a flat at ul. Krochmalna 10. In the spring of 1914 the Singers moved to No. 12[9]

The street where Singer grew up was located in the impoverished, Yiddish-speaking quarter of Warsaw. There his father acted as a rabbi, i.e. a judge, an arbitrator, a religious authority and a spiritual leader.[10] The unique atmosphere of pre-war Krochmalna Street can be found both in the many collection of Varshavsky-stories, which tell stories from Singer's childhood[11] as in those novels and stories which take place in pre-war Warsaw.[12]

World War I[edit]

In 1917, because of the hardships of World War I, the family split up. Singer moved with his mother and younger brother Moshe to his mother's hometown of Biłgoraj, a traditional Jewish town or shtetl, where his mother's brothers had followed his grandfather as rabbis.[10] When his father became a village rabbi again in 1921, Singer went back to Warsaw, where he entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary and soon decided that neither the school nor the profession suited him. He returned to Biłgoraj, where he tried to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons, but soon gave up and joined his parents, considering himself a failure. In 1923 his older brother Israel Joshua arranged for him to move to Warsaw to work as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, of which he was an editor.[13]

United States[edit]

In 1935, four years before the German invasion and the Holocaust, Singer emigrated from Poland to the United States due to the growing Nazi threat in neighboring Germany.[14] The move separated the author from his common-law first wife Runia Pontsch and son Israel Zamir (b. 1929), who instead went to Moscow and then Palestine (they would meet in 1955). Singer settled in New York, where he took up work as a journalist and columnist for The Forward (פֿאָרװערטס), a Yiddish-language newspaper. After a promising start, he became despondent and felt for some years "Lost in America" (title of a Singer novel, in Yiddish from 1974 onward, in English 1981). In 1938, he met Alma Wassermann (born Haimann) {b. 1907 – d. 1996}, a German-Jewish refugee from Munich whom he married in 1940. After the marriage he returned to prolific writing and to contributing to the Forward, using, besides "Bashevis," the pen names "Varshavsky" and "D. Segal."[15] They lived for many years in the Belnord on Manhattan's Upper West Side.[16] In 1981, Singer delivered a commencement address at the University at Albany, and was presented with an honorary doctorate.[17]

Singer died on July 24, 1991 in Surfside, Florida, after suffering a series of strokes. He was buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, Emerson.[18][19] A street in Surfside, Florida is named Isaac Singer Boulevard in his honor. The full academic scholarship for undergraduate students at the University of Miami is named in his honor.


Singer's first published story won the literary competition of the "literarishe bletter" and garnered him a reputation as a promising talent. A reflection of his formative years in "the kitchen of literature"[20] can be found in many of his later works. IB Singer published his first novel Satan in Goray in installments in the literary magazine Globus, which he cofounded with his life-long friend, the Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin in 1935. It tells the story of events in 1648 in the village of Goraj (close to Biłgoraj), where the Jews of Poland lost a third of their population in a cruel uprising by Cossacks, and details the effects of the seventeenth-century faraway false messiah Shabbatai Zvi on the local population. Its last chapter imitates the style of medieval Yiddish chronicle. With a stark depiction of innocence crushed by circumstance, the novel appears to foreshadow coming danger. In his later work The Slave (1962), Singer returns to the aftermath of 1648, in a love story between a Jewish man and a Gentile woman, where he depicts the traumatized and desperate survivors of the historic catastrophe with even deeper understanding.

The Family Moskat[edit]

Singer became an actual literary contributor to the Forward only following his older brother's death in 1945, when he published The Family Moskat in his honor. But his own style showed in the daring turns of his action and characters, with (and this in the Jewish family-newspaper in 1945) double adultery in the holiest of nights of Judaism, the evening of Yom Kippur. He was almost forced to stop writing the novel by his legendary editor-in-chief, Abraham Cahan, but was saved by readers who wanted the story to go on. After this, his stories—which he had published in Yiddish literary newspapers before—were printed in the Forward as well. Throughout the 1940s, Singer's reputation grew. Though Singer had moved to the United States, he believed in the power of his native language and maintained that there was still a large audience that longed to read in Yiddish. In an interview in Encounter (February 1979), he claimed that although the Jews of Poland had died, "something—call it spirit or whatever—is still somewhere in the universe. This is a mystical kind of feeling, but I feel there is truth in it."

Some of his colleagues and readers were shocked by this all-encompassing view of human nature. He wrote about female homosexuality ("Zeitl and Rickel",[21] "Tseytl un Rikl") in "The Seance and Other Stories"[22]), transvestism ("Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" in "Short Friday"), and of rabbis corrupted by demons ("Zeidlus the Pope" in "Short Friday"). In those novels and stories which seem to recount his own life, he portrays himself unflatteringly (with some degree of accuracy) as an artist who is self-centered yet has a keen eye for the sufferings and tribulations of others.

Literary influences[edit]

Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied there were the folktales he grew up with and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about "Max Spitzkopf" and his assistant "Fuchs";[23] there was Dostoyevsky, whose Crime and Punishment he read when he was fourteen;[24] and he writes about the importance of the Yiddish translations donated in book-crates from America, which he studied as a teenager in Bilgoraj: "I read everything: Stories, novels, plays, essays... I read Rajsen, Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Maupassant and Chekhov."[24] He studied many philosophers, among them Spinoza,[24] Arthur Schopenhauer,[8] and Otto Weininger.[25] Among his Yiddish contemporaries Singer himself considered his older brother to be his greatest artistic example; he was a life-long friend and admirer of the author and poet Aaron Zeitlin. Of his non-Yiddish-contemporaries he was strongly influenced by the writings of Knut Hamsun, many of whose works he later translated, while he had a more critical attitude towards Thomas Mann, whose approach to writing he considered opposed to his own.[26] Contrary to Hamsun's approach, Singer shaped his world not only with the egos of his characters, but also using the moral commitments of the Jewish tradition that he grew up with and that his father embodies in the stories about his youth. This led to the dichotomy between the life his heroes lead and the life they feel they should lead — which gives his art a modernity his predecessors do not evince. His themes of witchcraft, mystery and legend draw on traditional sources, but they are contrasted with a modern and ironic consciousness. They are also concerned with the bizarre and the grotesque.

Another important strand of his art is intra-familial strife — which he experienced firsthand when taking refuge with his mother and younger brother at his uncles home in Biłgoraj. This is the central theme in Singer's big family chronicles — like The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). Some are reminded by them of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks; Singer had translated Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) into Yiddish as a young writer.


Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish – almost all of it in newspapers – and then edited his novels and stories for their American versions, which became the basis for all other translations; he referred to the English version as his "second original". This has led to an ongoing controversy whether the "real Singer" can be found in the Yiddish original, with its finely tuned language and sometimes rambling construction, or in the more tightly edited American version, where the language is usually simpler and more direct. Many of Singer's stories and novels have not yet been translated.

In the short story form, in which many critics feel he made his most lasting contributions, his greatest influences were Chekhov and Maupassant. From Maupassant, Singer developed a finely grained sense of drama. Like the French master, Singer's stories can pack enormous visceral excitement in the space of a few pages. From Chekhov, Singer developed his ability to draw characters of enormous complexity and dignity in the briefest of spaces. In the foreword to his personally selected volume of his finest short stories he describes the two aforementioned writers as the greatest masters of the short story form.


Several respected artists have illustrated Singer’s novels, short stories, and children’s books including Raphael Soyer, Maurice Sendak, Larry Rivers, and Irene Lieblich. Singer personally selected Lieblich to illustrate some of his books for children, including A Tale of Three Wishes and The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah after seeing her work in an exhibition at an Artists Equity exhibit in New York. A Holocaust survivor, Lieblich was from Zamosc, Poland, a town adjacent to the area where Singer grew up. As their memories of shtetl life were so similar, Singer found Lieblich’s images ideally suited to illustrate his texts. Of her style, Singer wrote that “her works are rooted in Jewish folklore and are faithful to Jewish life and the Jewish spirit.”


Singer published at least 18 novels, 14 children's books, a number of memoirs, essays and articles, but is best known as a writer of short stories, which have appeared in over a dozen collections. The first collection of Singer's short stories in English, Gimpel the Fool, was published in 1957. The title story was translated by Saul Bellow and published in May 1953 in the Partisan Review. Selections from Singer's "Varshavsky-stories" in the Daily Forward were later published in anthologies such as My Father's Court (1966). Later collections include A Crown of Feathers (1973), with notable masterpieces in between, such as The Spinoza of Market Street (1961) and A Friend of Kafka (1970). His stories and novels reflect the world of the East European Jewry he grew up in. And, after his many years in America, his stories concerned the world of the immigrants and how their American dream proves elusive, sometimes even after they seemed to obtain it.

Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, translations of dozens of his stories were frequently published in popular magazines such as Playboy and Esquire, which attempted to raise their literary reputation by publishing Singer, and he in turn found them to be appropriate outlets for his work.

Throughout the 1960s, Singer continued to write on questions of personal morality, and was the target of scathing criticism from many quarters, some of it for not being "moral" enough, some for writing stories that no one wanted to hear. To his critics he replied, "Literature must spring from the past, from the love of the uniform force that wrote it, and not from the uncertainty of the future."[citation needed]

Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.[2]

One of his most famous novels, due to a popular movie adaptation, was Enemies, a Love Story, in which a Holocaust survivor deals with his own desires, complex family relationships, and a loss of faith. Singer's feminist story "Yentl" has had a wide impact on culture since its conversion into popular movie starring Barbra Streisand. Perhaps the most fascinating[27] Singer-inspired film is 1974's Mr. Singer's Nightmare or Mrs. Pupkos Beard by Bruce Davidson, a renowned photographer who became Singer's neighbor. This unique film is a half-hour mixture of documentary and fantasy for which Singer not only wrote the script but played the leading role.

The 2007 film Love Comes Lately, starring Otto Tausig, was adapted from Singer's stories.



Singer's relationship to Judaism was complex and unconventional. He regarded himself as a skeptic and a loner, though he felt a connection to his orthodox roots. Ultimately, he developed a view of religion and philosophy, which he called "private mysticism: Since God was completely unknown and eternally silent, He could be endowed with whatever traits one elected to hang upon Him."[28][29]

Singer was raised Orthodox and learned all the Jewish prayers, studied Hebrew, and learned Torah and Talmud. As he recounted in the autobiographical "In My Father's Court", he broke away from his parents in his early twenties and, influenced by his older brother, who had done the same, began spending time with non-religious Bohemian artists in Warsaw. Although he clearly believed in a monotheistic God, as in traditional Judaism, he stopped attending Jewish religious services of any kind, even on the High Holy Days. He struggled throughout his life with the feeling that a kind and compassionate God would never support the great suffering he saw around him, especially the Holocaust deaths of the Polish Jews he grew up with. In one interview with the photographer Richard Kaplan, he said, "I am angry at God because of what happened to my brother": Singer's older brother died suddenly in February 1944, in New York, of a thrombosis, his younger brother perished in Soviet Russia around 1945, after being deported with his mother and wife to Southern Kazakhstan.

Despite all the complexities of his religious outlook, Singer lived in the midst of the Jewish community throughout his life. He did not seem to be comfortable unless he was surrounded by Jews; particularly Jews born in Europe. Although he spoke English, Hebrew, and Polish fluently, he always considered Yiddish his natural tongue, he always wrote in Yiddish and he was the last famous American author writing in this language. After he had achieved success as a writer in New York, Singer and his wife began spending time during the winters with the Jewish community in Miami. Eventually, as senior citizens, they moved to Miami and identified closely with the European Jewish community: a street was named after him long before he died. Singer was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery.

Especially in his short fiction, he often wrote about various Jews having religious struggles; sometimes these struggles became violent, bringing death or mental illness. In one story he meets a young woman in New York whom he knew from an Orthodox family in Poland. She has become a kind of hippie, sings American folk music with a guitar, and rejects Judaism, although the narrator comments that in many ways she seems typically Jewish. The narrator says that he often meets Jews who think they are anything but Jewish, and yet still are.

In the end, Singer remains an unquestionably Jewish writer, yet his precise views about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish God are open to interpretation. Whatever they were, they lay at the center of his literary art.


Singer was a prominent Jewish vegetarian[30] for the last 35 years of his life and often included vegetarian themes in his works. In his short story, The Slaughterer, he described the anguish of an appointed slaughterer trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job of killing them. He felt that the ingestion of meat was a denial of all ideals and all religions: "How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?" When asked if he had become a vegetarian for health reasons, he replied: "I did it for the health of the chickens."

In The Letter Writer, he wrote "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka."[31] which became a classical reference in the discussions about the legitimacy of the comparison of animal exploitation with the holocaust.

In the preface to Steven Rosen's "Food for Spirit: Vegetarianism and the World Religions" (1986), Singer wrote, "When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent. I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, "I'm against vegetarianism!" I would say, "Well, I am for it!" This is how strongly I feel in this regard."


Singer described himself as "conservative," adding that "I don't believe by flattering the masses all the time we really achieve much."[32] His conservative side was most apparent in his Yiddish writing and journalism, where he was openly hostile to Marxist sociopolitical agendas. In Forverts he once wrote, "It may seem like terrible apikorses [heresy], but conservative governments in America, England, France, have handled Jews no worse than liberal governments.... The Jew's worst enemies were always those elements that the modern Jew convinced himself (really hypnotized himself) were his friends."[33][34]

Published works[edit]

Note: Publication dates refer to English translations, not the Yiddish originals, which often predate their translations by 10 to 20 years.


Short story collections[edit]

Juvenile literature[edit]


Autobiographical writings[edit]

Short stories[edit]

Collected works[edit]

Films based on Singer's work[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Several of his professional identification cards using localized spellings and further variants of these names are reproduced in, Wollitz, Seth L. (2001). Staley, Thomas F., ed. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Literary Modernism Series. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-79147-X. Retrieved 2012-07-28. 
  2. ^ a b Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1978), Lecture, Nobel prize .
  3. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1970". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
  4. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1974". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-26.
    With essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.
  5. ^ Kresh 1979, p. 390.
  6. ^ Telushkin 1997, p. 266.
  7. ^ Tree 2004, pp. 18–19.
  8. ^ a b Carr 1992.
  9. ^ Leociak, J (2011), Spojrzenia na warszawskie getto. Ulica Krochmalna, Warszawa: Dom Spotkań z Historią, p. 29 .
  10. ^ a b Singer 1967.
  11. ^ Best known: My Father's Court 1966
  12. ^ Die familye Mushkat/The Family Moskat 1950, Shoym 1967/Scum 1991), etc.
  13. ^ Singer 1976.
  14. ^ Maul, Kristina (2007), Communication and Society in Jewish American Short Stories, GRIN Verlag, p. 88 .
  15. ^ See both bibliographies (given on this page).
  16. ^ Horsley, Carter B, "The Belnord", The city review .
  17. ^ "University at Albany's 137th Annual Commencement" (video), YouTube, Google, May 24, 1981 .
  18. ^ Strauss, Robert (March 28, 2004). "Sometimes the Grave Is a Fine and Public Place". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus [sic] tends toward performers. Martin Balsam, who won both a Tony and an Oscar was buried there in 1996. Joe E. Lewis, the comic whose rough life was portrayed by Frank Sinatra in the 1957 movie, The Joker Is Wild, is nearby. (As are two illustrious nonperformers, the Nobel Prize writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and the poet Delmore Schwartz.)" .
  19. ^ Pace, Eric (July 26, 1991). "Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate for His Yiddish Stories, Is Dead at 87.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-30. "Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose vivid evocations of Jewish life in his native Poland and of his experiences as an immigrant in America won him the Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Wednesday. He was 87 years old and lived in Surfside, Florida" .
  20. ^ Telushkin 1997, p. 123.
  21. ^ Singer 1968.
  22. ^ Singer 1968a.
  23. ^ Tree 2004, p. 35.
  24. ^ a b c Bashevis 1967.
  25. ^ Tree 2004, p. 68.
  26. ^ Tree 2004, p. 88.
  27. ^ Tree 2004, p. 161.
  28. ^ Grace Farrell, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations, p. 236, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
  29. ^ Singer 1984, p. 99.
  30. ^ "Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991)", History of Vegetarianism, IVU .
  31. ^ Singer 1982, p. 271.
  32. ^ 31 (4), Spring 1980, p. 57 Chicago Review Chicago Review  Missing or empty |title= (help).
  33. ^ Hadda 2003, pp. 137–38.
  34. ^ "Singer, Isaac Bashevis", The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe .
  35. ^ The Perils of Translation: Isaac Bashevis Singer
  36. ^ The Perils of Translation: Isaac Bashevis Singer
  37. ^ a b c "Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922–Present". Association for Library Service to Children. ALA. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
  38. ^ "Warsaw Stories" (various reprints beginning with a version of this biography). Eilat Gordin Levitan.


External links[edit]