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Searching for I.B. Singer

A yearlong first encounter with the great Yiddish author who gave me my middle name

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Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1962. (Walter Daran/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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I.B. Singer, the Last Demon

In stories written in Poland and the U.S., the modernist master Isaac Bashevis Singer mined folk tales to convey the 20th century’s essential cruelty

As a Polish Jew writing in the early 1940s, Singer no doubt earned his grimness. But The Family Moskat exhausted me. I was ashamed to admit it; this was in fact the novel that Mom’s English friend had given her on the kibbutz. But 600 small-print pages of progressively hopeless believers and schemers was a steep price to pay for obligation to my personal creation myth. When The Magician of Lublin left me similarly unmoved, I regretfully put aside my project. It was early summer. My Year of Singer had turned into an abortive Few Months of Singer, and left a bad taste at that.

***

All the while, I was having my first real success writing book reviews and personal essays. I received my first well-paying bylines in places I read regularly. So, in August I turned my personal odyssey into a pitch: a literary journey of personal discovery, a search for identity, a yearlong embrace of my Eastern European Jewish heritage in the form of its most notable writer. The idea was accepted here, and suddenly my pilgrimage became a professional duty.

This upended my approach. When I started The Manor and the Estate—Singer’s longest book, originally published in two installments—I was struck not by the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction, but by the implications of Singer’s decision to focus almost exclusively on those conditions. Every single one of his protagonists—whether old or young, post-Holocaust or pre-Enlightenment—feels somehow unmoored and unsure of their connections. But the prose remains unruffled. Singer obsesses with the inability to belong, but he seems accepting, even desirous of that state. And once I went after him as a writer, not as a boy in search of myself, I recognized this worldview—it is a writer’s worldview. Writing necessitates dislocation, as I came to understand in my increasingly frequent late nights at my computer after the kids had gone to bed.

With this in mind, I read the first Singer novel that struck me as an out-and-out masterpiece, The Slave. It returns us to the general time period of Satan in Goray and concerns Jacob, a learned man whose village and family were destroyed by Cossacks. As the property of a pagan farmer, he is a Jew without any community, an intellectual without books, a family man unsure if his family’s even alive. He writes: carving memorized Torah verse into a rock. And he falls in love with his owner’s daughter, Wanda.

Jacob’s surviving neighbors find him and buy him back, but he runs away from this new freedom to reunite with Wanda. They then escape to a different Jewish village where she pretends to be “Sarah,” a mute. When their secret is discovered, Jacob is excommunicated. Wanda dies in childbirth, and the villagers refuse to bury her with the Jews. Jacob wanders to Israel for 20 years and finally returns to the village, leaving his son and three grandchildren in the Holy Land. He dies in the village, and while digging Jacob’s grave the buriers discover Wanda’s corpse. In the novel’s stunning last pages, the new generation of villagers refers to Jacob as “Our teacher, the saint” and bury him with Wanda under a grave decorated with two doves kissing.

In The Slave, Singer shows a man afloat, unwelcome or uncomfortable in every community he enters. His only salvation comes from individual pursuits—love, scholarship, and private religious devotion. Judaism as a faith does not save Jacob, nor do his fellow Jews. Instead, his private dedication to the Torah and his pilgrimage to Israel are intensely personal quests, and the public recognition for them comes only decades later, after years of suffering. It’s unavoidably an allegory for a wandering artist, and certainly autobiographical; Singer wrote in a niche language yet found his greatest detractors in the New York Yiddish-reading community.

Singer was surely used to the feeling of rootlessness. There had been seven generations of rabbis on his paternal side and at least one on his maternal. His parents felt that anything less than total subservience to God was an unforgivable transgression. From this starting point, any kind of relatively modern existence would mark Singer as an outcast. He was an exile before he understood the concept. More than that: “Poland” didn’t even exist, geographically or politically, when Singer was born. As a Yiddish-speaking Jew born in 1904, he entered the world as part of a phantom population within an invisible country. He was raised in a house that could have existed in the 15th century and then lived through the starkest depths of modern horror.

When Satan in Goray won the inaugural young-writer’s competition from the newly formed Yiddish PEN Club in Warsaw, Singer had already been granted an American visa, an opportunity that he knew, in 1935, constituted “the privilege of life, a reprieve from Hitler’s executioners.” He left a wife and baby son in Europe, promising to contact them once they reached America as well. He didn’t speak to either of them again until the son was more than 20 years old. In America his talent blossomed, and he became one of the most unlikely celebrities in our literary history. The privilege of life ended up a blessing beyond mere survival, but it came at a human cost that surely nagged at Singer’s conscience. It’s little wonder he felt so comfortable writing stories in the voices of monsters.

Rather than heroes, the perpetually in-between characters in Singer’s novels are always pitiable. His most sprawling, Shadows on the Hudson, was published in the late 1950s and concerns a group of Polish Jews in immediately postwar New York. Hertz Grein is a familiar Singer type, the unsatisfied husband and intellectual, drawn to an impressionable younger woman as well as a second mistress. His aborted elopement with an acquaintance’s daughter sends his life into a tailspin as he ends up despised by all of his three lovers. Grein naturally becomes consumed by guilt and reconnects with his faith. “I thought that you, at least, had found yourself,” says his youthful one-time fiancée when they run into each other and recount their crazed affair late in the novel. Grein is humbled to the point of resignation and offers the final verdict on his life of half-measures and attempted reinvention: “I haven’t found anything.”

A year prior, Grein had run away with this woman to Miami, a place where many other of Singer’s characters, like the man himself, sought further solace from the war-weary community of immigrant New York. In his fiction Singer paints southern Florida as a final frontier, full of men who have lost everything and still feel the world is deafeningly loud. As with Coney Island, which also figures prominently in his work, the seaside is more like a cliffside; the men can either hang on or leap, and this decision is what animates their thoughts. Even the titles of Singer’s beach-set stories are stark: “Alone,” “Old Love,” “Escape From Civilization.” In all three, the protagonists are older men whose families were killed in Germany. They have little or no possessions and are engaged by talkative women (or, in the case of the misleadingly optimistic-sounding “A Party in Miami Beach,” a wealthy and aimless entrepreneur). They experience a quick sympathetic human interaction that is promptly severed or halted.

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gwhepner says:

LANGUAGE WITHOUT A LAND

Yiddish,
a language without a land,

and one
few people understand,

is one
which Jews once used to prime

the ladders
that they tried to climb,

having
painted them the color word,

with
different shades of the absurd,

to go to
where there are no borders,

and no
more need for any orders,

a place that’s
known as heaven, but

has no
dimensions, like Shabbat,

except
of course the one of time,

the
borderless great paradigm

that it
inhabits, beyond reach,

except
within the realm of speech

that
slips between the wormhole cracks

towards
a God whose rules it hacks.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Dear Mr. Lingan,

A friend sent me your piece, which I enjoyed a lot. I wonder whether you’ve seen my biography of Singer, or Bashevis, as he was mostly known to his Yiddish readers. (He also thought a lot about his name.) it’s called “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,” very similar to the title of Florence Noiville’s, although it came out earlier (Oxford, 1997). It was reissued, with a new introduction, by University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. It’s also been translated into Polish and Hebrew.

If you take a look at it, I’d love to get your reaction.

With best wishes for a bright and successful 2013,

Janet Hadda
hadda@ucla.edu

2000

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Searching for I.B. Singer

A yearlong first encounter with the great Yiddish author who gave me my middle name