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Isaac Bashevis Singer ( ) (November 21, 1902 (see notes below) – July 24, 1991) was a Polishmarker-born Jewish Americanmarker Nobel Prize-winning author and one of the leading figures in the Yiddish literary movement.


Early life

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1902 in Leoncinmarker village near Warsawmarker, Polandmarker, then part of the Russian Empiremarker. A few years later, the family moved to a nearby Polish town of Radzyminmarker, 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, and his secretary Dvorah Telushkin. 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 .

His father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgorajmarker. Singer later used her name in his pen name "Bashevis" (Bathsheba's). His elder siblings--brother Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) and sister Esther Kreitman (1891–1954)--were also writers. Esther was the first in the family to write stories.

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 Krochmalna Street in the Yiddish-speaking poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw, where Singer grew up. There his father acted as a rabbi — i.e., judge, arbitrator, religious authority and spiritual leader.

World War I

In 1917, because of the hardships of World War I, the family had to 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. When his father became a village rabbi again in 1921, Singer went back to Warsawmarker, where he entered the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary. However, he soon found out 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.

United States

In 1935, four years before the German invasion and the Holocaust, Singer emigrated from Polandmarker to the United Statesmarker due to the growing Nazi threat in neighboring Germany. 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 Yorkmarker, where he took up work as a journalist and columnist for The Forward ( ), 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 Munichmarker whom he married in 1940. Re-married, he returned to prolific writing and to contributing to the Forward, using, besides "Bashevis," the pen names "Varshavsky" and "D. Segal."

Singer died on July 24, 1991 in Surfside, Floridamarker, after suffering a series of strokes. He was buried in Cedar Park Cemetery, Emersonmarker. A street in Surfside, Floridamarker is named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in his honor. Furthermore, the full academic scholarship for undergraduate students at the University of Miamimarker 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" can be found in many of his later works. I. B. 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 Biłgorajmarker), 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 1948, 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

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. After World War II and the near destruction of the Yiddish-speaking peoples, Yiddish seemed to be a dead language. 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 (Feb. 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 Rickl" in "The Seance"), transvestitism ("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

Singer had many literary influences; besides the religious texts he studied there where the folktales he grew up with and worldly Yiddish detective-stories about "Max Spitzkopf" and his assistant "Fuchs"; there was Dostoyevsky, whose Crime and Punishment he read when he was fourteen; 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 Rejsen, Strindberg, Don Kaplanowitsch, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Maupassant and Chekhov." He studied many philosophers, among them Spinoza., Arthur Schopenhauer, and Otto Weininger. 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 more critical attitude towards Thomas Mann, whose approach to writing he considered opposed to his own. 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 talked of his "second original"). This has led to an ongoing controversy whereby the "real Singer" can be found either in the Yiddish original, with its finely tuned language and sometimes rambling construction, or in the tightly edited American copy, where the language is usually simpler and more direct. Many stories and novels of I. B. Singer have not yet undergone translation.

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 forward 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.


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 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 - in its complexity and grandeur, its material poverty and spiritual splendor. And, after his many years in America, his stories also concerned themselves with both the world of the immigrants and how their American dream proves elusive when they obtain it, e.g. Salomon Margolin, the successful doctor of "A Wedding in Brownsville" (in Short Friday) who finds out his true love was killed by the Nazis; and when it escapes them as it does in the "Cabalist of East Broadway" (in A Crown of Feathers), who prefers the misery of the Lower East Side to an honored and secure life as a married man.

Prior to winning the Nobel Prize, translations of dozens of his stories were frequently published in popular magazines such as "Playboy" and "Esquire." These magazines were quite anxious 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 during this time, 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."

Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.

One of his most famous novels (due to a popular movie remake) 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 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.



Singer's relationship to Judaism, which was complex and unconventional, evades description because he did not write very much directly about it. On the other hand, he often employs first-person narrators in his fiction that are clearly meant to represent him personally.

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."

Singer was brought up in an Orthodox household, where he learned all the Jewish prayers, studied Hebrew, and learned Torah and Talmud. But as he recounts in the autobiographical ' 'In My Father's Court ' ', he broke away from his parents in his early twenties and began spending time with non-religious Bohemian artists in Warsaw (influenced by his older brother, who had done the same). 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. His vegetarianism, which he adopted in 1962 when he had the means to do so, and which became a very important part of his later life, can also be seen as a way of avoiding the question of Kosher food. He struggled throughout his life with the realization that a kind and compassionate God would never inflict the massive 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 [his older brother died, suddenly, in February 1944, in New York, of a thrombosis, his younger brother perished in Soviet Russia ca. 1945, after being deported with his mother and wife to Southern Kazakhstanmarker." In one story, however, his narrator tells a woman, "If you believe in God, then he exists."

Despite all these complexities in 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 quite 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. I.B. Singer was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery.

Especially in his short fiction, he often writes about Jews of various kinds who are having religious struggles; sometimes these struggles become quite violent, resulting in 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 hippy, 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 much interpretation. Whatever they are, they lie at the center of his literary art.


Singer was a prominent vegetarian 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" [2124].

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."


Note: the publication years in the following list refer to English translations, not the Yiddish originals (which often predate their translations by ten or twenty years).

Short stories

Posthumous editions

  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 1 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108261-7
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 2 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108262-4
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories Vol. 3 (Library of America, 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108263-1

  • Burgin, Richard, and Isaac Bashevis Singer Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (1985) ISBN 0-385-17999-5
  • Rencontre au Sommet (86-page transcript in book form of conversations between Singer and Anthony Burgess) (1998)

Notes and references

  1. Paul Kresh "Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Magician of West 86th Street, A Biography", The Dial Press, New York 1979, p. 390.
  2. Dvorah Telushkin "Master of Dreams", A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer", p. 266, New York, 1997.
  3. Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich, p. 18-19, 2004.
  4. Isaac Bashevis Singer, In my Father's Court New York, 1963.
  5. Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Little Boy in Search of God New York: Doubleday, 1976.
  6. Kristina Maul, "Communication and Society in Jewish American Short Stories", GRIN Verlag, 2007, pg. 88, [1]
  7. See: Both bibliographies (given on this page).
  8. .
  9. .
  10. Dvorah Telushkin "Master of Dreams", A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer", p. 123, New York, 1997.
  11. Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich, p. 35, 2004.
  12. Isaac Bashevis singer, The New Winds (short story), in In my Father's Court, NY 1963, and elsewhere.
  13. Isaac Bashevis singer, The New Winds (short story), in In my Father's Court, NY 1963, and elsewhere
  14. Maurice Carr, "My Uncle Itzhak: A Memoir of I. B. Singer", In: Commentary, December 1992.
  15. Stephen Tree, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Munich 2004, p. 68.
  16. Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich, p. 88, 2004.
  17. Text of Nobel Lecture.
  18. Grace Farrell, Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations, p. 236, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
  19. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and exile, Doubleday, p. 99, 1984.
  20. Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich, p. 154, 2004.
  21. History of Vegetarianism - Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991).

  • Paul Kresh "Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street", New York 1979
  • Dorothea Straus, "Under the Canopy. The story of a friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer that chronicles a reawakening of Jewish identity.", George Braziller: New York, 1982. ISBN 0-8076-1028-3.
  • Maurice Carr, "My Uncle Itzhak: A Memoir of I. B. Singer", In: Commentary, December 1992
  • Aleksandra Ziółkowska "Korzenie są polskie", Warszawa 1992, ISBN 83-7066-406-7;
  • Aleksandra Ziółkowska Boehm "The Roots Are Polish", Toronto 2004, ISBN 0-920517-05-6.
  • Israel Zamir "Journey to My Father Isaac Bashevis Singer", New York 1995
  • Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, Davi Napoleon. Includes detailed discussion and anecodtes concerning Robert Kalfin's production of Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy at the Chelsea Theater Center and on Broadway, including conflicts with Barbra Streisand and Tovah Feldshuh. Iowa State University Press. ISBN-0-8138-1713-7, 1991
  • Lester Goran "The Bright Streets of Surfside. The Memoir of a Friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer", Kent, Ohio 1994
  • Janet Hadda "Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life", New York 1997
  • Dvorah Telushkin "Master of Dreams", A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer", New York 1997
  • Agata Tuszynska "Lost Landscapes", In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland, Transl. by M. G. Levine, New York 1998
  • "The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer", edited by Seth Wolitz, University of Texas Press, 2002
  • Stephen Tree "Isaac Bashevis Singer", Munich 2004 (in German) ISBN 3423244151
  • Jeffrey Sussman: "Recollecting Isaac Bashevis Singer." Jewish Currents Magazine and The East Hampton Star

External links

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