Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer
(1904 - 1991)

Polish-born American writer of novels, short stories, and essays in Yiddish. He was the recipient in 1978 of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His fiction, depicting Jewish life in Poland and the United States, is remarkable for its rich blending of irony, wit, and wisdom, flavoured distinctively with the occult and the grotesque.
Singer's birth date is uncertain and has been variously reported as July 14, November 21, and October 26. Coming from a family of Hasidic rabbis, Singer received a traditional Jewish education at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary. However, like his older brother, the novelist I.J. Singer, he preferred being a writer to being a rabbi. His first novel, Der Sotn in Gorey (Satan in Goray), was published in installments in Poland shortly before he immigrated to the United States in 1935. Settling in New York City, as his brother had done a year earlier, he initially worked for the Yiddish newspaper Jewish Daily Forward, and as a journalist he signed his articles with the pseudonym Warshofsky. In 1943 he became a U.S. citizen.

Although Singer's works became most widely known in their English versions, he continued to write almost exclusively in Yiddish, personally supervising the translations. Among his most important novels are The Family Moskat (1950), The Magician of Lublin (1960), The Slave (1962), The Manor (1967), The Estate (1969), Enemies, a Love Story (1972), Shosha (1978), and The Penitent (1983). His popular collections of short stories include Gimpel the Fool (1957), The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), Short Friday (1964), The Seance (1968), A Crown of Feathers (1973; National Book Award), Old Love (1979), and The Image and Other Stories (1985). The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer was published in 1982.

Singer evoked in his writings the vanished world of Polish Jewry as it existed before the Holocaust. His most ambitious novels, The Family Moskat and the continuous narrative spun out in The Manor and The Estate, have large casts of characters and extend over several generations. These books chronicle the changes in and eventual breakup of large Jewish families during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as their members are differently affected by the secularism and assimilationist opportunities of the modern era. Singer's shorter novels examine characters variously tempted by evil, as in the brilliant circus magician of The Magician of Lublin, the crazed messianism of the 17th-century Jewish villagers in Satan in Goray, and the enslaved Jewish scholar in The Slave. His short stories are saturated with Jewish folklore, legends, and mysticism and display his incisive understanding of the weaknesses inherent in human nature.

Schlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories (1968) is one of his best-known books for children. In 1966 he published In My Father's Court, an autobiographical account of his childhood in Warsaw.

Singer's life and work are examined in Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1980), an introduction, and Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction (1990); Grace Farrell Lee (Grace Farrell), From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1987); Israel Zamir, Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1995; originally published in Hebrew, 1994), written by his son; and Janet Hadda, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life (1997).


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