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Isaac Bashevis Singer

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By Allan Katz

Though Isaac Bashevis Singer still writes his short stories in Yiddish, and though his style and subject matter place him in the great tradition of Yiddish writing, Kenneth Rexroth has called him "certainly one of the most remarkable American authors who has ever lived. . . ."

Singer's stories are almost always set in the shtetlech, the self-contained little communities in which most Eastern European Jews lived until the Second World War. They draw deeply from Hasidic and cabalistic lore and they are full of remnants of the folk tales which are the primary sources of Yiddish literature. Yet, Singer's conviction that the demons he writes about are real is balanced in his fiction by a wholly modern psychological skepticism. He has been condemned by many Yiddish critics for the same qualities that critics like Rexroth, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe find praiseworthy--a lack of concern for the fate of the Jews as a nation, a wholly Western concern for the individual, the unique.

During a recent visit to Harvard, Singer spoke of his youth in Poland, where he was born in 1904. The events of his life are almost an allegory of the experience of Eastern European Jews in the early part of this century. "I was brought up in a home where faith burned brightly." Values were other-worldly; the relationship with God was personal and intimate.

Singer's older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, whose comprehensive social novels later brought him fame, was a child of the Enlightenment. He challenged traditional beliefs, and Singer recalls listening, as a child of eleven, to an argument between his brother and his father over the existence of God. His father ended the argument by asking, "Well, who created the world--you?"

"I began to write before I knew the alphabet. Sabbath was an ordeal for me, because writing was forbidden." His writing drew on traditional sources, since from childhood he studied the Bible, Torah, and, secretly, the cabala. "Cosmic riddles were actual in my home. . . . One could as easily have questioned the validity of reason as the existence of God. . . . The worship of reason was as idolatrous as bowing down to graven images."

Singer's reading went beyond what was prescribed. He studied Spinoza, and still remembers many passages by heart. He read the Continental classics; "I read your Jack London in Yiddish and Poe in Polish." He has translated many Western classics into Yiddish, most recently Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.

His early writing, derivative and totally unoriginal, deeply dissatisfied him. "Many times I contemplated suicide because of my intellectual impotence. . . . Satan did not allow me to express my individuality." And though he was outwardly a normal Hasid, the people of his town suspected his untraditional intellectual activity. His brother went to Russia and involved himself in the revolutionary movement.

Singer describes the split of the Jewish community over two great issues, Communism and Zionism. The old religious enthusiasm was channeled into these new causes, further alienating the Jews from Polish society.

Singer characterizes his complex philosophy as "a kasha of mysticism, deism, and rationalism." Its sources are the Ten Commandments, Hume, Luria, the cabala, Sir Oliver Lodge, and William Crooks. His commitment to it, like his belief in demons, is total, if mildly ironic.

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