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Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) - pseudonym Warshofsky

 

Polish-born American journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer's chief subject is the traditional Polish life in various periods of history, largely before the Holocaust. He especially examined the role of the Jewish faith in the lives of his characters, who are pestered with passions, magic, asceticisms and religious devotion. According to Singer, "A good writer is basically a story-teller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind."

"I started to "write" even before I knew the alphabet. I would dip a pen in ink and scribble. I also liked to draw—horses, houses, dogs. The Sabbath was an ordeal for me, because it is forbidden to write on that day." (from A Day of Pleasure, 1996)

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born Icek-Hersz Zynger in the town of Radzymin, near Warsaw, Poland. His father was a Hasidic rabbi; Bathsheba, his mother, was the daughter of a rabbi. When Singer was three the family moved to Warsaw, where his father supervised a beth din, or rabbinical court, where he acted as a rabbi, judge, and spiritual leader. Singer also spent several years in Bilgorai, a traditional Jewish village. He received traditional Jewish education and became acquainted with Jewish law in Hebrew and Aramaic texts. All in the family liked to tell stories and at a very young age Singer started to invent his own tales.

At the age of fourteen, Singer began studying Polish, which astonished his father, who said: "Just now, when the Messiah is about to come at any moment, you are going to try and learn Polish?" Singer entered in 1920 the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, but then returned to Bilgoray, where he supported himself by giving Hebrew lessons. In 1923 Singer moved to Warsaw, where he worked as a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, edited by his brother I.J. Singer. Singer rendered into Yiddish German thrillers and works from such authors as Knut Hamsun, Thomas Man and Erich Maria Remarque. From 1933 to 1935 he was an associate editor of Globus.

As a novelist Singer made his debut with Der Sotn in Goray (Satan in Goray), which was published in Poland in 1932. It was written in a linguistic and rhetorical style imitative of mediaeval Yiddish book of chronicles. The story was loosely based on the events surrounding the 17th-century false messiah Shabbatai Zvi, and painted a portrait of messianic fever. In his later work, The Slave (1962), Singer returned again to the 17th-century in a love story about a Jewish man and gentile woman, whose relationship is threatened by their different backgrounds.

In 1935 Singer joined the staff of the Jewish Daily Forward as foreign correspondent. To flee from anti-Semitism, Singer moved in 1935 to the United States, parting from his first wife, Rachel, and son, Israel, who went to Moscow and later Palestine. He settled in New York, where he worked for the Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts. In 1943 Singer became an American citizen. When many secular Jews supported communism in the political atmosphere of the 1930s and '40s, Singer was interested in demons and dybbunks. Stucking to his convinction, that a writer is an entertainer, he defended himself by saying that a writer "should never set out with the vain hope of saving humanity. His job is to tell a good story."

In 1940 Singer married Alma Haimann, a German émigré, who was employed for many years by a New York department store. The first collection of his stories in English, Gimpel the Fool, was published in 1957 – the title novel was translated by Saul Bellow and published in 1952 in Partisan Review. Stories published in Daily Forward were later collected among others in In My Father's Court (1966) and More Stories from My Father's Court  (2000). Singer's father appear them as a pious man who is happiest studying the Talmud; his mother is practical and wishes her husband would pay more attention to money and everyday problems.

With his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, Singer became its only American member to write in a language other than English. "Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity." Singer published 18 novels, 14 children's books, a number of essays, articles, and reviews, but in the United States he was perhaps best-known as a short story writer. Although his works are best known in their English versions, he originally composed them in Yiddish. Singer has collaborated with many distinguished translators, among them Saul Bellow, but most frequently Cecil Hemley. Many of his stories were published under the penname 'Isaac Bashevis,' and much journalism as by 'Warshofsky.' Among the films based on Singer's stories are The Magician of Lublin (1979), directed by Menahem Golan, Barbara Streisand's Yentl from 1983, and Enemies: A Love Story (1989), directed by Paul Mazursky and starring Anjelica Huston, Ron Silver and Lena Olin. Mazursky cowrote the screenplay with Roger L. Simon. The protagonist is a Jewish intelletual who manages to escape death in the Holocaust. He settles in Brooklyn and learns after a new marriage, that his first wife has also survived and come to America.

The Family Moskat (1950) was Singer's  first novel published in English. The family saga continued in The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969). The Magician of Lublin (1960), translated into several languages, is about a lusty magician and his downfall. In Shosha (1978), a love story set in Poland in the 1930s, Singer returned to the Krochmalna street of his childhood. Singer's short story collections include A Friend of Kafka (1970), The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories (1988). The quasi-autobiographical novels, such as In My Father's Court and Love and Exile (1984) focus mostly on Singer's Hasidic upbringing in Poland and his subsequent rebellion against it. The attitude of Singer's characters to religion was not fixed; the author himself avoided ideological rigidity.

Singer's novels have realistic social and natural settings; Singer pays much attention to the plot and characters, especially their sexual passions, but on the other hand he deals with spiritual truths and magic beyond everyday life, which separate his stories from traditional realism. "It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment.," Singer once said. "And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names." (in an interview with Richard Burgin, in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 26, 1978) As a writer Singer saw his role marginally influential or as he remarked: "Writers can stir the mind, but they can't direct it. Time changes things, God changes things, the dictators change things, but writers can't change anything." For most of the last 14 years of his life, Singer was assisted by Dvorah Telushkin, who met Singer in 1975, when she was 21. Telushkin gave an account of their relationship in her book Master of Dreams (1997). Singer died on July 24, 1991.

Singer's brother Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) was also a writer. He worked as a journalist in Warsaw during the 1920s and early 1930s, where he wrote his first novels. In 1922 he married Genya Kuper; they had two sons. After immigration to the United States, the writings appeared in serialized form in newspaper Forverts (Jewishv Daily Forward). Israel Joshua Singer was more politically engaged than his brother. He travelled widely in the Soviet Russia in 1926, but became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet political system. His works include Erdvey: drama i dray bilder (1922),  Perl: un andere dertseylungen  (1922), Shtol un ayzn (1927, Blood Harvest, tr. 1935; Steel and Iron, 1969), Josche Kalb (1932, The Sinner, tr. 1933; Yoshe Kalb, tr. 1965), Affremder erd (1925), Di brider Ashkenazi (1936), Friling (1937), The River Breaks Up (1938), Khaver nakhmen (1939; East of Eden, tr. 1976), Di mishpokhe Karnovski (1943, The Family Carnovsky, tr. 1969), Dertseylungen (1949). The three-volumed The Brothers Askhenazi was set in the Polish city of Lodz, and covered a period from the early years of the nineteenth century until 1919. – The sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Esther Singer (born in Radzymin, Poland, in 1892), married name Kreitman, wrote among others novel Der Sheydims Tants, published in Warsaw 1936, and translated in English as Deborah (1946).

For further reading: The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer by Seth Wolitz (2011); Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album by Ilan Stavans (2004); Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Bibliography of His Works in Yiddish and English, 1960-1991 by Roberta Saltzman (2002); Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland by Agata Tuszynska and Madeline Levine (1998); Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Dvorah Telushkin (1997); Isaac Bashevis Singer by Jante Hadda (1997); Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. by Grace Farrell (1996); Children's Stories and Childhood Memoirs, ed. by Alida Allison (1996); Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer by Lawrence S. Friedman (1988); Recovering the Canon, ed. by David Neal Miller (1986); Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer by R. Burgin (1985); Fear of Fiction by David Neal Miler (1985); The Brothers Singer by C. Sinclair (1983); The Singer Saga by C.M. Eastley (1983); Isaac Bashevis Singer by E. Alexander (1980); Isaac Bashevis Singer by P. Kresh (1979); Isaac Bashevis Singer by I. Malin (1972); Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. by Irving Malin (1969) - See also: Chaim Potok, a rabbi and author, and Saul Bellow, one of the most important Jewish-American writers after WW II.

Selected works:

  • Di vogler / Knut Hamsun, 1928 (Pan; translator, into Yiddish)
  • Oyfn mayrev front kayn nayes / Erich Maria Remarque, 1930 (All Quiet on the Western Front; translator, into Yiddish)
  • Der tsoyberbarg: roman / Thomas Mann, 1930 (Der Zauberberg; translator, into Yiddish)
  • Der veg oyf tsurik / Erich Maria Remarque, 1931 (Der Weg zurück; translator, into Yiddish)
  • Der Sotn in Gorey: a mayse fun fartsaytns, 1935
    - Satan in Goray (translated by Jacob Sloan, 1955)
  • From Moskow to Jerusalem, the Morale Perishes / Leon S. Glaser, 1938  (translator)
  • Die Familje Moshkat, 1950
    - The Family Moskat (translated by A.H. Gross, 1950)
    - Moskatin suku (suom.  Jukka Kemppinen, 1986)  
  • Mayn tatns beth-din shtub, 1956
    - In My Father's Court, 1966 (translated by Channah Kleinerman-Goldstein, Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer, 1966)
    - Isäni seurakunta (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 2002)
  • Der Shpiegel, 1956
    - Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories (tr. 1957)
  • Der Kunstnmakher fun Lublin, 1960
    - The Magician of Lublin (translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer, 1960)
    - Lublinin taikuri (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1980) 
    - film 1979, dir. by Menahem Golan, starring Alan Arkin, Louise Fletcher, Valerie Perinne, Shelley Winters. "Curious muddled fable with apparent correspondences to the Christ story, like Bergman's The Face." (Halliwell's Film and Video Guide 2001, 2000)
  • The Spinoza of Market Street, 1961
  • Der Knekht, 1962
    - The Slave (translated translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley, 1962)  
    - Orja: romaani (suom. Kaj Kauhanen, 1962)
  • Short Friday and Other Stories, 1964
  • Sonim: di Geschichte fun a Liebe, 1966
    - Enemies: A Love Story, 1972 (translated by Aliza Shevrin and Elizabeth Shub)
    - Vihassa ja rakkaudessa (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1991)
    - film 1989, dir. by Paul Mazursky, screenplay Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky, starring Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston. Lena Olin, Malgorzata Zajaczkowska 
  • Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, 1966 (pictures by Maurice Sendak, translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
    - Hölmön paratiisi ja muita satuja (suom. Leena Krohn, 1979)
  • The Fearsome Inn, 1967 (tanslated by the author and Elizabeth Shub, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian)
  • Mazel and Shlimazel; or, The Milk of a Lioness, 1967 (pictures by Margot Zemach, translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
  • The Manor, 1967 (continued in The Estate, appeared originally in Yiddish under the title Der Hoyf in Forverts between 1952-55)
    - Kaksi maailmaa 1: Nousee päivä, laskee päivä (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1996)
  • The Séance and Other Stories, 1968
  • When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw & Other Stories, 1968 (pictures by Margot Zemach, translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
  • The Estate, 1969 (appeared originally in Yiddish under the title Der Hoyf in Forverts between 1952-55)
    - Kaksi maailmaa 2: Illan tullen, yön pimeyteen (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1997)
  • A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up In Warsaw, 1969 (with photos. by Roman Vishniac)
  • The Fearsome Inn, 1969
  • Elijah the Slave: A Hebrew Legend Retold by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1970 (translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub, pictures by Antonio Frasconi)
  • Joseph and Koza; or, The Sacrifice to the Vistula, 1970 (translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub, pictures by Symeon Shimin)
  • A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories, 1970
  • Alone in the Wild Forest, 1971 (pictures by Margot Zemach, translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
  • The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China, 1971 (pictures by William Pène Du Bois, translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
  • The Wicked City, 1972
  • A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories, 1973
  • The Hasidim: Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings by Ira Moskowitz, 1973 (text by Isaac Bashevis Singer and the artist)
  • The Mirror, 1973 (play)
  • Schlemiel the First, 1974 (play; Schlemiel der Erste)
  • The Fools of Chelm and Their History, 1973 (pictures by Uri Shulevitz, translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub)
  • Why Noah Chose the Dove, 1974 (pictures by Eric Carle, translated by Elizabeth Shub)
    Miksi Noah valitsi kyyhkysen (suom. UllaMari Kellomäki, 1975)
  • A Tale of Three Wishes, 1975
  • The Mirror and Other Stories, 1975
  • Passions, and Other Stories, 1975
    - Intohimoja (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1983)
  • Naftali and the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus: And Other Stories, 1976 (pictures by Margot Zemach)
  • A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light, 1976 (illustrated by Ira Moskowitz)
    - Nuori mies etsii rakkautta (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1982)
  • Shosha, 1978
    - Shosha (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1979)
  • Yentl, 1977 (play)
    - film 1983, dir. by Barbara Streisand, screenplay Jack Rosenthal and Barbara Streisand, starring Barbra Streisand, Amy Irving, Mandy Patinkin, Nehemiah Persoff 
  • A Young Man in Search of Love, 1978 (paintings and drawings by Raphael Soyer)
    - Nuori mies etsii rakkautta (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1982)
  • Old Love, 1979
  • The Gentleman from Cracow; The Mirror, 1979 (illustrated with watercolors by Raphael Soyer, with an introduction by Harry T. Moore)
  • Nobel Lecture, 1979
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer on Literature and Life: An Interview with Paul Rosenblatt, Gene Koppel, 1979
  • Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov, 1980 (with 24 original etchings by Ira Moskowitz)
  • From the Diary of One Not Born, 1980 (play, prod.)
  • The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, 1980 (with ill. by Irene Lieblich)
  •  Lost in America, 1981 (paintings and drawings by Raphael Soyer)
  • The Golem, 1982 (illustrations by Uri Shulevitz)
  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1982
  • Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, 1983 (woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi, translated from the Yiddish by Marion Magid and Elizabeth Pollet)
  • The Penitent, 1983 (Bal-tshuve)
  • Love and Exile, 1984
  • Teibele and Her Demon, 1984 (play, with Eve Friedman, prod. 1979)
  • Remembrances of a Rabbi’s Son: Published in Honor of Jack D. Weiler in Celebration of His Life and Accomplishments, 1984 (translated by Rena Borrow, with a lithograph by Chaim Gross)
  • Gifts, 1985
  • The Image and Other Stories, 1985
    - Kuin oma poika: Tarinoita vanhasta maasta (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1990)
  • The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories, 1988
  • The King of the Fields, 1988 (Kenig fun di felder)
    - Peltojen kuningas (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1988)
  • Scum, 1991 (Shoym; translated by Rosaline Dukalsky Schwartz)
    - Parantumaton (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1992)
  • The Certificate, 1992 (Tsertifikat; translated by Leonard Wolf) 
    - Lupakirja (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1993)
  • Meshugah, 1994 (Meshuge; translated by the author and Nili Wachtel)
  • Shrewd Todie and Lyzer the Miser & Other Children’s Stories, 1994(illustrated by Margot Zemach)
  • A Day of Pleasure and Other Stories for Children, 1996
  • Shadows on the Hudson, 1997 (Shotns baym Hodson; translated by Joseph Sherman)
    - Varjoja Hudsonin yllä (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1999)
  • Demons and Dybbuks, 1998 (play, prod.)
  • More Stories from My Father's Court, 2000 (translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant)
  • Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer. Vol 1, 2004 (ed. by Ilan Stavansa)
  • Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions. Vol. 2, 2004 (ed. by Ilan Stavansa)
  • Collected Stories: One Night in Brazil to the Death of Methuselah. Vol. 3, 2004 (ed. by Ilan Stavansa)


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