YITSKHOK BASHEVIS-ZINGER (ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER) (November 21, 1902-July 24, 1991)
The author of stories, novels, and criticism, he was born in Leoncin, Poland. He remains the only recipient of the Novel Prize for Yiddish literature. In 1908 his family moved to Warsaw where his father, Pinkhes-Menakhem Zinger, author of Sefer megadim ḥadashim (New fruits) on Talmudic tractate Avoda zara (Idolatry), was an all-purpose “rabbi” on Krochmalna Street. In 1917 the family moved to Bilgoray (Biłgoraj), and in 1923 Bashevis settled down in Warsaw. Although raised in a strictly religious home, he began reading secular literature in his youth, to a certain extent under the influence of his brother Israel Joshua Singer (Yisroel-Yehoshua Zinger). In 1924 he became a proofreader for Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves), which published much of his writings in the 1920s and early 1930s. Here he published his maiden work in Yiddish, a critical article concerning the journal Hashiloaḥ (The shiloah), which he signed “Y. B.” (1924), as well as his first Yiddish story, “Af der elter” (In old age), signed “Tse,” which was subsequently awarded a contest prize (1925). In his story “Vayber” (Wives) of 1925, he used for the first time the pen name “Bashevis,” the possessive form of his mother’s given name. That same year he published two stories in Hayom (Today) in Warsaw, his sole effort to publish original written works in Hebrew. In the latter half of the 1920s and early 1930s, he published in Literarishe bleter literary criticism and interviews with writers and artists (usually using the pen name “Yitskhok Tsvi”), as well as a series of stories also published in Di yudishe velt (The Jewish world), A mol in a yoyvl (Once in a blue moon), Globus (Globe), and the daily newspaper Unzer ekspres (Our express)—all in Warsaw. Over the years 1929-1932, he translated for Kletskin Publishers, mainly from German: Erich Maria Remarque’s Afn mayrev-front keyn nayes (All quiet on the western front [original: Im Westen nichts Neues]) in 1929; Thomas Mann’s Tsoyberbarg (Magic mountain [original: Der Zauberberg]) in 1930; works by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Knut Hamsun, Karin Michaëlis, and Stefan Zweig; and Moshe Smilansky’s Araber, folkstimlekhe geshikhtn (Arabs, folk tales) in 1932. From the early 1930s he was writing for Varshever radio (Warsaw radio) and Parizer haynt (Paris today) a series of sensationalist novels, some adapted and Judaized from other languages. He did not sign his name to these novels. The first apparent publicity he received was for his novel Der sotn in goray (Satan in Goray) which depicted with considerable talent and masterful stylization the Shabbatai Zvi psychosis in a Polish Jewish town in the seventeenth century—initially published in 1933 in Globus, it appeared as a book in: (Warsaw, 1935); (New York, 1943); (Jerusalem, 1972); in M. Lipson’s Hebrew translation as Hasatan begoray, maase mishekvar hayamim vesipurim aḥerim (Satan in Goray, a tale from long ago and other stories) (Tel Aviv, 1953), 334 pp.; and in Jacob Sloan’s English translation as Satan in Goray (New York, 1955), 239 pp. In 1935 he emigrated to the United States and settled in New York. He published in Forverts (Forward) over the period 1935-1936—with an extremely warm recommendation from Ab. Kahan—serially his novel Der zindiker meshiekh (The sinning messiah), which according to Bashevis himself was not a successful work, and he thus ceased writing fiction for the next seven years. He published criticism, interviews with writers, biographies, popular science articles, and current events journalism, using the pen names “D. Segal” and “Yitskhok Varshavski. From 1943 he again began publishing stories—in Svive (Environs), Idisher kemfer (Jewish fighter), and Tsukunft (Future)—and from 1945 he published in Forverts his great family saga, Di familye mushkat (The family Mushkat), concerning Warsaw Jews in the final generations leading up to WWII. It appeared in book for in New York (1950) in two volumes; English translation as The Family Moskat by A. H. Gross (New York, 1950), 611 pp.; and in Yaakov Elyav’s Hebrew translation as Mishpaḥat mushkat (Tel Aviv, 1953), 623 pp. Thanks to translations into English from the early 1950s, Bashevis’s fame continued to grow. From English he was translated into many languages. He received honorary doctoral degrees from many universities in the United States, as well as from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1975). He also won a great number of Jewish literary prizes. In 1978 he was honored with the Nobel Prize, and his Nobel rede (Nobel speech) was published in Yiddish and English together in a small booklet (New York, 1978). The majority of Bashevis’s short stories and all of his novels which he wrote in America were initially published by the Forverts. From the 1950s his novels appeared first in English, only thereafter in Yiddish. He often contributed to the translations of his books and adapted them sometimes anew. More recently it appears as though the adapted novels in English have no parallel book form in Yiddish. From the 1940s he had published in Forverts over twenty novels, but only eight of them have appeared as stand-alone books.
The bulky and apparently autobiographical number of Bashevis’s works is an extremely important key to anyone who wishes to get to the bottom of his writerly problematic and world view, including the exhibitionism in matters of sex, his anti-modernist inclinations concerning art and literature, and his sharp opposition to revolutionary ideologies and leftist aspirations of all sorts. His autobiographical writings consist of the following:
(1) Direct memoirs which, according to Bashevis’s own designation, are “an attempt to unite memoirs with fiction.” Works that belong to this category include: Mayn tatns bezdin shtub (My father rabbinical court) which appeared serially in Forverts (1955-1956)—in book form in Yiddish (New York, 1956), in Hebrew translation by Tsvi Arad as Bet hadin shel aba (Tel Aviv, 1979), and in English as In My Father’s Court (New York, 1958); Fun der alter un nayer heym (From the old and new home) which appeared only serially in Forverts (1963-1965); Gloybn un tsveyfl (Beliefs and doubt), which appeared only serially in Forverts (1974-1976, 1978). In English-language books: A Little Boy in Search of God (1976); A Young Man in Search of Love (1978); Lost in America (1979). Also: Figurn un epizodn fun literaturn-fareyn (Figures and episodes from the literary association), solely in Forverts (1979-1980); Di mishpokhe (The family), solely in Forverts (1982). All of his memoirs embrace his life story through 1970s in New York, some episodes in differing versions.
(2) Three distinctly autobiographical novels which primarily treat his Warsaw period, lightly veiled in the principal images of the identical, young writer in subsequent writings: Vidervuks (Renewal), solely in Forverts (1969-1970); Der fartribener zun (The exiled son), solely in Forverts (1971-1972); Neshome-ekspeditsyes (Soul expeditions), in Forverts (1974), adapted English translation as Shosha (New York, 1974) and Hebrew translation as Shosha (Tel Aviv, 1979). His exhibitionism was a clear sign of his autobiographical obsession in all of its forms, including the autobiographical elements in his other works, too.
Roughly, one-third of Bashevis’s novels are historical, which capture the history of Jews in Poland from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries. From a historical, chronological perspective, the first of his works would be Der kenig fun di felder (King of the fields), solely in Forverts (1980), in which he describes—in the period when Poland embraced Christianity—numerous Poles in a confrontation with a Jewish slave who has descended from Babylonia; Der sotn in goray and Der knekht (The knight), in Forverts (1960), in English translation as The Slave (New York, 1962) and Hebrew translation by Ḥ. Peleg as Haeved (Tel Aviv, 1966), and in book form in Yiddish (New York, 1967)—treating the seventeenth century. In Der knekht Bashevis expressed the painful aftermath of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Der zindiker meshiekh is a biographical novel with Jacob Frank at its center, from his youth until after the death of his daughter, the “holy mistress” Eva. Der man fun khloymes (The man of dreams) may be considered a kind of serial, only in Forverts (1970-1971); it concerned the Frankists in Lublin and Warsaw in the nineteenth century, and is presented as a fictive diary in Polish, written by a convert in old age. Der hoyf (The court), solely in Forverts (1952-1955), adapted in an abridged English translation, under the title The Manor (New York, 1967) and The Estate (New York, 1968)—Hebrew translation from the English as Haaḥuza (Tel Aviv, 1972) and Hanaḥala (Tel Aviv, 1976)—describes in two parallel plotlines a Jewish and a Polish princely family in Poland in the last third of the nineteenth century. In all of Bashevis’s historical novels, there is an apparent tendency to create in distant or near past projections specifically Jewish problems existentially from the present or from the near past. To be sure, the pursuit in his historical novels to get to the essence of the link between the Poles and the Jews is vivid. In his other novels which deal directly with the recent past, Bashevis takes on the problematic of Eastern European immigrants in America: Buntarn (Rebels), solely in Forverts (1976); and Yarme un keyle (Yame and Keyle), solely in Forverts (1976). In his Sonim (Enemies), he gave expression to survivors after the Holocaust who were living in the United States—in the Forverts (1966), in English translation as Enemies, a Love Story (New York, 1972) and in Hebrew translation from the English as Sonim (Tel Aviv, 1979).
Bashevis’s extraordinary talent at telling a story reached its apex in his short stories—such as “Gimpl tam” (Gimpel the fool), “Mayse tishevits” (A tale from Tishevits), “Dray mayses” (Three stories), and many others—with their broad descriptions of the Jewish condition and a rich gallery of images from Eastern Europe before its destruction—were encouraged by the art of storytelling, both in their structure and in the formation of their images. More than in his novels, Bashevis’s distinctive stylistic strengths are amply evident in his stories, strengths that oftentimes build on Polish Yiddish dialect and on linguistic force of habit of learned religious speakers. His inclination toward stylization was already apparent in Der sotn in goray, often in fictive translations of Hebrew or Aramaic which could serve as a master example of the stylistic possibilities in Yiddish. Bashevis’s talent as a stylist reaches its pinnacle with expressions in his stories in monologue format, in which he created an exceedingly colorful gallery of fascinating storytellers.
Bashevis’s collections of stories are of various sorts in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English—the languages with which we are concerned here. Virtually nothing is included from his Polish years. In Yiddish we have: the five stories in Der sotn in goray (New York, 1945); Gimpl tam un andere dertseylungen (Gimpel the fool and other stories) (New York, 1963); Mayses fun hintern oyvn (Stories from behind the stove) (Tel Aviv, 1971); Der shpigl un andere dertseylungen (The mirror and other stories) (Jerusalem, 1975). In Hebrew: the eight stories in the abovementioned translation of Hasatan begoray, maase mishekvar hayamim vesipurim aḥerim; and sixteen in the collection Hamafeaḥ (The key) (Tel Aviv, 1976), the majority of them translated from English by Bashevis’s son Yisrael Zamir. The largest collection of stories can be found in English translations. From the ten collections that have been major successes among English-language readers, Bashevis selected a representative group of forty-seven stories for The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York, 1982).
Since the 1960s his children’s stories in English translation have had great success. Thus far fifteen anthologies, often with excellent illustrations by well-known painters, have been published. A new collection appeared in 1985: Stories for Children (New York), and from English these children’s stories have been translated into many languages. In Yiddish there has not been published a single collection of Bashevis’s stories for children. In Hebrew, they have translated from English: Gada uvish gada (Star-crossed and unlucky) (Tel Aviv, 1973); Shelumiel ish khelm veod sipurim (Shelumi’el from Chelm and other stories) (Tel Aviv, 1977); Ḥakhme khelm vetoldotehem (The wise men of Chelm and their history) (Jerusalem, 1980); Naftali baal-maasiyot vesuso (Naftali the storyteller and his horse) (Tel Aviv, 1980); Pundak haema (The fearsome inn) (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1980). Bashevis also attempted to write plays by adapting his stories for the stage, but they were not published. Dramatizations of his stories and books have been staged in theaters. The staging of Mayn tatns bezdin shtub by the Folksbiene in New York had a huge success in 1957. Criticism and research on Bashevis’s works has been highly diverse, most of it in English. The English-language critic—and as a rule the researcher as well—is extremely limited, because on the whole they can deal only with his translated works in English. They are not only unable to take into consideration the original linguistic garb of the writings in question, but also the great many of his works which have not been translated. Aside from a small number of exceptions, English-language literary criticism has offered an extremely positive assessment, often even enthusiastic. In Yiddish literary circles, his works have been received favorably; complaints, though, have been lodged against his ideological positions, and people have also identified a blemish in his eroticism and in his beliefs in demons and devils which tarnish, according to a number of critics, remembrance of the destroyed Jewry of Eastern Europe, painting a false picture of life there among Jews at that time.
David N. Miller’s works provide the fullest bibliography of Bashevis’s writings in Yiddish (vols. 1 and 2), but they don’t cover all of his work; in English (vol. 3) they cover through 1968; and in Hebrew (vol. 4) through 1978.
Sources: Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of the Yiddish theater), vol. 3; L. Finkelshteyn, in Tint un feder (New York) (September 1950); Shloyme Bikl, Shrayber fun mayn dor (Writers of my generation) (New York, 1958), pp. 358-68; L. Domenkevitsh, Verter un vertn (Words and values) (Tel Aviv, 1960); A. Tabatshnik, Dikhter un dikhtung (Poets and poetry) (New York, 1965), pp. 486-97; M. Ravitsh, Dos amolike yidishe varshe (Jewish Warsaw in the past) (Montreal, 1966); L. Fogelman, in Forverts (New York) (November 27, 1966); Y. Z. Zilberberg-Kholeva, Mentsh un folk (Man and people) (Tel Aviv, 1967); M. Gros-Tsimerman, in Goldene keyt (Tel Aviv) 60 (1967); M. Feyges (Moyshe Krishtol), in Forverts (March 12, 1967); Sh. Apter, in Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (July 1, 1967); B. Borvin-Frenkl, in Unzer shtime (Paris) (September 9-11, 1967); Fogelman, in Forverts (October 22, 1967); Bikl, in Tsukunft (New York) (November 1967); Fogelman, in Forverts (December 8, 1968); M. Oher, in Haarets (Tel Aviv) (Elul 15 [=August 29], 1969); R. Itan, in Bitsaron (New York) (September-November 1968); G. Sapozhnikov, Shrayber un verk in likht fun psikhoanaliz (Writers and works in light of psychoanalysis) (Tel Aviv, 1969), pp. 109-63; D. Giladi, in Maariv (Tel Aviv) (August 29, 1969); E. Naks, in Forverts (September 28 and October 12, 1969); A. Filman (D. Mates), in Forverts (September 8, 1970); Y. Goldkorn, in Forverts (September 13, 1970); Sh. Shapiro, in Maariv (Adar א 22 [=February 27, 1970); Y. Kharif, in Folk un tsien (Jerusalem) (March-April 1970); F. Mark, in Goldene keyt 74 (1971); Rut Lavnit, in Maariv (January 15, 1971); Sh. Samet, in Haarets (April 23, 1971); Y. Ben-Moshe, in Maariv (June 11, 1971); M. Avish, in Davar (Tel Aviv) (Tevet 18 [=January 15], 1971); Y. Yanasovitsh, in Di prese (Buenos Aires) (August 11, 1971); Y. Perlov, in Di prese (November 12, 1971); Sh. Malts, in Fraye arbeter shtime (March 1, 1972); Y. Emyot, in Forverts (March 12, 1972); M. Krishtol, in Forverts (June 29, 1972); Shmuel Niger, Yidishe shrayber fun tsvantsikstn yorhundert (Yiddish writers from the twentieth century) (New York, 1973), pp. 299-308; Koldkorn, Heymishe un fremde (Familiar and strange) (Buenos Aires, 1973); Y. Horn, Arum yidisher literatur un yidishe shrayber (Around Yiddish literature and Yiddish writers) (Buenos Aires, 1973); A. Baraban, in Yidishe tsaytung (Tel Aviv) (February 16, 1973); Yanasovitsh, in Folk un medine (Tel Aviv) (February-June 1973); P. Yaakov, in Haarets (Nissan 4 [=May 6], 1973); Ehud Ben Ezer, in Al hamishmar (Tel Aviv) (Iyar 9 [=May 11], 1973); Y. Rabi, in Al hamishmar (Sivan 1 [June 1], 1973); M. Avishai, in Maariv (Sivan 22 [June 22], 1973); Avrom Shulman, in Forverts (November 18, 1973); A. Blat, Teḥumim veḥotam (Themes and values) (Tel Aviv, 1973/1974); Shulman, in Forverts (July 26, 1974); Moyshe Shtarkman, in Forverts (July 28, 1974); Yanasovitsh, in Folksblat (Tel Aviv) (November 1974); Chone Shmeruk, in Der shpigl (Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 7-29; M. Yungman, in Hasifrut (Tel Aviv) (December 1978), pp. 118-33; Y. Ḥ. Biletski, Elohim, yehudi, satan beyetsirat yitsḥak bashevis-zinger (God, man, and Satan in the creative work of Isaac Bashevis Singer) (Tel Aviv, 1979); Y. Yerushalmi, in Ale-shiaḥ (Tel Aviv) 7-8 (1979); G. Sopozhnikov, Yitskhok Bashevis-zinger, der kinstler fun zind un tshuve (Isaac Bashevis Singer, the artist of sin and repentance) (Tel Aviv, 1980); Shmeruk, in Molad (Tel Aviv) 41 (1982); Elye Shulman, in Tsukunft (1983), pp. 96-100, 152-55, (1984), p. 1; Shmeruk, in Goldene keyt 115 (1985); Yahadut zmanenu (Tel Aviv) (1985), pp. 61-70.
Bashevis’s works in Yiddish have until now been only partially noted in these two listings: H. Nissenson, in New York Times (October 8, 1967); T. Lask, in New York Times (October 31, 1967); G. Jonas, in New York Times (November 5, 1967); I. H. Buchen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past (London, 1968); S. Elkin, in New York Times (October 20, 1968); W. J. Smith, in New York Times (November 3, 1968); J. Malin, Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York-London, 1969); M. Allentuck, ed., The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Carbondale, Ill., 1969); Ben Siegel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Minneapolis, 1969); B. M. Christenson, in Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes 26.1 (January-March 1969); T. Lask, in New York Times (November 1, 1969); T. Shenker, in New York Times (April 17, 1970); S. Blackburn, in New York Times (September 20, 1970); P. Rosenblatt and G. Koppel, A Certain Bridge: Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York, 1972); T. Malin, Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York, 1972); A. Kazin, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (New York, 1973); T. Saposnik, in Yiddish (New York) 1-2 (1973); Howe, in New York Times (August 19, 1973); J. Green, in Jewish Digest (New York) (December 1973); S. Schalit, in Judaism (New York) (Winter 1974); J. Kaplan, in Commentary (New York) (February 1974); Paul Kresh, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Magician of 86th Street: A Biography (New York, 1979); Ruth Wisse, in Commentary (February 1979); D. N. Miller, A Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, January 1950-June 1952 (New York: YIVO, 1979); E. Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer (Boston, 1980); M. Kotzin, in Yiddish (Fall 1982); Miller, A Bibliography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1924-1949 (New York-Berne, 1983).
Dissertations: Rose Barbara Gitenstein, Versions of the Yiddish Literary Tradition in Jewish American Literature: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Abraham Cahan, and Saul Bellow (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1975), 311 pp.; Nili Wachtel, Isaac Bashevis Singer: On Modern Freedom and Modern Slavery (New York University, 1975), 102 pp.; Naomi Susan Leventhal, Storytelling in the Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Ohio State University, 1978), 189 pp.; Judith Rinde Sheridan, Beyond the Imprisoning Self: Mystical Influence on Singer, Bellow, and Malamud (State University of New York, Binghamton, 1979), 211 pp.; Norbert Louis Elliot, Allegory in the Novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer (University of Tennessee, 1981), 159 pp.; Asher Zelig Milbauer, Transplanted Writers: Conrad, Nabokov, and I. B. Singer (University of Washington, 1981), 252 pp.; Ruth Knafo Setton, The Living Faith: A Study of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Rice University, 1981), 190 pp.; David Neal Miller, Fear of Fiction: Narrative Strategies in the Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (University of California, 1982), 271 pp.
Berl Kagan, comp., Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish writers) (New York, 1986), cols. 60-68.