The bare facts of Isaac Bashevis Singer's life make for almost as good a story as any of the fictional tales he committed to paper in the course of his long career. Yitskhok Zynger (he did not adopt the more familiar version of his name until 1950) was born 100 years ago in the Polish village of Leoncin. The son of a hasidic rabbi, he spent his early childhood in a world far removed from modernity, and even after his family moved to Warsaw's Jewish quarter in 1908, his parents were determined to insulate their children from the corrosive effects of modern life. But Singer, like so many of his contemporaries, felt the near-irresistible pull of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and though his attitude toward it would become increasingly equivocal as he grew older, he immersed himself in Western philosophy, translated contemporary novels into Yiddish while writing short stories in the same language, and led an active, at times alarmingly complicated sexual life.
In 1935 he followed his older brother, the author Israel Joshua Singer, to America. He began writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, New York City's largest Yiddish newspaper, where most of his stories and novels would originally run as serials. His tales of shtetl life in Poland began appearing in English after World War II, and when Partisan Review published “Gimpel the Fool” in 1953, translated into English by Saul Bellow, Singer began to attract attention beyond the narrow confines of the Yiddish-speaking community. For years he published regularly in COMMENTARY, eventually being taken up by mass-circulation magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire, and Playboy. By the 70's he was famous. He won the Nobel Prize in 1978, and two successful Hollywood films were made from his work in the 80's, an appallingly inflated Barbra Streisand-directed version of “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” (1983) and Paul Mazursky's scrupulous adaptation of Enemies, a Love Story, the latter released two years before Singer's death in 1991.
Now, on the occasion of his centenary, a handsome three-volume set of Singer's short stories has been issued by the Library of America, the nonprofit house that publishes “authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing.”1
Though it had previously brought out the English-language writings of Vladimir Nabokov, this is the first time the Library of America has published an author whose works were written in a language other than English. In justifying the decision to treat Singer as a full-fledged American writer, Max Rudin, the Library of America's publisher, cites a remark Singer made late in life:
If you ask me from an emotional point of view, I don't feel myself a foreigner because I love America and I love the American people. And since my own country, Poland, where I was born, almost does not exist as far as I am concerned—it's a different world there—the U.S. is my real home now. So just as English has become to me a second original [tongue], America is to me my real country.
In writing about Singer, I claim no special competence, nor do I have anything useful to say about his place in the Yiddish literary tradition or the historical accuracy of his often lurid portrayals of shtetl life, two matters over which critics and scholars wrangle angrily to this day.2 No doubt the answers are important—but not to me. The composer-critic Virgil Thomson once remarked that the way to write “American music” was to be an American, then write whatever music you wished. Judged by a similar standard, Singer was an American writer, and he was at least as much of a New Yorker as I am, since he spent most of the last half-century of his life in a Manhattan apartment four blocks north of where I live. And though his work may not mean to me what it does to an informed Jewish reader, it is hardly without personal meaning for me.
Let me try to explain. It is, I think, a pleasant anomaly that the music critic of COMMENTARY should be a small-town boy from southeast Missouri who knew next to nothing about Jews until he moved to New York City at the tender age of twenty-nine. Music, as everyone knows, is the quintessentially Jewish art form, and in my youth I even played the violin, that most Jewish of instruments, though my mother never said anything to me remotely resembling the exhortation allegedly beloved of Jewish mothers the world over, “So, you want to be like Heifetz? Practice!”
I half-expected her to, though, if only because I had run across that sentence regularly in such books as Sam Levenson's Everything but Money and Allan Sherman's A Gift of Laughter. The word “humorist” is now thought quaint, but warm, cuddly Jewish humorists were all the rage when I was young, and I must have read Everything but Money a dozen times, trying to imagine what it would have felt like to grow up in a large family, the way Sam Levenson and my mother had. That their experiences were in some fundamental way dissimilar never occurred to me; so far as I knew, all large families were alike. I understood that Levenson was the son of Jewish immigrants, and that their religious beliefs were different from mine, but the rest, I assumed, was merely local color.
Nor was I well equipped to ferret out other differences. I had no idea, for instance, that most of the comedians I saw on television in the 60's were Jewish, and even if I had, it probably would not have mattered, the process of assimilation having by then gone a long way toward denaturing mass-market Jewish comedy. What would it have meant to me to learn that Jack Benny was Jewish? Or Alan King? Only rarely did a whiff of something excitingly alien find its way to the television set in the family room of my Missouri home. I remember being puzzled by Jackie Mason's accent when I saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show, and puzzled in a different way by Woody Allen's references to being Jewish, but my puzzlement was no more than that. I did not yet know that it was merely the tip of a cultural iceberg that I would spend a good deal of my adult life exploring.
When I left home to make my way in the world and started meeting Jews of various kinds, I found them not merely companionable but intriguing. Having grown up in a place where it was taken for granted that nice people did not raise their voices, I was astonished by the directness with which my new friends spoke their minds. In college I worked with a jazz pianist who played at Jewish weddings, and I was no less startled by the fact that the well-to-do couples who booked our band treated us like artists, not servants. Discovering the music of Gustav Mahler taught me lessons of a different sort, though I learned them as much through intuition as anything else, not yet having the knowledge necessary to put Mahler's work (and personality) in any wider perspective. In due course I started reading COMMENTARY, which brought me face-to-face with the formidable figure of the Jew as intellectual, at once intimidating and challenging. Above all, I began to teach myself about the Holocaust, an event whose import cannot be comprehended merely by reading The Diary of Anne Frank in high school.
Piece by piece, I was filling in additional sections of the puzzle, yet they remained disconnected in my mind even after I came to New York in 1985 and started writing for COMMENTARY. Something about my Jewish friends continued to elude me—until, one day, I picked up a paperback copy of Enemies, a Love Story.
I had previously seen and liked the film of this novel, but for some reason it had not inspired me to read anything by Singer, with whose writings I was totally unfamiliar. Only after I saw an essay about Singer by Joseph Epstein did it occur to me to look at the book on which Enemies was based.3 Epstein wrote of how Singer's fiction had put him in touch with his own Jewish background. My curiosity piqued, I bought Enemies and opened it to the brief author's note on the first page, where I read these eye-catching words: “Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler Holocaust. . . .”
That was when I started at last to understand.
To Wasps, Jewish humor is mostly a closed book, by turns incomprehensible and embarrassing. Thus, I was surprised to find how quickly I took to it after I moved to New York—not the sanitized kind, much less the crudely anti-Semitic jokes I had occasionally heard in Missouri, but the blunt, close-to-the-knuckle stories rarely told by anyone other than Jews themselves. They were for me what Russian jokes were for Ronald Reagan. And while no other brand of humor is more ethnically specific, stories like the one about the rabbi who converts to Christianity, becomes a minister, and begins his first sermon with the words “Fellow goyim, . . ,” made perfect sense to me. To be sure, I might not have been able to explain why they were funny, but by some mysterious leap of sympathy I managed to divine much of their emotional charge.
What I responded to in these jokes was not so much their ethnic content, of which I had a limited comprehension, as their unvarnished irony (irony, like garlic, being a scarce commodity in small midwestern towns). The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines irony as “a contradictory or ill-timed outcome of events as if in mockery of the fitness of things.” Who better to relish such mockery than the victims of the Holocaust? So when I first encountered Isaac Bashevis Singer's description of the Holocaust as a “privilege,” I shuddered—but I also sensed that a man capable of saying such a thing might be able to tell me what I wanted to know about Jews.
I read Enemies, a Love Story with mounting excitement, following it with the one-volume collection of stories that had been published in 1982. After that I gobbled down a half-dozen novels, finding myself most deeply impressed by Satan in Goray (1935, trans. 1955), a tale of a false messiah set in 17th-century Poland, and Shadows on the Hudson (1958, trans. 1998), set in New York City and Miami Beach not long after World War II. By then I suspected that Singer was to be a lifelong preoccupation, so I restricted my intake, rationing his remaining books in the way I had once doled out Trollope and Henry James, putting off for as long as possible the dreaded day when there would be no more new ones left (among other things, I have yet to read any of his books for children).
But when the Library of America set came out, I declared a holiday and marched through all three volumes nonstop. Some of the stories I knew from the 1982 collection, but many more were new to me, and by the time I had read them all I was as excited as the day I first laid eyes on Enemies.
Total immersion in so extensive an oeuvre has a way of heightening your perception of an author's work. Though I already knew my way around what I think of as Singerland fairly well, reading nearly 200 of his stories in a brief period of time caused their common features to stand out in still higher relief. One important thing of which this experience reminded me is that Singer, although he can be very, very funny, is not a “comic” writer in the ordinary sense of the word.
“The only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view,” said the film director Howard Hawks, a remark that sheds much light on the nature of Singer's humor—as well as on Jewish humor in general. For just as the best Jewish jokes steer so close to the truth that they sting, so does Singer display his two milieux, the shtetl and the world of modernity, through a thick scrim of irony that makes it all but impossible to tell the difference (if there is one) between comic and tragic occurrences.
“Gimpel the Fool,” the story that first brought Singer to the attention of English-speaking readers, is a locus classicus of the sleight of hand with which he turns comedy into tragedy and back again. Of course you laugh at Gimpel, that poor schlemiel and most preposterous of fictional cuckolds, who blindly accepts the lamest of excuses from his whorish wife Elka. How could one not find him laughable? But his climactic utterance, though identical in tone to everything that has gone before, could hardly be more different in its effect:
No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. At the door of the hovel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared—I carry them in my beggar's sack. Another schnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.
This aspect of Singer's writing was what touched me most deeply. The local color I had encountered elsewhere, and in any case it evoked no ancestral memories of a lost world. What gripped me was not the strangeness of exterior detail, but the strangeness of his people. Undaunted by century upon century of persecution, they told the terrible truth about their suffering—and laughed at it. Stranger still, I found myself laughing with them, and when I myself finally learned from hard experience that death is the ultimate fate of loved ones and strangers alike, I realized why. We cannot all have the “privilege” of going through the Holocaust, but sooner or later each of us must turn his face to the wall, and what could be funnier than our absurd attempts to pretend otherwise?
The residents of Singerland are forever being tempted by demons. What is more, they almost always succumb to these temptations, and suffer appalling torments as a result. You would think this unending cycle of temptation and torment would be no laughing matter, but Singer typically writes of it (often in the voice of Satan himself) with the same grim glee he brings to his portrayals of lesser agonies. No less jolting is the fact that punishment appears to be meted out equally among the just and unjust. Even the holiest of men may find themselves besieged by the Evil One in a Singer story—and they are hardly less likely to lose the battle.
Who are these demons? For what malign force do they stand? That Singer saw them as metaphors is all but certain. He was, in his own words, “full of faith and full of doubt,” a notion on which he expanded eloquently in Shadows on the Hudson:
Whether he wanted to or not, a Jew perpetually had accounts to settle with the Almighty: he praised Him or blasphemed Him, loved Him or hated Him, but he could never be free of Him. . . . Whenever a Jew imagined that he was fleeing from God, he was in reality turning blindly in circles like a donkey in a mill or a caravan lost in the desert. Actually, this was true of the whole of humankind. One could as easily free oneself of the concept of God as one could free oneself of time, space, causality. The good and the just, the true and the omnipotent had to be indwelling somewhere.
Singer's credo, such as it was, stopped well short of belief in the literal existence of demons, and probably a good deal shorter than that. One thing he never doubted, however, was that by unleashing secular modernity on the world, the philosophers of enlightenment had left humankind defenseless against the “demons” of the self. In “A Tale of Two Liars,” Satan saps the will of a repentant sinner by speaking to him “after the fashion of the philosophers, and shortly his lips had lost their inclination to pray.” Those who cannot pray to God find some other god to worship, and for naive children of the Haskalah, that god was rationalism.
Singer's contemporaries had eagerly embraced all manner of rationalistic schemes for improving the world, foremost among them Soviet Communism. Not so Singer himself, who from childhood onward seems to have sensed that there were “just as many questions to be asked of Reason as there were of God.” Although many critics suppose that his dark view of modernity was shaped solely by the Holocaust, as early as the 1930's, in Satan in Goray, he was using the havoc wrought by 17th-century Sabbatianism as a symbol of the destructive effects of that falsest of messiahs, the god of reason.4
Throughout his writings, indeed, Singer presents Nazism and Communism not as greater and lesser heresies but as coequally evil twins, referring to “the Hitler and Stalin years” as if they were a single historical event—which, from his point of view, they were. Life in Warsaw had shown him how fatally susceptible his fellow Jews were to the millenarian visions he distrusted; after the war, the proof of their folly was brought home to him in as brutal a fashion as possible when he learned that his mother and his younger brother had frozen to death building log huts in the Soviet Gulag.
Yet Singer was no literary politician, and his critique of modernity was at heart moral and spiritual, not political. “In our home, the ‘world’ itself was treif,” he recalled in the beautiful collection of essays about his Polish childhood that he called In My Father's Court (1966). “Many years were to pass before I began to understand how much sense there was in this attitude.” First in prewar Warsaw, then in America, he beheld the world in all its unclean splendor, and set down his impressions with acrid humor. As his narrator observes in “The Third One,” a story set in New York:
Over a movie house hung a billboard of a half-naked woman four stories high, lit up by spotlights—her hair disheveled, her eyes wild, her legs spread out, a gun in each hand. Around her waist was a fringed scarf that covered her private parts. A mob had collected to gape at her. Men made jokes, women giggled. I looked at Zelig. Half his face was green, the other red—like a modern painting. He stared, moved his lips, one eye laughing and one tearing. I said to him, “If there is no God, she is our god.”
Zelig Fingerbein shook as if he had been awakened from a trance. “What she is promising she can deliver.”
How are we to keep from being seduced by such temptations? By faith alone—a faith Singer thought could only be preserved within the protective carapace of a culture of religious orthodoxy such as the one in which he had lived as a boy. Yet that world, he also knew, was gone forever, spiritually sickened unto death by the Haskalah and then murdered outright by Hitler and Stalin. This is the source of the paradox that animates his writings, in which faith is portrayed as both indispensable and impossible.
For me, to read so many of Singer's short stories at one time was to be struck by how much they have in common with the stories of Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), another fictional chronicler of a closed, insular culture. O'Connor's culture is that of the American South, and many of its inhabitants are preoccupied to the point of obsession with the problem of faith. Hazel Motes, the anguished protagonist of Wise Blood who preaches the gospel of the Church Without Christ, would have felt perfectly at home in certain corners of Singerland.
Yet O'Connor's Christ-haunted characters differ profoundly from Singer's demon-infested Jews. In O'Connor, unbelievers living in a fallen world tainted by modernity suddenly find themselves irradiated by grace, but, like Hazel Motes or the murderous character Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” they struggle in vain against its revelatory power. In Singer's world, by contrast, there are no sudden revelations, only the unquenchable desire to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that life has meaning. And there, in the nagging suspicion that it does not, lies the sharpest tooth of his humor. Asked if God is the First Cause, a character in “The Warehouse” replies, “Who else is the First Cause? He is a jealous God. He would never delegate such power. But being the cause and keeping order are different things altogether.”
If one had to sum up Singer's theology in a single sentence, that last one would do as well as any. True, this also marks the point where a believing Christian would have to say: in the end, it is O'Connor who more accurately describes things as they are. Still, one need not be a Jew, or an unbelieving Gentile, to be drawn to the tough-minded honesty with which Singer confronts the impenetrable mystery of what can easily be interpreted as God's indifference, even malevolence. Much of what happens in the visible world is, after all, unintelligible, save in the light of the unswerving faith that few who have been touched by modernity can claim. Even without the Holocaust and the Gulag to tip the scales, it was hard enough to trust in the goodness and mercy of God. Now it takes the certainty of a saint.
Unsaintly and unsure as I am, I find Singer's Jewish refusal to prettify the cold, hard facts of human nature and human history to be oddly comforting. Reading him, and thinking about him, I am reminded of a passage by C.S. Lewis about the power of art to let us see beyond ourselves: “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” No, you do not have to be Jewish to appreciate the harsh consolations of Jewish humor. It is, after all, nothing more than a distinctive perspective on what Singer himself called “the timeless catastrophe to which one never becomes accustomed”—the “catastrophe,” that is, in which God has chosen to implicate Jew and Gentile alike. We are all in the same lifeboat together, and we might as well laugh as we row for the farther shore.
1 Collected Stories: “Gimpel the Fool” to “The Letter Writer” (789 pp., $35.00), Collected Stories: “A Friend of Kafka” to “Passions” (856 pp., $35.00), and Collected Stories: “One Night in Brazil” to “The Death of Methuselah” (899 pp., $35.00), all edited by Ilan Stavans. The three volumes are also available in a boxed set that includes Singer: An Album, a 127-page paperbound anthology containing 80 illustrations, a biographical essay by James Gibbons, and appreciations of Singer by Nicholas Dawidoff, Robert Giroux, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, and others. In addition, the Library of America is sponsoring a nationwide series of Singer-related events. (For information, go to www.singer100.org.)
2 “ ‘Abraham Sutzkever was starving, fighting Nazis with the partisans in the Lithuanian woods and writing great Yiddish poetry about the tragic fate of the Jews on fragments of bark; Singer was eating cheese blintzes at Famous Dairy Restaurant on 72nd Street and thinking about Polish whores and Yiddish devils,’ said Allan Nadler, director of Jewish studies at Drew University and former director of research at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research” (“Dissent Greets Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial,” New York Times, June 17, 2004).
3 “Our Debt to I. B. Singer” (COMMENTARY, November 1991).
4 Ruth R. Wisse's interpretation of Satan in Goray is especially acute: “But more than the tactics of any one political group, the book exposes the phenomenon of ‘applied messianism’ that devours the very hopes it feeds upon. . . . Evil is never so powerful as when it claims to be redemptive; redemption is never so persuasive as when it follows great suffering; no suffering will compare with the consequence of ‘forcing the end’ of history. The Jews' experience becomes a parable for all such revolutionary ecstasies.”