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Old Truths and New Clichés

Not long ago I came upon a volume of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays compiled and edited by David Stromberg and published by Princeton University Press in 2022. Locating the essays, written by longhand and originally published in the Forverts, the dominant Yiddish newspaper in this country in the early part of the twentieth century, or presented in many of Singer’s lectures at the height of his popularity, proved to be an arduous task. It is obvious that Sromberg undertook it because of his deep admiration and respect for Singer’s nonfiction work. Singer himself had labored on the translations and also collaborated with other translators in numerous drafts and revisions until satisfied with a final copy. Many of those essays, which had originally been published in the

Forverts were published multiple times under different titles. In the process of working on them, Singer often altered them as new thoughts brought fresh ideas and discoveries. Stromberg observes that he sometimes removed wordiness to emphasize his broader ideas, often deleting “ an entire paragraph in order to maintain conceptual continuity.” The book is a real treasure, not only for fans of Singer’s fiction, who is well-known for his novels and short stories of Eastern European communities before the Holocaust, but

also for anyone who enjoys reading essays of real intellectual vigor.

The author was born in l903 and died, still at the height of his popularity in l991, after creating a prodigious amount of fiction, one of the clearest views we have of that lost civilization. In Singer’s fiction they are real people, with all of their passions and complexity, joys, sorrows, and cunning. I first became aware of Singer’s writing with the first flush of his popularity when I read his book of short stories, Gimpel The Fool, the title story masterfully translated into English by Saul Bellow, which helped to catapult him to fame. Few other Yiddish writers had the distinction of being translated into English for the American public. Cynthia Ozick’s famous story “Envy or Yiddish in America,” recounts the envy that the writer Edelshtein feels toward Ostrover the Storyteller who is the only Yiddish writer in America whose work is regularly translated and published, thereby gaining an audience. It was immediately obvious who was the target of the fictional Edelshtein’s envy. Although my father-in-law had been reading Singer in the Forverts for years, few people had heard of him then, long before he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in l978, the first Yiddish language author to be awarded the prize. It was his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, author of The Brothers Ashkenazi, a well- known writer who had come to the Forverts first; his younger brother, Isaac, had followed him before the Nazi onslaught. He left Warsaw in1935. Their parents

and most of their family perished.

In the late sixties as a young mother I returned to school to pursue an M.A. in

English. I made an unorthodox choice (in more ways then one because Singer, like his older brother, had left their strict upbringing), and chose to write my thesis on Singer’s work. Many of my professors had only recently heard of him. Few had read him even though by then he was engaged in a vast outpouring of literary production with work that was being translated so rapidly into English for the American market that his publisher could barely keep up with him. In the course of my work I wrote to ask him why the English translation of The Family Moskat differed from the original. He was a delightful correspondent and wrote back promptly that by then the State of Israel had been established, meaning, that ashes had been replaced by hope.

A few years later I invited him to speak at my synagogue and he immediately

accepted. Dressed formally and wearing a suit and fedora that would have looked at home on the streets of Warsaw before the war, he was debonair and gracious. That evening after I introduced him, he began his lecture by reading that it was wonderful to be in Tel Aviv. He quickly realized his error, but the speech was as formal as his clothes. It was in the informal talk that he shone, quick-witted, humorous and a total delight. That is the Singer, lively and perceptive, that appears in Old Truths and New Clichés.

“Stromberg writes, “Singer’s critical essays have long been overlooked because he has been thought of almost exclusively as a storyteller. This volume proves otherwise and presents some of the clearest views of Singer as a literary artist, one who is not only able to produce fiction that captivates readers but also able to discuss the aesthetic, spiritual and moral vision underlying all of his writing.” Further, the editor points out that the essays also reflect the ideas that drove his literary production. He was a writer whose mind was constantly working and whose critical eye penetrates beyond everyday illusions into what drives human nature, no less than what lifts the human spirit.”

Reading these essays is as delectable as eating a box of chocolates, but like fine

chocolates, they also need to be savored one at a time. I was not prepared for the keen originality of Singer’s reflections and surprised at his range of ideas. As a fiction writer myself, I am aware of how preposterous this is, as though there should be a difference between the mind that invents fiction and a mind that thinks in terms of the conceptual theories that propel it. Yet it is sometimes true that critical skills and imaginative skills do not always go hand in hand. This volume proves that Singer easily bridged the gap between the two. All of the essays are worth a reader’s time and provide a wide diversity

of creative thought.

In his essay, “The Spirit of Judaism,” Singer writes that Yiddish is the language

of exile. It is an accepted tenet of both our religious and secular literature that the exile was a calamity for the Jewish people.” And yet, he adds, “ we can also look at the exile in an entirely different way: the brilliant development and creativity that took place. He mentions the development of the Talmud, the Midrash, the Commentaries, and the Zohar as examples of tremendous creativity during that expansive time. Singer conjectures that “the exile might have been a punishment or a state of imprisonment, but great spiritual

works were produced.” He further notes that pious Jews could not view the exile as a void or an error. Instead “the exile was a link in religious creation. Jews in the exile had to adjust the Bible to their respective times.” He comments, “In my later years it became clear to me that only in exile did the Jews grow up spiritually. Moses’ demand that the Jews create a kingdom of priests and a holy nation could not have become a reality in ancient Israel. Jewishness would never have reached its religious heights if the Jews had

remained in their land. “

In another essay, Singer observes, “It often happened in Jewish history that great events went hand in hand with terrible catastrophes.”

There is so much of interest in this volume that it is difficult to mention only one point. I was particularly drawn, however, to the question of a writer’s language. At one point Singer writes that he had to decide which language would be best for his work. As a writer in America speaking English that was not a problem for me. English was my native tongue, well suited for literature, and one that had been chosen even by writers who had grown up in other countries. But not all writers are so fortunate.

For Singer who was not fluent in Polish or Russian and aware that the content of his work was alien to those languages, the choice had to be between Hebrew or Yiddish. However, he writes that neither was a language in a modern sense of the word in the year 1918. Although he was an ardent Zionist, Hebrew was still a language of prophets and religion, without the secular language he needed to fully express himself. Yiddish, on the other hand, was the language of the Ashkenazic exile. Singer writes, “The leitmotif of Yiddish was that if a day passes without a misfortune it is a miracle from Heaven. I clung to Yiddish because this language expresses my hope for the redemption of the Yiddish

artist.” It is obvious that Yiddish was the language in which he felt most comfortable, the language of everyday life and the one in which he could most fully realize his literary aspirations.

One of the most fascinating essays in the book is Singer’s effort to explain “Why

I Write As I Do: The Philosophy and Definition of A Jewish Writer,” recounting his years as a young man struggling to find the material he would make his own. He describes his childhood in a pious home where “the old Jewish faith burned brightly. Ours was a house of Torah and holy books. Other children played with toys. I played with the volumes in my father’s library. I began to write before I even knew the alphabet. I took my father’s pen, dipped it in ink, and started to scribble. The Sabbath was an ordeal for me because on that day writing is forbidden.”

His older brother became one of the Enlightened ones, a rationalist, but his

parents countered with faith and the miraculous feats of famous rabbis. His mother knew of a house inhabited by a poltergeist and spoke freely of imps, ghosts, and dybbuks Those who have read Singer’s work are well aware of the way he used them in his novels and short stories as a shorthand for the inexplicable events that occur in human life. With the outbreak of World War I and its brutality, he rejected his brother’s thesis—reason was the answer to all problems and would eventually be victorious. To escape Warsaw his mother took him and his younger brother to Bilgoray where her father was the rabbi, a town that was still rooted in the Jewish traditions of a hundred years before. Yet the town was not completely isolated. It had just suffered a cholera epidemic and a third of its residents had died. Still, compared to Warsaw, there was space and quiet. Here Singer relates that on the outside he was just a Hasidic boy who studied Gemara but inside he was seeking a way to find a Weltanschauung, a worldview that would enable him to create the work that he was already contemplating. He spent his time reading the masters of world literature and deciding what kind of writer he wanted to emulate. Yet none seemed to align with his tastes and his own life. This went through many cycles as he continued to set an artistic path for himself. As soon as he could, he left for Warsaw, the center of Yiddish culture in Poland and joined the Yiddish Writer’s Circle, although he still had not published anything. The situation in Poland had deteriorated for Jews and as a young man Singer already realized that the idea that the Bolshevick Revolution would do away with all evil was naïve. It would still be a few years before he produced his first major work, Satan In Goray, a novel about a town caught up in religious hysteria as they follow a false Messiah, a book that resonates in our own time. But, ironically, it was in this country, far from his childhood and coming of

age in another country and a society that had been destroyed that Singer was able to at last find the inspiration to write the work he only dreamt of writing as a young man.

Besides these provocative subjects, the collection has an excellent introduction, “Writers Don’t Write For The Drawer,” which describes Singer’s pursuits after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in which “He gained new authority as a writer on the world stage and was invited to lecture with increasing frequency. In this context, he returned to a number of his core essays, many of which were written in the l960s, traveling and revising them for new audiences.” An amazing corollary to this fact is that the author never published his nonfiction.

Stromberg ends this collection by writing, “Every book project has its obstacles and triumphs—and this volume is no exception. Its inception was rooted in a nagging curiosity about the theoretical framework on which Isaac Bashevis Singer built his deceptively simple art. Satisfying this curiosity took me on a decade-long adventure across continents during which I met many people who helped to make this book a reality.”

I would add, how fortunate we readers are that he persisted in bringing this

volume to completion and publication.

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