Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Polish-born Jewish writer who always wrote in a dead language



Isaac Bashevis Singer was born, most probably, on the 21st of November 1902 in Leoncin, a small village near Warsaw, in the Russian Empire of which Poland was then a part. To the present day the accurate date of Isaac's birth remains unknown. Singer, in his early years, made up his birth date - 14th of July 1904 - in order to make himself younger to avoid being drafted to the army.


He was born to a Jewish family: his father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Biłgoraj. When Isaac was a little boy the family moved to a nearby town Radzymin, where his father became a headmaster of an orthodox Jewish college. Unfortunately, the yeshiva building burnt down, forcing the family to look for a better life elsewhere. They moved to Warsaw, precisely to Krochmalna Street, which constituted the heart of the Jewish community in Warsaw. The Krochmalna surroundings had a significant influence on young Singer's mentality. He described this street in his novels and short stories repeatedly. He had a great sentiment for this street, which later inspired his work.


In 1917, due to the First World War, alongside with his mother and younger brother, Singer escaped to Biłgoraj, his mother's hometown. This small town was inhabited by 10,000 people, of whom 3,000 were Jews. Life in Biłgoraj was all about religion. Biłgoraj gave Singer an insight into the daily Jewish life, which he portrayed in his works. But it was also there where he realized that he did not see his future amongst traditional Jews and that he had to find his own path. As a consequence, he moved to Warsaw, which he called "a city of his dreams and hope", where he gained a job in a Jewish literary weekly magazine called "Literarische Bleter" published in Yiddish. His first story was published in 1927.


Unfortunately it did not bring him much money, meaning he had to take up translating to make ends meet. He was in a relationship Jewish girl Rachela, who gave birth to his only son - Israel. However, they never married. This was a hard period for the young writer and he later admitted that around that time ”he had suicidal thoughts”.


”Satan in Goray” was the last one of Singer works published in Poland (in 1935). Soon after, he decided to leave Poland, as he was deeply concerned about the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler in Germany and the rise of antisemitism. His older brother helped him to move to New York.Fleeing from Poland meant parting with his family - Rachela and his son left behind. Upon arrival in New York, he started working for "Jewish Daily Forward". During the first decade of his life in the United States Singer did no write much, he suffered a crisis of creativity, caused by financial problems, civilization shock and uncertainty.


In 1943 he received American citizenship and two years later he started publishing in instalments his novel about the Warsaw Jews entitled "The Family Moskat". Later on, other works were released, such as “The Magician of Lublin”, also depicting the lives of Jews. The subjects of his works are evidence that Poland was more than a birthplace and although he was physically disconnected with Poland, it remained sentimentally very close to him.


Singer was a loner, he lived in his world of imagination. He hated cinemas, he never watched TV, he did not listen to music. Singer was a prominent Jewish vegetarian for the last 35 years of his life. His works contained vegetarian themes in which he was really critical towards eating meat. Once asked if he had become a vegetarian for health reasons, he replied: "I did it for the health of the chickens." He also stated boldly that animal exploitation could be compared to Holocaust. Apart from vegetarianism Singer was known for his avarice. He avoided going to restaurants, because of the obligation to leave tips. He wore the same clothes for years and sought every opportunity to save money. Even though his living standards changed for the better in the US, he led a frugal life.


Because of the fact that Singer remained loyal to Yiddish and published his works only in newspapers in that language, he was famous only in narrow Yiddish speaking circles. Only when his works were translated into English did he gain notability. He called the translated works "second originals" and many readers started wondering if the "Real Singer" can be found in English versions. He personally believed in the power of Yiddish. When asked why he wrote his works in a dead language, whose speakers had died in the Holocaust, he replied: "I believe in resurrection. Once the millions of people, who speak Yiddish rise from the dead, they will ask whether there is anything to read in Yiddish"


Singer received a Nobel Prize in Literature for his literary output. During his speech he dedicated his award to the Yiddish language:

The high honour bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language - a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews.


Isaac Bashevis Singer died aged 89 in Surfside, Florida.


Bibliography and if you want to read more: