Isaac Bashevis Singer

Second paper (rough draft) due

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991), Poland and later the USA.

Itzek Zinger became one of the most prolific, controversial, and best-known chroniclers of Eastern European Jewish experience to live and write in the United States. His works are especially informative on Poland, where he was born. His pen name, Bashevis, was taken from his mother’s Hebrew name (Bathsheba, as it shows up in English); he also wrote under the pen name Warshofsky (tying him to Warsaw). He moved to the US (to New York, of course) in 1935 and became a citizen in 1943, but he continued to write in Yiddish until the end of his life. Although he eventually learned English well, all his work was translated into English, often by prominent writers. Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, and his works are available in a staggering variety of editions, sound recordings, and cinematic treatments. For example, Barbra Streisand’s1983 film Yentl was based on his story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” (Singer apparently didn't like the movie.)

The Collected Stories make up a thick and rich collection — we won’t read the entire book for class, though I encourage you to read it all eventually. Singer does reflect elements of everyday Jewish life in Poland in the early 20th century (depicted in greater, and more realistic detail, in the largely autobiographical collection Stories from My Father’s Court), but he adds a large dose of fantasy and heterodox folk elements. Some critics have argued that Singer’s choice to continue writing in Yiddish rather than Hebrew, say, allowed him to maintain a focus on religion and tradition that could not have been achieved in Hebrew-language literature published in Israel. Others, especially his emigrant peers in the US, have objected to Singer’s work on many grounds, especially his stories’ erotic elements and the negative elements of the individuals or communities he depicts. Cynthia Ozick’s novel Envy fictionalizes Singer’s controversial career and might make a very good work for comparison (in the second paper).

Stories in The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer were translated by a number of people.

Although I hope you'll eventually read the whole volume, we'll be concentrating on the stories up to page 249 (the end of "Henne Fire").

Questions for reading:

A cursory search of Tripod turned up 82 listings for I. B. Singer, so this reader thinks it best that you go ahead and search for other works by him if you need to.

Some works about Singer, both biographical and literary-critical, just to whet your appetite:

You might enjoy comparing Singer’s writing to S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, Joachim Neugroschel's The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A HauntedReader, or Isaac Babel You Must Know Everything or Benya Krik, the Ganster, and Other Stories. A wonderful book, Magdalena Zaborowska How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives, offers readings of several female Polish and Polish Jewish immigrants to the US, pointing you towards narratives that would likewise make a very interesting comparison to Singer. You may be interested in comparing Singer’s tales about Jewish life in Poland to his later works set in the United States. Besides Ozick's Envy, some of Singer's Yiddish-speaking contemporaries in New York are well worth reading. See, for example, Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets, edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub, translated by Amelia Glaser, in Tripod.