How will his legacy read?: Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer remains a figure of controversy
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 June 2004)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, who always took a rueful view of humanity, wouldn't be surprised to learn that, nearly 13 years after his death, the venom of his enemies remains potent, academics are fighting over his literary relics, and at least one of his novels remains unpublished in English because scholars consider it dangerous. As the centennial of his birth approaches, he remains the centre of persistent controversy.

Even at its beginning, Singer's career was accompanied by bitter argument and recrimination. He was born into a Hasidic family in Poland on July 14, 1904, at the moment when secular ideas were infiltrating the closed world of Jews in Eastern Europe. He and his older brother, I.J. Singer, were expected to be rabbinical scholars in the family tradition, but both of them defied their parents and became popular writers. I.J. went off to write novels and journalism. Isaac later followed him into literature and then to New York.

Eventually, Isaac Singer turned into the most abundantly praised Yiddish writer who ever lived, and probably the most prolific. He won the Nobel Prize in 1978, the first and so far only Yiddish writer to win it. Even so, Orthodox Jews regarded him as a renegade. They considered his stories about imps and devils among Hasidic villagers blasphemous, and found the sex in his writing offensive. Singer was no atheist, but to pious Jews his work seemed scandalous and still does.

He also developed fierce enemies among other Yiddish writers who had found their way to the United States. The more the English-speaking world adored him, the more jealousy he attracted from fellow Yiddish writers. In Cynthia Ozick's superb 1969 story, Envy; or, Yiddish in America, obscure Yiddish writers focus their hatred on a Singer-like figure; to them he's a gross incompetent who has fooled stupid Americans into believing he's the real thing.

One real-life competitor of Singer's was Chaim Grade, who had many admirers among Yiddish readers but no substantial audience in English. Last week, The New York Times reported that, centennial or no centennial, his widow, Inna, is still fighting Singer. She's been saying for 25 years that the Nobel should have gone to her husband. She despises Singer and won't speak his name: "I am very sorry that America is celebrating the blasphemous buffoon."

Many readers admired the way Singer breathed life into a forgotten culture, and made villages that were obliterated by Hitler rise again from the page. He tried to keep the Yiddish language alive with the millions of words he contributed to the Jewish Daily Forward in New York, where he published the original versions of all his fiction.

But most of the world's Yiddish readers had been murdered and the survivors were slowly dying off. Over the years, Singer devoted increasing attention to the English translations of his work, till eventually he appeared to consider them the authentic versions. He worked closely with his many translators, often shortening the original and even changing the endings. He called the English results his "second original" versions, and made them the basis for translations into other languages.

Singer rarely put out book versions in Yiddish, another hint that he saw the newspaper pieces as rough drafts. At the time, no one complained, partly because few scholars were analyzing Yiddish literature. But that field of study has lately expanded to healthy size and developed its own approach to Singer. Three years ago, Seth Wolitz put together The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer (University of Texas Press), an attempt to reclaim him as a primarily Yiddish author. Wolitz argues that the Yiddish text deserves the most attention for the same reason that Shakespeare should be studied in English. The prominence of the translations, he believes, has reduced the originals to an appendix.

Wolitz calls this "an act of cultural imperialism," which makes Yiddish culture appear nothing more than the chrysalis from which Singer burst forth as an English writer. Wolitz wants us to see Singer instead as a great Yiddish author who can be fully understood only in the language in which he wrote.

Meanwhile, much of the writing that appeared in the Forward remains unavailable to those who don't read Yiddish. Since Singer's death, three novels mined from this quarry have been issued in English, one of them, Shadows on the Hudson, clearly a masterpiece. Are more to come? Last year, Ron Rosenbaum reported in the New York Observer that at least three books await translation in the Singer papers lodged at the University of Texas.

One is a memoir dating from the early 1980s. Another, The Sinful Messiah, apparently resembles Singer's Satan in Goray but deals with a parallel "false messiah" a century later. The third, Yarme and Keyle, makes Singer scholars nervous. It concerns a man and woman involved in the brutal Jewish underworld of Warsaw before the First World War. A reworking of the gangster novels that were once popular with Yiddish readers, it appeared in the Forward in 1956 and 1957. Yarme, a smuggler and a pimp, is married to Keyle, a popular prostitute who has worked in three brothels. The writing, by all accounts, is frankly erotic.

Those in charge of Singer's legacy aren't sure whether, with Singer gone, they should translate it. Did Singer leave Yarme and Keyle in Yiddish because he didn't want it spread further? Was he reluctant to depict a corner of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in an exceptionally unflattering light? Even at this late date, the scholars apparently worry about bringing forth such an abrasive piece of work.

As for the other material, who will presume to supervise the translations as Singer did? Rosenbaum claimed that scholars have kidnapped these works. He wants them released immediately into the hands of competent translators and publishers -- a reasonable position, it seems to me.

Meanwhile, the Library of America, which has never before published work in translation, is about to bring out three huge volumes of short stories in the English adaptations Singer authorized. Dozens of American libraries are holding Singer-related events, an exhibition on his life is moving across the continent, and next month New York will have public readings and performances of two plays at Lincoln Center. The centennial is bringing more honours to Singer even as arguments continue to swirl around his legacy.

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