The Yiddish Bard: I.B. Singer
by Robert Fulford

Review of Isaac Bashevis Singer's book Shadows on the Hudson, and Janet Hadda's book Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life
(Ottawa Citizen, July 26, 1998)

He was the ambassador from a lost civilization, a culture the world never appreciated until it was dead, a culture he carried in his bones. Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), the author of the posthumously published Shadows on the Hudson, wrote all of his work in Yiddish, which meant that most of his natural readers died in the Nazi Holocaust even before he made his literary reputation. A beautiful obstinacy kept him writing in this nearly obsolete language to the end of his days. When I asked him why, he gave me, and CBC radio listeners, a typical Singer answer: "When the Messiah comes and all Jews are reborn, they'll jump out of the grave and ask, 'Is there anything to read?' I'll be ready."

The true reason was a complex mixture of pride, comfort in his mother tongue, and perhaps an intuitive sense that he functioned best when he functioned as an outsider. He was a citizen of the modern world who could, by lifting his pen, vanish into the vivid Yiddish past. He became one of the great legends of 20th-century culture--a legend that continues to grow, seven years after his death.

He was born to be a displaced person, a wanderer, yet people all over the world read his grotesque and exotic stories with excited recognition. Perhaps a certain strangeness was what this century wanted from its great authors. When he won the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature, he made the perfect gesture of an outsider: standing before Swedish royalty, he began his acceptance speech in Yiddish, the first time that humble and often-scorned language had ever been heard at a Nobel ceremony.

He was an outsider from the beginning. In his father's pious rabbinical home in Warsaw, his curiosity kept him from accepting Orthodox Judaism. He was even more of an outsider, but a sharp-eyed one, when he spent four childhood years with his rabbi grandfather in Bilgoray, a remote Jewish village unchanged for centuries. That was the place he later installed in literary history as the site for his stories of imps, demons, and superstitious peasants.

In adult life he was too worldly for the synagogue, too God-haunted for the secular world. He seems to have felt like an alien in the loud Warsaw streets, and even in the Warsaw Yiddish Writers' Club, where he learned about the terrors and excitements of the literary life. In America, his home from 1935 till his death, he was always more exile than immigrant. He was adored by lecture audiences across North America, and embraced by critics, publishers, and the New Yorker magazine--even Hollywood, where Barbra Streisand made a Singer story into a musical, Yentl, and Paul Mazursky made his 1972 novel, Enemies: A Love Story, into a much-admired film. He loved his success, and he loved America with the grateful passion of a man who has escaped from hell, but he never stopped being a European. He dressed the part, always. Spending his winters in Miami (near Isaac Singer Boulevard, so named after he won the Nobel), he scorned the sports clothes worn by most old people and instead went out for his morning walk in white shirt, tie and jacket, heavy black shoes, and straw hat. He clung to this formal carapace as if it were the essence of his identity.

And he clung to his language, his first readers, and the newspaper that helped keep them both alive. Singer's relationship with the Jewish Daily Forward stands as one of the exemplary stories in literary history. He began contributing to it in 1935, and he kept appearing there for half a century, even as the circulation fell from a quarter of a million to 25,000. It was his laboratory, and its Yiddish readers his test audience and earliest critics: perhaps no major writer since Dickens has developed such an intimate relationship with readers. Singer poured hundreds of stories, many novels, and thousands of brief articles into its pages. At age 81 he was writing a serial novel for the Forward, a chapter a week. These were the stories that eventually came into English, under Singer's close supervision, and from English were translated into all the major languages of the world.

Since 1991 his executors have been working their way through the archives of the Forward, slowly translating stories that Singer, for one reason or another, left in Yiddish during his lifetime. This process has previously brought forth a couple of unremarkable novels, but now it has produced something rare--a posthumous book that actually adds to the author's status.

Shadows on the Hudson (one of his most beautiful titles) takes place over two years, 1947 to 1949; it appeared as a Forward serial in 1957. The shadows are European Jews in New York, some of them death-camp survivors. A larger shadow is the Holocaust, which ended technically in 1945 but can never disappear for even a second from the memories of these tortured souls. Perhaps the largest shadow of all is God, the God they once thought they knew. Anna, the principal female character, says: "I can't bear to hear about God. After what happened in Europe, I don't dare even to mention the word God--because if God really does exist and allowed it all, it's even worse than if He did not exist."

Hertz Dovid Grein, a former Hebrew teacher who now sells mutual funds, is a more intellectual version of the hero in Enemies: A Love Story. He's endlessly, helplessly, and desperately promiscuous. He divides his time among his wife Leah, his long-standing mistress Esther, and his latest girlfriend, Anna. Like many Europeans of his time, he finds it hard to make sense of the New World. American culture, for instance, appals him. Speaking of movies, he says, "I can't endure the coarseness. In this country, culture is the one thing the masses have appropriated. You need to be in a drugged haze not to go mad with frustration."

But if he can't understand America, he's not much better at knowing himself. He spends much of his life in a state of confusion, above all erotic confusion. He has found sexual freedom, and it's slowly driving him crazy. He can't control his libidinous impulses and he also can't keep himself from seeing the melancholy comedy in which they place him: "Grein knew perfectly well that the pleasure he might receive from this woman's body would never be as strong as his lust for it."

The poor man is satiated before he's satisfied. He knows this experience will soon bore him, and then, European intellectual that he is, he thinks: "In no other area was Schopenhauer's formula of will and boredom as convincingly demonstrated as it was in physical lust, where the forces of biology had not even bothered to conceal their deception."

Shadows on the Hudson concerns the fate of the Jewish people, and of Judaism, after the unimaginable catastrophe of the Holocaust, but the book's concerns are even wider. Singer and his characters, like many of us, are trying to find their bearings in an unmoored world. The connections that gave shape and weight to their lives are lost, and in groping for new ones they create more chaos. Anna runs off to Florida with Grein, and their circle of relationships collapses--Grein's wife falls ill, Anna's husband has a kind of nervous breakdown, her father's business goes sour. Grein's mistress makes a stupid marriage. A kind of domino effect.

But there's never a moment when the reader fails to care for these people, however stupid they may seem. Their despair is real because they themselves understand how terrible it is: this is not a case of author and reader looking down on unconscious characters. And Singer places them with wonderful precision and verisimilitude in the New York of their time: I have seldom read a Singer novel in which social texture plays so deep and satisfying a role. The very absence of a secure society seems to have made Singer go some extra distance toward sketching the social world in which his characters blunder along. Singer's approach might be pessimistic, but it is never unengaging.

In the past Singer has been the subject of several half-hearted attempts. This year he's the subject of what Joyce Carol Oates has named "pathography," meaning biography focused on pathological elements in the life of the central figure. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, by Janet Hadda, perfect exemplifies the genre. For those of us who followed Singer's work for decades, and often studied his life as well, there's something fascinating in seeing his story retold as diagnosis and, in effect, a bill of indictment.

Hadda's book contains a few interesting footnotes, such as the fact that in 1940 Singer earned a little money by writing radio commercials for a coffee company (a fact that should go into literary history alongside the translations that Samuel Beckett did for the Reader's Digest). But what really animates Hadda is her sense that she can tell us what was wrong with Singer. She seldom gives his books more than a cursory glance and takes for granted his titanic accomplishment, stretching across languages and cultures, as if were something writers did all the time. His art slips into the background while she carefully measures Singer and his family against her own models of appropriate family life and manliness. She never hesitates to tell us in just what ways the Singer family in Warsaw, or the Bashevis Singer who lived in America, failed to live up to her standards.

A psychoanalyst and a teacher of Yiddish literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hadda strides into Singer's story like a frontier marshal assigned to clean up the town. Her style mixes smug condescension and unconsidered jargon, and her arrogance has no limits. Her book demonstrates (if it needed demonstrating) that Sigmund Freud placed terrible weapons in the hands of moralists like Hadda. She wants to show us she understands Singer as he did not understand himself--and of course she knows him far better than we who merely read 15 or 20 of his books. She barges into the kitchen of the Singer family's flat on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw and immediately starts laying down the law.

Timid and distant father, sour and sceptical but religious mother--right away, the therapist from Los Angeles spots trouble. Bashevis's declared allegiance with his mother (he chose to write under the name "Bashevis," a version of her Basheve) arouses serious suspicion. And Hadda decides that Bashevis's older brother, the novelist I.J. Singer, though he saved Bashevis by getting him out of Poland in 1935, made him feel "infantilized" by being so powerful and, till his death in 1944, so successful.

Hadda takes a special interest in Bashevis's sister, Hinde Esther Singer (1891-1954), 13 years older, eventually the author of one novel. Esther was unhappy because neither of her dysfunctional parents could "serve as her role model and cornerstone of bonding," in Hadda's words. In a memoir, Bashevis recalled that Esther "suffered from hysteria and had mild attacks of epilepsy. At times, she seemed possessed by a devil." She was also deeply affectionate--and, if we believe Hadda, she was the reason Bashevis became a writer.

She left the family home to marry at about the same time Bashevis began writing. For Hadda, those facts pretty well prove a causal relationship: "He wrote in order to fill the overwhelming void of loss...with all the vibrant, expansive, crazy and troubling characters who represented Hinde Esther's disturbing but enlivening presence."

Later Hadda tells us why Bashevis wrote the way he did. In the 1950s, after his brother's death and his estrangement from his sister, he felt "The need to erase or deny his dual loss of family and community." This led him to develop "the literary technique that became a hallmark of his writing," autobiographical facts merged with fiction. This doesn't much differ from the usual literary approach; for some reason, Hadda calls it "His flight into fiction." She doesn't even hint at why he worked about three times as hard as most people; no doubt she considers that so neurotic it's beyond comment.

And of course Singer's sexual morality also fails to meet Hadda's standards. He was, she reports, a chronic womanizer. She disapproves of his marriage, since he and Alma, a German-Jewish refugee who did not speak Yiddish, had nothing in common. The fact that they stayed together 51 years, till death did part them, does not impress Hadda.

Her book, however mean-spirited, adds in its own peculiar way to the Singer legend. It will take its place in the research libraries, be considered by scholars and critics of the future, and no doubt be answered by them in creative and perhaps unexpected ways. But Shadows on the Hudson should remind us that in matters of this kind, great authors always have the last word. Whatever may be said about the lives of writers, their books remain on the shelves, unchanged, still full of life, waiting for new generations of grateful readers.

Shadows on the Hudson, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Joseph Sherman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 548 pages, $40.
Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, by Janet Hadda. Oxford, 243 pages, $41.50.
Read Robert Fulford's later column about Isaac Bashevis Singer's More Stories from My Father's Court.

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