Jewish Author Isaac Bashevis Singer, is born
On This Day in Jewish History: July 24, 1903.
On this day in 1903, Isaac Bashevis Singer was born outside Warsaw. Alongside Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Mendele Mocher Sforim, he was a giant of the Yiddish literary tradition, leaving behind 18 novels, 14 children’s books and scores of short stories, memoirs and essays before dying in 1991 at the age of 87. Singer’s work was profoundly influenced by his years growing up in Poland, first in the village of Leoncin, then Bilgoraj, his mother’s shtetl, and then the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. As the son of a Hassidic rabbi who fulfilled multiple roles for the Warsaw community, Singer’s youth was steeped in Jewish tradition and learning. Growing up in this environment is captured in his book In My Father’s Court. As a young man, Singer studied Torah and Talmud but he left Rabbinical school and would maintain a fraught relationship with strict Jewish observance for the rest of his life.
With the help of his brother Israel Joshua Singer, who would himself become a distinguished Yiddish novelist, Singer found his entre into the world of Letters, first as a proofreader, and then, like his older sister Esther, a writer of fiction. His career was truly launched in the United States to which he emigrated in 1935, a move that entailed a twenty-year separation from his common law wife Runia Pontsch and their son Israel. In the meantime, he met and married, in 1940, Alma Wassermann, to whom he would be married, but not necessarily faithful, for the rest of his life. In the US, Singer began contributing to the The Jewish Daily Forward, undoubtedly the most important Jewish publication in America at this time, first journalism and eventually serialized fiction.
Beginning in the early 1940s, his literary output would be staggering, all of it written in Yiddish. Living in New York, his writing never strayed far from the modernist European tradition but always tied to the moral, personal and historical struggles of East European Jews. His literary influences were many—Russian’s Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, the French writer Guy de Maupassant and the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun. The mystical and the fantastic hover over many of his tales. But his novels also capture the everyday struggles of people trying to earn a living and survive the complex forces of sexual desire and family ties. Few writers were as prolific and successful in the novel and short story as Singer. And the energy and sprawling narrative complexity of a novel like The Family Moskat, published in 1950, is present in his final, originally serialized novel, Shadows on the Hudson, published in 1997. But equally distinguished are his short story collections—Gimpel the Fool and other Stories, The Spinoza of Market Street, A Friend of Kafka’s. In these collections, whole worlds and complex psychologies marked by loss, betrayal and lust, are woven into stories ten to twenty pages long.
As an Old World writer living and writing in the New World, Singer was recognized with numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award in 1974 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. His place in the canon of Jewish literature is secure.