My speech is about a man — a Jewish immigrant from Warsaw, Poland — who became a famous American writer. He even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. He was the first Yiddish writer to win this award. I have for you an excerpt from a short story that was written by this great author of folklore, named Isaac Bashevis Singer. The story is called “The Little Shoemakers.”
(Read excerpt – 1st page and last page of The Little Shoemakers)
I really liked this story because it shows that after many generations of the same way of life, life must finally change. This is very much like what happened in Isaac’s life.
I hope that you will learn today a little about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s life and stories.
From his autobiography, Love and Exile, Singer remembers how his father complains to God about World War I. Young Isaac wanted to say to his father, “Papa, this isn’t the fault of God, but of evolution. If the fog had stayed in a state of equilibrium, we would all be in peace.” For everybody who isn’t a scientist, equilibrium means balance. As for what he meant by “fog,” I’ll explain that later.
The story I just told and the quote from his autobiography don’t seem like they were the thoughts of the same person. If you had just read the beginning quarter of his autobiography, you would have thought that he would become a philosopher or a scientist, not a storyteller.
You’re all probably wondering what I’ve got to say about this. When I first found this book, the first thing that stuck out in my head was the word “biography,” the word any middle school student comes to know and hate. But as I read, I realized something was wrong and then I yelled upstairs to my mom saying, “Mom, this is a misprint. This isn’t Isaac Bashevis Singer’s autobiography, it’s Albert Einstein’s!” Now it wasn’t Albert Einstein’s, it was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, but he was so obsessed with science it could’ve been.
I have a lot in common with Singer, we both like science — though him a little more than me — we both like stories, and we both question God. Probably one of the most interesting similarities is that many of his views on Judaism are similar to my own views as a Reconstructionist Jew, although as far as I know he did not identify himself as a Reconstructionist. Isaac Bashevis Singer believed that God is about faith. He interpreted the stories of the Torah as metaphors, not actual stories. He thought that Jews should analyze Torah to understand moral problems. He also believed that Judaism’s cultures and traditions are important, but he didn’t worship God as a supernatural being though he did pray at times during his life. He struggled with his own passions and wasn’t a faithful husband. No wonder salvation was a part of his literature's themes. In his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for literature, Singer said, “There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God — a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.” Mordicai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judiasm, could have uttered these words. He believed that God is a more like a verb and that we as Jews do God or rather that God is revealed when Jews take their interpretations of the Torah and use them as a guide in their decisions in everyday life.
Maybe this is why Satan appears in many of IBS’s stories. Singer loves to comment on moral issues. Satan, the devil, is interesting because in some stories he causes evil while in other stories he punishes evil. What’s the difference exactly? I’ll tell you. In the story “The Gentleman from Cracow," Satan is disguised as a rich young man. He comes to a very poor town and hosts a great party. At the end of the celebrations Satan burns down the town — this is the “Satan Does Evil” example. In another story called “Unseen,” Satan narrates the story of an arrogant, wealthy man who likes to show off his money. Satan then sends many misfortunes upon him until the wealthy man dies. This is in the “Satan Punishes Bad” category. Traditional Judiasm believes the devil does evil, like in Adam and Eve, but Singer was very interested in superstition, and some of his stories reflect the devil as a punisher of bad.
Throughout his young life, he pondered people like Plato, Artistotle, Democritus, Malthus, Rabbi Nachman, Spinoza, Peretz, and lastly, Hillel Zeitlan with whom he was friends. In his autobiography, you see that Isaac is obsessed with one single question: why must living things suffer? Maybe this is because two older sisters died young of scarlet fever. His oldest sister, who to a large degree also mothered him, suffered from seizures and left when Isaac was young to be married to a diamond merchant. He missed her presence very much and one source I read said he wrote his characters to make up for her absence, as she was also very much a story teller. In fact, three of the four Singer children would grow up to be writers. Well, whatever the source of his thoughts, young Isaac started getting interested in philosophical subjects and this frustrating question of suffering at the age of only four!
You wouldn’t think that this boy was the son of a pious rabbi who thought that science was blasphemy. His inspiration for science and philosophy came from his older brother Joshua. Joshua and his father constantly fought over science and Torah, or, as Singer called it, God and the fog. The fog was what Isaac called the material that existed before the big bang or the beginning of nature. Later, Singer met a kind librarian who let him take out science and philosophical books for free. To young Isaac, all the fancy words were just maneuvers of the author to blind people from the fact that they don’t know the answers to life, suffering, and the formation of the fog.
Horror struck, and it came in the form of World War I! As life changed quickly, Joshua was forced to hide around town, dodging the recruiting officers. Singer’s family would go days with little or no food. Soon Isaac had nothing but his books.
Singer began to write Yiddish stories. In a way, he was very strange. He himself questioned the existence of a kind, caring God, but most of these Yiddish writings were about pious Jews! His Jewish community called him a heretic and blasphemer. The Gentile community didn’t read his work. So he had no audience except circulating his stories among other writers. He continued to write stories, but didn’t publish. He read and talked with writers in the Yiddish Writing Club of Warsaw for many years.
Something I found very strange is that Isaac didn’t publish his first story, which was called “Gimpel the Fool,” until 1957, when he was 55. Then, he had lived in America for at least 2O years.
I have two questions for you: how did Singer become a well known writer, and how did he get to America? You don’t know? Allow me to explain.
Upon entering manhood in Poland, Singer became fascinated with mysticism! Like many of the scientists of the time like Einstein and Madame Curie, he was interested in the afterlife. Yet, unlike scientists, he didn’t try to investigate whether it truly existed. Rather, he imagined in his stories satanic beings and heaven and hell.
At this time, Singer started working as an editor at his brother’s magazine “The Literary Pages” in Warsaw while moving from place to place. He joined the Writer’s Club. The people in this club all wrote Yiddish but they had become Communist. The Communist party wanted all religion to be eradicated. Isaac was drafted into the army and starved himself so when he got to the doctor's inspection, the doctor saw that he was too thin to join but he told Isaac to come back next year. During this time, he realized he couldn’t write good stories unless he went to other places so he decided to go to Palestine! Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately as we’ll discover soon — he needed a marriage certificate which got complicated so he ended up not going. Though he didn’t leave Warsaw, he did rent many apartments with landlords and their families. So he got to know many different people. Meanwhile his brother’s magazine had been bought by the Jewish American newspaper, the "Daily Forward." Until that time, the two brothers had struggled and had been poor. Now they both had success. Joshua got rich and moved to America. So eventually he got Isaac a visa to America, too.
Interestingly, Singer‘s stories were all written in Yiddish and translated into English. He really liked the expressive words of Yiddish so much that he helped translate his works!
This time in Singer’s life is also similar to the Shoemaker story I read to you, because at first Abba refuses to go to America, but eventually he gives in and goes. Also like the story, the reason Isaac goes to America is that World War II is going on, and Abba went because of World War I. Singer had a hard young life because of WWI, and had to flee his homeland because of rising anti-semitism at the start of WWII.
Yet, in America he had a good life. He married in 1940 and wrote. His brother’s connections got his stories published almost right away in America. In his early years in America he suffered from “writer’s block.” I think this might be because he felt that the only reasons his stories were published was because of his brother’s connections. He felt he wasn’t really that good. After Joshua died in 1943, Singer got back on track. His success grew and grew. His stories for the Forward were eventually compiled and many made up his novels. He even wrote for almost 10 years for the New Yorker. He wrote for weekly magazines, and that is partly why he has so many stories and novels. He finally was able to speak to American Jews and other readers, too. Like himself, many of his readers were immigrants trying to be Jewish and to find their American Jewish identity. Many of his stories spoke about the lives of the Eastern Europe his readers had left, and the changing lives of immigrants.
I really enjoyed reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories. The magical tales with morals and lessons showed me a Jewish world I never knew.
Isaac once said, “I had been disappointed in philosophy, I hardly believed in psychology, and not at all in sociology, but I had come to the conclusion that truths, or fragments of truth were in folklore, in dreams, and in fantasies!” The characters in his stories are believable to me today. By this I mean that even though some may be more religious than me, the issues and feelings they have are just like mine with a little magic thrown in. They faced many changes in their lives, but they adapted even though the world did bad things. I guess Isaac Bashevis Singer had to do the same as his characters. Next time you go to the library, look for the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and look for the truth in his fantasies.