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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  

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Singer of the Jewish Past

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Although Isaac Bashevis Singer is commonly thought of as extending the tradition of Yiddish literature, among his contemporary Yiddish writers he was considered something of a usurper, a sensationalist who distorted the literature. If Sholem Aleichem may be seen as the paradigmatic Eastern European Jewish writer-with his stories popularized in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof-Singer introduced an element of Jewish mysticism, of the supernatural, of demons playing tricks, dybbuks inhabiting human hosts. Particularly in his early stories, he was "a realist of what to some readers is the extraordinary world of imps and spirits, forbidden desire and perverse longings framed by traditional Judaism" (Baumgarten). Singer thus becomes a connection, among assimilating American Jews, to a mythic past, certainly including elements of an actual history and culture, but filtered through an idiosyncratic personality and sprinkled with the supernatural.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1978
Among his contemporaries in America, who combined folksy portraits of shtetl life with social purpose born of Jewish radicalism, Singer stood out for his apolitical nature, or perhaps his skepticism regarding the ability of politics to change the world. That his father was a rabbi perhaps gave him an additional link to a vanishing past, to a mystical, religious, rather than a secular, version of Jewishness. Morris Dickstein explains that "the striking novelty of his work is that he leapfrogged traditions that were familiar to the Orthodox but were not part of modern Yiddish literature," adding that his connection to preliterary folktales "added a dimension to the literature that really wasn't there" (qtd in Kim-Brown). Although Singer's early novels achieved no success in America, his short stories would propel him to fame, setting him apart from other Yiddish authors publishing alongside him in the Jewish Daily Forward. In "Envy, Or Yiddish in America," Cynthia Ozick satirizes the jealousy of these authors for a Singer-like figure. As an aging Yiddish poet puts it in that story, he works in an obscure and dying language, "A language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths, and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms." Their work destined to be forgotten, these Yiddish authors could not understand the strange appeal of Singer's stories in a wider American and literary context.

Singer himself started his career in the shadow of his older brother, the novelist Israel Joshua Singer (who died in 1945). Singer's early novel The Family Moskat (1950) was translated into English but largely ignored. Singer had fled Poland in 1935, ahead of the Nazis, and The Family Moskat is an epic memorial to this just-lost world. However, it was the surfacing of "Gimpel the Fool" that marked Singer as a sensation and led to his success as a short story writer. The story's opening lines announce its author as a fresh voice, seemingly timeless with an impish yet cynical sense of humor: "I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny and fool." Persecuted by his village, Gimpel acts the role of Jew as outcast, a theme recurring throughout Singer (and indeed in Jewish literature). Reacting by going along to survive, then alone leaving his village, Gimpel eventually achieves a kind of wisdom, particularly through his bemused acceptance of human nature in its best and worst manifestations.

If short stories may be Singer's most successful form, such tales are paradigmatic for Jewish literature of both the old world and the new; indeed the short story is more central to Jewish literature than to European, in which the novel predominates. For Bernard Malamud and Grace Paley the short story is clearly their greatest literary achievement, while it remains a major part of the opus for every author discussed in this Discovery Guide, with the exception of Bellow. Singer's stories may be seen as dealing with the (often stressed) human relation to God, frequently through otherworldly intermediaries, in paradoxical ways. In many Singer stories, such as "The Unseen," a demon toys with humans, tempting them to ruination. "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy," one of his most famous tales, portrays a girl who dresses as a boy to become a rabbi, a youthful quest for identity that combines elements of early feminism with the search for God and meaning in a universe that seems empty, a perennial Singer theme. "A Friend of Kafka" recounts a relationship with Franz Kafka, a modernist author of paradox and alienation who died young, embracing his Jewish identity only in his last months. The story's narrator explains that, "Kafka wanted to be a Jew, but he didn't know how. He wanted to live, but he didn't know this, either." The dilemma of assimilating European Jews is even stronger in America. The relationship of Jews to Christianity is also a recurrent Singer theme, including the temptation to convert, the ultimate assimilation. In "The Bus" a tourist in Spain explains why she gave in to her Christian husband: ""Since I don't believe in God anyway, what's the difference if it's Moses or Jesus? He wanted me to convert, so I converted a bit." Despite all of the suffering, betrayal, fateful tragedies, and angst portrayed throughout Singers' stories, and despite the shadow of the Holocaust, Singers' humor remains, as does a (perhaps irrational) belief in the divine. In "Something Is There," a rabbi quarrels with the Lord of the Universe about all of the injustice on earth and doubts the divine. Finally, as he lies dying, "'Something is there,' the rabbi murmured. / The war between the rabbi of Bechev and God had come to an end."

If short stories are perhaps Singer's most influential form, his output of novels was prodigious. They range from medieval historical tales to sweeping family narratives to shtetl memories to Holocaust survivors in America. The Slave (1962), a novel set in 17th Century Poland, portrays a love affair between a Jewish servant and a Polish woman. Shosha tells of an affair in Poland interrupted by the onset of the Nazis. Enemies, a Love Story, combines several paradigmatic Singer themes, showing the travails of Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor fled to America, maneuevering between affairs with three different women, also refugees from Poland. In many of Singer's novels, the protagonist's romances with multiple women, of very different background and temperament, signify the choices pulling at him, between religious and secular, between Jew and Christian, between old world and new, a range of options simply impossible to satisfy. It is in his later novels that Singer portrays Jews in America, often Holocaust survivors and can lay at least some claim to being a Jewish American novelist (beyond translating the shtetl for American readers). His portrait of America is a mixed one; true it is a savior from the Nazis, but it takes away Jews' traditions, perhaps their souls. As John Guzlowski documents, for Singer "the idols that America worships are materialism, sex, and violence"; yet the portrayal is mixed and contradictory. As voiced by various characters in several novels it is impossible to say which is Singer's "real" portrait of America, the beacon of hope or the crass thief of history.

Besides hundreds of short stories, 15 novels, and memoirs and nonfiction, Singer also wrote numerous books for children, many featuring Chelm, the legendary Jewish town of fools.

Go To Malamud, Or Yiddishkeit in America

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