Isaac Bashevis Singer

(1904—1991) Polish-born American novelist and short-story writer

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Polish-born US Yiddish writer and novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

Born in Radzymin, Poland, the son and grandson of rabbis, Singer grew up in Warsaw. He was educated at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary but chose to become a writer rather than a rabbi. Because a Nazi invasion of Poland seemed imminent, Singer immigrated to the USA in 1935. He settled in New York and began publishing in Der Forverts (the Jewish Daily Forward), the New York Yiddish newspaper. His fictional contributions to the paper were signed ‘Isaac Bashevis’, while his nonfictional journalism appeared under the name ‘Isaac Warhofsky’. He had originally written in Hebrew, but quite early changed to Yiddish and his early work was much indebted to the Yiddish writers Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch. For years, also, the writings of his elder brother, Israel Joshua Singer (1873–1944) – especially Di Brider Ashkenazi (1936; translated as The Brothers Ashkenazi, 1936) – were much better known than his own, both in Yiddish and in English. Singer, however, was an extremely prolific writer, producing approximately one book a year, and he gradually established himself as the leading Yiddish writer.

The subject of his fiction is the virtually medieval society of Polish Jews, which was utterly destroyed in World War II. This remote world teems with fantastic incidents, magic, violence, and eroticism, but is seen from a highly sophisticated and enlightened point of view. Singer was a natural storyteller and his genius for depicting this unfamiliar territory is perhaps more evident in his stories than in his novels. Among the latter are Satan in Goray (1955; an early version appeared in 1938 but attracted little attention), The Magician of Lublin (1960), The Slave (1962), The Manor (1967), The Penitent (1984; published in Yiddish, 1973), The King of the Fields (1988), and Scum (1991). The novel Shadows on the Hudson appeared in 1998, some forty years after it was written. Among the short-story collections are Gimpel the Fool (1957), the title story of which is his best-known work, The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), Short Friday (1964), The Séance (1968), A Friend of Kafka (1972), The Image (1986), and The Death of Methuselah (1988). His father, the rabbi Pinchos Mendel, is a prominent figure in two autobiographical volumes, In My Father's Court (1966) and A Little Boy in Search of God (1976); he published further memoirs in 1985 as Love and Exile.

Subjects: Literature.

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