Isaac Bashevis Singer (November 11, 1903 – July 24, 1991) relished the short story; he believed that it offered, much more than the novel, the possibility of perfection. His stories, however, seldom reveal signs of a painstaking artisan conscious of form; rather, they flow naturally, even mindlessly, without any sense of manipulation. Indeed, Singer’s art grows out of a thriving tradition of oral storytelling that had been fermenting through Eastern Europe for centuries.
Like many authors, Singer writes about the places and lives he knows. He sets most of his stories in pre-World War II Poland, in the small villages (Shtetlach) or the urban ghettoes of his childhood and youth. In his stories, these places are the Polish cities ofWarsaw and Kraków, or semifictional towns such as Goray and Frampol; they appear over and over again with recurring motifs and character types, until most of Singer’s tales seem to happen in the same prototypical settings.
Given the specificity of Singer’s cultural milieu, the individual’s relationship to his or her community becomes important, whether that relationship focuses on the collective attitude toward unusual characters and behavior or the individual’s dislocation from family, community, and nation. Singer spent most of his life with such dislocation; it is not surprising that many of his characters are in some sort of exile. That exile can involve a new country, a new language, a new culture, or a new identity. Later in his career, Singer set stories among the expatriate Yiddish communities of New York or Israel and dealt explicitly with issues faced by an aging writer in exile.
As de facto chronicler of twentieth century Jewish experience, Singer chooses to leave untouched its central event: the Holocaust and the slaughter of six million European Jews under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Believing that a simple storyteller could never tell such an incomprehensible and horrific story, he rather evokes it through the richness with which he portrays the culture that it eradicated and the scattered pathos that it left in its wake. Like the Jewish people as a whole, Singer’s characters struggle with identity in a changing world, they confront incomprehensible horrors and either surrender or survive. The individual in his community and his world is ultimately the individual in his universe, often alone with the supernatural powers that govern it.
Singer borrows from and embellishes on the wide array of Jewish mysticism and demonology to personify such powers and their involvement in the human condition. Sometimes the result is explicitly mythological; sometimes it explores the depths of possibility in very real circumstances. Whatever the form, Singer never hesitates to explore life and death, sin and redemption, good and evil, and heaven and hell in broad, literal terms. For him, imagination is paramount, and there are never any limits to what is possible. Much of the charm in his stories comes from the striking juxtaposition of the astoundingly cosmic with the laughably trivial, the apocalyptic with the quotidian, the macabre with the sentimental.
Nowhere is this approach more successful than in Singer’s treatment of human sexuality. He never takes for granted the difficulties that sex engenders or the social rules and taboos that it confronts; at the same time, however, he consistently attributes to it its role as a driving force, and a truly beautiful one, in human affairs. His characters—be they rabbis, devils, simpletons, maidens, or whores—are all of flesh and blood, and they act accordingly. Singer portrays violence, rape, and hatred as unflinchingly as he portrays the deepest romantic love or most spiritual piety, never with judgment or disapproval, always striving to plumb the depths of the human heart.
Two Corpses Go Dancing
One of Singer’s early stories shows the playfulness with which he treats death, demons, and infidelity. “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” first published in The Jewish Daily Forward in 1943, is told from the point of view of the socalled Evil One, a device Singer also employs in such stories as “The Destruction of Kreshev” and “The Unseen.” In “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” the Evil One amuses himself by reinvigorating the corpse of a forgotten pauper named Itche-Godl, who “had been a corpse even when alive.” Itche-Godl returns to his home, only to find his widow remarried to a more substantial man. His two appearances at her door inspire terror, but, believing himself to be alive, Itche-Godl cannot understand her behavior.
Itche-Godl soon encounters Finkle Rappaport, a widow who had gone to Vienna with a serious illness a year before and had long been believed dead but had recently reappeared in Warsaw. Finkle and Itche-Godl soon become betrothed; the couple’s mysterious romance and macabre appearance astonish those around them. After the wedding, they retire to their wedding chamber only to find themselves transformed into corpses again and to realize that their return to life was only an illusion.
In “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” Singer avoids all pretense of realism and rather depicts a surreal universe where no assumptions are valid. The physical and spiritual worlds are interwoven: Corpses are visible to the outside world but lack self-knowledge; they possess desire but are ultimately incapable of consummating it; they have superhuman powers but are essentially powerless.
Taibele and Her Demon
A story that similarly plays on the border between the real and spiritual realms but does not in the end sacrifice literal plausibility is “Taibele and Her Demon.” Taibele is an abandoned wife in the shtetl of Frampol. Forbidden to remarry until her husband is proven dead, she is sentenced to a life of solitude. The village prankster Alchonon one day overhears Taibele’s fascination with a story of a woman seduced by a demon, and he devises a scheme to take advantage of her credulity. One night he appears naked in her bedroom claiming to be the demon Hurmizah. He testifies that her husband is dead, charms her with tales of the demon world, and is welcomed into her bed. Though at first fearful and ashamed, Taibele gradually becomes dependent on Hurmizah’s biweekly visits.
Winter comes, however, and with it the inescapable truth of Alchonon’s humanity. His naked body cannot tolerate the cold during his nocturnal visits; he is taken ill and stops coming to see Taibele. She despairs at Hurmizah’s absence and takes it as a pronouncement on her. Then one day, she sees a modest funeral procession on the snowy village street. When she realizes that the deceased is the idler Alchonon, whom she often mocked at the well, she feels a deep sympathy and accompanies him to the cemetery. She lives the rest of her life alone and carries her secret to the grave.
The power of this story lies in the irony of Taibele’s passion for the demon Hurmizah. Here, the surreal world exists only in the minds of the characters: So long as people believe in demons, their existence is real enough. Singer is suggesting the unseen and unknown connections that can be forged between individuals when the imagination is free. At the same time, the love that results is not without its price. For Alchonon, that price is untimely death; for Taibele, it is the burden of sin, mystery, and desertion.
Gimpel the Fool
One of Singer’s most celebrated stories, “Gimpel the Fool,” also locates the individual’s happiness in his or her power to believe. This, however, is a lighthearted tale where the willingness to let go of belief, to distrust one’s senses and logic, defines the shape of the story. Gimpel the baker is known throughout Frampol for his gullibility. He recounts the nicknames that people have given him and the tricks that they have played on him but does not regret his simpleness, for he feels that he must always be open to all possibilities.
As such, he allows himself to be prodded into marrying an unprincipled woman named Elka. He accepts her bastard son as her little brother and believes her explanation of a premature birth when she bears another son seventeen weeks after their wedding night. She is repeatedly unfaithful to him; he accuses and even catches her but always eventually accepts her explanations and returns to his natural state of contentment. They live in this way for twenty years. Finally, on her deathbed, Elka confesses that she has lived sinfully and deceived him constantly. Soon after her death, Gimpel is tempted by the Evil Angel to have revenge on the scornful townsfolk by baking urine into their bread, but a vision of Elka returns and stops him. With his innocence restored, he leaves Frampol and travels the world, witnessing falsehood and truth in people. At the story’s end, he is old, wise, accepting, prepared for death, free of regret, and full of love.
Throughout the story, Gimpel knows that the true factuality of events is less important than their effect on people’s minds and hearts. He knows that he is incapable of skepticism but that his innocence and belief are his strength. Though Singer makes it clear that Gimpel is indeed a gullible fool, the simple joy with which he approaches life ultimately reveals itself to be a subversive wisdom. “Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night,” he says. “It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make?” Gimpel’s doctrine is essentially Singer’s affirmation of the power and validity of creating and telling stories.
The Spinoza of Market Street
“The Spinoza of Market Street” is another of Singer’s most popular and most often reprinted tales. It is the story of Dr. Nahum Fischelson, a librarian, teacher, and revered philosopher who has devoted his life to studying the ideas of the seventeenth century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza’s Ethics dictates a rigid rational philosophy that Fischelson strives to embody. He contemplates the heavens and the mysteries of astronomy and contrasts them with the world below, in which the mindless rabble represents the antithesis of reason.
Then, as World War I descends on Warsaw, Fischelson’s bitterness and stomach problems worsen, and he takes to a sickbed, where he has a stunning apocalyptic dream that he immediately dismisses as irrational. He seems to be on the verge of death, but a grotesque old spinster neighbor named Black Dobbe comes to take care of him. She nurses him back to health with simple attention and conversation, and soon Fischelson’s study of Spinoza begins to seem less relevant. Before long, Black Dobbe announces to the rabbi that she and Fischelson will wed, and the story ends with their wedding night. When Black Dobbe comes to the so-called Spinoza of Market Street, he drops the Ethics to which he has devoted his life, and in his new wife’s arms miraculously regains his health, his youth, and his passion for living.
Zeitl and Rickel
In “Zeitl and Rickel,” Singer again focuses on an unpredictable relationship and the depth of human love and obsession, this time setting it more firmly in a context of social attitudes. The narrator says that the incredible tale she is about to relate demonstrates that anything is possible. She tells of two women, Zeitl and Rickel, one the daughter of a follower of the false Messiah, and the other an abandoned wife and the daughter of the town’s ritual slaughterer. Rickel comes to attend on Zeitl’s dying father, and the two women become absorbed in each other. Their relationship becomes steady and secretive, as seen from outside by the women of the community. They are overheard one day in a seeming catechism regarding hell and their shared future and eventually commit suicide in succession by throwing themselves into the well.
On one level, this is a story about an obsessive love shared by two women (with the suggestion, though never explicit, of lesbianism) and the mystical and eventually self-destructive form it assumes. On another level, it is about community perception: As told by one of Rickel’s former students, the tale is an accumulation of gossip ennobled into spiritual mystery. Implicit in the story is a view of the place of women as daughters and wives in shtetl society, and the unorthodoxy of two women forging a spiritual connection and devoting their lives to each other. Although Singer has never been accused of feminism, he is sometimes keenly aware, and even in awe, of the shape and power of the female psyche.
Grandfather and Grandson
“Grandfather and Grandson” powerfully reflects the tension between the old insularity of Yiddish culture and the new worldliness that comes with greater exposure and assimilation. Reb Mordecai Meir is a widowed Hasid who devotes his life to his study of Judaism. He abhors everything worldly, including newspapers, theater, atheism, religious reform, and even the integration of the sexes. Having disowned his liberal-minded daughter, he is surprised when his long-forgotten grandson Fulie shows up on hisWarsaw doorstep. Fulie, dressed like a Gentile, is a Communist sought by the authorities for political subversion. Though his presence and beliefs threaten Reb Mordecai Meir, blood flows deep, and the grandfather welcomes the fugitive into his home. Their shared life is precarious: Each wants to convert the other, each has guarded distrust, and ultimately they find a silent and respectful balance.
When Fulie announces that he must leave, possibly never to return, and asks his grandfather to keep an envelope to be passed on to a contact from the movement, Reb Mordecai Meir is put to a test of faith and conscience. He begrudgingly complies, and even when he later sees his grandson’s revolver, accepts with silence the world’s intrusion into his life. Finally, Fulie’s dead body is returned to his bewildered grandfather, who utters prayers over the slain youth as best he can, finding reaffirmation of his faith and identity in their tragic blood connection.
“Grandfather and Grandson” reflects a larger awareness of the political events that shook European Jewry through the twentieth century. Though still set in prewar Poland, it is a story that reaches beyond to a universal experience of the painful changes that mark the passage of generations.
“The Manuscript” also reflects larger historical realities and creates a sense of political urgency. Set at the outbreak of World War II, it is a story, retold much later in a café in Tel Aviv, of a woman’s sacrifice for the man she loves and her response to his betrayal.
Shibtah is an actor married to a writer and womanizer named Menasha. When war comes toWarsaw, they flee to Biauystok, leaving behind all Menasha’s writing except a promising novel called Rungs. When a Biauystok publisher expresses interest in the piece, they discover that they have someone else’s manuscript; Rungs was left in Warsaw. Seeing no other option, and against Menasha’s wishes, Shibtah undertakes a perilous ten-day journey back to Warsaw to retrieve it. On her return to Biauystok, however, she finds Menasha in bed with another woman. She impulsively tosses the manuscript in the stove and leaves Biauystok alone the following day.
Shibtah was never obsessively jealous; it is the particular infidelity, set against her journey and the backdrop of war, that constitutes a deception she cannot tolerate. Singer is not telling a simple story of broken vows; rather, he portrays the response of the human heart to a unique and complex set of circumstances, where love, sex, art, politics, and history find dramatic junction in a particular moment of time. As in much of his later work, the world of all possibility becomes a world where the individual can depend on nobody and nothing but his or her own heart and will to act.
Many of Singer’s stories are loosely biographical, drawn from specific people and events from his own experience. “Schloimele,” written during the period that the adaptation was being done for the film Yentl, is about a virtually unknown Yiddish writer in New York and a fast-talking aspiring stage producer whose perennial promise of a lucrative deal for the narrator dissolves into a humorous and pathetic refrain. In a series of vignettes tracing the two men’s encounters over the course of several years, the pretentious Schloimele becomes a symbol first for the artifice of “showbiz” and ultimately for the narrator’s own idleness, professional failure, mediocre love life, and general discontent. At the story’s end, the two men escape the city on a bus to bucolic Monticello, but their departure is more like a funeral than a vacation.
“Schloimele” no doubt draws on both the despair that Singer felt at times in his career and the type of ambitious businessman that he knew well. Although free of the tortures of demons or melodrama of lost worlds, straightforward, unsensational narratives such as “Schloimele” evoke, in their understated realism, an amazingly strong and personal sense of tragedy and longing.
There are certainly links from Taibele to Rickel to Shibtah, from Dr. Fischelson to Reb Mordecai Meir, or from Alchonon to Gimpel to Schloimele, and while no story can be said to sum up Singer’s vision, some come strikingly close to a clear articulation of deep existential belief. An example is “The Smuggler,” published three years before the author’s death. It is a simple tale, most certainly based in truth (if only loosely), about a stranger’s visit to the narrator (an author himself, living in a small New York apartment), seeking autographs for a cartload of his books. The man is a gentle old bum who met the narrator years before at a speech in Philadelphia; he does not want to intrude, only to get his books signed and leave.
During his short visit, however, he offers samples of the wisdom by which he has lived. Born to a family of Polish Jews, he learned to smuggle for a living, until he eventually realized that he survived by smuggling himself. He has come to recognize the intrinsic corruptibility of human beings, that power breeds wickedness, and that victims who overcome tyrants become tyrants themselves. He knows that evil and good are not mutually exclusive opposites, that there is nothing strange or inhuman about a Nazi leaving a concentration camp, where humans are systematically killed, and returning home to write heartfelt poetry. Finding security in this knowledge, the smuggler is at peace.
Although the message is harsh, it is for Singer, as for the smuggler of the story, only a starting point. Beyond it is a world of possibilities—for goodness and evil, love and violence, sex and piety—in which the human heart and mind rule. In his clever and paradoxical way, Singer affirms, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
Other major works
Children’s literature: Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories, 1966; Mazel and Shlimazel: Or, The Milk of a Lioness, 1967; The Fearsome Inn, 1967; When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories, 1968; A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, 1969; Elijah the Slave, 1970; Joseph and Koza: Or, The Sacrifice to the Vistula, 1970; Alone in the Wild Forest, 1971; The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China, 1971; The Wicked City, 1972; The Fools of Chelm and Their History, 1973; Why Noah Chose the Dove, 1974; A Tale of Three Wishes, 1975; Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus, and Other Stories, 1976; The Power of Light: Eight Stories, 1980; The Golem, 1982; Stories for Children, 1984.
Plays: The Mirror, pr. 1973; Shlemiel the First, pr. 1974; Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, pr. 1974 (with Leah Napolin); Teibele and Her Demon, pr. 1978.
Novels: Der Sotn in Gorey, 1935 (Satan in Goray, 1955); Di Familye Mushkat, 1950 (The Family Moskat, 1950); Der Hoyf, 1953-1955 (The Manor, 1967, and The Estate, 1969); Shotns baym Hodson, 1957-1958 (Shadows on the Hudson, 1998); Der Kuntsnmakher fun Lublin, 1958-1959 (The Magician of Lublin, 1960); Der Knekht, 1961 (The Slave, 1962); Sonim, de Geshichte fun a Liebe, 1966 (Enemies: A Love Story, 1972); Der Bal- Tshuve, 1974 (The Penitent, 1983); Neshome Ekspeditsyes, 1974 (Shosha, 1978); Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov, 1980; Der Kenig vun di Felder, 1988 (The King of the Fields, 1988); Scum, 1991; The Certificate, 1992; Meshugah, 1994.
Nonfiction: Mayn Tatn’s Bes-din Shtub, 1956 (In My Father’s Court, 1966); The Hasidim, 1973 (with Ira Moskowitz); A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light, 1976; A Young Man in Search of Love, 1978; Isaac Bashevis Singer on Literature and Life, 1979 (with Paul Rosenblatt and Gene Koppel); Lost in America, 1980; Love and Exile, 1984; Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1985 (with Richard Burgin); More Stories from My Father’s Court, 2000.
Translations: Romain Rolland, 1927 (of Stefan Zweig); Die Volger, 1928 (of Knut Hamsun); Victoria, 1929 (of Hamsun); All Quiet on theWestern Front, 1930 (of Erich Remarque); Pan, 1931 (of Hamsun); The Way Back, 1931 (of Remarque); The Magic Mountain, 1932 (of Thomas Mann); From Moscow to Jerusalem, 1938 (of Leon Glaser).
Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Buchen, Irving H. Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past. New York: New York University Press, 1968.
Farrell, Grace, ed. Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
____________. Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Guzlowski, John. “Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Satan in Goray’ and Bakhtin’s Vision of the Carnivalesque.” Critique 39 (Winter, 1998): 167-175.
Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
____________. “Isaac Bashevis Singer in New York.” Judaism 46 (Summer, 1997): 346- 363.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Sinclair, Clive. The Brothers Singer. London: Allison and Busby, 1983.
Wolitz, Seth L., ed. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.