A Yiddish colossus | Ben Felsenburg | The Critic Magazine

Ben Felsenburg 5-7 minutes 8/27/2022

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Let’s be honest. Out in the world of goyim, there have really been only two Yiddish writers that count. Thanks to Fiddler On The Roof, a fortunate few readers will have discovered the rapturous joys of Sholem Aleichem (on whose collection of stories “Tevye The Milkman” the musical was based). But in the second half of the 20th century, Isaac Bashevis Singer was the Yiddish colossus, a towering figure, even in mainstream literature. 

Old Truths and New Clichés Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edited by David Stromberg (Princeton, £20)

A Nobel Prize-winner whose works in neat, black Penguin editions once crowded the bookshop shelves, his novels and short stories charted the shtetl life he had left behind in Poland and the new home that so many of his characters found in America, just as he did when he arrived in 1935. These were tales swirling with emotion, steeped in Kabbalistic spirituality and transgressive eroticism. Put it this way: the best starting point may not be watching Barbra Streisand direct herself in the monumental act of narcissism that was Yentl (Singer’s damning verdict on her screen adaptation of his short story “Yentl The Yeshiva Boy”: “I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing.”)

Singer died in 1991. How would this uncompromising, iconoclastic figure have been received in the current cultural regime? A newly published collection of essays, Old Truths And New Clichés, reveals a thinker who would never have submitted to today’s narrowing strictures and ideological edicts. Lamenting the politicisation of literature, Singer rails against writers who “came to the conclusion that instead of telling stories that happened some time ago — yesterday, a week, or a hundred years before — we should instead plan the future … It was a very big mistake”.

In the essay that gives the collection its title, he insists: “The anger of an artist, if it exists at all, has a totally different nature than that of a revolutionary. Real artists have grievances towards God and towards the higher powers.” Almost nothing that is modern and godless escapes Singer’s censure: Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, all fall foul of his judgement: “Most professional writers are of insufficient stature to comprehend their experience.”

Yet Singer was “a modern writer, well-versed in the various streams of world literature”, writes David Stromberg in the introduction to his edited collection.The nineteen essays are but a glimpse of Singer’s largely forgotten, but vast non-fiction oeuvre, amounting to more than 800 articles (some published under the pseudonyms Yitzhok Vrashavski — “Isaac from Warsaw” — and D. Segal, so that the almost maniacally prolific author wouldn’t appear too many times in the same Yiddish periodicals).

What did Singer believe in? There is Kabbalah, in which “all of creation is one huge laboratory of happiness”, a philosophical system in which “one can find the best of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Spinoza, and even Leibniz, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche”. He defines God as “the sum of all possibility”. Of his own faith, Singer writes: “If religion must be closely bound with revelation, then I cannot call myself a religious person. But at the same time, I believe — without revelation — that there is a God who rules the world and keeps watch over us.”

His creed will be music to the ears of readers

As for the art of writing, Singer demands that others adhere to the same standards he set himself (as a young man he had stopped publication of his first collection of stories at the last minute after deciding they weren’t good enough, delaying his debut by years). His creed will be music to the ears of readers. Storytelling “is becoming a forgotten art”. “The worst mistake a writer can make is to assume that the days of aesthetic enjoyment have passed and that artists can permit themselves to bore their audience in the name of some higher purpose.” “The essayism that has invaded modern literature, the forced sophistry and self-analysis, are often attempts to conceal the lack of a plot.” “Without suspense there can be no literature.” Or this, if nothing else: “In art, a truth which is boring is not true.”

His art is a calling: “When I was born, my mother asked the midwife, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ And the midwife answered, ‘A writer.’” He boasts: “At heder [Jewish school], I astounded my fellow students with fantastic stories. I told them once my father was a king with such fantastic detail that they believed me.” In fact, his father was a stern Hasidic rabbi who preached: “The wicked sit day and night in a theatre, eat pork, and sin with loose women.”

Among the stentorian proclamations of cherished truths, one piece stands out as different from all the rest, a vignette of a trip to the circus Singer made as a child with a girl he loved, Shosha. “Midgets did somersaults. A beard danced. A lion jumped through a fiery hoop. A monkey rode a bicycle. Dogs played ball.” 

Years later, this is the last he knows of the girl he loved. After the Germans invaded Poland, “Shosha packed a satchel and took the road towards Bialystok. Along the way, she sat down to rest and never rose again.” Suddenly, the Singer his readers know is here.