I. B. Singer’s Last Laugh
Like millions of his fellow immigrants to America, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) started over. In the beginning, he was a deadly serious Polish-Yiddish writer with world-literary ambitions. By the end, he was known to some as a world-literary figure indeed—but to many others as a species of American-Jewish comedian. He played the latter part to perfection. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from his acceptance speech upon receiving the 1970 National Book Award for his children’s book, A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw:
Why I Write for Children
There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.
Number 1. Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
Number 2. Children don’t read to find their identity.
Number 3. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
* * * * * *
Number 9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
Number 10. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.
By 1970, this sort of thing—mockery disguised as foolishness—had become Singer’s calling card. I am but a lowly storyteller (he was saying), who now prefers to write for children because children, unlike grownups, are devoid of pretense, sophistication, guile, existential angst, and, worst of all, false hopes for the betterment of humanity. In the name of these naïve readers, Singer accepted the National Book Award not for any of his major works like The Slave, The Magician of Lublin, or In My Father’s Court, or for any his volumes of short stories, but for a modest volume written expressly for youngsters. Passed over as a writer of serious fiction, at least temporarily—by 1978, the omission would be rectified by the Nobel Prize for Literature—he assumed the role of a comic, cushioning his barbs with disarming levity in heavily accented English.
How Singer became a comic writer and a deliberately comic figure is a story in three phases. Each is well-documented, but lost along the way is Singer’s relation to Yiddish literature and to that literature’s career in America. Only as an American-Yiddish writer could he have had the last laugh—as indeed he did.
By the time Singer arrived in New York harbor in 1935, the “Persona” school of American Yiddish poetry had entered its second phase. These “youngsters,” as they were called, had shaken free of their collective Jewish identity during the peak of the Eastern European mass immigration (1905-1910). Against the anonymous backdrop of New York City, they were bent on achieving individuation, refracting their varied lives into a rich gallery of assumed personae: Mani Leyb as poet-cobbler, Zishe Landau as dandy, H. Leivick as martyr, Celia Dropkin as circus lady, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern as rascal.
Theirs was a radically new aesthetics. Blocking out the cries of the traffic and the competing claims of the street, they were the first Yiddish poets anywhere to focus on their inner state of being, on the search for a reinvented self. Some adopted an extravagant poetic mask. Zishe Landau’s persona—a Europeanized dandy living a life of sensual self-indulgence was a persona designed to celebrate the “it-ness” of the everyday; Mani-Leyb’s persona—a devoted craftsman, marked by a streak of asceticism—evoked a more purified state of being.
Nothing quite like this was happening in Poland, let alone in the Soviet Union. There were, however, a number of quick-change artists there. One was Yitzhak Manger, a serious poet who, changing his name to “Itzik” when he arrived in Warsaw from Romania in 1928, transformed himself into the last of the Yiddish folk troubadours. Another was the young Singer, who, adopting the name “Bashevis” (after his mother Bathsheba) in order to avoid being confused with his older brother, the novelist I. J. Singer, became, along with Manger, the youngest writer admitted into the newly-founded Yiddish PEN Club. But it was impossible to earn a living from highbrow fiction and literary translation, and so Bashevis did what others did: anonymously, he published shund, or pulp fiction, in the popular press, occasionally also signing his name to humorous sketches.
In Poland, Bashevis was a jack-of-all-literary-trades. In America the thirty-three-year-old immigrant split himself into three separate identities: Isaac Bashevis the highbrow writer, Isaac Warshavski a middlebrow writer, and D. Segal, a tabloid journalist. “Bashevis” was the name he used not only for his novels and short stories but also for a series of Yiddish manifestos: “Problems of Yiddish Prose in America” (March-April 1943), “Concerning Yiddish Prose in Poland” (August 1943), and the recently discovered “Realism as a Method and Worldview” (February 1944). “Warshavski” was the name he used for his literary criticism, and for works of fiction that he considered borderline: In My Father’s Court, called “a literary experiment,” and all the stories for children, including A Day of Pleasure. “D. Segal” was a well-kept secret—for good reason. These were articles cribbed mostly from the Daily News and rewritten in the colloquial “Potato Yiddish” of the daily Forverts. It was the New World equivalent of shund.
Pen names, even three of them together, do not a persona make. With the help of Warshavski and Segal, Bashevis could protect the realm of his serious, his “real,” writing. Only after living in America for a full quarter-century, sometime around 1960, did the need for maintaining such a protective wall become moot—perhaps because, thanks to translation and growing fame, his American publishers and readers were eager to consume anything that carried the I. B. Singer imprimatur. Bashevis, Warshavski, and Segal having become irrelevant, Singer proceeded to invent a persona, an authorial double.
In 1960, with “Alone,” set in Miami Beach, “Bashevis” began to publish Yiddish stories narrated in the first person by someone with a biography very similar to that of I. B. Singer. A perennial bachelor very successful with the ladies, this alter ego appears in melodramatic plots that combine fantasy with hilarity. In “Alone,” the hero gets his signals crossed by otherworldly forces and ends up with a hunchbacked Cuban for a lover. In “Brother Beetle,” he finds himself naked and shivering on the roof of his lover’s apartment building. Eventually, this fictional persona would assume the stable identity of Aaron Greidinger, the narrator-protagonist of such middlebrow novels as Shosha and Scum and of fantastical tales like “The Cafeteria.” If Zishe Landau’s dandy conjured up prosaic reality, and Mani Leyb’s cobbler-poet a realm of higher beauty, Bashevis’s exhibitionist was a comic grotesque. When he grew weary of clowning, Bashevis-Warshavski wrote stories for children.
Having abandoned one set of identities, Yiddish-American writers gained another of their own invention. But more difficult than finding a surrogate identity was finding a surrogate language. As early as 1935, when Singer arrived, Yiddish itself, in his judgment, had become an obsolescent tongue, spoken by an ever-dwindling and ever-aging segment of American Jewry. Moreover, the Yiddish still being spoken was a creole, he maintained, unfit for serious consumption: a language so impoverished that its Hebraic component—that which made Yiddish the language of Yiddishkayt—and its Slavic component—that which gave it its regional, provincial flavor—had all but vanished in a Germanized and Anglicized mishmash. In “Problems of Yiddish Prose in America,” a sobering analysis published in Svive, a little magazine founded by the poet Kadia Molodowski in 1943, Singer proclaimed his belief that Yiddish no longer had a vital role to play in the life of American Jewry.
But then, in the next two issues of Svive, at the height of the Holocaust, Bashevis unveiled a new species of comic writing the likes of which Yiddish literature had never seen: early installments in a projected series of stories that he called Dos gedenkbukh fun yeytser-hore, “The Devil’s Diary.” The series, which would eventually include such brilliant tales as “The Unseen,” “Zeidlus the Pope,” and “The Destruction of Kreshev,” was written in a satiric, super-idiomatic style steeped in Jewish learning. But the voice was the voice of the Devil, master ventriloquist and seducer. No form of Jewish consciousness, male or female, sophisticated or simple-minded, was foreign to this character, and no one had the slightest hope of escaping his net. Bashevis’s ambitious (but unrealized) plan was to fashion not a Yiddish Comédie humaine à la Balzac, and certainly not a Yiddish Divina Commedia à la Dante, but a true Comédie diabolique.
Singer was by no means a lone figure on the stage of genius during the terrible years of 1943-1945—years four, five, and six of the war. In particular, Yiddish was also being rediscovered as a superidiomatic folk vernacular by his most formidable rival: the poet, critic, and novelist Jacob Glatstein. As Bashevis was parading the Devil’s repertoire of Yiddish styles, Glatstein reimagined himself as the great Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810). In the dramatic monologue The Bratslaver to his Scribe, Reb Nahman, weary of intellectual endeavor, sets out with his companion Reb Nosn in search of simplicity, direct experience, and melody. Having found a perfect counterpart in the weighty and witty voice of an early Hasidic master and Yiddish storyteller, Glatstein would return to his Bratslaver persona over the course of the next twenty years.
The Devil’s Diary, too, was written as a kind of monologue. Thanks to the labors of the late scholar Khone Shmeruk, we now know that between 1945, the year he published the original Yiddish version of his masterpiece story “Gimpel the Fool,” and 1975, Bashevis perfected the lost art of the Yiddish monologue as spoken by men and women, Hasidim and thieves, animals and demons. Not all the monologues were comic and none of the monologists was as polyphonic a speaker as Gimpel. But each monologue was a command performance. And by the later decades there was a new audience—one that no longer spoke or even understood Yiddish, but loved nothing better than a Yiddish-inflected performance in translation. Everything Yiddish sounded wickedly funny when featured in Playboy, or even in Partisan Review, where Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpel” had appeared in 1953.
The last stage was the easiest: to cover his tracks, to run circles around his interviewers, to play the ingénue and make it seem as if little Isaac Singer of Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was born to be a simple storyteller and gossip-monger. That, after all, is what such born-again storytellers as Sholem Aleichem and Itzik Manger had done before him. And how much easier it was for I. B. Singer to pull it off. By the time he commanded center stage, few even knew to look for hidden tracks or were aware of the other costumes hidden in the closet.
Finally, I. B. Singer commanded the stage because in America there was room for only one Yiddish comedian at a time. Glatstein could never play the role even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that he spoke an unaccented American English and was a bona-fide New York Jew. All other contenders made a graceful exit to the grave: Mani Leyb, Zishe Landau, H. Leivick, Celia Dropkin, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Aaron Glantz-Leyeles, Aaron Zeitlin, Kadia Molodowski—the lot.
Above all, though, I. B. Singer had the last laugh because he alone knew how to keep his audience laughing.
David G. Roskies teaches Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide, co-authored with Naomi Diamant, will be published in January by Brandeis University Press. This essay is adapted from a talk originally delivered at the Hebrew University in June.