The Forgotten Giant of Yiddish Fiction

In 1966, the critic Irving Howe published an essay whose title, “The Other Singer,” testified to a literary usurpation. For American readers in the nineteen-sixties, the name Singer meant Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to have reached the pinnacle of the American literary world. Singer’s stories about Jewish life in Poland, where he was born, and New York, where he settled in 1935, appeared in the Forward, the city’s leading Yiddish newspaper, before they were published in English in magazines including this one, Harper’s, and Playboy. It was an era when Jewish fiction was in vogue, with writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth on the best-seller lists; Singer won the National Book Award twice. In 1978, he became the first (and, to this day, the only) Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In Howe’s opinion, however, the ascent of I. B. Singer—known to Yiddish readers by his nom de plume, Bashevis—was not a cause for celebration, because it meant the eclipse of a better writer: his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer. In the thirties and forties, it was I. J. Singer who was the star contributor to the Forward, writing both fiction and journalism, and whose books got translated in America and Europe. Maximillian Novak, a Yiddish scholar, writes in his book “The Writer as Exile: Israel Joshua Singer” that when Singer’s epic novel “The Brothers Ashkenazi” was published, in 1936, he was compared to Tolstoy and mentioned as a future candidate for the Nobel Prize. When he died, from a heart attack, in 1944, at the age of fifty, his younger brother Isaac was almost completely unknown.

Two decades later, Israel Joshua had become the “other” Singer, whose existence even fans of Isaac were often surprised to learn about. That remains the case today. But a new edition of I. J. Singer’s work has now gathered six of his books—five novels and a memoir—in two omnibus volumes, each more than a thousand pages. Edited by Anita Norich, a Yiddish-literature scholar who provides introductions and an extensive bibliography, the edition marks the first time that some of I. J. Singer’s books have been in print in decades—in the case of one novel, “East of Eden,” for the first time since its original publication, more than eighty years ago. The publisher is the Library of the Jewish People, a new venture that aims to do for Jewish literature what the Library of America does for American classics. (I. B. Singer, meanwhile, is in the Library of America itself.)

The difference in the brothers’ reputations is partly due to the fact that the younger Singer outlived the elder by nearly half a century, dying in 1991. But even while both brothers were alive they effectively belonged to different literary generations. (They were born a decade apart—Israel Joshua in 1893, Isaac in 1904.) I. J. Singer emerged as a writer in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and he used fiction to explore the political and economic forces that were uprooting Jewish life in Eastern Europe. His first novel, “Steel and Iron” (1927), follows a Jewish soldier who deserts the tsarist Army during the First World War, becomes a Communist, and ends up helping to storm the Winter Palace—the decisive episode in the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. In later books, Singer dramatized the betrayal of Communist hopes by Stalin and the plight of German Jews under Hitler.

“The Brothers Ashkenazi,” his best-remembered book, is a family saga about the rivalry between twin brothers, one a ferociously ambitious businessman and the other a charming idler. But Singer is less interested in family dynamics than in the evolution of Jewish life in the Polish city of Lodz, a center of the textile trade, amid the pressures of industrial capitalism, rising nationalism and Communism, and the devastation of the First World War. His great strength as a novelist is in depicting how individuals’ fates reflect the movement of history, and his most characteristic passages deal in plurals, as in this description of a credit-fuelled market bubble in Lodz:

Independent of cash, fired by the prospect of quick riches, made reckless by the fierce competition, Lodz seethed and bustled without system or order and with total disregard for the rules of supply and demand. People schemed, finagled, wheedled, and conspired, caught up in the mad, headlong rush of the city. It was a sham existence built on dreams, artifice, and paper. The only base of reality and substance was the workers.

Suddenly it all ground to a halt. A large bone stuck in Lodz’s throat, and the city disgorged everything it had swallowed through years of unrestrained gluttony.

Irving Howe argued that I. J. Singer’s comprehensive analysis of Jewish society marked a major step forward for Yiddish literature. Earlier Yiddish writers had been comfortably parochial, reflecting everyday life in comic anecdotes or bittersweet fables. Singer, Howe wrote, resembled great European novelists like Thomas Mann in seeing society as “a complex organism with a life of its own, a destiny superseding, and sometimes canceling out, the will of its individual members.”

By the time Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work began to appear in English, in the fifties, this kind of panoramic social realism was out of fashion. After the Second World War, younger writers no longer aspired to explain how society worked and where history was going—perhaps because they were afraid of the answer. Instead, they turned inward, hoping only to say something authentic about what they had lived through and known. To communicate this kind of truth often meant rejecting ordinary verisimilitude in favor of fable and parable, exaggeration and absurdity—as writers like Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison showed.

Starting from a very different place, culturally and geographically, I. B. Singer reached a conclusion similar to his brother’s. Rather than describing labor strikes and political parties, he wrote fiction that was full of ghosts and demons, philosophical quandaries and sexual obsessions. In the story “Henne Fire,” a woman known for her savage temper spontaneously combusts, leaving behind nothing but a piece of coal. In “The Cafeteria,” a Holocaust survivor insists that Hitler is still alive and holding meetings in the middle of the night at a kosher cafeteria on the Upper West Side. In the novel “Shosha,” set in Warsaw on the eve of the First World War, a Singer-like narrator encounters a woman he loved when they were very young children. When he finds that she has not grown at all since, but remains mentally and physically a child, he decides to stay in the city to protect her, knowing that it means almost certain death.

For many Yiddish readers, the mixture of fantasy, nostalgia, and titillation in I. B. Singer’s stories represented a retreat from his older brother’s work. If the younger Singer appealed more to postwar American readers, it was because most of them no longer understood what Jewish life in Eastern Europe had really been like before it was destroyed in the Holocaust. Resentment grew as I. B. Singer’s increasing fame crowded out other Yiddish writers.

For instance, Chaim Grade, who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1948, wrote searching and intimate novels about the religious world of his youth. Some were even translated into English. But when he died, in the Bronx, in 1982, only a small circle of admirers recognized the loss to literature. More than twenty years later, Grade’s widow, Inna, was interviewed in connection with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s centennial. She was still palpably furious at the writer who had cast her husband into the shadows: “I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread in which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”

Even today, those who can read Yiddish literature in the original—more often scholars than native speakers—tend to be a little suspicious of Bashevis, and warmer toward Israel Joshua. In 2020, the novelist Dara Horn, who has a Ph.D. in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, wrote in the online magazine Tablet that I. J. Singer was “a much better novelist” than his brother, free of the latter’s “indulgent romanticism.”

Posterity may see the relationship between the brothers Singer as a zero-sum game, but they themselves never did. On the contrary, Bashevis took every opportunity to honor Israel Joshua as his most important teacher and ally. It was I. J. Singer who first rebelled against their parents’ narrow religiosity and made contact with modern literature and ideas, opening a new world to his younger brother. In the nineteen-twenties, Israel Joshua introduced Isaac to Warsaw’s Yiddish literary clubs and magazines. Most fatefully of all, Israel Joshua secured a job in New York in 1934, then brought Isaac over on a tourist visa, at a time when America’s borders were largely shut to desperate Jewish refugees. Without this intervention, Isaac Bashevis Singer would almost certainly have died in the Second World War—like his mother and younger brother, who were deported to a remote region of the Soviet Union.

No wonder that Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first English-language publication, the 1950 novel “The Family Moskat,” is fulsomely dedicated to Israel Joshua: “To me he was not only the older brother, but a spiritual father and master as well. I looked up to him always as to a model of high morality and literary honesty. Although a modern man, he had all the great qualities of our pious ancestors.” Yet even this praise can be read as a kind of provocation, for, as Isaac knew better than anyone, Israel Joshua took a dim view of Jewish piety and the ancestors whose lives were shaped by it—starting with his own father, a Hasidic rabbi.

Pinchas Mendel Singer had the unusual fate of becoming a character in books by three of his children: Israel Joshua’s memoir “Of a World That Is No More,” Isaac’s memoir “In My Father’s Court,” and “The Dance of the Demons,” an autobiographical novel by Esther Singer Kreitman. Two years older than Israel Joshua, Esther married before the First World War and settled in London, where she had a modest Yiddish literary career. In recent years, scholars have rediscovered the books and translations she published in the thirties and forties.

All the siblings paint basically the same picture of their father—as a deeply devout man who was indifferent to worldly matters, including making a living. It was their mother, Basheve, who held sway in the family. “They would have been a well-mated couple if she had been the husband and he the wife,” Israel Joshua wrote. Tough, temperamental, and intellectually inclined, Basheve was a negligent housekeeper and cook, much preferring to read the Yiddish devotional books that constituted the family’s library. She was clearly the parent responsible for raising three writers, as Isaac acknowledged when he based his Yiddish byline on her name.

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