Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Singer whose Voice was a Pen

On November 21, 1902, a baby was born in Leoncin, Poland, who would succeed, through his pen, to help posterity understand the Jewish “Shtetl” experience in Eastern Europe.

Isaac Hersh Singer, the youngest of three children, was born outside Warsaw to Pinchas Mendel, a Hassidic Rabbi, and Batsheva. The middle name of what would become his pen name, Isaac Bashevis (Batsheva) Singer, is a tribute to his mother. When Isaac was six, his family moved from the Hassidic court of Radzymin, where his father headed the yeshiva, to Krochmalna street in the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw, the setting of many of Singer’s literary works.

During World War I, Isaac moved with his mother and brother to Bilgoraj, where his mother’s ancestors served as rabbi. After the War, Isaac’s father, Rabbi Pinchas Mendel, became a communal rabbi in the Warsaw area. Isaac entered Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary, but soon realized he was not interested in the “family business.” His brother, an editor at the Jewish Literarische Bleter, helped him get a job at the newspaper as a proofreader.

In 1935, two years after Hitler assumed power in neighboring Germany, Isaac wisely feared for the safety of Jews in the rest of Europe and immigrated to New York City. In 1940 he married Alma Wasserman, a Jewish German immigrant, and they lived in Manhattan’s famed Upper West Side. In 1945, after his brother’s death in Israel, he began writing for the Jewish Daily Forward.

In 1935, Singer’s first novel, “Satan in Goray,” was published in serial form in “Globus,” a literary magazine Singer co-founded with his friend and fellow writer Aaron Zeitlin. The book described Jewish life during the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648 and 1649 and the ensuing advent of Shabbetai Zvi, a false messiah who raised the hopes of the downtrodden Jews. Goray (Goraj) is a village near Singer’s hometown of Bilgoraj. In his writings, Singer often raised issues that were taboo in the insular Jewish community (“Yentel the Yeshiva Boy,” which, in 1983, was made into a motion picture starring Barbra Streisand, is but one example).

After publishing 18 novels, 14 children’s books, and memoirs, essays and articles, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer was most comfortable surrounded by fellow Yiddish-speaking “landsmen” (those from the same land).

In their later years, Isaac and Alma moved to Surfside Florida, where he passed away on July 24, 1991. Streets in Surfside and New York City (W. 86th Street) are named in his honor.

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