How the Singer Brothers Came to Be in America
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born Icek-Hersz Zynger in near Warsaw on July 14 1904. Though he spoke both Polish and Yiddish, he wrote only in the latter language which at the time was a widely spoken, international language: Warsaw had five Yiddish language dailies, New York City had a few as well. And then there were also literary periodicals. Singer worked as a copy editor for one co-edited by his brother, later he co-edited one himself.
Yiddish as a Bridge between Warsaw and New York City
Though he wrote in Yiddish, several of his novels describe life in Poland in ways that complement the Polish literary record of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries right through the twenties and thirtieth of the latter. On the pages of Singer's stories, Polish and Jewish Warsaw co-exist but they seldom permeate each other.
Sons of a devout rabbi, he and his older brother, Israel Joshua, rebelled against their heritage. Israel Joshua, ten years the senior, moved out of the family home, and took up with artists who not only broke Jewish dietary laws with abandon but painted naked women. At one point, just when World War One ended, Israel Joshua flirted for a while with communism, but then grew to despise it. In 1921-22 he published a story, The Pearls, in one of those Warsaw Yiddish literary periodicals. It was read in distant New York City by the publisher of a Yiddish daily, the Forwerts (now the Jewish weekly Forward) who liked it and on the strength of it invited Israel Joshua to be the Forwerts' Warsaw correspondent.
In 1928, Israel Joshua forswore writing in Yiddish, stating that he had concluded that it no longer made sense to write in that language, having, in a word, lost faith in the sense of doing so. Isaac Bashevis, though much in his brother's shadow, viewed this action as childish, like declaring one would now become a woman or a French writer. He himself had, by then, achieved a literary debut, winning a literary competition with his story In Old Age.
Israel Joshua couldn't, didn't keep his vow, and in the Summer of 1932 the Forwerts started publishing installments of what became his best known Yiddish novel: Josie Kaib. The book was adapted for the New York stage and in connection with that, Israel Joshua came to New York for a three months stay. He loved it here.
Back in Europe, he witnessed Adolf Hitler's coming to power in Germany. By March 1934 he was back in New York, this time for good, bringing with him his wife and child. Language, of course not being a barrier at the Forwerts, he has a appointed to a position on its Editorial Board. Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis' first novel, Satan in Gorey, was being serialized in a Yiddish Warsaw periodical, the one Israel Joshua had earlier co-edited, and in 1935 it appeared in book form published by the Yiddish section of the Warsaw PEN-Club.
It was at this point that the older brother arranged for the younger one to join him in New York City, dealing with immigration formalities, paying for the passage. And thus the future Nobelist is from the conflagration that enveloped Europe, possibly from the Holocaust or from the fate that befell his mother and youngest brother who, deported by the Soviets to Kazakhstan, perished there in unknown circumstances like hundred of thousands of other Polish citizens.
In New York, Isaac Bashevis began to work for the Forwerts, but his stories were more risque, and not as much to the liking of the editor, who seldom published them. He met Alma, who left her husband and children for him. Though a German Jew, she didn't know Yiddish. That he was a good Yiddish writer, she has only his word for it. They married but couldn't afford curtains or furniture. She began working as a salesperson at Saks, later at Lord and Taylor. She would leave for work in the morning. He wrote, but was totally unknown. Totally. And so it lasted - she said - that way for 20 years.
All that time, Isaac Bashevis had faith in himself. But things changed after his brother died and he so did Abraham Kahan the publisher of the Forwerts. Then in the 50's when Hillel Rogow became Forwerts' publisher, his stories started to get printed. Soon English translations began to appear. But he translated them himself and, according to some who knew Yiddish, including Mordechai Canin, for many years was the President of the Yiddish Writers Association in Israel,cleaned the stories up in the process.
In 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Singer proclaimed that the Nobel prize has not changed him. "I am the same Isaac Singer, and my thoughts and feelings are the same." he said. “When I was a kid and played with several other boys in the courtyard,” he recalled,” they sat under a broken umbrella, but would not allow me to join them. But then I told them that they had to let me in, for he I wearing a new pair of shoes and since I had new shoes on they immediately agreed,” Grateful though he was for the award , and dazzling as it was to others who now considered him important, he saw it as incidental as the new pair of shoes. He died on July 24, 1991 in Florida.
Polish translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer books are very popular in Poland now, even though the country's Jewish population is currently minuscule.