These are days of discussion about immigration, both as national policy and as Jewish literary phenomenon (think Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, David Bezmogis). But Isaac Bashevis Singer remains the most influential Jewish immigrant writer, and in the way he moved between two worlds–Jewish and American–his work continues to resonate in contemporary Jewish letters.
Singer emigrated to the United States in 1935, but he continued to write in Yiddish as though he never left Warsaw. This anti-assimiliationist position has been picked up by the current generation of Jewish fiction writers, whose love of Yiddish and Hebrew is clearly an assertion of identity. Writers like Allegra Goodman, Rachel Kadish, and Jonathan Rosen use Hebrew and Yiddish, often without translation, as a way of marking out Jewish territory.
But what are we to make of graphic novelist Ben Katchor, whose work seems to have been translated from a Yiddish that never quite existed? In The Jew of New York, Katchor writes, in reference to Jewish languages, "Judeo-German, Judeo-Spanish…Why not, in time, a Judeo-American?" Katchor’s gray-toned panels construct a parallel world more Jewish than our own; one can imagine Singer walking comfortably down its streets. In Katchor’s work, as in the work of so many contemporary writers, we see an attempt to develop that Judeo-American language. Singer would be proud.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Writing about Jews leads naturally, it seems, to writing about sex. For many people, this subject begins and ends with Philip Roth. It is undeniably true that Roth broke new ground in examining the Jewish libido, but Singer’s work here should not be underestimated. In many ways, his work anticipated Roth’s, even paved the way for it. Roth’s David Kepesh shtupped his way through post-Holocaust Europe in The Professor of Desire. But even before that, there was Singer’s Herman Broder. He demonstrated, through the erotic tangles of Enemies, A Love Story, that while there might not be poetry after Auschwitz, there certainly would be sex.
Singer gives us sex without neuroticism, though not without consequences. His rabbis lust after demons. His yeshiva boys eye each other. Singer’s sensibility–that sex can unite the sacred and the profane–feels, still, quite contemporary.
Singer was no Herman Melville (or to use a Jewish example, Avram Davidson), writers who were underappreciated and largely forgotten at the time of their deaths. He was a literary celebrity, a status that only accelerated after he won the Nobel Prize in 1978. He was mindful of the fact that Jewish writers looked to him for guidance as he had once looked to his older brother, the novelist Israel Joshua Singer.
Advice for Writers
In his Nobel acceptance speech, I.B. Singer encouraged his fellow writers to see themselves as both entertainers and prophets, a combination of two traditionally Jewish occupations.
He noted that Yiddish carried these traditions within its very structure, a language of the book and of everyday life. It is, he said, a language "not supported by any government, a language that possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics." But some of his best advice is found in less hallowed places. In a postscript to a collection of children’s stories, he declares that in order to write, "I must have the conviction–or at least the illusion–that I am the only one who can write this particular story."
Compare this advice to the more common and shopworn "write what you know." That suggestion has doomed thousands of writers to small, unprophetic stories. Go beyond the merely familiar, Singer says; reach instead for what is necessary. Provide the world with the work that you, and only you, can provide. It is arrogant advice, but it also speaks to the writer’s obligation to the world: to give the very best that he or she has to offer, and to discard everything else.
The Literary Shtetl Today
Of course, no inheritance is without its burdens. Young writers who look to Singer’s work for direction must be careful. The children’s stories (where many people first encounter Singer) are filled with a shtetl nostalgia that is seductive but inherently false. There are gentle fools, mischievous imps, children protected by goats. That world never existed, and what did was heading for disaster. Is it any wonder that much of the current literary conversation with Singer seems like a rebuke to that world?
Consider Nathan Englander’s "The Tumblers," from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a story collection that in many ways inaugurated the concerns of the current Jewish literary generation. In "The Tumblers," Englander brings the Holocaust directly into the pages of Singer’s children’s stories. "Who would have thought," Englander writes, "that a war of such proportions would bother to turn its fury against the fools of Chelm?" Even this town of fools, divinely protected for so long, is not spared. In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer goes a step further, erecting the shtetl town of Trachimbrod on the architecture of Yiddish stories, filling it with Yiddish archetypes, and burning it down at the Nazis’ hands several hundred pages later.
There is anger here, anger not just at what we inherited, but what we did not get to inherit. Arguments are part of Jewish life. Many younger Jewish writers are arguing with our literary parents and, beyond that, with our literary grandparents as well. And if we can’t argue with our family, whom can we argue with?
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.