Influence of Isaac Bashevis Singer

I.B. Singer's ghost haunts Jewish literature to this day.

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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.

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Kevin Haworth

Kevin Haworth is the author of The Discontinuity of Small Things, winner of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers.