This Day In Literary History
On July 14th, 1902, the famous Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland. His older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, and his older sister, Esther Kreitman, also became writers. Their father was a Hasidic rabbi, and their mother's father and brothers were also rabbis.
When Isaac Bashevis Singer was ten years old, his brother Israel gave him a copy of Dostoevsky's classic novel, Crime and Punishment, despite the fact that their strict, orthodox father forbade them from reading non-religious books.
Isaac loved the novel. Later, as a teenager in Bilgoraj, he would study Yiddish translations of works by Leo Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, and other authors. He read all sorts of novels, plays, and poetry collections.
Singer later entered a rabbinical seminary, but came to hate the school and the prospect of becoming a rabbi. He returned to his parents for a time, then went back to Bilgoraj and tried to earn some money as a Hebrew tutor.
In 1923, his brother Israel arranged for him to move to Warsaw and become a proofreader for the Literarische Bleter, for whom he would later become an editor. In his twenties, taking a cue from his brother who had done the same, Isaac Bashevis Singer rejected his religion and broke ties with his parents.
He became part of Warsaw's Bohemian scene, spending time with many of his fellow non-religious writers and artists. Singer's first published short story won a literary contest and established him as an up-and-coming talent.
Singer's primary language was Yiddish. He wrote in Yiddish, and Yiddish folktales were a major influence on his writing. His first novel, Satan In Goray, was published in a serialized format in Globus, a literary magazine co-founded in 1935 by Singer and his lifelong friend, Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin.
Singer's historical novel was set in 17th century Poland, in the village of Goraj. It was based on the true story of how one third of Poland's Jews were exterminated in a Cossack uprising. It also told of the effect of Shabbatai Zvi, a rabbi turned false prophet and cult leader, on the Jewish population.
A prominent vegetarian, Singer's dietary philosophy would be reflected in his writings. His short story The Slaughterer dealt with the anguish of a man trying to reconcile his compassion for animals with his job as a slaughterer.
Singer often said that he became a vegetarian for reasons of health - the health of animals. "In relation to [animals]," he wrote in The Letter Writer, "all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka."
Although he had rejected his religion as a young man, Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing is often steeped deep in Judaism. His novels and short stories often depicted Jewish characters struggling with their religion. Their struggles sometimes become quite violent, resulting in death or insanity.
Singer's most popular novel, Yentl The Yeshiva Boy, was adapted in 1975 as an equally popular movie (which Singer absolutely hated) starring Barbra Streisand in the lead role. Yentl is a young girl constantly at odds with her rabbi father over the traditions of their religion, always debating theology with him - something females aren't supposed to do.
After her father dies, Yentl cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy named Anshel so she can enter a yeshiva and study the Talmud. Her true identity is discovered by her study partner, Avigdor. In his novel, Singer modeled the character of Yentl after his older sister, Esther.
Though she was an intellectually gifted child, due to the misogynistic beliefs and traditions of her father's orthodox religion, as a young girl, Esther was confined to a life of drudgery, doing menial household chores while her brothers received an education.
Esther had dreamed of becoming a writer, but her status as a woman in a strict Hasidic Jewish family crushed that dream. She was even forced into an arranged marriage, a fate she accepted grudgingly. The marriage ended in divorce. Later in life, she finally did educate herself and make her dream come true, publishing one novel and a collection of short stories.
Her brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, wrote over 18 novels and numerous short story collections. In 1978, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1991 at the age of 88, after suffering a series of strokes.
Quote Of The Day
"We must believe in free will - we have no choice." - Isaac Bashevis Singer
Today's video features the complete 1987 PBS TV documentary, Isaac In America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer. Enjoy!