This Day In Literary History
On October 5th, 1978, the legendary Polish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland, but emigrated to the United States in 1935.
The son of a Hasidic rabbi, Singer would reject his religion and break ties with his parents, as his older brother had done. Determined to become a writer, he joined Warsaw's Bohemian scene.
Although he had rejected his religion, Singer's writings would be steeped deep in Judaism, often featuring Jewish characters embroiled in fierce struggles with their faith. He wrote in Yiddish, which was his primary language, even after he had emigrated to America.
Throughout his literary career, Singer wrote over two over dozen novels. Among his most popular novels are Enemies: A Love Story (1972) and Yentl the Yeshiva Boy (1983).
Enemies: A Love Story (1972) follows the life of Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor who was saved from the Nazis by Yadwiga, his gentile Polish servant girl. He married her, and they're now living in New York.
Herman works as a ghost writer for a corrupt rabbi - an occupation he hides from his wife. His life is further complicated by his paranoia and desperation, which worsens when his first wife Tamara, whom he'd thought was murdered by the Nazis, comes looking for him.
Yentl the Yeshiva Boy (1983) told the story of the main character, 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.
The novel would be adapted as a popular feature film called Yentl - which the author absolutely hated - starring Barbra Streisand, who also directed, in the title role.
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.
Forced to do menial chores while her brothers received an education, she dreamed of becoming a writer, but her status as a woman in a strict Hasidic Jewish family crushed that dream.
Esther 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.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Isaac Bashevis Singer talked about the Yiddish language, which he accurately predicted would not become a "dead" language like Latin. He said of his native language:
There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amid the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God's plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.... Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world....
Singer wondered where he would find a replacement for his 43-year-old Yiddish typewriter, which was no longer made, and speculated that "when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet ... may rise up to save us all."
In his classic short story Gimpel the Fool, (1957) the title story of his first collection, Singer established himself as a Yiddish storyteller following in the ancient tradition:
I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, flump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a goodnight prayer. And instead of the raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me....
Quote Of The Day
"The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual - when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions - it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance." - Isaac Bashevis Singer
Today's video is a short clip from a French TV documentary on Isaac Bashevis Singer. It contains rare footage of the author, including footage of his 1978 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In English with French subtitles. Enjoy!