June 17, 2004
Dissent Greets Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial
ext month marks the centennial of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the novelist and short-story writer who in 1978 became the only Yiddish author to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Throughout the summer and fall, media and cultural centers all over the country will devote time and energy to celebrating Singer, one of the most famous Jewish writers of all time.
In the process they will be dishonoring everything that Inna Grade holds dear.
"I profoundly despise him," said Mrs. Grade, the 75-year-old widow of the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. "I am very sorry that America is celebrating the blasphemous buffoon."
At even the slightest mention of Singer's name ó which she will not allow herself to pronounce ó Mrs. Grade (pronounced GRA-duh) becomes virtually unhinged.
"I despise him especially because he is dragging the Jewish literature, Judaism, American literature, American culture back to the land of Moab," she said, referring to the biblical region where Lot and his daughters began an incestuous affair. "I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated."
For the last 25 years Mrs. Grade has toiled to revise a historical and critical record that elevated Singer over other Yiddish writers who, she contends, were both loyal to their first language and talented enough to evoke appropriately the lost world of Eastern European Jewry.
Though Mrs. Grade has been on a solitary quest, she has never been alone in her general sentiments toward Singer, who died in 1991. To many involved with Yiddish culture, the notion of evoking the world of the shtetl in a language other than Yiddish was both an absurdity and a betrayal. Some detected sour grapes in such arguments and dismissed them as the resentments of writers who had simply failed to beat Singer to the punch. Reactions on both sides were so fierce that the feud was even fictionally immortalized, in Cynthia Ozick's 1969 short story "Envy; or, Yiddish in America."
Notwithstanding Ms. Ozick's peerless evocation of a colorful literary universe, envy alone could not account for the range and fervor of the emotional reaction to Singer's success. What made his fiction stylistically unique was also what repulsed certain readers. He conjured up a world marked by Jewish folklore and mysticism, filled with flawed human characters, as well as a supernatural coterie of imps, devils and spirits.
Superstitions, compulsions, passions ó particularly sex ó run like veins through Singer's work, creating, in the words of the Swedish Academy, a world "at once very rich and very poor, peculiar and exotic but also familiar with all human experience behind its strange garb."
But the garb was too strange for certain readers, who viewed the prostitutes and dybbuks in Singer's work as debasements of the martyred world of Eastern European Jewry, and who found his special brand of magic realism wholly unpalatable, especially when compared with the elegiac grace of other writers.
"When Abraham Sutzkever was starving, fighting Nazis with the partisans in the Lithuanian woods and writing great Yiddish poetry about the tragic fate of the Jews on fragments of bark, Singer was eating cheese blintzes at Famous Dairy Restaurant on 72nd Street and thinking about Polish whores and Yiddish devils," said Allan Nadler, director of Jewish Studies at Drew University and former director of research at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
In 1980 when Grade received an honorary degree from Yeshiva University, its president, Norman Lamm, seemed to be criticizing Singer as much as applauding Grade when he noted that it was "a time when literature, even Yiddish literature, often wallows in the mud of cynicism and frivolity, in the scatological swamp of amorality; when it heralds the fascination with the demonic and with sexual weirdness."
The man who inspires such distaste emigrated from Poland in 1935 and began his American career with serialized Yiddish fiction in The Jewish Daily Forward. In 1953 the literary critic Irving Howe was given a copy of Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool"; soon his work began appearing in translation in some of the country's most prestigious publications, including The New Yorker and Harper's.
He eventually eclipsed other Yiddish writers ó notably Grade, as well as the poets Jacob Glatstein and Sutzkever ó and became the voice of a generation, in large part because of his decision to have his works translated out of the language that was considered its lifeblood.
The debate about Singer's virtues persists. In a 2001 essay Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the chancellor of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Stephen Wagner, a Manhattan lawyer, insisted that "the issue is not that Chaim Grade does not have the Nobel Prize, but that, from the Jewish perspective, the least suitable, the worst possible writer, has it."
Perhaps, but Grade is the writer most often mentioned by critics of Singer as the superior candidate for the Nobel Prize. Grade, who is thought to have been the last secular Yiddish writer educated in a European yeshiva, was born and reared in Vilna, Lithuania ó known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" for its Jewish cultural and religious vibrancy, and it was this world that he evoked, both in poetry and in prose, in what many see as its most authentic reconstructions.
Grade eventually began publishing in English, and he may be best known for "Rabbis and Wives," a collection of three novellas that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1983, the year after he died. As it turned out, the title of the work had been mistranslated and was later changed to "The Sacred and the Profane," a tag that could easily characterize the tension at the heart of Grade's whole oeuvre: a skeptic's exploration of the philosophical and spiritual struggles posed by religion and faith. (Mrs. Grade oversees the translation of her husband's work, with the help of a translator, Melvin Lee Rosenthal.)
"Every fiber of Grade's being and everything he did ó every line of poetry, every work of fiction ó was animated by a sense of responsibility to the Jews: to their history, to the culture, to the people," said Professor Nadler, who studied with Grade at Harvard. "None of those commitments resonate in my reading of Singer."
Still, some readers hope that the Singer centennial does not become an occasion to revive old grudges.
"The centennial of Singer is a time to celebrate his achievement rather than to describe who was `eclipsed' by his fame," said Ruth Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard. "There was more to Singer than was recognized by some of his early readers, and he will continue to be rediscovered, layer by layer."
For many this rediscovery and reinterpretation will begin with a new collection of Singer's work available next month from the Library of America. The three-volume edition includes some previously uncollected stories and will be published along with an album of photographs and tributes by various writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ms. Ozick. In addition, several publications, including The Forward, are preparing retrospectives; 60 public libraries have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities for centennial-related events; and many museums and universities will be hosts to exhibits and lectures throughout the summer and fall.
"My own grandmother thought Singer's work was trash, but trash worth reading," said Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the editor of the Library of America edition. "Fiction writers are neither anthropologists nor historians. We read them not because what they say is accurate but because what they say is a reflection of the turbulence that inhabits us." Professor Wisse said the work of Yiddish writers like Grade and Glatstein "will reach a wider audience as soon as readers feel the need to know more about their culture, and begin to look for literature to satisfy their hunger."
Grade, who is said to have forbidden supporters from nominating him for the Nobel Prize, might have chosen to stay above the fray. In "The Blue Tombstone of Ari," a 1963 poem, he reflected on the pull of fame:
That unto memories I should not strongly cling,
In Celebration of a Writer's LegacyThe Library of America, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is the main sponsor of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial celebration, a program of public readings, panels, exhibitions and workshops throughout the summer and fall. More information is available at www.singer100.org or (212) 308-3360, Ext. 212.
"BECOMING AN AMERICAN WRITER: THE LIFE AND WORK OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER," a traveling exhibit from the Singer Archive at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin featuring rare photographs, manuscripts and memorabilia. The exhibit is on display until July 18 at the National Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College, Route 116, Amherst, Mass.; information, (413) 256-4900. It will then move to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton from Sept. 7 to Oct. 2 and the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, Flatiron district, from Nov. 15 to Dec. 30.
JULY 14: "BIRTHDAY BASH," sponsored by The Forward and the 14th Street Y, including a reading of one of the uncollected stories, KGB Bar, 85 East Fourth Street between Second and Third Avenues, East Village. 7 p.m. Information, (212) 505-3360.
JULY 11-15: "THE IMAGINARY WORLD OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER," a five-day conference sponsored by the National Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College, Route 116, Amherst, Mass.; information, (413) 256-4900.
JULY 20-23: "THE SLAVE" and "SHOSHA," performed by Gesher Theater of Israel at the Lincoln Center Festival. Tickets, $60; John Jay Theater, 899 10th Avenue, at 60th Street, Manhattan; information, (212) 721-6500.
OCT. 4: "A Celebration of Isaac Bashevis Singer," 92nd Street Y, Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan. Tickets, $16 (free to members of the Unterberg Poetry Center); information, (212) 415-5500.
OCT. 6: "THE WOMEN OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER," with Ilan Stavans. The Mercantile Library, 17 East 47th Street, Manhattan. Reservations required, information, (212) 755-6710.
OCT. 20: "GREAT NEW YORK WRITERS IN GREAT NEW YORK PLACES." Celebrity readers bring to life Singer stories written in New York during World War II. Museum of Jewish Heritage, 18 First Place, at West Street and Battery Place, Battery Park City. Tickets $20, information, (646) 437-4200.
Alana Newhouse is the arts and culture editor at The Forward.