Life & Culture

Old Truths and New Clichés book review: Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer - The universal mamaloshen

The essays in this volume may not match Singer’s fiction at its best, but they provide an invaluable supplement to our understanding of this extraordinary writer’s vision


In a 1971 semi-autobiographical short story A Day in Coney Island, Isaac Bashevis Singer offers a portrait of himself as a 30-year-old refugee, transplanted from Poland to New York just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

In his new surroundings, he scrapes by selling stories about demons and dybbuks to the Yiddish press. “Who needs Yiddish in America?” the émigré asks himself, full of doubt and anxiety.

This serious question is not without irony. By the 1970s, Singer was a renowned author, whose novels and short stories, written in Yiddish, had made a powerful case for the continuing relevance of Yiddish culture (in 1978 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature).

His success was not accidental: he worked assiduously with translators and publishers on English versions of his fictions that would appeal to American and international readers.

Yet, besides the novels and short stories, Singer was also a prolific writer of discursive Yiddish prose — articles, reviews, talks, and so on. This material is largely unknown, even though the author again co-operated closely with translators to prepare English-language versions.

The collection of 19 short pieces in this volume represents an initial effort by the scholar David Stromberg to recover these writings from obscurity.

The range of styles and subject matters covered here is formidable: journalism, children’s literature, Yiddish theatre, Chasidism, philosophy, theology, mysticism, and much more. There are touching autobiographical vignettes, fierce polemics, and satirical spoofs.

Often, Singer mixes genres and themes together: the beautiful essay Why I Write As I Do describes the origins of his brilliant debut 1935 novel Satan in Goray, while also surveying Yiddish literature in the early 20th century and a giving brief sketch of the Kabbalah.

Stromberg provides contextual information, including detailed annotations of Singer’s editorial procedures (academic researchers will require more precise references to the primary sources).

He corrals the essays into three somewhat arbitrary categories by subject matter (“The Literary Arts”, “Yiddish and Jewish Life”, “Personal Writings and Philosophy”): the signposts are useful, but a clearer view of the chronology would have helped.

One theme that surfaces repeatedly is the vexed question of the individual and the universal. Singer is a staunch defender of the “old truth” that art is individuality rooted in the expressive resources of a national community.

By contrast the “new clichés” of modernity include “mass culture” (exemplified by Nazi and Soviet propaganda) and “international art” (Singer believed that “Art is in its essence, national… deeply connected with a land, a locality, a group”).

Similarly, he praises Chasidism for its resistance to assimilation, even though he notoriously broke with his own Chasidic background.

At the same time, Singer clearly has an eye to the possibility of expressing universal truths. This can lead to somewhat frothy hyperbole: “the Kabbalah contains the best of all philosophical systems, all mystical teachings, and all religions."

Yet especially when he considers the Yiddish language and its literature, the tension between the individual and the universal gives rise to something heartfelt and moving. While acknowledging that he is talking about a lost world, he maintains that Yiddish continues to capture the spiritual outlook of a particular people, “a language of Jewishness”.

Yet, because their language is so infused with the experience of the diaspora, for him Yiddish-speaking Jews reveal humanity’s true situation: “When all nations realise that they are in exile — exile will cease to be.”

He hopes to encourage “a cosmopolitanism which is based on a deep knowledge of other people…religious love towards humans and animals”.

Who needs Yiddish? It turns out that everybody does. While the essays in this volume on the whole do not match Singer’s fiction at its best, together they provide an invaluable supplement to our understanding of this extraordinary writer’s vision.

Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Edited by David Stromberg
Princeton University Press £20.00

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