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Isaac Bashevis Singer Receives Centennial Tributes - 2004-07-21


The centennial of the birth of Jewish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was observed on July 14. Mr. Singer is the only Yiddish-speaking author to win the Nobel Prize, and his works are known to most readers today through translations. His fiction and non-fiction span centuries and continents, from the Eastern European villages of his Jewish ancestors to more contemporary tales of immigrant life in other countries.

The centennial tributes to Isaac Bashevis Singer suggest just how versatile a writer he was. The National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts has hosted a traveling exhibit of his archives, a program of tributes from his friends and fellow writers, and a five-day conference on his short stories, children's tales, novels and memoirs. Program Director Nora Gerard says Isaac Bashevis Singer is a vital figure in Yiddish literary culture.

"His work, because it was so accessible to people, and he was able to bridge the gap between the two languages in this country, makes it works that people have been reading and can still read today. A lot of Yiddish writers are not in print, but Bashevis's works are still available," she said.

The Library of America press is observing the Singer centennial with four new volumes devoted to his life and short fiction. They were edited by Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans who's a native of Mexico. Mr. Stavans says he wanted to show how the Yiddish-speaking author, whose named was originally pronounced Zynger, became the American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"Singer's dream was to allow non-Jews, to allow readers in general, to experience what it is to be a Jew in Eastern Europe or in America in the 20th century,? he said. ?For an immigrant who hardly speaks a word of English when he arrives, to become canonized in the way Hawthorne or Thoreau are canonized is quite an odyssey."

To achieve that odyssey, Mr. Stavans says Isaac Bashevis Singer merged two kinds of storytelling.

"He is seen as the bridge between the Old World and the New. He was a man who loved to talk about demons and goblins and witches and ghosts. And on the other hand, he is a modernist, a writer that is interested in the inner life of his characters, who wants to explore what it means to be urban and urbane."

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland, the son of a Jewish rabbi, and grew up absorbing both the intellectual sophistication of Warsaw and the folk customs of the countryside. He was already writing stories when he immigrated to the United States in 1935, where he joined his older brother, also a successful author. Isaac Bashevis Singer began attracting a large American audience of his own after the publication of his story Gimpel the Fool in 1953? in a translation done by another future Nobel Prize winner, Saul Bellow.

Mr. Stavans describes how the story begins: "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, flaxhead, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck." While stories like Gimpel the Fool evoked the village tricksters, shopkeepers and rabbis of a distant time, Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote more contemporary tales of refugees and immigrants cut off from their cultural heritage.

"When he writes about American Jews or refugees from Eastern Europe, the word 'nostalgia,' the word 'recrimination, the words 'pain' and 'suffering' all come to the readers' mind,? said Mr. Stavans. ?These are people who are looking to start again in New York or Florida or Buenos Aires or Brazil, or in all the other places he wrote about -characters longing for a past, whereas the Eastern European characters in his fiction are the past."

The one constant in Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories is language. Ilan Stavans says that by continuing to write in Yiddish, Isaac Bashevis Singer assumed an important symbolic role in Jewish culture.

"When he won the Nobel Prize in 1978, the Nobel committee celebrated him for being a Yiddish writer, and when he delivered the Nobel Prize speech, he began in Yiddish and then switched to English and kept on talking about how Yiddish had been dying for centuries and [yet] never will really succeed in dying, that it will continue living for a long time, and that Yiddish itself has become a metaphor for the survival of the Jewish people, for survival in general," Mr. Stavans explained.

Isaac Bashevis Singer's work has been adapted into Broadway shows and Hollywood movies.

Barbra Streisand's movie Yentl was based on the Singer story of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to study Jewish sacred texts.

Ilan Stavans says that while Isaac Bashevis Singer disliked the movie "Yentl, it reflected what a mainstream writer he'd become.

"He was a writer who left the intimacy of the writer's desk and bridged out, through the stage, through the movie screen, through even television to a much wider audience," Mr. Stavans said.

And by the time he died in 1991, Isaac Bashevis Singer was also a role model for other authors.

"I think that his reach goes far beyond the Jewish literary tradition. Young writers - ethnic writers - Latino, African American, Asian, have also come to him, not looking for religious answers, but looking for ways to tell stories. And he knew exactly how to tell them," he added.

Ilan Stavans hopes the new anthology of Singer stories tells its own kind of story of a writer who journeyed from one culture to another, and - in reinventing himself - helped create a new kind of American literature.

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