The Polish Legacy of the Singer Siblings

Fratelli Singer

A panoramic view on the Singer siblings, cross characters of Polish literature.

by Lorenzo Berardi

In the ranks of the Polish Nobel laureates there’s no room for Isaac Bashevis Singer. However, the writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1978 and died in Miami thirteen years later was born in Leoncin, a village a stone’s throw from Warsaw in 1902. Icek Hersz Zynger – that was his name back then – spent his youth in Poland in the little towns of Biłgoraj and Radzymin. Then, he moved with his family to the burgeoning Polish capital where he lived, studied and worked for a number of years. The author emigrated to the US when he was 32 and gained the American citizenship only in 1943.

All works published by I.B. Singer were written in Yiddish, his mother tongue, and not in Polish as the latter was a language the writer himself admitted not to be over confident using in his autobiographical trilogy ‘Love and Exile’. However, it was Poland – albeit mostly Jewish Poland – to inspire and shape a literary style that reached its peak in the US.

SingerToday reading the works of fiction written by the author over a span of fifty years, it strikes how most of those books are set in Poland starting with the debut of ‘Satan in Goray’ published in instalments on a Warsaw literary magazine in 1933. Later successful novels by I.B. Singer such as ‘The Magician of Lublin,’ ‘The Slave,’ and ‘The Manor’ have all a distinctive Polish setting. As for his masterpiece, ‘The Family Moskat,’ it’s so quintessentially bound to the changing fortunes of the city of Warsaw that it’d be impossible to picture its brilliant cast of characters elsewhere.

Upon moving to the US and becoming an American citizen, Isaac B. Singer shifted the setting of most of its works from the Old Continent to the States, as shown in novels such as ‘Enemies’ and ‘Shadows on the Hudson.’ However, the author never forgot the Poland of his youth and early writing days. On the contrary, he actually looked back at his homecountry more often as he grew old with the last two novels he published which are both set there. Whereas ‘The King of the Fields’ fictionalizes – a tad too woodenly – the genesis of Christian Poland, the protagonist of ‘Scum’ returns to the early 20th century Warsaw he had left behind upon relocating to Argentina.

I.B. Singer was a prolific author who published dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories as well as two autobiographical works. He was so dedicated to his art that kept writing till a few months before his death and completed his final novel at the ripe age of 88. And yet, the 1978 Nobel laureate in Literature was not an early bird. His first novel, ‘Satan in Goray’ was published in Poland when he had already turned 31 and was going to leave Poland for the US. On the one hand, this belated start of his literary career was due to the author lack of focus on fiction when he lived in Warsaw, distracted as he was by womanizing, proofreading, and reporting. On the other hand, young Isaac Bashevis was known in Warsaw’s literary circles just as ‘the little brother of Israel Joshua Singer’ and this label didn’t help his own self-confidence as an aspiring writer.

For at least twenty years, between the mid-1910s and the early 1930s, I.J. Singer was a widely famous author in the Polish capital. The eldest of the Singers worked as journalist and editor-in-chief of a score of publications and was one of the few Polish novelists who wrote in Yiddish to be published in the country, an honor he achieved with his novel ‘Yoshe Kalb.’ Israel Joshua was at the same time a role model and an unsurpassable basis of comparison for Isaac Bashevis.

It was I.J. who crossed the Atlantic Ocean first, informed as he was on the rampant antisemitism and the desire for expansion sprouting up in Nazi Germany. And it was I.J. who convinced his younger brother to follow him in New York in 1935. Once Isaac Bashevis emigrated from Poland to the US, he found hospitality at his brother’s with Israel Joshua helping him out to land a job in a Yiddish newspaper. During those early American years of the future Nobel laureate, Israel Joshua went as far as reading the novel Isaac Bashevis had been working at, providing encouragement, friendly tips to improve it, and rearranging the drafts himself.

The sudden early death of Israel Joshua – who died of heart stroke at the age of 50 – struck Isaac Bashevis hard, but it also shaped a different, more self-confident man and author out of him. Whereas I.J. Singer’s recognition as a writer had overshadowed the literary accomplishments of I.B. Singer first in Poland and then in the US through the 1930s and the 1940s, from the 1950s onwards the tables were turned. The international success gained by the novels and short stories by I.B. Singer put the books written by his elder brother aside; so much so that for dozens of years works by I.J. Singer were not reprinted worldwide. In fact, not even the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 convinced publishers to dust the excellent novels by Israel Joshua down.

Israel Joshua, master and spiritual father

It’s hard to explain why I.J. Singer was overlooked for so long, especially given that his books had a wider scope than those written by his younger brother. Most of I.B. Singer’s best works stem from Jewish and Yiddish traditions of old and rarely venture into uncharted territory such as politics, society, contemporary history, science. Not so Israel Joshua’s books whose plots are set in a more cosmopolitan world and whose main characters often have a modern, secularist view on life.

This approach to literature was hardly surprising given that I.J. Singer was himself a man with a wide range of interests, who worked as a journalist and kept himself up to date on scientific discoveries and politics. When the Singers lived in Warsaw, it was Israel Joshua who brought Yiddish dailies, scientific magazines, philosophical essays, and novels into the conservative family household, as revealed in the memoirs of Isaac Bashevis. These texts had a huge influence on the young future Nobel laureate eager as he was to learn as much as he could about the ways of the world and who questioned the existence of God to the astonishment of his pious parents. The key role played by Israel Joshua in Isaac Bashevis’ life is acknowledged by the latter in ‘The Family Moskat’ which is dedicated to I.J. Singer with the following words: “To me he was not only the older brother, but a spiritual father and master as well.”

It’s reading novels such as ‘The Family Carnovsky’ and ‘The Brothers Ashkenazi’ that the talent of I.J. Singer can beSinger fully appreciated. ‘The Family Carnovsky’, published in 1943, depicts the unstoppable and irreversible transition from religiousness to secularism within the same family in a span of barely three generations. It’s a book that starts in Poland, moves to Germany and ends in the US following the Carnovskys themselves and their Buddenbrook-like fate. Even though its author never refers to Nazism a single time and the tone of the novel is far from dramatic, opening up to irony and sarcasm, this book is imbibed in contemporary history and delivers a powerful message through difficult times. Here I.J. Singer makes clear that progress for Jews means overcoming bigotry and obscurantism heading towards secularism. However, this process doesn’t mean ditching traditions and history and those who do it, hence denying their past, are mistaken. Even though ‘The Family Carnovsky’ has become a bestseller in Italy and Spain over the last ten years, its most recent English edition is still the now rare paperback published in 1988 by Schocken.

Luckily, ‘The Brothers Ashkenazi’ – reputedly I.J. Singer’s masterpiece – is much easier to fetch for English speaking readers thanks to several editions, including a Penguin Classics one, and a recent reprint published by Other Press in 2010. The beauty of this novel lies in its ambitious purpose starting from the excellent and ever-detailed picture of the Polish city of Łódź caught between the end of the 19th century and World War I. Among the forces at work to shape the town in an industrial Sodom and Gomorrah – then known as ‘The Polish Manchester’ – there is a thriving Jewish community as well as prosperous Germans. This is a novel whose characters aren’t afraid of discussing politics and that offers a compelling view on socialism and capitalism wrestling to control factories. Those who wish to dig deeper into the writings of I.J. Singer will be delighted to know that two more of his books are available in English translation: the early novel ‘Yoshe Kalb’ and the poignant, autobiographical ‘Of a World that Is No More’.

Since he was so skilled in dealing with contemporary issues, it’s regrettable that Israel Joshua Singer died too early to address the topic of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and that would have become pivotal in many works by Isaac Bashevis. Today we can only guess what an author as capable as I.J. Singer could have written on this topic and how he would have looked at the success gained by great Jewish-American novelists such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Paul Auster.

Also, we will never know whether I.B. Singer would have been able to win over his ‘younger brother complex’ and publish ‘The Family Moskat’ and the excellent works that followed it had Israel Joshua lived a longer life. What we know is that each of the Singer brothers was masterful in what he wrote about. Isaac Bashevis was fond of oral tradition, tales, myths, legends and forged his style on the rediscovery of those elements flirting with magical realism. Wandering fiddlers, false Messiahs, dybbuks (spirits of the dead who possess the living), traveling magicians, and village idiots don’t belong in Israel Joshua’s world which is inhabited by gentiles, reluctant soldiers, young socialists, entrepreneurs, women politicians, and vegetarian doctors.

Esther Kreitman, the enlightened sister

Very little is known about the third Singer brother, Moyshe, who followed the steps of his Hasid father becoming a rabbi, but went missing with his mother in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. However, the first Singer sibling who started writing fiction was neither Israel Joshua nor Isaac Bashevis, but their sister Esther. Unfortunately, both Singer brothers didn’t seem to give Esther much credit and seldom wrote about her (a notable exception being the short story ‘Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy’ by I.B. Singer.)

It must be stressed out how Esther Kreitman Singer didn’t have it as easy as her brothers in becoming a published author as the Jewish Ashkenazi society between the two World Wars was still misogynistic and ridiculed women who dared to write books. An issue that Esther herself wasn’t afraid to assess and discuss in her published works to help defying traditions. Her brothers were impressed by this determination and reckoned she had a strong personality, but didn’t take her literary efforts seriously for a long time. To Isaac Bashevis’ credit, however, in 1968 he dedicated a collection of his short stories, ‘The Séance,’ “to the memory of my beloved sister.” She had died fourteen years earlier.

Despite agreeing to an arranged wedding and living through an unhappy marriage, Esther Kreitman Singer managed to overcome these difficulties and published her own novels and short stories. On top of this she translated into Yiddish authors such as Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw to earn a living. She never crossed the Pond, but left Poland as early as 1912 following her husband, a diamond cutter, first to Belgium and eventually to England. Her first book, ‘Der Sheydim-Tants’ (originally published in English translation as ‘Deborah’ and later as ‘The Dance of the Demons’) went to press in 1936 – one year after Isaac Bashevis’ literary debut – but never got a review on Forward, the prominent Yiddish newspaper her brothers worked for in the US.

By then, Esther was already 45 years old while Europe was on the verge of World War II. Between 1944 and 1949 two more books by Esther Kreitman Singer went to press: her second novel ‘Brilyantn’ (‘Diamonds’) and a collection of short stories, ‘Ykhes’ (‘The Blitz and Other Stories’). What these works of fiction have in common is that they are inspired by events in the life of their author from her life among the Jewish diamond cutters community in Antwerp to the Nazi bombing of London. Besides, Esther was a keen supporter of the secularist Jewish Enlightenment, known as the Haskalah, as seen from a women perspective and her literary works stressed this out in many ways.

Born and bred in Poland, the three Singer siblings moved abroad and wrote in Yiddish as it was their mother tongue. However, there’s little doubt that Esther, Israel Joshua, and Isaac Bashevis have left an important legacy in their homecountry as proved by the popularity gained by some of their works available in Polish translation. And it’s no coincidence that the most important event focusing on Jewish culture and heritage in contemporary Poland, the Festiwal Singera in Warsaw, is named after the late Isaac Bashevis.

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