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The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer

Edited by Seth L. Wolitz

Publication Year: 2001

Nobel Prize–winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer stands virtually alone among prominent writers for being more widely known through translations of his work than through the original texts. Yet readers and critics of the Yiddish originals have long pointed out that the English versions are generally shortened, often shorn of much description and religious matter, and their perspectives and denouements are significantly altered. In short, they turn the Yiddish author into a Jewish-American English writer, detached from of his Eastern European Jewish literary and cultural roots. By contrast, this collection of essays by leading Yiddish scholars seeks to recover the authentic voice and vision of the writer known to his Yiddish readers as Yitskhok Bashevis. The essays are grouped around four themes: • The Yiddish language and the Yiddish cultural experience in Bashevis’s writings • Thematic approaches to the study of Bashevis’s literature • Bashevis’s interface with other times and cultures • Interpretations of Bashevis’s autobiographical writings A special feature of this volume is the inclusion of Joseph Sherman’s new, faithful translation of a chapter from Bashevis’s Yiddish "underworld" novel Yarme and Keyle.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: Literary Modernism Series


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Walking with my family up the main street of Wengen, a mountain resort high in the Swiss Alps, in the summer of 1983, I swore I had just seen Isaac Bashevis Singer pass us by. My wife—an economist—scoffed.What would he be doing here? She slyly suggested I must be affected by the pure mountain air. In fact I had just delivered a paper at Oxford on Bashevis Singer’s occult novel...

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pp. xiii-xxvii

The fiction in English translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature, has long been known to general readers and literary critics alike. Less well known are the original Yiddish texts from which these works in English derive. This volume of essays attempts to resurrect, recover, and restore the authentic voice and vision of the writer known to his Yiddish...

I. The Yiddish Language and the Yiddish Cultural Experience in Bashevis’s Writings

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1. A Canticle for Isaac: A Kaddish for Bashevis

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pp. 3-12

Zamir is right. New Jersey is no place for the Jewish dead. Yet that is where Bashevis lies, forever removed from the Poland of his dreams and the New York of his destiny. Neither Manhattan nor Warsaw, New Jersey offers little Jewish memory, and therefore no fitting memorial. Even Miami would have been a better resting place. Unlike Sholem Aleykhem...

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2. Bashevis/Singer and the Jewish Pope

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pp. 13-27

During the almost four centuries between 1602 and 1958, Yiddish literature produced four separate reworkings of the fear-filled folk myth that one day a Jewish apostate might come to rule the world as pope.1 The recurrence of this fantasy is noteworthy, since its roots lie deep in the biblical story of Joseph, with its overtones of Jewish self-eradication through assimilation. From this biblical exemplum it branches out into the urgent messianic...

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3. History, Messianism, and Apocalypse in Bashevis’s Work

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pp. 28-61

It is doubtful whether any of the exclusive group of Yiddish readers who started reading Der sotn in goray (Satan in Goray) by Yitskhok Bashevis in the January 1933 issue of the Warsaw journal Globus realized that these were the opening chapters of what would prove to be one of the most remarkable works of modern Yiddish literature, one that departed significantly from contemporary...

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4. Sociolinguistic Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer

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pp. 62-75

In this essay I will analyze a number of observations that I. B. Singer made in essays written from 1943 to 1978 on the sociolinguistic status of the Yiddish language; hence the intentional tsveytaytshikeyt (ambiguity) of the title. In his role, especially after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, as arguably the most familiar speaker and writer of Yiddish to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Bashevis’s thoughts on various aspects of the language are of interest...

II. Thematic Approaches to the Study of Bashevis’s Fiction

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5. Bilom in Bashevis’s Der knekht (The Slave): A khaye hot oykh a neshome (An animal also has a soul)

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pp. 79-92

Walking about Jewish neighborhoods today, in almost any country in the West or anywhere in Israel, one sees many dogs of every breed and pedigree. This makes it difficult to realize that some of us in childhood heard parents and grandparents repeat the now wholly comic saying, oyb a yid hot a hunt, oder der yid iz nisht keyn yid oder der hunt iz nisht keyn hunt...

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6. Art and Religion in Der bal-tshuve (The Penitent)

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pp. 93-103

Bashevis’s novel Der bal-tshuve, originally published in Forverts in 1973 and translated into English as The Penitent ten years later,1 is cast almost exclusively in the form of amonologue by a Polish Jew named Yoysef Shapiro who has escaped to the Soviet Union during the war and then become a prosperous real-estate developer in New York. Dissatisfied by the...

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7. "Death Is the Only Messiah": Three Supernatural Stories by Yitskhok Bashevis

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pp. 107-116

Yitskhok Bashevis’s first literary portrayal of his psychosexual development as a young Yiddish writer who had just left behind the traditional Hasidic world was his 1928 story ‘‘Oyfn oylem-hatoyhu’’ (In the World of Chaos).2 In Bashevis’s 1981 spiritual autobiography, Love and Exile: An Autobiographical Trilogy, he referred to this story as a veiled self-portrait of the writer as a young man...

III. Bashevis’s Interface with Other Times and Cultures

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8. Bashevis’s Interactions with the Mayse-bukh (Book of Tales)

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pp. 119-133

Obvious in a number of Bashevis’s stories featuring demons and ghosts, dybbuks and werewolves, is the writer’s extensive deployment of motifs common in traditional Jewish folklore. Moreover, his supernatural narrators repeatedly refer to old Yiddish storybooks and legends—those mayse-bikhlekh in yiddish-taytsh, bought from itinerant book peddlers or found moldering...

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9. The Role of Polish Language and Literature in Bashevis’s Fiction

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pp. 134-147

When Oyzer-Heszl (Heshl), the protagonist of Di familye mushkat (The Family Moskat), first visits Hadassah in her room, he looks at her bookshelf and notices a number of Polish books, among others Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz and Stanislaw Przybyszewski’s The Outcry, as well as a thick novel entitled Pharaoh.1 The name of the author of this novel is not mentioned, presumably to indicate that Oyzer-Heszl and perhaps indirectly Bashevis...

IV. Interpretations of Bashevis’s Autobiographical Writings

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10. Revealing Bashevis’s Earliest Autobiographical Novel, Varshe 1914-1918 (Warsaw 1914-1918)

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pp. 151-161

By the time Bashevis had been thrust into the forefront of world literature by winning the Nobel Prize in 1978, his works had been translated into a great many languages. The translations were so widespread, and enjoyed such extensive popularity, that at times readers may actually have forgotten the language in which the original work was written. Hence it is particularly necessary to emphasize that Bashevis’s chosen literary language was Yiddish...

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11. Folk and Folklore in the Work of Bashevis

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pp. 162-172

Recent Yiddish literary criticism has focused on the issue of how modern Yiddish literature has incorporated Jewish folklore, sometimes romanticizing it, at other times parodying it, and at still other times using it with a modernist sensibility.1 It seems that as consensus for a canon of Yiddish fiction emerges, many of the established works’ entry into literary immortality is owing in large measure to their connection with Jewish life through folkloric material...

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12. Bashevis at Forverts

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pp. 173-181

It was a mismatch made in heaven—Bashevis Singer and Abe Cahan. The many years Isaac Bashevis Singer spent in Cahan’s kingdom at Forverts were central to his professional development as a novelist and to his private experience as an immigrant. Had it not been for the twists of family history that brought Bashevis to Forverts, he would have missed both his greatest opportunity and his deepest humiliation. What was it in Bashevis’s...

V. Bashevis’s Untranslated "Gangster" Novel: Yarme Un Keyle

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13. A Background Note on the Translation of Yarme un keyle

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pp. 185-191

Among the many valuable papers housed in the Singer Yiddish archive in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin is a large section in holograph, and the first five chapters in print as they appeared in Forverts, of a novel by Bashevis, remarkable in being entirely different in genre from any of the fiction that made him so celebrated in his lifetime...

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14. Yarme and Keyle: Chapter 2

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pp. 192-217

Yarme had broken his vow. After Keyle had sobered up, she’d wept bitterly, kissed his feet, and sworn by her dead mother’s memory that if he didn’t forgive her, she’d go straight to the Kalisz railroad line and throw herself down on the tracks. She tore her hair, beating her head against the wall with a face bathed in tears the size of lima beans.When Yarme finally took her back to bed, she proved to him that he wasn’t yet familiar with all the cunning tricks she knew for arousing and satisfying a man. Yarme demanded to know who had taught...

Appendix. Bashevis Singer as a Regionalist of Lublin Province: A Note

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pp. 219-224


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pp. 225-226

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 227-229


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pp. 231-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780292796188
E-ISBN-10: 0292796188
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292791473
Print-ISBN-10: 029279147X

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 16 b&w photos, 2 line drawings, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: Literary Modernism Series