Isaac Bashevis Singer

Recently I was working in a nightclub below Cooper Union. I had been out of New York for many years and it was thirty years since I had been in that neighborhood. Late in the wet night, a rainy moon in the sky, I went out for a breath of air and walked up the street looking for the Café Royale. I got to St. Marks-in-the-Bouerie, and walked all around it, trying to orient myself. There was no doubt about it, the Café Royale was gone and I couldn’t even tell where it had been. Loneliness, nostalgia, the consciousness of age and the passing years, the ache was as much as I could bear. All that bright electric life was gone. How gone it really is, more lost than the noise of the elevated, long ago under the two o’clock in the morning moon, no one who was not there in the days when it was at its most splendid can ever know.

Yiddish culture is at a discount today. A lot of people seem to think it is counterrevolutionary if not positively anti-Semitic to speak the language. There is a curious tendency always to refer to the major Yiddish writers as Polish or Russian or German, to describe them in terms of the country of their origin or even in terms of their subject matter, however many years they may have spent in America. If this goes on one of the most valuable and, in actual fact, one of the strongest influences in American culture will be forgotten and drop out of sight. For the first quarter of the twentieth century New York was one of the literary and theatrical capitals of the world. Not only that, but at the time when American literature in English was struggling with the problems of American provinciality, one of the most intense sectors, the most intense sector really, of our literary life was characterized by its — to borrow a word from Stalin — cosmopolitanism.

When people ask me at lectures, “Mr. Rexroth, whom do you consider the leading American poet of the 1900s?” I love to answer, “Why, Stuart Merrill, of course. Who else?” He wrote in French. A good case could be made for the claim that the best writing done in America in the first quarter of the century was in Yiddish. I don’t think it’s really true, but it is sufficiently true to be passionately arguable in one of those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream in the Café Royale. The Café is gone, the arguments are gone, they’ve discovered sour cream in the bridge clubs of Ashtabula, and there’s very little Yiddish literature being written.

But there is Isaac Bashevis Singer. If only he were left writing in Yiddish it would still be an important literary language. He is certainly one of the most remarkable American authors who has ever lived, as he is one of the most intensely Yiddish. Is Yiddish writing sinewy, grotesque, haunted, bitterly comic, deeply compassionate? Singer is close to being the most sinewy, grotesque, haunted, bitterly comic, deeply and desperately compassionate of all. Is most of it at its best, deeply rooted in the ecstatic brotherhood and fantastic folk culture of Hassidism? Singer is a very Zaddik; if he just believed in the efficacy of the Kabbalistic word, I am sure he could make Golems. His stories are Golems enough, they have an amazing life of their own for works of man.

We hear so much nowadays about alienation, we forget that its literary masterpieces, even when written by Jews, portray the alienation of the author from an essentially Christian culture. How little the dilemmas of Baudelaire, or Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche, or Sartre — or Heine — mean to a cultured Chinese or Indian! Isaac Singer is an alienated Zaddik, a Hassid who has found Pascal’s abyss in the Zohar. The Farewell to the Sabbath, the dance under the new moon, something has blighted them, as something blighted the Mass for Baudelaire. Marc Chagall is jolly by comparison. Perhaps only Soutine, of all the Hassidic artists of modern times, shares so tragic, so abandoned and lost a vision.

Nowadays a lot of people know of the folklore of Hassidism only through the antiseptic anecdotes of Martin Buber. They are beautiful and clean, poignant and infinitely humane — and they might as well have been written by Albert Schweitzer or Rufus Jones. It is the other side of the violent, intense, locked-in life of the Polish ghettoes and villages we see in Singer. Buber has “faith” — a typically modem, enlightened faith. For all I know Isaac Singer may be a most devout Jew, but there is no “faith” in his stories and still less Enlightenment. For him, an alienated Rabbi Elimelik, “civilization” really is Gog and Magog. We hear so much about Tradition now. Who knows this Tradition better than Singer? Yet what survives for him, what is “usable” as the theologians put it, is just the witchcraft and the pain.

“Satan in Goray” and “Gimpel the Fool” are certainly amongst the most heart-piercing, penetrating, unforgettable stories ever written either in Yiddish or in America. Although I suppose Singer’s plots and characters and milieu could all be called sensational, they are sensational like Märchen, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with the authenticity and closeness to physical reality and the ways of men of a folk tale told in a cottage on a winter night in a village in the backwoods of Poland. It is as though the Baal Shem Tov had seen a vision of Poland in 1940-45 before he ever set out on his travels, and sat down one night by candlelight and told his wife a long grotesque parable, there in his log hut in the Carpathian mountains — and never had gone on his mission. The trouble with all this liberal Neo-Hassidism is that it can’t really cope with the insights and revelations of our cold, hopeless, sick time. There’s a certain complacent Fabian Society optimism about it. Singer’s can. It can even cope with its own disbelief.

Singer has many virtues, a wiry, inescapable style, an intensely personal, inimitable vision, a Machiavellian wit, but above all else it is the bracing, revivifying character of his insight that makes him important. I suppose it is a sort of message, “Life is a bitter tonic, but it cures death itself.” I suppose he could be compared to Sam Beckett, or to the Bernanos of Sous le Soleil de Satan. But he is, really, a lot further along the road to the end of night than they are and he starts out from less auspicious and promising origins. Perhaps it is that, so far out along that road which we really, all fooling aside, know we each must travel, his people remain so unkillable, and their comradeship in humanity so inextinguishable, that makes him important. Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps that is what makes him so much more indomitable an alienated man than most people who are only alienated from what we have come to call “Western Europe.” Sounds like it should have “Defense Community” added to it, that term, doesn’t it?



This essay originally appeared in 1957, and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays