Nobel winner I.B. Singer dies at 87

July 25, 1991|By Eric Pace | Eric Pace,New York Times

Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose vivid evocations of Jewish life in his native Poland and of his experiences as an immigrant in America won him the Nobel Prize in Literature, died yesterday. He was 87 and lived in Surfside, Fla.

Singer died of several strokes, his wife Alma said.

Singer's stories and novels, written in Yiddish, often dealt with his upbringing as a rabbi's son in Warsaw and in a small town in eastern Poland and were redolent of the mysticism of Jewish folklore. But he also wrote about loneliness in drab cafeterias, worldliness in Miami Beach and chance acquaintanceship on the sidewalks of upper Broadway.

Throughout his career, he wrote about human passions and high emotions.

"God gave us so many emotions and such strong ones," he once said in an interview. "Every human being, even if he is an idiot, is a millionaire in emotions."

Even after decades in the United States Singer kept using Yiddish for the long succession of short stories, novels, memoirs and children's books he wrote.

Singer's more than 30 books ranged from the novel "Satan in Goray," which came out in 1935, to another novel, "Scum," which was serialized in the Jewish Daily Forward in 1967 and published in book form this year. They include the much-praised "A Crown of Feathers" (1973) and other short-story collections. Many of his stories also appeared in The New Yorker.

Singer was a modest man with an unassuming and unliterary style of life: He liked to wear plain business suits and he preferred dairy restaurants to writers' bars. But his life was enlivened by his passion for metaphysics, his eye for a pretty ankle and his occasional flair for the dramatic; when he gave his Nobel Prize lecture in December 1978, he startled the dignitaries in the Stockholm auditorium by breaking into Yiddish.

In awarding him the prize, he said, the Swedish Academy was also honoring "a loshon fun golus, ohn a land, ohn grenitzen, nisht gshtitzt fun kein shum meluchoch" -- "a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government."

Singer was one of several 20th-century Yiddish writers, including his older brother, I.J. Singer, Chaim Grade and Sholem Asch, who carried on the tradition of Mendele Mokher Sforim and other great Yiddish novelists of the 1800s.

Isaac Singer's skill in using the language was a matter of pride with him, so much so, the story goes, that one day in the '30s, when he was a new, low-ranking contributor to the Jewish Daily Forward, he flew into a rage when an editor tried to give him advice on writing.

"Don't try to teach me Yiddish!" Singer shouted. "I know how to write Yiddish!"

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born on July 14, 1904, to Bathsheba Zylberman Singer in Radzymin, a flour-milling town 15 miles northeast of Warsaw. When he was 4, his family moved to Warsaw, and his father set up a rabbinical court in the shabby building where they lived.

As a boy, Isaac received a traditional Jewish schooling and spent time with his maternal grandmother in the small town of Bilgoraj, in the countryside of eastern Poland. His parents wanted him to be a rabbi, and he obliged them by enrolling at the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw.

But in his early 20s Singer made a momentous decision: he would drop his religious studies and become a secular writer. In taking the step, he was greatly influenced by his older brother, whose full name was Israel Joseph Singer.

Soon he began having book reviews and short stories published. His first work was in Hebrew, but then he made another momentous decision. Finding that ancient tongue confining -- "Nobody spoke it where I lived," he recalled -- he began writing in Yiddish.

In 1935, having become alarmed at the growing menace of Nazism and the worsening conditions among Polish Jews, Singer set sail for the United States, where his brother had settled.

"The Family Moskat" appeared in book form in Yiddish in 1945, dedicated to the memory of I.J. Singer, who had died in 1944. An English translation was published in 1950 and received enthusiastic reviews.

"Enemies: A Love Story," which was the first of Singer's novels to be set in the United States, came out in 1970. It was about Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who felt guilty about having survived.

The 1983 Hollywood musical "Yentl," based on Singer's story "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," and starring Barbra Streisand, got mixed reviews including a negative reaction from Singer himself. "I did not find artistic merit, neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing," he wrote in 1984. "There was too much singing, much too much."

A 1972 novel by Singer, "Enemies, a Love Story," had a happier fate as a 1989 movie with the same title, directed and produced by Paul Mazursky. Janet Maslin, in The Times, called it a "deeply felt, fiercely evocative adaption" of the "brilliantly enigmatic novel" about Holocaust survivors in the New York of 1949.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son from an earlier marriage, Israel Zamir, of Gilboa, Israel, a writer and translator, and four grandchildren.

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