Isaac Singer dies at 87 won Nobel in literature

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

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.

Mr. Singer died of several strokes, said his wife, Alma.

Mr. 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, Mr. Singer kept using Yiddish for the long succession of short stories, novels, memoirs and children's books he wrote.

Most of his fiction first appeared in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily Forward, a New York newspaper that is now called the Jewish Forward. It has had an English-language sister publication since last year.

But Mr. Singer's writing reached a large international public through translations into English and many other languages. Its worldwide appeal was noted in the citation that accompanied his Nobel in 1978, which praised his "impassioned narratives, which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, bring universal human conditions to life."

New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that this was "another way of saying what admirers have always observed about Mr. Singer: that he has made of the East European Jew an exemplar of the suffering modern man who has been exiled from his divine inheritance."

Mr. 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.

Barbra Streisand's 1983 movie, "Yentl," is based on a Singer short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy." The 1989 movie "Enemies: A Love Story" was adapted from his about Holocaust survivors in New York.

Mr. 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."

In the speech, a deft summary of what he thought about his work, Mr. Singer also expressed his long-held view that one main duty of the writer was to keep the reader interested.

"The storyteller of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social and political ideals," he declared, speaking in English.

"Nonetheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation." These, he said, included the decline of the power of religion and the weakening of the family.

That being the case, he said, the world had much to learn from the Jews of his childhood world, from "their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation."

Central to that way of life, he said, was Yiddish with its "quiet humor and gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love." And in a figurative way, he told his audience, "Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of the frightened and hopeful humanity."

Mr. 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!" Mr. Singer shouted. "I know how to write Yiddish!"

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