Isaac Bashevis Singer

July 27, 1991

Yiddish is a language without a country, without a government and possibly without a future. It was pronounced dead long before now but, like Welsh, refuses to lie down.

Considerable thanks for that goes to an unlikely little man from Poland named Isaac Bashevis Singer, who fled the Nazi tide in Europe in 1935 and eked out a meager living in New York writing short stories for a newspaper of Yiddish language and Socialist politics on the Lower East Side that catered to an ever-dwindling market.

In translation, he was a best-seller. In translation, he won critical acclaim. (What the formerly fashionable New Critics and currently trendy Deconstructionists have in common, with most of us, is ignorance of Yiddish.) In translation, "Satan in Goray," "The Family Moskat," "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," and many other stories and novels became famous and possibly eternal.

There is a nasty streak in some of Singer's supernatural tales that you don't have to like; you do have to like a man who, on being handed the Nobel Prize by the Swedish Academy, would address that august body in Yiddish.

He brought understanding of the Jewish predicament in the 20th century to millions of non-Jews through literary means. He performed an invaluable service for the land he fled, Poland, where his works, long unavailable, are now read avidly in translation for the memory of Jewish Poland that was erased. His contribution to Yiddish literature was to add sophisticated psychology and aesthetics to what had been seen as simple popular tales for the masses. The language that began as a ghetto vernacular combining spoken German with the Hebrew alphabet had a literary flowering of just about one century (unless it keeps going). Isaac Singer gave Yiddish an intellectual respectability that many -- both Jews and non-Jews alike -- had previously denied to it.

That was a lot to have accomplished before his death, Wednesday, in Florida, at 87. Yiddish literature has lost its most forceful proponent, and the world one of its literary giants.

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