Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Perhaps God throws away many experiments before He finds the right expression. Perhaps we are the discards — or we could be the part He keeps. This mystery is what keeps us all going, to see what happens in the next chapter.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish: יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער or יצחק בת־שבֿעס זינגער; pseudonym: Icek Hersz Zynger;[1] born 21 November 1902 as Icek Zynger, died 24 July 1991) was a Polish-American writer of short stories and novels in Yiddish; he used his mother's name in devising his penname "Bashevis" (son of Bathsheba). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.

Quotes[edit]

A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise… Because that is how life is — full of surprises.
The Jewish people have been in exile for 2,000 years; they have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds of languages and still they kept their old language, Hebrew. They kept their Aramaic, later their Yiddish; they kept their books; they kept their faith.
Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
  • We must believe in free will — we have no choice.
    • An ironic statement which Singer made in many interviews over many years; here quoted in "Isaac Singer’s Promised City" City Journal (Summer 1997)
    • Variants or variant translations:
      We must believe in free will — we have no other choice.
      You must believe in free will; there is no choice.
      We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.
    • This makes more sense if you consider the statement "we must believe in free will; we have no [other logical] choice"
  • As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.
    • Enemies, A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), p. 257
  • Life is God's novel. Let him write it.
    • Quoted in Voices for Life (1975) edited by Dom Moraes
  • I am thankful, of course, for the prize and thankful to God for each story, each idea, each word, each day.
    • On winning the Nobel Prize, TIME magazine (16 October 1978)
  • I don't invent characters because the Almightly has already invented millions… Just like experts at fingerprints do not create fingerprints but learn how to read them.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • The analysis of character is the highest human entertainment.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise… Because that is how life is — full of surprises.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • The Jewish people have been in exile for 2,000 years; they have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds of languages and still they kept their old language, Hebrew. They kept their Aramaic, later their Yiddish; they kept their books; they kept their faith.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters.
    • The New York Times (3 December 1978)
  • Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
    • The New York Times (3 December 1978)
  • Even in love, people betray themselves. And when you betray somebody else, you also betray yourself. I would say a great part of human history is a history of self-betrayal and betrayal of others.
  • Children don't read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology... They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff... When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don't expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.
    • Nobel lecture as quoted in The Observer (17 December 1978) Variant: "They still believe in God, the family, angels, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other obsolete stuff."
  • When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am grown up, they call me a writer.
    • TIME (18 July 1983)
  • We write not only for children but also for their parents. They, too, are serious children.
    • Stories for Children (1984)
  • Take three quarts of duck's milk...
    • First words of a "recipe for high-priced cookies" in Stories for Children (1984)
  • If Moses had been paid newspaper rates for the Ten Commandments, he might have written the Two Thousand Commandments.
    • The New York Times (30 June 1985)
  • Vegetarianism is my religion. I became a consistent vegetarian some twenty-three years ago. Before that, I would try over and over again. But it was sporadic. Finally, in the mid-1960s, I made up my mind. And I've been a vegetarian ever since. When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It's unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. … This is my protest against the conduct of the world. To be a vegetarian is to disagree — to disagree with the course of things today. Nuclear power, starvation, cruelty — we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it's a strong one.
  • I started to "write" even before I knew the alphabet. I would dip a pen in ink and scribble. I also liked to draw — horses, houses, dogs. The Sabbath was an ordeal for me, because it is forbidden to write on that day.
    • "A Day of Pleasure" (1996)

Nobel lecture (1978)[edit]

The storyteller and poet 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 or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants.
Nobel Lecture (8 December 1978)
There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God — a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.
  • The storyteller and poet 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 or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation.
  • Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him. In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.
  • I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will.
  • Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God — a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.
  • I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives — philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.
  • Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet — whom Plato banned from his Republic — may rise up to save us all.
  • One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God's plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.
  • There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value.
  • Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists — rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

Quotes about Isaac Bashevis Singer[edit]

"I.B. Singer's Misogyny" by Evelyn Torton Beck[edit]

In Nice Jewish Girls. A Lesbian Anthology (1982)

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the one author by whom thousands of people the world over will measure both Yiddish literature and Jewish culture. Unfortunately, readers who are unfamiliar with Jewish history and culture may assume that Singer's portrayal of pre-war Polish Jewry is an authentic representation of reality. It is, instead, a rather distorted picture of shtetl and city life, reflecting fringe elements of that society rather than the norm. Singer is not interested in the ordinary life of the average Jew. His preoccupation with sex, for example, was hardly characteristic of the hard-working Jews of Eastern Europe, who had to wage a daily struggle for mere survival. His focus is not on the values or realities of Jewish life but on the aberrations of human psychology. Unlike nineteenth-century Jewish writers who, while critical of Jewish life, believed in Jewish values and in the possibility of preserving them, Singer is a pessimistic modernist who believes all humans are essentially depraved.
  • While Singer presents men in terms of their individual psychological aberrations, he treats women as a class, making far more frequent use of clichés and stereotypes in depicting them than in depicting men. Singer's vision-combining the traditional Jewish image of woman as subservient and inferior with the misogynistic view of woman's nature in the philosophies of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud and Weininger represents a powerful assault on the Jewish woman.
  • a lesbian relationship, which Singer views as the ultimate aberration.
  • The most persistent of Singer's stereotypes, one that almost subsumes all the others, is woman as temptress.
  • Like so many other male writers, Singer sees the world as essentially male-centered and clearly views women as "other"-separate, subsidiary, apart, alien. He betrays a deep mistrust, revulsion and hostility toward women, especially those who stray in any way from their prescribed roles or cease to organize their lives around men. Singer portrays women almost entirely as the sum total of their biological functions and in terms of their relationships (or lack of them) with men. He uses physical details of women's bodies as signposts of their personalities.
  • In so frequently associating male lost with violence toward women, Singer diverges most strongly from traditional Jewish life and comes closest to the Western pornographic imagination.
  • Singer seems to be responding favorably to the feminist challenge, at least on the level of official pronouncement. At a public lecture in New York City last fall, he went so far as to say that Judaism had made an "historical mistake" in not teaching women Torah, that the denial of women's rights had contributed to assimilation, that he welcomed giving Jewish women full religious rights in the synagogue (including aliyoth and ordination), and that a reversal of these inequities would be "wonderful for religion and justice." (JTA, 11/8/78). As encouraging as such remarks may be, they nonetheless stand in stark contrast to Singer's most recent fictional writings, which continue to present the male/female dichotomy in unchanged sexist terms. While it is possible to explain this gap between the written and the spoken word as the result of the time lag between the two media, it seems more likely that this discrepancy is exactly what it appears to be-an unresolved contradiction.

Notes[edit]

  1. His press card—a document issued by the Pariser Haint (The Parisian Day), a daily on the Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple to which he had sometimes contributed from Warsaw—was issued to that name; Florence Noiville (2008), Isaac B. Singer: A Life, Northwestern University Press, p. 65.

External links[edit]

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