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Critical Essay by Israel Shenker
SOURCE: "The Man Who Talked Back to God: Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1904–1991," in The New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1991, p. 11.
In the following essay, Shenker recounts Singer's views on God, contemporary literature, and his own writing.
His mind teemed with eternal questions and with plain-spoken answers. In talk and in writing he was forthright and intense, not a tentative rose water soul given to pallid thought and halfhearted expression. What he conveyed was the burden of experience shaped by trials, transformed by imagination, weighted by reflection, leavened by humor. Part prophet, part scold, writer of genius, ironist, pessimist and cynic, he did not seem to vaunt his superiority but appeared inoffensive and vulnerable. Had there been a contest for the palest, least colorful man on New York's Upper West Side, Isaac Bashevis Singer would have been the odds-on favorite. He looked like a worker in a matzob factory, as though he had always lived indoors, a thin, fragile creature who shunned sunlight and ever fresh air, the sort who would mumble his daily prayers.
From his early days in Warsaw to his death in Florida last month at the age of 87, Singer had a peculiar relationship to God: man to Man, personal and frank, sometimes unforgiving. "The belief that man can do what he wants, without God, is as far from me as the North Pole," he said as we waited too patiently to be served at a Jewish dairy restaurant. It was our first meeting, in 1968, when I was interviewing him for The New York Times, and I was trying to clear my mind of the prevailing thought Someday my blintz will come.
"I don't think religion should be connected with dogma or revelation," Singer continued. "Since he's a silent God, he talks in deeds, in events, and we have to learn this language. The belief in God is as necessary as sex. Whatever you call him—nature or higher power—doesn't matter. The power that takes care of you, and the farthest star, all this is God.
"The Almighty keeps promising things, and He doesn't keep his word," he went on. "What hasn't He promised us Jews! It took him 2,000 years to get us to Israel. Maybe the politicians will also keep their promises after 2,000 years. One thing is clear: our nature will be exactly the same. A man will park his car on the moon and live on Madison Avenue, but he will have the same appetites and the same tsuris [troubles]."
If God had been a little less almighty, Singer suggested, the All Powerful would have tried to explain to victims why they suffer, not just let them do all the guesswork. Why did God always have to move in mysterious ways? What could have been more outlandish than having a gifted author like Singer, so easy to appreciate, write in a language like Yiddish, which so few could understand? Singer told of a Yiddish bookstore proprietor who had a double lock on his door. "I'm not afraid of people stealing," the bookseller explained. "I'm afraid some author breaks in and leaves more of his books here."
Yet here was one of these potential burglars, condemned to obscurity in the pages of The Daily Forward, the Yiddish-language newspaper in New York where his fiction appeared beginning in 1935, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, showing that Yiddish could pay off in more than tears or laughter. It took the entire 81 years since its founding for The Forward to announce the good news from Stockholm with a headline that warmed even those Jewish hearts grown cold with disappointments: "ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER BEGINS HIS NOBEL LECTURE IN YIDDISH."
The Forward told its readers that the event marked the first time in history that the Swedish Academy had heard Yiddish. This is a language of remote origin and constant improvement. Its vocabulary and associations shift from country to country, and its meaning depends greatly on the speaker's tone. Only superficially does Yiddish resemble Swedish. Swedish is a vernacular confined to parts of Scandinavia, but Yiddish can be misunderstood all over the world.
In time Singer stopped delivering his Yiddish in person to the newspaper office, and his stories and the installments of his novels arrived by mail or even by messenger. He had finally acquired a typewriter, so it was an even greater pleasure for his editors to read him. In the beginning was the word, he conceded, after we had known each other for a while, but in the end was garbage. "A big publisher has 10 or 12 editors, and each editor is anxious to find any little girl who writes about her aunt sleeping with soldiers, so he can hail the work of genius. Publishers sell it for hard covers and soft covers, and they should sell it for slip covers.
"When a book comes into print today, suddenly there are 10 false witnesses to testify it is the greatest which has ever appeared," he complained. "If I were Moses today, I'd add to the commandment not to bear false witness another one. 'Don't praise your neighbor's bad writing.' Even if there were some good writers, they'd be lost in this muddy ocean of false praise. Instead of saying good is good and bad is bad, the critics say bad is good.
"If our supermarkets gave us stale bread or bad cheese or sour milk, there would be an outcry," he said. "But our literary supermarkets have lost all responsibility and we say nothing. I'm told there are many newspapers which do not take false ads. If I want to advertise that a sandwich I sell will give eternal life, they will not print this ad. When bad books are praised to heaven, someone should veto these ads."
The blintzes finally arrived, delivered by a surly waitress. "I'm sure if the Messiah would come, she would still be angry," Singer said "She'd say, 'Hurry up. I'm waiting for the Resurrection.' The real trouble will come with the Resurrection. If you look obsolete to your son of 14, how obsolete will you look to your father Abraham?"
In 1962 Singer wrote a short story called "The Son" that told of his meeting with the son whom he had not seen in 20 years. Eventually that son, Israel Zamir, whose Hebraic surname means "songbird," published in a Tel Aviv newspaper his own version of the meeting. Singer told him he had some good phrases, but that while in English the clichés would have been young and in Hebrew they were sacred, they were still clichés.
Almost miraculously, Singer preserved his own style and his own concerns against the erosion of his voluntary exile in the United States. He said he needed three conditions to write a story: a real topic, an account with beginning, middle and end; a desire to write it; and the illusion that only he could write it, not Bellow or Mailer. "Fortunately, I have to force myself not to write," said the author of 30 books and innumerable short stories. "I get up every morning with a desire to sit down and work. My imagination has been overstimulated all my life by life itself."
"God has given me so many fantasies that my problem is not how to get them but how to get rid of them," he told me once, speaking by long-distance phone. He also complained of short-distance hazards. Sometimes his wife, Alma, interrupted, and then, as he said, "Wives of writers have the inclination to put a plate of chicken soup down on manuscripts."
He shied from chicken soup—and chickens—and became a devoted vegetarian. From childhood on he had seen that might makes right, that man is stronger than chicken—man eats chicken, not vice versa. That bothered him, for there was no evidence that people were more important than chickens. When he lectured on life and literature there were often dinners in his honor, and sympathetic hosts served vegetarian meals. "So, in a very small way, I do a favor for the chickens," Singer said. "If I will ever get a monument, chickens will do it for me."
This section contains 1,358 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)