Singer Receives Nobel Prize for Literature; Defends Yiddish As the ‘humble Language of Us All’
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Singer Receives Nobel Prize for Literature; Defends Yiddish As the ‘humble Language of Us All’

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Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded yesterday the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was one of nine Nobel Prize winners, six of them Americans, who received their gold medals and checks for $165,000 from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden in a ceremony in Stockholm’s concert hall. The nine laureates, including one from Britain, one from the Soviet Union and one from Switzerland, were honored for their work bestowing “the greatest benefit on mankind” during 1978 in the fields of science, economics and literature.

The winners, in addition to Singer, were Herbert A. Simon, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science; Arno A. Penzias and Robert R. Wilson of the U.S., and Pyotr Kapitsa of the Soviet Union, for physics; Peter Mitchell of Britain, for chemistry; and Daniel Nathans and Hamilton O. Smith of the U.S., and Werner Arber of Switzerland, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Simon, Penzias, Nathans and Kapitsa are Jewish.

Singer, the 74-year-old Yiddish writer, who fled his native Poland in 1935 and made his home in New York, presented his Nobel Prize Lecture on Literature last Friday to a distinguished audience of about 400 gathered at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. In his lecture, which included a sentence in Yiddish, he said that Yiddish is the “wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of the frightened and hopeful humanity.”


He scoffed at those who insist that Yiddish is a dead language, noting that Hebrew was also termed a dead language for 2000 years. He said Hebrew “has been revived in our time in a most remarkable way.”

Yiddish, Singer said, “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 Cabbalists–rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget.”

Speaking in Yiddish, he declared: “The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language–a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government.” After translating that into English, Singer continued, “a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews.”


Discussing the present generation, Singer declared: “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. May be there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.”

Singer, continuing, declared: “The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of the book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Musar, Cabbala.

“The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for the persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it.”

Singer, who has been writing for the Jewish Daily Forward for decades, joked afterwards that he was going to buy a new Yiddish typewriter with his $165,000 in prize money. He said his old typewriter, after 40 years, had turned critic and refused to write when it did not like what he was writing.

Referring to the Jewish mentality, Singer, who has written 30 books, several collections of short stories, three volumes of autobiography and 11 children’s books, stated: “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.”

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