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Isaac Bashevis Singer Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

October 6, 1978
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Isaac Bashevis Singer was today awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Yiddish writer to win this award. The announcement was made in Stockholm. Singer accepted the $165,000 award modestly. He rejected questions as to which of his many novels and short stories were his favorites, declaring that readers might have favorites but that he did not.

Born in Radzymin, Poland, near Warsaw, 74 years ago, came to the United States in 1935, convinced that his world was about to go up in flames, as it did four years later. His first writing in the United States was for the Jewish Daily forward, now the only Yiddish-language daily in this country, where his stories continue to appear.

Outside the world of a circle of Yiddish-reading followers, Singer wrote in obscurity until Saul Bellow translated into English Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” in 1952. Subsequent translations of his voluminous writings quickly brought him world fame. His writings have since been translated into dozens of languages, including Japanese. His writings are best sellers in Japan.


Son of a rabbi, Singer was a student in a rabbinical seminary in Warsaw for seven years. He began his literary career as a journalist for Hebrew and Yiddish publications in Poland. Fundamentally, Singer describes in his stories the lost world of East European Jewry. He wrote his first story during his first year of residence in the United States, “Satan in Goray,” published in the Forward. Set in the 19th Century, the book describes the ravages of the Cossacks and the mass murders of Jews in Russia.

Then came “The Magician of Lublin” (1960), “The Spinoza of Market Street” (1961), “The Slave” (1962), “Short Friday” (1964), “In My Father’s Court” (1966), “Enemies: A Love Story” (1972), “A Crown of Feathers” (1973), and “Passions” (1976). He also wrote books for children and is currently working on what he calls a spiritual autobiography.

Singer’s big family chronicles, “The Family Moskat,” “The Manor” and “The Estate” have been compared with the massive Thomas Mann novel “Buddenbrooks.” Like Mann, Singer delineates how families are shattered by the new epoch and its demands over a time span from the mid-19th Century to World War II.

An appreciation of his writings, issued today by the Swedish Academy, declared that his writings of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, destined for destruction by the Nazis during World War II, restored the ghetto to life. The Academy declared that “it is the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in the cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites, combined with blind faith and superstition.” Singer has always written in Yiddish, and has said frequently that he not only writes in Yiddish but that he writes “about people who speak Yiddish.”


Simon Weber, editor of the Forward, said that Singer told him that he never wrote for prizes. “I am not forgetting for one moment that writers in previous times did not write for prizes but this did not diminish their greatness,” Weber said Singer had told him.

Singer, Weber added, said he would always remember that he owes everything to the Forward because it was there that his writings first appeared. Weber told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that for him the Nobel award to Singer was “the proudest moment for the Forward and for myself. It is the greatest thing to have happened to Yiddish literature. It is the first time a man won the Nobel award who is known mostly in translation.”

Weber said the award would give “a tremendous boost” to Yiddish literature. He said he had been receiving calls all morning, following the announcement of the award, from readers wanting to know where they could get Singer’s work in Yiddish. Morris U. Schappes, historian and editor of Jewish Currents, said “it is high time that a Yiddish writer was recognized with a Nobel award.”


In a telephone interview with the JTA from his winter home in Miami, Singer said he was initially surprised when he learned he had won the award but after four or five hours, he was no longer surprised. “I think it is good for the Yiddish language, “he said. He called the award a “victory for Yiddishism and for those who love this language.” He added: “I am not the only winner of the award. I share it with all my readers and all who love the Yiddish language.”


Singer is well known in Israel among readers of Hebrew. Three of his books, “The Slave,” “The Magician of Lublin” and a collection of stories have been translated into Hebrew. His son, Israel Zamir, is a member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa in the Jezreel Valley. Zamir, a writer and journalist and Singer’s son from his first marriage, came to the United States to meet with his father after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The result of that meeting was two stories–one by the father, the other by the son. Both stories appeared in Hebrew.

A well-known Israeli writer, Natan Shacham, presently Israel’s cultural attache at the Israel Consulate in New York, said today he was “very glad that Bashevis Singer, the representative of Yiddish culture, has gained the international recognition which he so richly deserves.”

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