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Singer: Yiddish Needs No Defense

November 8, 1978
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Isaac Bashevis Singer asserted last night that while the awarding to him of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature also honors the Yiddish language in which he writes, Yiddish does not need to be recognized by professors or a committee. In fact, Singer declared, Yiddish literature is 500 years old, at least as old as Swedish or Norwegian, the languages of the two countries which award the Nobel Prizes.

Answering questions from Dr. William Berkowitz, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, before an overflow crowd at the Manhattan synagogue’s “Dialogue ’78” series, Singer admitted he had said that Yiddish was sick. “But in our history, being sick is a long way from dying,” he said.

The 74-year-old novelist and short story writer noted that Hebrew was considered dead for 2000 years and is now a vibrant language in Israel. Calling Hebrew the “older sister” of Yiddish, Singer said he agrees that it should be the first language of Israel, “but Yiddish should be the second language.”

He declared that now that Hebrew is firmly established as the language of Israel there should be a greater recognition of Yiddish in the Jewish State. He said he made this plea when he met last week with Premier Menachem Begin at the Premier’s request to exchange congratulations on both of them winning Nobel Prizes. Begin will receive the Peace Prize along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Oslo Dec. 10, the same day Singer receives his Nobel Prize in Stockholm.

Singer noted that the loquacious Begin did most of the talking during the 30-minute meeting in Begin’s hotel room. “It was more a monologue than a dialogue,” Singer said to the laughter and applause of the audience.


In defending his own works against the charge that he depicts Jews occasionally in bad light, Singer declared that literature and propaganda are two separate things. He said if a writer sits down and asks himself “whether this is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews,” he will not be able to write. Besides, he noted, no one knows whether something is good or bad. He said a writer must write as he thinks, for to do anything else will not result in literature but in propaganda and brochures.

During the session which covered a wide variety of subjects, Singer said that he welcomed the development for giving women full religious rights in the synagogue, including being called to the Torah and being ordained as rabbis. He said Judaism had made on historical mistake based on a single sentence from one rabbi quoted in the Talmud against teaching women the Torah. He said the denial of equal religious rights to women has contributed to assimilation. The reversal of this is “wonderful for religion and for justice,” Singer declared.

Berkowitz, at the end of the session, announced a scholarship is being established in Singer’s name to be presented to the outstanding student in Columbia University’s Yiddish program.

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