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Writer I. B. Singer, Approaching 80, Still Optimistic About Future of Jewish People, Urges Holding O

June 12, 1984
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It’s not clear if Isaac Bashevis Singer expected 2,500 people to come hear him at the Sutton Place Synagogue last week, but the long line that snaked around the block and then some for two and a half hours prior to starting time would have made the producers of “Indiana Jones” or “Star Trek 111” jealous.

Singer’s appearance marked the end of this season’s Jewish Town Hall series, hosted by Rabbi David Kahane. The Nobel Laureate, who will be 80 years old July 14, proved to be in fine form as he fielded questions probing the experiences of his fourscore years. When asked to sum up the memories of his first 20 years in his father’s rabbinical court, Singer deftly humored the audience with his, “Rabbi, it’s not easy for me to speak about 20 years, because when I was 20 years old, I felt like I was 90!”

Thus, the writer of dybbuks, seances, thieves and penitents brought his perennial nonagenarian’s views to bear on Jewish life in the shtetl and America, and shed some well-received hopefulness on the continuation of Jewish culture in a land where he himself once felt lost.

Reminiscing on his arrival in America in 1935, Singer said he encountered “so many Jews following a certain idol — Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, ” that he then described the Jews as “an idolatrous people.” People, he said “follow leaders like sheep.”

But, he continued, he didn’t come here “with a message to improve America. I came to improve myself.”


Focusing on the nostalgia for the shtetl which forms a backdrop for so much of his popular works, Singer couldn’t resist a tease about its new-found glamour and remarks about its possible resurrection. “It would be very silly to build a shtetl in New Jersey. To resurrect a shtetl so that tourists will come, that would be very silly.”

“We write about them” said Singer, “as we cannot resurrect anything. We can be writers, not magicians. “

And, Singer emphasized, it isn’t enough to just know a person to write about him. “You must know his roots.”

Elaborating on the legacy left by the Jews who suffered through the most difficult travails, Singer said he believes the ghetto taught the Jew to survive. The Jews who “lived through all the bad times are the basis of all of us. And the longer we can exist, the more we can learn from this.”

Singer’s reflections on the diaspora as a whole are equally optimistic. Although he agreed the diaspora “was bad from a physical point of view,” it was “very good from a spiritual point of view, ” he opined. “I don’t say it’s better that we wouldn’t have been thrown out of our land, ” he went on, “but that doesn’t mean that Joshua ben Nun and the others were any better than us.” In fact, he suggested, “the diaspora has done the Jew a great favor.”

On his most recent published work, “The Penitent, ” a tale of a New York man whose family and business problems lead him on the path of religious self-redemption to Jerusalem, Singer pointed out that the story’s protagonist finds solace only within the ultra-Orthodox quarter where life parallels the European ghetto. In the secular society of Tel Aviv and the kibbutz, the penitent felt just as much lost as he did in New York.

“The religious Jew doesn’t care where he is, ” said Singer, “he cares what he is. I wouldn’t say a person who wants to be religious must go to Israel. He can lead a religious life anywhere. We didn’t lose our Judaism in the diaspora.”

He also proffered a hope that “the people in Israel would be united in our times.”

He cautioned, however, that he “cannot convince anyone to believe in things in which I myself have doubts.” Asked if he had resolved the conflict between the world of the yeshiva and the secular, Singer replied, “I’ve lived long enough to know that you can’t resolve anything.”

Among the unresolved questions in the literary world of which Singer has become a lauded member, Singer tried to unravel the puzzle of the definition of a Jewish writer.


Many American Jewish writers, he said, claim they are American but “happen to be Jewish.” For Singer, being Jewish “is the very essence of my life.” But what is Jewish writing? “If a Christian writes about a Jewish theme, does he then become a Jewish writer?” he asked rhetorically. Rather, he observed, writers are defined according to their language. So he prefers to be classified as a Yiddish writer, but admits he does not take umbrage when called a Jewish writer, even feels honored to be so called. Being Jewish “didn’t do me any damage. The Gentiles like me for this, ” he quipped.

Now that he has been translated into so many languages — and Singer revealed he often does his own translations or consults heavily with the translator, finding not only the translator’s mistakes, but often his own original blunders — Singer laughed recalling that he did, in fact, come from Poland. “For years I thought the Poles would ignore me. But since I got the Nobel Prize, they consider me one of theirs. ” He was even astonished, he admitted, at how good their translations were.

Singer began as a young man to write in Hebrew, and then consciously chose Yiddish as his means of expressing himself and reaching a likely audience. It was his curiousity about people, he said, that made him decide to become a writer, particularly the awareness that the women who came to ask his father ritual questions “didn’t speak like men,” and their very differences piqued his curiosity in people’s individuality. “Individuality is a great pleasure for human beings, so I was very happy we’re not alike. “


Singer added that “Without women, the Jews in exile could not have endured. It was the women who earned the living. They were keeping the diaspora alive.” He ventured that “the Jews made a great mistake by not giving women a greater role, and mistakes have to be corrected.” Recently meeting a woman en route to Minneapolis to become a rabbi, Singer claimed he told himself “Here is a big mistake being corrected. ” But, he went on, not only women have to be liberated. “Men have to be liberated.”

Asked to comment on the future of the Jews in America, specifically if Jews might become spiritually lost in America, Singer smilingly answered, “I’m ashamed to say I’m an optimist. If you tell me I’m inconsistent — I don’t have to be consistent.”

No other people, he reminded, was ever in exile without vanishing. “When it comes to the Jews, I’m an optimist. We might lose branches and leaves, but we never lose our roots.” The Jewish spirit, Singer said lovingly, is “still here, and I don’t think it will ever disappear.”

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