Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature who died Wednesday night in a nursing home in Miami, was remembered for the salty blend of religion, sex and mysticism that permeated the pages of his Yiddish prose.
He put the world of Eastern European Jewry, both religious and profane, on the world’s literary map, most popularly through the films adapted from his novels, “The Magician of Lublin,” “Yentl” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”
His fascination with the denizens of New York cafeterias resulted in a critically acclaimed made-for-television Public Broadcasting Service drama, “The Cafeteria.”
He was known for his vegetarian diet, which he adopted aboard the non-kosher ship that brought him to America and never abandoned.
For years following his arrival in America, Singer wrote stories for the Yiddish daily Forverts (Forward), laden with sex and strange, other-worldly characters.
“A lot of Yiddish readers did not like these kind of stories,” recalled Joseph Mlotek, managing editor of the Forverts. “A lot of readers even sent in protest letters about why these stories are printed.”
At first, Singer did not write under his own name, and his short stories and literary essays appeared under a variety of pen names, including D. Segel and Y. Warshawsky.
“Many, many writers, when they wrote not poetry or novels, preferred not to write under their owns names,” Mlotek said.
Singer’s stories — and name — appeared in later years in The New Yorker, bringing him world attention and, ultimately, the Nobel Prize.
‘HE DISDAINED LITERATURE’
Fellow-Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel worked with Singer on the Forverts in the 1950s and ’60s. “I used to go home with him on the subway.
“He sometimes used a self-deprecating humor, and that was his charm,” he said.
“I think he wanted to lead a double life,” Wiesel reflected, “living among Polish Jewry at the same time that he lived in modern America.”
Wiesel also remembered another duality in Singer’s life. “He disdained literature but he lived as a writer,” said Wiesel.
Singer’s evocations of the shtetl were among the last literary glimmers of a lost world. “We write about them, as we cannot resurrect anything. We can be writers, not magicians,” he said in 1984.
He began his career writing in Hebrew, then chose Yiddish in an effort to reach a larger audience.
Singer, who was 87 at the time of his death, wrote virtually all his novels and stories in Yiddish.
After coming to America in 1935, he wrote about exotic Jewish characters on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in cafes in Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv and in Yiddish literary clubs in Paris.
His first English translator was writer Saul Bellow, who himself went on, in 1976, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Singer was the last surviving sibling of a family of three outstanding writers, and a younger brother, Moshe, the only one to follow in the father’s footsteps and become a rabbi.
Two other siblings died of scarlet fever.
Older brother I.J. Singer (“East of Eden,” “The Brothers Ashkenazi, “Yoshe Kalb,” “The Family Carnovsky,” “The New Russia”) was Singer’s refuge in America, and his ticket to the pages of the Forverts.
A DYBBUK PROOFREADER
There was, too, a nearly unknown older sister, Esther Kreitman. Kreitman’s autobiographical novel, “Deborah,” published in England, told the story of a woman in an Orthodox Jewish home with no room for women aspiring to anything other than an arranged marriage.
It is believed that the heroine of Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” was modeled after his sister.
So woebegotten was Kreitman, wrote Singer, that even his dedication to her in “The Seance” was gobbled up by a proofreader’s dybbuk, who changed Hinde Esther to “Minda Esther.”
Singer once read from one of his stories about a dybbuk proofreader who mischievously transposed his words from a love story to a typesetter across town who was printing a tabloid article about a murder.
Asked by reporters if he had seen the demons and dybbuks he so loved to write about, he would say he had “never met a single demon in New York.”
But, “Singer, in his own funny way, would always knock on the door before he went into the house. He always wanted to let the demons know that he was coming in,” recalled Singer’s longtime secretary and frequent translator, Devorah Menashe Telushkin.
“There was a very deep, deep part of him that believed in it,” she said.
Singer was born July 14, 1904, in Radzymin, near Warsaw.
His father, Pinchos Menachem, was a devoutly Orthodox rabbi, and his mother, Bathsheba, was the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. She was highly educated at a time when meaningful education for women was frowned upon.
Bathsheba, immersed in the rabbinical world of her husband, later denied her own independent inclinations and scorned her female first-born.
Her sons fared better in her eyes. Singer adopted his mother’s maiden name, Bashevis, as his middle name.
‘A TERRIBLE STRAIN’
In Warsaw, the Singer family settled on Krochmalna Street, where Reb Singer held sway in a traditional rabbinic court, which Bashevis Singer captured in his memoir, “In My Father’s Court.”
Singer’s last book, “Scum,” was published only this spring, but had been serialized in 1967 in the Forverts.
Singer’s works were published in Polish, but he declined to visit there, saying it wold be “a terrible strain to see Poland without my people.”
Singer’s first wife, Runya, a devoted communist, would not accompany him to America. She took their child, Israel, to Russia. On Thursday, that son, Israel Zamir, who lives in Tel Aviv, was en route to New York for his father’s funeral. Their relationship is known to have been strained.
Singer is survived by Alma, his second wife for some 50 years.
The funeral will be held in New York on Sunday, where Singer lived for more than 50 years.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.