Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life by Janet Hadda

Oxford University Press 1997 243 pp. 27.50

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that "since Yiddish literature is the most unnecessary of all … we are absolutely free. We have no readers. We can say the deepest things. Nobody will say that he doesn’t understand." Yet Singer, the only Yiddish writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was to discover that his writing, far from being hermetic and isolated, made the man from Collins Avenue in Miami Beach one of the most celebrated American writers of his generation.

Born in 1904, Singer was raised in Bilgoray, Poland into a "grim and cheerless" family that provides an analytical field day for his biographer, Janet Hadda, a psychiatrist. Surrounded by an emotional, weak father; a remote, angry, and fiercely intelligent mother; a strong resentful and talented older brother; and a sister suffering from undiagnosed epilepsy, early on Singer retreated into "scribbling" as a way to avoid his conflict-ridden parents and siblings. He became "a loner, a solitary observer of the world, a balcony enthusiast who loved to watch from a safe distance."

In his late adolescence Singer followed his brother, Israel Joshua, to Warsaw, where he was introduced to the intimate and fiercely competitive world of Yiddish writers. There Singer had his first experiences with "liberated" female Jewish writers and artists—having escaped the claustrophobic confines of his Orthodox upbringing, Singer began the womanizing which was to characterize his adult life. Always drawn to women, he was feared and disliked by men, as Ms. Hadda notes: "From the men, I learned that Bashevis was unscrupulous, ungenerous, and unreliable. …from the women, I learned that Bashevis was capricious, captivating, and childlike."

Singer followed his brother to America in 1935, abandoning an illegitimate child, settling first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan. Always in his brother’s shadow—Israel Joshua wrote two well-received Yiddish novels—Singer strove to establish himself by writing prose and fiction for Yiddish publications. In 1940, he married Alma Haimann Wassermann, the German-born fellow-refugee who was to remain with him until his death. "Bashevis could not have found a woman with whom he had less in common."

As a Yiddish writer in America, Bashevis "was marginal—rendered tongueless and mute." Not until 1950 was his work, the novel The Family Moskat, translated into English. Years of struggle, and support by his wife, Alma, resulted in the Nobel Prize being awarded in 1978.

This book underscores the fact that beneath the quaint, grandfatherly, pigeon-feeding, vegetarian was an artist for whom human relationships were continually subordinated to the discipline of his art. While his reputation as a womanizer may have induced in him some guilt, what made life unlivable was any criticism of him as a writer: "…at his core, he was a writer. Nothing was more important than the integrity of fiction."

Oddly, this book’s strength lies in its evocation of times long past, of Singer’s child- and young adulthood in Bilgoray and Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, giving a rich sense of the family conflicts and social stresses of Orthodox Jews. The narrative of Singer’s life after his marriage to Alma is more distant and less animated.

This biography provides a too-easy causal analysis of Singer’s personality based on his early family life—while he was no doubt poorly raised by parents and confused by their gender and authority roles, one must grant children in general, and Singer in particular, more personal identity than simply being the unwilling child-victim of family dynamics.

Janet Hadda’s biography has provided a valuable addition to our understanding of Singer and his work, but the paucity of biographical detail, and reliance on psychological interpretations of his work prevent it from being a definitive work on Singer’s life.