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Footnotes: Isaac Bashevis Singer

By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times:

EnemiesLove and ExileThe SlaveToday marks 20 years since the death of Nobel Prize winner and star of Yiddish literature Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Born in Poland in 1902, Singer moved to the US in 1935, four years before the German invasion of Poland, leaving his wife and son behind – he would only see them again in 1955 and by that time he had remarried. In New York Singer worked for the Yiddish language newspaper The Forward. He once remarked that if “Moses had been paid newspaper rates for the Ten Commandments, he might have written The Two Thousand Commandments.”

With what seemed to be the death of the Yiddish language following the war, Singer steadfastly wrote all his novels and short stories in Yiddish, believing that, contrary to popular opinion, his native tongue was very much alive. He described the language in his 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech as “a loshon fun golus, ohn a land, ohn grenitzen, nisht gshtitzt fun kein shum meluchoch” – “a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government”.

Singer published 18 novels, 14 children’s books, several memoirs, articles and essays but was best remembered for his short stories. As a writer he was always concerned in much of his work with the importance of emotions. As he told one interviewer: “The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect. When literature becomes too intellectual – when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions – it becomes sterile, silly and actually without any substance.”

His most popular book in English was probably Enemies, A Love Story, which enjoyed success following its film adaptation. His short story Yentl provided material for the Barbra Streisand film.

Singer was also a vegetarian and avowedly anti-communist. He received the Nobel Prize in 1978 for what the committee described as his “impassioned narratives, which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, bring universal human conditions to life”. Singer died in 1991 in Surfside, Florida, where a street, Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard, is named in his honour.

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