Image credit: Book cover of Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939-1945 (White Goat Press, November 2023)
Of all the emotions I have been struggling with since Hamas’s brutal and sickening terrorist attacks on innocent civilians in Israel in early October, followed by the indiscriminate cruelty with which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded in Gaza, tyrannizing and killing equally innocent civilians in his quest to punish and oust Hamas, I didn’t think I would be grateful for the work piling up untended on my desk. But then I remembered that I had been recently assigned a review of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939–1945 (White Goat Press, November 2023) by Public Seminar, and perhaps a modicum of perspective could be provided by cracking it open and reading Singer’s reactions as news of Nazi atrocities in Europe reached the United States, his new home.
This is a never before published compilation of essays, 25 of them, originally written in Yiddish, newly translated and edited by David Stromberg, a writer and essayist in his own right, as the first in a set of three such collections. Having recently arrived in New York City from Poland, Singer wrote the entries in this inaugural volume under a series of assumed names. The essays appeared in the Foverts, a Yiddish daily socialist newspaper, one that morphed into a weekly my grandmother read when I was growing up. Stromberg has written short introductions to each of these pieces, giving brief but valuable historical context. More importantly, these essays are now finally arranged in the order in which they were written, so we can follow Singer’s thinking almost in real time. (Singer had translated some earlier into English but they were made available haphazardly.) Here, we look on, over the author’s shoulder, as he tries desperately to document a cherished, if messy, life he first fears and then knows is being ripped away by fascists. I’m referring to the Yiddishkayt of Singer’s title, which I will roughly interpret as “Jewishness” here, or even as “Ashkenazic Jewishness” as Stromberg himself suggests. As the volume progresses, we experience Singer’s shock and agony, as he helplessly watches a complex and rich cultural world—his world—die. Finally, we feel his misery and outrage as he finds American Jewish literary society seemingly unconcerned about preserving its own ancestral, religious, and spiritual memories and documenting this tragedy.
In the first essay from 1939, “Agunot-Wives of Missing Husbands Not Allowed to Remarry by Jewish Law,” Singer gives his new audience a taste of life from the old country. In America, a woman could get a divorce on the grounds of “desertion,” he writes. Not so by the law of the Torah. Only a husband can grant his wife a divorce; the woman in question has no choice in the matter. If he leaves her she becomes an agunah, a still-espoused but abandoned woman, not free to marry anyone else. Even when a husband drowns, if a body is not recovered she is not free, because he may have washed up alive somewhere else. If the husband drowned in a river and the body is recovered but an alligator has eaten his nose, there is still not enough physical evidence to pronounce him dead. (This is Singer’s hypothetical I believe, but he backs it up with information on the rabbinic sages of the Mishnaic period who apparently believed that people were only identifiable “by their foreheads and noses.”) If a man just goes out for a cigarette and never comes back, “There was no Yiddish Foverts to find lost husbands,” Singer writes, with his signature sense of humor. During domestic disputes, men needed only to threaten their wives with abandonment to leave them shaking in their boots, afraid to be assigned a life of loneliness and poverty.
“Religious Jews Say That the Current War Is the War of Gog and Magog,” published in 1943, contrasts the secular viewpoint of World War II embraced by most of Singer’s readers with the religious and more spiritual lens that he was raised with. Who were Gog and Magog? There are many interpretations, but they are broadly seen as two evil forces that attack the Jews at the same time, for the last time. Some saw Gog and Magog as Hitler and Mussolini. Following this construct, it was presumed that when the fascists were ultimately defeated, the Messiah would arise. Singer concludes this essay with a strange hope: “The fact that Hitlerism has created such incomparable misery on the earth has stirred up the feeling in many people that we are dealing with a break in human history as a whole with a darkness after which there must be light for a long time.” People felt similarly about the atom bomb when it was unleashed two years later. And it is a bitter hope, in my opinion, that when we see the apotheosis of our frightening destructive powers we will somehow endeavor to stop using them.
In “Answer to a Tough Question on Jewish Rights in Palestine”(1945) Singer asks a still relevant question: “How can we Jews ask that a minority prevail over a majority (the Arabs in Palestine)?” Part of his prescient answer is this: “There will never be real peace on earth as long as a small group of passengers sits comfortably while the others spend the night in a cold train station … In the end, the progressives will be the ones who demand that doors remain open. The reactionaries will be the ones who make every effort to keep the doors shut.”
This collection grows evermore fascinating. In the final essay, “Increasingly Hard for Jewish Writers to Describe Jewish Life,” Singer discusses the proactive duty of building a Jewish literary community even as the population of Yiddish readers was decimated by the Holocaust. He holds up a candle to the work of the Portuguese Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza as an example of what good writing can do: “His words ring like pure crystal and are remarkably clear. It’s like looking into a deep body of water. It’s the depth that refreshes you, even if you can’t get to the bottom of it.” Singer expresses a profound desire to create a “yeshiva for Yiddish Writers.” The problem was spiritual, he felt. The post-war generation, so out of touch with the world Singer grew up in, would have to do a deep dive into Yiddishkayt themselves if they wanted to continue writing in the Jewish traditions.
I was lucky as a Cornell sophomore to be invited to a small gathering of students who met with Mr. Singer at a Jewish fraternity house during a campus visit a decade before he died in 1981. He struck me then as infinitely kind. He talked about vegetarianism (which I have practiced for most of my life) and language and legacy. He seemed to be everything an older literary idol should be–—wise and funny, his pain and loss calcified in his bones. I went on to read more of his work over time and see it performed as I too grew older. But the pieces I’ve just now read were written half a lifetime earlier by a much younger man, a man who had yet to write his fictional masterpieces and win worldwide acclaim, including a Nobel Prize. The younger Isaac Bashevis Singer, author of this new volume, was still publishing solely in Yiddish, in the shadow of his brother and sister, who had earlier literary success. He was writing from the safety and loneliness of America, his mother and younger brother “sent by the Soviets in cattle cars to Kazakhastan, perishing from illness and starvation,” his former partner and their child having left him to live in the promise of Palestine. How he coped, I think now from the privileged intimacy of reading these essays, was by embracing the responsibility of recreating a lost society, building new memories for his American contemporaries, holding tight to his vision of what Jewish life had been like before the massacre of the six million, and the loss of their children, and their children’s children, forever altering generations to come. His embrace of both practicality and spirituality in the face of extinction rings so resonantly during these sad and tormenting days.
Helen Schulman writes fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. She is the New York Times best-selling author of seven novels, including Lucky Dogs (Knopf, 2023). She is a Professor of Writing and Fiction Chair at the MFA program at The New School.