As millions of Jews were forced to their destruction, 1943 was a year of desolation and despair for the Jews of Europe. Degradation and death stalked them everywhere. Steadily, relentlessly, the Nazi conquerors moved on to impost Hitler’s final solution. In the face of this ultimate barbarism, the civilized world stood horrified but paralyzed as millions of Jews were forced to their destruction.
Yet miraculously, twice during that bitter period, the humanity of man rose in triumph. In widely separated places and in very different ways, people of valor bravely resisted the murderers. The first place was in Warsaw. Behind the ghetto walls, Jewish men and women and children struggled with pitifully few weapons and boundless outrage to break through to hope. They fought against the Nazi juggernaut as they were bound to fail. But their deed still lives in the hearts of all who cherish freedom.
The second place where people resisted the murderers was Denmark. A king and the entire people mounted an extraordinary act of defiance against the military power which had occupied their country for three-and-a-half years. Spontaneously, swiftly and efficiently they snatched 7,000 Jews from the hands of the Nazis. They took them across the waters to safety in Sweden. The tiny nation, ultimately as helpless as the Jews they saved, challenged the conqueror and triumphed. As with the victory of David over Goliath, their feat resounds through human history.
The fact of the matter is that the roots of their heroic saga, in which Sweden’s role will always be remembered, lies deep in the Scandinavian tradition.
These are an independent people of high moral character, thoroughly democratic in principle and practice. Tolerance of others is an unknown concept–matter-of-fact acceptance is the norm. I believe their attitudes towards Jews is best summed up in the words of Albert Einstein who said: “The assistance of the Swedish and Danish people to my Jewish brethren in Denmark was given in a spirit of true humanness. It will never be forgotten. It was a bright ray in this period of decline in human feelings and human solidarity. It gave new faith to all who believed in a better future.”
It was to this part of the world that Mrs. Berkowitz and I traveled, invited by the Nobel Prize Committee of the Swedish Academy to participate in the ceremonies of award to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate on Literature for the year 1978. In addition to participating in the ceremonies as Mr. Singer’s rabbi, I had been invited by the Jewish National Fund of France, England and Sweden to discuss with them proposed plans for the forthcoming celebration of the 80th anniversary of its founding in my capacity as president of the J.N.F of America, and chairman of the World Council.
We left on a Wednesday morning and made stopovers in Paris and London with meetings with colleagues, and then flew to Stockholm.
The hotel where we were housed had an aura of yomtovdickeit, Among those who were there, were the Editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and the late Shimon Weber, Israel’s Yiddish correspondent for the Forward from Tel Aviv, Mr. Singer’s publishers and several of other laureates, among them Dr. Pencias, recipient in the field of physics, and Dr. Nathan, recipient in the field of medicine. However, the focus of attention in the hotel–inside and outside–was on I.B. Singer.
Although somewhat unknown to many Swedes, (since at that time only two of his 36 books had been translated into the language of the country) in a period of ten days or two weeks following the announcement that he was the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Singer became the most beloved personality visiting the country. People were fascinated by him. It would seem that, whereas in America sports play a prominent role in our lifestyle, and sportsmen are idolized and idealized, in Sweden the sport is to be caught up by the Nobel Prize recipients, and most especially the awardee in the field of Literature.
How did I.B. Singer take to all the fanfare, the recognition? It can best be summed up by the following incident: When we arrived in Stockholm, we called him, and he said, “You must come to my suite.” We immediately did so. In the course of our conversation that included such subjects as women’s rights and the possibility of women rabbis, I.B. Singer, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, turned to me and said, “If a year ago today I thought that I would be in Stockholm sitting on a sofa together with my rabbi, soon to be dressed in black tails, with trumpets blaring, and receiving a prize from the King and Queen of Sweden, after having spoken to the Academy in Yiddish, I would have said I’m crazy. And not only wouldn’t I have believed this, I wouldn’t have dared to write this. Yet if I were crazy enough to write it, I would not have had the nerve to publish it.”
But the fact of the matter was that it was not a dream, a fantasy, but a reality.
Thus it came to pass that on Friday the official proceedings began. The tradition of these ceremonies if for each laureate, prior to receiving the prize at the official celebrating, to deliver a lecture in his or her field. Since most people have a limited knowledge of physics and chemistry and economics–and I’m one of the shining examples–the lecture given by the Nobel Laureate in Literature draws more people than any other presentation.
In I.B. Singer’s case, it was even more so. There wasn’t a seat to be had in the lecture hall. The room in which it took place is singular for its beauty, it’s architecture, its stateliness and regal quality. Sitting in a chair on the elevated platform, I.B. Singer began in Yiddish. The address that followed was brief but of great substance.
At the conclusion was when the fun began. That was when I.B. Singer fielded many questions such as the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, about ghosts and demons, about Hasidism and about the art of translation. Mr. Singer’s gentle humor, his ability to laugh at himself, his not taking himself seriously, regaled the audience. The lecture and questions ended a bit after 2 PM. At this point we had to hurry because Shabbos descends in Sweden at 2:30 in the afternoon.
As I was leaving, a member of the Swedish Academy approached me and asked why I had accompanied Mr. Singer and what significance did I think the presence of his rabbi meant on this occasion. I replied that since I.B. Singer writes so much about demons, ghosts and goblins, I would imagine that by having his rabbi there, he wasn’t taking any chances.
Now the excitement that filled the Swedish community also captured the Jewish community in Stockholm. It is no exaggeration to state that the Jewish community was enthralled, especially that three of the laureates–Dr. Nathan, Dr. Pencias and Mr. Singer–were Jewish. They went all out to honor them. The festivities began Saturday morning when they were the guests of honor at the Shabbos service. It was in the synagogue that I learned for the first time that Isaac Singer was a Kohane.
On Saturday evening the Jewish community arranged a welcome for Singer. It was conducted entirely in Yiddish, and consisted of a warm outpouring of songs, readings and, of course, speeches. The highlight of the evening was I.B. Singer’s remarks.
What impressed me was not what Singer read that had people doubling over with laughter but–again a character trait–Mr. Singer’s genuine humility and graciousness. Even though the evening was in his honor he used the opportunity to laud the other laureates, and to minimize his own achievements.
For example, he said, “How can a writer compare himself to a man like Dr. Pencias whose discoveries pierce the cosmos?” Dr. Pencias acknowledged Mr. Singer’s graciousness and told the following story: A few days before he was to leave for Stockholm, he realized that his tuxedo was in need of repair. He stopped off in Manhattan at the shop of an old Jewish tailor and requested that he repair the tuxedo immediately. The Jewish tailor replied, “Oh no, I can’t repair your tuxedo for another two weeks. I have a full backlog of orders.” Dr. Pencias began to plead, “Look, it’s very important. Can’t you move this order up before the other?” “Oh, no,” replied the tailor. “We run this shop like any large department store. We go on order.” “But you see,” continued Dr. Pencias, “I need it for next week because I’m going to Stockholm. You see I’ve won the Nobel Prize.” And the little Jewish tailor looked up at him and said, “You’re Isaac Bashevis Singer?”
All of this was, however, preliminary to the awards themselves on Sunday night at the great Concert Hall. In the presence of the King and Queen, each laureate was presented with and received his prize at the hands of the King to the acclaim of 2,000 people and to the blast of trumpets and the accompaniment of the Swedish Symphony Orchestra. It was breathtaking and unforgettable. The pomp and ceremony, the atmosphere were overwhelming. I sat there and I thought to myself, who would have imagined this recognition. It was not only for I.B. Singer. It as to all to whom Yiddish was and is so precious, especially my parents of blessed memory.
These feelings that enveloped me and moved me to tears were deepened at the banquet that followed–1,200 people breaking bread together, the choir, the pageantry, the orchestra playing If I Were a Rich Man, the toasts, the dress, the environment–all indescribable. Each laureate was called upon to speak. Singer was the first to be called upon and was introduced in Yiddish. He spoke briefly and humorously and again captured his audience. They loved him and they took him unto their hearts. At the close of the banquet, people from the Jewish and non-Jewish communities asked what I thought and how I felt. I said, “Jewish history and existence has been filled with too many moments of destruction and despair. However, a the Nobel Prize Awards I saw this as a moment of triumph and celebration. It was a recognition not only of an individual, but of a language, a culture, and a people.”
As I recall this historic occasion, let me answer the following questions: What were I.B. Singer’s achievements, his influence, his place in Jewish history?
I.B. Singer dwelt in a world that is no more. He attempted to resurrect in memory and imagination and words what evil and indifference snuffed out ln life–those scattered communities of Eastern European Jewry. While Singer stated that it was his goal to merely write stories, our tradition has shown us–particularly our Hasidic tradition, one form which he stems–that even in stories there are sparks to be found, sparks that ignite the soul and ignite the mind. In fact, whatever one may think of the characters within his tales, what he has done is remind us of all of them, even those who were perhaps not the greatest and the noblest. In a sense his work is a literary in-gathering of all the Jews from the Eastern European dimension of Jewish history–the rogues and the sinners too. No matter how they lived, they died as Jews. They died because they were Jews. Thus, if no other reason, it is our sacred duty to remember them. Maimonides once said that if a Jew is killed because he was a Jew, no matter how he lived he’s to be considered a martyr. We remember and recall them through the settings of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work.
I.B. Singer wrote in Yiddish, and this Award was also an award for Yiddish. It was the official recognition of that language which was the language of millions. Behold what a strange language! Every country is linked to a country except Yiddish. It did and it does not exist in geography, but in history; not in space but in time. If every language is timely, it is Yiddish which is timeless. It dwells in the realm of eternity together with so many of the millions who spoke it. If Hebrew if lashon hakodesh, it is Yiddish which is lashon hakedoshim. I.B. Singer, therefore, shares the Award. He shares it with a language and with a people.
And what about the man himself? Singer was the son of a rabbi and once studied to be a rabbi. He was a man of piety–someone who considered himself a disciple of Reb Nachman of Bratzlov, Hasidism’s great poet, storyteller and personality. In fact, a very interesting incident took place when I.B. Singer was in Dialog with me. After the Dialog was concluded, many people came up to Singer with copies of his books for a personal autograph. Naturally he obliged. Some time later, however, when he was in my study, my son, Perry, whom I.B. Singer admired not only for his personal traits but also for his vast knowledge of Hasidim, also asked for an autograph in a book that he presented to him. Unlike the others, however, the book he held was not one of I.B. Singer’s. It was a small book entitled, Shivchei HaRan, a volume written in praise of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov. It is a classic in Hasidic–especially Bratzlavar–literature. Knowing that I.B. Singer was a disciple of Reb Nachman, my son asked him to inscribe something on the flyleaf. When Singer took the book his hands were trembling. “I don’t know.” he said, “I’m not worthy of inscribing anything in this book.” My son insisted, and he wrote, This book was written by a great human being. There never has been nor is there anyone like him.
This moment of hesitation and trembling which I.B. Singer revealed was no accident, for his world view to a very large extent had been shaped by his early exposure to the Hasidic milieu. Growing up within that universe allowed Singer to see and experience life in all of its aspects. And perhaps he was in his father’s court where he saw people bring their intimate, painful problems and questions to the rabbi that he learned at times the anguished mystery of the human condition.
Yet I glean from his writings something else. I.B. Singer is neither the simple believer nor the simple disbeliever. He’s someone who has risen to dwell in another dimension. It is the dimension which is the mark of every true Jewish believer, from Job to Levi Yitzhok of Berditchov. This is the realm where man says no to God on behalf of man. In other words, one accepts upon himself the path of protest, a path which does not submit to what is but demands what should be. It is the one who realizes that the Hebrew word, lo, also contains the Hebrew word for God, Eli, that within the Hebrew word sheailah, question, is also to be found the name of God.
The late Professor Abraham J. Hershel of blessed memory, taught that man reacts to sorrow on three levels. On the first level he cries. On the second he is silent. On the third he turns his cry and his silence into song.
What Singer offered us was a song. In spit of it all, the devils and the demons, the broken men and women, his message was positive. I.B. Singer affirmed that we must say yes to the beauty, power and mystery of the universe and say yes to Man. Yehi Zichro Baruch.
Rabbi Berkowitz, former president of the NY Board of Rabbis and Jewish National Fund, served as I.B. Singer's Rabbi.