A Conversation With Nobel Prize Winner Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) about The Meaning and Destiny of Jewish Literature
WILLIAM BERKOWITZ: Isaac Bashevis Singer was the first Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has written many novels and short stories, including The Slave, Short Friday and Other Stories, and Enemies: A Love Story, Shosha, The Manor, The Penitent, and The Death of Methuselah. His books have been translated into English and many other languages, and all have received wide acclaim. He has received the award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters, marking the first time that this honor was accorded an author who does not use English as his original language.
Isaac Bashevis Singer has spoken about his own works and about Yiddish literature to many and varied audiences and he is rightfully credited with awakening a wide and sympathetic interest in Yiddish literature.
To set the background for our discussion on the Jewish book, I would like to pose these questions: Speaking in broad terms, what do Jewish readers want from books? Do they want images of themselves? Do they desire to take stock, to see where we are now and where we came from. Or are Jewish readers concerned with a quality of reassurance – that is, Jewish books that assert Jewish worth and attest to Jewish survival?
SINGER: I cannot speak in the name of all readers, but since I am a reader myself, I can say what I like in a Jewish book. What I really like to see in a Jewish book is quality. This means that it has to be a good book. If it is a good book and it deals with Jewish people, Jewish heroes, it is enough for me. I do not think that a Jewish book has to take stock, as you said, to offer a summary of the Jewish question and of the Jewish situation, because no book of fiction especially, can do that. To me a good Jewish book is a wonderful thing, for it is a great achievement for Jewish literature, no matter what the topic. I think that many do not understand this simple thing that a book has to be good. If it is not good, no matter what the other qualities are, it has no value and does not deserve to be reckoned with.
BERKOWITZ: The whole idea of reading, the whole legendary fascination of the Jew with books, has a certain aura, shall we say, of a kind of holiness. Does this kind of aura still crown the average American Jew?
SINGER: I would say that it does to a degree. But this is also true, I think, not only of the Jewish reader, but of all readers. We all have an illusion that we will one day find a book that will show the way. This illusion grips every reader, and when we stand in a bookstore and we look over its books, we always have this silent hope that maybe here we will find not just a book but the book – the book that will point a way that will show us how to live. And since the Jewish people have more problems than any other people, since they are really Am ha Sefer – the People of the Book – I would say that a Jewish man, a Jewish woman, who goes into a bookstore has more of this illusion, has more of this hope than others.
But also with this illusion comes disillusion. No matter how many books we read, we always come to the conclusion that this is not “the book,” unless we read the Sefer ha Seforim, the Tenach. In other words, I would say that the desire in us to find the book that shows the way is a little greater than in other readers, but I still believe it exists among all good readers.
BERKOWITZ: I have an interesting quotation here, and I wonder, based on your own experience, whether you agree with it. “In traditional Jewish culture, it was the man who hovered over books, the sancta of his existence. Today there is a curious transposition. It is women who constitute the study and literary circles. They buy the books. They act as tastemakers, and with missionary zeal they get their husbands to read worthwhile books.” In your travels have you found that it is the woman who sets the pace for the man in terms of Jewish reading?
SINGER: I almost have the feeling that these words were written by me. It is true that most of the people I see in bookstores are women. There is no question about it. As far as fiction is concerned, the woman goes first. She is still more interested in a novel and even in a short story than a man. It is true about Jewish women, and I think about women all over the world, that they are the real customers of the fiction writer. They are the ones who push or pull their husbands to partake of literature.
BERKOWITZ: If we were to make a study of publishing houses and bookstores, we would probably find that Jewish books are very saleable these days. In addition to our own books, there are the works of Harry Golden, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow and others. Why are Jewish books so “big” these days when other forms of minority literature – books about Italian Americans or Irish Americans – have disappeared in America?
SINGER: My impression is that the first generation of Jews who came to this country had the idea that America was a melting pot. The immigrants came here to forget their origins, to forget the Torah, The Talmud, their customs, and to begin a new life about which they knew nothing. I do not know how much this idea of the melting pot disappointed other minorities, but it has certainly disappointed us. We have convinced ourselves that assimilation does not work with the Jewish people. We do become assimilated, but there is always a limit.
Another factor was the tragedy in Europe and the establishment of the State of Israel. All these things awakened in us the desire to continue our Jewishness, so I would say that we are in this respect more an exception than the rule. We have stopped believing in the melting pot. This is the reason that the Jewish book has such power among the Jewish people, as well as among others. We may, in this respect, show a way to other minorities. In other words, what we are beginning now may soon take place among other people.
BERKOWITZ: To have Jewish books, naturally, we need Jewish writers. Do we have writers dedicated exclusively to Jewish writing?
SINGER: There are certainly many people who write Jewish history, and all kinds of religious books, but I will speak only about fiction because this is the field in which I have experience. There are a number of American writers who call themselves Jewish writers, or are called Jewish writers. But I would not call them this. To me a person is not a Jewish writer merely because he is a Jew, or because he writes about Jews. He must have a very deep background in Jewish tradition to be a Jewish writer. From my own point of view, that excludes a person who does not know Yiddish, who does not know Hebrew, who does not know our history, who does not know our customs and our laws. I would not call such a person a Jewish writer even if he happens to write about a Jewish storekeeper or a Jewish worker or a Jewish doctor. From this point of view I would say that there are very few fiction writers in English whom I would call Jewish writers.
BERKOWITZ: Would I embarrass you if I were to ask you to name names?
SINGER: I will give you an example. I would not call Henry Roth, the man who wrote Call It Sleep, even though this is supposed to be a Jewish novel, a Jewish writer. He just lacks the experience that a Jewish writer should have, the way I see it. To me a Jewish writer is a person like Yosef Agnon, like David Pinsky, a person who has really lived in Jewishness all his life, and this is the very air he breathes.
BERKOWITZ: I have heard it said by many people that writers are set apart from other people. What is your opinion about this?
SINGER: Certainly not. Writers are the same people as all others. And what is true about writers is also true about scientists. The great scientists, the great inventors, the great creators of scientific theory were not motivated by money. Every creative person has the desire to create. It is within him. He needs to create as he needs food or he needs air to breathe. It is true about every man of spirit. If he has something to say or something to do he will say or do it. Naturally, in science, money is sometimes needed for laboratories and so on. But when it comes to writing, all the writer needs is a piece of bread, a bed on which to sleep, and paper on which to write. I think that a poor writer can do as well as a rich writer, and experience shows us that the poor ones did even better. It may be because they were in the majority. I do not know what the reason is.
BERKOWITZ: In an interview, you were asked,” Don’t you think that writers, of necessity, have to be lonely?” You answered, “I suppose that is true. All artists are basically rebels, not against society, but against God. They have a quarrel with the Almighty, and this is because a real artist is a builder. Destruction and death are something he cannot understand or accept.” Would you want to elaborate on this?
SINGER: There are people, especially in Jewish life, who would very much like the writer to take part in all activities. I have heard complaints in Poland and here, that I did not become a member of this party or the other party; that I did not work for the schools and so on. My feeling is that all these activities, even though they are useful, are not good for the writer. If a writer continually deals with people, with “real life,” with the real troubles of life, he may lose the energy that he needs for his work.
But this is not enough. Somewhere, I would say that every writer has a quarrel with the Almighty. The quarrel is the Great Builder’s quarrel with the powerful that builds and destroys at the same time. Because of this, there is something strange about the creative man. He belongs to the world, but also does not belong. I once said that a writer is both a son of humanity and its stepson; and because he is a stepson, I think he has certain privileges, certain rights that the others do not have. I would say that the more we leave the writer in peace, the less we demand that he be active in prosaic kinds of work, the better it will be for the writer and also for society. The writer who has become too active, as a rule, becomes too lazy or too passive when he sits at the table and he has to do his main work. The writer’s battlefield is still his desk.
BERKOWITZ: It has been said that Jewish writing includes negative and positive writing. Please comment on what you consider negative and positive writing.
SINGER: All my life I have heard people speak about positive and negative writing – not only our people but other people as well. For example, when Dostoyevski wrote The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, the critics complained bitterly that he was a negative writer. They asked about why he wrote so much about Russian murderers and not about decent people among the Russians. Why did he write two huge novels about murderers? The same thing was true about Guy de Maupassant, who used to write about unfaithful women all the time. He was obsessed with this topic, and the critics complained bitterly. They asked whether there weren’t any faithful women in France. I must tell you that in his time there were many faithful women, even in France. The Jewish critics, especially, deal with this theme of positive and negative. Positive writing would be the kind of writing that would make propaganda for Zionism, or for socialism, or for religion. The question is what one considers positive and negative.
To me, this whole question does not exist. We know now that Dostoyevski did not bring shame on the Russian people – just the opposite. When we want to say something good about the Russians, we say that they produced a Dostoyevski. When we want to say something good about the French, we say that they have produced a de Maupassant or a Flaubert.
The same thing is true in every literature and should be true also in Jewish literature. In other words, if a writer wants to write about Jewish murderers and Jewish thieves, he can be just as important a writer as if he wrote about Jewish saints. To me, the main thing is the quality.
Another thing – where shall the Jewish writer find his topics if not in his own people? Let us say he wants to describe a thief. Should he describe a Portuguese thief? If he wants a saint, he will describe a Jewish saint. To demand of a Jewish writer that all his positive heroes be Jews, and all the negative heroes Gentiles would not be just to literature, and not just from an ethical point of view.
BERKOWITZ: Here are two statements you have made that seem to contradict each other. First: “I write about Jews. It is not that I think that they are special, but that I know them best.” And yet you also say in a very beautiful passage: “I do think that as a philosophy, Judaism has unrevealed treasures which no other religion has, and it has never before happened in history that a nation has been exiled for two thousand years, then come back and formed a country. This proves that the Almighty has a purpose for the Jewish people.”
SINGER: There is no contradiction. It is true that I write about my people because I know them best. If they were an inferior people, I would still write about them, because no writer can write about “other” people. Once in a while I will travel and I will write a story about other people, but you know that the great writers have always written about their own. At the same time I may have the idea, or perhaps the illusion, call it what you will, that we are an exceptional people. No people have been exile, and stayed in exile for two thousand years and returned to its land, to its language and to its culture. So the fact that I happen to belong to an exceptional people, and all peoples are exceptional in their own way, is no contradiction to the fact that I write about my own people. These two statements go very well together, I think.
BERKOWITZ: Yet you say, “I write about Jews. It is not that I think that they are special...” It is this that I felt might have been a contradiction. On the one hand you speak so glowingly, and yet you term the Jewish people “not special.”
SINGER: I meant this idea of Jews as topics for writing, the idea that writing about Jews will create better literature than writing about other people. In this respect I think we are not special. A great writer will always write great books, and a bad writer will write bad books, even if his people were ten times as special. So this is the reason there is no contradiction. When I said special, I meant special as far as literature is concerned, and there are people who are special for literature.
As far as the great destiny of the Jews is concerned, certainly I believe in it. But I do not believe that literature has to lead there. Literature has to reflect this greatness or smallness. It has to reflect what we have accomplished and what we have not. But I do not believe that literature has a mission in the sense that it should show the way as people sometimes hope it will. Maybe nonfiction may do it, but never fiction, because fiction is written after the fact, not before the fact.
BERKOWITZ: Now as a religionist and as a rabbi, I want to take up another aspect of Jewishness. In speaking of yourself as a Jewish writer, you point out that you are not a particularly observant Jew. What you feel constitutes a Jew is someone whose Jewishness is his life. This person is to you a maximum Jew. You say there are maximum and minimum Jews. Now I cannot accept this definition because I cannot agree that what constitutes a Jew is merely someone whose Jewishness is his life. This ignores the whole tradition of religion, custom and ceremony. So would you more exactly define for us what you consider to be a maximum and minimum Jew?
SINGER: I consider a maximum Jew a person who really lives with Jewishness. It is his whole life. When I think about a maximum Jew, I think about my father because I knew him best. For this reason, being a Jew and being a human being were the same thing. When my father wanted to say that a person has to eat, he would say, “A Jew has to eat,” – not because he thought that the Gentiles should not eat, but because a Jew and a person were, for him, synonymous. To our parents and grandparents, this was their life. Jewishness was actually the very air they breathed. Because of this, many of the men did not go to business. They let their wives sit in the stores or work for them. They sat all day long studying. Such a man I would call a maximum Jew.
But on the other hand, to say that such a man is Jew, and others are not, would be not just. Because of this, I think there is a minimum and a maximum. A minimum Jew to me is a man who calls himself a Jew, even if he does not observe. There are many grades of Jewishness, and I think that this is the way also that our sages have understood because they said, Ysrael aff all piy she’chata Yisrael hu – a Jew, even if he has sinned, is still a Jew. And even a man who has converted to Christianity is considered a Jew from the point of view of religion. This is the meaning of maximum and minimum Jews.
BERKOWITZ: In the introduction to a reissue of I.J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb, you tell of your brother’s desire in the late 1920's not to write in Yiddish – that he no longer thought of himself as a Yiddish writer. And in a review of the book in The Saturday Review, the reviewer says, “What I.J. Singer was trying to escape was not the grammar and syntax of Yiddish, but the milieu in which the language was spoken, a culture that he had come to regard as narrow, decadent, stultifying. In his own words, “humiliating.” Could you elaborate on what is meant by this?
SINGER: I do not agree with this reviewer. He did not understand my brother. It is true that my brother was disappointed for a time in Yiddish literature, but not because he considered it decadent or too petty. His disappointment was with the Yiddishist milieu of his time. It is no secret that in the 1920's especially, Yiddish literature (and the Yiddish reader with it) was in danger of almost disappearing into the Communist sphere. There was so much Communism, there was so much belief that the “Red Messiah” was going to come and that Yiddish was going to lead to him, that I would say there was almost nothing else left in literature. There was the time that so many people who went over to Soviet Russia came out and said that Yiddish was for them only a way to achieve the revolution. The revolution had become everything, and Yiddish became only a means to it.
Such writers naturally persecuted men like my brother, and even me, although I was only a beginner. For them we did not lead in the right direction. So my brother became very much disgusted, not actually with Yiddish, but with those who misused and misunderstood Yiddish literature. For the moment he had the illusion that if he could run away from the language, he would also run away from the atmosphere that these people had created.
But as I point out in my introduction, no writer can run away from his language, because the language of a writer is his fate. My brother soon convinced himself that this was not possible, and he returned to literature and wrote Yoshe Kalb, The Brothers Ashkenazi, and Comrade Nacham, as well as a number of other books. So the fact is that my brother was disappointed. I understand him very well. I myself was, and still am, disappointed in those writers who think that Yiddish is nothing but a means for Red propaganda.
BERKOWITZ: Here is what I think is a very beautiful statement by Maurice Samuel: “I call Yiddish a knowing language because of the special intramural hints, allusions, interjections in which it abounds. It is also that because of intonation and gesticulation.” Let me add a classic story to show the power of this kind of intonation. Two Jews meet, and one turns to the other and asks, “How are you?” The other says, “Feh!” Number one asks, “And how is business?” The answer, “Be-meh!” Then he asks, “Then how are the children?” “Eh!” Finally he asks, “And how are things in general?” “Mmmm!” So the one who is asking the questions says, “Well friend, thanks for filling me in on the details.” The Yiddish version of this line is A mechaye az m’redt zich durch.
Maurice Samuel wrote that Yiddish was a language with a policy. He said, “Classic Yiddish writing derives its stylistic strength and charm from the deliberate emphasis on Hebrew phraseology. Yiddish had a policy which gave it full character and that was to keep Hebrew alive. Classic Jewish writers – Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Mendele Mocher S’forim – have loaded their Yiddish so heavily with Hebrew, over and above the common usage, that it is impossible to read them intelligently without a good knowledge of Hebrew. And the beauty of their style springs, strangely enough, from the naturalness of this bias.” He concludes by saying, “We speak Yiddish not only to convey our transient thoughts, but to keep in touch with the eternal language.”
SINGER: I agree with Maurice Samuel that Hebrew words give Yiddish much of its zest and charm. The Yiddish language could not exist without the 10 or 20 percent of Hebrew words, or even Aramaic words, that it uses. But I would also say that this is true in a great measure about Hebrew. It is true that the Hebrew language, modern Hebrew, does not use Yiddish words, but it uses so many Yiddish Idioms, so many ways of Yiddish expression, that I would say they have taken from us as much as we have taken from them – perhaps even more. To me, since these two languages express the same Jewish person, they are not only sisters, they are twin sisters. Both express the Jewish spirit.
I personally believe that someone who does not know Hebrew, who does not know the Talmud, does not really know Yiddish. The same is true about Hebrew. A person who does not know Yiddish does not know Hebrew well. To know what a Jew is, to know Jewish literature, one has to know at least these two languages. This is also the reason that I consider those people who write in English and do not know either of these languages not really Jewish writers, but English or American writers.
BERKOWITZ: Yiddish has been spoken of as a “jargon” without grammar or extensive vocabulary. A lot of people do not agree, and I am sure that you do not.
SINGER: Many people who call Yiddish a jargon do not know that English and French were also at one time called jargons. All these languages that are today the beauty of Europe were called vulgar languages. English was called a vulgar language. The English scholars some five hundred years ago, seven hundred years ago, wrote in Latin. English was a language of the peasants. This was true of Italian, it was true of French, and it was certainly true of Russian and Polish. As far as Russian was concerned, the Russian aristocrats boasted that their children did not know a word of Russian. They were afraid to teach their children Russian because it was a vulgar language, and they were afraid that it would spoil their French accents.
What happened to those languages also happened to Yiddish. It is only a question of time. Other nations saw their mistake sooner and corrected them. We still have some fanatics and snobs who call our Yiddish language a vulgar language. Yiddish is as far from being vulgar as English and French and German are. There is no such thing as a vulgar language. The language the people call vulgar contains, very often, the very vitality of the human spirit.
BERKOWITZ: You have been traveling around the country, and I know that you have made a tremendous impact on students at a number of colleges. What is it that you do? Is there a renaissance or a revitalized interest in Yiddish culture, in the Yiddish language?
SINGER: I would not say that there is a renaissance in the respect that young people really intend to begin to speak Yiddish. It is too late for that, but at least they have learned that Yiddish is a rich language, and that great works were created in this language. They are as eager to know it as our parents and grandparents were eager to know what was created in Hebrew. Hebrew was, in my time, a dead language, a language of the book, and Yiddish was a living language.
I am afraid that now the roles are being reversed. Hebrew is now more and more a living language, and Yiddish may become for a time the language of the book. People will have to study Yiddish because nobody will be able to understand the last 500 or 600 years of Jewish history and Jewish creativity without Yiddish. In a way it is happening right now. Some people learn Yiddish, not for the sake of speaking the language, but to understand what is going on in Jewish life and what went on for hundreds of years.
In this respect, there is a great revival and a great renaissance. I was told at the Hebrew Union College that they are going to get a professor to teach Yiddish there. I gave a lecture at that college which I called, “The Autobiography of Yiddish.” and the hall was filled not only with students but also with members of the faculty.
There is a different attitude towards Yiddish because we finally understand that the melting pot idea does not work and that we are too rich to lose ourselves. As far as culture is concerned, we are millionaires.
BERKOWITZ: For a long time in the establishment of the State of Israel there was a struggle about which language was to be the language of the state. It was so intense that the Hebrew zealots said, “There will never be a Yiddish word spoken in Medinat Yisrael until such time as Hebrew is assured as the prime language.” Here is what you have said: “I am a Yiddish writer. That is one reason that I could not live in Israel. They have a wonderful thing, a miracle and I think that it is wonderful that we have our own country again, but I could not live there because it is too small, and because they are against Yiddish.” Would you like to comment on the change of policy toward Yiddish in Israel? I know there are many theatrical groups, and several Yiddish dailies have already appeared.
SINGER: It is true that in the beginning those who built Israel felt Yiddish might be a very dangerous competitor to Hebrew. They were really afraid that Yiddish would remain the language of Israel. Since they had returned to the land of their fathers, they also wanted to return to the language of old, of Abraham and Jacob and David. But I think that the fear of this competition has now ceased in Israel. They already have a generation that speaks Hebrew, and there is no danger that Yiddish will become the first language in Israel. But many Israelis are also convinced that Yiddish must become the second language in Israel, because if it does not, Hebrew itself will not be so vital a tongue. In other words, they are coming to the same conclusion that many writers have come to, that Yiddish and Hebrew are two sides of the same coin, and that the knowledge of one must go with the knowledge of the other. Because of this, I think that the whole situation has changed.
However, for me to go to Israel and to live under the shadow of Hebrew would not be a very pleasant thing. Still, I never know. Things may change for the better.
BERKOWITZ: I would like to turn to the problem of translation. In Maurice Samuel’s book, The Prince of The Ghetto, there is a chapter called, “Translators Are Traitors.” A few sentences from this chapter may set the background for our discussion: “It is impossible to penetrate the Yiddish word by mere translation. There must be on the part of the reader a willingness to devote some attention to the peculiar revealing character of Yiddish, to whatever extent this character can be conveyed in English. Every language has its genius which is nontransferable and on one level. Yiddish differs from English and French and Italian, just as these differ from one another.”
Then he cites illustrations. If you were to say in German die Schnur des Rabbiners, it does not mean the same as the Yiddish dem rebbens schnur. Another example is the use of the word staitch, which can best be described, if described at all, as an “expletive of expostulation.” Or he speaks of personal names that have a fascinating spiritual mold. A name such as Shprintze or Yente or possibly the extreme example of a name found in Yiddish, Feivish. When one couples it with Yukel to make Feivish Yukel, it is perhaps the most comical-trivial man’s name in the Yiddish speaking world.
Samuel points out, “When Jews speak of the impossibility of translating Yiddish into English, they have in mind just those differences of spirit and idiom which are the ordinary barriers between all languages. They will ask, for instance, how on earth can you say in English hayre uff tzu hacken a tchainik – literally to chop, or wallop a teakettle.” To make it harder, they will say Er hot gehackta tchainak aff vos die vely shteit–”He walloped the teakettle on which the world stands.” Other phrases are difficult in translation, and I think these are very interesting. For example, a certain type of Jew is described as a shadchan, a badchan, a ganei, a lamden, a Yid. To translate these, or Gott die neshomoh shuldig.
You have said you always write so that you do not lose too much in translation. You write in Yiddish but you go over the translations and sometimes, as in The Slave, you help to translate. Would you share with us your thinking on the subject of translation?
SINGER: I do not agree with Maurice Samuel that Yiddish is an exceptional language in the respect that it almost cannot be translated. I would say that each language has idioms that cannot be translated, phrases for which one cannot find an equivalent. If you do not find the best one, you find the next best because sometimes there is no best. It is true that Hack mir nit kein tchainik cannot be actually translated into English, but there are a million English expressions which cannot be translated into Yiddish.
As far as losing is concerned, all writers lose when they are translated. The greatest losers are humorists and poets. Poetry almost cannot be translated. As far as humor is concerned, we know that a joke in one language sometimes sounds very serious or very silly in another language. I think this is the reason why it is so difficult to translate Sholom Aleichem. He is a man of humor and humor cannot be translated. Writers who are full of folk expressions are also very difficult to translate. For example, consider Nikolai Gogol. It is almost impossible to translate him. I would say that he loses about 50 percent of his value in translation. However, he is so rich that no matter how much he loses, he still stays rich.
I take part in the translations myself, and because of this I see the difficulties of the translators and how much they suffer until they translate something right. I must say that I have a lot of compassion for translators, but I also have to watch them very carefully.
Even good translators sometimes make bad mistakes. Some time ago I wrote in one of my stories that my father in the time of the war was poor, and went to the rabbi to ask him for a loan. The rabbi did not have any money, but the rabbi’s wife gave him her ring. I said that my father put this ring on a schketle which actually means a jewelry box. The translator read it not as schketele but schteckele, which means “stick,” and he translated it: “And my father came home with the ring and put it on a stick.”