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Imagination as a Group Effort

Among the recurring questions that I and other writers are often asked — along with, “How long did it take you to write the book?” and “Do you use a pencil or a pen?” — there is one that almost always comes up: “Is anyone else in your family a writer?”

Those who ask this question are usually wondering about the writer’s parents or grandparents, assuming that creativity is something passed from one generation to the next. But while I claim no literary ancestors, I am surrounded in my family by artists in my own generation: My older sister is an accomplished journalist who is working on a novel, my younger brother is a professional animator and my younger sister’s first novel is coming out this fall. When I mention this, people often exclaim, “Oh, like the Brontës!” to which I have often wished I could reply: “No, like the Singers.”

With the possible exception of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer is the most widely known Yiddish writer ever to have walked the earth. What is less widely known is that two of the Nobel laureate’s three siblings also were acclaimed Yiddish novelists. The eldest, Hinde Esther (published as Esther Kreitman), traced her own journeys through Western Europe in her fiction. The works of the second eldest, Israel Joshua, were so highly regarded that his younger brother adopted the pen name Bashevis (“Bathsheba’s son,” after his mother’s name) in order to distinguish himself from the writer who continued to be the major Singer in the Yiddish-speaking literary world. Even the unpublished youngest sibling, Moyshe, left his mark on his family’s artistic imagination. The story of the Singer family demonstrates that creativity does not merely run in families between generations, but within them — and why.

The Singer siblings shared a childhood that can be called inspiring only in retrospect. Born to a deeply religious yet fiercely practical mother, and a rabbi father so submerged in spiritual life that he could not be relied upon to pay the rent, the four Singer children grew up in a home immersed in both piety and poverty. The family lived in two small towns before settling in a red-light district of Warsaw, where their father’s rabbinic court often presided over the neighborhood’s Jewish prostitutes and other unfortunates. Hinde Esther and Israel Joshua both fell in love with the modern world beyond their home, striking out on their own in dramatic ways. When the family later moved back to their mother’s remote native shtetl, Moyshe, the youngest, fell in love with the town’s pre-modern world, much as his siblings had fallen in love with Warsaw’s modern one; he joined the intensely spiritual Bratslaver sect of chasidim and became a rabbi. Isaac, the second youngest, absorbed both worlds, his imagination caught between the two.

The intense alliance within the younger generation of the family, largely against their parents, drove the older three toward art. Israel Joshua, the most independent-minded of the four, brought home books for his older sister, and Hinde Esther soon became a passionate reader of secular literature, yearning for the romance and excitement that seemed just out of reach on the wealthier streets of Warsaw. Her father overlooked her because she was a girl; she and her mother were so mismatched that they argued constantly. Her rivalry with her brother Israel Joshua became almost as intense. But her dreams collapsed when the family’s poverty forced her to acquiesce to an arranged marriage with the son of an Antwerp diamond dealer and to leave Poland forever. (She later fled Belgium for England during World War I.) Being forced out of the family home crushed her, yet her love of the dramatic, even in real life, powered her career. It was in her letters to her bridegroom before the wedding that, as her brother Isaac would later claim, “the first literary spark in our family became apparent.” The daily shames of her childhood and her traumatic departure for Western Europe became the basis of her first novel, “The Demons’ Dance” (translated as “Deborah”), a thinly veiled autobiography that captures the suffocating situation of a young Jewish woman with devastating honesty. (See the column to the right for an excerpt of “Deborah,” which will be rereleased this summer by The Feminist Press.)

As a son rather than a daughter, Israel Joshua had more options. Constantly bringing his impious opinions home, he enraged his parents while inspiring his siblings — particularly Isaac, who adored him, and Hinde Esther, who envied him. He took it upon himself to educate his entire family about the virtues of literature, and because of Israel Joshua’s passion, Isaac later said, “I decided to become a writer.” Their parents were less impressed, and Israel Joshua’s fights with his father became so severe that he left home. He was forced to return for army conscription in World War I, only to desert. His family located him years later in an artist’s studio, where his visiting brother, Isaac, was stunned to see the possibilities of art and secular life. As World War I raged, Israel Joshua remained in Warsaw, eventually founding a literary journal and becoming a correspondent for the paper you now hold in your hands — a job he later was able to share with his brother Isaac. It was the Forward that provided Israel’s ticket out of Europe, and his brother Isaac followed in 1935, just missing the chance to see his own first novel, “Satan in Goray,” appear in print. The previous year, Israel Joshua — who was a far more searing and powerful talent than his brother in many ways, and was respected by his Yiddish readers as such — published his epic masterpiece “The Brothers Ashkenazi.” His career still was flourishing at the time of his early death in New York in 1944. But as it happened, the three writers’ departures from Poland allowed them to avoid the slaughter of Poland’s Jews in World War II. Their youngest brother Moyshe, who had passed along stories by the chasidic master Nachman of Bratslav to Isaac just as the older siblings once passed along secular ones, was not so lucky.

What is astounding about the Singers is not just the rare confluence of three novelists in one family, something a lazy biographer might attribute to “genes” (but whose genes?) or to “the times” (but which times?). What is astounding is the degree to which their success and even their existence as artists depended on their relationships with one another, both as children and as adults. It is tempting to believe the tired idea that artists must be products of traumatic childhoods, and to attribute the Singers’ success merely to the circumstances that made their family life a microcosm of modern Jewish upheaval. But fortunately, severe hardship is merely an optional part of artistic development. What is not optional is having peers whose critical support for you is as unconscious as it is unconditional — people who can insult your work without questioning your talent; people whose mark on your imagination is made indelible not by a single touch, but by years of minuscule impressions burned forever into your brain; people who, unlike parents or teachers, have known you as a friend; people who, unlike lovers or friends, have known you as a child; people who hopefully will grow old along with you; people who will never, ever wonder who you are. That is what brothers and sisters can do.

Like everything else in life, creativity begins at home. A surprising number of Yiddish writers (though not the Singer siblings) have claimed that when they were growing up, members of their families often spoke to each other in rhyme. When I once questioned how this could actually be true, my teacher, who had heard about my family, said, “You’re the last person I’d expect to doubt it. It happens right in your own house!” She was right. While our own talents are far more modest, my siblings and I write musical comedies every year with Exodus-related lyrics and perform them at family Seders. And during the rest of the year, the four of us regularly compose long poems and parodies together for every possible occasion, reciting them in our parents’ honor to make them laugh. Ever since we were children, our family events always have been observed in newly written rhyme.

It is easy to blame this on our parents, who, unlike the senior Singers, actually encouraged our creativity (partly for its own sake, partly to keep us from beating each other up). But growing up in a house where your life unfolds before a jury of your peers is a powerful and underestimated influence. In such a world, imagination is a group effort — and richer for it. As a child, I became an addicted reader much as the Singers did — by imitating my older sister, whom I revered beyond words. An insatiable reader, my sister maintained a vast library in her childhood bedroom from which she would lend books to me with such discretion, authority and taste that just scanning her shelves felt like an invitation into a realm of radiance. I saw her writing feverishly in journals and began writing just as feverishly in my own. My younger sister preferred to turn life into literature; when asked to describe her day at dinnertime, she would get up on stage and perform it as a tragicomic opera, pulling in the rest of us to play supporting roles in what became the prototype of more formal performances. My brother’s talent appeared just as early, and the weird creatures he created on paper were of a piece with his hilariously bizarre comments, seasoning our days with hysterical laughter, making their way into our writings and twisting our view of the world. Growing up in this house, I never had the opportunity to believe that art was the solitary enterprise of a lonely soul. Instead, creativity was something that flourished in a very Jewish way: communally, through public ritual and argument, among passionate people bound by their common past and future dreams.

Creativity does run in families, but not in the way one would expect. It doesn’t merely run through children’s genes, but through the home they grow up in together — through the air they breathe in unison, and through the thoughts and imaginings with which they infuse each other’s souls until their souls are shared. My siblings and I are in our 20s and 30s now, and while we cannot claim the Singers’ talents, we are more fortunate in another way. Without wars to scatter us, we see one another almost every day. Our apartments are filled with each other’s sketches and manuscripts, and my phone is forever ringing with their ideas. As we stand just past the threshold of adulthood, on the edge of a mature life that the Singers barely had a chance to share, I know that we have been blessed with the Singers’ true gift: not talent, but each other.

Dara Horn’s first novel, “In the Image” (W.W. Norton), received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award.

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