‘Writers can stir the mind, but they can’t direct it,” Isaac Bashevis Singer said in an interview in 1978. “Time changes things, God changes things, the dictators change things, but writers can’t change anything.”
As it turned out, Singer was wrong about writers. For evidence all he had to look at was his own life. If he did nothing else, he changed things. He introduced millions around the world to the lost universe of Eastern European Jewry, creating indelible depictions of a world that could no longer sit for portraits.
This summer, Singer, who died in 1991, would have celebrated his 100th birthday. In commemoration, scores of cultural institutions and publications — including our own, in this issue — will pay tribute to the man who has become, for much of the modern world, the paradigmatic Yiddish writer.
Our bond with Singer is deep and rich. From its inception in 1897, the Jewish Daily Forward took as its mission to offer support and succor to Jewish immigrants navigating the strange corridors of America. It sought to ease its readers into comfort with the New World while preserving a link to the Old. Of all its readers and writers through the years, perhaps no single person benefited more from this mandate than Singer. He had been brought here by his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, and Israel’s boss, Forward editor Abraham Cahan. Arriving from Poland in 1935, the younger Singer began a writing career that would elevate him to the pages of some of the country’s most prestigious periodicals, to the stage of the Nobel ceremonies and, ultimately, into the canon of American literature.
To some, it is true, this summer is not a time for celebration but merely an occasion for yet another round of undeserved tributes. Among those who best know Yiddish literature and culture, there are still more than a few who see Singer as a lesser talent who dishonored the lost world of the shtetl through grotesque tales of prostitutes and demons.
Unlike most of his Yiddish literary contemporaries, Singer escaped Europe before the Holocaust. His European stories are set before the war, leaving the Holocaust in the role of a hovering specter. His critics say he backed away from the central tragedy of his people, but perhaps this was one reason for Singer’s success. His world, though haunted by ghosts, was consummately alive.
For most of Singer’s current and future readers, these arguments seem increasingly esoteric. The world of prewar Eastern European Jewry is fading from living memory into history. When the last survivors have gone, the memories will live more vividly because of Singer. He may not have been the most accurate portraitist, or the most popular among his peers and subjects, but he is the one who has left the stamp on the wide world for all of them. Time and dictators leave a mark on the world, but writers — including Singer — will have the last word. For this, we honor them.