Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life

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Oxford University Press, 1997 - Biography & Autobiography - 243 pages
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Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978, was the greatest Yiddish writer of the 20th century, a profoundly important voice in world literature, and an invaluable witness to the vanishing culture of Eastern European Jews. He was also a consummate storyteller. In such classic short stories as "Gimpel the Fool," "Short Friday," and "Yentl," and such acclaimed novels as The Family Moskat and Enemies, A Love Story, Singer combined a subtle psychological insight, deep sympathy for the eccentricities of Jewish folk custom, and an unerring feel for the heroism of everyday life. In doing so, he brought before the English-speaking world the vibrant milieu of pre-Holocaust Polish Jewry and provided an insight into human character and culture unsurpassed in our time.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer, Janet Hadda brings her dual expertise--as a practicing psychoanalyst and a Yiddish literary scholar--to this illuminating study of Singer's life and work. Drawing on extensive interviews with his wife, his translators, and fellow writers, and using original Yiddish sources, Hadda traces Singer's remarkable trajectory from the grinding poverty of Bilgoray, Poland, to his early struggles and paralyzing self-doubts as a lonely immigrant in New York in the 1930s, and finally to his rise to the pinnacle of literary fame. Hadda views Singer's personal life through the lens of his troubled relationships with his brilliant family. She discusses for the first time the critical role his sister and brother--both literary figures in their own right--played in his emotional and intellectual development. We see, for example, the close resemblance between his epileptic sister and the demonically possessed heroine of Satan in Goray, and learn how Singer's admiration for and competition with his brother, Israel Joshua, both spurred and inhibited his own artistic growth. Hadda also explores how opposing parental forces--his effeminate rabbi father and masculine rationalist mother--bequeathed to Singer a set of contradictions and a loneliness that would haunt his entire life. Despite his famous memoir, In My Father's Court, which idealizes his parents, Hadda shows a childhood that left him deeply neglected and from which he turned to fiction for escape and compensation. His sense of isolation intensified in adulthood with the knowledge that the Yiddish-speaking audience for whom he wrote and whose world provided the foundation for his work was disappearing. Debilitating depression, epic womanizing, estrangement from his brother, sister, and son all contributed to a private personality far different from the simple, grandfatherly self his readers perceived. Indeed, vast discrepancies existed between his public, private, and several literary personas. The naive voice of Jewish folk culture was also a sophisticated artist, an acerbic critic and, in the view of some (most notably, Saul Bellow), a calculating careerist. Hadda's account gives us, in the end, an enormously complicated man profoundly afflicted by the contradictions of his historical circumstance and personal suffering who was yet able to transform his burdens into a marvelously compassionate literature.
Compellingly written, filled with vivid detail, telling anecdote, and a wealth of fresh insight, Isaac Bashevis Singer reveals the complex array of historical, familial, cultural, and artistic forces that shaped one of this century's most eminent literary figures.

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About the author (1997)

About the Author:
Janet Hadda is Professor of Yiddish at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.

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