Who are the Jews? What do Jewish writers have in common with each other? What, strictly speaking, is a “Jewish” writer . . . and, for that matter, what is meant by “strictly speaking”?

A look at the life of Isaac B. Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning author who wrote in Yiddish, may help us answer these questions. Singer died on July 24, 1991, 15 years ago tomorrow.

To understand Singer it is necessary to appreciate the stark religious bifurcation that characterized Polish Jewish life in the first half of the 20th century. Singer not only straddles both elements, he epitomizes them.

Both of Singer’s grandfathers were rabbis, yet rabbis cut from very different cloth. His father was Hassidic. Hassidism is an orthodox form of Judaism that aims at the reinvention of the psyche of the believer through intense prayer. Singer’s mother (from whose maiden name he took his own middle name, Bashevis) was from a non-Hassidic background. She was more skeptical and open-minded than his father; and it is clear that the writer took his view of the world, and his sympathy for women, from her.

But the main split that Singer lived through as a child was that in the very nature of Polish Jewish life itself. He spent his childhood in both Warsaw, in a little unheated apartment on the second floor of a building at 10 Krochmalna (or, Starch) St., and in the shtetl (small provincial town) of Bilgoraj. The former was the virtual center of low Jewish life, with its vendors, ragpickers, gangsters, petty shysters and prostitutes. Life in the latter was bound by piety and riddled with superstition. Singer became the chronicler of those two, even then, fast-disappearing worlds. In that sense, he may be called “the last Jew in Poland.”

Even after going to live in the United States in 1935, he continued to hark back to these two Jewish lives in Poland: the life of the gonef (thief) and artless schemer of Starch St.; and that of the passionate, demon-bearing, God-fearing shtetl-dweller. Singer carried the ruins of these vanishing cultures across the ocean, laying them carefully, stone by stone, on the streets of New York and Miami.

Superb translations

Two years ago, the Library of America published his complete short stories in superb translations (“Singer, Collected Stories”). In reading the nearly 2,500 pages, I came away with a few clear notions of the author’s predilections.

First, there are almost no major characters who are Gentile. Singer wasn’t particularly interested in what non-Jews thought or did.

Second, children do not figure prominently in his work. In fact, Singer the author, like Singer the man, was disinterested in children. When female children do appear, it is primarily for sexual interest.

Third, Singer’s obsession with women and their drives, primarily their lust, is unashamedly conspicuous. I would go as far as to say that this is what inspires his creativity. He and his male characters may know that illicit sexual encounters are sinful, but they cannot resist them.

Finally, Singer is in a constant dialogue with his own personal God. His characters are often testing God, taunting Him to appear and stop them from sinning. Their whims are wild and irrational; their violence, impulsive.

Singer’s view of the Jews was of a people who are forever isolated from the society in which they live. The Jews that he describes in his stories set in America are largely unassimilated. They are pieces in the puzzle that is Singer’s own past; part of those fragmented ruins that he carried from Poland.

Let’s go back to the questions at the beginning of this article. Perhaps an answer is that Singer is only one kind of Jewish writer. After all, Jewish literature exists in any number of languages, and not even Yiddish writers can be exclusive pretenders to the Sour Cream Throne.

The Diaspora is the Jewish homeland, despite the myth of the “real” one that Israel perpetrates on the world. But, unlike Singer, the vast majority of Jews feel at home in their country. It’s Singer who is the odd-Jew out, and he knows it. The heartache that comes from this recognition is what he writes, and commiserates, about.

What do Jewish writers have in common if not a language or a country?

Isaac Babel wrote in Russian, Bruno Shultz in Polish and Franz Kafka in German. Primo Levi wrote in Italian, Bernard Malamud in English. Their work has a Jewish self-consciousness about it, as well as a profound concern for the underbelly of society: helpless people, victims, schnooks (the hopeless) and shlimmazels (the luckless). As writers they share an outlook on misery and poke at our lapel until we give that outlook our attention.

Similarity with Japanese

Strangely, despite the vastly different national experience, there is a similarity with many Japanese writers in the personal isolation and exclusive self-centeredness of their characters, and in the view that “we are unique and unlike all the rest of humanity.”

I have long wondered why Singer’s work is not more well known than it is in Japan. A few short stories were published in the 1970s, and three novels appeared in translation — “Enemies” (Kadokawa Shoten, 1974), “The Slaves” (Kawade Shobo, 1975) and “Scum” (Shobunsha, 1995).

The late Shigeo Tobita translated some stories for the now long-discontinued literary magazine Umi, and distinguished translator and University of Tokyo Professor Motoyuki Shibata rendered the Singer story “The Image” into Japanese for an Iwanami Shoten anthology in 1996.

According to Prof. Shibata, “One may get the impression that Singer has been treated well in Japan, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. Most of his books are unavailable today, and their publication has been anything but systematic.” There is talk, however, of a new anthology from Kokusho Kankokai, and we can only hope that the book will materialize.

Singer’s themes are generally dark ones: heaven and hell (the hell that we throw ourselves into impulsively); fecundity, lust and intense greed; crushing vanity; deep-seated cynicism and bleak loneliness. There is rarely a happy ending to a Singer story. In these things, it seems to me, there are a lot of parallels with modern Japanese literature. Japanese writers of Singer’s generation were fascinated by the clash of the traditional and the new, often mixing, as he does, naive nostalgia with present-day realities.

But, after all, Singer’s work comes back to the Jewish element, of self-doubt and plaintive self-deprecation. The majority of the stories in the three-volume collection are about death, the death of the past and of memory; then, almost as an afterthought of God, the death of the body.

Isaac Singer may have accomplished what all writers aspire to. He created a God who would forgive him and his characters their sins. If that’s what makes him Jewish, then it makes him like just about everyone else as well.

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