Celebrating Jewish Literature Essays about the disappearing Yiddish culture

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote so many essays for the Forward newspaper that many were published under pseudonyms. David Stromberg, who translated and edited “Isaac Bashevis Singer Writings on Yiddish and Yiddishkayt: The War Years, 1939-1945” (White Goat Press)*, writes that Singer was not known in the U.S. as a novelist/short story writer during this period. His writing focused on Yiddishkayt, including many musings on European Jewish/Yiddish customs and communities. Stromberg notes that Singer was trying to accomplish a massive task: “He wanted to get it all on record – not only the customs but also the immediacy of the loss that he realized was taking place at that very moment... [the knowledge of what was happening] was crushing for Singer. It also drove him to put pen to paper and write.” 

Stromberg introduces each of the 25 essays with a short note placing it in context. Older readers might find them difficult to read due to the very small size of the print, but they are worth the effort. One thing that stood out was that Singer offers no ethical commentary when talking about Jewish religious customs. For example, when writing about the agunah (a wife whose husband has either decided not to give her a divorce or who has disappeared), he notes the problem – especially in Europe where the marriage age could be very young – but accepts the rulings, rather than asking for a change in the way marriage/divorce was accomplished. Singer sees the problem as a fact of life. His purpose is instead to teach his readers about the world in which he grew up: he wants to remember what that world was like, warts and all. 

All the essays offer something of interest, but the following stood out:

  • Singer addressed the question of “What Is a Dybbuk?” while suggesting that, rather than being inhabited by a dybbuk, most sufferers were not possessed by a malicious spirit, but simply experiencing a type of hysteria. Unfortunately, he also sees the sufferers as acting out a part, even if they don’t realize they are doing so. The idea of a real mental illness as we know it today didn’t seem to occur to him.
  • In “The Yiddish That We Spoke in the Old Country Is Being Forgotten,” Singer mourns the loss of true Yiddish. He sees Jewish immigrants to the U.S. losing the ability to speak a true Yiddish: that would mean creating new words and formulating new ideas through the use of that language. He also mourns the loss of many Yiddish books in Europe and wishes the collections of books had been better protected.
  • A wonderful celebration of the city of Warsaw is offered in the essay “Each Jewish Street in Warsaw Was Like a Town of Its Own.” Although Singer struggles with the destruction that was occurring, his tribute to the city offers an insiders’ view of a soon-to-be-lost world.
  • In “Why Movies Aren’t Made about Jewish Life,” Singer complains that films of almost every time period and ethnicity appeared on American movie screens, but none were being made about Jews and Jewish history. He also suggests that “there is no medium more suitable for the job [of fighting antisemitism] than a good Jewish film. It certainly won’t be made in Hollywood.” Films made decades later would prove him wrong. 

Other essays speak to Jewish identity and the difficulties of being Jewish in the United States. He also writes about Jewish history and concepts in order to educate his audience. The essays are consistently interesting and offer readers not only a look into Singer’s ideas, but the time period about which he is writing. Study groups looking to understand Jewish life in early 1940s should find much to discuss about each essay – whether they agree or disagree with Singer’s ideas. 

*This is not the first book of Singer’s essays Stromberg has edited, but that work – “Old Truths and New Clichés” – contains essays written in the 1960s-70s. The Reporter’s review can be found at www.thereportergroup.org/book-reviews/off-the-shelf-oz-and-singer-discuss-writing-and-life?entry=415690.