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News and events related to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work.


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Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel


Faith in Place: Isaac Bashevis Singer in Israel

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER — the famed Yiddish writer who in 1935 moved from Warsaw to New York and in 1978 received the Nobel Prize for Literature as an American-Jewish author — made his first trip to Israel in the fall of 1955, arriving just after Yom Kippur and leaving about two months later. His relationship to Israel was complicated to say the least.


He had been born into a strictly religious family of rabbis and rebetzins in Poland, for whom the land of Israel was the holiest of religious symbols. But he also lived a secular life in 1920s Warsaw, witnessing Zionism overtake Jewish Enlightenment and Bundism as a viable 20th-century political force. In more personal terms, Israel was also the place to which his son, Israel Zamir, had been brought by his mother, Runya Pontsch, in 1938, growing up in part on Kibbutz Beit Alpha and later fighting in the War of Independence. Yet Singer had always avoided every kind of -ism — from Zionism to communism — and so his perspective on the young state of Israel was largely free of the ideology and dogmatism that was prevalent during the country’s early days.

During his trip, Singer published several articles per week in the Yiddish daily Forverts, recording his visit. While these articles sometimes read like touristic travelogues, they reflect Singer’s complex relation to the land of Israel, as both an idea and a place. Israel had been in Singer’s consciousness since his youngest days as a boy growing up in religious surroundings, and it made its way into his work, including some of his earliest fiction, which was published in Hebrew. When he was still living in Warsaw, Singer wrote a novella titled The Way Back (1928) about a young man full of the Zionist dream who travels to the Land of Israel and returns five years later after suffering hunger, malaria, and poverty. In 1948, just a week before the state of Israel was declared, he ended The Family Moskat with several characters leaving Warsaw and moving to pursue the Zionist dream. In 1955, just weeks before his trip, he published an episode of In My Father’s Court (1956) titled “To the Land of Israel,” about a local tinsmith who moves his family to the Holy Land, then returns disappointed to Warsaw, but then, despite everything, goes back. In his memoirs, Singer writes that he considered moving to British Mandate Palestine in the mid-1920s, and in The Certificate (1967), he fictionalizes this in a tale that ends with the protagonist instead going back to his shtetl. As late as 1938, in a letter to Runya sent from New York, he was still fantasizing about the idea: “My plan is this: as soon as I have least resources, and I hope they come together quickly, I will travel to Palestine.” But by mid-1939, these dreams seem to pass into a different view on reality: “For me, in the meantime, getting a visa to Palestine is impossible.” For Singer, it seems, Israel remained, in both the symbolic and literal sense, the road not taken.

Read the full article here.

NewsKathryn McEachern