Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashe­vis Singer

  • Review
By – May 9, 2022

A Yid­dish writer in Amer­i­ca is an unseen enti­ty, almost a ghost.” So begins the intro­duc­tion to the new col­lec­tion of essays by Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, com­piled and edit­ed by David Stromberg. Singer is, of course, best known as a sto­ry­teller, but this new col­lec­tion aims to expose read­ers to Singer’s world­view through a dif­fer­ent lens than devo­tees may be famil­iar with. Though Singer vir­tu­al­ly defined Yid­dish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, he was, as this col­lec­tion reveals, a thinker as well as a writer — and a proud one at that.

Most of the essays in the col­lec­tion are pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished in Eng­lish, and some have pre­vi­ous­ly been unpub­lished in any capac­i­ty. In the pref­ace, Stromberg notes that “ … It is pos­si­ble … to read these texts not quite as trans­la­tions, but as orig­i­nal works pro­duced through a process that includ­ed a first draft in Yid­dish, trans­la­tion into Eng­lish, and Eng­lish-lan­guage revi­sions made into final works … In this sense, this book is more than a col­lec­tion of Singer’s trans­lat­ed arti­cles. It is a cohe­sive work, expressed in Singer’s own voice.” Stromberg has curat­ed this col­lec­tion in ser­vice of express­ing what he terms a cen­tral ele­ment of Singer’s intel­lec­tu­al foun­da­tion — a tes­ta­ment to the spir­it of his artis­tic vision.” For a lay read­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly one famil­iar only with Singer’s fic­tion, the col­lec­tion reads a wide-rang­ing and acces­si­ble walk through Singer’s mind.

Some stand­outs in the col­lec­tion: Sto­ry­telling and Lit­er­a­ture,” The Ten Com­mand­ments and Mod­ern Crit­ics,” and Yid­dish, the Lan­guage of Exile.” All play to Singer’s gift for trans­lat­ing Yid­dish cul­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in an Amer­i­can con­text, into some­thing that feels urgent and even time­less. It could be said that Hebrew suc­ceed­ed and Yid­dish failed, but for me Yid­dish is far from being a fail­ure,” he writes. By dis­card­ing its for­eign trap­pings, its world­ly chaff, and pre­serv­ing the vit­a­mins and hor­mones that nour­ished the lan­guage for gen­er­a­tions, Yid­dish is again slow­ly becom­ing what it was in its begin­ning — a lan­guage of Jew­ish­ness, the expres­sion of those who still view human behav­ior from the point of view of kosher and nonkosher, per­mit­ted and for­bid­den.” Under­stand­ing Yid­dish as a liv­ing thing, an enti­ty that requires nour­ish­ment, strikes at the core of Singer’s rela­tion­ship to his native tongue.

The eigh­teen essays in this col­lec­tion are very much with­in his estab­lished realm of exper­tise — but how for­tu­nate we are that this realm is so rich and almost infi­nite­ly rewarding.

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

Discussion Questions