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Interview'Those who fear God are the ones who do not hurt each other'

1952 prayer by Bashevis Singer found scrawled on rent slip in unpublished trove

Unseen collection comes out next spring; writer and scholar David Stromberg discusses the Nobel laureate’s religious ambivalence, and why his liturgical Hebrew plea resonates today

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his Miami Beach apartment, October 10, 1978. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his Miami Beach apartment, October 10, 1978. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In 2014, author and literary scholar David Stromberg took his first trip to the archives at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, in search of material by the late Yiddish-language Jewish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. He hit the motherlode.

“I was looking for Bashevis Singer’s essays because I was interested in his non-fiction and worldview writing — on literature, on Judaism and Yiddish, and also his personal philosophy,” Stromberg told The Times of Israel in a recent telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem. “What I didn’t expect to find, but what I did find, is that he’d already translated enough material for an entire book.”

The writings, 90 percent of which were previously unpublished by the Nobel laureate, comprised “material that Singer either translated himself, or that he supervised and corrected — it was all in Bashevis Singer English,” said Stromberg.

Edited by Stromberg, the upcoming book, titled “Old Truths and New Clichés” after one of the included essays, is now in production at Princeton University Press with an anticipated release date in Spring 2022.

Among the materials Stromberg discovered was a short prayer by Bashevis Singer scrawled in liturgical Hebrew on the back of a rent receipt from 1952. The prayer was noteworthy not just for its language — the Polish-born Bashevis Singer’s tongue of choice was Yiddish — but for its religious tone. Although raised in a strict ultra-Orthodox household with rabbinical lines on both sides of his family, Singer veered from religion as a young man. Many of his writings deal with philosophical and theological struggles.

Author and translator David Stromberg. (Courtesy)

In the 1952 prayer, however, Bashevis Singer opens by addressing God in conventional language while making a characteristically humanistic request: “Master of the Universe, fill my heart with love for my people, and rest for the soul. Let me see the Creator in each and every creature, its mercy for each thing it creates.”

Singer also borrows from the traditional Jewish daily prayer canon, asking God to “guard my tongue from evil, my lips from deceit.”

But he ends the prayer with his own call for world peace.

“Those who fear God are the only ones who do not hurt each other, neither in fact nor in principle,” he writes. “They will never wage war against each other, and for this reason they are the symbol of peace, as it is written: ‘And your children’s peace shall grow.’”

Stromberg recently translated the prayer into English and published it online with the blessing of the author’s estate after holding on to it for years, unsure how to honor it with the proper context. As the world struggles to emerge from the throes of a pandemic, and unprecedented ethnic violence plagues the streets of Israeli cities and towns, Stromberg felt that Bashevis Singer’s plea to a deity with whom he’d had an incredibly complex relationship was more resonant than ever.

“We talk about faith as if it only relates to God, but essentially we live our lives with faith in a lot of principles we’ve never seen… Social, ethical, moral life, communal life, they all function on faith. You don’t have to believe in God, but you have to have the function of faith to be a law-abiding citizen, for example,” said Stromberg. “Today we’re seeing the exact result of the corruption of that faith in the social fabric, in the idea that you don’t take the law into your own hands.”

Born in Israel to ex-Soviet parents, Stromberg moved to the United States as a child in 1989. He returned to Israel in 2008, where he worked in journalism, ultimately earning a PhD in literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Stromberg’s translations of Bashevis Singer’s work have been published in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Conjunctions. He’s also authored four collections of single-panel cartoons, as well as numerous works of short fiction and nonfiction, two scholarly books, and is editor of the 2018 collection “In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times.”

The front and back of a rent receipt from 1952 on which Isaac Bashevis Singer composed a Hebrew prayer. (Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin/ published with the kind permission of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust via the Susan Schulman Literary Agency. All rights reserved.)

The following interview has been edited.

The Times of Israel: Okay, first things first. I’ve heard Isaac Bashevis Singer’s name in so many iterations — Singer, Bashevis, Bashevis Singer — so what’s with the name? Is Bashevis a middle name, a surname, or what?

David Stromberg: It’s a classic question. He took on the Yiddish pseudonym Yitskhok Bashevis when he started to publish in Yiddish in order to distinguish himself from his brother Israel Joshua Singer. The name uses the possessive form of his mother’s name in Yiddish, Basheve. In America, where he started publishing in English after his brother’s death, he added his last name, and became Isaac Bashevis Singer. Yiddishists like to call him Bashevis — it offers a sense of familiarity — and people who knew him often simply called him Isaac.

Now, this prayer is especially fascinating given Bashevis Singer’s complex relationship with the belief system he was raised in. Can you tell us a little bit about the writer’s background?

So, Bashevis Singer came from rabbinical families on both sides of his family and he’s got these two super intense traditions — but at the same time, he has this older brother who is a real rationalist.

His real experience of living in the shtetl came from moving as a teenager to Bilgoraj during World War I, the place where his grandfather had been the rabbi — though his uncle was rabbi by the time Bashevis Singer came there — and experiencing the devastation, the hunger, and the social collapse of that time.

And his brother, Israel Joshua Singer, is a writer who also succeeds and goes out into the world, goes to the Soviet Union, lives in Kiev, lives in Moscow, comes back. And he acts like a father towards Bashevis — because the father that he doesn’t have is his own father, who is just really, really religious. For example, I read somewhere that once his father went to visit a rabbi, and the rabbi’s study was on the other side of the kitchen. The kitchen is obviously where women are, and there was a daughter who lived in the house, so in case the daughter came out, Bashevis Singer’s father walked along the wall with his face to the wall.

You’re saying if he flew El Al, he might have had problems sitting next to women.

Absolutely. So Bashevis understood the thinking of the ultra-Orthodox world very well.

Illustrative: Winners of the National Book Awards pose together at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, March 4, 1970. The winners, and their categories are: Erik H. Erikson, Philosophy and Religion; Lillian Hellman, Arts and Letters; Joyce Carol Oates, Fiction; and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Children’s Books. (AP Photo)

But he left that world, which is something we see his characters dealing with all the time. He was often extremely critical of it, in fact. And then in 1952, here he is, writing a prayer to God in liturgical Hebrew.

This is exactly the period where Bashevis Singer essentially does teshuva [penitence], and that’s why, not long after this, he starts writing the Yiddish original of what became “In My Father’s Court.” That’s his teshuva. He goes back and repaints that time in a different light. He’s finally found the creative and positive way to represent his upbringing. And in my opinion, this prayer is part of the epicenter of that teshuva moment.

I’d had that estimation for years, but when I saw the prayer and saw that it was from 1952, I said, “Ah, okay.” That was my first evidence for a feeling I’d had for a long time — that something happened to him around then. Something happened in his perspective that allowed him to relate positively to the spiritual element of his upbringing — and to praise it.

But is it teshuva, or is it just coming to terms with his upbringing?

It was more than just coming to terms, because he dug into it. He was actually using what he learned. What he managed to do in literature was to actually take that spiritual content and effect it as a literary process.

What he managed to do in literature was to actually take that spiritual content and effect it as a literary process

Can you talk about how Bashevis Singer is relevant today?

What Bashevis Singer saw were the parts of human tension, human complexity that had always been with us and that will remain with us… I think he was able to encapsulate an aspect of human nature — and its reaching for the lifting of the spirit, so to speak — that is always important to us.

It’s funny that you say that — as a reader, I’ve always thought that you could take his work, change the names of the streets in Warsaw to streets in New York, and that could be a story that was written today.

A hundred percent. I was once with a friend in New York and we were running from place to place and we caught a cab, and I said, “What’s the difference between catching a cab or catching a droshky [carriage]?” We’re doing the same things — we’re going from here to there together, talking about something. It’s the same story. In fact, he himself has that image in a story where the narrator goes to what used to be a shuk area where Allenby meets Yehuda Halevy street in Tel Aviv, and he talks about the rotten tomatoes being sold there being the same rotten tomatoes they’d sold on the Warsaw streets where he grew up.

The point is that these questions are always relevant to us, and certainly at a time when political, social, environmental, and health crises are overwhelming us. You have to understand that in the 1920s, postwar Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, it was like a storm. These are the people who weathered the storm.

Illustrative: Isaac Bashevis Singer (photo credit: MDC Archives / Wikipedia)

Why did you publish this prayer now?

I’ve been thinking about this and holding on to it. I was shocked and impressed by it, and didn’t really know what to do, and I would come back to it every so often and look at it again, and read it, and think. I didn’t yet have the context for it, and I was also concerned, in a way. How would this stand up? How would it look — suddenly out of the blue publishing something like this?

And I think a lot of my work with the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust in the years since 2014 has laid the groundwork for this in the sense that I didn’t want it to just be, “Look at this cool thing I found in the archive.”

I wanted it to be part of a larger effort in which readers who are interested in Bashevis Singer start to understand the wider conception and the wider artistic vision of this writer. That we’re not just talking about a natural storyteller. We’re talking about an intellectual who understood that in America, it served him best to develop the image of a translated author from the old world. In America, the public intellectual part of him was essentially sublimated into his public persona of the wise old man. Nobody was thinking about the fact that he was actually quoting things that he’d written.

This wasn’t Yoda ad-libbing homespun wisdom — this was an intellectual guy who wrote about things and worked them over so many times that he could recite them in a way that felt natural enough.

This wasn’t Yoda ad-libbing homespun wisdom — this was an intellectual guy who wrote about things and worked them over so many times that he could recite them in a way that felt natural enough

And what does this prayer say to you?

For me it has a lot to do with the emotional impact of writing this. You have to understand that this person wrote this in 1952. He lost his father in 1929 in Poland. He lost his mother and youngest brother during World War II in Jambyl, Kazakhstan, where they’d been evacuated in Soviet cattle cars. He lost his older brother in 1944, and he had a sister who was alive but letters from her son suggest she was already unwell during this period. She died two years later.

By this point he’s already written “Family Muskat” and is beginning to write what came to be known as “The Manor” and “The Estate,” and something happens. He needs something. He realizes that the cynical perspective isn’t going to spiritually get him through life, through his own existence. So he looks for the prayer language that he knows best, which is Hebrew, to express something that he’d expressed in some of his stories, which is essentially that “m’darf zayn b’simkhe” [we ought to be joyful], which is the title of the story that became, in the English translation, “Joy.”

So I read it as the cry of someone who spends his life saying he doesn’t have faith in rabbinical Judaism — the stringent Judaism of his fundamentalist father — but who doesn’t have another Judaism.

It’s the cry of a man at the age of 50 who is asking for help, for faith. But he’s asking for a faith that comes in the form of loving earth’s creatures. The end really brings it together: “Those who truly fear God do not attack each other.”

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