I.B. Singer's Cruel Choice

By Mark Kuzmack

Fate and freedom for his characters, for himself.

Similarly the hunger Rabbi Bainish experiences, like and unlike that of Hamsun’s nameless hero:
During the month of Elul he had fasted. His body felt as though it had been hollowed. Hunger still gnawed somewhere in his stomach, but it was a hunger unrelated to him. What had he, Bainish of Komarov, to do with food?22
This is a hunger much like Hamsun’s, one that is more than a description of the travails that it describes. Like all the novel’s self-inflicted pain, it is part of a program by which the protagonist comes to know himself in and through his impulses, separate himself from them, and achieve some inner movement out of them. Rabbi Bainish also achieves separation from his hunger, which, like Hamsun’s hero, he makes himself withstand to the point that he finds it is “unrelated” to him. But although it is this extremity that will bring him to insight, he is able to locate it, specifically as a fast in the month of Elul—that is, as a Jewish gesture—and in so doing he is not a splintered personality without a name, like Hamsun’s hero. He is, rather, Bainish of Komarov—a Jew with a name and a place in the world. He may experience extremity, but even as an outsider he does not exist as utterly outside human society as Hamsun’s character; and as a Jew he knows something is wanted of him. And the paradox of free choice is a sustaining touchstone for him. After a vision of his dead daughter (these Sophoclean visions are common in Singer’s stories) the rabbi recovers a cheer that had long left him, and he is moved to comment on the Tora, “a thing he had not done in years”:
His voice was low but audible. The rabbi took up the question of why the moon is obscured on Rosh Hashonah. The answer is that on Rosh Hashanah one prays for life, and life means free choice, and freedom is Mystery. If one knew the truth how could there be freedom?23
 Different as they are, Rabbi Bainish and Hamsun’s young protagonist do share a kind of aloneness that is very nearly hermetic. Both face their difficulties inside their own heads, unhelped. (Human help does arrive in the works of both Singer and Hamsun, but it is usually fortuitous, unexpected, not a merely human generosity but human help as plotted event.) That aloneness enables them to pay attention to the pull of contradictory inner impulses that, in the conventional human beings who also populate Singer’s and Hamsun’s work, passes unnoticed beneath social convention, the emotional demands of others, and the banalities and business of everyday life. Rabbi Bainish can come to see something because he has withdrawn deeply enough into himself, away from the demands of wife and congregation. This is the high cost of the difficult path of free decision of Singer’s favored protagonists. It is also, perhaps, the price Singer himself paid when he prepared for “conquest” and “mastery,” his “blessed fortune.”

No Singer protagonist ever decides he will give up his brooding for the love of his wife, or finds in deep and lasting friendship the path out of confusion and despair. Just the opposite: he may come to a kind of joyful communing with others (rarely friendship), but only after some key experience that aloneness has given him. Even then, lasting care for others, the kind that humbles and that mellows cruelty is seldom to be encountered in Singer’s stories. The possibility is alluded to distantly, while disturbing passions and events are described in close detail. There are encounters with others which enable some movement within, but no love which could lift the burden of self-mastery or be its own answer to free will. It is wrong to suppose that the Spinozist Dr. Fischelson, for example, has found in love for Black Dobbe the way out of his enclosed world. She is human being as third term, means for the surprising movement of impulses to take place. Even in a lengthy novel like The Slave, with its powerful coupling of Jew and Slav, the love is transitory; when it ends, the hero goes on alone, the same self-propelled man. Singer’s characters look for something from the base of their aloneness, wanting some shift to occur inside themselves that they lack the means to cause, but they are immune to affection, invulnerable to a root need for closeness; and they do not find support in the collective. None will become a social worker, dream of tilling the land in Palestine with fellow Jews, start an avant-garde movement, fight the Nazis.

It is in Chaim Grade’s work, in fact, where such collective aims are consciously pursued and the fate of the Jews assumes thematic importance. But Grade was engaged in that fate in a way that Singer was not. “One time,” Singer told Dvorah Telushkin, recounting the social aversiveness of his youth, “my brother even called me a snake.”24 Like so many devotees of the other world, and unlike Grade or his successful brother, Singer lived on the edges of social life, unsure if he really belonged to the world of human beings. Demons were more natural company for him than politicians; impulses and passions more central to his inner life than lasting care; and crowns of feathers better bearers of the truth than the Bund. Yet from that place of retreat the shy Singer, doubtful of God, surrounded by a Hamsunian universe of indifferent chaos and cruelty, nonetheless held passionately to free choice. It remained available to him “every minute,” as he chose to remind himself continually, and with his cleaving to it came mastery and Mystery. When this cleaving Singer asserts that his protagonist passes beneath an electric streetlight, it seems really to exist in all the mystery of its mute thereness, as an electric streetlight does not when Grade makes a like assertion. Yet in Grade’s work, illustrative as it may be, there is tempered emotion, happy marriage, wisdom that is an answer to troubles, and a deep sense of loss and of the tragic movement of Jewish history. Singer’s painful pair, cruelty and haplessness, two poles of the solitary, are surmounted by a more elegiac vision of Jewish life, with difficult, conscious negotiations of complex spiritual and emotional conflicts instead of the ecstatic redemptions that befit Singer’s Hasidic background. Each reader of Yiddish literature will decide which of these competing visions most compels and which best accounts for the way the world is, or ought to be.

Mark Kuzmack is a writer living in New York.


1. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collected Stories (New York: Library of America, 2004).

2. The publication history provided for each story is particularly useful. It includes the titles of the Yiddish originals (where they exist), the books and magazines in which they were published in Yiddish and in English, and the various publication dates. This is a valuable resource, since the collections published during Singer’s lifetime yoked together stories from different periods, making it hard to trace his development and the way stories from different periods, most notably 1943-1945, fit together thematically. The chronology of his life in the back of the volumes provides plenty of interesting detail from Singer’s life without overwhelming, and James Gibbons’ excellent short biography in the album provides a real sense of what he was like.

3. The documents and photographs included in the album are very well chosen. They include book jackets of the translations Singer made as a youth, as well as later ones of international editions (Spanish, Serbo-Croatian) of his work, with their curious choice of Jewish themes. One photo of a disheveled, overdressed Singer outside his Florida condominium in jacket, tie, hat, sunglasses, sneakers, overcoat and a superfluous umbrella, looking to all the world like a confused retiree from New York, is especially delightful.

4. From the album accompanying the Library of America edition, p. 121.

5. See Telushkin’s account of his treatment of her and his long-suffering wife in Dvorah Telushkin, Master of Dreams (New York: William Morrow, 1997). See also the contributors to this edition’s album, who highlight his interactions with colleagues and the public.

6. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and Exile (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986).

7. Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Shocken, 1986), p. 26.

8. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 1, p. 174.

9. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 1, p. 176.

10. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 2, pp. 273-296.

11. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove, 1986), p.163.

12. See Morris Dickstein’s observant comments, in this edition’s album’s round-table discussion, on the affinities between the stories in this collection and Singer’s pseudonymous popular writing for the Yiddish daily forward, with its tart concreteness and avoidance of abstraction.

13. Mishna Avot 3:13.

14. Chaim Grade, Rabbis and Wives (New York: Vintage, 1983), p. 229.

15. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave, trans. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cecil Hemley (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962), p. 10

16. Singer’s “whips” can be found in Telushkin, Master of Dreams, pp. 228-238.

17. Knut Hamsun, Hunger (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), pp. 96, 130, 104.

18. Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Knut Hamsun, Artist of Skepticism,” in Hamsun, Hunger, pp. v, vi.

19. Singer, “Knut Hamsun,” in Hamsun, Hunger, p. viii.

20. Telushkin, Master of Dreams, pp. 229, 234.

21. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 1, p. 98.

22. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 1, p. 99.

23. Singer, Collected Stories, vol. 1, p. 100.

24. Telushkin, Master of Dreams, p. 192.

From the

Lost Generation
Rammstein’s RageHeavy metal and the return of the Teutonic spirit.
No Friends But the MountainsA visit to Kurdistan reveals an autonomous people ready for an alliance with America and Israel.
The Spectacles of Isaiah BerlinThe twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022