Thoughts on I. B. Singer by Carl Shutoff

ibs-at-the-typewriter
       My Yiddish Typewriter

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland in 1904, the son of a Rabbi and grandson of a Rabbi on his mother’s side. He arrived in the United States in 1935 where he lived until his death in 1991. In 1978, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.” The latter is one of the great understatements in the history of literature and ideas. It is worth noting that, despite a very traditional Jewish upbringing, Singer distanced himself from orthodoxy as a young man. Consequently, the worldly and the other-worldly have equal representation in his universe.  I will not be so foolish as to try to distill the thought and vision of IBS into a paragraph, an article or even a book. I will, however, offer a quote from the late Sheldon Kopp, my favorite Jewish psychotherapist/author, as a place to start making sense of the complicated literary cosmos he brings to us. In his book, “Who Am I …Really? An Autobiographical Exploration of Becoming Who You Are,” Dr. Kopp writes:

“Many neurotic scripts sound Jewish… The tragic flaw of the Jew is great devotion. His history of persecution and catastrophe demonstrates that his devotion is better than that of ordinary men. In this lies the absurd truth that ‘Jews are just like everyone else, only more so…’ Being one of these Chosen People instructs me in the absurdity of the tragic heroic pose. But as a Jew, I may also learn to be saved by the comic element in my life, though it be by gallows humor. Only by discovering the absurdity of my needless suffering and by learning not to take myself too seriously may I save myself from a lifelong role of the tragic hero.”

Singer’s stories may be broadly categorized, temporally speaking, as pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust. Geographically speaking, they are situated anywhere between a Shtetl in rural Poland and modern urban venues like New York and Buenos Aires. As you traverse this broad landscape, you will meet a woman in Brazil, convinced that the swelling in her belly is a dybbuk. In a village in Poland, the pious “Court Jew” of a wealthy squire travels to Leipzig in the service of his master, where he is tempted by the former wife of a bear trainer who moonlights as a prostitute. And in pre-revolutionary Russia, an elderly Hasid must make peace with his rebellious grandson.

Let us not forget that this is also the man who said of the men and women of his time, “They were godly without God, and worldly without a world.” One cannot overstate the importance of loss in Singer’s universe, loss of one’s family and friends, loss of the world of the Shtetl, loss of Yiddishkeit altogether. In Singer’s world, one is reduced to finding connection in chance encounters, in cafeterias or at refugee society meetings. Suffering and sacrifice are only sometimes rewarded.
Singer continued to write and translate his stories until the 1980s when dementia robbed him of his ability to create. His birth and death echo the boundlessness of his world; he was born in the village of Leonczyn on the banks of the Vistula and he is buried only four miles away from where Connie Conehead attended high school in Paramus, New Jersey.

It is our job as actors and musicians (Alchemysts?) to make the distance between your world and the world(s) of IBS disappear, so that you may revel in his tragedy, his absurdity, and his dark humor. And, in a broader sense, it is our job to shine a light on aspects of the multi-dimensional and indefinable entity we call the Jewish experience. We will attempt to do this as creatively and artistically as possible. And if the Alchemysts should be so successful as to perform a different program every season for 100 years, our success in this endeavor will be dubious at best. To quote a former Rabbi of mine when trying to formulate the meaning of life in a High Holiday sermon, “I will most certainly fail, but there is value in trying.”

We look forward to seeing you and entertaining you.

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