December 15, 2017

Singer's Yiddish Folly

On this day in 1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize. Singer emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1935 but he continued to write mostly in Yiddish, and most of his work -- two-dozen novels (Enemies: A Love Story, Yentl), about that many collections of short stories, several books of memoirs -- is rooted in Jewish traditions and history. This prompted him to deliver the first part of his Nobel speech in Yiddish, and to not only praise his language but predict its rising from the 'dead' category:
    There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amid the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God's plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.... Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world....
At another talk delivered in Stockholm, Singer acknowledged that Yiddish had some limitations, with no words for such things as automobiles and airplanes ... "But is it so bad if a Yiddishist takes the bus or subway?" He also gave his Top Ten Reasons for preferring to write for children:
    Children read books, not reviews
    They don't read to find their identity.
    They don't read to free themselves from guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
    They have no use for psychology.
    They detest sociology.
    They don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
    They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
    When a book is boring, they yawn openly.
    They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity.
Reason #10 notwithstanding, Singer's Nobel speech wondered if, "when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet ... may rise up to save us all." He also wondered where he was going to get a replacement for his forty-three-year-old Yiddish typewriter, now that they were no longer made.

In "Gimpel the Fool," title-story to his first collection in 1957, Singer gives notice that he will tell tales and praise folly, in the ancient tradition:
    I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, flump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a goodnight prayer. And instead of the raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me....

    (translated by Saul Bellow)

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