Glorious contradictions &mdash a note on Isaac Bashevis Singers centenary

This year marks the 100th birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer. From the point of view of this first-time reader, no one better inhabits the contradictions of the situation of Jews in America than Singer. His personal mythology and the cultural universe of his stories express the absurdity, sadness and tenderness of the Jewish Americans in a strange bundle of devils, traumatized women and memories that are always embellished.

This strange bundle comes to us in “Collected Stories” a three volume set from The Library of America, a collection of Singer’s English language stories. A slim companion book (called “An Album”) of assessments, biography and appreciations accompanies the short stories for a sum total of close to 2,500 pages.

These pages are filled with familiar stories like “Gimpel the Fool” and “Yentil the Yeshiva Boy” as well as lesser-known but equally powerful works like “Black Wedding” and “Blood.” Read back to back, all the stories are instant examples of Singer’s narrative mastery — every story in the collection has at least one moment visceral enough to make you laugh out loud, cringe or have a nightmare.

But it is the cumulative effect of the quantity of stories along with the extra-literary material that registers the cultural importance of Singer’s accomplishment. The man and his work seem to have exemplified the highs and lows of Jewish culture since the 20th century — shmaltzy and horrifying, poignant and embarrassing. He created texts that resonate across cultures but also represent the specificity of Ashkenazi culture wiped off the face of the earth — written in a language that is virtually extinct.

Singer as a public personality was known as a difficult man and a womanizer. His stories are criticized as grotesque and sensational. Yet the same man is held up as the spokesperson for Yiddish culture and his works have been adapted into the saccharine slop of Barbara Streisand films.

Singer writes about a version of the “old country” that couldn’t have possibly existed and conveys the impossible existence of Holocaust survivors in the postwar United States with a painful realism. Of course, in his tales of the United States events occur that couldn’t possibly be real.

The choice to depict the impossible with such precision seems to anticipate the current cultural dilemma of U.S. Judaism. Who can agree on a definition of Jewish identity? Could a Reconstructionist and a Lubavitcher even agree that they are both Jews or that they share common beliefs or values? Singer tells the story of modern Judaism through a lens of mystery, whether that mystery is supernatural, psychological or political. The past is as uncertain as the future. The Yiddish writer grows famous for his stories published in English. The conservative old-timer writes about lurid transgressions of Jewish law with a nearly erotic poetry. All of these facts hang together simultaneously and evoke something greater, the quality of the question that can’t be answered by a human. The name that can’t be spoken.

One thing that is never in doubt is the richness of Jewish description in Singer’s stories. His complete skill with place anchors the most ridiculous premises, whether the geography is a dismal Eastern European shtetl or Miami.

Nor does one ever doubt the fullness of the characters in the stories. Even if one can’t understand a character’s actions, the reader follows them (usually to their doom.)

Poignancy, flux and terror walk hand in hand through these stories, much like the Jews who have walked through American streets for the past 100 years.

“Collected Stories” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Ilan Stavans (800 pages, Library of America, $35).