Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the award honored not only the author but also the Yiddish language, with which he had captured the pre-World War II culture of European Jewry.

Summary of Event

Isaac Bashevis Singer, a nonjudgmental lover of life who maintained that contentment can be found only on the personal level, was a major contributor to modern Yiddish literature Yiddish literature and to humanism. Famed as a witty and wise storyteller, translator, novelist, playwright, literary critic, and children’s author, he considered himself to be an entertainer and spiced his fiction with a unique exuberance and a peculiar blend of innocence and sophistication. Nobel Prize in Literature;Isaac Bashevis Singer[Singer] [kw]Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1978) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Singer Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1978) [kw]Prize in Literature, Singer Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1978) [kw]Literature, Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1978) Nobel Prize in Literature;Isaac Bashevis Singer[Singer] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1978: Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature[03460] [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1978: Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature[03460] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1978: Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature[03460] Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alma Singer, Israel Joshua

Much of Singer’s writing is set in the Jewish shtetlach (small Jewish towns) of Poland as well as in metropolitan areas of the United States. He published a considerable body of work before receiving the much-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, a prize that included a gold medal, an ornate certificate, a trip to Sweden, and a monetary award of approximately $163,000. The Nobel Committee cited the author for his depiction of the universal human condition, which he drew from his Polish-Jewish roots. Singer, surrounded by friends and colleagues, serenaded by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra playing Trumpet Voluntary, and escorted to the glittering ceremony by Princess Christina of Sweden, responded with thanks on his own behalf and on behalf of the dying Yiddish language, which he exalted with a lifetime’s work.

The grandson of holy men and the third son of Rabbi Pinchas Mendel Singer and Jewish intellectual Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Leoncin, Poland, on July 14, 1904. He moved with his parents and two brothers to Radzymin at the age of three. His father, director of a yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school for the study of sacred texts), secretary to the rabbi, and later judge of an ecclesiastical court, relocated in 1908 to Warsaw, where Isaac came into contact with a community full of Jewish tradition and a sense of place. Deeply influenced by Fyodor Dostoevski, Baruch Spinoza, Anton Chekhov, and Leo Tolstoy, Singer, who was enrolled in Warsaw’s Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary from 1921 to 1922 and was groomed for a religious life, studied the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbala. Because he preferred secular literature, he antagonized his fanatical father, who never acknowledged his son’s literary talents.

Singer’s elder brother, Israel, followed the family’s rabbinical bent, then opted for a secular writing career. From 1923 to 1933, Isaac, mimicking his brother’s emancipation, abandoned his family’s orthodox beliefs and chose worldly work as author, editor, proofreader, and translator for his brother’s literary magazine, Literarische Bletter, in which he published his first short fiction. During this period, he met the woman who would become his common-law wife, Runya, a fiery Communist with whom he frequently quarreled. Singer’s only child, Israel Zamir, was born in 1929. Runya left Singer in 1934 and emigrated to Russia. Later, she settled in Palestine. Israel, a kibbutz farmer and journalist, remained apart from his father until their reunion in 1955. Singer rarely spoke of their relationship or of his first wife.

Isaac Bashevis Singer.

(The Nobel Foundation)

In pursuit of his literary career, Singer wrote first in Hebrew, then switched to Yiddish, into which he translated Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929) and Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927). He edited Globus in 1932 and prepared the manuscript of his first novel, Der Sotn in Gorey (1935; Satan in Goray, 1955), Satan in Goray (Singer) which was published in Yiddish and translated by his nephew, Joseph, with whom Singer trusted much of his later work. Like his brother Israel, who emigrated to New York in 1934 to escape the growing menace of Nazism and virulent anti-Semitism, Singer, haunted by the terror that stalked European Jews, fled by rail to Paris and by steamer to the United States at the age of thirty-one. His exodus preceded a tense, fearful time when unreliable news from Eastern Europe concealed the fact that his mother and his brother Moishe, a devout rabbi, froze to death after being transported from their homes in Russian cattle cars.

Singer settled in New York City’s Upper West Side and eight years later became a naturalized citizen. After divorcing Runya, he met Alma Haimann Wassermann, a well-traveled, well-read native of Munich, Germany, while on vacation in the Catskills in 1937. Despite the fact that she was married and had two small children, the couple maintained a relationship for two years before she decided to leave her husband. Following her marriage to Singer on February 14, 1940, Alma worked in a hat factory sewing sweatbands while Singer, still a struggling writer during this period, tended her young son and daughter, Klaus and Inga. Later, until her retirement in the 1970’s, she worked as a buyer for New York department stores Saks and Lord & Taylor.

As a journalist and fiction writer for Jewish Daily Forward, Singer developed his considerable writing talents and published serialized novels, short stories, children’s books, and plays, which he sometimes wrote under the pen names Isaac Bashevis and Isaac Warshofsky. He contributed short fiction to Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, Saturday Evening Post, Chicago Review, Die Yiddische Welt, Holiday, Commentary, Redbook, Esquire, and Partisan Review, and he published critical essays, among them “Realism and Truth” in Reconstructionist and “What It Takes to Be a Jewish Writer” in the National Jewish Monthly. He was active in the Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, of which he was for a time the only foreign-language member.

Remarking that writers must write in their native language, Singer achieved sophistication with the English idiom yet clung to his native tongue. In 1950, beginning with the publication of his second novel, Di Familye Mushkat (1950; The Family Moskat, 1950), Family Moskat, The (Singer) Singer involved himself wholeheartedly in the translation process and published in English, producing his greatest achievements: the novels The Magician of Lublin (1960), Magician of Lublin, The (Singer) The Slave (1962), Slave, The (Singer) The Manor (1967), Manor, The (Singer) and The Estate (1969); Estate, The (Singer) the story collections Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories (Singer) (1963), The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), Spinoza of Market Street, The (Singer) Short Friday, and Other Stories (1964), Short Friday, and Other Stories (Singer) The Séance, and Other Stories Séance, and Other Stories, The (Singer) (1968), A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories (1970), Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories, A (Singer) and A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories (1973); Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories, A (Singer) and the nonfiction In My Father’s Court In My Father’s Court (Singer) (1966). When he was in his sixties, he acceded to his publisher’s advice and began writing children’s works, beginning with Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories (1966). Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories (Singer) For these works, Singer received a long list of awards, including the Agnon Gold Medal, a National Book Award for children’s literature, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Newbery Honor Book award, a fiction award from Playboy, the Bancarella Prize for translation, the Maggid Award for contributions to Jewish journalism, and honorary doctorates from Texas Christian University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Bard College. More important to Singer was Columbia University’s creation of the I. B. Singer award, given to students of Yiddish and Yiddish literature.

Often courted by theatrical and cinema producers, Singer held little hope of seeing his work onstage until the production of Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy (Singer) (1974), the story of a young Polish woman who conceals her sex so that she can follow her father’s example and study the Torah. The popular stage version, scripted by Leah Napolin, starring Tovah Feldshuh, and produced in Brooklyn’s Chelsea Theater in 1974, was expanded into a musical and filmed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists as Yentl in 1983. With a screenplay by Jack Rosenthal and Barbra Streisand, the film starred Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, and Amy Irving in a poignant, colorful rendering of Polish family life and scholarship. These achievements, part of a large body of work, led to Singer’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.


A major part of Singer’s success was his appreciation for what his audience liked and needed. Avoiding the irritatingly knowing tone of the pseudopsychologist, the didacticism of the proselytizer, or the self-pitying whine of the modern narcissist, he concentrated on telling a good story, one that disarmed readers with a wise simplicity far more complex than surface details would admit. Grounded in a pervasive belief in God and respect for humanity, he filled his stories with bizarre and engaging characters—Gimpel the fool, Yentl the yeshiva boy, Max Persky the womanizer of Warsaw, Yoneh Meir the animal slaughterer, the semiautobiographical proofreader Aaron Greidinger, and Yaboner the Yiddish New Yorker. The exotic atmospheres and exuberance and conviction of his characters never failed to find an audience or spark debate.

Stunned by the Nobel Committee’s selection, Singer, who considered himself to be a humble storyteller, at first doubted that the announcement was genuine. Within hours, his quiet life with Alma was interrupted by interviewers, reporters, a reception hosted by New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, and phone calls from notables including President Jimmy Carter and Israel’s Menachem Begin, who lauded the author’s support of the Yiddish language. To preserve some privacy while he worked on his acceptance speech, Singer took a hotel room and unplugged his telephone but failed to elude persistent well-wishers.

Singer’s readers, vindicated in their belief that he had been too long passed over, praised his piquant blend of mysticism, gossipy folk humor, family uproar, eroticism, and uplifting, humanistic rhythms. His critics, who decried his emphasis on sensuality and lambasted him for withdrawing from the prevailing attitudes toward Judaism and Yiddish tradition, made no inroads on his individuality. Refusing to be drawn into the idealism and self-absorption of his contemporaries, he remained adamant in his view of a world that was about as good as it would ever be and professed that love, in whatever form, was a gift from God. Compared to William Shakespeare, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Nathaniel Hawthorne for his absorption with religion, philosophy, and the occult, Singer maintained a focus on demons and possession, love and lust, faith and doubt, trust and betrayal.

Contrasting Singer’s somber belief that life, no matter what the writer did to better it, would remain tragic, a jubilant Jewish community, particularly the pro-Yiddish segment, hosted numerous receptions in his honor. Jewish publishers, heartened by Singer’s selection, predicted a rise in sales and greater recognition of Jewish themes. Producer Moshe Mizrahi inaugurated plans to film The Slave. Geria/Golan/Globus released a costly film version of The Magician of Lublin (1979), starring Alan Arkin, Louise Fletcher, Valerie Perrine, Shelley Winters, and Lou Jacobi.

The Nobel Prize came at a difficult time for Singer, who had undergone prostate surgery at the same time that Alma was suffering from circulatory problems in her legs. Although the preponderance of his achievements occurred before the award, Singer, resisting public acclaim so that he could write in peace, continued publishing. He produced, among other works, the novel Shosha (1978), Shosha (Singer) a best seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection; two memoirs, A Young Man in Search of Love (1978) Young Man in Search of Love, A (Singer) and Lost in America Lost in America (Singer) (1980); several collections of children’s fiction; and a collection of short fiction, Old Love Old Love (Singer) (1979). He continued probing the life of the isolated Jew, whether a denizen of European ghettos or a refugee lost in the meaningless tangle of New World metropolises. He refused to desert the idiosyncrasies of Yiddish, and much of his canon remained untranslated.

As his frail health continued its decline, Singer began spending more time in bed rather than at his desk. On doctor’s orders, he declined most lecture invitations, and, rejecting notions that he should run for political office, concentrated on writing. Accompanied by Alma, he spent winter months in Surfside, Florida, where he died on July 24, 1991. Nobel Prize in Literature;Isaac Bashevis Singer[Singer]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A readable, scholarly critique, complete with time line, notes, and bibliography. Perhaps too advanced for high school students but more than adequate for the literary historian, teacher, or critic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kresh, Paul. Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West Eighty-sixth Street. New York: Dial Press, 1979. A ponderous biography, complete with introduction, photographs, and detailed index. Kresh unfortunately overburdens the reader with cumbersome minutiae and forgettable quotations but presents a faithful recounting of Singer’s response to the Nobel Prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malin, Irving. Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Ungar, 1972. A slim, well-documented volume of pre-Nobel criticism, complete with footnotes, critical bibliography, time line, and thorough index. This factual, forthright work suits the needs of the scholar, literary historian, and critic more than those of the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, David N. Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. Studies in Judaism in Modern Times. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986. A useful compendium of commentary covering a variety of points of view. Although primarily intended for scholars and literary historians, this work meets the needs of the student who is willing to delve for insights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noiville, Florence. Isaac B. Singer: A Life. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Brief biography grapples with the psychological complexities of the beloved writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ripp, Allan. “Nobel Prize Winner Isaac Bashevis Singer on Life, Sex, and the Storyteller’s Art.” People 17 (May 17, 1982): 88-92. Offers a candid glimpse of the author, including memorable photos and quotations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegel, Ben. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. Brief, worthy overview intended for high school and college students. Contains a balance of biographical and critical data.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Telushkin, Dvorah M. Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: William Morrow, 1997. Written by Singer’s personal assistant and translator from 1975 to 1991, this loving memoir paints a poignant portrait of the writer.

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