Zlateh the Goat

Zlateh the Goat Yiddishism and Americanism in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Work

Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Yiddish writer in every sense of the term. He wrote primarily in Yiddish, even well into his life as an American, preferring to translate his work after the fact. This despite the wreckage of Yiddish and its way of life after the Holocaust—already in 1975, The New York Times characterized Yiddish as "virtually moribund." Almost every piece he wrote was set in the shtetl: the Old World towns of Yiddish Jewry across Eastern Europe. And his work was defined by the ethos of the Yiddish way of life: Jewish characters, religious themes, tradition. He was even the only Yiddish writer ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

And yet, some of Singer's biggest critics were Yiddishists; the Yiddish community's dislike of him is well-documented. Meanwhile, in the decades following his emigration to the United States in 1935, he rose to prominence as one of America's great contemporary writers.

How did this paradox come to be? What explains the juxtaposition between Singer's twin identities as Old World storyteller and immigrant American writer? How could one of America's most successful authors fail to write on typically American themes or set his work anywhere resembling contemporary America?

There are many possible explanations for this paradox. One interpretation is given by Singer in interviews time and time again. In 1961, for example, he famously said, "I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language.” In 1975, he told The New York Times that Yiddish "contains vitamins that other languages don't have." These comments fashion Singer as a champion of Yiddish, who simply wrote in the language he preferred, and about the culture he knew firsthand. Indeed, Singer was known as a great cultural archivist of the dying Yiddish language and world.

Another interpretation, however, might posit that Singer wrote not only to preserve a bygone era and a dying culture, but also to appeal to American identity. American immigrant literature has a rich tradition of telling stories of the "old country," no matter where that may be—and finding great success in American audiences for those diverse stories. Perhaps Singer knew that Yiddish culture had something to offer the American way of life, and his intent was to make that offering.