Yiddish Writers/3

Isaac Bashevis Singer was the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (Elie Wiesel, whose first book, And the World Remained Silent, was in Yiddish, was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.) Admitting his penchant for reading masters like Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, Singer didn’t particularly identify with the Yiddish literary tradition: “I consider myself a writer in the Jewish tradition but not exactly the Yiddish tradition…. The Yiddish tradition, in my mind, is a tradition of sentimentality and social justice.” Swearing off any such social ideology, Singer believed that “the basic function of literature, as far as I can say, is to entertain the spirit in a very big way. I mean small literature entertains small spirits and great literature entertains greater spirits.”

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If we reach the time when Yiddish and Yiddish customs and folklore are forgotten, Hitler will have succeeded not only physically but also spiritually.

I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, “Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?”

We need suspense in life almost as much as we need bread.

All the novels we read are basically love stories. Still, why do we read many novels?—because we want to see the difference between one love story and another.

I never felt comfortable. I always felt like I haven’t done enough and haven’t polished enough. I should polish more and improve more, so going around feeling comfortable is not in my nature.

I still believe that the mission of literature is to tell a story, where there is tension and where the reader does not know at the beginning what the end will be.

The only advice I can give a reader is: never read a book because a critic told you to read it or because it’s fashionable to read it. If your read a book and you don’t like it, close it and forget about it. This is my advice to the reader. When a reader reads because it’s fashionable or because it was recommended, I call this forced reading—and it’s never good.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations, edited by Grace Farrell, Literary Conversations Series, University Press of Mississippi, 1992

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