A Life
By Florence Noiville
Translated by Catherine Temerson
208 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.00.

Dismissed for years as the less-talented kid brother of Yiddish novelist I. J. Singer, whose sales and renown were second only to those of Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer gradually emerged from obscurity and journalistic hackwork to become the Dybbuk of modern Yiddish literature, the one name that otherwise well-informed people who know nothing else about the culture are likely to recognize. Yiddish theater has The Dybbuk; Yiddish literature has Singer.

Few people complain about the prominence of The Dybbuk; but within the Yiddish world, Singer has often been blamed for his success, accused of using gratuitous sex and mystical claptrap to bewitch a worldwide audience of Jews and gentilestoo stupid or ignorant to recognize his horrible perversion of our Yiddish heritage.

Such blame is nothing new in the world of Yiddish letters, in which the question, “Sholem Asch: Was He Good for the Jews?” is still a matter of urgent debate. Asch was the focus of considerable resentment, much of it directed at his personality and extra-literary activities, but a good deal of it having to do with his portraits of criminals and other disreputable Jews; with the sexual themes (including lesbianism and prostitution) in his work; and finally, with his trilogy about the life of Jesus—which has yet to be published in Yiddish, the language in which it was written.

Asch was Yiddish literature’s original star, making bestseller lists all over the world and becoming the closest thing that Yiddish culture had ever seen to an international celebrity. He had a villa near Nice; he hobnobbed with such luminaries as Thomas Mann and Romain Rolland, and it seems more than mere coincidence that Singer’s star really began to rise in the English-speaking world in 1957, the year of Asch’s death. It’s as if American Jewish culture couldn’t do without a shul—a synagogue—that organized Yiddish culture wouldn’t go to, as if they both needed a writer whom many Yiddishists read grudgingly, if at all, and thought of as a sex maniac and pornographer who also drew on obscure and ultra-Jewy mythologies that no regular reader could be expected to understand. Smut is one thing, but smut with polysyllables and Hebrew words being translated into English? O tempora, o moyshe!

Why pick on Singer, though? Sex, crime, and disreputable characters were hardly unique to him or Sholem Asch. Why did Chaim Grade—a considerable writer himself—call Singer’s Nobel Prize “a great tragedy for the Jewish people”?

Because Singer was not Chaim Grade. Grade wrote a number of first-rate novels that were published by large houses in first-rate English translations, but failed to attract the kind of mainstream attention that Singer’s work did. Singer, whom no one but Singer ever characterized as naïve, realized that English-speaking readers were attracted to translations of his work by elements not intrinsic to the original language, elements that could be re-jigged in translation to make the work even more attractive to readers with no knowledge of Yiddish or general Jewish culture. Since many of his Yiddishist detractors were already complaining about both the obscurity and the vulgarity of his language, why not do as the klasiker, the classic late-19th-century Yiddish writers, did? Both Mendele Moykher Sforim and Y. L. Perets created complementary but separate bodies of work in Yiddish and Hebrew, the main Jewish languages. Writing in America after World War II, when traditional Jewish education had become a novelty and most North American Jews no longer spoke Yiddish with any facility, Singer simply followed the pattern established by the people who created modern Yiddish literature and approached English much as they had approached Yiddish. Singer simply accepted the fact that English had replaced Yiddish as the most widely-used Jewish vernacular, a vernacular that you don’t have to be Jewish to understand. His acceptance is ironic, in light of the fact that he was often said to have no connection to the “real” traditions of Yiddish literature; Singer was so squarely in the tradition that the squares who proclaimed themselves its guardians couldn’t see it.

As Florence Noiville points out in Isaac B. Singer: A Life, recently translated from the French, Singer (unlike Grade and so many others) wasn’t content merely to have his work translated; he worked with the translators, many of whom knew little if any Yiddish—they were, in fact, members of his new target audience—to produce what Noiville describes as “an original body of work,” that Singer considered to be “on a par with his Yiddish oeuvre…and having the same artistic importance [Noiville’s italics].”

Noiville’s overview of Singer’s life is especially good at tracing his path from Yiddish to English, and at treating the English oeuvre—the basis of translations into all other languages—as a body of work ultimately independent of what must now be considered its Yiddish analogue. While Noiville is no naïve reader—she is deputy director of Le Monde’s weekly book supplement—she is able to approach Singer and his work without preconceptions or cultural expectations. She knows so little of Yiddish that she manages to get the Yiddish title of Satan in Goray, Singer’s first book, consistently wrong, rendering sotn,shotn, which means “shadow”; she knows so little of Yiddish literature not written by Singer that she can seriously attribute much of his popularity to the “fact” that “his protagonists aren’t heroes, they’re Mr. and Mrs. Every-one… His Jewish hero wasn’t the exemplar of one group but a universal archetype… It was understandable that some people felt betrayed.” By I. B. Singer’s simple competence? Such passages smack of too ready an acceptance of some of Singer’s more self-serving comments about Yiddish literature.

Still, such missteps and errors are mercifully few. Noiville’s book offers considerable insight into the purely literary qualities that make Singer so attractive to people with no access to the original. I no sooner finished reading it than I felt a powerful desire to re-read him—in Yiddish, in English, in anything.

This article first appeared in Secular Culture and Ideas.