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Yiddish in Interwar Berlin  

Marc Caplan

Berlin in the interwar era of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) was not a center for Yiddish culture so much as a periphery dependent upon more dominant locations of Jewish life such as the United States, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In this respect, the status of Yiddish reflects a greater sense of marginality and dislocation then characterizing German culture, which, at the time, felt unmoored from its imperial coordinates of the 19th century and under the sway of more innovative international cities such as Leningrad, Paris, New York, and especially Hollywood. The draw of Berlin for Yiddish-language writers or community activists was therefore not the allure of Weimar culture or the hopes of attracting large audiences among German Jews. Instead, the economic disorder of the Weimar Republic, paradoxically, offered financial windfalls and business opportunities for migrants with foreign currency—particularly for writers with contacts to the American Yiddish press. Moreover, Germany, unlike Poland, maintained diplomatic and economic relations with the Soviet Union, which allowed writers and activists sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution a safe haven while the home front remained riven by military conflicts, scarcity of basic necessities, and an uncertain political future. The heyday of Yiddish activism in Berlin was relatively short-lived, only dating from about 1921 until about 1926. After that date, the Soviet Union had achieved political stability and began to invest, at least for the next decade, in a wide series of Yiddish-language cultural institutions including publishing houses, newspapers, centers of higher education, and popular entertainment. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Yiddish culture made a deep or lasting impact on the German culture of the Weimar Republic, for Yiddish readers, the literature produced in Germany ranks among the most important and innovative achievements in Yiddish culture of the 1920s. The most significant writers to have resided in Berlin during this era include Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and Moyshe Kulbak.

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Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991): Biography and Overview of Works  

James A. Lewin

Why does evil exist? That is the question Isaac Bashevis Singer could not stop asking. The first Yiddish author to win a Nobel Prize and the only established American writer who wrote in Yiddish, I. B. Singer created historical sagas about the Jews in Poland, from premodern times through the Holocaust. He also published memoirs and children’s books. He concentrated his special genius, however, in a plenitude of short stories. With an ironic voice of protest, his earthy, poetic style portrays characters seeking love and truth—in spite of the grand and petty injustices of the world. Haunted by his own sense of survivor’s guilt, the author wrote out of a personal argument with God. As a Protean and prolific writer, with shifting identities, he effectively named himself. Early on, he was Itche Zinger. He published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in 1935, in Yiddish, under the pen name of “Yitzchok Bashevis,” a nom de plume derived from his mother’s first name. Meanwhile, under the by-line Warshawsky, or son of Warsaw, he provided journalism and humorous articles in Yiddish newspapers, thus distancing the pseudonymous scribe from higher literary aspirations. Occasionally, he became D. Segal. In large measure, his wider success depended on having his work translated from Yiddish, a marginalized language of traumatic memory, into English, a living language with hegemonic influence. He supervised his translators closely and reached a wider audience with stories published in The New Yorker, Playboy, Commentary, and other magazines. As his work reached a global readership, he became Isaac Bashevis Singer, a composite name that allowed the author to maintain his roots while differentiating himself from his older brother, Israel Joshua (aka I. J.) Singer, also a best-selling Yiddish writer. Yet, in marked contrast to his welcome reception from the English-reading public, I. B. Singer has faced rebukes and even denunciation from Yiddish critics who felt uncomfortable with his provocative representations of Jewish life. For devoted fans and relentless critics alike, however, he remains known simply as “Bashevis.” His litigation with heaven followed the model of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Job. He refused to suffer without questioning his mortal condition. He would not disavow an invisible higher power, and even referred to himself as religious, yet he rejected conventional faith or belief in cosmic compassion. Throughout his career, I. B. Singer wrestled with that twist in the psyche that allows perpetrators of atrocities to lack remorse, while victims of inhumanity may be plagued with self-reproach. He exorcised his demons by arguing with the Almighty through his writing, transforming survivor’s guilt into a protest against the injustice of life. Protest against the cosmic silence extended the artistic bridge between his psychological realism and his fascination with the occult. The author glances back at a lost innocence of traditional values and gazes forward into a world of expanding moral chaos. He satirizes society as a grotesque underworld. He condemns the cruelties of history and refuses to accept easy answers to haunting questions. Although he affirms the existence of an Absolute and portrays atheism as the greatest human failing, by the act of writing, he challenges the ethical standards of the inscrutable universe. While affirming the life of the soul, through his storytelling, he inscribes a compelling protest against the seeming indifference of heaven and earth.