Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Vision of Radical Evil, and of Art That Transcends Politics

April 12 2022

To Dara Horn, Isaac Bashevis Singer lost most of his literary luster when he began to cultivate “a public persona as a wide-eyed innocent from a lost world” and his work fell into “self-derivative patterns in which the recipe involved combining shtetls, demons, and sex in a small bowl, mixed well.” Horn does not, however, deny Singer’s artistic and imaginative talents, or that substantive ideas lie behind his work:

Over the years, I managed to get past my problem with Singer, mostly by focusing on some of his finest works: his first novel and also a curated handful of his stories, including his debut in English, “Gimpel the Fool” (translated by Saul Bellow), and his 1960s story “The Cafeteria,” each of which deals brilliantly with the question of how one processes or even accepts reality in the presence of radical evil. This, I think, was Singer’s great theme. In a correlation less obvious to his non-Yiddish audience, his literary fascination with doubt and evil was directly related to his rejection of both humanism and Communism. To Singer, they were related ideologies, the benign and malign ends of a spectrum of idolatry that worshiped selfish and limited humanity as though it were the ineffable divine, and thereby both gave rise to the radical evil that made it possible to erase human differences.

This is an important argument but a tough sell to those whose nostalgic attachment to their parents’ Yiddish was bound up with an adamantly secular and sometimes fellow-traveling branch of Yiddish-speaking culture. The greatest achievement of Old Truths and New Clichés, a new collection of Singer’s essays compiled by the writer, scholar, and translator David Stromberg, is that it lays bare Singer’s motivating ideas for all to see.

Singer did have an artistic vision that reaches beyond the bogeymen of his era. That vision is of storytelling as the necessary foundation for creative art, and even more than that, the foundation for living a life of openness and purpose. His best polemical work here comes when he lays out this idea from his own experiences as a writer, as he does in “Storytelling and Literature.” . . . Singer predictably complains about how contemporary writers promote their politics instead of telling stories, but he also unearths the real structural problem with this approach.

Real art, Singer argues here, is driven by the relentless pursuit of such questions without the expectation of answers. This is the reason why agenda-driven art must fail: it starts with the answers.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

Why the Leader of Hamas Went to Russia

Sept. 30 2022

Earlier this month, the Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh and several of his colleagues visited Moscow, where they met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. According to Arabic-language media, Haniyeh came seeking “new ideas” about how to wage war against the Jewish state. The terrorist group has had good relations with the Kremlin for several years, and even maintains an office in Moscow. John Hardie and Ivana Stradner comment on the timing of the visit:

For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital. In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem—and its American allies—would do well to keep a watchful eye.

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Read more at Algemeiner

More about: Hamas, Israeli Security, Russia