I.J. Singer’s Portrait of an East European Jewish Civilization at Once Vibrant and Disappearing https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/arts-culture/2023/12/i-j-singers-portrait-of-an-east-european-jewish-civilization-at-once-vibrant-and-disappearing/

December 4, 2023 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

On Friday, I recommended a personal reflection on reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Today, I’ve found an essay on the work of his older brother Israel Joshua Singer—far less known to English-speaking audiences, but considered every bit his equal by those familiar with Yiddish literature. Adam Kirsch writes:

I.J. Singer emerged as a writer in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and he used fiction to explore the political and economic forces that were uprooting Jewish life in Eastern Europe. His first novel, Steel and Iron (1927), follows a Jewish soldier who deserts the tsarist Army during the First World War, becomes a Communist, and ends up helping to storm the Winter Palace—the decisive episode in the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. In later books, Singer dramatized the betrayal of Communist hopes by Stalin and the plight of German Jews under Hitler.

His great strength as a novelist is in depicting how individuals’ fates reflect the movement of history, and his most characteristic passages deal in plurals. . . . Israel Joshua Singer’s work, written in the fifteen years before the Holocaust, reflects a time when Yiddish civilization was more vital and more modern than ever before. It also shows that, even before the Holocaust was conceivable, Jews in Eastern Europe could feel their future disappearing. Franz Kafka, writing in German, and S.Y. Agnon, writing in Hebrew, had the same intuition.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, on the other hand, produced almost all of his work after that future was gone.

Read more on New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/12/04/the-forgotten-giant-of-yiddish-fiction