The papers of Isaac Bashevis Singer—the Polish-born Jewish-American 1978 laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature—are held at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. The collection includes handwritten drafts of his writings in Yiddish as well as English translations filled with his own revisions, and it’s full of treasures still to be shared with the world.
When I traveled to Austin in 2014 in search of essays by Singer, I didn’t know exactly what I would find. So I called up any entries in the extensive finding aid with titles that sounded like they referred to an essay—eventually locating enough previously translated texts to constitute a coherent volume. But there were other categories of texts that I found, including introductory notes for events and acceptance speeches for some of his many awards, such as his 1975 honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his 1981 Buber-Rosenzweig Medal, awarded to those actively contributing to Christian-Jewish understanding.
Among these speeches was a note written in English. Based on various considerations, including the stable handwriting and the subject matter, it was possibly written in 1973, when Singer received Israel’s Itzik Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature. He wrote:
For two thousand years our enemies in all European countries told us to go back to Palestine. Now that we finally decided to go there, our enemies in Asia and Africa tell us to go back to Europe. Scores and millions of people have made it their only purpose to fight and molest a small number of refugees from Hitler and Stalin who hoped to find rest and work in the land of their origin. Nothing is left to us but to fight back and to do all in our power to reach peace.… Our problem is becoming more and more the problem of the human race.
It was an unusually impassioned cry for a writer who was known for his pacifism. Yet when I considered the historical context, including the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, it occurred to me that it might have drawn out his instinct for Jewish survival. Still, this sentiment didn’t appear to extend into Singer’s later days. Another note—for which no provenance could be deduced but which was written in a shaky hand, suggesting it originated late in his life—emphasized the idea that his fiction never had a programmatic or ideological purpose:
I never felt that I was a writer with a message.… My protagonists were lovers, not fighting heroes. I was asked many times to fight for Socialism, Zionism, and other isms, but all I wanted was to write a good story. If there is any message in my work, it is this: learn how to love, not how to fight. I am what is called a Jew from the exile and in the 2000 years of exile we had no fighters, only scholars and saints. It is my conviction that every fighter, no matter how good his cause is, ends up by doing wrong to innocent victims.… When the Jews were driven out from their land, they gave up fighting once and forever, and this kept them and their culture alive. What the Jews of exile did is a lesson for the whole of humanity, to all nations.
The shift in these two messages—both of which are framed in relation to Jewish life and identity—reflects deeply different understandings of Jewish history. Saying that Jewish survival in the Diaspora depended on a refusal to fight ignored both the constant persecution of Jews in Europe, which lasted well over two millennia, and the flight of Jews into ever farther and stranger lands, taking them from Italy, Spain, France, and Germany to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and far beyond. Yet suggesting that the Jewish right of return was justified by the persecution in strange lands was also problematic—failing to take into account what had happened in this land over centuries of exile. It seemed that justifying Jewish militarism or pacifism fell straight into contradictions that were difficult to resolve.
Interestingly, the shift in Singer’s notes reflects a schism still present in today’s Jewish communities. Some believe in the idea that Jews, as a diasporic people, have a right to return to their native land. Others believe that the diasporic experience has become the essence of Jewish life—that there is no going back. Puzzlingly, both of these positions are grounded in perspectives on Jewish history. That a writer and thinker such as Singer himself vacillated between these two positions attests to the complexity of the conversations still taking place around Israel, Palestine, and the place of Diaspora Jews in their ongoing and intensifying conflict.
Perhaps things looked different for Singer when he was in New York, where the existential danger was less acute, than when he stood in Tel Aviv, where the threat was more palpable. Or perhaps, with time, his thoughts turned to the influence of militarism on spiritual life, and the idea that Jewish life in Israel was changing into something that would never resemble the Judaism of his childhood. Either way, beyond the slogans in these notes, they reveal that our histories, like our literary works, are rife with conflict—and that, for this very reason, we must continue our struggle for love and peace.
David Stromberg is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator, and literary scholar. Old Truths and New Clichés: Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Stromberg, is out now from Princeton University Press