Memorial to Bashevis Singer in Biłgoraj, Poland (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)
Discovered while I was looking for something else: A remarkable prayer by Nobel Prize-winning Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer. I was reading coverage of the struggle to form a new governing majority in Israel’s parliament, and I was pulled right in by a headline that said it was “found scrawled on rent slip” in a university archives. I read about Singer as a grad student in English — I think I may have taught one of his his stories as a TA at the University of Tennessee — and I was intrigued.
“We have only one comfort in this world – that you are our maker and that we have the power to serve you with joy, awe, and love, all our lives,” Singer wrote, adding that consequently “we understand that it is our duty to build and not to destroy, to comfort and not to torment, to bring joy rather than sorrow to your creatures.”
All the more so when Singer’s translator David Stromberg told the Times of Israel that he decided to publish it last month, “after holding onto it for years,” because he believes it’s especially timely as “unprecedented ethnic violence plagues the streets of Israeli cities and towns,” during the latest war between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza. As quoted by the newspaper, he said:
“We talk about faith as if it only relates to God, but essentially we live our lives with faith in a lot of principles we’ve never seen… Social, ethical, moral life, communal life, they all function on faith. You don’t have to believe in God, but you have to have the function of faith to be a law-abiding citizen, for example,” said Stromberg. “Today we’re seeing the exact result of the corruption of that faith in the social fabric, in the idea that you don’t take the law into your own hands.”
As in Israel, so in America. And the corruption and loss of faith in the social fabric go beyond the spectacle of failed national leaders trying to hang onto power in order to avoid prosecution. Last month’s Arab-Jewish violence in Israel is eerily reminiscent of the governmental paralysis and rising threat of white nationalist domestic terrorism in America. It’s all profoundly dispiriting.
So Isaac Bashevis Singer’s prayer brings a kind of uplift, a call for us, personally, to do better.
Singer knew about hatred, violence and loss of faith. Born in 1903 in Poland, he was raised in a strict Orthodox community — his father was a Hasidic rabbi — but he left rabbinical school as a young man and worked for a secular Yiddish-language paper in Warsaw, where he published his first short stories. In 1935 he fled Europe as Nazi anti-Semitism took hold there and found work in New York as a staff writer for the Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts (now the Jewish Daily Forward) and continued to write stories and novels. In 1978 he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Singer’s fiction, also in Yiddish, recreated the “world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites combined with blind faith and superstition,” as his Nobel Prize citation put it. “This world has gone forever, destroyed by the most terrible of all scourges that have afflicted the Jews and other people in Poland. But it comes to life in Singer’s memories and writing in general.” All in all, it further shook his faith in a God who would allow such things as World War II and the Holocaust, and his personal struggle was reflected in his stories.
In later years, Bashevis Singer would reassess his faith. Stromberg says out of that reassessment came the prayer he wrote on the back of a New York City rent receipt dated March 1, 1952. Instead of Yiddish or English, in which by this time he was fluent, he wrote it in the liturgical Hebrew of his youth. It can be read as a reflection of his own individual faith journey. But it can also be read as a general antidote for despair.
Either way, I drew comfort and a sense of direction from reading Singer’s prayer. Isn’t that one thing prayers are supposed to do?
Stromberg’s translation appeared May 13 in Tablet, an online magazine devoted to Jewish life, along with his introduction and a copy of both sides of the original rent receipt. After invoking God, Singer asks:
Let me see the Creator in each and every creature, its mercy for each thing it creates.
There’s not a single drop of water or particle of dust in which your light is lacking, or that is outside your domain.
There is no creature without its creator.
Those who know this live always in joy.
Their parents are but bodies that are here today, and are tomorrow in their graves.
All their friends, all their possessions and honors, are like a passing shadow.
They are themselves like passing clouds, like Jonah’s tree. […]
That image of Jonah’s tree is troubling. In the book of Jonah, God shelters the prophet with a tree (or bush, in the New Revised Standard Version), but sends a worm to wither the bush; God creates and God destroys, all in a moment. But like a passing cloud, Singer moves on. Addressing God directly, he draws the contrast: “But you — you have always existed and will always exist. […] all problems [are] solved, all challenges effortless.” Yes, Singer acknowledges, evil exists in the world, but: “You know why you created evil — “and who are we to question your integrity?” He elaborates:
We have only one comfort in this world – that you are our maker and that we have the power to serve you with joy, awe, and love, all our lives – and that you have given us the ability to understand such things.
Though we may not know the purpose of life, or why you sent us into this world to suffer, we understand that it is our duty to build and not to destroy, to comfort and not to torment, to bring joy rather than sorrow to your creatures.
In the end, he leaves us with an affirmation in the face of doubt, and he leaves God with a petition:
There is only one joy: to increase and not to lessen the world’s joy.
Seek happiness, but not on account of your neighbors or family, for you are they and they are you, you are bonded, children of God.
God, guard my tongue from evil, my lips from deceit, my mind from sin.
Open my heart to your commands, let my heart seek your teaching, and let all my actions serve a higher purpose.
Those who fear God are the only ones who do not hurt each other, neither in fact nor in principle.
Stromberg’s English-language collection of Bashevis Singer’s previously untranslated writing is due to come out in 2022. But in his interview with the Times of Israel, he said he decided to release the prayer early because it so clearly illustrates Singer’s struggle to reconcile himself with his faith, and — more importantly, perhaps — because his times offer so many lessons for our own:
The point is that these questions [of faith, doubt and repentance] are always relevant to us, and certainly at a time when political, social, environmental, and health crises are overwhelming us. You have to understand that in the 1920s, postwar Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, it was like a storm. These are the people who weathered the storm.
It goes without saying that today’s crises are nowhere near as evil as those unleashed by Nazi Germany, but the tribalism and paralysis in government today are reminiscent of the Weimar Republic and other parliamentary democracies during the 1920s and early 1930s. So when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu complains, like former US President Trump, his election was “stolen” by the “deep state,” and Netanyahu’s opposition accuses him of “scorched-earth tactics” that could encourage violence and undermine Israeli institutions, we’re reminded of the lessons of history.
In America Trump is enabled by a Republican Party that was described, as early as 2012, as “an insurgent outlier in American politics.” Long before Trump came along, Thomas Mann of the center-left Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the center-right American Enterprise Institute said, “[i]t is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” On the other hand, Republicans claim, not without at least anecdotal evidence, that “woke” left-wing radicals muzzle dissent with “cancel culture” (while canceling their own dissidents with no apparent sense of irony). It’s all profoundly discouraging.
Which is why I think David Stromberg was truly inspired — and I’m using the word advisedly — to publish Bashevis Singer’s prayer a year early. Stromberg said he was going through a process of personal reckoning in 1952, the date on the rent receipt. It’s known as teshuva (repentance) in Hebrew, and Stromberg says for Singer it involved a “return to religion.” Not quite to that of his father, who was an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, but to a more expansive faith grounded in his Jewish heritage. Stromberg elaborates:
[…] He needs something. He realizes that the cynical perspective isn’t going to spiritually get him through life, through his own existence. So he looks for the prayer language that he knows best, which is Hebrew, to express something that he’d expressed in some of his stories, which is essentially that “m’darf zayn b’simkhe” [we ought to be joyful, in Yiddish], which is the title of the story that became, in the English translation, “Joy.”
So I read it as the cry of someone who spends his life saying he doesn’t have faith in rabbinical Judaism — the stringent Judaism of his fundamentalist father — but who doesn’t have another Judaism.
It’s the cry of a man at the age of 50 who is asking for help, for faith. But he’s asking for a faith that comes in the form of loving earth’s creatures. The end really brings it together: “Those who truly fear God do not attack each other.”
So it’s about joy? Even when the world is going to hell in a handbasket?
Yep. Joy. That’s what jumped off the page when I went back and read Singer’s prayer. We have one comfort in the world — to serve God with joy. Awe and love, too, but joy first. And service. I think I would add duty and repentance as well. And there is only one joy: to increase and not to lessen the world’s joy.
I am far from being an expert on Judaism. In grad school, I read a generation of Jewish-American authors who were influenced by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Novelists like Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok. Especially Potok. I saw my own doubts and artistic stirrings reflected in My Name is Asher Lev and Davita’s Harp. So as I think about the prayer Bashevis Singer jotted down as he turned back to his religious heritage, all I can offer is analogies and echoes of my own heritage.
Though we may not know the purpose of life, he says, addressing God, or why you sent us into this world to suffer, we understand that it is our duty to build and not to destroy, to comfort and not to torment, to bring joy rather than sorrow to your creatures. Sound familiar? It’s not quite love God, love my neighbor. But it’s close enough. Or this: Be not neglectful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Well, I can’t remake the world. I can’t even flip one downstate Illinois congressional district! But I can do what I can to make life a little better, helping one angel at a time.
Another analogy: I’m reminded of Voltaire’s Candide, cultivating his little garden in the best of all possible worlds. As Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker reminds us, the accent here is on possible, not best. We do what we can, I guess, because the world is pretty awful.
I’m reminded of something else, too. Yet another analogy. This one is from Mr. Rogers, a quote from Fred Rogers’ television show for children that went viral, even before the pandemic. (Can we still use that term now without wincing?) It circulated widely after the school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and Parkland, Fla., and, sadly, on too many other occasions to count. Addressing the children and parents in his TV audience, he said:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. (Goodreads)
Look for the helpers? Why yes. Of course. But we can also try to be the helpers. I think that’s what Isaac Bashevis Singer is telling us.
[Revised and published, June 10, 2021]
“Bennett to Netanyahu: Let Israel go, don’t leave ‘scorched earth’,” Times of Israel, June 6, 2021 https://www.timesofisrael.com/bennett-to-netanyahu-let-israel-go-dont-leave-scorched-earth/.
“Echoing Trump, Netanyahu says election stolen, ‘deep state’ within new coalition,” Times of Israel, June 1, 2021 https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-claims-habitual-liar-bennetts-coalition-in-league-with-deep-state/.
Thomas B. Edsall, “Is Wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats’?” New York Times, May 21, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/26/opinion/democrats-republicans-wokeness-cancel-culture.html.
Adam Gopnik, “Voltaire’s Garden,” New Yorker, March 7, 2005 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/03/07/voltaires-garden.
“Israel: Jewish and Arab mobs spread violence,” BBC News, May 13, 2021 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-57097554.
Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” Washington Post, April 27, 2012 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/2012/04/27/gIQAxCVUlT_story.html.
Jake Novak, “Netanyahu indictment and the Trump impeachment process are both the products of democracy’s failures,” CNBC, NOv. 21, 2019 https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/21/netanyahu-indictment-trump-impeachment-both-products-of-democracys-failures.html.
Taylor Pittman, “Why Mister Rogers’ Plea To ‘Look For The Helpers’ Still Resonates Today,” Huffington Post, June 8, 2018 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mister-rogers-look-for-the-helpers-quote_n_5b19477ce4b0599bc6e15b4e.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Petition to God,” trans. David Stromberg, Tablet, May 13, 2021 https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/the-prayer-isaac-bashevis-singer.
“Isaac Bashevis Singer: Nobel Prize in Literature 1978,” Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, ed. Tore Frängsmyr and Sture Allén (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 1993) https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1978/singer/biographical/.
Yaakov Schwartz, “1952 prayer by Bashevis Singer found scrawled on rent slip in unpublished trove,” Times of Israel, June 5, 2021 https://www.timesofisrael.com/1952-prayer-by-bashevis-singer-found-scrawled-on-rent-slip-in-unpublished-trove/.