Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Artists

Opening reception:

October 15, 5:30-7:30 pm
Zalmen Mlotek, Artistic Director, National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene and members of the cast of “Gimpl Tam” will perform from the score

Media Partner:


zlateh the goat

Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, created a legacy of 86 books and numerous stories that continue to delight people of every age, circumstance, and nationality. He depicted with a sense of humanity, humor, and clarity the vanished world of Polish Jews prior to and during the First World War, and in his collection of eleven short stories constituting The Spinoza of Market Street, published in 1961, and later novels he depicted a post-Holocaust world, no longer provincial but rife with contemporary chaos and paranoia. Based on his observations and genuine love of pious, superstitious, earthy, heroic, resourceful, and tragic figures, his works continue to live in our collective memories. The fictional characters blur the lines between folk tales, legends, supernatural powers, and the harsh reality, fear, anxiety, and despair of surviving.

This exhibition presents the work of 17 artists who illustrated 25 of Singer’s novels and short stories, including Larry River, Maurice Sendak, Raphael Soyer, Roman Vishniac, and William Pene Du Bois.

Singer was born in Radzymin, an industrial suburb of Warsaw, Poland, in either 1902 or 1904. He grew up in Warsaw and in Bilgorai, his mother’s traditional Jewish village, and was educated by his Hasidic rabbi father and at a rabbinical seminary. In 1926, encouraged by his successful older brother, the novelist Israel Joshua Singer, he became a translator and journalist for several Yiddish newspapers in Warsaw. Spurred by the increasing ferocity of rising anti-Semitism he immigrated to the United States in 1935. He commenced his career as a reporter for the Yiddish language newspaper Forverts, (The Jewish Daily Forward), where he remained a critic and journalist throughout his life.

Larry Rivers, “The Magician of Lublin”

Singer’s protean imagination was grounded by the influence of his father’s fidelity to scripture and ritual. It was nourished by his passion for writers such as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, and de Maupassant, whose complex chronicles on a grand scale, filled with numerous, diverse characters shaped his own works. Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish. He referred to the English translations, frequently serialized in newspapers, journals, and magazines, as his “second originals.” Amongst his notable translators was the novelist Saul Bellow who, in 1953, published his translation of Gimpel, the Fool in Partisan Review. Yiddish was often the sole language of women during Singer’s childhood, and the exotic, ferocious fairy tales and demonic terrorizing moral parables were told to him by his mother. His acceptance of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature was made both in Yiddish and in English.

Amongst Singer’s many books and stories, more than 32 have been illustrated. Matching strong drawings to immemorial words takes courage and 17 artists have matched Singer image for image with their inventive illustrations.

Singer’s stories include people pushed by circumstances to the edge of reason. Surviving by their wits, they turn to prostitution, usury, robbery, and gluttony, not missing a single deadly sin. Ira Moskowitz and Raphael Soyer, both friends of the writer, captured the bawdy, licentious, raucous and supernatural aspects of personalities ravaged by harsh conditions and their own consciences. These people are ever fighting with their moral rectitude and piety while giving way to the enjoyment of ‘sinful’ behavior. Moskowitz illustrated several books as well as portfolios inspired by individual personalities. His rabbinic series is one of ecstatic devotion and stands in stunning contrast to the licentious drawings. Soyer, who illustrated four seminal works, ranges from poignant contemporary New York street scenes to the provocative imagined world of visual storytelling.

Larry Rivers produced three illustrations for an edition of The Magician of Lublin, capturing the gravity of spiritual transformation inherent in the story. Reaching deeply into his own Jewish heritage, Rivers visually translated the dynamic tensions of the novel. Maurice Sendak illustrated two Singer works. In Zlateh the Goat, a collection of children’s stories that take place in a fantasy of the rural Polish landscape, there is a whimsical reality to these illustrations enabling readers to embed themselves in Singer’s world. Sendak’s unfamiliar illustration for The Saturday Evening Post in 1968 reveals his now signature manic style, dense with familiar but obsessed characters.

Irene Lieblich, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, shared a mutually life-enhancing friendship with Singer. Her memories of village life captured with joyous naivete the evocative landscape that was faithful to his own recollections of the shtetl. Singer wrote that “Her works are rooted in Jewish folklore and faithful to Jewish life and spirit.”

Eric Carle brings a joyful collage of color and vitality to Why Noah Chose the Dove, embracing the universality and audacity of the biblical story. William Pene Du Bois, with delicacy, grace, and imaginative humor enhances Singer’s fantasy tale, The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China. Leonard Everrett Fisher, whose monumentally powerful ‘scratchboard drawings’ extract the iconic, biblical elements of Sodom and Gemorrah in The Wicked City. Yuri Shulevitz captures 16th-century aesthetic sensibilities in his sculptural depiction of The Golem. Precise and haunting, Shulevitz’s drawings intensify the haunting tale.

Antonio Frasconi uses an Italianate sensibility to explore the time, setting, and strength of Elijah the Slave, and, faithful to his signature woodcut technique, a Polish aspect to Yentel the Yeshiva Boy. The brooding, translucent quality of Nonny Hogrogian’s work reveals the inner turmoil of the characters, while the pure joy and silliness inherent in all of Margot Zemach’s illustrations capture the Yiddish wit of Singer’s stories.

The use of emotive photographs by Roman Vishniac jolts the viewer back to the stark reality at the source of Singer’s tales. In these introspective faces lie the tragedy, hopes, potential, and resilience of a lost era of adolescent dreams, imagined worlds, loss of innocence, and an ever-reflective memory. Singer remarked that he wrote for young people because “they still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, and other such obsolete stuff.”

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.


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