In July, the Rag asked (and answered) What do you need to do to have a street named after you?? We also invited readers to ask us about the stories behind Upper West Side street names. Today we have the story of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who immigrated to New York in 1935 and moved to UWS a few years later. The neighborhood was the backdrop for some of his stories, and the New York Times once called him “the tall old man of the Upper West Side”. Send us a note at [email protected] to suggest which traffic sign we should investigate next.
By Daniel Krieger
For Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning literary giant, the Upper West Side played a major role in the story of its own evolution. It was there that he found his place as an artist and grew into a new and successful life in the United States.
Born in Leoncin, Poland, in 1904, he spent his childhood in Warsaw and in various Polish shtetls. In 1935 he emigrated to New York, having presciently decided that the metastasized Nazi threat in Germany was going to be very bad for the Jews. He landed in Brooklyn, and things were rough at first. He felt lost in this foreign country, where literature written in Yiddish seemed dead. But then, around 1941, he and his new wife, Alma, whom he had met a few years earlier in the Catskills, moved to 410 Central Park West near 100th Street. Soon after, Singer began to take off – writing prolifically fiction and contributing journalism to the Yiddish-language newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward (the front still publishes, in Yiddish and English).
Singer stayed on Central Park West for about 20 years until he was robbed at gunpoint in the lobby of his apartment. He moved briefly to West 72nd Street, then, in 1965, to The Belnord, a huge Renaissance-style limestone rental building that took up an entire city block on West 86th Street. When it was completed in 1909, it was the talk of the town, and according to this recent New York Times article about ithas been since.
Towards the last years of his life, Singer began spending most of his time in Surfside, Florida, although he never gave up his rent-controlled apartment at The Belnord. A year before his death in 1991, West 86th Street off Broadway in Amsterdam was named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in his honor. (The street where he lived in Surfside is also named after him.)
Dressed in a suit and tie, Singer was a common sight taking long walks around the neighborhood for decades — up to six miles a day, according to his personal assistant — and The New York Times once called him “the big old man of the Upper West Side”. He was deeply connected to the local community and had a reputation for being a talker, both in Yiddish and in his heavily accented English. He enjoyed going to long-defunct restaurants known for their Jewish cuisine, where he mingled and chatted with other Yiddish-speaking refugees who were flocking to New York at that time. There was The Famous Dairy Restaurant on West 72nd Street, where The New York Times reported in 1991: “He almost always had the $5.50 lunch special of vegetarian minced liver – a mixture of carrots, peas, green beans and onions – and the soup of the day.”
Singer also frequented the American Restaurant, his local cafe, on Broadway and 85th, which had “a faux brick facade and gilded chandeliers” and where he ate “several times a day, enjoying pea soup, potato porridge and rice pudding”. ” There was also Eclair Coffee, a Viennese patisserie and restaurant on Broadway where, according to the Times, Singer often had “an open-faced tuna salad sandwich and a cup of coffee and sometimes a delicacy like borscht with a boiled potato and an extra spoonful of sour cream. “Another of the modest places he frequented was the kosher luncheonette Steinberg‘s Dairy Restaurant on Broadway between 81st and 82nd Streets (now occupied by The Town Shop). Being a vegetarian, like his literary ancestor, Franz Kafka, Singer was particularly fond of veggie burgers.
Singer made the Upper West Side the setting for some of his stories, such as “The Cafeteria,” published in The New Yorker in 1968. The story’s narrator describes a life almost identical to Singer’s: “I moved around this neighborhood for over thirty years – as long as I’ve lived in Poland. I know every block, every house… and I have the illusion of having taken root here. I have spoken in most synagogues. They know me in some shops and in vegetarian restaurants…even the pigeons know me; the moment I walk out with a bag of food they start flying towards me from blocks away.
His most famous novel set on the Upper West Side is “Shadows on the Hudson”, which a New York Times reviewer called his “masterpiece”. The novel is imbued with a harshness and the kinds of things that turned some Jews against it, like comparing God to a Nazi; themes of amorality and betrayal; Jewish characters who hate each other and say things like “God himself is the worst murderer”. It features an array of wealthy and troubled Jews living on the Upper West Side after World War II, many of whom are portrayed without sympathy – such as the sex and money obsessed stockbroker and the wealthy Orthodox man devoid of compassion.
For this reason, as with fellow Upper West Side Jewish writer Philip Roth, Singer has had his share of detractors who have criticized him for portraying Jews in a dark way in his fiction. Over the years, he has been called a “traitor to the Yiddish tradition”, a “pornographer”, an “anglicizing pimp”, a “dirty old man” and his writings have been called “bad for Jews”.
But he also received wide acclaim and was widely considered a literary genius. He won the National Book Award in 1970, and in 1978 he became the only Yiddish-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy described his “passionate narratives which, rooted in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, bring universal human conditions to life.”
A savvy promoter of his work, Singer realized early on that to be a successful American writer he needed to have his writings translated into English. He worked closely with translators on the English versions of his work and came to call English his “original second language”. He always published first in Yiddish, then later he published a more polished, sometimes even different, English version. It started in 1953 when the critic Irving Howe came across Singer’s short story, “Gimpel the Fool.” Recognizing a major new writer, Howe convinced Saul Bellow, who himself lived for a time on the Upper West Side (where he staged his novel “Seize the Day”), to translate it. Howe then sent the translation to an editor at the Partisan Review. Singer had been running from then on, as translations of his work poured in. He has been published regularly in magazines such as The New Yorker, Playboy and Harper’s.
In Singer’s first biography, “The Wizard of West 86th Street,” Paul Kresh poses the question, “What is Isaac Bashevis Singer?” His response, in part: “He is a man of many paradoxes and contradictions, but at the same time a man, like Whitman’s poetic self, large enough to ‘contain multitudes’, reconciled with the war of forces within him. himself and somehow comfortable with himself. ”