He was born in 1902 in Leoncin near Warsaw as Icchok Zynger. His father, Pinkas Mendel Singer, was an ardent follower of Hasidism, and his mother, Bathsheba Zylberman, was the daughter of a rabbi from Biłgoraj. Singer created his literary alias from his mother’s name, first Icchok Bashevis, and then in American terms – Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The children called their parents “a perfectly mismatched couple”, they believed that “God had to mix the genders in heaven, making the father a man and the mother a woman, not the other way around” (after: Tuszyńska “A., Singer. Pejzaż życia”, Gdańsk 1994, p. 25 ). He had three siblings. The oldest sister, Hindełe Ester, was the first to become a writer, taking the surname of Esther Kreitman. The elder brother, Israel Joshua, also an outstanding writer, exerted the greatest influence on Singer. The youngest brother became a Hasid.
The Singers often changed their place of residence, going to the places where the father was given the position of a rabbi. They moved from Leoncin to Radzymin, and from there to Warsaw, on Krochmalna Street, in the heart of the Jewish district. Singer returns to this street many times in his stories and novels. In one of the interviews he said:
“I am returning to Krochmalna in what I am writing about. I remember every little corner and every person. I think like others are overcome by the gold rush that God created billions of years ago, I am digging up my literary gold in this street.”
An important place for Singer was also Biłgoraj, where the family stayed during World War I. Jews constituted one third of the town’s population, making up a large diaspora. It was there that Singer realised that he did not fit into the world of traditional Jews and that he had to look for his own way. He left for Warsaw, which he called “the city of his dreams and hopes”. Thanks to his brother’s help, he found a job, but he struggled with poverty and had suicidal thoughts. He got involved with Runia Poncz, with whom he had the only son (Israel Zamir, died 2014). The couple never got married.
Singer made his literary debut in Poland in 1925 with a short story in Yiddish, “Ojf der elter” (“In Old Age”). He worked as a proofreader in “Literarisze bleter”, a Warsaw literary weekly published in Yiddish. He translated works by Knut Hamsun, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann into Yiddish. He published his first novel “Satan in Goraju” in 1933 in parts in the magazine “Globus” (published in a book form in 1935).
After Hitler came to power, Singer left for New York, where he joined his older brother. It was there that he wrote his most famous novels: “The Magician of Lublin”, “The Heritage”, “Szosza”. In 1943, he got an American citizenship. He never returned to Poland. The writer’s son in one of the interviews said:
“He was looking at Broadway, but he saw Marszałkowska Street. He left Poland physically, but not emotionally. Most of the people he writes about come from Poland. For him, Poland was more than a home country.”
He was a loner living in a world of his own imagination, an orthodox vegetarian whose favorite pastime was feeding pigeons in Central Park. He was so distracted that he often forgot the number of his apartment or hotel where he was staying. Many of his friends remembered him as a man who could listen and understand women like no one else.
When in 1978 he was awarded the Literary Nobel Prize, he stated that it was for him “Recognition of Yiddish – the language of exile, a language without a land, a language without borders. A language that has no words to express concepts such as weapons, ammunition, drills, combat tactics. Yiddish is a wise and modest language of a person who fears, but is not losing hope”. He died at the age of 88 in Florida. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in New Jersey.