In July, the Rag asked (and answered) What Do You Have to Do to Have a Street Named After You? We also invited readers to ask us about the stories behind the names on Upper West Side streets. Today we’ve got the story of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who immigrated to New York in 1935 and moved to the UWS a few years later. The neighborhood was the backdrop in some of his stories, and The New York Times once called him “the grand old man of the Upper West Side.” Send us a note at email@example.com to suggest what street sign we should investigate next time.
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 his own evolution. It was where he found his footing as an artist and grew into a new and fruitful life in the United States.
Born in Leoncin, Poland, in 1904, he spent his childhood in Warsaw and various Polish shtetls. In 1935 he emigrated to New York, after presciently deciding that the metastasizing Nazi threat in Germany was going to be very bad for the Jews. He landed in Brooklyn, and things were tough going 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 met a few years earlier in the Catskills, moved to 410 Central Park West near 100th Street. Soon after, Singer began to hit his stride — prolifically writing fiction as well as contributing journalism to the Yiddish-language newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward (The Forward still publishes, in Yiddish and English).
Singer stayed put on Central Park West for about 20 years until he was robbed at gunpoint in his apartment lobby. He moved briefly to West 72nd Street, then, in 1965, to The Belnord, a humongous Renaissance-style limestone rental building that takes up an entire square block on West 86th Street. When it was finished in 1909, it was the talk of the town, and according to this recent New York Times article about it, has been ever since.
Toward the final years of his life, Singer began spending most of his time in Surfside, Florida, though he never gave up his rent-controlled apartment at The Belnord. One year before his death in 1991, West 86th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam was named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in his honor. (The street where he lived in Surfside was 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 grand 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 his heavily accented English. He liked going to restaurants, all now long gone, known for their Jewish fare, where he would mingle and gossip with other Yiddish-speaking refugees who flocked to New York in those days. 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 chopped liver — a concoction of carrots, peas, string beans and onions —and the soup of the day.”
Singer also frequented the American Restaurant, his local coffee shop, on Broadway and 85th, which had “a false-brick facade and gilt chandeliers” and where he ate “several times a day, savoring the pea soup, boiled potato and rice pudding.” There was also Café Éclair, a Viennese pastry shop and restaurant on Broadway where, the Times reported, Singer often had “an open-face tuna-salad sandwich and a cup of coffee and occasionally a delicacy like borscht with a boiled potato and an extra dollop of sour cream.” Another of the modest places he frequented was the kosher luncheonette Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant on Broadway between 81st and 82nd Street (now occupied by The Town Shop). Being vegetarian, like his literary ancestor, Franz Kafka, Singer was especially 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 narrator in the short story describes a life that is nearly identical to Singer’s: “I have been moving around this neighborhood for over thirty years — as long as I lived in Poland. I know each block, each house … and I have the illusion of having put down roots here. I have spoken in most of the synagogues. They know me in some of the stores and in the vegetarian restaurants … even the pigeons know me; the moment I come out with a bag of feed, they begin to fly toward me from blocks away.”
His most famous novel that took place on the Upper West Side is “Shadows on the Hudson,” which a New York Times reviewer called his “masterpiece.” The novel is infused with a harshness and the kinds of things that turned some Jews against him, like comparing God to a Nazi; themes of amorality and betrayal; self-loathing Jewish characters who say things like, “God Himself is the worst murderer.” It features an array of troubled, affluent Jews living on the Upper West Side after World War II, many of whom are portrayed unsympathetically – like the stockbroker obsessed with sex and money and the rich Orthodox man devoid of compassion.
For this reason, as with fellow Jewish Upper West Side writer, Philip Roth, Singer had his share of detractors who criticized him for portraying Jews darkly in his fiction. Over the years, he has been referred to as a “traitor to the Yiddish tradition,” “a pornographer,” “an Anglicizing panderer,” “a dirty old man” and his writing was said to be “bad for the Jews.”
But he also got heaps of praise and was widely seen as 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 ”impassioned narratives which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, bring universal human conditions to life.’’
A savvy promoter of his work, Singer understood early on that to be a successful American writer he had to get his writing translated into English. He worked closely with translators on the English versions of his work and came to call English his “second original language.” He would always publish first in Yiddish, and then later he would put out a more polished, sometimes even different, English-language version. This began in 1953 when critic Irving Howe came across Singer’s short story, “Gimpel the Fool.” Recognizing a major new writer, Howe convinced Saul Bellow, who himself spent some time living on the Upper West Side (where he set his novel “Seize the Day”), to translate it. Then Howe sent the translation to an editor at the Partisan Review. Singer was off and running from that point, as the translations of his work flowed. He was published regularly in magazines such as the New Yorker, Playboy, and Harper’s.
In the first Singer biography, “The Magician of West 86th Street,” Paul Kresh poses the question, “What is Isaac Bashevis Singer?” His answer, in part: “He is a man of many paradoxes and contradictions, yet withal a man, like Whitman’s poetical self, large enough to ‘contain multitudes,’ reconciled to the war of forces within himself and somehow at ease with himself.”