Celebrating Singer

Juneau Public Libraries, Perseverance Theatre present play about life of Nobel Prize winner

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2004

Juneau Public Libraries Director Barbara Berg started reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer in college. She was a student at the University of Wisconsin, where he was an artist-in-residence.

"I knew he was there, but I never did hear him speak," Berg said. "It's one of those things: You're young and you blow things off."

A lesson was learned. And earlier this year, when Berg spotted a National Endowment for the Humanities grant funding programs that commemorated the 100th anniversary of Singer's birth in 1904, Berg knew it was time to act.

She asked youth service librarian Sandra Strandtmann to write a grant proposal, and the Juneau Public Libraries were one of 62 libraries and community centers in the United States (the only one in Alaska and one of five on the West Coast) to be selected.

As a result, the library, in conjunction with Perseverance Theatre and the Juneau Jewish Community, will present a reader's theater performance of "Demons and Dreamers," a play for three actors about Singer's life, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 1 and 2, at The Back Room at the Silverbow Inn. Admission is free.

"I've continued to read (Singer) since I was first exposed to his writing and his children's stories," Berg said. "He's just a fascinating writer. He's a genius at the short story, and there's just a wonderful dark humor in a lot of it. I really do believe that his work should be more widely read."

"For one thing, there's a strong Jewish community in town," Strandtmann said. "For another, he is a towering figure in literature, and this is certainly a well-read town."

Singer was born in Radzymin, Poland, in 1904, to a Hasidic rabbi and the daughter of a rabbi. His family moved to Warsaw when he was 3. The neighborhood, including prostitutes and thieves, was inspiration for an aspiring writer.

Singer began studying at a seminary in 1920, but soon returned to Bilgorai, a traditional Jewish village where he spent part of his youth. Three years later he moved to Warsaw and began proofreading a magazine edited by his brother, I.J. They translated German drama and thrillers into Yiddish.

Singer wrote his first novel, "Satan in Goray," in 1932. Three years later, he began writing for the "Daily Forward," a Jewish paper, as a foreign correspondent. Later that year, he moved to the United States to escape the rise of the Nazis. His wife, Rachel, and son, relocated to Russia.

"The Jews in Europe at that time saw the joy and humor where they could find it," Strandtmann said. "When they came to the United States, it was a whole different kind of adjustment."

He remarried in 1940 and became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but still wrote in Yiddish. By 1952, writers such as Saul Bellow were translating his work into English.

"He was born in the early 20th century, so some of his stories are about that," Berg said. "He wrote about contemporary people in New York, too. So he sort of made the transition from writing about very traditional communities to writing about modern people with modern anxieties and really in an urban setting."

When he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, Singer was the lone non-English writer. His work has been made into movies, such as "Yentl," with Barbara Streisand, and "Enemies: A Love Story," with Anjelica Huston.

He won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature.

"The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man," he said during his acceptance speech, according to nobelprize.org. "While the poet entertains, he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice."

"He has an incredibly wide range of writing," Berg said. "His children's stories are based on old Jewish folk tales from Central Europe, so they're really fabulous kinds of things with traditional folk tale sort of themes.

"The other thing that's fascinating about him is that when you read his autobiographical works, the line between his writing and his actual biography seems sort of blurred," she said. "The main characters sound very much like him and his life. And then there's this huge cast of characters that's just tremendously varied in all of his stories. They really come alive when he talks about them."

The grant is sponsored by the NEH, with help from the Library of America. Celebrations began nationwide in January and will last until January 2005.

The library was presented with a collection of Singer's work plus the permission to perform Isaiah Sheffer's "Demons and Dreamers." It blends his life story with characters and stories that he wrote.

"Mr. Sheffer was excited about this play and about having someone in Alaska perform it," Strandtmann said. "All he required as payment was a recording of it."

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