August 09, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Legacy: Isaac Bashevis Singer

In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s universe the rolls were always hot, the tea was always sweet, the language was always Yiddish, and the ghosts and demons of everyday living were always making a companionable racket. Mostly they were Polish ghosts — nosy, noodgy things that hung around Krochmalna Street in pre- WWII Warsaw where Singer, the son and grandson of Hasidic rabbis, grew up. After he came to America in 1935, Singer’s ghosts accompanied him to the cafeterias of New York City, where he enjoyed boiled potatoes and the impassioned yak of Yiddish-speaking friends.

In fact, Singer’s devils and troublemakers perched permanently on his shoulders as he wrote stories of schlemiels and saints. So recognizable were Singer’s weaklings and so sympathetic his sinners that his stories, though anchored in Jewish folk life, won him a Nobel Prize in 1978. His work was crudely squeezed into the movie Yentl in 1983 and exquisitely poured into Enemies, A Love Story in 1989, but it is best sampled in books such as The Magician of Lublin, Gimpel the Fool, Old Love, A Crown of Feathers, and The Spinoza of Market Street. There, Singer’s words grow wings, earthbound souls take flight, and every schlemiel gets the hearing he deserves.

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