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Poster Commentary
"We have to believe in free will. We have no choice."Isaac Bashevis Singer
Poster design:Asaf Hanuka


Commentary by Aaron Lansky

As his quote on free will suggests, Singer reveled in paradox. Although he broke from religious tradition at an early age, he never stopped writing about Jewish life in the Poland of his youth. And although he filled his books with depictions of sexuality and desire, his intent was not to titillate but to plumb the limits of reason unmoored from religious law.

Singer’s first novel, Satan in Goray, was published in 1935, when many Jews were swept up in radical political movements. Its plot, about the upheaval unleashed by a false messiah in a 17th-century shtetl, was an implicit critique of the failure of redemptive ideologies in his own time.

In The Magician of Lublin, published in 1960, the title character lives by his own moral compass and juggles numerous affairs until he loses his balance and comes perilously close to murder. He then walls himself off from the world to pursue a life of study and prayer. “The Holy Books led to virtue and eternal life, while that which lay behind him was evil. There was no middle road. A single step away from God plunged one into the deepest abyss.”

With an eye for paradox and a gift for evocative detail, Singer became one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, he credited the language in which he wrote: “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. Rich in humor and in memories, it is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity.”

Aaron Lansky is founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center. He wrote the bestselling book Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and received a so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1989.