Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 8, Reading 2
interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Twice a winner of the National Book Award, Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Singer’s enormous popularity and stature in the United States is the more astonishing since his first language-the language in which he thinks and creates-is Yiddish. He once joked that his writing must be 150 percent better than it appears “because you lose 50 percent in the translation.” Even though Singer speaks German and Polish and has a good command of English, he prefers to write in Yiddish because he feels that “it has vitamins that other languages haven’t got.” Consequently, he is the first writer to have received a Nobel Prize who writes in a language for which there is no country.
Singer was born July 14th, 1904, in Radzymin, Poland. Both of his grandfathers were rabbis as was his father. It is difficult to imagine more unfavorable auspices for a young novelist than to be forced into exile from his native land at the age of 31 with a gift of eloquence in a language that was becoming extinct. Had anyone suggested in 1935 (the year of Singer’s emigration to America) that a Polish refugee, writing in a language silenced by the Holocaust, would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, Isaac Singer would have been the first to laugh.
How long have you been a vegetarian?
I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years.
What do you usually eat in the course of a day?
I eat what I like. In the morning I have some skim milk and hardboiled eggs. For lunch I take a sandwich that consists of toast, sliced tomatoes, and cottage cheese. In the evenings, some vegetables. This is mere or less how it goes every day.
Have you felt better since you became a vegetarian?
Since I didn’t do it to feel better, I never measure it by that. I feel that I’m right. This is the main thing.
I once read that it was Spinoza’s notion that man can do as he likes to animals which repelled you from eating meat.
Yes. I don’t say that this passage made me a vegetarian, but I felt, when I read it, a great protest. I thought, if we can do to animals whatever we please, why can’t another man come with a theory that we can do to human beings what we please? This did not make me a vegetarian. I was in my mind a vegetarian before-because when I read this I was revolted. And though I love Spinoza and always admired him (and I still do), I did not like this text.
Many of your own stories treat the subject of vegetarianism. Do you use vegetarian leitmotifs intentionally?
I would say that of course I never sit down to write a story with this intention, with a vegetarian tendency or morality. I wouldn’t preach. I don’t believe in messages. But sometimes if you believe in something, it will come out. Whenever I mention animals, I feel there is a great, great injustice in the fact they are treated the way they are.
I’ve noticed that you use butchers and slaughtermen to represent evil.
Well, I’m inclined to do so. If a character’s a ruffian, I would make him a butcher-although some of them are very nice people.
In the story Blood was it your intention to show that people who traffic in animal flesh have something rapacious about them?
What I wanted to show was that the desire for blood has an affinity with lust.
In Blood, the female character, Risha, first seduces the ritual slaughterer Reuben, then insists on killing the animals herself. She sets up as a nonkosher butcher, and, as though following a logical progression, finally becomes a. . .
She becomes a werewolf.
Do humans who eat meat become predators?
In shedding blood there is always an element of lust.
At the beginning of the story, you mentioned that the Cabalists knew that blood and lust are related, and that’s why the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” immediately follows the injunction against killing.
Yes, but I feel so myself. There is always an element of sadism in lust and vice versa.
Do you feel that people who eat meat are just as reprehensible as the slaughterer?
The people who eat meat are not conscious of the actual slaughter. Those who do the hunting, the hunters, are, I would say, in the grip of a sexual passion. Those who eat meat share in the guilt, but since they’re not conscious of the actual slaughter, they believe it is a natural thing. I would not want to accuse them of inadvertent slaughter. But they are not brought up to believe in compassion.
I would say that it would be better for humanity to stop eating meat and stop torturing these animals. I always say that if we don’t stop treating these animals the way we do, we will never have any rest.
I think other people are bothered by meat-eating too, but they say to themselves: “What can I do!” They’re afraid that if they stop eating meat they will die from hunger. I’ve been a vegetarian for so many years-thank God I’m still alive!
I’ve also noticed that in The Slaughterer, you say that the phylacteries . . .
…are made of leather, yes. I’m always conscious of it. Even the Torah is made from hide. And I feel that this somehow is wrong. Then you say, or have the character in The Slaughter say, “Father in heaven, Thou art a slaughterer!”
Didn’t we just have an earthquake in Turkey where thousands of innocent people died? We don’t know His mysteries and motivations. But I sometimes feel like praying to a vegetarian god.
Do you feel that people who eat meat are evil?
Well, I wouldn’t go so far. I don’t want to say this about all the people who eat meat. There were many saints who ate meat, very many wonderful people. I don’t want to say evil things about people who eat meat. I only like to say that I’m against it. My vegetarianism is in fact a kind of protest against the laws of nature, because actually the animals would suffer whether we ate them or not. Whatever the case, I am for vegetarianism.
In previous interviews you have stated that like the Cabalists you feel that this is a fallen world, the worst of possible worlds.
This is what the Cabalists believe. I don’t know all the worlds. All I can see is that this world is a terrible world.
Do you think meat-eating contributes to the triumph of evil throughout the world?
To me, it is an evil thing-slaughter is an evil thing.
Do you think the world might be improved if we stopped the slaughter?
I think so. At least we should try. I think, as a rule, a vegetarian is not a murderer, he is not a criminal. I believe that a man who becomes a vegetarian because he has compassion with animals is not going to kill people or be cruel to people. When one becomes a vegetarian it purifies the soul.
In an interview that you gave to Commentary in the mid-1960s, you mentioned that you were something of a scholar in spiritual matters.
Scholar? I wouldn’t consider myself a scholar.
Well, do you think that animal souls also participate in the spiritual world?
Well, I have no doubt about it. As a matter of fact, I have a great love for animals that don’t eat any meat.
Many of the great poets and philosophers of classical antiquity back with nostalgia on a golden age in which war, murder, and crime were unknown, food was abundant, and everyone was vegetarian. Do you think that if people became vegetarian again they would become better people?
Yes. According to the Bible, it seems that God did not want people to eat meat. And, in many cases where people became very devout, or very pious, they stopped eating meat and drinking wine. Many vegetarians are anti-alcoholic, although I am not.
I think one loses desire for intoxicants when one becomes a vegetarian it purifies the body.
I think it purifies the soul.
Do you believe in the transmigration of souls?
There’s no scientific evidence of it, but I personally am inclined to believe in it. According to the Cabalists, when people sin, they become animals in the next life, sometimes ferocious animals, like tigers and snakes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.
Do you believe in the actual manifestations of demons in the physical world?
I believe it-yes. I mean, I don’t know what they are. I’m sure that if they exist, they are part of nature; but I feel that there are beings that we haven’t yet discovered. Just as we discovered only about two hundred years ago the existence of microbes and bacteria, there is no reason why we shouldn’t one day discover some other beings. We do not mow everything that goes on around us.
So you think there are malevolent spirits in the world today?
I think there may be such spirits or astral bodies-I don’t know what to call them. Since I’ve never seen them or contacted them, everything I say is just guesswork. But I feel there may be entities of which we have no inking. Just the same, they exist and influence our life just as bacteria and microbes did without our knowing it.
Do you think, on the other hand, that there are benevolent spirits?
Yes, I do. There is a great possibility of it.
Do you wear leather and articles of clothing made from animals?
I try not to, but I can never get the kind of shoes that are not, although I’m going to do something about it. What about you? Do you wear leather shoes?
No, I don’t wear anything that could cost an animal his life.
Tell me the name of the place where I can get these shoes that you wear.
I can send you the name of a mail order shoe company where you can get them.
Do me a favor and please do.
I shall. There’s a mail order firm in Patterson, New Jersey – The Haband Co. – which makes shoes of nothing but synthetic leather.
They’re not to be gotten in stores?
You can get them, if you’re willing to make a canvass of all the stores – which can be quite time-consuming – and insist upon shoes fashioned entirely from man-made materials.
I never wore furs, and I don’t want to wear anything made from animals.
I just think that is one is vegetarian, one should be consistent.
You are absolutely right, 100 percent.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372