What was, used to be, ain’t no more.
This Yiddish proverb was one of the central themes of a speech given by the late Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (pictured above) over thirty years ago at a university in central Texas.
I was lucky enough to be in attendance — but little did I think, at the time, that this simple piece of wisdom would be recounted so many decades later in my current role at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory in Lewisville, Texas.
In one form or another, we at Martin Oaks hear it all the time.
It comes up when clients discuss the life a deceased loved one has led — the changes in the world they saw, the inevitable physical decline they experienced, the passing of so many friends and family, and the speed of technological advances.
If there are universal truths which humans must cope with, change over time is one of the most pronounced. The world we enter at birth will hardly resemble the one we leave at death, even if our lifespan is relatively short.
Singer, like all of us, was not immune to calamitous transformations. The son of a rabbi who was forced to flee Europe because of encroaching Nazi’s, he found himself in unexpectedly stressful circumstances when he landed in New York City.
As he explained during the address, Singer was separated from his family, suffered periods of writers block and despair; forced immigration left him in very difficult straits.
Talent finally won out. He began writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper which had broad circulation: it was very influential in the literary/ intellectual community, a fact which advanced his reputation as a clever, sophisticated writer of penetrating, if not old-worldly, fiction.
Throughout his career, Singer composed in Yiddish — these stories were then translated and appeared in other prominent publications, such as the New Yorker and the Partisan Review.
Habits from his continental background remained: he was always dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, wrote longhand in lined notebooks and fussed over the smallest details of translation.
His final published output was prodigious — more than 30 books, consisting of novels, short stories, essays and memoirs. Throughout, these works contrasted modernity with traditional modes: supernatural references that introduced goblins, dybbuks (Jewish mythological figures who are spirits of dislocated dead souls) abound.
At the conclusion of the lecture I heard, Singer took questions, where again, the force of change was a key theme in his answers.
For example, he joked about how antiquated the accounting practices were at the Jewish Forward — he claimed to be very thankful about this, because the Forward probably had been bankrupt for years, but the accountants were so behind in the numbers, the paper would likely to continue to be published anyway.
In a moving fashion, he spoke about his belief in a silent God. He thought that humanity had very limited knowledge of the universe, likening it to the knowledge of the world his pet birds had. If a bird was sick, he took it to a veterinarian, where it received treatment and became well. The bird had no understanding of what had occurred — why, Singer asked, are we so arrogant to believe that, on a different level, we have a better understanding of what he called the intelligent design of our cosmos. Singer hypothesized that the search for a God was a job man was born to do (Martin Oaks, of course, takes no position on these matters, we are just reporting what was said.)
It was a privilege to have an opportunity to hear what this wise writer had to say about fate — and it is ironic that the concerns Singer expressed about struggling to find meaning in a world of constantly accelerating change are the concerns we hear so often today.