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September 2004
Vegetarian Advocate: Isaac Bashevis Singer: Vegetarian Extraordinaire
By Jack Rosenberger


The year is 1988. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer is 84 years old and in failing health. His only child, Israel Zamir, almost 60, visits Isaac and Alma, his second wife, in New York and is troubled by his father’s condition. As Israel writes in his memoir, Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer: “A special watch to measure his pulse was attached to his wrist. He wore sneakers with velcro fasteners. His once blue eyes were dark. One of them had recently been operated on, and he was still in pain. About a year before, his prostate had been removed. When he was in severe pain, he would explode in a fit of rage and shift his body around, seeking some relief.”

Isaac, Alma, and Israel leave the Singer apartment on West 86th Street to eat dinner at a nearby restaurant. Isaac orders “his standard vegetarian dinner, which consisted of spinach cutlets, potatoes and vegetable soup,” notes Israel, and quickly commences to talking about vegetarianism. “My father was connecting animal slaughter with human bloodshed and the lack of peace on earth. ‘There’s only one step between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not slaughter,”’ he said. He kept pleading with me over and over to become a vegetarian.”

Singer’s health worsened. He was beset with Alzheimer’s disease during the last several years of his life, and died in 1991. Israel never became a vegetarian.

This year marks Singer’s centennial, and a flurry of celebrations across America are celebrating the Polish-born author’s life and work. The son of a rabbi, Singer is popularly known as a prolific author who wrote in Yiddish, penning at least 10 short story collections and 14 novels in addition to numerous books for children, and as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. What biographers, critics, and journalists often refuse to acknowledge about Singer is how important vegetarianism was to him. In his personal and professional lives. Singer often spoke with public audiences, friends and acquaintances, and journalists about being vegetarian, and his fiction increasingly featured a vegetarian point of view. (As Singer’s career progressed, his narrators and protagonists tended to be male, Jewish, and vegetarian.) Indeed, years before PETA became a household name, Isaac Bashevis Singer was one of America’s most outspoken advocates of vegetarianism and animal protection.

A Vegetarian Latecomer
Singer was a late convert to vegetarianism, not becoming one until he was, according to one biographer, almost 60 years old. While Singer was a near-vegetarian for many years, the principal reason why Singer did not become a vegetarian earlier is partly due to his parents’ opposition. As the Nobel laureate revealed in Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I really feel that sensitive people, people who think about things, must come to the conclusion that you cannot be gentle while you’re killing a creature, you cannot be for justice while you take a creature which is weaker than you and slaughter it, and torture it. I’ve had this feeling since I was a child and many children have it. But somehow my parents told me that this means that I am trying to have more compassion than the Almighty. My mother told me that if I become a vegetarian I will die from hunger, from malnutrition. So I was afraid, I said, ‘Well, what can I do?’ But at another stage of my life, about 20 years ago, I felt that I would be a real hypocrite if I would write or speak against bloodshed while I would be shedding blood myself... It is just common sense to me that if you believe in compassion and in justice you cannot treat animals the very opposite simply because they are weaker or because they have less intelligence.”

As in the above interview, Singer felt compelled to speak about his vegetarianism and against cruelty to animals, especially farmed animals. In explaining why he was a vegetarian, Singer usually said something along the lines of “I am a vegetarian for the sake of health—the health of the chicken!” In addition, Singer promoted vegetarianism whenever he could, writing the preface to Stephen Rosen’s Food for the Spirit, Vegetarianism and the World Religions, in which he declared “I will continue to be a vegetarian even if the whole world started to eat meat,” and contributing interviews and recipes to Rynn Berry’s books The New Vegetarians and Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes. In the latter book, Singer declared: “I think that everything connected with vegetarianism is of the highest importance because there will never be any peace in the world so long as we eat animals. This also applies to fish. I do not eat any fish. I had felt guilty and ashamed about the fact that I had eaten the flesh of an animal. I think that animals are as much God’s creatures as men are. And we have to respect and love them, not slaughter them.”

Singer frequently wrote about vegetarianism and the relationship between human and nonhuman animals in his fiction, and it is amongst the most powerful and thoughtful literary writing on the two subjects. In Enemies: A Love Story, the protagonist, Herman, visits a zoo. His impressions? “Herman often compared the zoo to a concentration camp. The air here was full of longing—for deserts, hills, valleys, dens, families. Like the Jews, the animals had been dragged here from all parts of the world, condemned to isolation and boredom. Some of them cried out their woes; others remained mute.”

Later in the same novel, Singer writes: “The birds had announced the new day as if it were the morning after creation. Warm breezes carried the scent of the woods and the smell of food being prepared in the hotels. Herman imagined he heard the screech of a chicken or a duck. Somewhere on this lovely summer morning, fowl were being slaughtered; Treblinka was everywhere.”

Likewise, in The Penitent, the narrator, Joseph Shapiro, takes a seat in a restaurant and reflects: “The waitress came and I ordered breakfast. I watched someone at the next table working away at his plate of ham with eggs. I had long since come to the conclusion that man’s treatment of God’s creatures makes mockery of all his ideals and of the whole alleged humanism. In order for this overstuffed individual to enjoy his ham, a living creature had to be raised, dragged to its death, stabbed, tortured, scalded in hot water. The man didn’t give a second’s thought to the fact that the pig was made of the same stuff as he and that it had to pay with suffering and death so that he could taste its flesh. I’ve thought more than once that when it comes to animals, every man is a Nazi. Yes, I had always felt these things, but that morning they literally hit me on the head like a hammer. That morning I realized for the first time what a horrible hypocrite I was.”

Soon, Shapiro decides to become a vegetarian. “For me, thou shalt not kill includes animals, too. I managed to persuade my present wife to my way of thinking. We are a family of vegetarians.”

Or as the narrator in “The Admirer,” a short story, says: “We sat at a card table, facing each other like a married couple. A cockroach crawled across the table, but neither Elizabeth nor I made any effort to disturb it. The cockroaches in my apartment apparently knew that I was a vegetarian and that I felt no hatred for their species, which is a few hundred million years older than man and which will survive him.”

Vegetarian, What Vegetarian?
Unfortunately, despite Singer’s vegetarian lifestyle, his outspoken advocacy of vegetarianism, and its presence in his fiction, journalists, critics and biographers tend to slight or ignore it. When Singer died, the New York Times noted his passing with an obituary on the front page. Singer’s obit continued inside the newspaper and filled nearly an entire page. The discussion of Singer’s vegetarianism was confined to a single sentence: “Even his own vegetarianism he saw in a humorous light; it was he explained, (not for my health, but for the health of the chickens.) To say that Singer approached vegetarianism as a humorous topic is a frightening misreading of his life and work.

Likewise, a recent New Yorker article on Singer by Jonathan Rosen devoted more than five pages of text to Singer’s life and literary oeuvre; Rosen’s discussion of Singer’s vegetarianism was limited to 12 words.

Apparently, Israel Zamir never followed his father’s pleadings to become a vegetarian. If he had, the vegetarian community would be blessed with a blood relative who understood Singer’s vegetarianism. If you are unfamiliar with Singer’s fiction, pick up Enemies: A Love Story, The Penitent, and Meshugah, all of which are vegetarian-themed novels. Also, the next time you are discussing books with your vegan and vegetarian friends, do I.B. Singer a favor and recommend his book to them. Lastly, when you read articles, such as the ones previously mentioned, set the record straight and write a letter to the editor.




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