The For­got­ten Singer: The Exiled Sis­ter of I.J. and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer

  • Review
By – November 27, 2023

I love lis­ten­ing to Mama’s sto­ries of peo­ple from our own world, from the alte heim, her child­hood home in Poland,” Mau­rice Carr writes ear­ly on in his mem­oir of his moth­er, Esther Singer Kre­it­man. Her eyes, which seem to be gaz­ing at the peo­ple back there, blink only once in a while.” Esther may be best known as the sis­ter of I. J. and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, but to her son, she was a sto­ry­teller, as well as an alter­nate­ly com­plex, dis­tant, and lov­ing fig­ure. Carr’s mem­oir gets quite close to under­stand­ing her — even as it reck­ons with the real­i­ty that it is impos­si­ble to tru­ly know one’s moth­er.

The For­got­ten Singer fol­lows Esther from a small town in Poland dur­ing her infan­cy to the author’s own child­hood in Lon­don. Esther instills in him a love of art and the pow­er of cre­ation. One par­tic­u­lar­ly joy­ful scene depicts the author and his moth­er lis­ten­ing to a jazz band prac­tic­ing their set next door. Just like her famous broth­ers, Esther spends her time craft­ing and pub­lish­ing sto­ries about Jew­ish peas­ant life. She also brings her son with her to week­ly meet­ings of Jew­ish literati. One imag­ines that these evenings spent listen[ing] to the bick­er­ing” influ­enced Carr’s aes­thet­ic; when he draws on brief vignettes that blend bio­graph­i­cal details with bursts of emo­tion and insight, it’s as if we’ve over­heard snip­pets of a good sto­ry in a cafe or on a street corner.

I. J. and Isaac Bashe­vis Singer are men­tioned through­out the book, and there are a few anec­dotes that will entice their ador­ing fans; but, for the most part, this mem­oir is an ode to a moth­er and her com­plex yet under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed lit­er­ary life. A dark­ness hangs over the book as much as it hung over Esther. It is fit­ting that Carr’s mem­oir clos­es with his own reflec­tions on par­ent­ing. His mem­o­ry of his infant daugh­ter rec­og­niz­ing him as her father is deeply mov­ing: I wit­ness mys­tery devoid of fan­ta­sy.” In that same spir­it, Carr seeks to make the unknow­able know­able — or, acknowl­edg­ing that such an act is impos­si­ble, resolves sim­ply to tell the read­er a sto­ry of some­one from our own world.

Discussion Questions