Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Isaac Bashevis Singer describes koro

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am grown up, they call me a writer.”
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Winged demon flying over town
Mephistopheles in the air (Méphistophélès dans les airs). Lithograph by Eugène Delacroix. Plate 1 from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published by Charles Motte, Paris, 1828. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Public domain.

I. B. Singer (1903–1991) was born in Warsaw, Poland. He lived there and also in rural Poland during the First World War. In 1935 he immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City. He was a prolific author who wrote for Yiddish newspapers before turning to writing fiction. He wrote nineteen novels, over 150 short stories, and a dozen children’s books. In 1978 he became the first (and only) recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to a Yiddish-language author. His stories often involve supernatural beings and events. Demons, ghosts, and devils sometimes disturb the living for their own amusement. More often, they try to tempt them to sin, to abjure their ancient religion, and to stop believing in God.1

Koro, or genital retraction syndrome, is a delusional disorder in which men have an unshakable belief that their penis is retracting into their body. For women, it is a nipple that retracts. They believe this even though no longstanding change (i.e., not temporary from cold temperature) is visible. This syndrome has a worldwide distribution and sometimes occurs in epidemics. The belief that the penis is retracting produces acute anxiety and fear of impending death. It is thought that the syndrome is caused by “psychosexual conflict and cultural beliefs.”2

In Singer’s 1974 short story “A tale of two sisters,” Leon, a Polish Jew, is living in Paris with his wife, Dora, and her sister, Ytta. He sleeps with both sisters in a sort of “polygamous marriage.”3 His wife falls ill, and all three lose interest in sex. Leon lies in bed, feeling a “shrinking of the limbs that seemed to degenerate to the verge of withering.” Arising one night to get to the bathroom, he bumps into someone or something that blocks his path. This object feels rubbery or doughy, and the phantom strikes him. Then “the Evil One vanished and I sensed my organ was no longer there. Had he castrated me?…I felt around for my penis. No, he hadn’t torn it out, but had jammed it so deep into me that it had formed a negative indentation…. I knew that it was nerves.”

He tells us that gradually—probably by the next day—everything “began to return to normal.” Trachtenberg4 calls this a variety of castration fear, brought on by Leon’s guilt about his sororal relationship. It is not known if Singer knew anything about koro, but he has described it.


  1. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Wikipedia.
  2. Koro (medicine). Wikipedia.
  3. Leah Trachtenberg. “Yiddish porn: A comparative literary analysis of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s traditional Yiddish folktales and Playboy stories,” The Macksey Journal, 1, 2020.
  4. Trachtenberg, “Singer’s traditional Yiddish folktales.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Summer 2022



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