Isaac Bashevis singer in New York.
But external appearances were deceiving. A major change was underway in Bashevis's life: he had entered the world of English translation. This development was to have huge ramifications for Bashevis, leading finally to the award of the Nobel prize almost thirty years later. Along the way, Bashevis, that sharp-witted, conflicted, sometimes harsh literary genius, would gradually yield to Isaac Bashevis Singer - and even Isaac Singer - the quaint, pigeon-feeding vegetarian, the serene and gentle embodiment of timeless Eastern-European-Jewish values.
Bashevis's first work to be translated into English was The Family Moskat. It appeared in 1950, published by Alfred Knopf. Knopf had been Israel Joshua Singer's publisher in English, and he had agreed to take on Bashevis's book because of the family relationship. Already at the time of this first translation, Bashevis was worrying about what to call himself. A letter from the publishing house refers to the confusion: "Did we agree on the form in which your name as author is to appear? It could be 'Isaac Singer' or 'Bashevis (Isaac Singer,)' but I do not think it can be 'Isaac Singer Bashevis,' which is merely confusing."(3)
The privilege of appearing in translation with his brother's publishers turned out to be a mixed blessing for Bashevis. First, Knopf insisted on certain changes in the novel for purposes of translation, an artistic insult that Bashevis neither forgot nor forgave.(4) Then, once the book came out, Knopf informed Bashevis that sales were poor. But Alma, who was working at Macy's in Manhattan at the time, believed that Knopf's report was inaccurate, if not a downright lie. From her vantage point, perhaps colored by the immigrant fear that her husband was being cheated, she took issue with the publisher's gloomy account, observing that the books were actually "selling like hotcakes."(5)
In a 1965 interview in Harper's, Bashevis claimed that the book had sold 35,000 copies - in part because it had been a book club choice - but that he had realized only about $2,000 from the deal. "I haven't grown rich from my works translated into English," he commented wryly at the time. There were reasons for the meager reward. Knopf had deducted a translator's fee from Bashevis's royalties. Moreover, the translator had died before finishing the manuscript, costing Bashevis "additional time and money to complete the job."(6)
Bashevis's recollections on the matter complain of anti-European bias and hint at Jewish anti-Semitism: ". . . the mail kept bringing envelopes with reviews from all over America. I found my picture in many newspapers and magazines. But with all that, I had the feeling that my book was not receiving the proper recognition." As it happened, Knopf was also the publisher of John Hersey's The Wall, which appeared just weeks after The Family Moskat. Both authors had written about Warsaw, and Knopf evidently favored Hersey's work. The slight was not lost on Bashevis: "True, I had written from experience, while Hersey had compiled a work based on reports. But the Jewish readers in America preferred to hear the story from an American rather than from a Jew. Knopf gave all its backing to Hersey."(7) Where Israel Joshua had once outshone Bashevis in Knopf's eyes, now it was supposedly John Hersey. Not surprisingly, Bashevis left Knopf as soon as he could, affiliating himself with Noonday Press and its editor, Cecil Hemley, who knew a good deal about Yiddish. When Noonday merged with Farrar Straus in 1960, Bashevis found the publisher with whom he would remain for the rest of his life.(8)
But the real break for Bashevis, his introduction to American readers who could appreciate him, was the 1952 appearance, in the prestigious Partisan Review, of "Gimpel the Fool," masterfully translated by Saul Bellow. Although not European-born, Bellow was ideally suited to render Bashevis into English for a cosmopolitan audience. He spoke fluent, richly idiomatic Yiddish and, like Bashevis, had grown up in a strictly orthodox home, complete with one grandfather who was a khosid and one grandfather who was a misnaged (an opponent of Hasidism); he understood the milieu that Bashevis had created. Nonetheless, he was at first reluctant to undertake the assignment. Approached by Eliezer Greenberg who, together with Irving Howe, was compiling an anthology of Yiddish literature in translation, Bellow initially declined. He was teaching at Princeton University and finishing his novel, The Adventures of Augie March. He simply didn't have the time, he told Greenberg. But Greenberg, undeterred, suggested that he could come to Bellow and read the Yiddish to him; Bellow could translate right onto the typewriter.
And so it was - which allowed Greenberg to exercise a bit of deception. He omitted the overt anti-Christian references contained in the Yiddish original.
Over forty years later, Saul Bellow recalled Bashevis with ambivalence and some heat, recounting, in Yiddish, the unsatisfying details of their relationship. Long after the success of "Gimpel," when the two met at a social gathering, Bellow asked Bashevis why he had never been invited to translate additional stories. Bashevis replied that if the works were greeted with acclaim, "they'll say it's you, not me." Clearly, Bellow was not one of those men with whom Bashevis felt comfortable. Many years later, on the occasion of his Nobel award, Bashevis would stoop to mock Bellow, a fellow laureate and the very man who, although eleven years younger than Bashevis, had nonetheless managed to "put him on the map" of English-language literary life.(9)
Bellow's rendition of "Gimpel" was followed in the Partisan Review by "From the Diary of One Not Born," "translated" by Nancy Gross,(10) who collaborated with Bashevis to produce the story in English, although she herself knew no Yiddish. Bashevis was unfriendly and ultimately vicious to Bellow, but he realized that the early translations into English of his stories, rather than his novel, had given him his American start.(11)
Even so, Bashevis began making it into the bigger magazines, including Harper's, only after Noonday merged with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The unhappy experience with Alfred Knopf, who had helped Israel Joshua achieve a name among American readers, may have played a role in the subtle yet unmistakable shift from Bashevis to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Consciously or not, he had learned that Bashevis, the enfant terrible, would never capture the heart of an American audience. Those who had known him from the beginning might scoff, but Bashevis had correctly, if intuitively, perceived that for readers of English, an Eastern European Jew had to be old-fashioned, mild-mannered, even naive in order to be believable. Whether or not he knew what he was doing, Bashevis was never the innocent he claimed to be, according to Saul Bellow: "He was sophisticated. He was an opportunist. He was a careerist."(12)
The works by Bashevis that came out in English between 1950 and 1970 - The Magician of Lublin, The Slave, The Manor, The Estate, Short Friday, The Spinoza of Market Street, A Crown of Feathers - were set almost entirely in Eastern Europe. His first volume of short stories, Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, contained some of the works that the author had penned while still in Poland. Initially, the reliance on Eastern Europe was compatible with Bashevis's life as a recent immigrant. But, as the years passed, Warsaw and Bilgoray became less and less a part of his total experience. By the time he won the Nobel prize, in 1978, the man who now called himself Isaac Singer had been in the United States for forty-three years - well over half his lifetime.
The need to find a balance in his writing between Europe and the United States, between memory and current events, between commemoration and critique, affected Bashevis as he approached both his Yiddish and his English audiences. In each language, he was in constant conflict and flux.
At the same time that the figure of Isaac Singer was in its embryonic stages, Bashevis was writing in the Forverts under at least three names: Yitskhok Bashevis, Y. Varshavsky ("The man from Warsaw"), and D. Segal. As always, he reserved Bashevis, as he was known to his Yiddish readers, for his highest literary efforts. Varshavsky and Segal were the names he used for "lesser" or more popular items, such as his musings about the current state of Yiddish literature, including its politics and its morals.
Eventually, Bashevis began to write about Eastern European Jews in America, a process that was to occupy him more and more as the years progressed. In Yiddish, he published these works as Varshavsky. In addition, the original Yiddish of In My Father's Court, Dem tatns bezdin-shtub, appeared under Varshavsky's name. Bashevis's dilemma was clear: he wanted both to branch out in his American milieu and to perpetuate the events and the people of his European past. But he did not fully respect the works he wrote as Varshavsky. As far as the readership of the Forverts was concerned, Bashevis wished to disassociate himself aesthetically, both from the quasi-autobiographical flavor of his immigrant stories and from the memoiristic and elegiac voice that served to memorialize his family. In English, however, Isaac Bashevis Singer had no comparable restrictions. Moreover, these new efforts fit the image he was effecting: they were homespun and personal, filled with warmth and pathos.
Early in the 1960s, two novels made their way into English translation.(13) The Magician of Lublin(14) concerns Yasha Mazur, who, after a lifetime of expansive exploits and boundless lust retreats to self-imposed confinement, depriving himself of all external temptations. In The Slave,(15) Jacob, a deeply religious man who has remained spiritually free despite physical enslavement, finds himself passionately involved with a non-Jewish woman.
The two novels differ in their historical and geographical settings. The Magician of Lublin takes place in and around the city of Lublin; the era is premodern but nonspecific. The Slave begins in rural Poland and concludes in Palestine; like Satan in Goray, it occurs after the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. Nonetheless, the works are similar in a deeper, functional way. Both present a man who finds himself in an alien environment where he knows he does not belong. Yasha willfully capitalizes on his extraordinary skill as a showman, losing his bearings in the process, whereas Jacob has no control over his situation: he is simply captured. But each man discovers what it means to be attracted to the non-Jewish world and each falls in love with a non-Jewish woman.
Yasha, the magician, juggles a nice Jewish wife, whom he takes for granted, a pitiable non-Jewish mistress and performance partner, whom he maligns, and a beautiful non-Jewish widow, whom he idealizes. Ultimately, he eschews all intimacy with women, but not before his mistress has committed suicide and his distant love has abandoned him. In contrast, Jacob, the slave, finds a true soul-mate in Wanda, who converts to Judaism and becomes known as Sarah.
Despite the lures of the non-Jewish world, or at least, of non-Jewish women, both Jacob and Yasha are deeply and consummately religious Jews. Jacob's strife is sexual, not spiritual; even in captivity, he is intent on maintaining his faith, and he attempts to carve all of the Torah's 613 mitsves (commandments) on a rock in order not to violate these laws. Yasha's conflicts are more abstract, and his ultimate solution is more extreme. Yet he, too, retains his essential Jewishness, although he must isolate himself from all other stimuli to focus on it.
What was Bashevis seeking to communicate in these two novels? Like his characters, he was intrigued by his non-Jewish milieu and discovered that he was accepted there, at least superficially. Simultaneously, though, he was psychologically worlds away from his new environment and felt painfully out of place. The novels in English were greeted with interest and enthusiasm by the press, but the reviews often revealed a lack of comprehension. Critics pronounced variously on the vision of humanity portrayed in The Magician of Lublin and The Slave. They were especially intrigued by the "folkloristic" evocation of a backward Poland in which Jews were barely tolerated. Writing in The New York Times, for instance, Orville Prescott compared The Slave to Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, and concluded by saying of the novel, "Mr. Singer's accounts of demons, werewolves, vampires, dibbuks and even of smoks are fine. His picture of the state of life in Poland 300 years ago is a revelation. Nevertheless, the necessities of his allegory, its folk-story simplicity, insure that 'The Slave' always seems a little unreal and very far away. The life in 'The Slave' is general to all humanity, not the kind of fictional life that readers can easily share vicariously."(16)
But Bashevis's problem was as much personal as cultural. In his home life, he was contending with the same issues that preoccupied him in his writing. He continued to be immersed in the endless arguments and conflicts of his life in Poland, and his Yiddish readership understood his position. Yet he was married to a woman from a completely assimilated, non-Yiddish-speaking home who could understand neither his language nor his religious grappling. For Bashevis, Judaism meant the orthodoxy he had known at home. He once remarked to a young student at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinic seminary: "My father would consider all of you goyim [non-Jews]."(17) For a man of Bashevis's background, Alma was scarcely Jewish at all.
Bashevis's sensitivity to his position among non-Jews as he revealed it in The Magician of Lublin was still evident years after the publication of the novel. In 1983, when asked about Magda's suicide, Bashevis explained that she had been forced to kill herself because she had made an anti-Semitic comment to Yasha, and she knew he would never forgive her.(18)
The English-language press did not manifest any understanding of Bashevis's struggles. The books of short stories he published in the fifties and sixties appealed because of references to the supernatural or mythical. Orville Prescott reported about Short Friday in The New York Times that ". . . even as artful a writer as Mr. Singer can't maintain a uniformly high standard in 16 stories. Several are flat and tiresome. One, 'Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,' about a girl with a man's mind or soul, comes perilously close to being silly. So one must conclude that Isaac Bashevis Singer is an uneven writer as well as a greatly gifted one; and that the peculiar quality of his work is probably too special for most tastes."(19)
These American critics had no way of recognizing that a story like "Yentl" was not about a silly girl from a backward community but rather a work that concerned the longing to study in an environment that forbade such pursuits by females. Perhaps "Yentl" was Bashevis's imaginative rendering of his great-grandmother Hinde's frustrated aspirations, the study of a misfit even within a so-called monolithic Jewish culture. Whatever Bashevis's inspiration, the story is yet another exploration of the clash between the individual and an environment that is both familiar and deeply uncomfortable. Bashevis had seen that conflict first-hand, in the gender confusion that had spanned generations in his family and that had especially affected his parents and his sister. But his English readers had no concept of the ways in which Yentl's trials reflected has own observations.
In 1954, Bashevis's final lank to the tumultuous world of Krochmalna Street was severed. His sister, Hinde Esther Kreitman, died in London at age sixty-three. For Bashevis, the loss could hardly have been trivial, given Hindele's influence on his early development, and given the fact that she was the last surviving member of his nuclear family. Yet, if he felt grieved by her death, he did not publicize the point. He did dedicate The Seance to her, but the tribute was muted and marred by an unfortunate printer's error: "In memory of my beloved sister Minda Esther." Moreover, Bashevis refused to romanticize his sister in his memoirs; for him, she remained forever fascinating but at the same time dangerous.
Bashevis's ambivalence towards Hindele during the last years of her life was obvious from his behavior. On one hand, he had gone to England to visit her and to introduce Alma to her as soon as World War II was over. The trip was no easy jaunt, since it represented an immense financial drain for the penurious couple. In addition, Europe was in ruins and food was short. Bashevis's need to reconnect with his sister, whom he had not seen since the late 1920s, must have been powerful.(20) On the other hand, both before and after the visit, he avoided Hindele and refused to be of help, even when she beseeched him.
In one letter, from 1944, Hindele begs him three times to answer her.(21) In 1948, she is still asking him: "For God's sake, answer me soon!" Her request, in the same letter, that Bashevis arrange for her to come to America seems to have fallen on deaf ears, despite his sister's revelation that Avrom, her husband, had not worked for two years.(22)
Bashevis's neglect of his sister had not been limited to silence and the unwillingness to bring her to the United States. He was capable of complete coldness towards her, on one occasion flatly denying her request for much-needed funds. During that period, Hindele was troubled by noisy neighbors, who, according to her, deliberately banged on her ceiling in the middle of the night. The disturbance was especially grievous because of her frail health. Finally, she managed to procure another apartment, but she needed 200 pounds for "key-money." She wrote to Bashevis, entreating him to help her, but he refused, explaining that she would have to live with her situation.(23)
Perhaps the trip to London had, once and for all, discouraged Bashevis. He adored and respected his sister: "She did not write as well as I. J. Singer, but I do not know of a single woman in Yiddish literature who wrote better than she did." At the same time, she aroused anxiety and tremendous disappointment in him: "When I came to London, she was weirdly glad to see me. She loved me with a great love that often seemed to me exaggerated and frightening. . . . Even those who could not get along with her praised her good-heartedness and refinement. But who can live with a volcano? After a few days of listening to her complaints and blame, I became weary. She could literally drive a person crazy."(24)
Hindele was, and always would be, the model of female excitement and passion for Bashevis. He would subsequently, again and again, recreate his sister in fiction.(25) However, he knew he could be overwhelmed by such energy, and he needed to avoid her and anyone who too closely resembled her. On that visit, Bashevis discovered that, for marriage, he needed someone more like Alma. "the total opposite" of Hindele.(26)
Bashevis was now completely separated from all direct familial connection to his past. It is impossible to know how his public personality would have developed, had he not found himself in New York, orphaned and without siblings. During the 1950s and 1960s Bashevis was not yet Isaac Singer, the simple, old-fashioned sprite, but he was on his way. And it was largely his English-language critics who set him on this path. Through a combination of ignorance and misguided indulgence, they communicated to Bashevis that the only way to successfully memorialize his beloved Eastern European Jews was to stick them - and himself - into a timeless shtetl, to cut himself from the same cloth he had created in "Short Friday." Orville Prescott concluded his review of Short Friday with the comment that "Those unfamiliar with the folklore of Polish Jews may find that the chief interest of some of these stories is anthropological, information about the customs and ideas of a backward and isolated community."(27) It is difficult to imagine what part of this mind-boggling New York Times essay would have been more hurtful and insulting to Bashevis: the reduction of his art to local color, or the notion that his lost world had been crude and uncivilized. Prescott's ignorance is matched only by his condescension, with its whiff of anti-Semitism.
A rare exception to the attitude of deprecation, unwitting or otherwise, was Richard Elman, who reviewed In My Father's Court in The New York Times: "Bashevis Singer excels m the sensuous depiction of the physical world, whereas his Warshowsky [Varshavsky] persona would seem to have a more didactic point of view and an almost total recall of long-vanished people and events." Elman was unusual in his comprehension that Bashevis and Varshavsky served separate functions in the author's creative apparatus. In addition, he suggested that readers avoid the tendency to regard Bashevis as an assimilated American Jew: "The appearance of 'In My Father's Court' should . . . serve as a necessary corrective for those Singer enthusiasts who have been all too eager . . . to confuse their easy alienations with his felt sense of loss, or to interpret his abiding skepticism (itself a part of his commitment to Jewishness) as the expression of the 'black' spirit in modem man."(28) Elman did not warn against the other, and growing, popular view of Bashevis's work - that it was simple, if not naive.
The Yiddish press, in contrast, acknowledged Bashevis's sophistication, but it viewed his accomplishments with suspicion and dislike. As a social critic, Bashevis in Yiddish was harsh and conservative, completely unlike Isaac Bashevis Singer, the apolitical, wryly unworldly creature he was becoming in English. His remarks in the Forverts seemed calculated to offend whatever Socialists still remained as readers: "It may sound like terrible apikorses [heresy], but conservative governments in America, England, France, have handled Jews no worse than liberal governments. . . . The Jew's worst enemies were always those elements that the modem Jew convinced himself (really hypnotized himself) were his friends."(29)
In only one area, literature, were Bashevis's pronouncements similar in Yiddish and English. Although his statements in English lacked the bite of those in Yiddish, the philosophy was the same ". . . analysis in art is as alien an element as, for example, emotion in mathematics or physics."(30)
Bashevis's detractors in the Yiddish press took whatever opportunities they could to make him look cynical and hypocritical. He was in particular disfavor at the communist Morgn-frayhayt, no doubt because everything he stood for deviated sharply from the newspaper's ideology. Whenever they could, the columnists of In der yidisher prese (In the Yiddish Press), which quoted items from other Yiddish newspapers, gleefully maligned Bashevis. They had plenty of ammunition: his own words. They caught him swaggering, for example, during a radio interview: ". . . one thing is a fact - that my contact with the non-Jewish world and with very young people is really a perfect one. . . . Varshavsky-Bashevis has nothing to complain about. In his work, there is no lack of vulgarity, eroticism, various kinds of demons, and he makes fine business from that."(31) Bashevis's remarks would likely have shocked his English readers, but he could be certain that they would never learn of his disdainful boasts. The interview aired on WEVD, named after socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, and known in Yiddish-accented English as "The Station That Speaks Your Lengvege."
In a particularly mean-spirited, and yet completely typical example of the insular passion that characterized Yiddish journalism in post-World War II America, the Morgn-frayhayt reprinted an article from the Forverts (December 26, 1963). Bashevis, speaking as Varshavsky, had railed against coarse literature, asserting that: "The whole world of entertainment is so immersed in dirt that the boundary between world and underworld has almost disappeared. The judges read this dirty literature and hear the same vulgar jokes as the thief." The response in the Morgn-frayhayt read: "A hearty congratulations, Mr. Yitskhok Varshavsky, for moralizing against Yitskhok Bashevis. Truly, congratulations."(32)
The author of this arch reaction did not care about, and probably did not perceive, the painful inner dissension beneath Varshavsky-Bashevis's two-faced insincerity. Bashevis was both judge and thief, both moral critic and trickster. Finding a place in America meant relinquishing part of his essence. The more he became Isaac Bashevis Singer, the less he could continue to be Bashevis.
Bashevis's restless search for a mediated existence between old world and new, between Bashevis and Isaac, found concrete expression in his travels during the 1950s and 1960s. Bashevis once asked his friend Ophra Alyagon when she was visiting him in New York: "What is there to see in the world that you don't have here? Everything a person is capable of seeing is already inside of him."(33) Despite Bashevis's pronouncement, the Singers continued their pattern, established in the 1940s, of taking long foreign trips. Two of their favorite spots were Israel and Switzerland,(34) illustrating Bashevis's uneasy attempt to harmonize his attachment to tradition and his captivation with new circumstances.
Israel was an obvious choice. It was the Jewish homeland, and, in his youth, Bashevis had thought of himself as a Zionist; moreover, his son and grandchildren were there. Switzerland was less likely: an insulated country not known for its friendliness to Jews.
Bashevis had used Switzerland, in The Family Moskat, to illustrate Oyzer Heshl's experience of feeling lost and alien in a new environment. The fictional representation fit Bashevis's own first reaction to Switzerland. Even in calm, peaceful, prosperous, French-speaking Lausanne, he felt out of place: "I passed enormous churches, where candles burned and women knelt. I passed the Jewish synagogue, which was shut. Evidently, there was no minyen during the week." The scene, empty of Jews, may have aroused in Bashevis a futile longing for kosher food. In any case, he had entered a vegetarian restaurant, although he was still a meat-eater at the time. But the foray provided scant comfort: "A few young men were sitting there who looked like idealists. . . . They ate dairy foods and dreamed of eternal peace. . . . I understood better why the protagonist of The Family Moskat, Oyzer Heshl, couldn't stay there for long."(35)
In the context of Alma's experience, the attraction to Switzerland made sense. She had studied there as a young woman and, later, the country had provided refuge for her and her first husband, when they fled Germany in 1936. Switzerland was an ideal location for Jews who refused to go to Germany: one could find order, cleanliness, and even linguistic comfort without having to make the discomfiting and perhaps humiliating decision to enter the former realm of the Nazi regime.
Bashevis refused ever to set foot in Germany. Not so Alma. Once, when he was to receive an award in Dortmund, he delegated Alma to represent him. The proposed trip sparked a fight between the two, because Bashevis wanted her to deliver a speech that he had written; she thought she should deliver a speech of her own about herself. On that occasion, Alma prevailed.
The consequences of the marital tiff were negligible, but the disagreement pointed to a fundamental and lasting contradiction in Bashevis's life. He could not be, simultaneously, the worldly-wise and sharp-witted gadfly that Yiddish journalists loved to hate, and the frail and childlike anthropological guide that American critics and readers read with damp-eyed nostalgia. He no longer had a home in Eastern Europe, and Western Europe was no substitute. Yet he would never become Americanized: He was a Yiddish writer adrift in a world where few people knew his heritage - although many imagined they did - and where those closest to him could not understand Yiddish.
Bashevis's attempt to integrate the two divergent claims on his life was not a success. Gradually, he effected a deep compromise. Most formidable were the concessions he made concerning his name. Bashevis needed to integrate his developing American life into his fiction. No longer a greenhorn, he would never cease to be a transplanted Polish Jew. The postwar years may have eased the sheer agony of the Holocaust, but Bashevis continued to be reminded of the catastrophe that had forever diminished his existence. As a way of expressing his changing but nonetheless complicated circumstances, he developed a narrative device in which a successful Yiddish writer living in New York was contacted by a series of zany Holocaust survivors. They confided to him their stories about Eastern Europe and the aftermath of World War II. Although many of these stories later appeared in English in the prestigious New Yorker, in Yiddish, the author refused to dignify them with the signature Bashevis, because he could not bring himself to acknowledge this foray into a new cultural environment.
Beyond his writing, however, Bashevis's effort to consolidate his European and American experiences also influenced nonliterary aspects of his lifestyle - his dwelling, his attire, even his diet. These behaviors served a dual purpose. They brought him closer to the milieu he had left behind in Poland, and they served to reassure him that he would not lose his Eastern-European-Jewish essence, despite a growing comfort in his new environment. All the members of Bashevis's immediate family were now dead. By setting up subtle boundaries between himself and his adoptive home, he could allow Isaac Singer to develop freely, without losing Yitskhok Bashevis. He did not have to fear that the son of Pinkhos Menakhem and Basheve, the brother of Israel Joshua, Hinde Esther, and Moyshe, would disappear from the world. The concrete gestures that kept alive his connection to the past also maintained Bashevis's link to those whom he had ambivalently loved, and whom he now endlessly mourned.
In 1965, the Singers moved into the Belnord Apartment House on a corner of Broadway and 86th Street. They had migrated to Manhattan from Brooklyn long before and had lived for twenty years at 103rd Street and Central Park West. Subsequently, they had spent some years on 72nd Street, off Columbus Avenue. They obviously enjoyed the ambiance on the Upper West Side, with its ethnic mix, its simple coffee shops, its down-to-earth atmosphere. Although there were no doubt other features that made the 86th Street location attractive, the building's construction was especially appealing to Bashevis because it contained a courtyard. His friend and translator, Dorothea Straus, recalls that: "Singer once told me that he chose it because it reminded him of his childhood home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw."(36)
The courtyard provides a clue to the transformation that Bashevis was undergoing during the 1950s and 1960s. Although he was making decisive life changes, the shift was as much backwards as forwards. In subtle and probably unconscious ways, he was creating himself as a new-world version of his father. Beyond finding a place to live that could remind him of Krochmalna Street, Bashevis effected a particular and consistent style of dress and established his own dietary laws. Both maneuvers established him as a hybrid: no one would mistake him for his father, Pinkhos Menakhem, and countless Jews like him, but he nevertheless resembled his forebears. Bashevis was probably neither devious nor jaded enough to construct an entire external lifestyle for the purposes of publicity. More likely, he was cleaving to some version of the manners and boundaries with which he had been raised, even as he became increasingly unmoored from his years in Poland.
Richard Elman described Bashevis's customary apparel in the 1960s: "He wore the same severe costume every time I visited: a pair of dark suit trousers and a stark white cotton dress shirt, and plain black shoes. . . ."(37) Bashevis's ubiquitous blue suit, while not literally reminiscent of Hasidic garb, nonetheless revealed him as different and other-worldly. At the ceremony for which that otherworldly quality was most lavishly recognized, the Nobel prize ceremony, Eric Pace would later write in The New York Times: "When he gave his Nobel prize lecture in Stockholm yesterday, he wore a plain blue suit, the same outfit in which he has been seen for years around New York."(38) Perhaps Bashevis's impulse to wear the same outfit in private as well as in public was a specific identification with his father, who had to be prepared at any time for people entering his home to seek counsel. This may also help explain why Singer insisted, for most of his years in New York, on having his telephone number listed and on spending time with all sorts of visitors. A rabbi does not hide himself from the public. As Singer remarked to Mark Golub, while referring to his comfort with the Yiddish language: ". . . in Yiddish, I feel like a man at home - you take off your jacket - although I don't take off my tie and jacket at home, but this is my own business."(39)
The most striking constraint that Bashevis created for himself in the United States was his strict vegetarianism. The resolve to avoid meat and fish matches the profile of a man erecting barriers between himself and his milieu.(40)
The conversion to vegetarianism came relatively late for Bashevis: he was almost sixty years old. It is therefore unlikely that the decision stemmed from lifelong feelings of compassion for animals, despite Bashevis's assertion, in Love and Exile, that he had been haunted since childhood by the scream of a mouse being tortured by a cat.(41) More likely, his determination not to eat flesh was connected to post-Holocaust feelings of revulsion against human cruelty, misuse of power, and disregard for life. At the same time Bashevis's close regulation of what entered his body was a secular version of kashrus, the Jewish dietary laws.
Bashevis discussed his vegetarianism in several distinct ways, which together hint at the complex meanings of the stance for him. First, he implied that he had been a vegetarian for much longer than was actually the case, although he never explicitly lied. The subterfuge is evident, for example, in his Love and Exile, where the admittedly autobiographical protagonist is already a vegetarian on the ocean voyage to America in 1935. Eventually, this implication made its way into the English-language press as a complete falsehood: "Singer has been a vegetarian since his early youth."(42)
In the years after the Nobel prize, when his fate as Isaac Singer, Eastern European nail was forever sealed, Bashevis made light of his stance, quipping, for example, that: "I am a vegetarian for the sake of health - the health of the chicken!"(43)
Yet there were, as well, serious statements in which Bashevis acknowledged how deeply the subject affected him and how earnestly he took the decision. In Yiddish, Bashevis was explicit about the spiritual longings contained in his vegetarianism: "My whole life I felt that it is an insult to eat living creatures . . . I thought to myself, how can I speak of God's mercy when I myself am cruel and eat the creatures which I should love.""(44) Bashevis evidently enjoyed talking about his vegetarianism: "I always liked meat and I think it is perfectly healthy. But I feel animals are not made to be killed. I have my two birds, they are such lovely creatures - the thought of someone eating them makes me sick. I realize that in this world things are made so animals and people have to kill each other. It can't be helped. But it is not my duty to help in this destruction. . . . No human being has what animals have. They should be our teachers and masters, not our food. They are humble, they have humility, they are sincere. They are not something to eat, they are God's beautiful creation."(45)
In a later interview, Bashevis related an account that could have been a short story, so powerfully does it evoke the moral yet deeply personal reasons he might have had for swearing off the consumption of living creatures: "I wasn't a vegetarian from childhood. It started some 10 years ago when a bird I was attached to fell into a narrow vase. He could have stayed afloat, I suppose, but I wasn't at home to help him get out. The effort and the despair must have killed him. I said to myself that now is the time or never."(46)
Bashevis had a particular connection to birds. Of all creatures, they were the only ones who played a part in has daily existence. Mirra Ginsburg, one of Bashevis's early translators, tells a story that, in her opinion, explained his affection: One day a parakeet flew into Bashevis's apartment. He was so delighted with this unusual and fortuitous event that he determined not to eat meat again. The event also led to his owning a series of parakeets.(47)
As much as Bashevis clearly loved birds, he seemed also to have identified with them. When his original parakeet disappeared as mysteriously as it had shown up, Bashevis declared publicly that he had lost his faith in God. When a neighbor asked incredulously how he could utter such a statement, he turned on her, shaking a finger in her face: "God doesn't need you to defend Him," he retorted. Bashevis's reaction suggests his conviction that the fate of the bird was comparable to his own. Both he and the bird were equally important - and equally insignificant - in the cosmic scheme.
In 1968, Bashevis commented: "I feel that since I'm a vegetarian that not only man, but even the animals belong to my community. They suffer just as we do. They are made of blood and flesh. To me a pigeon is a part of my community."(48) In part, the public affection coincided with the development of Isaac Bashevis Singer; over the years, the sight of the little old man feeding pigeons on the Upper West Side became increasingly familiar to his admirers. At home, Singer allowed his parakeets to fly uncaged, until he decided that the freedom was dangerous for them: "I suffered so much when they suffered, when they got sick, got lost or fell down, that in a way I am happy I don't have them anymore."(49)
Bashevis's vegetarianism certainly goes deeper than the need to create a persona who would appeal to an audience longing for a benign Eastern European grandfather. The self-imposed prohibition against exerting power over any living creature was linked in his mind to the events of the Holocaust. The story "Pigeons," published in January, 1966, approximately four years after he had become a complete vegetarian, expresses in fiction his views about animal intelligence and human cruelty.(50)
The story takes place in pre-World War II Warsaw. The protagonist, an elderly Jewish professor named Vladislav Eibeschutz, finds his life increasingly constricted by age, the death of his wife, and growing anti-Semitism. As his connection to other people diminishes, his involvement with birds expands. The apartment he shares with Tekla, his frail but loyal Polish housekeeper, resembles a giant cage: parakeets, canaries, and parrots fly free. The professor, heedless of his own rest, regulates the amount of light in the apartment according to the needs of the birds; he does not want to disturb their rhythms of sleep and wakefulness. On the street, the professor's only companions are the pigeons he devotedly tends.
One day, while out feeding the pigeons, the professor is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Mortally wounded by a blow to the head, he expires during the following night. After his death, he is praised and honored as a great scholar by the very colleagues who had forgotten or ignored him during his waning years. But his truest friends are the pigeons. Forming an aerial honor guard, they escort the professor's coffin to the cemetery. Then, their task completed, they fly off. By the next day, someone has painted a swastika on the professor's door, and most of the pigeons, sensing that their existence is in danger, refuse to accept the food that Tekla brings them. Those that do come down are wary: "They pecked at the food hesitantly, glancing around as if afraid to be caught defying some avian ban. The smell of char and rot came up from the gutter, the acrid stench of imminent destruction."(51)
Who are these pigeons? According to the professor, pigeons resemble Jews: "Pigeons have no weapons in the fight for survival. They sustain themselves almost entirely on the scraps that people throw them. They fear noise, flee the smallest dog. They don't even chase away the sparrows that steal their food. The pigeon, like the Jew, thrives on peace, quietude, and good will."(52)
During the crucial years after the Holocaust, Bashevis came to believe that, by eating meat, he was condoning the killing of innocent living things. He would not emulate those who had murdered his people.
Insofar as Bashevis's vegetarianism also represented a shift backwards, towards the life he had known in Poland, he could look to a specific role model: Meylekh Rayitch, one of his few friends, and also an older sibling figure, had been a vegetarian since the 1920s. Bashevis was actively aware of Ravitch's vegetarianism. Sometimes he joked about it, teasing his friend as he did in a 1943 letter: "How is your parnose [livelihood]? And how is your health? Are you still eating grass?" Eventually, however, he came to reveal just how seriously he took the issue. In a letter dated November 4, 1962, concerning an upcoming visit to Montreal, Bashevis told Ravitch: "It seems that I will be in Montreal on January 18, 1963, at the Jewish Congress. I'll address them on the 18th and the 20th. If so, I could perhaps lecture at the library on the 19th. Do me a favor and tell the librarian that the only people I envy in the world are the vegetarians. I myself am almost a vegetarian, but when I am invited to someone's home I don't want to be tricky or pretentious or stuffy. Quite often my wife brings me a bit of chicken. When I am alone, I never eat meat and I mainly eat alone because she works."(53)
However long it took Bashevis to draw his important conclusions, he did not include Alma in the process of his transformation. She reported that Bashevis simply came to her one day and said, "I want to stop eating meat. Will you help me?"(54) Characteristically and significantly, the move to vegetarianism created another barrier between husband and wife. Years later, in 1975, Alma described the situation with good humor and unrepentance: "My three favorite dishes are turkey, goulash, rare roast beef, but my husband's been a vegetarian for the past thirteen years, no meat or fish - he does eat eggs - so a big part in our life is played by mushrooms. I make sauteed mushrooms every day. He loves them."(55)
By the time Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel prize, vegetarianism was as integral and unquestioned a part of his public personality as kashrus had been to his father. By attributing his decision to compassion, Bashevis avoided any discussion of spiritual and bodily purity. Yet, long before he stopped eating meat, the future vegetarian had hinted at his sense of inner pollution through the comical doodle that he used as a signature: it was a pig.
The earliest appearance of Bashevis's pig may have occurred only after he had left Poland. On a postcard to Ravitch in 1937, Bashevis writes simply: "A sheynem dank. Ikh bin a - "(Thank you very much. I am a -) followed by the drawing of a pig. There is nothing further in the correspondence.(56) Given the harsh Jewish prohibition against eating pork, Bashevis's self-description implies a sense of self as unclean, despite the attempt at joviality. Evidently, he no longer considered himself an unblemished Jew.
Later, in America, Bashevis tended to use the pig doodle when writing English. Alma reports that, during their courtship, he often signed his letters to her with a pig.(57) He also employed it in dedications to Elizabeth Shub, one of his earliest translators and herself a member of an illustrious Yiddish literary family: "He used to do something very cute when a book came out, some of the things I'd translate, he would always do a little drawing . . . which was very cute. He loved pigs. He loved pigs. . . . That was the trademark. Book after book." Why would he use such an autograph? Ms. Shub: "He's a pig."(58)
The pig, the quintessential symbol of Jewish uncleanliness, represented all that Isaac Bashevis Singer was becoming. An amusing anecdote he told years later nonetheless reveals his continued and painful awareness that he had disappointed his father: "My father . . . considered all secular books blasphemy - pornography. So my father used to tell people when they asked him, 'What are your sons doing?' he would say, 'They sell newspapers.' He considered this a very dignified way to make a living. But a writer?! So after a while he began to believe in it. Once when he came to Warsaw and he asked me, 'Are you selling enough newspapers to make a living?' I said, 'Not too many, but somehow I manage.'"(59)
Bashevis had already transgressed while still in Poland, not only with his career choice but also with his sexuality. He had engaged in relationships with several women and had fathered a child out of wedlock. In the United States, his position was even worse. In the eyes of his parents, could they have seen him, he was defiled. By abandoning orthodoxy, he had rejected their values; by moving to the United States and marrying a German-Jewish woman who understood no Yiddish, he had thrown away a sacred lifestyle that was now facing extinction. Above all, if the Yiddish language stood for all that was purely Eastern European Jewish, Isaac Bashevis Singer's increasing attention to an English-reading public proved his corruption. He - a pig - had survived while millions of chaste souls had perished. He was debased.
Bashevis attempted to cleanse himself by adopting a dietary regimen that was even stricter than that of his father. Even so, he felt blameworthy. In a comment to television personality Dick Cavett in 1977, Singer bemoaned the fact that, although he would not eat any living creature, he could not stop himself from swatting at flies and mosquitos when they annoyed him; this lapse made him a bad vegetarian.
Bashevis's vegetarianism served to separate him from his American milieu and to connect him symbolically with his past. Yet, his feeling that he was degraded and shameful persisted unassuaged. Bashevis's continued self-chastisement may have resulted from a confrontation that occurred several years before his final conversion to vegetarianism. In 1955, Bashevis was reunited with Israel Zamir, the son he had not seen for twenty years. The encounter demonstrated unequivocally that he had been responsible for grave cruelty to an innocent and vulnerable human being, who was, moreover, his own flesh and blood. During the years that followed the first meeting, Bashevis would be reminded again and again of his human failures. Not only his son, but his wife as well, were forced to accept his lapses. That they did so merely exacerbated Bashevis's knowledge that he was corrupt.
1. Alma Singer, Interview, May 22, 1994. Hereafter cited as Alma Singer.
2. Jerry Tallmer, "At Home With the Isaac Bashevis Singers," New York Post (Nov. 15, 1975): 13. Hereafter cited as Tallmer.
3. Courtesy, Singer Archives, University of Texas, Austin.
4. Isidore Haiblum, "The 'Hidden' Isaac Bashevis Singer," Congress Bi-Weekly (Dec. 25, 1970): 33-34.
5. Alma Singer.
6. Isaac Bashevis Singer, "What's In It For Me?," Harper's Magazine (Oct. 1965): 170. Hereafter cited as "What's In It For Me?"
7. Isaac Bashevis Singer (as Y. Varshavsky), "Fun der alter un nayer heym" (From My Old and New Home), Forverts (Sept. 21, 1963-Sept. 11, 1965), April 24, 1965. Hereafter cited as Heym.
8. "What's In It For Me," 173.
9. Saul Bellow, Interview, June 1995. Hereafter cited as Saul Bellow.
10. Nancy Gross was the daughter of A. Gross, the ill-fated translator of The Family Moskat.
11. Heym, April 24, 1965.
12. Saul Bellow.
13. After The Family Moskat, Bashevis published another huge, sweeping historical novel about Poland. Published in English as two novels, The Manor and The Estate did not appear in English until 1967 and 1969, even though they had been serialized in the Forverts between 1952 and 1955.
14. Isaac Bashevis Singer (as Yitskhok Bashevis), Der kuntsnmakher fun lublin, originally serialized in the Forverts in 1959. Published in book form in 1971 (Tel Aviv: ha-Menorah, 1971). Translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer (New York: Noonday Press, 1960).
15. Isaac Bashevis Singer (as Yitskhok Bashevis), Der knekht, originally serialized in the Forverts, 1960-61. Appeared in book form (Tel Aviv: Farlag Y. L. Perets, 1967). Translated by I. B. Singer and Cecil Hemley (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1962).
16. Orville Prescott, "Books of the Times," The New York Times, July 6, 1962.
17. Personal communication, Rabbi William Cutter, June 29, 1994.
18. Janet Hadda, Passionate Women, Passive Men: Suicide in Yiddish Literature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), 213.
19. Orville Prescott, "Demons, Devils and Others," The New York Times, "Books of the Times," Dec. 14, 1964. Hereafter cited as Prescott.
20. Heym, April 2, 1965.
21. Courtesy, Singer Archives, University of Texas, Austin.
22. Letter from Hinde Esther to Bashevis.
23. Personal correspondence from David Ellenberg, June 27, 1994.
24. Heym, April 9, 1965.
25. Masha, in Enemies, A Love Story, Dora, in "A Tale of Two Sisters," Margit Levy, in "Neighbors," and Magda, in The Magician of Lublin, are just a few of the many passionate and unstable women Bashevis invented over the course of his long career.
26. Heym, April 9, 1965.
28. Richard Elman. "Singer of Warsaw," The New York Times Book Review (May 8, 1966): Sec. 7, 1.
29. Isaac Bashevis Singer quoted in Morgn-frayhayt, July 15, 1965.
30. Isaac Bashevis Singer (as Y. Varshavsky), "Iz der roman a farelterte form in der literature ?"("Is the Novel an Obsolete Form in Literature?"), Forverts, Sept. 25, 1966.
31. Chaim Suler, "In der yidisher prese," in Morgn-frayhayt (Sept. 22, 1966): 3.
32. B. Reynes in Morgn-frayhayt (Feb. 13, 1964): 6.
33. Ophra Alyagon, Interview, Sept. 1993.
34. Fern Maria Eckman, "Daily Closeup: Interrupted Melody," New York Post, July 6, 1972.
35. Heym, April 17, 1965.
36. Dorothea Straus, Under the Canopy (New York: George Braziller, 1982), 19-20.
37. Richard Elman, "Bashevis," Tikkun (Jan./Feb. 1994): 63.
38. Eric Pace, "An Unchanged Storyteller," The New York Times, Dec. 9, 1978 ("Man in the News").
39. Mark S. Golub, "A Shmues with Isaac Bashevis Singer," Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (Nov. 24, 1978): 9. Hereafter cited as Golub.
40. Vegetarians often formulate their world around exclusions, rather than inclusions. They prefer less, rather than more, choice; they embrace less, rather than more. "Vegetarians can be defined by an act of rejection; they do not eat certain foods. . . . The negative self-definition of the vegetarian makes it easy to construct a boundary around the self - 'this is what I do, and this is not me.'" Kurt W. Back and Margaret Glasgow, "Social Networks and Psychological Conditions in Diet Preferences: Gourmets and Vegetarians," Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2:1 (1981): 3.
41. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love and Exile (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 19. This volume consists of three earlier published volumes: A Little Boy in Search of God, A Young Man in Search of Love, and Lost in America. These were originally serialized in the Forverts as Gloybn un tsveyfl (Faith and Doubt) between Nov. 14, 1974, and Jan. 3, 1975; between April 29, 1976, and Aug. 12, 1976; and between Feb. 3 and Dec. 7, 1978. Hereafter cited as Love and Exile.
42. Elenore Lester, "Singer's rise to literary heights as strange as any of his stories," The Jewish Week-American Examiner (Oct. 15, 1978): 3.
43. Grace Farrell, ed., Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), 230. Hereafter cited as Farrell.
44. Suler, 3.
45. Farrell, 29.
46. Herbert R. Lottman in Farrell, 120.
47. Mirra Ginsburg, Interview, April 24, 1993.
48. David Gelman and Beverly Kempton, "Isaac Singer on People, Demons & Dybbuks," Manhattan Tribune, Dec. 28, 1968.
49. Kenneth Turan in Farrell, 150.
50. I am grateful to Elizabeth Shub for drawing my attention to the significance of this story.
51. Isaac Bashevis Singer (as Yitskhok Bashevis), "Toybn"("Pigeons"), first appeared in the Forverts on January 28, 1966. Published in book form in Mayses fun hintern oyvn (Tel Aviv: ha-Menorah, 1971). First translated in A Friend of Kafka (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970). Republished as A Friend of Kafka (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1980). Hereafter cited as Friend.
52. Friend, 121.
53. Letters to Ravitch are in the Ravitch Archives, The Jewish National and University Library, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem. I thank the Bergner family for granting me permission to read the correspondence.
54. Alma Singer, Interview, April 29, 1993.
55. Tallmer, 13.
57. Alma Singer, Interview, Dec. 19, 1992.
58. Elizabeth Shub, Interview, Nov. 1992.
59. Golub, 9.
JANET HADDA is Professor of Yiddish at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute. This essay is excerpted from Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, by Janet Hadda (copyright 1997 by Janet Hadda), by arrangement with the publisher, Oxford University Press, New York.
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|Title Annotation:||excerpt from Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life|
|Publication:||Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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