Talking with Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer, author of Satan in Goray, The Magician of Lublin, and several collections of short stories, is the foremost living writer in Yiddish. His recent book, A Day of Pleasure, won the National Book Award in children's literature. "Children still belive in God, the family, angels devils witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff," he said as he accepted the award. The following interview took place about three weeks ago when Singer came to speak at Harvard.

In a melting-pot country whose image of the Jew is a hybrid composite of the sex-crazed fantasies of Alexander Portnoy and the excessive mentality of Fiddler on the Roof, Isaac Bashevis Singer is a refreshing breeze of sanity and reality. His stories and novels portary a life which vanished with the thud of German army boots-that of the shtetl, the Eastern European Jewish village. Not surprisingly, many of his simple tales and anecdotes of the old country ring with more authenticity than the slick, cynical products of our modern literati.

As I ate breakfast with Singer, his wife, Rabbi Gold from Hillel House, and a friend who was cager to meet Singer, I realized why the author seemed so familiar. I.B. Singer looks like anybody's grandfather. His white, parchment-like skin stretched tightly over the bones of his skull contrasts sharply with his somber black suit. His head is smooth and round: only a few stray wisps of hair above the temples soften the sharp contours of his face. An clongated depression down the back of his skull reminds one of an infant's delicately shaped head. Singer radiates a childlike innocence, an awareness of the constant surprise of life, which one rarely finds in a man so old; but he also seems possessed of a certain embryonic fragility. Somehow, I had the impression that I might shatter him if I breathed too hard, as the wind shatters a porcelain statuette placed too near a windowsill. Yet when he spoke, he sounded strong and steady.

I looked up at the modern paintings which glared incongruously like colorful Rorshach inkblots from the walls of the Faculty Club dining room. Singer seemed at home in the sober stateliness of the wood-pancled room with its immense chandclier. He might have been an old alumnus returning to recapture an earlier cra, but his marvelous Yiddish accent spoke of a childhood spent elsewhere. Delicately rolled r' s and full-bodied gultural consonants played hide-and-seck among the alien diphthougs of American English. Singer spoke slowly and clearly, sometimes hesitating over a word, rejecting it, and choosing another.

"I was born in Radzymin, a suburb of Warsaw, in 1904," he began. "But my parents moved to Warsaw when I was about three." For several years he lived with his grandfather in a village called Bilgoray. It was there that he acquired his impressive knowledge of shtetl life.

"I came to the United States in 1935," he continued softly. "There were two reasons. The first reason was that my brother, I. J. Singer, who wrote The Brothers Askkenazi, was here; and I wanted to be with him. The second reason was I was afraid of Hider. There was a third reason-I didn't make a living in Warsaw." A smile spread across his face, and the crow's fect at the corners of his eyes became deeper and merrier. I knew he was about to tell a story.

Enough Reasons

"So these three reason should be enough," he said. "As I told the story once, one man asked another one, 'Could you lend me ten dollars?' And the other one said, "There are twenty-five reasons why I cannot. The first reason is I don't have a penny with me. So the other one said, 'I'm satisfied, I'm satisfied. I don't need the other twenty-four reasons.' " I chuckled softly, and he grinned with pleasure.

Once established in the United States, Singer worked as a free-lancer for The Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper in New York. "To be a freelancer working for only one newspaper is a very bitter business," he said. "Every month there was the problem of paying my rent, which was about twenty dollars. But somehow I managed. I don't owe a penny rent," he finished proudly.

At first, Singer felt lost in the United States. He did not know a word of English and only learned to speak it fluently while helping to translate his book, Satan in Goray into English. American Yiddish inflections and vocabulary confused him. "Then life itself confused me," he said. "I saw many things for which I had no name. In Warsaw there was a name for everything, But here, you know, life is so rich." He looked wistful for a moment, perhaps at the thought of the passage of time. His face cleared, and he told another ancedote.

Chewing Toast

"I remember that I went to a cafeteria," he said. "So I thought it was a restaurant. I sat down at a table, and I waited for the waiter to come over and bring me something. He didn't bring me anything. So I had all kinds of threories. I said, 'Why does he ignore me? Does he recognize that I am a foreigner?' "His voice had become taut. I leaned forward in anticipation," And I saw that this restaurant had hundreds of waiters," he continued more calmly. "Everybody carried a tray. So with so many waiters, they let a man sit?" Singer's face was wreathed in smiles. He was laughing so hard he could not go on. Finally he caught his breath and continued.

"Suddenly a man explained to me what to do," he said. "I had all sorts of theories, but that this could be a cafeteria would have never occurred to me even if I had sat there a million years. And I compare this to people who ask questions about the Almighty, 'Why does He behave so? 'Why does He behave so? It was for me difficult to fathom that I was in a cafeteria, and who knows where we are now?"

Where does he live now? Near a cafeteria, of course. "I still go to the cafeteria once in a while, but at least I have learned," Singer said wryly. "I know now exactly what happens." Mrs. Singer pushed his coffee closer to him. "No no, I like to talk and cat," he protested. "The food tastes better when you talk." Mrs. Singer tried to interest me in some toast with strawberry jam. I wasn't hungry, so she spread the jam thickly on a half-slice of toast and gave it to her husband.

"I think that the best thing which will be heard on this recording is my chewing toast," Singer said, pointing to the miniature tape recorder by my side. "You will see what music this will give," he added, nodding sagely.

Crities and commentators often interpret Singer's purpose in writing his tales of the Shtetl in terms of a desire to teach American Jews about the old country. According to Singer, this is only a secondary consideration. "When I sit down to write, I never think for whom I'm writing," he insisted. "I think what I should write. If I am satisfied, I know there is a chance that some readers will also be satisfied."

In order to write a story, he must have a solid plor line, a passion to express himself, and the illusion that he is "the only one who could write this particular story." If he has these three conditions, he said, "I write a story and don't care much if it will help the Jews or, God forbid, do damage to the Jews."

Originality and a Green Top Hat