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Talking with Isaac Bashevis Singer

By Paul G. Kleinman

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

And what of the crities? "I would say they are a necessary evil," he said laughingly. "There must be crities because if not, every man with talent or without talent would publish books; and it would be casier to fool the reader than it is today. The only trouble is there are some crities whom we can also easily fool, but what can you do?" Singer shrugged and continued. "Most people live according to a cliche. Although they fight cliches and the Establishment, they become Establishment themselves. It's almost in human nature that people imitate one another and ape one another. There are few original people, and they sometimes don't appear original because they don't try to appear original." Mrs. Singer tried to interest her husband in another piece of toast, but he declined.

"There are original men who dress conventionally and live conventionally and their originality is there," Singer said. "While another man can put on a . . . " He paused for a moment, searching for a bizarre image. "A green top hat." he continued. "And he will put on glasses, not over his eyes but over his mouth, and he will still be a banail person. The writer who sits down and tries to be original in every line will never really be original." Singer accepted the toast, took another bite, and began to talk about modernity.

"I think that the Iliad and the Odyssey are as modern today as they were four thousand years ago, while some of the books which sound very modern today will be forgotten a day later," he said, chewing his toast meditatively. "Now take the Sunday Times, which is so modern and so fresh Sunday morning. Monday it's already in the garbage." His eyes opened wide wonderingly. "How does it come? It seems that being modern is not enough. The word up-to-date. which people use nowadays so much and about which they make such a fuss is not really such a great quality. It may be a good quality in a newspaper but not in writing." He paused for a moment and swallowed a few spoonfulls of oatmeal.

'In Literature Nothing Dies'

Singer looked wistful again as he spoke of his favorite topic-the shtetl, now nothing but dust and ashes'. "It's true that the world which I describe has vanished physically; but in literature nothing dies, nothing vanishes. The holocaust did not really destory Jewish culture. The same people or their children built Israel. To me the people from Warsaw are as much alive as those in New York today."

Singer understandably refuses to write about the holocaust. Most of his family were killed in the war and he feels he lacks the perspective to write about the war and the death camps. His only son. who is a schoolteacher, lives on a kibbutz in Israel with his wife and two small children. "I continue the heredity of my parents," Singer said. "I brought up a son."

Singer and his wife have visited Israel twice. He spoke of Israel with intense enthousiason. "There is an atmosphere there which cannot be explained," he said. "Before I went there I was afraid. But the moment you are there all fear vanishes automatically, and there comes over you a feeling of clation which you cannot explain. It's not an accident that this country has become the spiritual fatherland of half of humanity. There is something in the climate there, in the sky in the very air. I think Nietzche said it: that only Israel could have produced prophets."

Singer would not consider moving to Israel, among other reasons, because Hebrew is spoken there. He has made up his mind to write in Yiddish as long as he lives. "Maybe in the next world I will begin to write in Hebrew," he said.

And what of the future of Yiddish? It is said that if a Yiddish reader dies, there is no one to replace him. But Singer has some comfort for Yiddish scholars. "We have now in the world about three-and-a-half billion people," he said. "A hundred years from now there will probably be a hundred billion people the way we multiply. And every one of these hundred billion people will need a topic for a Ph.D. And you can imagine what they will do to Yiddish. They will bring up every book-good or bad every manuscript, and write dissertations about it." Singer belives the Jews will remember Yiddish. "Jewish people suffer from all kinds of sicknesses," he said. "But amnesia is not one of them. Our trouble is that we remember too much."

Singer's stories and novels are varied in scope and focus. The Magacian of Lublin is a bittersweet variation on the theme of the Wandering Jew; Satan in Goray deals with the orgiastic response to a false messiah in seventeenth-century Poland, while stories like "Short Friday" celebrate domesticity and the simple virtues: But perhaps Singer's masterpiece of short fiction, "Gimpel the Fool." provides the most tender display of his virtuoso talent. In a world which places a premium on wisdom, Singer's hero is the fool, the one who receives goat turds instead of sweets. The simpleton is the perfect symbol of alienated man-the butt of both divine and carthly humor.

The Supernatural

Another important element in Singer's work is the cast of demons, goblins, and witches who drift in and out of his stories with all the caseof spirits passing through a wall. It is hard to ask Singer to analyze the supernatural and the mystic element of his work: for as he once remarked. "To ask a writer what elements he used in writing is like asking a chicken what chemicals it used in laying an egg." Yet supernatural forces and the wisdom of the Cabbala (a Jewish book of mystecism) play an important role in his life and in his work

"I am a believer in the so-called supernatural." he said between pieces of toast. "I say so-called because it is my conviction that telepathy and clairvoyance and premonitions and ail these things are really a part of naturel. You cannot photograph a ghost just as you cannot photograph talent or love. But this is not a proof that they don't exist."

Singer's family was shocked when he decided to become a writer instead of a rabbi, yet he is a deeply religious man. Though he believes in the importance of tradition, his decision was a singfficant break with his heritage. To the Jews of the ghetto, secular writers were dangerous heretics. But Singer remained close to the Jewish traditon in his own way.

Judging from passage in his short stories and novels. I thought that his position on religion might be antiexistentialist, though he detests labels and categories. Yet many of his characters are skepties. The God of Yascha. the profligate-turned-ascetic in The Magician of Lublin is a God who "revealed Himself to no one [and] gave no indications of what was permitted or forbidden." This deus absconditus appears in other stories as well. In "A Tale of Two Liars" Satan mocks a praying prisoner. "Are you stupid enough to still believe in the power of prayer? . . . There was enough prayer, wasn't there, when Chmielnicki came? How were those prayers answered? Children were buried alive, chaste wives raped-and later their bellies ripped open and cats sewed inside. Why should God bother with your prayers? He neither hears nor sces. There is no judge. There is no judgment."

'I'm Always Praying'

Yet the wastrels repent, the righte ous stand firm, and all go to heaven or hell according to their merits. Singer is neither a skeptic nor a dogmatist. To those brought up on a steady diet of realism and humanism. his simple faith is refreshing. "When I'm in trouble I pray," he said. And since I'm always in trouble I'm always praying." But he seldom goes to synagogue. "If I had small children, I would take them to synagogue . . because small children need organized religion." he said. Singer's God is a paternal God who listens to our prayers and knows our weaknesses and our strengths.

Singer has pronounced opinions on literary humor. He rejects the savage and cruel mocking irony of younger writers in favor of the self-deprecatory humor of the shtetl. "I will tell you." he said, prefacing his remarks with the characteristic phrase of the born racontear: "If you laugh, either you laugh at others or you laugh at yourself. If you don't want to laugh at others, you have to make humor about yourself."

One of Singer's best friend is Henry Miller, who sent him The Tropic of Cancer in Hebrew: yet Singer is critical of the humor in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. "The humor which is there is not real humor." he said. "It's not a humor which comes from character or from situation. It's the humor of embarrassment. This humor of revealing things which are to be covered has become important in this generation, but it's not going to last because how much can you uncover? Once the toilet and the masturbation are already in the literature, you have nothing else to uncover."

'You May Destroy the World'

We returned to Singer's mysticism and his interest in the Cabbala. The Cabbalists believe that there are millions of worlds and that this world is the worst of them. According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to study the Cabbala before the age of thirty; but Singer was not even thirteen when he began to read it secretly. "I remember that I saw there one name of God. a very strange kind of name," he said. "They said, 'Don't ever use this because you may destroy the world. So I had the illusion that if I ever uttered this word, all the houses would fall down, the sky would become red, and we would all collapse. And I said in my heart. 'Now, I have the power to destroy Warsaw.' It's one of these childish illusions. "He never tested the power of the word because he thought he might be the first victim. "As a matter of fact I'm still afraid," he added and laughed softly to himself at the thought.

Many of Singer's stories for children are derived from folktales. He laments the loss of interest in folklore. "Folklore was to me the soil on which literature grew." he said. "It is true that folklore contains a lot of foolish things, but it also contains grains of truth which are eternal. I am sure that a hundred years from now they will consider psychoanalysis folklore. And perhaps Marxism also."

Singer conceded that he cannot ignore politics. But he feels that polities and literature are incompatible. "The wheels of history are too heavy to be pushed by a writer." he said. "I don't mind if a philosopher tries to save humanity, or a sociologist; but a fiction writer who sits down to write a book with the idea to save humanity does not reach anything. He does not save humanity, and he spoils his book."

Singer has faith in the younger generation. "If the generations would really go down the way the old people think, we would be worse than amoebas now," he said. "The young people today will be old people forty years from now; and they will say. "Aaach! In our times in 1970 life was so wonderful. What an idyllic life!" As the Frenchmen say. The more things change, the more they remain the same."

In Parentheses

Now it was Singer's turn to ask the questions. You live in Peekskill, do you know the Shatsky's? I didn't. How does one become a Harvard student? I couldn't answer that either; no one ever explained it to me.

I asked. Singer to autograph my copy of The Magician of Lublin. He was talking as he wrote, and he unwittingly signed my name instead of his. When he noticed his mistake, he put my name in parentheses instead of crossing it out and signed his own underneath. I remembered my grandmother's belief that if a person's name were erased, he would be climinated from the Book of Life in heaven: and I wondered.

Outside, the sky was cloudy; and the naked trees bent in the wind. I almost tripped on the walk, and I remembered a quotation from Singer's story, "A Friend of Kafka": "Anyone who happens to come in contact with a great man marches with him into immortality-often in clumsy boots."

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