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NEW BOOK:
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage
by Stefan Kanfer
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.
 
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Isaac Singer’s Promised City
Stefan Kanfer
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"The ultimate New Yorker": in the last several years I have seen that description applied to Leonard Bernstein, Rudolph Giuliani, and—in a critique denouncing his latest excesses—Donald Trump. One could advance good arguments for granting the title to any of these gentlemen, but my choice remains a Polish-born author who came here as an adult, wrote in a foreign tongue, and spent his last years in Florida. It may seem perverse, but to me Isaac Bashevis Singer represents New York in all its glory, anguish, genius, and contradictions.

E. B. White, in his classic essay "Here Is New York," points out that the true New Yorkers are not the ones who were born here but the "out-of-towners in search of a dream." Bilgoray, the tiny, God-haunted Polish village where so many Singer stories unfold, could not have been more remote from the adrenal style and hard edges of Manhattan. Yet the author chose to spend the bulk of his life in our borough. When I first met him at his favorite hangout, the Famous Restaurant on 72nd Street, he was not I. B. Singer the Nobel laureate. He was simply a quiet, intense figure with a bald dome, a fine-boned face, and delicate skin that seemed almost transparent. A demonic aura hovered about him, reinforced by glinting blue eyes and high prominent ears. By then, Singer's reputation was no longer confined to the Yiddish-speaking readers of the Jewish Daily Forward. But to most of the English-reading world he was still a coterie writer whose strange short stories appeared in Commentary and certain quarterlies, and whose novels of old-world Jewry were an acquired taste. That afternoon Singer spoke of his adopted home, comparing it to Kafka: "Both are flawed, but touched by greatness. One of each kind is something of a marvel. But two Kafkas, two New Yorks, would be a disaster."

As the editor of Time's book review section, I assayed each of his books as they were published, and our meetings grew more regular. He never became informal: except on the hottest days he dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie; we were always Mr. Kanfer (Mr. "Kenfeh" was the way he pronounced it) and Mr. Singer. It was not in him to use the confessional style in conversation; he would have been utterly lost in today's Grand Oprah of interview TV. But he did grow easier in his manner, and the reminiscences of New York, tentative at first, grew more fluent as we went along.

Singer first entered our great, flawed arena at the age of 30. He was preceded by his brother Israel Joshua, also a writer, and the scandal of the family. I. J., as he was to sign his writings, was not only a novelist but a radical who had shocked his pious parents by forsaking the insular Hasidic world for the cosmopolitan precincts of Warsaw. "To become a literat," recalled the younger sibling, "was to them almost as bad as becoming a meshumed, one who forsakes the faith."

In time I. J. came to see life in political terms, absorbing the inflammatory new ideas of socialism, Zionism, and the rights of labor. His work drew the attention of the progressive Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forward, who hired him as the paper's Warsaw correspondent, expressed delight in what he received, and encouraged the young man to join the staff in New York. In 1933, I. J. accepted the offer. He would never see Europe again. Two years later Isaac became a follower in every sense of the word. He, too, hoped to find a career in the Promised City. He, too, despised the established Stalin as much as he feared and execrated the rising Hitler. He, too, fled the world he would then use as his literary capital. Yet there was a difference: I. J. had brought his wife and child with him to New York. Isaac Bashevis's new wife, Runya, had been spending much of her time gazing east at the USSR. Her husband wanted no part of the Worker's Paradise. In 1935, Runya and their little child, also named Israel, went off to the Soviet Union. Isaac booked passage for America. He knew three words of English: "Take a chair."

Then as now, New York was a lodestar for immigrants, the young, and the lucky. Isaac fell into all three categories. The Third Reich was making its move in Poland, eventually dooming the Singers' widowed mother and a third brother, Moishe. Thanks to I. J., Isaac had avoided their fate. But sanctuary was not enough. A man had to eat, to work, to get on in the New World. There is a Yiddish saying: "God will provide. If only He would provide until He provides." Somehow, Isaac received provisions. A cheap Brooklyn flat housed his few personal items—a Yiddish typewriter, a few articles of clothing, a handful of indispensable volumes. Regular but minuscule payments came from the Forward, which ran his features and tales under the byline I. B. Singer. His relations with the newspaper—which turned 100 this year and is now published in English as well—remained close throughout his life.

The Forward readership of that time regarded Singer with an almost mystical awe. He was the bard of their exile, a man who could make vanished towns rise up from the page, who could breathe life into lost souls, from the ritual slaughterer to the terrified young bride. Not for him a documentary recounting of the Holocaust. Instead he let the survivors talk, remember, and gossip. In one tale, a group of old friends greet one another: "You don't recognize me, eh? Take a good look! It's Zissl, the son of Chaye Beytle!" "Why don't you eat something?" "Why don't you have something to drink? Come over here, take a glass. What do you want? Whiskey? Brandy? Cognac? Scotch? With soda? With Coca Cola? Take some. It's good. Don't let it stand. So long as you're here, you might as well enjoy yourself." "My father? He was killed. They were all killed. I'm the only one left of the entire family." "Berish the son of Feivish? Starved to death in Russia—they sent him to Kazakhstan. His wife? In Israel. She married a Lithuanian." "Sorele? Shot. Together with her children." "Yentl? Here at the wedding. She was standing here just a minute ago. There she is, dancing with that tall fellow." "Abraham Zilberstein? They burned him in the synagogue with twenty others. A mound of charcoal was all that was left, coal and ash." What remained in the mind was more than a record of destruction; readers felt, in poet Theodore Roethke's memorable phrase, "the terrible energy of the dead."

Fanatically, Isaac's readers snipped out his contributions to the Forward, pressing them between the pages of books until the newspaper clips grew yellow and broke apart in the hand. There were an astonishing number of pieces to save. Stories, reminiscences, excerpts from Singer's novels appeared in the paper every Thursday and Friday, 48 weeks a year, pausing only for the author's one-month summer vacation. Long after checks began to arrive from major magazines (and even from film producers like Barbra Streisand, who bought "Yentl" to make into a deservedly forgotten movie), he still wrote for the Forward. In time this was to become his pro bono work, done to keep Yiddish alive for a rapidly dwindling readership. Singer's editors were broke but grateful; they made up for their parsimony with freedom. Now and then, for example, a shocked rabbi would demand the excision of Isaac's franker sexual passages. One of Cahan's successors, Simon Weber, had a standard reply: "I would be as likely to make changes in a manuscript by Bashevis as in a text of Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's. If he writes an article and there's an error in it, that's corrected. But one does not tamper with literature on that level."

When I was finally invited to Isaac Bashevis Singer's apartment, I asked to see photographs of him during his early years in America. The walls were crowded with various tributes—the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal, some dozen honorary degrees, shelf upon shelf of books, some upright, some sideways. There were also a few photographs of the author in various locations overseas and here, but none of him as a youth. He referred to a passage in one of his brother's early novels. In it there appears a character obviously modeled on Isaac: "He is not what you would call handsome; he is red-headed, his face is covered with freckles, but there's an irresistible charm about him." The man is "a great teller of stories and the delight of the children; for he can crow like a cock, cluck like a hen struggling to get out a big egg, coo like a pigeon making love."

That apartment—Isaac's last in New York—was in a splendid pile of bricks called the Belnord. In his day it suffered from neglect: graffiti marred the facade, the elevators were dark and malodorous, and the vast interior courtyards looked unswept. Yet there was a majesty to the place: you seldom found that much unused space outside of Grand Central Terminal. It reminded me of countless structures in Eastern Europe, houses designed to keep the world at bay as they encouraged an inner, civilized life. Today the Belnord is refurbished, warmer, more attractive, with a phalanx of doormen. But something is missing, as it is throughout the West Side.

Once upon a time, the old population of intellectual Jewry held sway in the district, beginning way up on Claremont Avenue, where Lionel and Diana Trilling lived, all the way down to the elaborate Ansonia, home of Metropolitan Opera divas. Every sunny Saturday, in a scene out of a Singer novel, West End Avenue turned into a promenade. Behatted, well-dressed men strolled in serious conversation, their hands clasped behind their backs, while the wives walked on independently, arm-in-arm, smiling graciously to couples heading the other way. Almost all of that populace is gone, and with it the emporia that served them. On Broadway the landmarks once were Rosenbloom's Old World delicatessen, Steinberg's Dairy Restaurant, and the tonier Tip Toe Inn. Now-vanished pharmacies and rug merchants and furriers, whose owners had numbers tattooed on their arms, dotted the spaces in between. Those places have long since become fern bars or outlets for yuppie wear.

To be sure, the region contains a few promising young conservatives with a regard for the past, and a handful of Eastern European thinkers push their aluminum walkers along the side streets. And Isaac is present in more than a literary sense. Next time you're on West 86th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, look up. The sign placed there in 1990 reads "Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard." But for the most part the Upper West Side houses the basic ahistorical constituency of Ruth Messinger. Quite an irony, given Isaac's record at the polls. "Yes, I voted for Nixon," he once confessed to me. "I thought he was good for Israel. Besides, I have seen what the promises of socialism did to people, Jews especially, and I would rather keep to the right. Actually, this is not so big a move for me. Even in the thirties I was never fond of these cafeteria leftists."

In among Isaac's snapshots was a picture of a familiar couple in an earlier time. It prompted a recollection of the Yiddish theater's old slogan, "Why have it simple when you can have it complicated?" There, strolling along a Manhattan street was the irresistible charmer and a married German-Jewish refugee. Back and forth the liaison went in the late thirties: Isaac wasn't anxious to marry again, he had no money, he felt guilty about enticing Alma Wasserman away from her husband and two children, he could scarcely afford to buy his own meals, much less dinner for two. On the other hand, Alma was . . . Alma. He had been with many women in America, but no one else combined her beauty, cultivation, and forbearance. In 1939, after much angst, Alma left her family, allowing her husband custody of the children. The following year the Singers were married in a civil ceremony and set up an apartment in Brooklyn.

Now they were authentic New Yorkers. Writing in a language that was rapidly being destroyed in Europe, Isaac continued to eke out a living. The Forward supplied almost all of it; his novel Satan in Goray, earned $90 in royalties. Alma became the real challah-winner, working as a salesclerk, then as a personal shopper at Arnold Constable, and later at Saks and Lord & Taylor. That left Isaac free to ponder—and to wander. In a vivid biography Paul Kresh describes the Singers' long marriage, conducted in the style of a vanished pre-feminist New York: "Alma is aware of Isaac's difficulties in adhering to the traditional requirements of monogamy but feels that they have both invested so many years in their marriage that parting would be unthinkable. She has never forgotten the emotional upheaval that followed her separation from her first husband and does not ever want to go through such an experience again. She herself has no wish to experiment with adventures outside her marriage; the whole idea is numbing to her. `And I must remind you,' she adds, `Isaac is basically a very conservative person.' She doubts he would accept infidelity on her part."

For the first decades of the marriage, Isaac's works were centered on the country of his youth. Even the stories that featured imps and demons took place in Bilgoray, a distillation of all Polish shtetls. The Hasids and Polish Christians in these tales were dressed in the costumes of old, and they were observant—or defiant—in traditional ways. But the narratives of their adventures were informed by all the elements in the modernist arsenal: sublimation and sexual confusion, irony, an allusive, nervous style that saw everything and judged no one. Isaac's style reflected his new status: during the war he had become a citizen of the U.S. ("I would not trade the certificate proving I am an American," he declared, "for all the money in the world.") Still, he was not yet secure enough to use New York for the background of his stories until a series of incidents forced his hand. The first was his brother's sudden, fatal heart attack in 1944. "It was a shock from which I have never truly recovered," the author acknowledged. He dedicated books and lectures to his brother's memory, and whenever I brought up the subject of Israel Joshua's writing, Isaac Bashevis answered in an exalted tone, as if he were referring to a father, a teacher, a master. And yet in a strange way, I. J.'s death seemed to liberate him.

"By this time," he recalled, "Alma and I were living on the Upper West Side. I walked the streets constantly, thinking of my brother, thinking of what might have happened if he had not preceded me here." The answer was excruciating to contemplate: almost certainly, like the remnants of his family, he would have perished at Auschwitz. Now, in New York, he was allowed—even encouraged—to write about anything, anyone. Would he remain rooted to the vanished past? Could he direct his thoughts and his writing to the New World? Indeed, could he write at all?

For several years he did little more than brood and talk to a handful of colleagues. At last he began a novel based in old Poland, The Family Moskat. It was not until 1950, when he was 46, that it appeared in three languages: Yiddish, Hebrew in the two-year-old state of Israel, and—most significant—English. The publisher: his brother's trusted friend Alfred A. Knopf.

The relationship with the house of Knopf didn't endure. The editors demanded alterations and abbreviations, which Isaac made, though he thought they smacked of "slickness." Then he saw John Hersey's novel about the Warsaw ghetto, The Wall, composed from secondary and tertiary material, rise to the top of the best-seller list, while his own book, written from experience, remained well-regarded but unpromoted and obscure. It hardly seemed fair. Here again a prototypical New York writer, Isaac resolved to change publishers. In time Alfred Knopf grudgingly admitted that his treatment of Isaac had been "a blunder of the first order."

Two years later Isaac's fortunes began to change. His story "Gimpel the Fool" attracted the attention of a rising Jewish novelist. Saul Bellow's translation appeared in the New York- based Partisan Review of May 1953. "This was not a big magazine," recalled Singer, "but it appeared that everyone of significance read that issue." With the clarity of a folk tale, "Gimpel" recounts the misadventures of a Jewish simpleton who is mocked by the crowd, cuckolded by his wife, tempted to vengeance by the devil—yet who manages through a hard and painful life to remain a purer soul than those with better minds and fatter purses. Isaac's new publisher, Noonday Press, brought out a collection of Singer stories, with "Gimpel" at the head. Readers snapped up the volume, even though the author hadn't played the publicity game: he had appeared on no talk shows, gone to no glitterati parties, made no political or social statements.

Indeed, he had gone the other way, persisting in unfashionable, irrational beliefs, subscribing to occult magazines like Fate, and arguing that imps and demons were all around us. Once, when I commented on his various superstitions, he reminded me: "It took thousands of years for Pasteur to discover there were germs. Maybe it will take a few hundred years more for science to discover there are other hidden creatures." I told him he reminded me of Don Marquis's cockroach, archy, who stated that he didn't believe in ghosts because he had seen too many of them. The author nodded in appreciation. Ambitious literary competitors marked Singer down as an exotic, a man wholly preoccupied with vanished shtetls and lunatic visions—hardly a threat in the fame game. It was a classic miscalculation.

Before long the big-league critics began to sit up and talk. Irving Howe, the ur-New York Jewish intellectual, called Singer a genius. Henry Miller, who knew a little something about writing liberated prose, praised the extraordinary presence of sexual passion in so much of Singer's fiction. He found it "full-bodied like a rich wine." And with the lust came "love, a bigger, broader love than we are accustomed to reading in books." Conversing with Nor-man Mailer on television, Miller asked the younger man to concede that Singer was a better writer than either of them. There must have been something in the air that day: Mailer allowed as how Miller was right.

Finally, Singer felt secure enough to make New York the backdrop of his stories. In "The Key," an aging widow, friendless and alone, locks herself out of her Upper West Side apartment. Night closes in. Terrified by her run-down neighborhood, surrounded by depravity of all kinds, she survives by huddling in the doorway of a church, where she awakens in the morning perfectly unharmed—a strange, ecumenical miracle. In "Cabalist of East Broadway," a mystic lives in obscurity in New York, goes to Israel, where he is treated as a celebrity, then, goaded by the kind of demon that drives so many of Singer's characters, returns to New York only to sink back into a life of utter misery. In "The Cafeteria," the narrator, Singer's alter ego, concedes, "I have been moving around this neighborhood for over thirty years—as long as I lived in Poland. I know each block, each house. There has been little building here on uptown Broadway in the last decades, and I have the illusion of having put down roots here. I have spoken in most of the synagogues. They know me in some of the stores and in the vegetarian restaurants. Women with whom I have had affairs live on the side streets. Even the pigeons know me; the moment I come out with a bag of feed, they begin to fly toward me from blocks away."

Most New York writers are either creatures of envy or creators of it. Whatever his inner feelings, Singer never slandered his fellow authors; he did worse—he rarely recognized their existence. But they noticed him. Nowhere was his success more remarked upon (and resented) than in the febrile and diminished world of competing Yiddish writers. In her short story "Envy," Cynthia Ozick cannily portrayed these competitors: "They hated him for the amazing thing that had happened to him—his fame—but this they never referred to. Instead they discussed his style: his Yiddish was impure, his sentences lacked grace and sweep, his paragraph transitions were amateur, vile. Or else they raged against his subject matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish—men who embraced men, women who caressed women, sodomists of every variety, boys copulating with hens, butchers who drank blood for strength behind the knife. All the stories were set in an imaginary Polish village, Zwrdl, and by now there was almost no American intellectual alive who had not learned to say Zwrdl when he meant lewd." (Well aware of the intent of this tale, I once disingenuously asked Singer what he thought of it. "I haven't read the story," he replied coolly. "But I understand it maligns me." End of discussion.)

The ultimate certification of Isaac Bashevis Singer as New Yorker came when he appeared in The New Yorker, then a weekly of great distinction. That periodical had run many Jewish memoirs: Hannah Arendt had dissected the Holocaust in its pages; George Steiner had made a specialty of fiction with a foreign sensibility. But Singer's short stories were not the magazine's customary mix of ethnicity and mildly suggestive romance. They were erotic, mystical, hard-edged, with no concessions made to the reader. They were also impossible to put down. "The writer's first obligation is to entertain," he told me on more than one occasion. "Leave to others the business of explication. This is why, in the end, children make better critics than adults. To them it doesn't matter if you are well known or obscure. No one tells them what to like. If you don't catch their interest, if they get bored—you're lost."

Which is why, at the age of 64, when other men his age were beginning to think about drawing Social Security, he began a new career. Still writing for The New Yorker—and the Forward—still lecturing, still voyaging now and then to Israel to visit the son with whom he had been reunited (the first Mrs. Singer had been one of the lucky ones: she was allowed to emigrate to Palestine rather than die in a labor camp), still publishing books at the rate of one a year, Isaac debuted as a children's book author. The voices and personalities of small kids tend to get on the nerves of older folk. Not on Isaac's. He kept working the streets of the West Side, drawing inspiration from the most child-oriented portion of Manhattan. He said he knew 500 reasons to write for children and offered his top ten. Among them: "Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics." And: "They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff." Most important: "They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."

If chronology meant nothing to Isaac, it meant even less to the Swedish Academy. In the mid-seventies, Edmund Wilson put Singer at the head of his list for Nobel laureate; Rebecca West echoed the critic's enthusiasm in her own letter. Nevertheless, Saul Bellow, Isaac's junior by 11 years, won the prize in 1976. A certain amount of grumbling and lobbying ensued (none of it by Isaac), and two years later the prize was his. The Singers were spending the High Holidays in Florida when the news came in.

The world wanted to talk to him, of course, and he was unavailable. But the old man had always played a deep game with the press, as befits a New Yorker. Just as Woody Allen always contrives to be out of reach of photographers and journalists but is somehow always caught on camera avoiding the paparazzi, so Isaac managed to retain his reputation for shyness and modesty—yet managed to meet and talk to everyone necessary to bolster his reputation. By his late sixties he had worked out a series of answers to journalists that kept appearing in various interviews. (Question: "Why are you a vegetarian? Is it because of your health?" Answer: "I'm not worried about my arteries. I'm worried about the arteries of the chicken." Q: "What is your philosophy?" A: "We must believe in free will—we have no choice.") I sensed that Singer would not let me down, if only because he couldn't stand to see a story in Time magazine without fresh quotes. I called his New York number; his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux; a number in Florida. Nothing. Then, five minutes before deadline, I got a call.

"Mr. Kenfeh? I understand you have been trying to reach me." The voice and the accent were unmistakable (actually, what I heard was, "I yonderstend you hev been tryink to rich me"; no one in the world had quite that intonation, not even those members of my family who had come from the same area). He sensed the urgency in my questions and replied rapidly: "Winning the Nobel has made me grateful and happy. But it will not change anything. Everything will remain the same—same typewriter, same apartment, wife, same telephone number, same language. I am thankful, of course, for the prize—and thankful to God for each story, each idea, each word, each day." And would he go to Stockholm to receive the award in person? "What can I do? I will go, and I will make a little speech. It will not shake the world."

He was right; it didn't shake the world. As W. H. Auden noted, "Poetry makes nothing happen"—nor does fiction, no matter how poetic. And yet . . . and yet. Singer gave his Nobel speech in Yiddish—a first—and reminded his audience that astonishments can be found in the real world, as well as the fictive one. "There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous, way." In this speech he also made sure to mention his adopted city: "Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation."

The faith persisted to the end. In one of our last conversations, Singer spoke about God as Author: "I know as a writer how valuable a tool is the wastebasket. Perhaps God throws away many experiments before He finds the right expression. Perhaps we are the discards—or we could be the part He keeps. This mystery is what keeps us all going, to see what happens in the next chapter." What happened to the laureate was more fame and honors and sales—and then a gradual decline, silence, and a quiet death in Seaside, Florida, in 1991 at the age of 87. The afternoon the obituary notice came in, I reread the citation given to Singer by Professor Lars Gyllensten, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. In the writer's works, the professor had said, "the daily round is interwoven with wonders, reality is spun from dreams, the blood of the past pulsates in the present." His characters were "tragic and grotesque, comic and touching, weird and wonderful—people of dream and torment, baseness and grandeur."

I remembered reading those words for the first time in the spring of 1979, just after Singer had returned from Sweden. We were standing on the corner of 86th and Broadway, and I told him that the academy's citation could serve as a portrait of the people and places of Manhattan. "And why not?" he asked. "Torment, baseness, and grandeur. Does anyone think these attributes died in Poland? Look around. They're right here with us. New York is a city very much like Bilgoray." I added: "Only smaller." "Bilgoray?" he asked. "No," I said. "New York." He thought about that, and repeated, "Only smaller." We shook hands and he went off smiling, the navy blue suit in contrast to the first inklings of the grunge look—the black lipstick, the shape-less pants, the green and blue hair—on the young people around him. When I close my eyes, I see him that way now, not in a shtetl or in a tailcoat accepting plaudits but as a spry figure making his way among the weird and wonderful. The ultimate New Yorker.

 

 


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