“Such,” says my uncle Yitzhak, taking an awestruck sniff at his boiled egg, which stinks, “yes, such is life!”
There is a moment of silence, followed by a burst of hilarity that rocks the breakfast table. Yitzhak sits with bowed head over the bad egg, and his air of otherworldly absence raises the merriment to a new pitch. Even his melancholy elder brother Shiya (short for Yehoshua) grins. Shiya’s dumpy wife very nearly falls off her chair. Only half-amused is Hindele, sister to the two Singer brothers. With a wry smile she repeats: “Such, yes, such is life!”
Antoshu, the maid, serves a fresh hard-boiled egg, the meal is resumed in a more subdued mood, and little Yossele trills: “When I’m big, I’ll take papa up on the roof and give him a whipping!” At two-and-a-half he is bitterly jealous of his father Shiya’s favorite, seven-year-old Yasha.
Much has happened since that day on the veranda of a bungalow in a pinewood dacha near Warsaw. Its landlord, the folk poet Alter Katzisner, and the Yiddish literati to whom he rented out a score of such bungalows for the summer, are long since dead. Most, but not all, perished in the Holocaust. The child Yasha died a natural death, of pneumonia, in Warsaw. His father Shiya went down with a heart attack at an early age in New York, and his mother Genya followed. So did Hindele—my mother—some years later, in London, where my parents had come as World War I refugees and where I grew up. The sole survivors are Yossele who has grown up into Joseph Singer living in America, and my own aged Tel Aviv self.
And now it is my uncle Yitzhak’s turn. Of all things, it is that buffoonery of his, in the long-ago year of 1926, which comes back to me as I stand before a kiosk in Paris in 1991, staring and stared at by front-page obituaries in the French morning papers for Isaac Bashevis Singer. The leftist daily Libération carries a photograph of him covering two-thirds of the front page. The caption in a large red box announces: “Yiddish Loses Singer. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the last great writer in the Yiddish language, died Wednesday, aged 87. See page 2.” I see page 2 and go on to pages 3, 4, and 5, wholly and reverentially devoted to the Nobel laureate of literature, the Singer who sang the swan song of our mameh loshn, the Yiddish mother tongue.
I turn again to the front-page photo, a studio portrait of Bashevis—Yiddishists call him simply that—in the pose of a comedian. Against a backdrop of phantoms painted on a screen, he stands holding an umbrella in his outstretched right hand, too far out of line to keep the make-believe rain from his skin-and-bones figure, and wearing sunglasses against the make-believe sunlight. Shabby in an ill-fitting, outsized, expensive suit, with a trilby hat jammed tight on his cranium, he looks tense, though his gaunt face bears a faint smile blending mockery with resignation—the same blend that sets the tone of his masterly novels and short stories.
What do I have to tell that his painstaking biographers and his obituarists in the world media have missed? Well, of utmost relevance to him, who was through no fault of his own my uncle, is the old Yiddish saw: Dos eppele falt nisht veit fun boimele (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), meaning that the key to personality is in the family genes.
The paradoxical was the norm for my uncle Yitzhak. So he, who insisted he did not give two straws for kinship, adopted the pseudonym Bashevis after his mother Bathsheva; to get to know him better, we must first be introduced to her. Quite exceptional, too, was the relationship between him and his elder brother Shiya, known to the world as the novelist I.J. (for Israel Joshua) Singer.
Long before I, at age thirteen, met my uncle Yitzhak and my grandmother Bathsheva in the flesh—not that there was much flesh on them to speak of—I was on more intimate terms with them than with my next-door Cockney neighbors in London. How come? Because from as far back as I can remember, day in, day out, year after year, my mother had plied me in a nostalgic singsong with reminiscences, detailed and vivid, about her folks in the old country, die alte heim.
Where to begin if not at the beginning?
In the latter half of the 19th century the small Polish town of Bilgoray boasts an orphan of unknown parentage who is an ilui, a genius. He memorizes Scripture at a single reading, and mounts the pulpit to deliver his first homily as a boy of nine. At the first sprouting of a beard, the local hasidim importune him to become their tzaddik, their holy man who will hasten the advent of the Messiah and the resurrection of all past generations. But Reb Mordechai, as he is called, declares himself a misnagid, a rejecter of end-of-days fantasies and a firm believer in the Torah’s rule that mortal man is fated to return eternally to the dust out of which he was created.
Appointed rabbi of Bilgoray, Reb Mordechai is offered positions in Warsaw and other large cities, but always turns them down. To the delegations who come to petition him he puts a stock question: “Is there a Jewish cemetery in your parts?” Reassured on this score, he turns them away with a shrug: “We also have one in Bilgoray.” There is to this misnagid rabbi an aura so palpable that he is said to have averted a pogrom one Easter Sunday when, standing in the doorway of the synagogue, with upraised hands he stopped a mob of peasants armed with hatchets and pitchforks. Come to avenge the crucifixion of Jesus, they wavered, backed away, and dispersed without bloodshed and without pillage.
Like father, like daughter. Like Reb Mordechai, so also Bathsheva. She, too, is a genius, and an expert into the bargain in scholarly disputation (pilpul), able to hold her own in discourse with the rabbi and to reconcile seemingly blatant contradictions in Torah and Talmud. The rabbi is less fortunate with his two sons. Both are scholars and ordained rabbis, but the one harbors grandiose mercantile dreams, while the other is a dandy whose earlocks and ritual fringes bob, positively waltz, with superb elegance.
Comes puberty and the time for marriage of the near-skeletal maiden with the shock of red hair that will be shaved to accommodate a wig, and with enormous steely eyes in a tiny, fiercely angular, deathly pale face perched proudly on a scrawny neck. The search is on for an intended who will be worthy of her. The choice falls on the teenaged Pinhas Menahem Singer, a talmudist and kabbalist of the first order, who traces his ancestry back to the medieval sage Joseph Caro and even farther back to David the Psalmist king.
If ever a mismatch could be called perfect, this is it. Bathsheva carries in her womanly frame a manly spirit. Unlike her husband, she has in her the makings of a chief rabbi, one who would not have hesitated to accept a pulpit in Warsaw or might even perhaps have betaken herself to Jerusalem. The better to express her grievance against Jehovah, the bungling Maker of her misbirth, she is all the more meticulous in her observance of His divine commandments.
Mysterious are the ways of the Lord. What better husband could Bathsheva have found than Pinhas Menahem, harboring in his frail but masculine frame a tender womanly spirit? With a heart as soft and as golden as his fluffy beard, his she-he persona has nothing in it of the warrior monarch. More’s the pity that in one respect he does bear a likeness to his royal forefather, the Psalmist. As a kind of truant hasid, he often steals away to the court of the Gerer tzaddik, there to dance and sing to the glory of the unutterable Name for weeks on end. To boot, he shirks the Russian-language examination required of the clergy under czarist law, so that when the time comes for him to act the breadwinner and paterfamilias, he can do no better than serve as a poor clandestine rabbi, first in the poorest of poor shtetlach, and later in the slummiest of Warsaw’s slums, on Krochmalna Street. All this will be so much grist for the mill of the eventual Singer storyteller.
While the newlyweds are still kestkinder, boarders living on the largesse of the Bilgoray rabbi’s household, Bathsheva suffers several dread years of sterility. At last, blessedly pregnant, she expects a son—her due, to make amends for her own mistaken gender—but Jehovah sees fit to curse her with a daughter to whom she refuses the breast. The search for a wet nurse yields one whose nipples squirt milk so abundantly that it dribbles all over the face of the unwanted newborn. The infant, named Hinde Esther, is taken away by the wet nurse to a tumbledown one-room shack crammed with a horde of children and a husband pounding away at his cobbler’s bench, a shack so crowded that the only floor space for the crib is under the table.
Punctually once a week Bathsheva comes by to stoop and regard, but never to touch, let alone fondle, her misbegotten child—my mother-to-be. At the age of three, blinded by cobwebs and dust from the underside of the table, Hindele is brought home and, with the benediction of the Bilgoray rabbi, she partially recovers her sight. But for the rest of her life her eyelids will either twitch, as if to be rid of the glaze filming her bloodshot eyeballs, or flutter wildly, as if beholding an apparition visible to none but herself.
I learn early on to listen and not to interrupt my mother Hindele’s recital of bygones, addressed first and last to herself. Even so, she never fails to answer my unasked questions. Does she remember her under-the-table outcast self and also the happenings and mishaps that took place before ever she was born? Oh, no, she is merely retelling what she heard later from her mother Bathsheva. Storytelling runs in the family.
Oddly enough, my mother is less profuse with her own memories, except for an occasional trancelike recall of her encounters with a handsome, noble, emancipated, clean-shaven young Jewish poet wearing a cloak in Warsaw’s elegant Saxony Gardens. For the rest, she speaks less of herself than of her three brothers—of Shiya, two years younger than herself, with passion, fierce love, and fierce jealousy; of Yitzhak der roiter, the redhead, the spitting image of his mother Bathsehva, with amusement; and last but not least, of the toddler Moshe, the golden-haired beauty whose name I, too, bear.
My mother does breathe fire, though, on the subject of her twenty-year-old self, already deemed by Bathsheva a hopeless old spinster but saved in the end by a mischievous Providence which, to spite her mother perhaps, wills otherwise. A famed itinerant preacher, one Gedalya Kreitman, serving as a fund-raiser for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel organization, was looking for a bride. No, not for his potbellied self, but for his son Avraham who, to escape conscription in the czarist army, has been sent away to Antwerp, there to receive training as a diamond-cutter.
Reb Gedalya, when in Warsaw, pays daily calls on Hindele and engages her in discussion, for she is well versed in overheard Torah and Talmud. To her mother she says: “You wish to see the back of me. Very well, I shall go into exile.” A marriage is arranged, to take place in a kosher hotel in Berlin—all expenses to be defrayed by Reb Gedalya, who puts up a goodly dowry and, in a further departure from custom, bedecks his prospective daughter-in-law with costly jewels.
On the train ride into exile Hindele carries in her handbag the half-dozen notebooks which she has filled with short stories and earlier shown to her mother who has read them with raised red eyebrows and without comment. Now the mother, Bathsheva, murmurs her fear that czarist frontier officers might sniff sedition in the Yiddish script. So Hindele does to the notebooks what she feels like doing to herself—she tears them up and flings the tattered shreds out of the window into green pastures where cows graze.
In the kosher hotel in Berlin, Hindele and Avraham meet and exchange nods. Next, they are escorted to a photographer’s studio. And on the morrow they are married.
Before taking her place under the wedding canopy, Hindele lends an ear to a whisper from her father Reb Pinhas Menahem: “Do not be shy with your husband. What he and you will be doing is prescribed by the Torah, a holy act, of which your mother cannot have enough, she wears me out night after night.”
I am proof that the nuptials were consummated.
One morning in the summer of 1926, the continental express carrying me and my mother pulls into the Warsaw railway terminal. There on the platform waiting for his sister Hindele is my uncle Yitzhak. I have never seen him before, but I recognize der roiter instantly, so unmistakable is his resemblance to Bathsheva as pictured in my mother’s stories. Not so my shortsighted mother, who discovers her brother’s presence only after the kisses he has vaguely darted at her fail to land on either cheek. Of me he takes no notice.
We follow my uncle into a dilapidated old train which chugs slowly out of town. With the elusive Yitzhak my habitually overeffusive mother is at a loss for words. After half an hour or so, we alight in a pine forest on burning hot sands strewn with pine cones; the air is heady with pine sap and bird-song; the golden sun in the bluest sky I have ever seen spreads light and shade with the absoluteness peculiar to dreams. Euphoric, I exult in the fulfillment of a wish so precious as to have been kept hidden even from myself. We enter a fenced-in pinewood estate, approach a bungalow, and the waking dream takes an uncanny turn.
No longer is it Yitzhak at our side. He has flown off and been replaced by a taller and older self, still slim but not the scraggy, elusive, ethereal youth who has escorted us thus far; his gaunt face has become handsome; the ears still stick out, but they no longer look like the wings of a bat about to fly off; the massive bulging cranium has lost its mop of red hair; and, most notable of all, that indifferent faraway gaze has given way to a strange, a very strange, glitter in the whites of the eyes conveying absolute authority and absolute melancholy.
This, of course, is none other than my uncle Shiya. With a shriek of mingled joy and pain my mother throws herself upon him in an embrace so absolute as to be more than sisterly. With a struggle he disengages himself, takes a backward step, and fixes her with a glare that blends compassion with revulsion, a look which cautions his sister to understand that though pity may have moved him to invite her to a family reunion, she had best not delude herself into thinking she can thrust herself upon him for good, for already she has made a pest of herself and the sooner she goes back to where she came from, back to her unloved husband in London, the better.
My mother blinks frenziedly and bites her underlip to keep silent. For the rest of our stay she will hold herself aloof from Shiya, will look down on his wife Genya as unworthy of him, will ignore and be ignored by Yitzhak, will consort with the dacha literati and their womenfolk, and will have little to say to me. As of now, her past is a closed book and I have ceased to be her audience.
There are no dacha children my own age, so I strike up a friendship of sorts with seventeen-year-old Uri, who spends entire days over Hebrew manuals in preparation for aliyah, ascent to the land of Israel. The sport I revel in is uncle-watching, and it seems to have many practitioners. The dacha hums with talk of the rapport between the two Singer brothers. There is little love for the older Shiya. Again and again I, the eavesdropper, hear the same refrain: young Yitzhak will one day outstrip (the Yiddish term is ibervaksn, grow taller than) his older brother.
That Shiya’s recently published short-story collection, Perl (“Pearls”), lives up to its title is an accepted fact, and one that goes unchallenged. But he is begrudged the stroke of good fortune that has come with it. On the strength of this first published book he has been made a correspondent for the New York Jewish Daily Forward, and has thereby leaped overnight from destitution to affluence. The envy this has aroused is natural, but far from natural is the gut animosity he provokes in the many, as is also the fascination he exerts on the few who are spellbound in their devotion to him.
The dacha literati take it for granted that Yitzhak belongs to the unloving majority but chooses to act like one of the devoted few. Shiya behaves like a patronizing but protective father to Yitzhak, who assumes the part of a meek son and protégé. The smart-alecks would have it that behind this display is a sophisticated variant of the Cain and Abel theme: I.J. Singer is jealous of Yitzhak’s potentially superior talent, and to nip it in the bud tries to stifle him with condescending kindness. But Yitzhak, say the observers, is not fooled and, as soon as it suits him, will let his simmering resentment explode.
I listen and I wonder.
Happily, I am charged by my aunt Genya with the daily chore of fetching my two uncles to lunch. First I set out to find Yitzhak. He spends his mornings aloft in one pine tree or another, and part of the fun is locating the particular tree. What does he do up there? He reads Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and German prose and poetry and also studies philosophy, especially Spinoza and Kant. How do I know, since he has no maga massa with me, meaning in Cockney idiom that he would not touch me with a bargepole? I hear it from the literati who are waiting for him to climb down and favor them with one of his impersonations. When he chooses to perform one of these, they say, there is not a clown the length and breadth of Poland who can hold a candle to my uncle Yitzhak.
When Yitzhak proves deaf to my call for lunch (I shall have to come back a second time), I run off and climb the ladder to the loft where, beneath a broken roof on which birds nest, my other uncle, Shiya, is busy writing. He sits on a stool before a bare wooden shelf which serves as his desk. Bemused, I watch his pen glide over a sheet of foolscap forming line after line of graceful script with never a pause. No, on second thought, he does pause now and then to change a word which is then smoothly traced onto an earlier sheet.
I stand behind his stooped back, and there is something in his posture which expresses what I have come to know about him. Already on the eve of my mother’s departure for Berlin, Shiya was in revolt against the ancestral beliefs and customs. With the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution he, the messianic atheist, was off to Russia to help free the proletariat from oppression and establish heaven on earth. But the apparatchiks running the Yiddish press and publishing houses there had no use for him, who could neither fawn nor intrigue nor wink at corruption, and they flung his Perl novellas back at him as unfit for print. Disappointed first in Kiev, then in Moscow, he returned to Warsaw and triumphed. There is an aura of mastery about him now, but also a daunting melancholy that seems innate and inborn. Is his melancholy the cause of, or exacerbated by, the malevolence that surrounds him? I do not formulate the question—it emanates from him, hovers in the air.
One day, suddenly, Shiya turns to me and asks whether the language in which I think is Yiddish or English. I ponder the question and answer truthfully that my thoughts do not seem to be in any language at all. The whites of his eyes flash suspicion as well as melancholy: is this some kind of tomfoolery or chutzpah to get back at him perhaps for my mother’s sake? Or am I just an honest imbecile? Either way, he regrets having addressed me and will never do so again.
Perhaps, if he had not turned away so impetuously, I might have had a chance to collect my wits and explain that in his company, and, indeed, throughout this summer at the dacha, I am too happy for words. Only when I am angry do I think in words and I do not now have it in me to take umbrage or even to feel sorry for my mother—I am busy reaping a harvest of impressions too rich to be ground and milled into verbal flour or kneaded and baked into the bread of common sense.
I run off to give my uncle Yitzhak his second call for lunch, knowing that when I find him he will be up a tree—in this case both literally and figuratively. (The Yiddish equivalent would be er hengt in der luftn, he hangs in midair.) For the time being he is a young man of high promise but humble achievement. Under a variety of pseudonyms—he has not yet become Bashevis—he dashes off merciless reviews of books and plays, has started on a Yiddish translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and tosses off cheap heart-throb romances for serialization in the daily press. He is scandalously underpaid, but as a strict vegetarian as well as a non-smoker, a non-boozer (albeit not a teetotaler), and a philanderer besieged by mistresses costing not a zloty, his expenses are negligible.
The literati at the foot of the tree reckon that Yitzhak is under a constraint. Storytelling will be his forte, but he aspires to orginality, and to make his mark as a groundbreaker he will have to draw on much the same wellspring of experience as his brother I.J. Singer, who has had a head start. Never mind, say the literati, he will have it in him to overcome this handicap on two scores. First, he will dig into himself for the inspiration to weave that shared life experience into a new, unique pattern. Second, he is bursting with impatience to “grow taller” than his brother and eventually overshadow him.
In the years and decades ahead, these speculations will come back to me, but meanwhile there I am at the foot of the pine tree, down which Yitzhak comes slithering, agile as a squirrel. Once on the ground, he is surrounded by the literati begging for an impersonation and offering a choice among three local celebrities—a nutty mystic, a pompous essayist, and an alcoholic poet (one whose talent compares favorably with Heine’s and whose name will one day grace a Tel Aviv street, but of this, as of so much else, I have not the faintest premonition).
Yitzhak strikes a comic scarecrow pose, as if pondering whom best to mimic. Slowly the seconds:—or is it minutes?—pass until we suddenly become aware that he is no longer there, that he has vanished from under our very noses like a phantom. How did it happen? Did he take advantage of an instant’s inattention, or has he lulled his audience into a trance? Heads turn in all directions, but there is no Yitzhak and there will be no burlesque.
Not long after, as though to make up for it, my mother and I are treated in private to a memorable scene of real-life tragicomedy. The occasion is a visit to the theater. Yitzhak has invited the two of us to see a Yiddish farce running in Warsaw called Redaktor Katchke (“Editor Duck”). The play, aside from its funny title (katchke is the Yiddish equivalent of the French canard, meaning a whopping journalistic lie), consists of only one gag, endlessly repeated and unfailingly raising a laugh. Each time the apoplectic editor opens his mouth he lets loose a deluge of spittle, obliging the other characters to shield themselves with straw hats or parasols.
Squeezed into one seat with my mother (my uncle has obtained only two free tickets for the three of us), I find my attention straying to Yitzhak who does not, I notice, give the stage so much as a single glance. Evidently he considers this cheap fare good enough for us, while he himself gazes off into nothingness. This once I really want to be angry with him, but again I simply cannot—he is out of my reach, absent. So constant is this air of his that at table it would not be surprising to see him pour a spoonful of soup into his ear instead of his mouth. But he never does. In a pinch he is all there. From the way his temples twitch, the way he blushes and breaks out in a clammy sweat, it is plain that all manner of potent, contradictory forces are clashing within him and liable to throw him into convulsions. But somehow the warring powers arrive at a standoff so that, for all his feverish restlessness, he still keeps his poise.
After the show, he takes us to Shiya’s apartment on elegant Leszno Street, where we spend the night. Early the next morning, back from a shopping errand, my mother and I enter with a borrowed front-door key and we are greeted by an astonishing sight. There in the hall, on the polished parquet floor, stands Yitzhak suffering what looks to be a crucifixion of sorts. His arms are stretched out to their full length and effectively nailed in place by, on the one side, a skinny young woman who has dug her fingernails into the wrist she is clutching and, on the other side, a more buxom one who is doing the same. Each wants him wholly to herself. They wage a desperate tug of war, which bids fair to split him clean down the middle, half a Yitzhak being better than none. His gaunt flushed face is wreathed in the torment of a mock-martyr.
The outcome? Events will follow their set course. The buxom maiden Runya will bear Yitzhak a son who, along with his mother, will be sent packing. Many years later, the son, Yisrael, will Hebraize the surname Singer into Zamir, and become a kibbutznik and editor of the leftist daily Al Hamishmar. I shall meet up with him in a Tel Aviv hotel room where he has been ignored and kept waiting by his estranged father, Yitzhak. But more of that later.
On another early morning in that summer of 1926, who is it I see between the pine trees, taking gingerly steps on the hot sand, but my grandmother Bathsheva? She has arrived during the night with my grandfather, Reb Pinhas Menahem, from their distant Galician shtetl of Zykow Stary (whither they had fled with young Moshe from troubled Warsaw during the Great War).
There is less—but also more—to Bathsheva than the word-picture that has been imprinted in my mind. Age, I suppose, has shriveled to nothing what little flesh was on her frame, now quite skeletal but still erect; her neck is scrawny beyond belief; the once-fiery red eyebrows are faded, the wig she wears is dark, deepening the mystery of how such a gaunt little face can accommodate such enormous, sunken eyes, such sharp cheekbones, so prominent a nose, and so upturned a chin. And, mystery of mysteries, how can so small and birdlike a head contain a brain capable of storing all those volumes of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah, not to mention that burden of agonized grievance she carries around with her against Jehovah her Maker, soured with unmotherly ruthlessness and spiced with sardonic scorn of commoners deemed lesser spirits than her exalted self?
My grandmother is accompanied by Shiya, who retreats at the approach of his sister, my mother, Hindele.
In their first encounter since parting in Berlin so many years before, mother and daughter go through the motions of a tepid embrace. Then the mother says to the daughter: “Why, Hindele, you are not at all as ugly as I thought you were!” Next my grandmother, thin lips pursed and the same grayish color as her enormous eyes, bestows a first (and last) icy glance at myself, a lad of barmitzvah age, shockingly bareheaded and barelegged, shamelessly bereft of earlocks and ritual fringes.
My grandparents do not take their meals with the family, but now and then I sight my grandfather Reb Pinhas Menahem, whose appearance is everything I expected—and more so. Frail, he has the dainty tread of a ballerina in rabbinic garb: black caftan, black skullcap, ritual fringes, golden earlocks bobbing to and fro, and a wavy golden beard glued to a sweet girlish face.
One evening, when the pinewood glows scarlet in the sunset, he musters the courage to approach me, unseen by Bathsheva. Within touching distance but at arm’s length he stops and gazes, in quest, I suppose, of some small resemblance to the Singer family. I gaze back. Never before have I seen, nor shall I ever see again, such childlike lovingness in a grown man, or such a look of innocence but also wisdom as in those gentle blue eyes. Still within touching distance but without touching, he says in a tremolo: “I dearly love your mother Hindele and you, Moshe, her dear son, I dearly love also.” And with that he turns away.
In the course of this visit I come to hear much sorrowful talk of my namesake Moshe, the youngest Singer brother. It has pleased Bathsheva to report that her beloved Moshe is so pious he decided not to make the journey to the family reunion, lest he find himself rubbing shoulders with a female in a crowded train compartment. To which Shiya, through gritted teeth, responds: “Our mother has had her way and crushed his spirit.” And Yitzhak adds in a tone of resignation: “Our mother congratulates herself on having saved his soul from the everlasting hellfire into which her other sons, you and I, will be cast.”
My two uncles agree that Moshe is another genius. His is far and away the best scholarly brain in the family. They relate how, after celebrating his bar mitzvah, Moshe set about organizing a Zionist youth movement, traveling far and wide over Galicia to enlist recruits. A born leader and orator, he preached the return to the Promised Land in synagogues after evening prayers. But then his mother got to work on him. “Our mother has snuffed out the will to live in her Moishele, she has buried him alive,” says my mother, indignant but not the least surprised.
What surprises me, however, is my uncle Yitzhak’s aloofness from his mother Bathsheva. He exchanges only a few offhand remarks with her and, in so doing, his eyes wear the same chill, steely glaze as her own. But he spends hours on end communing with, or rather listening to, his father Reb Pinhas Menahem. And something of his father’s tenderness, wonder, awe, and delight flushes Yitzhak’s own face, tempered or spiced with amusement. He seems to be feasting on the wonders and miracles of hasidic lore.
One day my grandparents leave the same way they came—unannounced. I presume my mother has seen them off, but she does not speak of it. And soon after, it is our turn to leave as well. My uncle Yitzhak takes us to the Warsaw train station, and once again the kisses he darts at my mother’s cheek miss their mark. She and I stand together in the corridor of the train. She waves goodbye through the open window, but thanks to her short-sightedness fails to see that he has vanished from the platform.
Yiddish literature has been permanently enriched by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s masterly novel, Satan in Goray, set in 17th-century Poland and describing how the remnants of Jewry after the Chmielnicki pogroms fall prey to rabid superstition. The horrors are presented without that nebbish whine—with no pathos. There is to the tale the vividness, the intensity, of an eerily entertaining nightmare which overcomes the reader, oblivious of the author who keeps himself aloof throughout. In style and spirit, in that book as well as in the many others he would write in his lifetime—from The Family Moskat through The Slave, The Spinoza of Market Street, The Manor, and on and on—he is a storyteller like no other.
As for the elder brother I.J. Singer, after the period I have just spoken of his reputation in Yiddish went on to soar triumphantly—after one brief melodramatic fall. Critics vented their spleen on the war novel which followed Perl (and which appeared in English in my translation under the title Blood Harvest): Stung, he retorted with an absurd public “renunciation of Yiddish literature,” a renunciation he later renounced with two splendid novels, Yoshe Kalb and The Brothers Ashkenazi. A stage version of Yoshe Kalb, starring Maurice Schwartz, became the biggest hit in the history of the Yiddish theater. It also led Shiya to move to New York, from where he was later able to provide a haven for Yitzhak from the oncoming Holocaust.
My mother, who had been the first of the Singer siblings to take up the pen, earned recognition as well under her married name of Esther Kreitman. Her autobiographical novel, Der Shaidim Tantz (“The Demons’ Dance”), was published first in Warsaw and later came out in my English translation under the title Deborah. Long after her death this novel would be resuscitated, thanks to the English writer Clive Sinclair, who would “discover” her while doing research for his excellent study, The Brothers Singer. Since then Deborah has gone on to a second life in Britain and the United States, and has also appeared in French and German, with a Danish version in the offing.
In 1938, my uncle Yitzhak made his English debut in an anthology I edited, Jewish Short Stories of Today. The compilation was—mea culpa—a family vehicle in disguise, with contributions signed by Isaac Bashevis Singer, I.J. Singer, Esther Kreitman, and my own pseudonym of Martin Lea, which I adopted for a London dockland novel, The House of Napolitano.
Not long after the publication of this anthology (to turn back again from literary matters to more personal ones), my own biography took a turn for the better when the Yiddish author A.M. Fuchs, in flight from post-Anschluss Vienna, came to our London apartment to pay a courtesy call on my mother, the writer. Accompanying him on the visit was his daughter Lola, to whom I surrendered my chastity, and who not long after became my wife and the mother of our daughter Hazel, born in the middle of World War II. While Lola was in labor, I, a civilian, sat in a second-floor office on Fleet Street in bombed-out London, monitoring German and French radio broadcasts.
The year is 1945, the war is won, among the lost are six million Jewish men, women, and children. I am now working for the Reuters news agency as a roving correspondent in Europe and North Africa and am quartered, along with Lola, Hazel, and my mother, who is visiting from London, in the five-star Chatham Hotel near the Place de l’Opéra in Paris. One day my uncle Yitzhak arrives for a visit. Climbing the stairs and avoiding the elevator as is his wont, he reaches our landing, only to find my mother in hysterics, a malady which has come to afflict her in place of her previous bouts of epilepsy. Ordinarily, these fits must simply run their course to the point of exhaustion, but at his command, “Don’t upset the kinder!” she recovers her composure.
Converted to Zionism by my coverage of the Nazi war-crimes trials, I quit Reuters but stay on in Paris where Yitzhak looks me up whenever he is in town, and deplores my lapse from storytelling to journalism. “Write,” he urges me, “and get yourself a mistress who lives in an attic. The thrill, the expectancy you will feel on the upstairs climb, will turn you on.”
Did my uncle urge me to become a storyteller? Very well, I do now have a story to tell, and here it is. One day, I am hurrying along the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, meaning the Boulevard of Good Tidings (this is fact, not fiction), when I suddenly hear the sound of an odd but somehow familiar name—the name “Jambul”—or do I simply imagine having heard it? I stop short in the busy throng and catch sight of a short, stocky man leaning against a shopwindow, wearing a trilby hat with its brim lowered just enough to leave one eye uncovered. And yes, he is speaking Yiddish to a companion. I go up to the stranger and ask whether he did in fact just say the name, “Jambul.” His watery eye in its drooping sac looks me over, and he nods assent.
Jambul is a place somewhere in Siberia, one of the new towns built by slave labor in Russia’s frozen north. My grandparents and my uncle Moshe were deported there from the Galician shtetl which became part of the Russian-occupied zone when Stalin and Hitler partitioned Poland in 1939. At the end of the war my mother, living in London, received three postcards from her mother in Jambul informing her that Bathsheva and Moshe were there together. To the name of Pinhas Menahem, her husband, my grandmother had appended the Hebrew initials denoting “of blessed memory,” but where and how he died she did not say. There was never a fourth postcard.
“Were you in Jambul?” I ask the watery-eyed stranger, who again nods in assent. “I have an uncle Moshe Singer who is living there with his mother Bathsheva. Did you happen to meet them?”
“You had an uncle Moshe Singer,” the stranger half-chortles, half-snarls. “The shmoyger [nincompoop] didn’t have the gumption to get organized, so he let himself starve and freeze to death. Did his wife hate him? Oh my, how she hated him! Children? No children. His mother? When I left, she was still around, but not for long, I guess.”
I do not believe in Satan, but there he stands, incarnate, with only one watery eye showing from beneath the turned-down brim of his trilby. I do not believe in predestination, but how else am I to account for these ill tidings received that day on the misnamed Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle? I walk away, blaming my grandmother Bathsheva for the death of my uncle Moshe, my namesake, and for my own birth.
Uncle Yitzhak, when I tell him of this encounter, listens with bowed head. The muscles of his gaunt face register a tremor. His lips move for words uttered in silence.
Many years later my uncle Yitzhak comes to visit us in Tel Aviv, where we are now living and where we have an apartment on Hayarkon Street overlooking the Mediterranean. He inspects the oil paintings done in two very different styles by Lola and Hazel, lingering over and finally accepting as a gift one of Hazel’s canvases depicting a bearded Jew brooding over an empty chessboard. The mood of this last visit is a tender one, but the idyll is soon to come to an abrupt, grotesque end.
Some months after this I receive an unexpected phone call. To my surprise, Yitzhak is in Tel Aviv again, staying at the Park Hotel, and he wishes me to present myself the following morning at nine o’clock sharp to start work on a joint translation of his newly completed novel. I arrive punctually but have been preceded by Yitzhak’s son, Yisrael Zamir—a reminder that my uncle is also a father.
On my entry Yitzhak motions me to a chair and begins reading aloud from the manuscript resting on his lap. As he reads, sentence by sentence, my job is to translate aloud into English without losing the Yiddish flavor. Having no notion of what the next sentence is to be, let alone what story is about to unfold, I begin to flounder, whereupon Bashevis snaps at me, “Simple, simple, keep it simple!”—even as he keeps taking down the sentences I dictate one by one. This goes on for fully two hours, at which point Yisrael Zamir, cooling his heels and totally ignored all this time, approaches, looms over his seated father, and snarls: “Now I see how you came to write The Slave!”
The next day Uncle Yitzhak comes to my apartment unannounced. He sits down at the foot of a couch and, head lowered, hands compressed between his knees, begins brooding. After a longish interval he pronounces judgment: “Your mother was a madwoman.” I have a delayed reaction, but a violent one. The following day my uncle is waiting for me outside the Park Hotel where he is being interviewed in Hebrew by a woman journalist and I walk past him without a greeting. The grimace of pained astonishment distorting his face reminds me of my mother on her deathbed, swinging around aghast to draw her very last breath.
Thinking back on it now, I am a fool for having broken with my uncle Yitzhak. In spite of everything he did dedicate a novel to his sister, though the dedication managed to get her name slightly wrong (Minda Esther, instead of Hinde Esther), a misprint which he attributed to her shaidim—her demons. After all this was over, Yitzhak’s wife and ideal life-companion Alma, who knew enough to treat him as a storyteller first and last, and only incidentally (and discreetly) as a husband, gently remonstrated with me. She wrote me a letter explaining that when Yitzhak said wild things he was merely rehearsing possible themes for a story.
The warring personalities inhabiting my uncle Yitzhak’s slight frame enriched the compositions, the harmonic flights, of the storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer. Those literati who foretold, when Yitzhak was still up a tree, that he would “dig into himself” to tap to the full his latent storytelling gifts overlooked the streak of shyness in his makeup which inhibited self-portrayal. More’s the pity, for his was a truly fascinating character.
Those same literati were as wrong as wrong could be in their forecast of an oncoming storm, a cloudburst of Yitzhak’s seething resentment, even outright hatred, against his elder brother Shiya. In the event, Yitzhak maintained a compulsive, lifelong posture of worshipfulness toward Shiya, publicly, demonstratively, in and out of season, referring to him as “my master.” Here was an enigma, behavior so utterly unlike his customary self or selves—whatever the complexity of his character, submissiveness was no part of it—as to suggest a case of hypnosis. Far-fetched? Perhaps, though ultimately Yitzhak did see fit to come out with a confession that not until the lamented death of his senior brother did he feel altogether free, “free as a bird,” to spread his literary wings.
That Yitzhak Bashevis himself exerted hypnotic powers, I can attest, and so surely can many others who found his presence spellbinding. That he himself should have been charmed by Shiya, the melancholy Shiya, and have trod so warily in order never, never to hurt him, was just one of those anomalies that go to make up the turning twisted web of life, and also the novels and short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
My uncle Yitzhak was not a believer in the betterment of the human species. He voiced his irreproachable philosophy, uttered his ultimate mot juste, over that stinking hard-boiled egg in a sweet-smelling pinewood forest in Poland: “Such, yes, such is life.”