Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Collected Stories. Boxed Set,
3 Volumes, illustrated Album, xxxi + 2844 pages.
Edited by Ilan
Stavans. Album includes biographical commentary by
James Gibbons. Stories translated from the Yiddish by
the author and many others. New York: Library of
“They were godly without God, and
worldly without a world.”
--Singer on his generation
in the 1960s, a little over forty years ago, I discovered
the work of Sylvia Plath. Alas, I discovered it (as
most people did) at exactly the moment it stopped.
Observer, along with its story on her suicide, printed a
whole page of her poems. In the midst of “Daddy”, one
of the most riveting of
those poems, Plath pulls herself up short and says,
I began to talk like a
I think I might well be a
A year or so later, I
attended a reading by the great confessional poet Robert
Lowell. He staggered onstage, and made a startling
declaration: “You know, I’m a Jew”. He asked if
anybody doubted him; nobody did. Some of us rolled our
eyes, and wondered what he would be confessing next.
But he spent most of the evening reading a gentle memoir of
his Sephardic maternal grandmother. When I told a
friend this story, he said he had seen William Carlos
Williams do the same: present his Jewish genealogy to a
poetry audience in a gesture of
There, In your face. I was mystified, yet flattered,
to see these great WASP poets wanting to be part of us.
My mother wasn’t so thrilled. Could somebody
tell the poets that as symbols of horrible but noble death,
the Jews were worn out? Wasn’t it time to choose some other
people and give us a chance to live? I partly
agreed with her, but I said, Mom, don’t blame the poets,
It was only this summer,
as I immersed myself in this centennial edition of Singer
stories—I counted 198 in all; I may be wrong, but not by
much--that the yearnings of the poets of half a century ago
came back to me. Collected Stories, latest
entry in the Library of America, places Singer in the canon
of American literature, alongside Hawthorne and Melville and
Henry James and Mark Twain. It is a major event in the
history of Jewish American culture. This triple volume
is beautifully edited and annotated by Ilan Stavans.
It includes a paperback album full of evocative photos and
ephemera, a brilliant symposium by Stavans, Morris
Dickstein, David Roskies, Jonathan Rosen and Isaiah Sheffer,
commentary by Francine Prose, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol
Oates, and many more. Stavans was right to focus
the collection on Singer’s stories; his talent and
originality come across far more vividly in his short
fiction, which compresses volatile forces till they explode,
than in his novels, where he tries to construct enduring
worlds. These stories, spread over the whole 20th
century, are set in prewar Polish shtetls, in postwar
European cities, in New York, in Israel, in Buenos Aires and
Rio, in the Brazilian jungle (Yiddish in the jungle?), and
in Miami Beach, where he died; on innumerable ships and
buses and trains and planes; in neighborhoods destroyed by
the Nazis, neighborhoods destroyed by the real estate
market, neighborhoods where we could bump into him today if
he were still alive. This collection shows that
Singer could “do the police in different voices”, that is,
write wonderfully in very diverse literary styles, and that
his work had an enormous emotional range. Singer’s
people, Jews from Poland, are drawn from a fairly narrow
demographic base. But they have experienced the 20th
century in all its depths. As he said in 1973, “They
lived in the midst of almost all the social movements of our
time. Their illusions were the illusions of mankind.”
The life they shared was “a treasury of individuality”.
Even when they died—and so many died before their time—they
lived. Singer was fully attuned to that
life. He may be able to help us see why great modern
poets with noble
goyishe pedigrees would want to be part of us.
If we focus briefly on
one of Singer’s short masterpieces, “A Crown of Feathers”,
it can give us a sense of his uncanny power as a writer.
“Crown”, set in a shtetl, describes a woman’s twisted
and tragic life journey. We meet Aksha, as a rich,
smart, beautiful, spoiled girl, raised by adoring
grandparents. She must find a husband: in the
closed society of the shtetl,
without a husband a woman’s life cannot go on. (This is the
context of Scholem Aleichem’s “Tevye” stories and
Fiddler on the Roof.) With her dowry there
is no shortage of candidates; but they all look like klutzes
and dunces to her, and she blows them off. Her
grandparents die, she finds herself alone and under pressure
to make a decision fast. Then she has a vision,
speaking in her grandmother’s voice: the whole Jewish
world is as empty as the shtetl; but if abandons the
Jews, and becomes a Catholic, she can have a glorious future
with the goyim. Her grandmother offers
her a sign: “down and feathers entwined into a crown”,
culminating in a Cross. She follows the sign, becomes
a Catholic, and makes what at first seems a brilliant
marriage with the local Squire. But “it was strange,
there were no more signs after the first one.” And her
marriage unfolds as a disaster: her husband drinks,
screws around, and ignores her. She feels even more
abandoned and alone as a Christian than she had felt as a
Jew. “She had betrayed the Jewish God, and no longer
believed in the gentile one.” In despair, she
starts to hear conflicting voices: her grandmother
tells her to “go back to Esau”; her grandfather says she
should return to Judaism and marry the last man she
rejected: “he’ll save you from the abyss.” She
returns. The rabbi is merciful and understanding.
But her Jewish husband, still hurting from her rejection of
him, vows revenge. In the tradition of Anna Karenina’s
husband, he sanctifies his hatred as righteousness. He
refuses to touch her, tortures her psychologically, and
eventually starves her to death. As she feels she is
dying, she wants to repent and pray.
But such was her
fate, doubt did not leave her even now. Her
grandfather had told her one thing, her grandmother
She had but one
desire now—that a sign should be given, the
pure truth revealed….
With her last
strength she got up and found a knife….she
ripped open the
pillowcase. From the stuffing she pulled out a
crown of feathers. A hidden hand had braided in
its top the four letters of God’s name,…YHWH.
miracle! Yet it gives her no inner peace.
Her brilliant critical mind, which has driven her so
far, cannot stop now. She asks herself:
In what way was this
crown more a revelation than the other?
Was it possible there
were different faiths in Heaven?
“Aksha began to pray
for a new miracle.” Yet she knows, and we
know, that no matter how many miracles happen to her,
they can only become part of the inherently endless
series of miracles that she has experienced already.
She grasps an idea that
is a fundamental idea in 20th-century philosophy
and ethics: the plurality of values.
William James, Max Weber, Jean-Paul Sartre, Isaiah Berlin,
could have comforted her. But the closed world that is
her only world has no comfort and no place for a pluralist.
“At dawn”—like a prisoner being executed--“she sighed and
gave up her soul.”
The women who wash her
body find pieces of down between her fingers. But they
find no crown. They don’t understand.
…what had she been
searching for? No matter how much the townspeople
pondered,…they never discovered the truth.
Now the narrator steps
back slowly from Aksha, her shtetl and her story,
and closes the ark with
one of Singer’s most glorious sentences:
Because if there is such
a thing as truth it is as intricate and
hidden as a crown of feathers.
Even though the truth is
hidden and the world is closed, Aksha gets some recognition
after she dies. Her fellow townsmen “buried her near
the chapel of a holy man”, and “a rabbi spoke a eulogy for
her.” Singer doesn’t share the text of this
eulogy with us. But if we have stayed with him through
Aksha’s ups and downs, we can compose it ourselves.
Actually, Goethe has already composed it for us, in his
Faust. Goethe’s God (der Herr,
he calls him) says it at the start:
As long as he may be
Man errs as long as he will strive.
A chorus of angels says
it at the end:
Saved is the spirit kingdom’s flower
From evil and the grave.
Whoever strives with all his power
We are allowed to
This shtetl girl,
messing her life up but striving with all her power, shares
Faust’s glory. And Singer and Yiddish share in the
glory of modern culture.
“A Crown of Feathers”
contains a number of themes that pervade Singer’s whole long
career. One is what critics have come to call magic
realism, a vision of the world where demons and
and supernatural forces are as alive as you and me and a lot
more powerful; though Singer often goes out of his way, as
in “Taibele and her Demon” and “The Séance”, to say
that his supernatural forces are created out of human needs,
and that humans know it. Another is empathy for
women: there is no serious male writer since D.H.
Lawrence who has focused so intensely on women’s inner
lives, and celebrated them, far more than men, as symbols of
universal humanity. Singer highlights woman’s power to
be a searcher, and to suffer for her search, even
when, as in Aksha’s case, it is unclear “What was she
searching for?” Another powerful motif is the
experience of betrayal. So many of Singer’s
heroes of both sexes commit horrible betrayals: they betray
each other and accuse each other of betrayal; they betray
whatever ideals they believe in; they betray God, but they
also charge God himself with massive betrayal. When
Singer’s characters address God, it is very often in the
J’accuse. (“He remembered a scene he had witnessed in a
camp….how could God, if He existed, ever rectify such evil?
No Messiah, no angels, no paradise could compensate …. The
past is stronger than God.”)
A form of discourse that recurs relentlessly in these
stories, especially in later ones, could be called
theology against God. An important part of suffering in
Singer’s people is memory of the dead, and a feeling that we
should be dead ourselves. Since World War One, this
kind of memory has been called survivor guilt.
People crippled by survivor guilt often hope to unite with
the dead through suicide. Many people in
this collection do it; others sound like they could do it
next week. And frequently their stories are told by
their widows, lovers or friends, who stretch themselves out
on the rack of a whole new round of survivor guilt, which
then creates a new generation in danger. Singer’s
atmosphere feels like a giant undertow that could drown us
all, the writer along with his characters and his readers.
We need to remember that
this writer was the younger brother of the great Yiddish
novelist and playwright I. J. Singer, author of The
Brothers Ashkenazi and Yoshe Kalb. Israel
Joshua had done everything to get Isaac Bashevis out of
Poland and onto the Forward, and encouraged him to
write. I. J. died of a heart attack in 1944, at the
height of his powers, and I. B.’s talent as a serious writer
began to thrive more or less the moment he died. This
was also the moment when their whole generation of Polish
Jews—including their mother and a younger brother—were being
annihilated by the Nazis. The correspondences and
contradictions between their works sound fascinating, and
could be a thrilling for critics, if only there were anybody
still alive to write or to read criticism of Yiddish
literature. (Do I hear a voice?)
The one vital Singer
theme that’s missing from “A Crown of Feathers” is sex.
In seminaries and yeshivas of many denominations today,
Singer is still on the Index along with D.H. Lawrence.
This collection helps us see why. He wrote about sex
with a remarkable fluency from the very start of his career
to the very end. Yet there is curiously little about
here, no limbs, no breasts, no genitals, no orgasms. But
there is a great deal about how sex both opens and floods
our minds. It’s a space where men and women get to act
out desires that they ordinarily can’t even bear to think
Here are a shtetl
ritual slaughterer and his landlady:
Risha exclaimed, “Woe is
me, I’m a married woman, we’ll roast in Gehenna for this.”
But she, thrice married, had never before felt desire as
great as on that day. Though she called him murderer,
robber, highwayman, and reproached him for bringing shame to
an honest woman, yet at the same time she kissed him,
fondled him, and responded to his masculine whims. In their
amorous play, she asked him to slaughter her….he ran his
finger across her throat. When she arose, she said,
“You murdered me that time.”
He answered, “And you
For this adulterous
couple, sex opens the portal to transgression. It’s
only a matter of time before they start slaughtering horses
and pigs and throwing them into the kosher meat, and making
love through their death throes.
Hot sex is a driving
force in Singer’s very first shtetl stories, written
in the mid-1940s (but often not published till the 1960s).
“The clever Shloime, because of his great learning, began to
delve deeper and deeper into questions of ‘he’ and ‘she’.”
Singer’s shtetls are all physically intact, yet
culturally and socially they are imploding. The
forces that pull them to pieces do not come from outside
agitators—though certainly there are plenty of these
around—but from the inner dynamics of religious Judaism
itself. The achievement of these early stories
is to explode the pastoral myth of the shtetl
forever. Singer’s romance of Tradition is at the same
time a romance of Transgression. His Talmudic scholars
and good housewives and butchers and cooks may be victims,
but they are not innocent. Singer forces us to recognize
that they are perpetrators as well. Perpetrators have
a rough dignity: they are not radiant saints, as in the
traditional myth; they are not passive
schleps and sad sacks, as in the Zionist myth; they are
strong men and women who feel trapped in the bleak small
towns they have grown up in—Singer renders small-town
claustrophobia as powerfully as Sherwood Anderson or Willa
Cather; his people have the brains and sensitivity to know
they want a better life than the life they know, and the
guts to stand up and fight for profane happiness, even
though they know (and tell each other) they’re bound to
Readers who grew up as I
did on American films noirs may notice that Singer’s
many hot-but-doomed couples sound amazingly like Barbara
Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, or
Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once.
At first the similarity seemed bizarre to me: Could I
be imagining this? But then I realized that many of
the best American
noirs were made at exactly the same historical moment as
Singer’s, by Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and all sorts of
other people who were Jewish refugees like Singer himself.
Maybe we need to imagine a form of “Judeo-American noir”,
a distinctive genre with an emotional territory all its own.
As a kid, I was always stymied by the question, Why are the
hero and the heroine so hopelessly doomed? America is
a big country; why can’t they just get divorced and marry
each other and leave town? If we think of the places
the movies are set— in Kansas, say, or California—it’s a
mystery, or at least a problem. If we think of the
places the directors come from—Berlin, Vienna, Budapest,
Prague--we don’t have to ask.
As a writer, Singer is
clearly glad to exploit sex, to take advantage of its
pulling power. But beyond this, he really, like
Lawrence, believes in sex as an affirmative and
creative force that makes the world go round. This empowers
him to imagine legally married ordinary people having nights
together that are as wild as any outlaw’s. One of his
first stories, “Short Friday” (1945), is a
romantic hymn to married love. The man is a poor
shtetl tailor who looks like a shlemiel in the
public world. But in bed with his wife he is a hero.
She baked a small
chaleh for him. Occasionally she would inscribe her
name on it in letters of dough, and then he would tease her,
“Shoshe, I am eating you up, I have already swallowed you….”
He rose and came to her.
Presently he was in bed with her.
A desire for her flesh
had roused him. His heart pounded, the blood coursed
in his veins. He felt a pressure in his loins...he
remembered the law that admonished a man not to copulate
with a woman until he had first spoken affectionately to
her, and he now began to speak of his love for her….
This is as close as
Singer gets to physical detail. But it’s plenty,
because he writes with such generosity and transparent
empathy for both partners. But also remember “I’m eating you
up”: in his world, even married love, the most solid
tradition, skirts the edge of transgression. We see this
same generosity and empathy in “The Spinoza of Market
Street”. Here, in interwar Warsaw, an old ascetic
scholar lets himself be talked into marrying the maid.
Then, somehow, to his amazement,
Powers long dormant
awakened in him….The pressures and aches stopped. He
embraced Dobbe, pressed her to himself, was again a man as
in his youth….Later, Dr. Fischelson slipped off into the
sleep that young men know.
He awakens close to dawn,
goes to the window, and sees the climax of a meteor shower.
The comets, planets,
satellites, asteroids, kept encircling these shining
centers. Worlds were born and died in cosmic
upheavals. In the chaos of nebulae, primeval matter
was being formed….Yes, the divine substance was
extended….Its waves and bubbles danced in the universal
cauldron, seething with change….And he, Dr. Fischelson, was
part of it.
This is one of the nicest
things anybody has ever written about sex: that it has
the power to make people feel, not just that they have come
to life, but that they are participating in a universal
Many of Singer’s 1940s
stories are written in a very distinctive literary form,
“the tale”. All through the 19th century,
brilliant tales appeared all over Europe and America.
Its masters include Gogol, Hans Andersen, E.T.A. Hoffmann,
Edgar Allan Poe. The tale is a kind of anti-self to
the 19th-century novel. Instead of being
set in a particular place, its location is uncertain.
In time, it is usually a time “before” the present, in a
society whose contours are vague but relatively
“underdeveloped”. Tales describe the intrusion of
supernatural forces into ordinary men’s and women’s daily
lives. Yiddish tales tend to feature the Hasidic and
folkloric theme of “the dybbuk”, a wandering soul
that takes possession of young men’s and women’s bodies.
Shmuel Ansky’s play of the 1920s, adapted as a Polish
Yiddish movie in the 1930s, is a modernist translation of
the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. This tragedy was Singer’s
starting point, and it won him instant recognition, even as
the Nazis destroyed a thousand Veronas. It enabled him
to write with great passion and intensity, to create a world
that was narrow but thrilling, and to find readers in
postwar America and Europe who felt he could see into their
souls and feel not only their pain but their yearning.
In the 1960s, Singer went
through a crucial development.
He never stopped writing about a real or imagined lost Poland
“before the fall.” But he began to focus on his own
generation, on Jews who had gone through the Holocaust but
survived. His own neighborhood, New York’s Upper West
Side, was full of survivors. Many of them were just
barely surviving—for years I could see them in impeccable
but increasingly threadbare European clothes, going through
the waste baskets on Broadway. Others ran the
florists, the children’s clothing shops, the dry cleaners;
you could see the numbers on their arms as they handed you
your clothes. Still others, like Vladek Spiegelman,
Art’s father in Maus,
were having more success in the postwar American economy than
they had ever had in Poland. Some were able to
afford nice clothes, big cars, splendid apartments in
palatial New York buildings—like the building on Broadway
where Singer and his wife could move in the 1960s, after his
first great successes in the American paperback market.
But Singer saw that many of his neighbors were among the
most tormented people anywhere in the world. And he
felt an obligation to them that was rooted in “survivor
guilt”—he, whose survival had never been in doubt. In
dozens of the stories here, including many of the best, he
found ways to make their their torments his own. In
his New York stories, Singer puts the supernatural tale and
the realistic novel in bed together.
“The Cafeteria” (1968) is
a marvelous panorama of this generation. Hundreds of Jews
pass through, amazed that they aren’t dead, fearing the end
could come anytime, but overflowing with gossip and intrigue
against each other. They disparage each other for what
they think they did to survive (“see that one? He had a
store in Auschwitz?”), and they lacerate themselves for what
they know they themselves did (“to get a bowl of soup you
had to sell your soul”). In the new world, people
strive to live new lives. “Everyone tries with all his
powers to grab as many honors and as much money and prestige
as he can. None of us learns from all these deaths.”
Then abruptly “a fresh young woman”, a glamorous presence
comes in. Her name is Esther, and she overflows with
life. Her life force awakens all “the old has-beens”,
and they buy her everything
Soon Esther and the narrator get together in a typical Singer
“Well, what are you
She gave me both a kiss and a bite.
I said, “You are a ball of fire.”
“Yes, fire from Gehenna.”
This is an encounter
between a woman who went through the Holocaust and a
man who, like Singer himself, came to America in time to
avoid it. She has plenty of stories to tell:
“The way people behaved in the war—you will never know.
They lost all shame.” He wants to hear her story, and
to make it his own. His desire to know inflames his
sexual desire—they don’t call it “carnal knowledge” for
nothing. He invites her to his place to tell all,
hoping to make love to her. When they are alone at
last, she tells him what strikes her as ultimate horror:
“I saw Hitler….I saw him here on Broadway...right here in
the cafeteria.” He acts rational (just as we would),
tries to assure her it is impossible. But she sees how
anxious and distraught her story has made him, and she sees
his anxiety as proof that it’s all true.
“I saw him just as I am
seeing you now.”
“You had a glimpse back
“Well, let it be so.
But since then I have had no rest….”
He never sees Esther
again, but often thinks of her. He worries, has she
committed suicide? “How can the brain produce such
nightmares? What goes on in that marrow behind the
skull?” The story’s
denouement is that, in a travesty of sexually transmitted
disease, he is infected with her nightmares. He asks,
“what guarantee have I that the same sort of thing will not
happen to me?” Intimacy with this woman who has been
through it all—though he never gets as intimate as he wants,
and never finds out the exact meaning of that “all”—gives
the narrator’s imagination an apocalyptic shock. Here
is how he comes to imagine the future:
…Buildings will collapse, power
plants will stop generating electricity. Generals
will drop atomic bombs on their own populations.
Mad revolutionaries will run in the streets, crying
fantastic slogans. I have often thought it would
begin in New York. This metropolis has all the symptoms
of a mind gone berserk.
The cafeteria, and indeed
the city itself, looked at first like shelter from the
storms of the recent past; but they turn out not merely to
contain but to compress and condense enough twisted psychic
energy to generate even more violent storms to come.
Esther has many soul
sisters. One of them turns up in a late story, “The
Bus”, on a tour bus gliding through the Alps. The bus
turns out to contain a whole Grand Hotel full of strange
people who will generate a lot of plot in a few pages.
A Swiss Protestant doctor sits next to the narrator and
explains his troubled marriage. As sublime mountain
scenery opens up before them, he plunges into intimate talk.
“She’s the one who allegedly converted,” he says, “but I
seem to have turned into a Polish Jew.” To be a
Polish Jew, for Singer, means to have passed through the
Holocaust, and to have memories that are unspeakable.
She is impossible to be with, but she has one grand trait:
“sexually, she was amazingly strong.” Her source of
sexual energy is not her body, but her mind; she has “a
powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy.” Describing
her allure, “She has said things to me that drive me to
frenzy. She has more stories than Sheherazade.
Our days were cursed, but our nights were wild. She
wore me out….” Her sexuality is overpowering, but not
unique: this goy can feel it in all Jews, especially
in Jewish women, and most of all in Jewish women who are
survivors of the Holocaust. “I have a theory”, he
says, “that the Jewish woman of today wants to make up for
all the centuries in the ghetto.” In all those
centuries, women were both sexually and spiritually
repressed. The new Jewish woman is sexually open and
free; but sex for her is part of a larger project, the full
liberation of the spirit. The doctor is surprised that
her project of liberation has not yet ignited Jewish
literature, but he is sure it will: “the Jews are a people
of imagination….I can see it in their eyes.”
This is vintage Jewish chauvinism, though you can bet you
won’t find it in the Jewish Press.
Embedded in the doctor’s
riff are some provocative ideas: that the primary
source of sexuality is our mind, our imagination; that women
are far more imaginative than men; that normal sexual
feeling is in some way perverse (Freud said this in The
Case of Dora); that normal Jewish sexual feeling
is politicized, in the sense of infused with a sense of
historical mission; that all of us, Jews and goyim
alike, can transport ourselves and each other into sexual
frenzy by telling stories; that the new Jewish woman can
tell stories that can liberate us all. I love
this vision, with its echoes of feminisms and
counter-cultures close to my heart. But in a Singer
story, it’s hard to take it at face value. Any
Sheherazade who has been through encounters with the Nazis
has got to be choked with stories of horror beyond dreams.
How can she have the emotional freedom to be, as her husband
dreams, a goddess of liberation? At the story’s end we
see her up close and personal: a nervous wreck, luminous but
suicidal, who barely makes it through the night.
Singer’s stories often close with terrific punch lines, and
she offers one of the best: “Unlike the driver of our
ill-starred bus”, where the story began, “the forces that
drive us mad have all the time in the world.”Many of the late stories portray Singer
in a Rock Star mode.
Should I say “Singer”, or
just “the narrator”? In these stories, Singer’s usual
sense of distance between narrator and creator seems to
collapse. This narrator spends most of his life on the
road, flying to ever-more-far-flung parts of the world to
read his Yiddish stories. Wherever he goes, a strange
woman finds him, says something like “Only you know my
soul”, or even “I read you in the camps”, and takes him home
to bed. Sometimes there is a husband at home; he
typically echoes his wife’s admiration for Singer and
disappears into the night, leaving them alone. They do
what men and women do, and then—this often seems to be the
encounter’s real point—she tells him her life story.
Some of these stories are tragic, at least one (“One Night
is hilarious. Next morning she takes him to the train or
plane, he promises to remember her, and then promptly
forgets. These narratives project a sense of sexual
privilege and entitlement that isn’t so nice; it’s easy to
see how Singer’s fellow-writers could hate him.
I have no idea how many (if any) of these encounters were
real. The Singer Album has many posed photos of
the writer and his wife Alma, which seem placed there to
make us feel, “None of that hanky-panky really happened.”
The photos don’t persuade me, but honestly I don’t care.
However, whether or not Singer actually lived as a
seventy-year-old Rock Star with Holocaust-survivor groupies,
as a Rock Star with great poignancy —far more than any Guitar
Wizard half his age. The key is his empathy for
women. Whether or not these women had real-life
originals, whether he treated them well or ill, he
transforms them into memorable characters in print.
“A Wedding in
Brownsville”, Singer’s first great New York story, offers a
spectacular set-piece that intertwines New York’s brilliant
postwar culture of fusion—its fusion of high culture and low
culture, of Europe and America, of Jews and gentiles, of
tradition and modernity, of religion and secularism, of
shtetl and metropolis—with a more alluring, unstable and
emotionally threatening fusion, the fusion of the living and
The hall…was filled with
people and music, with tables heaped with food, a bar
stacked with bottles. The musicians were playing an
Israeli march that was a hodgepodge of American jazz with
Oriental flourishes. Men were dancing with men, women
with women, men with women….Guests kept arriving, pushing
their way through the crowd, some still in their hats and
coats, munching hors d’oeuvres, drinking schnapps. The
hall resounded with stamping, screaming, laughing, clapping.
Flash bulbs went off blindingly….
He became half-drunk on the amalgam of
odors: flowers, garlic, sauerkraut, perfume,
mustard….“Hello Schloime-Dovid, you don’t recognize me,
eh! Look, he forgot!”…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? Don’t let it stand. Take some,
its good.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.” “Beresh the son of Feivish? Starved to
death in Russia….His wife? In Israel, she married
a Lithuanian.” “Sorele? Shot, together with her
children.”…”Your brother Chayim? Your Uncle Oyzer?
They killed everyone, everyone. They took a whole
people, and wiped them out with German efficiency:
gleichgeschaltet!” “Have you seen the bride?
Pretty as a picture, but too much makeup….Do you see
that young woman dancing in the yellow dress? It’s
Riva’s sister—her father was Moshe the candlemaker.
Riva herself? Where all the others ended up:
Auchwitz. How close we came ourselves! All
of us are really dead….Even the survivors carry death in
their hearts. But it’s a wedding, we should be
This is a generation that
overflows with a vitality that makes postwar New York the
cultural capital of the world. And yet, by some weird
magic, it also turns out to be a generation that doesn’t
know if it’s alive or dead. It leaps to choose life—Lechayim!--
but who knows if life will return the compliment?
In the 1960s, Singer
achieved tremendous success in America. (Other Yiddish
writers bitterly called him “Yankee Doodle”.)
But for much of his generation, and for many of his readers,
it was a decade of hard times. In cities all over
America, Jewish neighborhoods downscaled and went through
what sociologists called “white flight”. Many young
people with rising incomes moved to suburbs, which were
federally subsidized through the Highway System.
People like their parents, old people on fixed or declining
incomes, stayed in “the old neighborhood”.
As Jewish neighborhoods lost their economic base, and grew
less safe and more violent—as all American cities did in the
1960s—they also lost much of their gemutlichkeit.
Within a few years, hundreds of cafeterias closed; for
generations, they had been the main centers of Jewish public
life (not to mention gold mines for Jewish writers). In a
short time, many Jews who had come to feel at home in
American cities suddenly felt marginal and endangered.
Here, unexpectedly, was a whole new world of Jewish
suffering. It wasn’t shtetl poverty, it wasn’t
Tsarist pogroms, it wasn’t Nazis, but it was real.
In the 1960s, Jewish
urban liberals, who had fought discrimination, supported
diversity and pluralism, celebrated the American city for
its grand inclusiveness, found themselves under a new kind
of stress. It wasn’t hard to find Jews talking like this:
The street between
Broadway and Riverside Drive became noisier and filthier
from day to day. Hordes of urchins ran around half
naked. Dark men with curly hair and wild eyes quarreled with
little women whose bellies were always swollen in pregnancy.
They talked back in rattling voices. God in heaven, since
Sam died, New York, America—perhaps the whole world—was
falling apart. All the decent people had left the
neighborhood, and it was overrun by a mob of thieves,
robbers, whores….Never had Broadway seemed to her so wild,
so dirty. It stank of softened asphalt, gasoline,
rotted fruit, the excrement of dogs.
This is Bessie, an old
Singer lady, the heroine of his story, “The Key”.
I can recall my shock, at a late-60s Seder table, when I first
heard an old Jewish lady talk this way. What struck me
was her mix of fear and loathing. I had to sympathize with
her fear, alone in the street, but why did she erupt with
loathing? In fact, her language sounds a lot like late-60s
American politics, neo-Right wing politics. And
indeed, Richard Nixon in 1968 was elected President with the
aid of these politics—his team called it “the Southern
strategy”. Most American Jews probably understood this
woman’s pain. Very few used it as a pretext to move
politically to the Right. (Norman Podhoretz and
Commentary were among the few.) But Singer must have
heard this language on the streets and in cafeterias every
day. He treats Bessie with great delicacy. He
portrays her paranoid eruption as part of a crisis and
potential collapse of life. She has lost her way; she
has got to find herself again. The subtitle of her
story could be “She Shall Overcome”.
Here is how Singer makes
it happen. Bessie hates going out, but she has to
shop. One summer afternoon, she is coming home from
shopping on Broadway, and her key sticks in the lock.
She pushes and pulls it, and it breaks. Bessie is
struck with terror. She feels she has nowhere to turn.
She goes back to Broadway, looking for a locksmith, but she
can’t find anybody open. She sits down for a rest,
apparently on one of the park benches on the Broadway Mall
(the green strip that splits Broadway from Columbus Circle
to 122nd Street), and falls asleep.
Some hours later, Bessie
wakes up. She feels disoriented, then she looks around
her, and sees the moon; near it is a greenish star.
She is amazed: it is like a revelation. She had
almost forgotten that there was a sky, a moon, stars.
Years had passed and she had never looked up—only
down….Well, if there was a sky, perhaps there was also God,
angels, paradise....[She asks herself] “What have I
accomplished in all these years?”...She felt as if she had
awakened from a long sleep. The broken key had opened
a door in her brain….
A big black man comes
toward her, and she is startled, but he goes his own way
peaceably and she relaxes. Now “Fresh breezes drifted
from the Hudson. New stars appeared in the sky.”
A black cat comes toward her. She is terrified. But
then it rubs up against her and acts friendly. How
could she have feared it? “O Mother of mine, I was
bewitched. I’ll begin a new life.” She even
thinks, Could I remarry? Then she falls
She awakes, and it is a
new day; she can even see the sun, which she hasn’t seen in
some time. She sees men and women going to work; a
young man nods good morning, and she smiles at him.
She reaches her building. She is terrified of having to ask
her superintendent for help. But he is open and nice,
worries about her, says he will open her door right away.
“Why didn’t you come to me and tell me what happened?
To be roaming around all night at your age—my God!”
Ironically, we know, it is only through that “roaming
around” that she has started to become human again, human
enough to ask people for help. Her next door neighbor
comes out, expresses worry and relief, and says she put her
butter and milk in her fridge.
Bessie could hardly
restrain her tears. “Oh, my good people.”
She said. “I didn’t
The super said, “Next
time, if something like this happens, call me. That’s
what I’m here for.”
She lies down on her bed,
and a vision of Sam appears. It may be the first time that
he has “managed to get away from the grave and visit her.”
They wander arm in arm through corridors, tunnels,
mountains. Suddenly she realizes, “It was like the
night of their honeymoon”, in Ellenville in the Catskills,
so many years ago, when the hotel owner had let them into
their bridal suite. She hears the same words she heard
before: “You don’t need no key here. Just
enter—and mazel tov.”
The experience of breaking her key has led her to discover
the street, the Broadway Mall (on whose bench she spent the
night), animals, the sky, the sun, other people: “Oh,
my good people….” Losing her key enables her to find
the key to staying alive in the city: to be here
now. Her breakthrough to tomorrow carries her back
to her breakthrough in yesterday, when people urged her to
“be here now” with the man she loved.
“The Key” may be the
sweetest story Singer ever wrote. In some ways it
evokes O. Henry, with his parables that show the universe
fitting together, just when it looks like it’s not going to
fit together at all. But it goes far beyond O. Henry
in letting loose the bitterness that the writer is trying to
transcend. The spleen and bile flood in at the story’s
start: “hordes of urchins…a mob of thieves, robbers and
whores”. But Singer empowers his heroine to overcome
her fear and loathing and reach a point where she can be
here now and share space with the rest of the people of the
Upper West Side—and of the earth--and live with them.
That’s the key.
One thing that gives this
story a special resonance is its contrast with Mr.
Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s vitriolic novel
published in 1969. \ Sammler walks exactly the same
changing Upper West Side streets as Bessie. At the
book’s start he speaks of the other neighborhood people with
loathing very like her own. 300 pages later, he talks
just the same way. He walks up and down Broadway hundreds
of times, but his mind doesn’t move a step. In the 1950s,
Bellow had done a stirring translation of “Gimpel the Fool”
for the Partisan Review and played a vital role in
Singer’s American debut. But by the end of the 1960s,
they were seeing the same urban space in very different
ways. Some of Bellow’s best fiction—Seize the Day,
and much of Herzog—is not just located on the West
Side, but embedded in its everyday life. In
Sammler, just a few years later, it seemed that Bellow
had locked himself out and thrown away the key. The
striking thing about Singer is how well he adapted to the
city’s changes. He not only held onto his key, he showed the
key still worked.
In the late 1960s and
early 1970s, even as Singer was writing some of his best
stories, he was highly visible on the street. You
could see him plain, on Upper Broadway or on the park
benches of the Broadway Mall, schmoozing with people,
feeding pigeons, “roaming around”. Sometimes I felt he
was the linchpin that held the Upper West Side together.
My mother often saw him on her walks to Zabar’s. Since
she was a lifelong fan, I asked her, why not say Shalom!
“He has more glamorous women than me”, she said. In
the 1970s, he became a subject for celebrity photographs.
Some are reproduced in The Singer Album. (Bruce
Davidson’s are the best.) There was something gimmicky about
these pictures, but I loved them from the start, not only
because I loved Singer, but because of their politics.
Behold an old Jew in a multicultural city, completely at
home. Does he fear the street, overflowing with
dark-skinned “others”? No: he has the key to
the city. He knows how to be here now. Remember, those
were years when New York City was in deep trouble, and
President Ford even said that if the city went bankrupt,
“the American people” would suffer no loss. Those pictures
and the stories that went with them were terrific ads for
New York, a city whose inner life has always grown out of
its streets. Not only that, they were terrific ads for
Jewish liberalism. That old man on the street was a
radical anti-Sammler. His presence gave Jewish
liberalism a renewal of life, as vibrant as the inner
renewal of “The Spinoza of Market Street”. Did he
have any idea of this? I’m sure he didn’t. The
political force of his presence derived not from any idea,
but from a human experience. We are at home with lots of
people in a limited space. We know how to share space.
We know the street is the Garden. This is where God
meant for us to be.
I opened this piece by
invoking Sylvia Plath, and wondering why, just before she
killed herself, she expressed a wish to be a Jew. I
want to close with a Singer story that might give us a clue.
This story was published in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily
all the way back in 1970, and translated by Singer and
novelist Laurie Colwin, probably around that time. But
it wasn’t published in English till last year, when the
Collected Stories first appeared, and the English-language
Forward published a supplement in his honor. The
supplement contained several fine critical pieces, color
photographs from what we might call his Miami Dada period,
shortly before he died, and this one knockout story, called
The central themes in “Two” are developed in many other
places in Singer’s work. What makes this story
special—and probably what kept it from getting published for
so long—is that it’s
The two are a man and a
woman, David, a Hebrew teacher, and Dora, proprietor of a
boutique, both Holocaust survivors. They have had a
love affair that has gone on for years. For years they
dreamed of getting married. In vain! Now they are
planning to commit suicide together. They have rented
a room in a motor court in what seems to be the Catskills.
They will enjoy a last night of love, and then take poison
pills at dawn. David feels “pregnant with death”.
As Singer describes the plan, and their first steps in
setting it in motion, it sounds ridiculous. But he
knows we know that, in spite of everything, ridiculous
suicide plans sometimes succeed. They get into the motel
room and start bickering right away.
“This night was supposed
to be a holiday, not Tishab’ov.
Take off your glasses.
I want to see your eyes.”
“Leave me alone.”
He takes out a bottle of
cognac and a box of cookies and pours them drinks. They
can’t quite manage to say L’chayim! He says he
can’t live anyway, he has a lethal cancer; she doubts it’s
real. He says that on a night like this they must
confess everything, all their transgressions against each
other. It seems they have both been unfaithful.
He has had far more lovers then she, but she, too, has “done
it”, betrayed him. They both insist their various lovers
meant nothing to them; they both respond to each other’s
confessions with disgust. He calls her a whore. “How
many Nazis did you whore around with?” None, she swears.
Then he says, “We’re not Jews anymore, we’re Nazis.”
Then he throws up.
After awhile he says,
“There may still be a God.”
She asks, bitterly, “What
kind of God?”
He says what many Singer
survivors say: “A heavenly Hitler.”
“Cursed be the day I met
you!” he shouts at her. And yet, uncannily, and
carrying him (and us) back to Poland, “it was not his
language or his style. His father entered him like
“For you to preach
morality”, she says, “is like Al Capone becoming a rabbi.”
But then, Singer says, “She went to him, as if his terrible
words were a code and a signal for her. She fell into
his arms and he clung to her with passion and disgust.
All their inhibitions left them….They wrestled with each
other, scolding one another and caressing with forgiving
vengeance.” Soon “They fell into their old familiar
love chatter: half crazy fantasies, incoherent
exclamations, promises of eternal love….” Then they
He wakes up. “If
you want to die, now’s the time.”
“I don’t want to die.”
She hugged him tightly
and wrapped herself around him. Her hair
tickled his face. Only now did he smell the cognac on
She half sighed, half
giggled, in the way he once imagined Lilith the
she-demon, whom Satan sends out at night to entice Yeshiva
boys to sin.
He asks about the pills.
“I threw them down the
“All of them?”
“Yes, my beloved.
All of them.”
Here as ever, Singer is a
master ironist. What is the sin to which our hero is
fatally tempted by his Lilith? It’s the sin of
living, that’s what.
And so David and Dora will get dressed and go back down to the
city and their messy lives. Their night close to death
has convinced them they want to live. And now we,
their readers, can breathe again.
“Two” is one of the best
things ever written about a couple. It needs to be read in
its entirety (13 pages, not a long entirety) to feel the
pauses and silences and repetitions, the comedy and
self-irony, the unconscious cruelty and equally unconscious
tenderness that make up any human couple’s real time.
But this story is also written about a Jewish
couple. They are an enlightened couple, sophisticated
and scathingly critical (in their different ways) of Jewish
tradition and culture. At the same time, Jewish
tradition and culture give them life and make them who they
are. Freud said that in every act of sexual
intercourse, there are four persons present; the woman’s
father and the man’s mother share the bed. But for
David and Dora, Lilith is present, too, and Hitler, and Al
Capone, and a fatherly dybbuk, and a Hitlerian God;
and Freud himself is there, along with Ludwig Feuerbach, as
unregistered guests. David and Dora hate God for all he
has done and for all he has failed to do. Their God has
plenty to answer for. But even as they curse him, they
feel he is
there. David erupts like a soul possessed by a
but he has learned from Feuerbach that theology is ultimately
anthropology, and from Freud that it is above all our
parents who possess us and don’t let go. He
deconstructs Jewish superstition, yet he lives inside it.
As he and she make love, going through gestures of “passion
and disgust”, of “forgiving vengeance”, they act out all the
ambivalence that the Bible describes in the troubled but
intact marriage between Israel and God. They give each
other grief, yet they are wrapped around each other, they
are “two,” they are not alone. One of Isaac Singer’s
most impressive achievements is a vision of Judaism that can
keep people together, wrapped around each other, not alone,
that can overcome suicidal nihilism and keep us staying