Isaak Bashevis Singer

I entered the world of Isaak Bashevis Singer on a glorious crisp October day in 1987.

My debut feature film, DRACHENFUTTER (DRAGON CHOW), had been invited to Chicago. It was my first trip to America and I flew via New York. I wandered through the streets of Manhattan for days, overwhelmed by the images. Finally however I ended up exhausted by all the impressions; I didn’t know anyone and felt tired and lonely.

I took the Q train and headed for the seaside at Coney Island. The train was empty and rattled along from station to station. Then all of a sudden it emerged from the underground tunnels, climbed up the heights of Manhattan Bridge and crossed the endless expanse of Brooklyn. After an hour-long ride, the train drew to a halt with squeaking brakes above Brighton Beach Avenue. Just a stone’s throw away, the Atlantic was sparkling and twinkling between the houses, and the platform high above the street offered a wonderful view of the people strolling on the boardwalk and along the beach.

I walked down the old steel stairs and entered another world: men with baseball caps speaking Polish and Ukrainian to each other, or Yiddish, old women in cotton dresses with bright headscarves. Everything you could possibly imagine was being sold and traded on the street. There was the AUFRICHTIG delicatessen, while the LUSTGARTEN sold ladies’ fashions. Adverts in Cyrillic sought to attract customers to the CAFÉ UKRAINA and the MOSCOW RESTAURANT. Piles of cabbages were heaped up on the pavements and a slight, small man was selling books and tapes with Russian hits from the Seventies. The subway to Manhattan clattered merrily away overhead.

That’s how I had imagined New York in the Thirties. Only the cars looked American, enormous rusty Chevys and Chrysler and Dodges from the Seventies, with their exhaust pipes rattling over the potholed asphalt of Brighton Beach Avenue.

Genuine Russian artistes performed in the NATIONAL dance hall, buxom singers and melancholy piano players. On the tables were enormous platters with sausage, cold cut meats and smoked fish. There was a bottle of lukewarm vodka per head and a large jar of pickled gherkins. The guests here were at odds with their fates and if you asked “How are you?”, wouldn’t reply “fine” but instead “awful”.

I wandered along the beach to the tip of Coney Island. A police car was patrolling at snail’s pace along the broad boardwalk. Astroland Park with its old rides lay sleepily in the sun, with just a few youths having fun on the wooden Cyclone roller-coaster.

I walked back to Brighton Beach. A few freighters were visible on the horizon, heading for New Jersey, and up above the morning flights from Europe were dotted across the heavens on their way to John F. Kennedy airport nearby. The same Russian pop music that had blared out under the subway was playing here too. I ate borscht und pelmeni, which were of course much better than any you’d ever have found in Russia. A cool sharp breeze blew along the walls of the houses and looking at the sea evoked a sense of melancholy. This was Europe and America at the same time, a forgotten place on the edge of New York and on the edge of America. The only way to understand Germany was from a distance, I thought. Perhaps that was why Odessa und Berlin seemed so close together here.

On the boardwalk I made the acquaintance of two émigrés: Irving Lanchart and Abraham Herzhaft. They were both standing by the railing, gazing over the Atlantic and dreaming of a Europe that no longer existed. They spoke American English, Yiddish, Polish and German all mixed up together and were curious to hear how things were going in Germany, how much a loaf of bread and a beer would cost or a small apartment in Hamburg.

Irving had been woken by the Hamburg police one night in autumn 1938 when he was a small boy. He and his parents had Polish passports and so they were deported to Poland. The journey continued via Moscow and Japan to Shanghai, where he survived the war. When he was in his early twenties he arrived in San Francisco and slowly worked his way to the East Coast, all the way to Brighton Beach. Now he was standing here and dreaming of Germany, after he had made his way right round the globe in fifty years, or nearly. He was a melancholy gentleman in a herringbone coat and an elegant cap, with dark circles around his eyes that made him look rather like an owl. He commented on every third sentence of his own biography by shrugging his shoulders and asking the rhetorical question: “But what can you do?”

Abraham Herzhaft came from a village in Poland, Jeshuv, which is now part of Ukraine. He was small, (“five foot one!”), wiry and enormously lively. He was wearing a beige wind jacket and a sporty baseball cap in the same colour, perched above his protruding ears. He had swum across the river Sun when the Germans arrived and then spent years in Russian prisons, Siberian camps and the Polish exile army. His wife and child were murdered. Finally he ended up all alone in a “Displaced Persons” camp, then took an affidavit for America, as that was closest to Poland (Uruguay or Australia were too far away for him), married a young woman from the Polish provinces and lived unhappily with her in Brighton Beach. He had a lover in Manhattan, who he was still visiting regularly when he was in his mid-seventies, and a racing bicycle, which he parked at night next to the living room sofa where he slept. Home, I learnt, is something that you only understand when you have emigrated.

Isaak Bashevis Singer had arrived in New York a good fifty years before. His brother picked him up on the quayside in Manhattan and took him to Brighton Beach, where he was renting a room. Here’s how Singer described this journey:

“We crossed the bridge to Brooklyn and a new area of New York revealed itself to me. It was less crowded, had almost no skyscrapers, and resembled more a European city than Manhattan (…) The people here walked, they did not rush and run. They all wore new and light clothes. Within kosher butcher shops, bones were sawed rather than chopped with cleavers. The stores featured potatoes alongside oranges, radishes next to pineapples.

(…) Among shoe, lamp, rug stores and flower shops stood a mortuary. Pallbearers dressed in black carried out a coffin decorated in wreaths and loaded it into a car draped with curtains. The family of whoever came to the funeral did not show on their faces any sign of mourning. They conversed and behaved as if death was an everyday occurrence to them.

We came to Coney Island. To the left, the ocean flashed and flared with a blend of water and fire. To the right, carousels whirled, youths shot at tin ducks. On rails emerging from a tunnel, then looming straight up into the pale blue sky, boys rode metal horses while girls sitting behind them shrieked. Jazz music throbbed, whistled, screeched. A mechanical man, a robot, laughed hollowly. Before a kind of museum, a black giant cavorted with a midget on each arm.

We drove through a gate with a barrier and guarded by a police man, and it suddenly grew quiet and pastoral. We pulled up before a house with turrets and a long porch where elderly people sat and warmed themselves in the sun.

… The pillars of the subway cast a net of sun and shade onto the plaster. A train from Manhattan went by with an ear-shattering din. However you define time and space, I thought, you can’t be in Brooklyn and Manhattan at the same time.”

This sense of “timelessness” is one of the underlying motifs in all of the stories and novels by I.B. Singer set in America. I had first encountered this feeling with Irving und Abraham. They had both been driven from their homeland in the course of their lives by the Second World War and the Holocaust, both were – like so many people in Brighton Beach – the quintessence of European culture and attitudes to life, coupled with humour and an ironic view of themselves, yet entirely devoid of the pragmatism so urgently needed to survive in America. History had sent Abraham Herzhaft and Irving Lanchart on a journey that had not yet drawn to a close even in 1987. They had lost their homeland and had not really found a real home in the New World. And so they fed the seagulls in Brighton Beach and gazed out across the ocean.

“I deal with unique characters in unique circumstances,” Singer wrote, “a group of people, who are still a riddle to the world and often to themselves - the Jews of Eastern Europe, specifically the Yiddish speaking Jews who perished in Poland and those who emigrated to the U.S.A. The longer I live with them and write about them, the more I am baffled about the richness of their individuality and (since I am one of them) by my own whims and passions. While I hope and pray for the redemption and resurrection, I dare to say that, for me, these people are living right now. In literature, as in our dreams, death does not exist.”

When I arrived in Brighton Beach in 1987, Singer was no longer living in New York. After a failed eye operation he had to give up writing, left his apartment on the Upper West Side and was living as a recluse in Miami Beach.

Singer was born in 1904 in Leoncin, which back then was part of the Russian Tsarist empire. As he later wrote, “I was brought up on three dead languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish”. His father was an Orthodox rabbi, who refused to learn Russian and was scarcely able to feed his family.

His grandfather was also a rabbi, but in contrast to his father was an influential and striking figure. Singer’s visits to his grandparents had a profound influence on him. Here, close to the Austrian border, he discovered the life of poor, pious, Galician Jews who felt deep ties to Poland, longed for Vienna and emigrated to America in droves. A complex world, in which Poles, Jews, Russians, Austrians and Germans lived together cheek by jowl.

Singer spent most of his youth in Warsaw. A hotch-potch of observant Jews, petty gangsters and prostitutes populated Krochmalna Street, where he grew up. His early days were defined by paradoxes. The Hassidic Jews amongst whom he was brought up were ultra-Orthodox and at the same time were from a relatively modern movement, which was not yet a hundred and fifty years old. Singer saw himself as Polish, although the country no longer existed as a separate state when he was born, for the neighbouring Great Powers had divided Poland up amongst themselves. His father was a strict rabbi, but Isaak learnt about such forbidden topics as astronomy and the history of evolution from his elder brother, Israel Joshua. The world of his youth was full of contradictions and in a constant state of flux.

Israel Joshua (I.J.) Singer rebelled against his parents and enjoyed increasing success as a Yiddish author even when he was still young. When Isaak was fourteen, I.J. went to Kiev to join the revolution, returning three years later disappointed and disillusioned. He won fame in Polish and Yiddish circles with his very first books – an author sui generis.

Influenced by Israel Joshua, who was eleven years his senior, Isaak began to write and publish in Yiddish newspapers. He became a member of the Warsaw Club of Jewish Writers in 1924. From that vantage point he and the other members observed the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists with fear and great scepticism.

Israel Joshua gratefully accepted the job he was offered with the JEWISH DAILY FORWARD, New York’s Jewish daily. He became part of the long exodus of Russian and Polish Jews to America, a process that had begun in the eighteenth century and was halted only when the Germans and Russian invaded in 1939. The emigrants were fleeing hunger, the pogroms, and military service in the Russian army. Soon Israel Joshua managed to organise a visa and a work permit for his younger brother. As a result, Isaak took the train right across Nazi Germany in 1935 and travelled to New York on a French steamer, the NORMANDIE.

Whilst Singer felt safe in America, his initial experiences there were quite a shock. He rented a room, was unemployed and had almost no money.

In summer 1944 his beloved and much-admired brother Israel Joshua died suddenly of a heart attack. In Warsaw his sister and mother were deported. The war and the Nazis not only destroyed half of Europe but also virtually every single friend and relative Isaak still had in Poland. Those were bitter years.

“I was still young, not yet thirty, but I was overcome by a fatigue that most probably comes with old age. I had cut off whatever roots I had in Poland yet I knew that I would remain a stranger here to my last day. I tried to imagine myself in Hitler’s Dachau, or in a labor camp in Siberia. Nothing was left for me in the future. All I could think about was the past. My mind returned to Warsaw, to Swider, to Stefa’s apartment on Niecala Street, to Esther’s furnished room on Swietojerska.

…Then I went over to the window, opened it, and looked out into the wet street, its black windows, flat roofs, the glowing sky, without a moon, without stars, opaque and stagnant like some global cover. I leaned out as far as I could, deeply inhaled the fumes of the city, and proclaimed to myself and to the powers of the night: I am lost in America, lost forever…”

Despite all their yearning and hope, the immigrants felt lost in the New World. That’s why Singer went on to call his semi-fictional autobiography LOST IN AMERICA. I also picked VERLOREN IN AMERIKA (LOST IN AMERICA) as the title for the documentary that I shot in Brighton Beach a year after my first visit. In the film Irving talks about his journey around the world over the course of fifty years and Abraham cooks gefillte Fisch and speaks in five languages all at the same time. They had left Europe and yet never really arrived in America. When they went to Manhattan, Abraham and Irving, my new friends, used to say, “I’m going to New York”. Irving had a post box at the post office on 3rd Avenue – because of the address. They never really felt at home in America, although they lived there for almost forty years.

From then on, every time I went to America I went on a trip through time to Brooklyn. The yearning of those two inspired my feature film AUF WIEDERSEHEN AMERIKA (BYE BYE AMERICA), which I wrote together with Thomas Strittmatter and shot in winter 1992/1993. Whilst Singer had travelled from Poland to New York, we set off with our figures on a trip in the opposite direction, from Brooklyn back to Gdansk. I.B. Singer stories were our trusty companions.

However, I couldn’t find any actors to play the two lead roles. Nobody spoke the languages and our film project was unconceivable without this Babylonian mish-mash of languages. We searched for the right actors in all kinds of other places around the world: in Argentina, in Poland, in Israel. I found Jakov Bodo, who plays Moshe there, in Tel Aviv. And in Vienna I met Otto Tausig, who plays Isaak Aufrichtig, and later all three of the lead roles in LOVE COMES LATELY. It is striking that both men had personal experience of many years of emigration.

After his arrival in New York, Singer had at first written rather banal commentaries, overseen by his brother, for the FORWARD, poorly paid work that he found quite a strain. Later, after his brother’s death, he wrote his first conventional novels. Success did not arrive until his fabulous story GIMPEL THE FOOL was translated into English by Saul Bellow in 1953. That brought Singer fame in one fell swoop.

After that, Singer was seen as the storyteller of tales from the shtetls in Poland before the Second World War, a vanished universe. He became popular with stories like YENTL or THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN. These stories were parables and myths, populated with dybbuks, magicians, phantoms and witches. From then on he was well-paid and his stories were printed in all the major American magazines.

However Singer also wrote stories set in America, and these had an entirely different tone. The figures there tried to liberate themselves from their Orthodox upbringing. The Holocaust put an end to this incomplete rebellion and left them behind in discord, their parents murdered and their culture destroyed. They hated and punished themselves for having wished for the decline of a culture that had now ceased to exist for ever. Jonathan Rosen wrote in his essay in the NEW YORKER for Singer’s hundredth birthday; “It may have taken Singer’s ice-cold eye and taste for paradox to do this world justice and to weather the despair that might otherwise have engulfed anyone attempting it.

Stories about people who have moved beyond the zenith of their lives play a significant part in Singer’s oeuvre. I know of no other writer who has engaged to such an extent with the longings of older people. In the preface to his collection OLD LOVE, Singer writes: “The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my works of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience.”

The figures that Singer describes in his stories from New York and Miami could all live in one of the large apartment buildings on the Upper West Side and readers meet them again and again in Singer’s works. Many of these stories touched me deeply when I first read them; the master and servant tale A NEW YEAR’S PARTY with its profound death-defying love, A WEDDING IN BROWNSVILLE, or that marvellous love story, OLD LOVE.

Singer is probably truest to himself in these stories and there is no doubt that they are his greatest works. However, even if the protagonists are often writers that find women they don’t know flinging themselves at them, and even if some figures seem almost documentary, it is always also a pose and Singer was a schlemihl, who took great delight in introducing red herrings and exaggerated wildly. Readers should be wary of considering his prose to be too documentary or even autobiographical.

So when Otto Tausig is playing Max Kohn, a somewhat absent-minded professor and writer, always in search of erotic adventures, then of course his character is based on Max Kohn from THE BRIEFCASE. At the same time he also embodies the “literary” figures of Harry Bendinger and Simon Danziger, dreamt up and written about by Kohn and used as a way to live out his longings and fears. Thirdly, he also displays some of the traits of Isaak Singer – you can’t invent details like the utter chaos in his study or the rows of hats by the door to the flat. And, last but not least, Otto’s own emigration also coloured his performance.

The only way to re-create in a film what makes Singer’s prose so special, namely the way in which the present, dream, imagination, the past and longings float simultaneously side-by-side, making, was to fuse several stories together. At this juncture I would like to thank my wonderful advisors, Michael Gutmann and Milan Dor, without whom the screenplay would never have been able to take shape as it did. The stories in LOVE COMES LATELY flow into and mirror each other. It’s not just that the film’s heroes cannot distinguish between the various different levels; they no longer even want to. At the end Max Kohn vanishes into his own fiction: the author dissolves into his prose.

However much Singer struggled and quarrelled with Jewish life, at the end of his days he became the epitome of Jewish culture, a secular rabbi, who symbolised everything that he had actually tried to escape. Crowning his life’s work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978, as an American author writing in Yiddish. America had accepted him after 43 years.

His stories fascinated me, just like the people in Brighton Beach. As a young German in New York back then I experienced the sudden sad realisation of the magnitude of what had been lost, a European experience that one can no longer have in Europe – for reasons we are all well aware of. However, there was something else that attracted me so much to the people and literature. It had something to do with the Yiddish language that played such a great part in shaping the people who spoke it. Singer expressed this as follows in his speech of thanks at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1978:

“I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.

To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love.

The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning. … In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

In his lifetime Singer described two worlds in the process of vanishing: the world of pious Polish Jews and that of American Jewish immigrants. Singer swept up these people, their despair and their misery into his writing and salvaged them, along with their common-sense wisdom and their happiness.

Berlin, March 2008