By Marvin S. Zuckerman
A FRIEND OF MINE and I came into possession of a collection of 227 off-color Yiddish sayings that had been collected in the early 20th century by Ignaz Bernstein, a Jewish-Polish folklorist. Bernstein called his collection Erotica and Rustica, printing it privately in 1907. We translated and transliterated it and had it published in English as Yiddish Sayings Mama Never Taught You. (Here are two of the least raunchy: “Kleyne kinder kakn kleyne kupkelekh,” “Tiny tots make tiny turds,” and “A pish on a forts iz vi a regn on duner,” “A piss without a fart is like a rain without thunder.”)
I had the idea that quotes on the cover from Henry Miller (a great aficionado of raunch) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (no slouch himself in such matters) would enhance the book’s appeal to potential buyers. Since Henry Miller was then (1973) living nearby in the Pacific Palisades, California, and since I had met him on a couple of occasions, I was able to quickly and easily get him to give me a quote: “Juicy, savory, spicy.” We put it on the cover.
Not long after that, I read somewhere that Singer was invited to appear at a summer camp in Ojai run by the Conservative movement to spend a weekend and address about a hundred or so young college age women on the subject of Jewish and Yiddish literature. I called the event organizers and got myself invited as a guest to lead a discussion on Yiddish poetry.
ON A FRIDAY NIGHT, at the dinner table, I met I.B. Singer. Barbara Meyerhoff, the scholar who spent time with the older Jews on the boardwalk in Venice, California and wrote Number Our Days, was also at our table, along with a “farbrenter” Zionist, an older man who was full of life and energy.
The rabbi leading our large gathering asked us all to rise and say the blessing before we ate. This elicited mild distress in Singer, who indicated that he was bareheaded and needed to have something with which to cover his head. Since I had donned a yarmulke but did not particularly care if I wore one or not, I quickly removed mine and gave it to him. After a questioning glance that said, “You don’t need it?” and my gesture to indicate that for me it made no difference, he was satisfied to accept it.
Now we were ready to eat, but something else had disquieted him: He gestured to the adjacent room from whence came the sounds of praying, and said something to the effect of, “And what about them?” As if to say, Do we just go ahead and eat while they are still praying? Nobody else seemed troubled by this problem, so he went along with all of us and joined in the meal.
Having been brought up in a secular, humanist, Yiddishist, Bundist environment where yarmulkes and praying were not in our field of vision, so to speak, these little disturbances were interesting to me. The Yiddish writers in the broad Yiddish literary world were in the main secularists and leftists of one kind or another, and Singer himself wrote for the Forverts, the old secular, social-democratic newspaper. I was not used to a secular, worldly Yiddish writer worrying about yarmulkes and prayers.
Next, he and I had a brief conversation in Yiddish, but he then indicated this was not polite to the others at the table who could not understand Yiddish. At this point, the energetic farbrenter Zionist and Hebraist said something about the Sabbath “kaleh” (bride), accenting the second syllable. Singer said that he could not feel comfortable with this modern Hebrew pronunciation, that for him the word always had to be, as it is pronounced in Yiddish and in the Ashkenazic Hebrew, “kah-leh,” and nothing else.
AFTER DINNER, HE AND I WENT INTO THE LIBRARY. From there he called his wife in New York. Prior to retiring, we looked at the books. He was looking, he said, for something to read in bed. I was curious to see which of the few hundred books the great writer would take to bed with him. Perhaps some great writer? An American, a Russian? A book on some philosophical subject? After a bit of looking, he chose a Readers Digest collection of “The Most Interesting People I Ever Met”. I was momentarily amused by the low-brow choice, but then I reflected: This is the kind of book from which a novelist and short story writer might find the germ of a story.
For myself, I had found an old, interesting three-volume collection, in Yiddish, of the plays of the “classical” Yiddish playwright Yankev Gordin. They seemed to be the only Yiddish books in the collection. I was sure nobody at this camp in Ojai could read them or even know what they were — not the rabbi and not the college girls. I said as much to Singer, adding that I would take the books home with me.
“No,” said Singer reprovingly, “you cannot do that.”
“Why,” said I, “when nobody here can read them or even knows what they are?”
Nevertheless, Singer said, one doesn’t do that. I told him I would ask the rabbi tomorrow if I could have the books. Okay, said Singer. Then, as we were walking away, he noted, “Gordin knew the theater.”
I told him, then, about my collection of Ignaz Bernstein’s dirty Yiddish sayings. Would he mind looking at them and giving me a quote? He said, all right, he would take it with him and look at it. With that he walked up the stairs to his room carrying with him my manuscript and “The Most Interesting People I Ever Met”.
THEN NEXT DAY CAME THE TALKS BY SINGER, and I did my Yiddish poetry seminar. Afterwards, a photographer came to photograph him. Singer motioned to me to come join him, to stand by his side for the picture. I declined, much to my later regret. The photographer said to him, “Smile.” Singer replied, “I cannot smile to order. If someone tells me to smile, I become even more serious.” True to his word, he did not smile for the photographer.
In the late afternoon, there was an informal get-together and a discussion led by the rabbi. At this gathering, I met a young woman who said she was Sholem Secunda’s granddaughter, Secunda being the composer of many scores for the Second Avenue Yiddish musical theater and the writer of the original Yiddish version of “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” which he sold for $30. He later successfully sued to regain some rights to the song, which created a landmark case in music copyright law.
Everyone was asked why they had come to the weekend. I answered that I had come to hear Singer, and also because I was curious to find out what a Conservative summer camp in Ojai was like.
Later that evening there was folk dancing, featuring the hora, of course. The farbrenter Zionist, despite his years, danced energetically with the young people. Singer said to me, “I don’t really like such people, such Zionists — but on the other hand, if it depended only on me or those like me, there would be no Israel.”
The next morning he gave me my quote, having written it in his own hand on the title page of my manuscript, which I, of course, still have: “A cute and charming addition to Yiddish folklore,” he wrote.
I should have left in “cute.”
It turned out he needed a ride back to Los Angeles. I offered and he gladly accepted. I asked him if he would like to have lunch at my house. He said yes. I called my wife, warning her that Singer was a vegetarian, asking her to invite my parents (they happened to be in L.A.), as well as her parents and my co-author and his wife.
On the way in the car, he said to me, “How is the governor here?” (Ronald Reagan.) “Not very good,” I said. “Why?” “Well, for example, he doesn’t give enough money to education.” “And to the police he gives money?” “Yes, to the police he gives money.”
Singer asked about my parents and about my Yiddish background. He asked which of his stories I thought could be made into a movie, and whether I like to translate for him.
To the question about my parents I told him both were “Varshever” (from Warsaw), but that my mother was born in a town called, in Yiddish, Pshiskhe, and my father in Nowydwor. Both had come to Warsaw at a young age. I had recently looked up “Pshiskhe,” and in telling it to him, tried to give it a proper Polish pronunciation.
To the question about my Yiddish background, I told him that besides speaking Yiddish at home, I went to an after-school Workmen’s Circle shule in the Bronx. He asked who the teacher was. I told him Lerer (teacher) Novak and then Lerer Bez. Both of these men were Yiddish writers, intellectuals, and Singer knew who they were. He told me the following story about the first, Lerer Novak: The educational director of the Workmen’s Circle, a man by the name of Yefroykin, well-known in Yiddishist circles, had died. There was a big funeral. At the graveside stood, among others, Novak. At a certain point, Novak leaned over the side of the grave to get a better look at the coffin — and fell in. A wonderful, funny, and ironic story, and so like one of IBS’s tales.
As to which of his stories could be made into a movie, I said, “The Magician of Lublin.” This was, in fact, the first of his stories later to be made into a movie — a total flop. Much later came Yentl, quite successful. Singer didn’t like it at all.
As for his question about translating for him, I answered no, also to my later regret. I told him how my father-in-law, a successful writer in his own right, had asked me, almost immediately after my marriage to his daughter, to edit his books before they were sent off to the publisher. Although his native language was not English, he had nevertheless made a successful career as a novelist writing in English (he was the author of Gidget, a novel based on the adventures of his daughter, my wife). I told Singer that at first I had wondered why my father-in-law thought he needed me to edit his writing. “Roots,” Singer said. “He has no roots here.”
AT HOME, MY WIFE HAD PREPARED a wonderful vegetarian meal for all of us. When she went to the sideboard to get the silverware (real, solid silver that we had been given as a wedding present), it was gone, nowhere to be found. (It had, in fact, been stolen by house painters.) After our initial upset at this discovery, I said, “Maybe one of those imps from Mr. Singer’s stories took it.” “No,” replied Singer, “an imp would have played a trick, hidden it somewhere, not simply stolen it.”
One of the dishes my wife prepared was rice. “I could live on rice,” Singer said. He asked my mother where she was born. She answered, “Pshiskhe.” He told her I had said something like, “Pshisukha,” but that he had understood “Pshishkhe.” He named some famous khasidishe rabbi from Pshiskhe and also asked my parents about people they both knew in New York.
My father-in-law asked Singer about some piece that had appeared in the same issue of the New Yorker as one of his stories. Singer said he had not read it, adding, “I convince myself I do not read the New Yorker,” a response that made us all laugh, since that magazine was where most of his stories were appearing at the time.
We got up from the table to go out to the backyard. On the way out, Singer said to me about my father, “Haven’t I seen his picture in the paper?” “Yes,” I answered. The Forverts, although already in decline, was still being published daily, and in its Sunday edition, had a sepia-toned rotogravure section with four pages of photos. Among these would always be photos of people prominent in the Jewish labor and Yiddish-cultural world. My father’s picture would be there from time to time as an officer of the ILGWU or of the Workmen’s Circle.
My father, who was by this time starting to get a little senile, had not overheard our exchange, but when they were close enough for conversation, he said to Singer, proudly, “I was for nine months imprisoned in the Modlin fortress” (a Polish complex of military buildings, north of Warsaw, where the Nazis killed thousands of Jews).
“Well,” said Singer, unimpressed, “You wanted to be a Bundist.”
“Not I wanted to be,” said my father, forcefully, “I was!”
My older son, about 8 at the time, had mastered doing a “pop-a-wheelie” on his bicycle. He was ostentatiously showing off this trick to Singer, who wasn’t paying attention. I called his attention to the boy. “Oh, he’s an artist!” Singer said, then turned to me and added, “It’s possible to have joy from children.”
Possible, but not likely.
Before he had to go on to his hotel in Los Angeles, I asked him to sign my hardcover edition of In My Father’s Court. He wrote: “To my friend Marvin Zuckerman in memory of two good days spent together and to his most charming Gidget —Isaac B. Singer,” dated January 7, 1973.
My father-in-law was eager to drive him to his hotel. I acceded. Later he told me that Singer said something similar about my parents to what he had said about the farbrenter Zionist: “I don’t like such people.” In other words, not Zionists and not Bundists, the two most important modern, secular movements among the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.
Later, I tried to get him to come as a speaker to my college. Finally he sent me a note saying, “You never mention anything about a fee.”
That was the last of my contact with I.B. Singer. For a while, my father-in-law and he kept up a correspondence. Here’s a quote from one of Singer’s letters to him: “Your Gidget is better, much better, than the famous Lolita, which is contrived, not genuine. The literary world is as unjust and false as the world generally.”
Before he left us, there was picture-taking. There is one where he is posed with my wife, Kathy, and my collaborator’s wife, Tova. He said as the camera snapped, “I feel like a pasha.” This time, he was smiling.
Marvin S. Zuckerman heads the Courtlandt Literary Agency. His writings and translations been published in Yiddish, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, and elsewhere. He edited the three-volume Three Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature and wrote Learning Yiddish in Easy Stages, published by the National Yiddish Book Center.