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The Yiddish World: Recollections

A Visit with Bashevis

  by Elaine Rosenberg Miller

      "How would you like to drive down with me to Surfside and pick up Isaac Bashevis Singer?" a friend asked me a number of years ago.
     I was speechless.
     Bashevis? The magician? The conjurer of my parents' lost worlds? The last link? The master? A chance to meet him in person?
     "I'd love to!"
     I had lived in West Palm Beach, Florida for nearly 10 years. The first day I arrived, my husband had driven me through the downtown streets and asked, "What do you think of it?"
     "Of what?"
     "The city."
     "Where is it?"
     "We just passed through it."
     After a few weeks of struggling, I announced that I could not live in West Palm Beach. There were no Jews.
     But weeks, months, children, years passed. Yiddishkayt began to trickle in. One day, an area synagogue announced that it was sponsoring a lecture. I. B. Singer was coming to town. My friend had volunteered to pick him up at his apartment in Surfside, about 50 miles south. He asked me to come along.
     The entire drive down I chattered about Singer, his works, my parents. I formulated questions to ask him. Years of listening to my parents' tableside stories of life in the Old Country would well serve me now. The goose and the wooden fence, the two rivers the San and the Tanen merging, fishing with a safety pin, market day, Itchy Parech the peddler, the beit din lawsuit, Grubbe Ruchel, my father's flight to Russia, my mother's imprisonment in Auschwitz. Throughout my childhood, their tales floated from bawdy humor to terror-filled memories. One day they would talk of my grandmother slugging the Polish teacher who had struck my elementary school-age father; on another day, I would hear my mother describe the electrified fences of the death camp or the scene she encountered when she first arrived and saw what she thought were a wagonload of "fine pigs."
     "Those aren't pigs," her sister had said. "They're people."
     Finally, we arrived in Surfside. We parked. The building was old, and the elevator vibrated. We rang the bell. Then the door opened, and there he was. He resembled my Uncle Morris, only thinner. Morris had sharp light-blue eyes. Not much escaped his notice. He had been born in Lodz and had lost his first wife and son in the ghetto. I once heard it said that he had "built Auschwitz," having been one of the earliest inmates. He never talked about it. Morris had a rage that could not be tapped.
     "Well, here you are. Let's go," Singer said, determinedly.
     I felt disappointed. No coffee klatches, no leisurely reminiscences. Suddenly a woman appeared, a kindly looking, well-dressed, middle-aged woman. She must have been attractive in her youth, I thought.
     "Come in, come in. Bashevis! We have a minute. Let them come in. I'm Alma Singer. Welcome."
     I gazed at Singer, smiling. He was not smiling. He was in a hurry.
     The apartment was furnished simply. At an oblique angle, a sliver of the ocean was visible through the sliding glass doors leading to the balcony.
     I wanted to tell Singer that I loved his books, loved literature, loved to write myself, that I had written dozens of short stories, that my parents were survivors.
     "Okay, let's go," he announced.
     "Would you like a drink?" his wife asked.
     Politeness dictated that we decline.
     Once in the car, Singer and Alma sat in the rear seats while my friend and I sat in the front. I kept turning around to stare at Singer. He never looked up but continued to write in a small black book. He wrote and wrote.
     Alma and I attempted to converse. I kept dropping hints and looking at Singer to see if he heard. He never looked up. Finally, I gave up and stared out of the windshield dejectedly. Two and a half hours driving, children at a baby sitter, all this effort.
     Alma intervened. "Bashevis, she has a question for you. Let her ask you a question."
     I turned around slowly. He looked up, pencil poised, and asked where my father was from. When I told him Ulanow, Singer wanted to know how my father had pronounced it: Ee-lin-ow? Oo-lin-ow? Oo-lan-off? For some reason, I was having difficulty recalling it. I had heard my father say it thousands of times, but as if one of Singer's imps was farshafeng, I was being prevented from remembering it.
     "Oo-lan-oh," I said.
     He shook his head. "Never heard of it."
     "It was near.... My father went to Russia. I mean, he ran away to Russia, he and his family and two aunts and their families. They all survived. They were in Tajikistan." I mumbled and fumbled as he stared at me, piquantly, like a bird. I couldn't remember names, places. Finally I mentioned the name of a relative, realizing as I said it that he was from the wrong side of the family.
     Singer bobbed his head. "Sounds familiar," he said, unconvincingly.
     Years later, I would read that Singer's grandfather was the chief rabbi of Bilgoraj, Poland, one of the towns that my relatives were from, and that he was familiar with Frampol, the hamlet where my grandfather was born. In fact, the only description I ever read of Frampol was in one of Singer's works.
     But that day in the car, speeding to West Palm Beach, I could remember nothing and was flustered, embarrassed and even angry with myself. Just like one of Singer's protagonists.
     A spell had enchanted me.
     I recalled that Morris carried the Yiddish-language Forward, the Forverts, under his arm to and from his work as a tailor. The only time I ever saw him laugh was when he was reading the Forverts. Maybe he was reading one of Singer's stories.
     Could be.

Elaine Rosenberg Miller is an attorney living in West Palm Beach, FL. Her work has appeared in The Forward, and Women In Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal (University of Toronto).


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