Isaac Bashevis Singer in Los Angeles

In 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer, renowned Yiddish storyteller and international lecturer, was named winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shortly after Singer returned from Stockholm, the Los Angeles Times ran my story of our brief encounters. I post the story here to share this gifted writer's fascination with Jews everywhere, including the American West. It was my husband who introduced me to Singer's work, and then Singer himself into our household. One evening near the end of 1962, Fred arrived home with "A Treasury of Yiddish Stories," an anthology collected by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.

Harriet Rochlin interviewing Isaac Bashevis SingerHarriet Rochlin interviewing Isaac Bashevis Singer

"Read Singer's 'Gimpel the Fool,'" prompted Fred. Singer knew how to make words shrug, beg, feign, whine, and with puncturing sarcasm, question. The tone, more than the words, pierced my suburban Sherman Oaks disguise and caused me to recall Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles Jewish neighborhood where I was born and had grown up.

In the next two years, most of Singer's books in English translation drifted into our house. His distant, dark, chaotic worlds and demonic to saintly characters both drew and repulsed me. I read transfixed, increasingly aware of the charged lines between Singer's worlds and mine.

In spring 1964, Fred returned from a business trip to New York with a story of a unique encounter. A canceled appointment left him with a day to fill, and with his usual forthrightness, he found a telephone and called his current favorite author.

The voice that answered was wan, bewildered and marked with a strong accent. It answered every declaration with a question. "You read 'Gimpel the Fool?' 'Satan in Goray?' 'Spinoza in Market Street?' You would like to meet me? Today? You want to take me to lunch? I should pick the place?"

Singer appeared at the appointed time and place and led his admirer to his favorite eatery, a dairy restaurant. Explaining that he was a vegetarian, Singer ordered a small dish of cabbage; he was not hungry. His pet canary had escaped that morning. He always allowed his birds to fly around the room uncaged. Unthinkingly, he raised an unscreened window a few inches, and the bird flew away. He was very angry with God, Singer told Fred. How could He allow such a thing to happen? How could a canary survive unprotected in New York City?

After several moments of silent concern for birds on the loose, Fred tried to cheer Singer with praise for his books. A satisfied reader, an architect, all the way from Los Angeles? Singer was pleased. He questioned Fred, intensely curious about an untaught Jew from Arizona, from the Wild West, who was moved by his stories.

"He wanted to hear all about my experiences with the Air Force in Italy during World War II," said Fred, "and quizzed me until I was remembering horrors I hadn't thought of in years -- bombing people in Genoa on a Sunday morning, strafing fleeing crowds.

"He had me tell him exactly what I did and what I thought during the eight hours I spent in the water when I was shot down over the Adriatic.

"It was weird, no subject was too intimate to explore," said Fred. Then simulating a feeble, but matter-of-fact voice, he demonstrated: "'Are you married? To a Jewish girl? Where did you find her? Did you have many women before you married? Prostitutes? School friends? Do you enjoy sex? Does your wife enjoy sex? Does she have large breasts? Pretty legs?'"

"What did you tell him?" I asked, aghast at having my body and my intimate behavior discussed. Fred continued: "'Married 16 years, do you still function like a young man? Do you have a mistress? When do you like sex better, in the morning? At night? How old are your children? Do you like any of the four better than the others? Is your 15-year old daughter developed?'"

Before they parted, Singer told Fred that he had been invited to speak in Los Angeles that December at the University of Judaism. Fred gave him his card and urged him to telephone him as soon as he arrived.

One rainy Sunday afternoon, Fred came away from the telephone looking amused and bemused. Singer had called sounding disoriented and frightened. Traveling alone and speaking on campuses around the country, he had been having terrible difficulties handling the arrangements. In Chicago, from where he had just come, he had lost his airplane ticket -- the demons had taken it. Helpless, he had stood in a terminal and prayed until someone came to his assistance. Fred told him we would come take him out to dinner.

Closing my umbrella, I entered the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and saw a waiting man rise from a chair and hurry toward us. His face, bald head and shirt were paper white; the rest of him was swathed in black. Round-shouldered and wraithlike, he looked an emissary from another world. Fred spread his arms to greet him. Singer drew back in alarm, stumbling. Equilibrium recovered, he offered me a hand that was pale, cool and smooth, a hand that had known no tool but a pen. The grip, however, was surprisingly firm. His blue eyes instantly focused on me and steadied themselves in a professional gaze. I imagined he was thinking, who is this woman that leaves her children on a stormy night to meet a traveling author? How old, how passionate, how vain is she?

We sat down in the lobby to get acquainted. He was surprised to learn that Short Friday had been well received on the West Coast, and that it was featured in the window of Pickwick Bookstore, a few blocks down Hollywood Boulevard.

It was nearly eight o'clock before we rose to start a long and embarrassing search for a place to eat. Our trouble started when I ruled out the restaurants on Fairfax Avenue, as too inelegant for a literary luminary. If not to Fairfax, where does one take a Jewish vegetarian who talks and writes of Cabbalism, imps, demons, and who admonishes God over lost canaries and speaks with breakfast table familiarity of the works of Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Dostoevski?

We finally settled on the Imperial Gardens on the Sunset Strip. Japanese food was mostly vegetables, wasn't it? There in the dark, ornamental booth, served by a Japanese girl who spoke almost no English, the conversation flowed with ease. Whatever the subject, Singer's responses were quick, knowledgeable, natural, personal, and free of didactic.

I asked him about his life, and he swiftly recited a brief biography. Then Singer wanted to know about me. Encouraged by the genuine interest in his voice, I began to piece together my story, aware that I was rarely asked to account for myself. My father, I told him was from Brest Litovsk, a city not far from Singer's Warsaw.

His mother's maiden name was Katzenellenbogen, like the leading character, Asa Heshel, in Singer's novel The Family Moskat.  The name Katzenellenbogen in Jewish Poland, the author enlightened me, was as revered as Lowell in New England. (Of the family's poverty I had heard a little, of its prestige, not a whisper.) My father and mother, I went on with no urging, met and married in St. Louis, Missouri then several years later went west to Los Angeles and prosperity. Their rise was exhilarating; their fall sudden. The Depression hit our family like Chmielnicki hit Bilgoray. Surviving disaster -- illnesses, bankruptcies, family squabbles -- consumed the rest of my childhood. At 20, on the pretext of attending the university, I fled in rebellion. The next thing I knew, I had been reborn in the San Fernando Valley, a noble servant of family, community, temple.

Fred watched me anxiously, clearly worried at what I might say next. But I had already gone too far. It was as if we had stepped out of everyday existence and into eternity where lives -- even ordinary ones like mine -- are summed up and conclusions drawn. The waitress served tea and cookies. I had one more piece of evidence for my dossier. I had been writing for years, I said, mainly to express and advance other people's ideas and causes. Then about three years ago, I began to write bits of fiction, starting with nondenominational suburban tales. But, somehow, my midnight meanderings had looped back to my Jewish village, now vanished, and my erased childhood. What worried me, I went on, was that these neophyte, nocturnal efforts were beginning to spill over and reshape my days. I had begun to sidestep my obligations to write stories I was embarrassed to share -- for more reason than their literary ineptitude. (At the time, unless cornered, I was mute about my early unruly years east of the Cudahy plant.) The prospect of sales was also bleak; the limited demand for such stories, I was advised, was more than filled by recognized writers. But having started, I couldn't stop.

Singer nodded, commiserating: Without a line to qualify me, he accepted me as fellow writer and, by way of instruction, I suppose, described the cratered path he had tread to establish himself. He spoke of the dislocating turbulence of Warsaw in his youth when he squeezed out a living as a translator and copy-reader. Of the external strife and internal differences that had torn his family apart. Of his first wife, a Communist, who had taken his only child to live in the Soviet Union, and when disillusioned there, to what was then Palestine. Of his older brother and idol, I.J. (Israel Joshua) Singer, a well-known Yiddish novelist who went to live in New York City in 1934. And of how he (Isaac) followed in 1935.

The worst years of his life ensued, Singer told us. He had left Poland at thirty-one, established by his novel, Satan in Goray, as a promising Yiddish novelist. In America, however, such novels counted for little, particularly in the assimilationist 1930s. But the lack of interest in Yiddish literature, said Singer wryly, hardly affected him; for seven anguished years after leaving Poland, he was unable to write a single line to his satisfaction. Members of his family remaining in Europe were killed in Hitler's onslaught. Then, in 1944, his brother died. These blows, one after another, knocked him senseless. In time, though, he regained his desire, and then his ability, to write.

What trouble his readers gave him, complained Singer. The religionists objected to his Jewish thieves, murderers, prostitutes, witches. Why give the Gentiles fuel for their anti-semitism? And the leftists railed at him for his lack of social consciousness. Why did he write about scholars and rabbis, demons and saints when workers were being exploited?

Resisting pressure, he continued to clear his own ground. Slowly, starting with The Family Moskat, the first novel he completed in the United States, his works began to be translated into English. A few of America's leading authors and critics read them and posted notice of a new talent. Invitations to speak arrived - even from Yale University. He was so shy at the time, said Singer, he was afraid to raise his hand to ask to have a window opened at a Jewish writers' meeting. Nevertheless, he painstakingly wrote out his views on the art of fiction and, thin paper rattling in hand, presented them at a dinner in his honor in New Haven. A few days later, he received a note from the critic Edmund Wilson, thanking him for the most delightful evening he had spent in ten years, the author told us, more perplexed than proud.

From the Imperial Gardens, we drove to Hollywood Boulevard. The rain had stopped, and we got out of the car to stand in front of the Pickwick Bookstore admiring the stacks of Short Friday in the window. Strolling on, Singer discussed the possibility of moving to Los Angeles with his second wife. He stared at the human spectacles on the boulevard, as if sizing up LA's potential material. "I love kooks," he cried in delight.

In the next three years, Singer's reputation exploded. His novels -- The Slave, The Estate, The Manor -- were released in English, and his short stories spilled forth, as if from a bottomless trunk. We exchanged greetings by mail and had spoken on the telephone, once in New York and once in Los Angeles, but we did not meet again until the day the Israeli Six-Day War broke out.

Singer was in Los Angeles to appear as a guest speaker at the Beverly Hilton. He sat at the head table looking like a size 36 man in a size 44 suit. His expression was one of open grief, fear, anger. Despite his stricken appearance, people kept streaming forward to shake his hand. Instead of the speech he had planned to deliver, he read a story from My Father's Court called "To the Land of Israel." When he completed the reading, he straightened and looked out at his audience. His blue eyes streaming certainty, he assured the crowd, "Israel will survive."

As he left the room later, surrounded by his hosts, he passed my table. I rose, offering my hand. He shook it, and telling me his room number, invited me to telephone him. When I did, he greeted me warmly but did not recall having seen me that afternoon.

Several more times since then when he lectured in Los Angeles, I attended, but out of sympathy for a captive celebrity, I did not speak to him again. Besides, he had already given me all he could -- the living image of a literary master. One who received the news that he had been awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature with the humble words: "Are you sure?"


 Harriet Rochlin
Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1978
© copyright 1978