Singer championed a homeless and dying language


ISAAC Bashevis Singer was walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York when he first heard Dvorah Menashe-Telushkin speak her Lithuanian-accented Yiddish.

"Feh!" he said, using the incomparably juicy Yiddish expletive that expresses the distaste you feel when you step on the spot where the stray cat you brought home has soiled your brand-new Oriental rug.

"Where did you learn to speak like that?!" he groaned.

Columbia University, she had to confess. ("I wish I could have learned in a house full of Yiddish-speaking people," she said, in a telephone interview.) Columbia has a distinguished Yiddish program. But she was getting a "Litwack" -- a Lithuanian -- accent.

"He didn't want that," she says, with great understatement. "His was Polish."

Menashe-Telushkin, a thirtysomething New Yorker, was secretary, confidante and sometime translator for Singer for about 14 years. Her Yiddish eventually acquired the requisite Polish accent.

Singer died a week ago in Miami. He was probably the last great Yiddish writer there will ever be. Yiddish, he often said, is a language murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust that consumed most of the Jews who spoke it.

"I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language," Singer told one interviewer. "Ghosts love Yiddish, and as far as I know, they all speak it."

He was an indefatigably prolific writer who sometimes seemed driven to preserve the Yiddish culture that was coming into a great flowering as he was born -- and that was being snuffed out in the gas chambers long before his death.

He sometimes seemed narrow and quaint with his plain black suits and white shirt, bald head and fondness for dairy restaurants. But he was a thoroughly modern writer whose stories reflected the alienation, exile, isolation and moral ambiguities of all of contemporary life.

When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, he said in Yiddish that the award was also for "a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government."

He was born in a small Polish town in 1904, the son and grandson of rabbis. But when he came to America in 1935, he was already thoroughly secularized by his older brother Israel J. Singer and the boisterous and brilliant Jewish literary and political life of Warsaw.

Singer won his greatest fame, widest readership and highest honors as his Yiddish readers were dying and he was being translated into English.

Ironically, Yiddish today survives as a living language in daily use only among the profoundly Orthodox religious Jews and Hasidim of Borough Park and Williamsburg and Crown Heights in Brooklyn and of the Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. And these pious Jews are extremely unlikely to read a secular writer like Singer.

"I translated for him for about six years," Dvorah Menashe-Telushkin said. "I worked for him about 14."

She helped translate the stories in his collection "The Death of Methuselah." And he dictated several chapters of his novel "Shosha" to her.

"He would come to my house after I had my first child, in the afternoon to edit and translate," she said.

She lives on West End Avenue, not far from where Singer lived on Upper Broadway before his failing health finally took him to Florida.

"He worked two hours every morning in his own apartment, writing in Yiddish," Menashe-Telushkin said. "Then he took his long, long walks, as long as 120 blocks. In his 70s he had tremendous strength and vigor."

She was at the memorial service in New York where Singer's body lay in a plain pine coffin flanked by roses and lilies and guarded by two menorahs. There was a rabbi, but despite stories filled with pious Hasidim and yeshiva boys and wonder rabbis, Singer was not very religious.

"I really believe he yearned to go back [to religion]," Menashe-Telushkin, the wife of a rabbi, said. "But he couldn't find a way."

He had a public reputation for irony and cynicism.

"But he had a fantastic ability to encourage people," she said, "to give them a sense their own work had real value. He was a great optimist one-on-one with people. He had an infectious enthusiasm."

She's going to write a memoir about Singer. She'll call it "The Master of Dreams."

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