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Singer and the Tapestry of Jewish Voices

Robert Taylor

"To describe something missing, the shape of absence. Images, tastes, remnants, fragments, memories, grain of memories," writes Agata Tuszynska in "Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland." "A patchwork made of other people's memories; everyone contributes something: a chunk, a piece of glass, a grain, a pebble". Writing about the vanished world of Polish Jews has been called "deciphering the ashes." Yet as Holocaust witnesses now in their 70s, 80s and 90s leave the scene, a new generation of Poles appraises the eyewitness evidence. Tuszynska, a Polish writer and historian, was inspired by the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel laureate and Yiddish novelist, to seek out the origins of his art. She didn't know any Jews and was totally unaware of the centuries-long Polish-Jewish heritage. Singer's books opened up to her culture apparently annihilated, the world of his youth; he would never abandon it, though he lived in Manhattan near Central Park.

Irving Howe once said Singer wrote of a vanished past as if it still existed. Tuszynska's book, lucidly translated by Madeline G. Levine, is in part an impressionistic biographical quest. The quest however, covers only the opening chapter and the last third of the account. The author's journeys through towns formerly swarming with Jewish life, and listens to voices. "Lost Landscapes", nevertheless, is not an oral biography in the sense that all the writer has to do is switch on a tape recorder or take notes. Except for random observations, the authorial presence is invisible; the interviews do not appear in conventional Q&A form, and the result is simply a compelling tapestry of voices. Thew pattern of voices must be controlled, of course, by the writer. Tuszynska is remarkably objective. Memories of prewar Poland are confided in cathartic and painful detail. One encounters brutal anti-Semitism as well as occasional flashes of good will. Hatred and ignorance run rampant; indeed some memories have been suppresed for years, such as recollections of the postwar pogrom that exploded in Kielce in 1946. A present-day poll taken in Warsaw schools covers five pages of juvenile vituperation. Her Tuszynska editorializes with a chilling comment, "Soon these children will no longer be children."

Singer left Poland in 1935 at the urging of his brother Joshua Singer, author of the novel "The Brothers Ashkenazi," which he was publishing in the Yiddish daily Forward. Their sister, who wrote under the name of Esther Kreitman, was a moderately succesful English novelist and translator. I. J. Singer's popularity in America rivaled that of Sholem Asch, and gave his younger brother entree to the Forward, which remained his literary base the rest of his life. (Signing himself Bashevis to prevent confusion, he was both contributor and proofreader.) His contemporaries express wildly variable opinions about his character and work; he is castigated as a womanizer, skinflint, and cynic, pilfering the laurels earned by his brother; but much of this sort of grudging commentary seems to stem for I. B. Singer's success and the understandable human flaws of a great writer. For a contrasting perspective it is useful to read "Master of Dreams", a memoir by Dvorah Telushkin, which Morrow published last fall. Translator, secretary, editor and pupil of Singer for more than a dozen years, Telushkin was well situated to observe his idiosyncracies. In his old age he moved to Miami, where "he came to look like all the other old and sick men on Collins Avenue". But he was not like them, his genius straddling his Old World memories and the bright secular sunlight, and when he died and Telushkin was wrapping his books, the last one she found was a densely marked volume, titled "Der Oyster fun der Yididher Sphrakh" ("A Treasure of the Yiddish language")