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Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Afterlife in Texas

Surfside, Florida’s Nobel Prize winner died 30 years ago today. Through a winding tale of luck, timing, and money, his papers ended up at the University of Texas in Austin.

Robert King
July 23, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The literary archive of Isaac Bashevis Singer ended up at the University of Texas, and thereby hangs a tale of elective affinity, luck, timing, and money—which by the way is how the great Texas oil fortunes always got made. Singer, the enigmatic master storyteller, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature, was as metropolitan a man as the world has ever known—Warsaw, Manhattan West Side, Miami—and so it is a bit of a puzzle even today to many people that his papers came to rest in the “province.” You want to do research on Singer? You have to come to the Humanities Research Center (aka Harry Ransom Center) of the University of Texas in Austin.

The story begins not with Singer but with me, a gentile who grew up in the South and became fascinated with Yiddish. How? I was studying mathematics at Georgia Tech when I won an exchange fellowship to the University of Stuttgart for my senior year, 1957-1958. There, I learned German fluently, discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a very good mathematician, and became interested in studying the Holocaust before it became known as that.

In 1958, there was a series of belated trials of war criminals in Germany, and I became acquainted with one who gave witness—Fritz Bloch, the charismatic chief rabbi of Württemberg, who had seen firsthand the atrocities in Lithuania and then escaped to Palestine just in time to save his life. After the war he moved back to Germany without his family—his wife and children wouldn’t return—in order to look after what of his flock remained or had returned.

Though I had read most of his novels, Isaac Bashevis Singer was then only a name to me. I had grown up in small-town Mississippi where most of my best friends were Jewish, so I had a disposition toward philo-semitism. My readings on the Holocaust while in Germany had gotten me interested in its principal language, Yiddish, and as soon as I returned to the States, I set out to learn Yiddish. Knowing German helped, but only up to a point.

Apart from the Northeast, there weren’t courses in Yiddish that one could take back then. So I contacted the Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO) in New York for assistance. They pointed me toward the indispensable grammar written a few years earlier by the great linguist and true mensch Uriel Weinreich, whom I later got to know, and I spent my waning days at Georgia Tech learning the alef beyz and memorizing those sentences etched in memory: “Yidn zaynen haynt a folk fun elf milyon …” (“Jews are today a people of 11 million …”).

I then did my military basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where I carried with me in my backpack Weinreich’s College Yiddish and Sol Liptzin’s early bilingual edition of I.L. Peretz. I recall finishing Peretz’s famous story “Oyb nisht nokh hekher” (“If not even higher …”) just before I was about to crawl with my rifle and bayonet under a horizontal sheet of machine-gun fire barely 4 feet off the ground. Such were the joys.

My intellectual interests shifted from mathematics to medieval German literature and then linguistics at the University of Wisconsin, where I worked toward my Ph.D. while I kept learning Yiddish on the side. With one of my professors, I drove through a godawful snowstorm from Madison to Milwaukee to see a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s Di goldgreber (The Gold Diggers) put on by one of the American descendants of the famous acting company the Vilner trupe. As I got deeper into linguistics, I made Yiddish one of my areas of research and publication.

Fast forward now some 20 years to 1979. I had risen through the ranks in German and linguistics at the University of Texas and had become the founding dean of the College of Liberal Arts. To my amazement, I turned out to be pretty good at the job, even at raising money. As a Boy Scout, I had never had the guts to sell $2 raffle tickets to anyone except my parents and grandparents, but I took easily to asking rich Texans for a few million dollars for this or that.

The College of Liberal Arts was swimming in money back in 1979, and for several years after that. Edwin Gale and his wife, Becky, of Beaumont, Texas, created the amply endowed Gale Chair of Jewish Studies, and under its aegis, together with the chairholder Seth Wolitz, I indulged my caprices by inviting to campus people whose work I had admired, most of them Jewish: Raul Hilberg, Howard Sachar, Lucy Dawidowicz, Irving Howe, and Norman Podhoretz among others.

When word came around that Isaac Bashevis Singer might be available for a lecture, we began negotiations with his assistant, then Dvorah Menashe, now Dvorah Telushkin. She made it very clear that “he is not to be bothered, he must have his rest.” When we began our negotiations, Bashevis had not yet received the Nobel Prize—a blessing, since his fee jumped several notches afterward.

Finally, all was worked out. I didn’t usually drive out to the airport to greet our lecture guests, but I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to meet one of my heroes on arrival. He was lively, inquisitive, energized by the unfamiliar light of an Austin spring. At the hotel, Dvorah and I installed him in his room and I dropped her off in hers. She cautioned me again that he wasn’t to be disturbed. I didn’t intend to bother him, but as I returned to the car and passed his door I saw it crack a bit and he looked out. “Vould you like to have a glass tea” he asked in the most classic Yiddish accent the world has ever known. I explained that I couldn’t, that I shouldn’t, that Dvorah … “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “I want a glass tea, what about you?”

For the next hour, in that drab Formica café in the hotel, we had the most memorable conversation of my life. I didn’t let on that I knew Yiddish, but I did know other things, such as the identity of the friend in Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” (Itzkhok Levi, stage name Jacques Löwy, a Yiddish actor). I knew that in his early days Singer had translated Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain from German into Yiddish. I was curious how he had managed the feverish-erotic French conversation between Hans Castorp and Madame Chauchat on Walpurgisnacht. (I seem to remember that Singer had put their French into German.) We talked about Kafka, and about his brother, the writer I.J. Singer.

He told me of the woman with whom he had had a son. She had saved herself from the Holocaust by finding refuge in the Soviet Union. Singer told me, as if he were describing a person with two heads, “She was a real communist.” And on it went. Sensing a political affinity, he told me, looking over his shoulder though no one was eavesdropping, that he liked Reagan, as I did—though I hadn’t told him so.

And he told me about his discomfort with literary critics, especially, he said, the Yiddish ones. “All they ever say to me is ‘ober ikh hub tsi akh a taan.’” (“But I have an objection.” He said it in his Polish Yiddish. In standard Yiddish that would be “ober ikh hob tsu aykh a tayne.”) What impressed him most about me, I think, was that I had served in the military: “So you can shoot a gun?” he asked admiringly. I finally got him to go back to his room, fearing admonition from Dvorah if I was caught “bothering” him.

There were various events the next day, but the big one was his public lecture, given to a packed hall with dignitaries from the state, the city, and the university in attendance. I had a surprise in store. I had asked my colleague Seth Wolitz to prepare for me an introduction in Yiddish. And what an introduction! Rich in obscure literary allusions appealing to a man like Bashevis Singer: his early work in the writer’s world of Warsaw, the influence of the Nobelist Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, a nod to I.J. Singer, the deceased elder brother whom Bashevis adored, and much else besides. There was a reference to the Jew-hater the Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki, whose depredations set the background of Singer’s novel The Slave.

I asked the forbearance of the audience if I introduced the speaker in Yiddish, saying I didn’t think I would have another opportunity to introduce another Nobel Prize winner in that language in my lifetime. And off I went in my late-learned, stilted, German-toned YIVO Yiddish. It went on five minutes or so. After two minutes I detected motion behind me. He even stood up, which undid me even more than I already was. As I concluded and returned to my place on the dais, he embraced me and whispered something that I caught only the last part of: “… az mushiakh vet kimen,” “that the Messiah will come.” Mission accomplished, in spades.

We never became close friends. But I never missed the opportunity to visit him when I went to New York, as I often did in those days. He lived in an apartment at the corner of West 86th Street and Broadway, directly across 86th from the apartment of my other New York Yiddish friend, the historian Lucy Dawidowicz. Nine horses could not have gotten me to propose a get-together—God knows where that might have led—so I visited them in tandem. She told me she had seen him often on the street but had never had the nerve to speak to him. He insisted that I send him copies of my linguistic articles on Yiddish, even the technical ones, though he always wrote back saying: “This is wonderful; I don’t understand a word.”

He allowed me into his sanctum sanctorum, his office, full to the ceiling of random scattered papers and brittle editions of ancient issues of the Forverts, the Jewish Daily Forward Yiddish newspaper, where many of his stories had been published. I met his wife, Alma, though she was more of a kitchen presence than a participant in our conversations, until later.

I never overstayed my welcome, and as his health deteriorated my visits became more infrequent. I spent more time with Alma Singer and learned about some of the ruffles in their marital life. She had attended the same girl’s school in Munich as Monika Mann, daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann; she was stunned that I knew who Monika Mann was. Alma was from a German Jewish background and had left her wealthy German husband to run off with the then-virtually penniless Bashevis.

A few months after Singer died, I got a call from Alma, inquiring whether Texas might be interested in purchasing his papers. The idea had never crossed my mind. I told her that Texas wasn’t the place to lodge his literary archive, that it belonged in say Columbia, or YIVO, perhaps Brandeis or McGill, or an Israeli university. Texas wasn’t “Jewish” in the way that Manhattan is, and his papers belonged most decidedly elsewhere. She agreed but said that her lawyer had contacted some of those places. They all wanted the papers but claimed to have no money to buy them with. So would Texas be interested?

Well, not for nothing is Texas a can-do sort of place, so I said that yes, we might be interested. How much money was she expecting? I don’t feel entitled even after all these years to say exactly how much we were to pay, but it was in the highish six figures plus a substantial tax deduction for her. I managed to get the president of the university interested as well as the director of the Humanities Research Center, who was looking to expand the center’s acquisitions beyond the English and American writers its reputation rested upon, for example the papers of T.S. Eliot. My assignment was to raise $500,000 toward the purchase price.

My first call was to Mort Meyerson, a leading Jewish philanthropist in Fort Worth who was interested in Jewish causes. I knew Mort well: He had come to Austin for Singer’s lecture at the university back in the day. I asked him for $500,000. He said he couldn’t do that, that he was temporarily short (aren’t we all?) but that he was good for $50,000. As we mulled it over Mort came up with a luminous idea: Why not get 10 people to give $50,000 each? A MINYAN FOR SINGER! That kind of thinking is why Mort Meyerson is a multimillionaire and I am not. Brilliant!

Twelve phone calls later and bingo, Singer had his minyan! Champagne all around. We got the papers. You never know what you’re getting when you acquire a novelist’s archive. There was the lamentable case about this time when the Humanities Research Center had purchased a major photographic collection. A few months later the curator of the collection called me up, excitedly, to say I had to come over and see what had turned up. On the way over to the center, I collared Lord Robert Blake, famous for his biography of Disraeli, then visiting at the University of Texas. Together we went to see what the fuss was about. It was the pictorial pornographic collection of Prince Louis of Battenberg, father of Lord Mountbatten. It was turn-of-the-century French stuff, two of this, three of that. Thoroughly disgusting (though I thought to myself, thoroughly amusing). Lord Blake kept muttering “I say, I say” as the curator turned the pages.

Singer’s archive was a Himalayan mess. The yellowing newspapers he had kept were beyond restoration, but they were available elsewhere digitally. There were electricity bills, income tax returns as far back as the 1930s, dry-cleaning receipts—the detritus of a long life. But there were treasures as well: letters to and from Bashevis; lists of synonyms; sketches of proposed projects; notes toward a children’s book; rude words about Barbra Streisand who had appeared in the movie Yentl based on a Singer story; a draft of an entire unfinished novel.

One thing leads to another. Because we had captured the Singer archive, we were able to obtain the papers of Leon Uris, bestselling author of Exodus and QB VII, and the papers of Alan Furst, the spy novelist.

I got all the reward I wanted when Alma Singer called me up one day and asked me to come to New York as her escort to an event where then-Mayor David Dinkins dedicated the corner of West 86th Street and Broadway to Isaac Bashevis Singer, a nice thing they do in New York for noted artists, writers, and musicians. His name will be there forever unless they tear down the street signs. I think Bashevis would have been proud of the way things turned out.

Robert King taught linguistics, Jewish Studies, and South Asian Studies at the University of Texas from 1965 until his retirement in 2016.