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