A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
This is a Texas-based tale of elective affinity, luck, timing and money, which, by the way, is how great Texas oil fortunes always got made.
The leading character is Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was a beloved Jewish-American author. He was born in Poland, won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was an exceptionally “metropolitan" man with links reaching from Warsaw to Manhattan to Miami.
Over the years, he was best known for his short stories, but he also wrote at least 18 novels and more than a dozen books for children in addition to memoires, essays and articles.
Before much of his work became widely available in English, it was published in Yiddish, the dialect of German with words from Hebrew and some other languages which some Jews had been speaking for many years in central and Eastern Europe.
But as you will see, this is also a story about other people and events which came together after his death and made it possible to preserve Singer’s literary archive -– author manuscripts, drafts, letters, diaries and other personal papers -– at the University of Texas at Austin.
It was quite an unexpected final destination then and remains a source of puzzlement for many people.
To begin, let’s go back to 1979, when I had worked at the university long enough to rise through academic ranks and become the founding dean of the College of Liberal Arts. To my amazement, I was pretty good at that job, even at raising money. As a Boy Scout, I never had the guts to sell $2 raffle tickets except to members of my family, but I took easily to asking rich Texans for a few million dollars for this and that.
So my college was swimming in money, and I was inviting prominent people to speak there. They were people whose work I admired. Many of them happened to be Jews. One wealthy couple made a donation that enabled us to create a Chair of Jewish Studies.
When we heard that Singer might be available to deliver a lecture, we began negotiating a deal with his assistant. He had not yet received the Nobel Prize. That was a blessing. His fee rose several notches afterward.
This was a significant development for me. I’m not a Jew, but I’d had an interest in Yiddish since my childhood in a small Mississippi town, where I had many Jewish friends. I kept the interest as I made my way through college and went on to earn a PhD in linguistics.
As the date of Singer's visit drew near, I was really looking forward to greeting him at the airport. Although I didn’t usually do that for lecture guests, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to welcome this man, one of my heroes.
He was lively, inquisitive and energized by the unfamiliar light of an Austin spring. At the hotel, his assistant asked us not to disturb him. I didn’t intend to do that. But as I was returning to my car and going past his door, I saw it crack a bit and he looked out.
“Vould you like to have a glass tea” he asked in a classic Yiddish accent.
I explained that I promised to let him rest.
“It doesn’t matter. I want a glass tea.," he said. "What about you?”
For the next hour, in a 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 revealed that I knew some other things such as the identity of the friend in Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka” (Itzkhok Levi, stage name Jacques Löwy). In addition, I knew Singer had translated Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain” from German into Yiddish. We talked about Kafka, and Isaac's brother, the writer I.J. Singer.
At one point, he told me about the woman with whom he had had a son. She had saved herself from the Holocaust by finding refuge in the Soviet Union. “She was a real communist,” he said, as if she had had two heads.
And on it went.
Sensing a political affinity, he said, looking over his shoulder although no one was eavesdropping, that he liked Reagan, as I did – though I hadn’t told him. And he told me about his discomfort with literary critics, especially the Yiddish ones.
“All they ever say to me is I have an objection,” he said in his Polish Yiddish.
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 before his assistant could catch me “bothering” him.
The next day brought various events, but the big one was his public lecture in a jam-packed hall that included dignitaries from the state, the city, and the university. It was my honor to introduce Singer and, to surprise him, I asked a colleague to prepare my remarks in Yiddish.
And what an introduction it was!
Rich in obscure literary allusions appealing to a man like Singer: his early work in the writer’s world of Warsaw, the influence of the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, a nod to his deceased elder brother, whom he adored, and much else.
There was a reference to Jew-hating Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki, whose depredations set the background of Singer’s novel “The Slave.”
When the time came, I asked the forbearance of the audience to speak in Yiddish, saying I didn’t think I’d ever get another opportunity to introduce a Nobel laureate in that language. And off I went in my late-learned, stilted, German-toned Yiddish.
It went on for about five minutes. After two, I detected a motion behind me. He even stood up, which undid me even more than I already was. As I finished and returned to my place on the dais, he embraced me and whispered something. I caught only the last part: “… az mushiakh vet kimen,” meaning “the Messiah will come.”
Mission accomplished, in spades.
We never became close friends. But I never missed the chance to visit him when I went to New York, as I often did in those days.
He lived in an apartment on the West Side directly across the street from one occupied by my other New York Yiddish friend, a female historian. Nine horses couldn't have gotten me to propose a get-together. God knows where that might have led.
So I'd visit them in tandem. She told me she'd seen him often on the street, but never had the nerve to speak to him.
Singer 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 office, full to the ceiling of random scattered papers and brittle old editions of the Jewish Daily Forward Yiddish newspaper, where many of his stories had been published. I met his wife, Alma, who was more of a kitchen presence than a participant in our conversations, until later.
I never overstayed my welcome, and my visits became less frequent as his health deteriorated. I spent more time with Alma and learned about some of the ruffles in their marital life. Years earlier, she had left her wealthy German husband to run off with Singer, then virtually penniless.
A few months after Singer died in 1991 at the age of 88, I got a call from Alma. She wanted to know whether the university might be interested in purchasing his papers.
The idea had never crossed my mind. I told her that Texas wasn’t the best place to lodge his literary archive, that it belonged in say Columbia, or perhaps Brandeis or McGill, or an Israeli university. Texas wasn’t “Jewish” in the way Manhattan is, and his papers belonged elsewhere.
She agreed, and said her lawyer had contacted some of those places. They all wanted the papers, but claimed to have no money to buy them. So, she asked, would Texas be interested?
Well, not for nothing is Texas a can-do sort of place. So I said 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 fair tax deduction for her.
I reached out to the university president and the director of the Humanities Research Center, who was looking to expand the center’s acquisitions beyond English and American writers. My assignment: raise $500,000 toward the purchase price.
My first call was to Mort Meyerson, a philanthropist in Fort Worth interested in Jewish causes. I knew Mort well. He came for Singer’s lecture at the university back in the day. I asked him for $500,000. He said 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 a minyan! Champagne all around. We got the papers.
You never know what you’re getting when you acquire a novelist’s archive. There was a lamentable case about this time when the Humanities Research Center bought 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, I collared Lord Robert Blake, famous for his biography of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Blake was visiting our university at the time.
Together we went to see what the fuss was about. It
was a 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. It was thoroughly disgusting (although I thought to myself, it was 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 were available elsewhere digitally. There were electricity bills, income tax returns dating 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 him; 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" that was based on a Singer story; a draft of an entire unfinished novel.
One thing leads to another. Because we had captured the Singer literary archive, we were able to obtain the papers of Leon Uris, bestselling author of "Exodus" and "QB VII," and also the papers of Alan Furst, the spy novelist.
I got all the reward I wanted when Alma Singer asked me to come to New York so that I could escort her to a ceremonial occasion. At that event, 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.
Singer's name will be there forever unless they tear down the street signs. I think he would have been proud of the way things turned out.
Robert King was a University of Texas faculty member from 1965 until 2016, when he retired. A similar version of his story was published in Tablet Magazine.
Isaac Bashevis Singer's list of published works is long: at least 18 novels and more than a dozen children's books as well as memoirs, essays and articles. But he was best known for writing short stories. He came to the United States in 1935 to flee the threat of fascism in Poland. He was given the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature ,