Lost in America – Part Two of a Memoir by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Thank God, none of my fears and premonitions came true. I wasn’t detained on Ellis Island. The Immigration officers didn’t make any trouble for me. My brother Joshua and a fellow writer of his, Zygmunt Salkin, a member of the Anglo-Jewish press in America, came to meet me at the ship. After a few formalities I was seated in Salkin’s car.

I wanted to carry my valises but Zygmunt Salkin snatched them out of my hands. I had heard of him back in Warsaw. When my brother visited America following the publication in the Jewish Daily Forward of his novel Yoshe Kalb, Zygmunt Salkin escorted him around New York, presented him to a number of American writers, theatre people, editors, publishers and translators. Salkin himself had translated several works from Yiddish into English.

He and Joshua were the same age, nearly 40, but Salkin appeared much younger. In the nearly two years we had been apart, my brother seemed to have aged. The hair surrounding his bald skull had grown nearly gray. Zygmunt Salkin had a head of curly brown hair. He wore a blue suit with red stripes, a shirt of a similar pattern and a gaudy tie. He spoke an old-home Yiddish without the English words employed by the American tourists I had encountered in Warsaw. Still, I could determine from his speech that he had already spent many years in the land of Columbus.

He had heard about me through my brother. He had read in the magazine Globus the serialisation of my novel, as well as several of my stories in the Forward, and he began to call me by my first name.

Before driving my brother and me to Seagate, where Joshua was now living, he wanted to show me New York. In the two hours that he drove us around I saw much – the avenues with the metal bridges, the ‘els’, looming overhead and the electric trains racing, as well as Fifth and Madison avenues, Radio City, Riverside Drive and, later, Wall Street, the streets and markets around the Lower East Side and finally the ten-storey Forward building where my brother worked as a staff member. I had forgotten that it was the first of May, but the columns of the Forward building were completely draped in red and a large throng stood before the building listening to a speaker.

We crossed the bridge to Brooklyn and a new area of New York revealed itself to me. It was less crowded, had almost no skyscrapers and resembled more a European city than Manhattan, which impressed me as a giant exhibition of Cubist paintings and theatre props. Without realising it, I registered whatever uniqueness I could see in the houses, the stores, the shops. The people here walked, they did not rush and run. They all wore new and light clothes. Within kosher butcher shops, bones were sawed rather than chopped with cleavers. The stores featured potatoes alongside oranges, radishes next to pineapples. In drugstores, food was served to men and women seated on high stools. Boys holding sticks resembling rolling pins and wearing huge gloves on one hand played ball in the middle of the streets. They bellowed in adult voices. Among shoe, lamp, rug stores and flower shops stood a mortuary. Pallbearers dressed in black carried out a coffin decorated in wreaths and loaded it into a car draped with curtains. The family or whoever came to the funeral did not show on their faces any sign of mourning. They conversed and behaved as if death was an everyday occurrence to them.

We came to Coney Island. To the left, the ocean flashed and flared with a blend of water and fire. To the right, carousels whirled, youths shot at tin ducks. On rails emerging from a tunnel, then looming straight up into the pale blue sky, boys rode metal horses while girls sitting behind them shrieked. Jazz music throbbed, whistled, screeched. A mechanical man, a robot, laughed hollowly. Before a kind of museum, a black giant cavorted with a midget on each arm. I could feel that some mental catastrophe was taking place here, some mutation for which there was no name in my vocabulary, not even a beginning of a notion. We drove through a gate with a barrier and guarded by a policeman, and it suddenly grew quiet and pastoral. We pulled up before a house with turrets and a long porch where elderly people sat and warmed themselves in the sun. My brother said, ‘This is the bastion of Yiddishism. Here, it’s decided who is mortal or immortal, who is progressive or reactionary.’

I heard someone ask: ‘So you’ve brought your brother?’

‘Yes, here he is.’


I got out of the car and a soft and moist hand clasped mine. A tiny man wearing a pair of large sunglasses said: ‘You don’t know me. How could you? But I know you. I read Globus faithfully. Thanks is due you for writing the naked truth. The scribblers here try to persuade the reader that the shtetl was a paradise full of saints. So comes along someone from the very place and he says “stuff and nonsense!” They’ll excommunicate you here, but don’t be alarmed.’

‘He’s just arrived and already he’s getting compliments,’ remarked another individual with a head of milk-white hair and a freshly sunburned round face. ‘I had to wait 20 years before I heard a kind word in America. The fact is that I’m still waiting ... cheh, cheh, cheh... .’

My brother and Zygmunt Salkin exchanged a few more words with a girl who served someone a cup of tea, then we got in the car and drove for a few seconds and stopped before another house. My brother said: ‘This is where we live.’

I looked up and saw my sister-in-law Genia and their son Yosele. Genia seemed the same but Yosele had grown. Out of habit I started to address him in Polish but it turned out that he had completely forgotten that language. He spoke English now and also knew a little Yiddish.

My brother lived in a house built as a summer residence. It consisted of a bedroom and a huge room which served as a combination living and dining-room. There was no kitchen here, only a kitchenette, which opened like a closet. Joshua told me that he planned to spend only the summer here. The furniture belonged to the landlord, who was the brother of a well-known Yiddish critic. The bathroom was shared with another tenant, a writer, too. Genia reminded me to latch the door to the other apartment when I used the bathroom, and to unlatch it when I was through. Fortunately, the neighbour was an elderly bachelor who was away most of the day, she observed.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in