Isaac Bashevis Singer sleeps in a cemetery plot as salacious as the plots contrived by the demons in his own short stories: He shares an earthly bed with his wife, her first husband, and her first husband’s second wife. To add to this witches brew, the tombstone calls Singer the winner of not the Nobel Prize but the Noble Prize, as if some yenta in Miami was describing his award.
If you were Singer’s restless soul, no doubt you’d also fly away from that New Jersey cemetery to be with your old friend Dvorah Telushkin.
Other than with the lusty Yiddish women he loved on Warsaw’s Krachmalna Street in 1934, where else could Singer be more at home than with his “dahlnik” Dvorah? Her office is a
bedroom she rents on Riverside Drive, overlooking the big river and the promenade where Singer used to feed the pigeons. His 1935 Remington manual Yiddish typewriter is in this bedroom, as are three of his old felt hats. It was in this room, says Telushkin, where she wrote her new and beautiful “Master of Dreams: A Memoir of Isaac Bashevis Singer” (Morrow) as his spirit crouched in the corner, crowded her dreams, perched on her typing fingers like a parakeet, and snapped at her to give him the decency of a perfectly crafted epitaph.
Dvorah Telushkin, although happily married for several years to the angelic Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has nevertheless lived a life acquainted with darkness, death, estrangement and longing — the perfect resume for her 14-year service to Singer as translator, confidante, editor, secretary, and object of love and emotional abuse; for Singer was so famously acquainted with the occult, the askew, the sexual and spiritual longings best left unspoken. And yet Singer and Telushkin could get sappy enough to sing “Tumbalalaika” and “Rozhinkis Mit Mondlin” in the front seat of a car, the corny Yiddish equivalent of singing about Moon River’s plucky drifters who were off to see the world; wherever he was going, she was going his way.
She met him in 1975 when she was 20 and he was 71. “There was an article about Isaac in the Times,” remembers Telushkin. “My mother wanted me to be a writer and she thought he could help me. She said, ‘Why don’t you knock on his door?’ ”
It was the last conversation before Dvorah’s mother suddenly died.
The young Dvorah wrote “To our dear Isaac Singer,” offering him a weekly drive to his creative writing class at Bard College in exchange for her auditing the course.
“I felt as if my mother manipulated things from Heaven,” says Telushkin. “Three months to the day after she died, and on her birthday” the phone rang: “Halaw? Can you take me to Bard College?” It was Singer. She picked him up the next morning in a 1958 Plymouth.
They’d sit in his big apartment on West 86th Street, the telephone ringing with invitations, she assisting him, he teaching her the craft of writing. “Vee mustn’t vaste any time,” she still hears him say. “Come. Sit down. An ox must vork!”
Telushkin was alone without mother or father, and Singer became her surrogate family; they worked with love in the room. They even looked like family, sharing reddish hair, translucent skin, cool blue eyes.
In her memoir, she recalls how he once stopped with a manuscript on his knee and said, “ ‘It is such a mekhaye [pleasure] to sit together and vork like this.’ Then his whole face wrinkled and his eyes filled with laughter: ‘I vanted to hate you, but I rather love you. I cannot help it but to love a sweet child, my little pig [he jokingly called himself a pig as well]. Let me tell you,’ he added very gently, ‘I don’t vant you should ever fear me. No matter vhat vill ever happen, I vant you should come to me vithout any hesitation and vithout any fear. I vant this should be a house for you where you can find not only peace, but also rest. Real rest.’ ”
Looking at Telushkin now, it is easy to imagine her young self in Singer’s 1970s apartment as they shared the most sensual intimacy of finding the exact word, of merging imaginations.
Was Singer in love with you?
“We definitely deeply loved each other.”
His writing was so sexual, as was Singer: “I understand that the sexual is a part of people’s lives, and if he was, I handled it,” says Telushkin. “He was tremendously seductive. Isaac lived and breathed sexuality — in his life, in his talking, when he walked down the street. When you were in his presence he had that look in his eye. He looked inside of you. His love for women was so … he wasn’t afraid of it. He just had to keep it in control; it’s good that he came from a religious background. But this is what made him exciting on the personal level and what made his work so alive. He knew how to be naughty and a perfect gentleman. He’d ask to kiss a woman’s hand, and he’d phrase words in ways that weren’t threatening.”
Now there are thousands of people across the country who adored Singer, who thought of him as the cute, naughty wisecracking zayde everyone wishes they had. But when he began to deteriorate swiftly and brutally, when his stories were increasingly rejected by The New Yorker and other glossy magazines, when his company became more nasty, paranoid and surly, then the crowds of sycophants and would-be grandchildren disappeared.
Telushkin stayed. She stayed when he stood in the darkened hallway, immobile, his eyes pleading, “I am completely farblondzhet. I don’t know vaht is vaht and who is who.”
She visited him in Miami, when he looked up from a wheelchair, telling her, “I cannot vork anymore. … I cannot write at all. If my mother and father could see vhat is happening to me, they would cry their eyes out.”
He asked for a pen but could not hold it. She spoke of the plans they had for old untranslated novels, of his playful nicknames for her.
He asked his young translator, “Vhat does it mean, the vord, when you cannot remember?”
“This vould be an interesting idea, hah? If the Almighty vould get amnesia and He has forgotten that He has created the vorld?”
Telushkin kept visiting her mentor. “Hello, Isaac.”
She speaks louder. “I’ve come to thank you for everything you’ve given me. I want to tell you I think of you always.” She leans against the metal bar attached to his bed.
She slowly kisses his forehead, saying “I remember you all the time.”
“Vhy are you thanking me … vhat have I given you?”
For some 15 years she gave to him, she gives to him still. And now, his soul free, when the plot gets too convoluted in that New Jersey cemetery, the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer visits Dvorah Telushkin in her bedroom office; he comes in her dreams, he crouches in the corner. This is his home, with Dvorah, with his felt hats, with his brother’s books and the Remington typewriter from 1935.
What did a Jewish writer ever need, anyway, except a portable Hebrew keyboard and a woman with eyes like the sky?