I. B. Singer’s Secret Hispanic Meydl

Published February 17, 2010, issue of February 26, 2010.
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A newly-discovered hand-written letter written in Yiddish by Isaac Bashevis Singer to Magdalena Salazar, his Mexican maid of seven years in the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife Alma, offers insight into a previously unknown romantic liaison by the Nobel Prize winner. Stuck to a Zabar’s grocery list which had a late reworking of Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” scribbled on it, the letter was found during Digitize Yiddish Week at the King’s Ransom Humanities Center in Austin, Texas. In translating it I found a handful of words undecipherable. Mrs. Salazar, who stopped working for the Singers in 1964, wasn’t mentioned in Singer’s will in 1991, the year of his death.

— Ilan Stavans


November 22, 1963

Dear Shmilke,

I’ve asked my publisher to deposit $150 a month from the royalties into the bank account I set up for you. Alma doesn’t need to know about it, and I’ve made sure she won’t find out. The lawyer and I have already gone over the details. But please make sure you don’t leave any bank receipts around the house. Alma’s a terrible snoop.

How long ago did I give you the Spanish/Yiddish dictionary? I got it from a friend in Buenos Aires; I told him I wanted to sprinkle some Spanish in something I’m finishing. And now look! You must be the first Indian ever to speak der mame loshn so fluently. Even Alma didn’t know the word for “vacuum cleaner” until she heard it from you. Of course, when she and I were born, there was no such thing as a vacuum cleaner. It truly is a new age!

It will be a pleasure to meet your niece in February, when she returns from Puebla. I don’t know what chipotle is but I’m always ready to learn new things. How old is she? Your description of her made me think of a girlfriend I had in Warsaw, who died in the war.

I gave you my brother’s memoir, Of a World That Is No More, because I thought it would add to your understanding of my past. Many people say my brother was a better novelist than I am. It isn’t true, but I thought I’d give you a chance to compare for yourself. Oh, and keep in mind that the stories I tell in In My Father’s Court aren’t always accurate. In fact, I made up most of it while recovering from a serious Purim bender in the spring of 1931. Ab. Cahan and I would often laugh about those half-truths while out drinking after klabberjass tournaments. I miss Ab. He could be a pain in the ass sometimes, but he was a hell of an editor.

I was wondering if you could give me a quick summary of the note you left under my pillow last Tuesday, and which I can’t seem to find. I know: the last time you gave me a piece of writing, I misplaced that one, too. I’m absent-minded. But you’re wrong: I do care! And I do think you have talent. The sense [three illegible words follow] is a miracle of poetic compression and I’m the first to recognize it. Maybe you can help me translate one of my stories. I think my stories would really appeal to the Mexican literary sensibility. Did you know there’s a pretty good-sized Yiddish-speaking population in Mexico City? It’s true. They love me there.

I will stay in Florida with Alma for another eight weeks. I dream of your plump kneidlach; don’t share them with anyone. They are mine! I also look forward to caressing your sweet breasts.

Tu Yitzjok Galán

In 2009, Ilan Stavans was the only non-banker to have his bonus legally capped by Congress.

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