Living With Isaac Bashevis Singer

Imagining the Domestic Life of Author and His Wife Alma

Alma and Isaac: The famed writer always returned to his wife, Alma, despite his well-documented betrayals.
wikimedia/mdc archives
Alma and Isaac: The famed writer always returned to his wife, Alma, despite his well-documented betrayals.

By Ilan Stavans

Published May 01, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Who could live with Isaac Bashevis Singer? The sexual escapades of the most successful Yiddish writer in America — and the one whom most Yiddish literati loved to hate — were public knowledge, in large part because he himself built his reputation as a Casanova in his own fiction, where he was chased into the bedroom by women young and old. His oeuvre might be described as “sex and the shtetl.”

Still, Singer was a married man. In Warsaw, before immigrating to the United States, he had a child out of wedlock — Israel Zamir, Singer’s only son — with one of his mistresses, Runia Shapira, a rabbi’s daughter. She was a Communist expelled from the Soviet Union for her Zionist sympathies. In his 1995 memoir, “A Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Zamir recounts how he and his mother ended up in Palestine. But since Singer and Runia separated when Zamir (born in 1929) was little, the report is almost totally deprived of a domestic portrait.

For Singer as homo domesticus, I needed the views of his wife, Alma Haimann, whom I’ll refer to by her first name hereafter. I had read in a 1970s article from The Jewish Exponent that Alma had been at work on an autobiography. “I’m about as far as the first 100 pages,” she told the Philadelphia newspaper. I was also aware, from Paul Kresh’s 1979 biography, “The Magician of West 86th Street,” that Singer didn’t think his wife would ever finish the manuscript. But was there such a manuscript?

Happily, when I last visited Singer’s archives at the Ransom Center, in Austin, Texas, I located the manuscript. Unhappily, it is far less than Alma had promised — not only in length (I came across 13 pages, a number of them only a few lines long,) but also in content. The first page has a title penciled in capital letters: “What Life Is Like With a Writer.”

The material is unformed, the style is clumsy; the scenes are poorly narrated. Of course, it is unfair to depict Alma as a failed writer, for she never aspired to be a writer. Neither is this manuscript a finished product. Yet Alma on occasion did present herself as an author. She wrote at least one short story, which she sent out to magazines. An editor gave her an encouraging response, but asked her to change the ending. Alma never followed up, and dropped the endeavor altogether.

She and Singer met in the Catskills, at a farm village named Mountaindale. Although in the manuscript, Alma is elusive about dates, it is known that the encounter took place in 1937. The two were refugees of what Singer’s older brother, Israel Joshua, by then already the successful novelist I.J. Singer, would soon describe as “a world that is no more.” And the two were married to other spouses. Alma and her husband, Walter Wasserman, along with their two children, Klaus and Inga, had escaped from Germany the previous year and come to America, settling in the Inwood section of Manhattan. As for Isaac — as Alma always called him — he arrived in 1935. She portrays their encounters as romantic, although she appears to have been perfectly aware of his reputation.

Alma doesn’t explore the cultural differences that separated them. She was an upper-class German Jew born in Munich, whereas Singer was from Leoncin, a small Polish village northeast of Warsaw. In 1904, when Singer was born, Leoncin was part of the Russian Empire. In Alma’s milieu, Yiddish was a symbol of low caste. Her father had been a textile businessman and her grandfather had been a Handlerichter, a judge specializing in commercial cases. Although Wasserman, her first husband, was nowhere near as rich in America as he had been in Germany, he was certainly far wealthier than Singer, who was known as an impecunious journalist.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.