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.
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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.
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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.


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