|Directed by:||Amram Nowak||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1986||Running Time:||58|
Having grown up in the slums of Poland, Isaac Bashevis Singer went on to win a Nobel Prize in literature for his quirky Yiddish stories with universal appeal. The Oscar-nominated documentary Isaac in America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer offers a rare and intimate portrait of the acclaimed writer just a few years before his death, as he reflects back on his life and career.
“When I was born my mother asked the midwife, ‘Is it a boy or a girl,” Singer tells an audience at one of his many speaking engagements, “and the midwife said, ‘Neither—it’s going to be a writer.’”
Singer proves to be as quirky and one-of-a-kind as his stories, a man whose office teems with diplomas and awards but who is well aware that his life could have gone very differently. Born in 1902 in a Yiddish-speaking village not far from Warsaw, he escaped Nazi occupation by fleeing to America and setting up residency in New York City. He might have starved if the Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward hadn’t recognized the budding writer’s talent and published his stories regularly. Isaac in America captures the Nobel Laureate toward the end of his life—when thick, black glasses weigh down his bald and wrinkled face. But his smile is still charming, and his wit is as sharp as ever.
Although Singer spent the rest of his life in America, he and his work were profoundly influenced by his hometown. No matter where he traveled, he measured his experiences by his place of origin. The characters Singer knew and wanted to write about were all Old World Yiddish speakers, people inspired with fear and curiosity by the supernatural. As Singer explains in the film, he couldn’t have written about Texas cowboys because he didn’t know how they thought or spoke. Unlike Saul Bellows and many other contemporary Jewish writers who saw themselves as American writers who happened to be Jewish, Singer recognized himself as a Jewish writer — one whose roots were destroyed by the Holocaust but could be immortalized in his stories.
Isaac in America offers the viewer another layer of appreciation to Singer’s writing by exploring its autobiographical elements and presenting the writer’s own insight into his work. His story “A Day at Coney Island,” for instance, was based on Singer’s first summer in America. Hearing the great writer read his own words aloud is a singular treasure. Not only does Singer read excerpts from this short story and elaborate on them — sharing self-effacing anecdotes and highly personal memories — but he even treks back to revisit the characters and homes that appeared in the work decades ago, where he’s both surprised and saddened by how time has changed them.
The camera also follows Singer through his apartment at 86th Street and Broadway, where he opens the door to an office that’s so full of books and papers there’s hardly room to walk. But Singer doesn’t mind the mess. “Chaos is not really ugly,” he explains, “The chaos was before the world was created. Before God said, ‘Let there be light,’ there was chaos.” And for this reason, he sees no point in cleaning up his mess.
But Singer takes a serious tone when he talks about writing, making him an invaluable resource for aspiring writers. In front of a classroom of students, Singer lectures on the importance of having a beginning, middle and end to a story and of keeping the language and plot clear, because “there’s no great art in confusing the reader.”
The more Singer talks about his profession, though, the more he reveals about himself. He argues that all good stories are love stories because it is in love that people become vulnerable and reveal themselves. “No where is the human being, character, personality expressed so clearly as in love,” he says. With that he seems to admit what becomes clear from observation – the great writer’s affinity for words was matched only by his love for women.