Newly Published Work: "The Boarder"
A conversation with David Stromberg, a writer, translator, and literary scholar who is the editor for the Singer estate.
You found “The Boarder,” a previously unpublished story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, while going through his archives. Why do you think the story wasn’t published in Singer’s lifetime?
First, it’s important to emphasize one thing: not only was this story never published in English, it seems to have never appeared in Yiddish, either. In most cases, Singer published a story in the Yiddish press, and then used tear sheets or clippings to translate it into English. This story looks to have been translated directly from a handwritten manuscript. No translator is listed, but the draft in the archives bears Singer’s own handwritten corrections in English, so it’s most likely that he did the translation himself, probably with the participation of a collaborator who may have made some adjustments. Neither the manuscript nor the translation bears a date, so we also don’t know exactly when the story was written. My best guess—based partly on the quality of the typewriting and the paper used for the original document, and partly on the themes and the setting of the story itself—is that it was written sometime in the early to mid-nineteen-fifties.
The question, then, isn’t only why this story was never published but also what it might mean that Singer invested the time and effort to translate, into English, a story that had never appeared in Yiddish, the language in which he published much more regularly. It’s difficult and also risky to speculate when we have so little historical information. But it’s a fair bet that the story’s suppression had something to do with its subject matter. The mid-fifties was a difficult time, I imagine, to be writing in such an unapologetic way about the fates, the traumas, and the attitudes of Holocaust survivors. And it was also an odd and possibly inopportune time to write about an observant Jewish believer with no community other than his despairing boarder. Interestingly, the Sochaczew Jews, who first established their congregation on the Lower East Side, in the eighteen-eighties, and built their building at 121 Ludlow Street, in 1920, were also the burial society for many Jews, and so it actually makes historical sense that the old man has already paid them for a grave site.
The story takes the form, essentially, of a debate between a devout man and one who has been shocked out of his faith in God’s benevolence by his experiences in the Holocaust and then in Soviet camps. Both men have made their way to New York to restart their lives, though the former moved before the war, the latter after. Why do you think their views are so opposed?
These two men not only lived through different historical events, they also come from vastly different eras. Reb Berish didn’t survive the Holocaust, but he did flee the pogroms and the poverty of the Russian Empire. He experienced the difficulties of an immigrant with a pushcart on the Lower East Side. He survived and even retired with a small pension, but he did not “succeed” in America like other Jews of his generation. Decades after the majority of the Lower East Side’s Jews had moved to more prosperous parts of New York City, he lives just over the bridge, in Williamsburg, which didn’t yet boast a resurgent Hasidic community. He is a refugee from his origins, retaining the faith and the customs of the Old World but never realizing the dream of prosperity that, in America between the two world wars, often meant adapting or abandoning tradition. Morris Melnik, on the other hand, lived through an altogether different historical trajectory. He arrived in America in the post-Second World War era, broken, without hopes or dreams, having lost everyone who was close to him, and experienced the lowest expressions of human life on Earth. He doesn’t appear to have been a believer before the Second World War, and his experiences seem to have deepened his doubt, turning it to bitterness, cynicism, and nihilism.
Ultimately, though, both men hold on to attitudes that provide them comfort. Reb Berish’s faith may be seen as contributing to his isolation in America, but he clings to it, perhaps because, no matter how alone he may feel, his commitment to God and Judaism gives him a sense of connection to generations that have come before him. This may not seem like much from Morris’s modern perspective, but, when an atrocity as unfathomable as the Holocaust becomes an unequivocal reality, this faith—which solves nothing—seems, at least, to offer a viable counterbalance to the despair of doubt. This is what makes it possible for these two men to engage in dialogue. It doesn’t really matter which perspective is right or wrong. What comes to the fore is that, their personal beliefs aside, these two refugees both find themselves on the margins of American society, each coping to the best of his ability with his personal trauma and pain.
View the original article here.