The May 7 issue of The New Yorker contains a previously unknown short story by the late literary giant Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In an interview with Deborah Treisman, the magazine's fiction editor, David Stromberg, the editor of the Singer’s estate, said “The Boarder” was found while going through the prominent writer’s vast archives.
I.B. Singer, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize, was born in Hasidic pre-war Poland in 1904. After he followed his brother, the inimitable Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer to New York in 1935, he wrote many short stories and serialized novels. He published them first in Yiddish language publications before having them translated or translating them himself with the help of editors into English. Singer, who was known to his Yiddish followers by his middle name Bashevis, was prolific, something that became more apparent after his death in 1991 when his archives revealed a multitude of stories that were in Yiddish that had yet to be translated into English.
"Singer’s lifework was cut short—he simply didn’t have time to translate, edit, and publish everything he’d written," Stromberg tells Treisman.
“The Boarder,” however, is unusual. Stromberg explains that the manuscript he found in the archives is a typewritten copy in English that appears to have been translated by Singer from a handwritten copy in Yiddish. Neither the Yiddish version nor the English version was ever published. Based on his knowledge of the typewriters and paper Singer used, Stromberg estimates the story dates from the mid-1950s, though that is hard to confirm.
So why did Singer, who in the 1950s was beginning to receive mainstream literary acclaim for works like the novel The Family Moskat and the short story “Gimpel, The Fool,” go to the effort of writing and then translating a short story only to leave both versions in a drawer?
Stromberg tells Treisman that the answer probably has to do with the subject matter. The story is set up as a debate between two Jewish men, one religious and one who is not. The religious man, Reb Berish, lived through the anti-Jewish pogroms of Russia, eventually emigrating to New York where he spent his life behind a pushcart. While Berish experienced poverty and hardship, he never lost his faith and did not abandon tradition. The other man, Morris Melnik, who is his boarder, is a refugee who survived the Holocaust and life in post-war Soviet Russia before making it to the United States. Melnik's faith, which he had already been questioning before all his loved ones were killed, is completely shattered. The two engage each others on questions of faith, history meaning and purpose amid the backdrop of emigration, which offers them what appears to be a new start.
Stromberg believes that the story was not published because the culture wasn't ready in the 1950s to wrestle with the doubts and traumas of Holocaust survivors who themselves were in the midst of moving forward and rebuilding their shattered lives. In one pointed exchange in the story, Melnik asks Berish: “To whom are you praying? To the God who made Hitler and gave him the strength to kill 6 million Jews? Or perhaps to the God who created Stalin and let him liquidate another 10 million victims?"
Stromberg says that there is a trove in Singer’s archive that will continue to add to his already long legacy.
You might be surprised to realize some of the Singer stories you've already been introduced to. Over the years, Singer's stories, many of which draw on his childhood in Poland or hearken back to Yiddish folk tales and morality stories, have crossed over into the mainstream. The 1983 Barbra Streisand film musical Yentl, for instance, was based on his short story, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," and 1989's Enemies, A Love Story, was based on his 1966 novel of the same name, first published serially in the Jewish Daily Forward.