The typewriter that is more than a typewriter

When its new core exhibition officially opens in the Fall of 2020, it will make the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot the largest museum of its kind.  This new permanent addition to the museum highlights Peoplehood, inclusivity and the contributions of Jews to our global society from the beginning through today in every arena including culture. Lodged among the fascinating objects and historical gems in the new core is a typewriter from the 1970s. At first glance, the typewriter is simple and unremarkable, perhaps even out of place. But a closer inspection reveals insights into the celebrated Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. The typewriter was used by Singer as he crafted his stories about the world that was in Europe, destroyed by the Holocaust and his tales of those who survived the flames. But the typewriter itself has its own story; about Singer’s complex character and how Singer’s obsession with secrets and sexuality, with loyalty and betrayal, shaped both his life and his work.

The typewriter on display is Singer’s “Israel” typewriter that he used during his frequent trips to the country during the 1970s. It is a reminder that the renowned author, who wrote so magically about European Jews and came to fame in America, also had a deep connection to the Jewish homeland. Israel, for Singer, was “the road not taken.” Born into a Hasidic family, he grew up in a Polish village dreaming of Israel as a mystical, sacred land. As a young writer in Warsaw, he saw Zionism grasp the imagination of his contemporaries. But as with the other “isms” of his time, including Judaism, Socialism and Communism, Singer’s attitude toward Zionism remained ambiguous. One of his earliest works was a novella about an idealistic young Zionist who comes to the land of his dreams only to be disillusioned by its poverty and malaria, and ultimately returns to Europe. Singer himself contemplated moving to what was then British-ruled Palestine before instead migrating to the United States in 1935.

It was not until 1955 that Singer, by now middle-aged, first visited Israel. He was an unknown journalist who wrote for the American Yiddish newspaper The Forverts (The Forward) about the young state, wryly describing his efforts to speak Hebrew to the locals who invariably answered him in Yiddish. Even Israel’s Sephardim knew some Yiddish, Singer commented. When the writer, Saul Bellow translated Singer’s short story Gimpel the Fool into English, his life changed dramatically. Singer’s renown among non-Yiddish readers grew rapidly as he published a torrent of short stories, novels and autobiographical pieces depicting the beliefs, passions, and secrets of Jews in Poland before the war. His tales of modern characters tormented by the past, of Jews committing adultery on the night of Yom Kippur, of women disguising themselves as men to study Torah both entranced and scandalized readers.

By the 1970s, Singer was a literary giant. The world’s most famous Yiddish writer, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. His work was translated in multiple languages from English to Hebrew to Japanese. He visited Israel nearly every year to write, and here is where our typewriter comes in! As with so many of his works of fiction, his Israel trips were also part of Singer’s obsessive and broader reckoning with the past. Israel was for Singer both a road not taken and part of the story of the family he had forsaken. When he left Poland for the U.S. in 1935, he abandoned his common-law wife Ronia Pontsch and their five-year old son. They endured poverty and hardship before making their way to Israel where the boy, Israel Zamir, grew up on Kibbutz Beit Alafa and fought in the War of Independence. Singer had limited and tenuous contact with Ronia and their son but in the 1970s, he grew close to Israel’s eldest daughter, Dr. Meirav Hen. It was she who provided her grandfather with the typewriter that he used while in Israel and which she later donated to the museum.

Singer continued to cling to his romantic and sexual intrigues that is present in much of his writings. He came to Israel (without his wife Alma), largely because his longtime lover and translator Doba Gerber, was at the time living in the country. Many of Singer’s works, including his novel Enemies: A Love Story features a man circling between three women: an early love believed lost in Poland; a loyal but frequently betrayed wife, and a passionate mistress. In Israel, Singer continued to live out that story in person as well as on paper. As he once commented, he mixed fiction and reality to such a degree that he could no longer tell one from the other.

The typewriter used by Isaac Bashevis Singer at the height of his fame therefore provides a fascinating glimpse into his work and life, and allows the new core exhibition at the Museum of the Jewish People to explore the vitality and creative contributions to a shared global culture.

I want to thank Asaf Galay, a curator at the museum and the co-director of the documentary “The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” for his insight and perspective.

About the Author
Rachel Lithgow is the VP of MJP, Beit Hatfutsot International, and previously was the CEO of Jewish museums such as The LA Museum of the Holocaust and The American Jewish Historical Society.
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