Fighting for his father’s legacy

Author Israel Zamir (1929-2014) took on the mission of disseminating the unpublished works of his father, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Israel Zamir poses with a sculpture of his father in Bilgoray, Poland. (photo credit: COURTESY MEIRAV HEN)
Israel Zamir poses with a sculpture of his father in Bilgoray, Poland.
(photo credit: COURTESY MEIRAV HEN)
I FIRST met him about a year ago. He drove up in his golf cart to where I was waiting at the entrance to Kibbutz Beit Alfa and gestured for me to jump on. I squeezed right up against his side and put my arm around his shoulders. We drove past old warehouses and animal pens, and up the hill to a small house.
In the basement was Israel Zamir’s workroom where, in his mid-80s, he still spent his morning and afternoon hours writing and tending to literary matters.
Though I was there to discuss matters related to his father, Nobel Prize laureate for literature Isaac Bashevis Singer, I knew Zamir was a journalist and writer in his own right. In addition to editing the Hotam supplement of the leftist Al Hamishmar newspaper for more than two decades until its demise in 1995, he was also the author of eight books, including several novels and short story collections.
During our meeting, he told me about the night the Golani Infantry Battalion 13 fought the Egyptians near Khan Yunis as part of Operation Horev in 1948 – an event he describes in his 2004 book “Put Out the Sun.”
The battle ended with 28 Golani dead and 40 injured. Zamir recalled that sometime after his first meeting with his estranged father in 1955, he told him about the battle he had survived and that in the middle of the story his father told him to stop speaking, while proceeding to tell him exactly the date on which the battle had taken place – Singer said he could not sleep that night and knew his son was in great danger.
We will never know how true or accurate this story is, but it speaks to Zamir’s faith in the strong connection with his father. He did not, however, gloss over the problematic aspects of their relationship. In 1935, four years before the German invasion and the start of the Holocaust, Singer emigrated from Poland to the US, while his common-law first wife Runia Pontsch took their six-year-old son Israel to Russia.
In 1937, Pontsch and her son were expelled from the Soviet Union and by 1938 made their way to Palestine.
Almost two decades later when Zamir arrived in New York in 1955, he came as a representative of Hashomer Hatza’ir, the far-left youth movement, and was an ardent supporter of both the Soviet Union and Stalin. His first meeting with his father in 20 years was difficult and both men would go on to write short stories that fictionalized their exchanges.
Zamir explained that part of the difficulty was their fundamentally opposed political outlooks – Singer was an ardent anti- Stalinist and in his journalistic writing regularly protested the crimes of the Soviet Union, while Zamir’s own political position softened somewhat after the process of de-Stalinization began with Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s totalitarianism in early 1956. Only then, Zamir said, did he and his father begin to get close.
Zamir made it clear that theirs was not the usual father-son relationship. Rather, he said it was more like a friendship – especially since it began when Zamir was already in his mid-20s.
His father’s escapades with women, other than his second wife Alma, are well known, and Zamir said he would sometimes be called upon as an alibi if Alma asked where his father was. His tone suggested he didn’t always like this role, but that he played it as loyally as any good friend would.
Zamir’s father also recruited him to translate stories to Hebrew from English, since Zamir was not fluent in Yiddish, the language of Singer’s writings. This way, in parallel to creating a name for himself as a journalist and writer, Zamir also worked to introduce his father’s work to Israeli readers.
He translated and helped publish his father’s early stories and novels until they gained popularity and Israeli publishers produced translations of their own.
Zamir and his father remained friends until Singer died in 1991 – a friendship which was the subject of a memoir called “Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer” (1995). Even after his death, Zamir continued to fight for his father’s legacy, finally inaugurating Isaac Bashevis Singer Street in Tel Aviv, in 2008.
DURING OUR first meeting, Zamir told me about his own childhood. He was born in Poland in 1929, moved to Moscow with his mother at the age of six, and lived there until they were expelled from the USSR in the summer of 1937. From there, they went to Istanbul and waited for a visa to British Mandate Palestine where his maternal grandmother lived. They stayed in Turkey illegally for about six months before finally arriving in Haifa.
With each move, the child was forced to set aside one language and learn yet another. By then, Zamir had learned Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Turkish, and now, arriving in Israel, cast them all aside and learned Hebrew and English. Zamir first lived with his grandmother in Tel Aviv – while his mother lived in Haifa.
She eventually remarried and moved to Jerusalem.
Zamir described himself as a wild child and told a story that he obviously relished retelling. He was such a troublesome pupil that the first thing his teacher did every morning was kick him out of class. Zamir spent his days climbing trees in a nearby park. One day he observed his teacher on a bench below with a female teacher and saw him putting his hand up her skirt.
Zamir yelled to the teacher that if he ever kicked him out of class again he would tell everyone what he had seen – the next day he went to class and stayed there.
But this didn’t make him any less wild.
He got increasingly into trouble and, as a teenager, was eventually sent to Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Again, he retold one of his favorite stories.
When he arrived, he was tested to see whether he would make a good kibbutz member. He was asked to give the area of a right triangle but he had no idea – having moved so many times, missed so much school and changed so many languages that he was missing such basic tools. But, finally, he figured out that a right-angled triangle is half of a square.
In the end, he was accepted to the kibbutz – which was his home until the end of his life. He married there, brought up four children who have since brought forth nine grandchildren and was buried there on November 26.
About six months after meeting Zamir, I went to conduct research on the Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where I also looked over correspondence. There I found several documents Zamir’s father had kept his entire life – proof that his connection to his son was significant to him, too; such as wire-transfer stubs from the late 1930s and early 1940s to the Ottoman Bank in Tel Aviv varying from $20 to $50.
They also included a drawing of a house, and letters written in Polish, apparently by the hand of a child, saying, “How are you, dear father Itzek? You haven’t written in a while. If you come here we’ll ride on the metro.” I later showed these letters to Zamir – he shrugged his shoulders and said it looked like at least one of them had been penned by his mother.
I ALSO found a typed letter dated June 4, 1962, in which Zamir tells his father of his meeting with the Israeli Nobel laureate writer S.Y. Agnon. “[He] could not stop praising your work. He’s an interesting Jew, nearing his 80th year, with an astonishing memory, and when the spirit comes to rest on him (for which he needs a considerable quantity of cognac) he goes beyond this world somewhere else – to his demons, to his angels. He became very emotional, opening with chanting and all kinds of holy rituals.”
In the same letter, Zamir also recounts having read his father’s story “The Son” in the Hebrew journal Moznaim – the fictionalized version of their meeting. “I was moved because the story was written well and because the subject was very close to my heart. I read it several times and in the end I decided to present you with ‘my side of the coin,’ that is how that same son felt, having not seen his father and being about to meet him after 25 years of life.
The story has been in my head for a long time already and in the coming days I’ll start writing it. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
I had come to Zamir for support in my efforts to make Singer’s unpublished works available to the public. We might not have made contact had I not encountered difficulties securing rights to a Singer story called “Job,” which had not yet been published in English.
SINGER’S ORIGINAL agent, Bob Lescher, had become ill while The New Yorker magazine was preparing the story’s publication and I understood that he had not yet contacted Zamir to get permission. The efforts to publish the story had been going on for nearly six months, and no one at Lescher’s office was attempting another way forward.
At some point, I simply took it upon myself to look Zamir up in the telephone directory and call him directly to explain the situation. He asked me to fax the contract to him, and within two days I received a signed copy back. Zamir didn’t care about how much was offered.
He only cared that yet another work of his father’s would reach a wider audience.
Zamir then told me that he wanted to publish more of his father’s untranslated works. I continued my research and found that, in addition to several stories and novellas, there were dozens of essays on art, literature, religion and philosophy.
When I discussed this with Zamir, he told me that, indeed, toward the end of his life, his father had expressed the desire to publish a book on philosophy that could be understood by everyone. He recalled his father saying that philosophical books were often written in incomprehensible language that put readers off – and that he wanted to publish something that would get its ideas across clearly. This is the project I went to research in the Singer archives in Austin – and I felt that I was on a mission approved by Zamir himself.
Considering everything he had lived through, and his own literary achievements, I found Zamir’s devotion to his father’s work touching. Selflessly, he gave whatever permission was necessary as long as it ended in disseminating his father’s legacy.
From the first moment he drove up in his golf cart, I was struck by the intensity and power of his blue eyes – something for which his father was also known.
But, whereas his father’s eyes suggested a sneaky sharpness, Zamir’s eyes showed something else altogether – a strong measure of stubbornness along with a great capacity for warmth and generosity.