Bread & Isaac
by Jean Harris
I am visiting my parents. We are sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. Poppa is baking bread. I ask him for a piece of dough. He cuts off a small piece, rolls into a thin line and shapes it into a little pocket-book, yes a pocket-book like little girls carry. He sprinkles a few poppy seeds on the flap and then he hands this to me. By the handle. Eyes twinkling. I am a little girl again. I see him now through misty eyes handing me all those little pocket-books of long ago. Poppy seeded pocket-books. Pocket-books of dough.
While the dough is rising, Momma takes a bath and Poppa reads the Forward. I take a walk to the park. I sit on a bench under a tree and squeeze on that little pocketbook. First the handle goes, then the little flap, all squooshed together into a ball again.
I feel that dough. I think about dough. I think about bread and I think about Poppa. I think about the sacred art of bread-making. The baker is a Holy Man. Poppa, Holy Poppa, Poppy seeded Poppa making pocketbooks of dough.
I return to my parent's apartment. "I have to talk to you," I tell them. "There's something I want to discuss with you both so try to understand me." Poppa raises an eyebrow but continues brushing the braided loaves with his foamy yellow egg wash. Momma sits across the table, and because she is deaf and can't hear much in spite of her hearing aids, she gives me a serious look, to show me how hard she's concentrating. "Wait a minute," she says, adjusting her hearing aid. "OK, now, begin!"
"Look," I say to my mother, look ... everything we think is so isn't so. Nothing is what it seems to be. For example, I'm sure you know there is no matter. Everything is just energy. Energy. Do you understand?"
I get up. Walk to the stove. I point to the stove. Impossible, I know it, I am saying to my mother who can't hear me anyway, "this stove doesn't really exist. It's just a bunch of energy moving around. And the baker,".... I continue, making it up now as I go along, ... "the baker works with what elements? He takes yeast which is really mould, (and mould is just an accumulation of the past in concentrated form); and so the baker takes this mould we call yeast; and this liquid we call water; a little cellulose, the flour; and then he takes air; and out of these nothing things he makes bread. Bread which is substance. Bread which is energy." I stop talking long enough to look up.
From the corner of my eye I see sweet Poppa with his bent back and his blue apron, and he is holding open the door to the oven and is peering inside.
Momma smacks the table with the palm of her left hand, pushes her chair back, stands up, turns off her hearing aid and says, "Enough talk!" She picks up the knife and slices a piece of freshly-baked bread. She holds it up before me and smiles.
I look at Poppa. Eyes are twinkling.
* * *
The Jewish Daily Forward came to Momma and Poppa in the mail during their last years in Berkeley, California and they welcomed it like an old friend. They felt they knew the writers personally after so many years of faithful reading.
One of these writers was Isaac Bashevis Singer whose serialized stories had been running in the Forward for years and years. Whenever I came to lunch, Momma and Poppa would take turns reading me their favorite Singer stories. So when it was learned that Singer himself was coming to Berkeley to be part of a writers' conference, you can imagine the excitement!
From my journal:
I see him (I. B. Singer) being assisted up the steps of the Faculty Club looking slightly dazed and I call out: "Voss macht a Yid, Mr. Singer?" He looks up at me, smiles, shakes my hand, asks my name and how come I speak such good Yiddish.
I tell him I studied at the Arbeiter Ring school. He asks me if I regret it. I say: "Of course not!"
In the library of the Faculty Club, we sit informally around a table (about 25 of us) and we discuss the work of several people who have submitted manuscripts for him to read. In between the analysis of the scripts, he tells us many things. He says if the story is sufficiently exciting, it will propel itself in the telling. But he talks of the use of demons, elves and imps to help him tell a tale. That realism is not sufficient to tell it all. That our dreams are closer to our creative life than our waking hours.
After class, I show him the story of mine he had returned to me. When he saw his handwriting at the bottom, he said, "It's amazing. I never answer anybody, how come I answered you?" And he grinned.
Time magazine this week has two pages on the work of I. B. Singer. He has recreated the generation of gassed Jews. One artist creates a people. They live because he brought them back to life.
Today, he gives a lecture called: What makes a Jewish writer? Then he says, "Why a Jewish writer? Better call it: What makes a writer?"
The first condition is talent. Then the writer must have a point of view.
Second condition is that the writer cannot live in a social vacuum. He must have a nationality and a language. Art must have its address. The deeper the roots, the deeper the capacity for achievement.
The third condition is that the writer is an outsider as well as an insider. He is profoundly related and profoundly alienated. He play a dual role from birth, both a child and a stepchild. To be or not to be is his daily bread. This daily discontent drives him to work. The richer the soil, the richer the plant. Total assimilation is not a good soil.
The next day Ed accompanies me to Serendipity Books to a party for Isaac which he has invited me to attend, and to bring my husband. I introduce the men. They understand one another immediately. They talk of art, of books. They sit together on a small couch, surrounded by people. In the middle of all this, a man reads a long tribute to Isaac in Russian. I chat with his wife. Then Ed and I leave through the enlarging crowd and visit my parents.
Momma writes a charming note in her flowery and beautifully scripted Yiddish and Poppa gives me a box of his special linzer torte cookies. I add a few pomegranate blossoms from our garden and the following morning I present this to Mrs. Singer and tell them to enjoy with their tea. She is very touched and tears come to her eyes.
Today, October 5, l978, I awaken in the morning with a sharp and distinct fantasy of I. B. Singer winning the Nobel Prize for literature. I play with it awhile, imagine his acceptance speech, his thoughts of his parents who hadn't lived to see the day and could never imagine ... then l dismiss the whole fantasy because it seems preposterous that a Nobel Prize would be given to a writer who writes in Yiddish, a presumably dying language.
Later that same evening, I turn on the evening news and Walter Cronkite announces that Isaac Bashevis Singer has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.