When I look back at my life, it is clear that I was always fascinated by the strange, the mysterious, and the miraculous. My father would constantly talk about wonder rabbis, saints, and miracles they performed through the Kabbalah. God was the super miracle worker. He said, “Let light be,” and the light was. All the men who served God, from Moses to Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nahman, and Rabbi Nahman Bratslav, were men of magic. According to legend, even those who oppose God were capable of magic: Satan, Asmodeus and Lilith, and all the devils and sorcerers.
My older brother Joshua, who was skeptical, had argued with my parents about these supposed miracles. I searched for proof that my parents were correct and not him. I could see various acts of magic performed by magicians who visited our courtyard on Krochmalna Street every few days. I saw them stretch their backs across nails, eat fire and swallow knives. One girl, with short, flaxen blonde hair cut like a boy, balanced a glass of water and rolled a barrel using the soles on her feet. My father warned against watching these shows because they were sure to contain elements of deception and witchcraft. I still followed the magicians, giving them the groschen my mother gave me every morning just before I went to Heder. I dreamed of becoming a magician. I fantasized about finding a cap that could make me invisible and a pair of seven-league boots. I found a potion that made me wiser than King Solomon and more robust than Samson. Elijah visited me at night and took me on his fiery chariot pulled by a spirited horse to the mansions in Heaven, where I would encounter God, seraphim, and angels. We would stop at Sodom to see Lot’s daughter, who had become a salt pillar. Asmodeus, the king in the netherworld, was seated on his throne on Mount Seir with his black beard on the floor and a crown made of onyx behind his horns. In their naked state, she-demons sang blasphemous songs and profane lyrics to him.
Reading Yiddish storybooks, I learned that evil powers were just as clever as holy powers. Before I could write, I told my classmates I would be a writer like my father, my two grandfathers, and my brother Joshua.
My father did not consider magicians to be kosher. He also disapproved of all other worldly institutions. This included all sciences and arts. In one of his sermons, he mentioned that the wicked spend all day eating pigs and playing with salacious women at the theatre. Even public parks and gardens were forbidden to him. People told him that in these places, boys and girls wearing short dresses with naked arms and in short dresses fell in love. My father believed love was as forbidden as eating pig meat—only god-fearing young men and women were willing to marry through a matchmaker.
Early on, I realized that I was acting like a sinning person. Not only was I following the magicians, but I also fell in love with Shosha – a girl of my age who lived in our building. I thought of her all day and all night. My yearning to be with her made it difficult for me to concentrate on the prayers. Even though my father had warned me against a premature interest in the Kabbalah’s mysteries, I still looked at his books. I was curious to learn the secrets of Heaven & Earth. Shosha knew that I was studying philosophy, astronomy, and alchemy. I also told her I wanted to marry and run away with her. Shosha gave me a holy vow not to tell anyone about my plans.
One day, I was able to sneak Shosha into the Warsaw Circus. She had an Uncle who thought of himself as a man of wisdom. He attended the Yiddish theater, shaved off his beard, and wore a shorter jacket than a gabardine. He bought two tickets for the circus, but his child was sick, so he and his wife, who didn’t wear a wig to cover her hair, were forced to stay home. He called all Hasids and my father fanatics. He must have known my feelings towards his niece because he gave us the tickets for free. Going to the circus with a young girl without my parents’ knowledge was an incredible adventure. The chaos was associated with many lies and transgressions. We had to take the trolley car ourselves because the circus was far from our street. I was forced to accept her uncle’s carfare, which we would never do. I felt like I was about to enter all 49 gates of heresy and fall into an abyss with no way out.
But the pleasure was more significant than the sins. Shosha and I sat on the trolley holding hands. We saw fancy shops with mannequins in furs and gowns and elegant streets where non-Jews only lived. We acted like the lovers in the Yiddish stories that we had bought for one groschen each. The powers that be decreed the usher not to pay attention to us. The show was already underway when we arrived. Electric lamps cast a blinding glow over the stage. The orchestra played. The orchestra was playing. The music was beyond description. The horse danced to the sound of trumpets and drums. On its back was a girl half-naked with golden hair. She waved her whip and gave kisses to an applauding crowd. The miracles followed each other with a miraculous speed. A man balanced his steps on a pole while walking along a wire. Midgets performed somersaults. A bear danced. A lion leaped through fiery hoops. A monkey rode on a bike. The dogs played football. Young men and women flew from one trapeze onto another like birds. Elephants placed a girl on their backs, curled inside the trunk of its trunk. A woman jumped from a springboard onto the shoulders of another man.
Shosha started to scream, and I was barely able to quieten her. I could see all the miracles performed by the sorcerers in Egypt. Was I bewitched by trying to read the Kabbalistic texts of my father? Was I under a spell, like a yeshiva boy who washed his hands in warm water and experienced all his previous reincarnations at once? I closed my eyelids and felt like an eagle flying through the night sky above the rooftops of strange cities, towers, and pyramids of ancient fortresses and palaces. I also saw rivers, lakes, and oceans. I was transported back to Tohu’s and Bohu’s primeval darkness.
There had been many years, over fifty, and more than sixty. My father died in the village. He was a rabbi. My mother died in Kazakhstan, where she was forced to work by the Russians. My brother died in New York. Shosha packed her bag and headed to Bialystok in 1939 when the Polish Radio advised men and women of all ages to flee the Nazis and cross the Praga Bridge. She sat to rest along the way and never got up again. I lived in New York then, as a writer who wrote in a language people thought dead. I had stopped believing in God and the Kabbalah. I read somewhere that the universe was created by a cosmic explosion that occurred twenty billion years before. It had run away from itself ever since, with an increasing speed. There was no God, plan, or justice—only blind laws of nature and blind evolution. I was convinced that literature, at its finest, was nothing more than an escape for those who wanted to forget about the tragedy of dying and living without hope.
Recently, a writer invited me to an event where I met a woman named Paula Lipshitz. When I asked about her job, something I never did with a woman in the past, she told me that her work was related to the circus. “A circus?” asked I. She said no. What she did, however, was equally challenging and dangerous. She said she raised money for a traveling circus called Big Apple. She replied, “No, the circus does not make money by selling tickets.” The chaos doesn’t get paid to go from town to city like it did in the olden days. Children in big cities are the only ones who get to see the circus. In America’s smaller towns, the children only get to see a circus once it is broadcast on TV. It’s not the same. Children and adults alike want to have a personal connection with the performers. She said personal contact is essential in literature, music, and some sciences. Why do people attend lectures? Why do people go to theatres instead of going to movies? She was madly in love with New York. She had to be promised to see the circus, even though it was doubtful I would still enjoy one in my old age and without Shosha.
Paula Lipshitz brought me to the Big Apple Circus in Staten Island a few weeks later. I enjoyed the trip on the ferry. During my first summer in America, this ferry was my resort. It was rare that I didn’t spend money to get back and forth. The public library and this ferry were my literary labs and second homes. On the ferry deck, I fantasized about writing a novel no one had ever done. It was about an environment that most readers had never seen. The book was written in Yiddish. After this work became popular, the League of Nations made Yiddish its official language. I warned myself repeatedly not to indulge in silly fantasies that took time away from work. Since childhood, I had a habit of imagining. It was my opium. It was my opium.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (translated from Yiddish). )
The essay was written originally as a note by Singer to accompany his novel “The Magician of Lublin,” but it was never published. This essay will appear in “Old Truths & New Cliches : Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer,” edited by David Stromberg and published by Princeton University Press this May.