Who ever thought that little old Yiddish mensch Isaac Bashevis Singer was such a horndog? Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser begin The Muses of Bashevis Singer, their light and playful documentary, with the following quote from the Nobel Prize-winning author: “In my younger days I used to dream about a harem full of women. Lately I’m dreaming of a harem full of translators. If those translators could be women in addition, this would be paradise on earth.” Well, it seems that Singer, who was born in Poland in 1902, emigrated to the United States in 1935, and died in Florida in 1991 at the age of eighty-eight, found that paradise, as Galay and Betser meet with a series of women who were among many hand-picked by Singer, the man who nearly singlehandedly preserved Yiddish literature in the twentieth century, to serve as his translators, and not necessarily because of their language skills. “There were certain women who were more than just translators to him. It happened quite often,” says his Swedish publisher, Dorothea Bromberg, who also talks about Alma, Singer’s wife of more than fifty years. “He loved her, I’m sure, in his own way,” she adds. “She was very jealous of him, and she was completely right.” Galay and Betser meet with translators Eve Fridman, Evelyn Torton Beck, Dvorah Telushkin, Marie-Pierre Bay, Duba Leibell, and Dr. Bilha Rubenstein as well as Singer biographers Florence Noiville and Janet Hadda, his granddaughters Hazel Karr and Merav Chen-Zamir, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy playwright Leah Napolin, and his longtime secretary and proofreader, Doba Gerber, who share intimate, surprising tales about the author of such books as The Family Moskat, The Magician of Lublin, Shosha, and Enemies, a Love Story and such short stories as “Gimpel the Fool,” “A Friend of Kafka,” and “Zlateh the Goat.”
The seventy-two-minute film, lifted by a bouncy, airy soundtrack by Jonathan Bar-Giora, also includes footage of Singer making speeches, appearing on interview programs, going to a Jewish deli, walking on the Coney Island boardwalk, and writing with pen on paper and on a typewriter with Yiddish characters. But as the title implies, The Muses of Bashevis Singer doesn’t depict him as a callow cad but as a determined writer — and father and husband — who just loved women, loved being surrounded by women, using them as inspiration for his marvelous stories that mixed fiction with reality. “Isaac was a very frisky old man,” says Leibell, who worked with Singer in his later years after he moved to Florida with Alma. “That’s to put it very mildly.” The Muses of Bashevis Singer concludes the IFC Center’s winter Stranger than Fiction series on March 24 and will be followed by a Q&A with the director.