Saturday, March 04, 2006

How Isaac Bashevis Singer removed a "dybbuk" from my tape recorder

Three years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978, I decided to write a profile article about him. Singer, who died 15 years ago, had long been my favorite author. He wrote exclusively in Yiddish, but was widely published in translation in the U.S. and abroad. I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, but was no longer fluent in the language when I embarked on my project.

I looked up his number in the Manhattan telephone book and called him. I explained my interest in his work and my desire to write an article about him. It was to be a free-lance piece, fully divorced from my daytime job as a journalist specializing in business news. Singer, who was not shy about publicity, eagerly agreed to meet with me.

I conducted several interviews with him in his West 86th Street apartment. On our first two interviews, he had forgotten our appointments. When I showed up at his apartment, he was entertaining visitors. Nevertheless, I was able to conduct my interviews despite their presence. Indeed, Singer's guests became participants in our discussion.

On my next visit, I arrived with a cassette recorder to tape our talks. I had never used one before for interviewing. I had been given the tape recorder as a gift from the American Standard Corp., a leading manufacturer of toilet and plumbing fixtures.

On my regular job at Business Week I had been assigned to do a major piece on American Standard. The company's PR director said that to "get a good feel" about American Standard, I should attend an upcoming convention of plumbing contractors in Las Vegas where the company was to introduce a new line of toilet fixtures.

I accepted his invitation, and the company paid for my transportation and hotel expenses. At one convention session, which was attended by several other journalists representing specialized trade publications, we were given portable tape recorders as a gift. The device had only been recently introduced on the market. (A new editor-in-chief of Business Week subsequently prohibited staff writers from accepting free air transport and hotel arrangements.)

Having never used a tape recorder and being a bit of a technophobe, I nervously set up the device on a small table in front of Singer's chair before I began interviewing him. Very quickly I became concerned that I was not properly recording his remarks. Singer watched me as I checked out the machine, shouting "testing, testing, testing" into the microphone. I failed to get any sound on the playback.

"Maybe there is a dybbuk in the machine," he said mischievously. A "dybbuk" is a fixture in Jewish folklore. It has been defined as a "restless soul or evil spirit that impregnates a living person." Also, as a "malicious spirit and dislocated soul of a dead person."

In his writing, Singer displays a passion for mysticism and the supernatural. Dybbuks often figure in his novels and short stories. It was only natural for him to hold a dybbuk responsible for my mechanical troubles with the tape recorder. He saw no reason to believe that dybbuks penetrate only human beings.

"Let me exorcise it from the machine," he said. He took the microphone into his hand and began to intone: "Testing, testing, testing. Eating bread and honey. Spitting." Satisfied with his effort, he resumed answering my questions on such matters as the future of Yiddish and the hostility of many Israelis to the language.

Suddenly he stopped responding. He pointed to the microphone on the table and asked: "Do you think this machine is working?" I rewound the cassette and pushed the playback button. Singer's voice came out loud and clear. "The dybbuk is gone!" he exclaimed happily.

I wrote two articles based on my interviews with Singer. One was published in The New York Times Magazine, the other in Harper's Bookletter, a now-defunct publication. I have a feeling that without Singer's exorcism of the dybbuk from my tape recorder, I may not have been so successful.


Anonymous joared said...

What a delightful story. Am sure that must be one of many more you recall, which, hopefully, you will continue to share with us from time to time.

Sunday, March 05, 2006 3:15:00 AM  
Blogger goldenlucyd said...

I agree. I'd love to hear more. Your writing is so wonderful!

Sunday, March 05, 2006 1:19:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

"dybbuk -- Eating bread and honey. Spitting."

Ahhh I will remember to blame the dybbuk when something goes awry around my house. Now if I only knew how to pronounce "dybbuk" I could introduce (it,he, she) to my grandchildren...They are still at the "willing suspension of disbelief" stage of their lives...


Sunday, March 05, 2006 4:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

Again, thanks for sharing! A wonderful story.

Sunday, March 05, 2006 5:40:00 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

A great story. I love the connection between American Standard, a tape recorder, and a famous author. You don't always get that. Being the "staff" of an architect, I've spec'd a lot of toilets.

Please visit my Monday Memories for down on the farm in the 1920s.

Sunday, March 05, 2006 5:50:00 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

A wonderful story! Your blog is a treasure.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 6:46:00 PM  

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