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The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer is far too genteel a title for Shaul Betser and Asaf Falay‘s documentary about the Nobel Prize-winning author. A far better one would be A Harem Full of Translators, derived from a quote from the writer himself in which he declared that it “would be heaven on earth.” As the film details, Singer achieved that to a significant degree, and this account of his relationships with his bevy of female translators over the years will fascinate anyone who’s read such classic works as Gimpel the Fool, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy and Enemies, A Love Story. The film recently served as the opening night attraction at the New York Jewish Film Festival presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The elfin-looking, wizened Singer was an unlikely ladies man, but that’s exactly what he was. His appreciation for women knew no bounds, and he wasn’t shy about admitting it. To make the point, the documentary includes a clip from The Dick Cavett Show in which Singer admits to having a problem with one of the Ten Commandments, specifically the one prohibiting adultery.
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He was also very hungry for fame, not easy to achieve when you’re writing in Yiddish. In his early years his works were translated by such contemporaries as Saul Bellow, but Singer was loathe to share any of the credit. So he recruited an array of unknown figures to serve as his translators over the years, all of whom happened to be women.
Several are interviewed in the film, offering valuable insight into both Singer’s personality and literary methods. It turns out that he himself initially translated his works into English, with the translators polishing his prose into a form that would better appeal to non-Jewish readers. Indeed, many of them barely understood Yiddish at all. Along the way, he propositioned many, although not all, of them.
“I think I’m very lucky. He never tried to put the make on me,” one comments with still obvious relief. Another, who worked for him late in his life, was clearly not so lucky. “Isaac was a very frisky old man … and that’s to put it very mildly,” she admits.
Featuring archival footage, including scenes from an earlier documentary made about the author, the film will best be appreciated by those already familiar with his works. It fascinatingly details how he and his collaborators made changes in his prose to make it more palatable to English language readers, with particularly interesting commentary by Leah Napolin, who adapted Yentl the Yeshiva Boy into the Broadway play that was later made into the film musical directed by and starring Barbra Streisand.
Production: Antenna Productions
Directors/producers: Shaul Betser, Asaf Galay
Director of photography: Itai Ne’eman
Editor: Tal Rabiner
Composer: Jonathan Bar-Giora
No rating, 72 min.
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