Isaac Bashevis Singer and Mrs Pupko’s Beard – An Introduction

Isaac Bashevis Singer and Mrs Pupko’s Beard is not the film to go to for a thorough, comprehensive examination of Singer’s work, however, as a snap shot of this extraordinary person with his extraordinary turn of mind, it’s perfect.  The film is a wonderful confection.  It captures a man who combines ordinary everyday habits and procedures with a mercurial intellect and a fabulous imagination.  Shalom Auslander, one of the guests on the Jewish Book Week panel, describes him as “a darker, funnier Chagall.”  The film is a brilliant meeting of the literary and the cinematic.


Singer goes to the same café, eats the same food, chews the fat with the same crowd, feeds the pigeons and writes.  In his speech and his writing, his imagination flies – reincarnation, transgender, animal welfare, the health of Yiddish are all in his orbit.  The film was cooked up locally,  with a neighbour, the celebrated New York photographer Bruce Davidson, they both lived in the same apartment block.


Davidson recalls, “I was living in the same building as Isaac* and one morning I approached him in the elevator and asked him if he’d like to make a film with me. He said yes, he would like to, and so we had fun with his new toy…It was a semi-realistic film with both Isaac the writer and Isaac as an actor, he was very open to everything.”  There’s a mischievousness to Singer that Davidson captures to a tee.  When  is he being straight?  When is he putting us on?  The film is based on a single story, The Beard.  It’s about a would-be writer called Pupko who seems to have characteristics recognisable in Singer.  Singer satirises himself through this rather wretched alter ego.  It transpires that Pupko’s wife has a beard, which she cultivates.


The film follows Singer as he lives and works but also through a series of set ups – young people talking to him about his work, an interview with a chic journalist and finally an encounter with Mrs Pupko herself.  All of the protagonists are characters from the same apartment block and neighbourhood.


Davidson – “Isaac loved the idea of film. He said ‘I wish it had been invented 2000 years ago.’ It was a portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer and parts of his life which you wouldn’t see in a bookstore – he let me in. I respected that.”  The film does let you in.  This was Davidson’s first film and he made it because he and Singer wanted to, standard conventions that can bland out a film didn’t apply.  The film is free form and that freedom of style allows us in to Singer’s character and ideas.


It was this quality as well as the subject that attracted Alan Yentob, Arena’s Series Editor in 1980.  Arena was very much a production series, commissioning and making its own films.  We very rarely bought a film in, those we did would invariably be subject to some rigorous re-editing but not in this case.  Alan didn’t change a frame, we were proud to give the film a platform on British TV.


It’s not only a personal film for Singer but for Davidson too.  “I was looking for my own cultural heritage, the Yiddish of my grandfather, who was silent but penetrating, a feel for that wonderful language… that was so important to me at the time.”  And why did Davidson want to make the film? “I needed a new breath of fresh air.”

Anthony Wall – Series Film Curator and Executive Producer, Arena at Jewish Book Week