Appearing in Yiddish in 1965, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, “A Letter to Mama,” has never been published in English until now. Its protagonist is a Polish-born immigrant living in the Midwest who has grown distant from all things Jewish, and receives an unexpected nocturnal visitation from his mother’s spirit. In Aliza Shevrin’s translation, it begins thus:
The older he became, the less able Sam Metzger was to understand why he had never written to his mother after leaving Krasnobrod for America. This “letter to Mama,” which he never wrote, became the bane of his existence. Granted that he disliked writing letters and that during the first years in New York he used to work fifteen hours a day in a sweat shop. Still, to leave his widowed mother behind in Krasnobrod and never write her so much as a single word, he had to be out of his mind. Sam could not fathom how this came about, although he had brooded over it many sleepless nights.
At first, it was simply a manner of putting it off. Then he seemed to forget about it altogether. At night, while trying to fall asleep in Moishe Leckechbecker’s alcove on Attorney Street, along with three other boarders, he would think of it. In the morning, he would forget again. Later the nagging sense of shame turned into a conviction that it was already too late. A devil possessed him who wouldn’t let him take a pen in hand. In New York at the time, they were all singing a popular Yiddish song which went: “Why delay? Write your mother today.” From the Yiddish theater stage, from Second Avenue cabarets, in the workshops on Grand Street, from record players blaring in homes, the song followed him everywhere.
Perhaps that was the reason Sam left New York. . . .