‘Enemies: A Love Story’ puts Yiddish characters in bleak America
(Editor’s note: “Retro Reviews” is a yearlong series in which Chronicle Correspondent Hilary Daninhirsch will review Jewish-themed books that have been out of print for decades, or perhaps remain in print but are difficult to find [except in your public library]. Some titles may be recognizable; others may be obscure. But if they appear here, then you can bet they still have something to offer the Jewish reader.)
One of the most prolific Jewish authors of our time, Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, first published “Enemies, A Love Story” in serial form in the Forward in 1966. Originally written in Yiddish, it was translated and republished in English in 1972 as the first of Singer’s novels to be set in America.
And a bleak America it is.
The book chronicles Herman Broder, a refugee living in Brooklyn. Herman survived the war by hiding in a hayloft for three years in Poland. After the war, he learns that his wife and children have perished.
Herman is trying to shake off his past by marrying Yadwiga, the Gentile peasant woman who kept him safe in the hayloft. Yadwiga can barely speak English and is terrified to leave the house. In the interim, Herman begins an affair with Masha, a volatile, passionate and neurotic woman he knew in Poland.
Out of nowhere, Herman receives a call that Tamara, his first wife, is not only alive but is in New York waiting to see her husband. And this is where the story really takes off.
Herman is deceiving everyone. He deceives the women in his life about the others’ existence and about what he does for a living; he deceives his employer; and he even deceives himself. Meanwhile, the passionate and volatile Masha is hiding some secrets of her own.
Despite the aftereffects of the Holocaust, which immerse the characters into depression and confusion, the book is at times very lighthearted. The humor lies in Herman’s attempts to keep his three lives separate, while the reader knows for certain that at some point, his carefully constructed web of lies is bound to unravel. Herman’s reaction to his “dead” wife’s reappearance is surprising and funny. “This hysterical woman, who had tormented him and whom he had been about to divorce when the war broke out, had risen from the dead. He wanted to laugh. His metaphysical joker had played him a fatal trick.”
Like some of the other characters in the novel, Herman, who is doom personified, is struggling. He avoids people; he lies to everyone, even to himself. He no longer believes in God but he can’t completely abandon Judaism. This is in direct contrast to Masha’s mother, Shifra Puah, also a survivor, who clings desperately to religion, feeling an obligation to keep Judaism alive. “The further removed they were from the holocaust, the closer it seemed to become.” And Herman tells Masha, “You don’t have to do everything God wants.” Her straightforward reply: “You do, you do.”
The central themes in this poignant and multilayer story are adjusting to a post-Holocaust world, faith in God, fear of human connection in conflict with the desire for love, and the obligation to be Jewish. Singer’s writing is provocative and vivid. It’s easy to picture the protagonist: “Herman always woke up shabby and rumpled, looking as if he had spent the night wrestling.”
The film version of this book, starring Ron Silver, Lena Olin and Anjelica Huston, was released in 1989.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)