Enemies A Love Story - The Wonder Wheel of Jewish Life by Dr. Sanford Drob
Volume 3 , Issue 4 (March, 1990 | Adar, 5750)
Paul Mazursky's film adaptation of I. B. Singer's, Enemies: A Love Story, is a powerful drama of Holocaust survivors in post‑war America. Its scope, however, is far‑ranging and the film serves as a commentary on the religious, social and existential plight of Jews in a post‑Holocaust, post‑assimilationist world. It is a film about shattered lives, traditions, and ideals, and the emptiness left in the wake of broken faith. Those who can get beyond the graphic, on‑screen sexuality, will find much to ponder and enjoy. The casting is superb and the scenes of Jewish New York, circa 1949, evoke a bittersweet nostalgia and suggest how bizarre our own New York Jewish culture, with its combinations of Kashrus and Coney Island, Chazanus and Catskills, must have appeared to the immigrant survivors.
The action revolves around Hermann Broder (Ron Silver), a former Yeshiva student, whose Polish servant girl, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), saved him from the Nazis by hiding him for three years in a hay loft. Believing that his wife and children had been killed in Europe, (there were presumably eyewitnesses to his wife's ? Tamara ? death) Hermann comes to America, marries Yadwiga (in a secular ceremony) and settles in Coney Island, a few hundred yards from the world famous ?Wonder Wheel.? Though Hermann feels indebted to Yadwiga, he has no passion for her and he continues to relate towards her (and she to him) as if she were his servant. Hermann enters into an affair with a beautiful concentration camp survivor named Masha (Leva Olin), now living in the Bronx, whose own husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce. It is a romance completely driven by animal passion (indeed Hermann and Masha seem to despise each other at all times other than when in bed). Hermann, who works ghostwriting sermons and articles for a gauche, wealthy, assimilated, extremely well connected Rabbi Lembeck (played delightfully by Alan King) tells Yadwiga that he is away selling books in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore, while he spends nights at Masha's apartment and brings her on vacation to the Catskills. As if his life is not already complicated enough, Hermann's wife, Tamara (Angelica Huston) returns, as it were, ?from the dead,? showing up on the lower East Side and reentering his life as a sort of conscience from an ?earlier world.? Completely incapable of exercising the will or decision needed to sort out his life, Hermann marries Masha in a Jewish ceremony after she obtains a divorce (at the price of sleeping with her former husband) and experiences a false pregnancy. Still, he is incapable of leaving Yadwiga, who has, in the meantime, apparently embraced Judaism and become pregnant with his child. In the end, Masha (who, in the meantime, has been courted by Rabbi Lembeck) commits suicide, and Hermannn completely leaves the scene. Yadwiga and Tamara are left to raise the newborn child (whom they name Masha!) and the film ends with these two happy women, their newborn, and a cheerful Rabbi Lembeck, going off to start a new life as the camera gives us a final view of the Coney Island ?Wonder Wheel.?
The Fragmentation of the Soul
It is an obvious fact, but one which, nevertheless, bears emphasizing and repeating: Enemies is a film about individuals whose worlds and lives have been shattered by the Nazi Holocaust. Hermannn is plagued by Holocaust images and flashbacks, and Masha views America with awe and disbelief. ?Where are the Nazis? What kind of world is this without Nazis?? Masha asks. Their lives are so defined by the Nazi perpetrators that they are (in New York in 1949), devoid of the very humanity which Hitler had sought to deny the Jewish people in Nazi Europe. Hermann's only moment of genuine feeling occurs when he gazes upon the photographs of his dead boy and girl and seems to recall a life and a world which no longer exists. The Nazis, who treated Jews as if they were animals, have succeeded in fragmenting the humanity of even some of those who survived to such an extent that Hermann and Masha have become less than fully human, devoid of spirit, devoid of will, with sexual animal passion as their only means of feeling alive and connecting with each other.
Hermann Broder, we discover, is a man who is occupied with the Kabbalah, and for good reason, for the Kabbalistic image of ?shattered vessels? (shevirat ha kelim) provides him (and us) with a simile for his and the other shattered lives. The Holocaust, we might say, ?shattered the vessels? of European Jewry. Homes, family, way of life, religion, as well as faith in G‑d and humanity were fragmented, if not destroyed. Shards of the survivors' former lives were transplanted into an America which, itself, had, through the forces of assimilation, already transformed the Jewish landscape into something that would be nearly unrecognizable to the pious European Jew. It is a world in which kosher food is sold along with sexuality and ?romance;? in which ?rabbis? are shysters who unabashedly offer to leave their wives for beautiful women; in which former Yeshiva students can be paid for ghostwriting rabbinic discourses on Torah and Kabbalah; and in which Gentiles have a greater appreciation for Judaism than Jews.
?Love,? (which as chesed is the highest of the kabbalists' shattered vessels) has, itself, been fragmented. Hermann has three wives. For one he feels passion, for a second he feels commitment, (and he is willing to tell a multitude of lies to maintain that illusion), and for the third (Tamara) he has respect. The bond among passion, respect and commitment, the essence of traditional marriage, has been shattered along with the other ideals of the pre‑Holocaust world. The characters in Enemies, with mortally wounded souls, attempt without success to make their way in this ?bizarre? land of America.
Still, Enemies is not simply a story about those whose lives were shattered by their memories of children incinerated in the Nazi ovens: it is a story which indirectly asks the deeper question of whether there can be spiritual meaning for any Jew in the wake of both the Holocaust and the blatant freedom, materialism, and relativism of American culture. Not only has the Jew's faith been put to the most horrible test of losing his children in the Nazi ovens, but the Jew is now also living in a world in which (from the point of view of traditional Jewish piety) he is free to do virtually whatever he wishes! One can live anonymously in a city of eight million people, with lives and lovers in three of the five boroughs. One can desecrate the Shabbos and Yom Tov and even commit adultery with virtual impunity. Indeed, one can become the mistress of a wealthy ?rabbi? and be put on his ?payroll? in California or Florida.
The Singer/Mazursky response to these issues is, perhaps, less interesting than the graphic manner in which Enemies poses these ultimate questions. American Jewry is, in many ways, still responding to the twin specters of the Holocaust and assimilation, and the path which each individual Jew takes with regard to their challenges, continues, at least in part, to determine his relationship with G‑d as well as to the Jewish people.
Trapped in the Lowest Worlds
Enemies, in spite of its providing us with a tour through the desolation of some post‑Holocaust lives, ends with a hint of redemption. We learn near the end of the film what appears to be an insignificant detail, that Hermannn Broder has made several serious errors in his essay for Rabbi Lembeck in Kabbalah. We are left to speculate as to what the nature of these errors might be, but in a film in which every detail, every ?gear? seems to be an integral part of a larger mechanism, we can surmise that these Kabbalistic errors are of some genuine significance. Kabbalah, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has put it, is the theology of the Jewish people. More specifically, it is the discipline which probes the nature of the relationship between the lower (material) and higher (spiritual) worlds. Hermannn (and his mistress Masha) seem to err because they are hopelessly trapped in the lowest of worlds, the world of mere physical, animal existence. Without spirit and meaning they are ultimately devoid of humanity. They are mere shells of persons: bodies going (almost randomly) through the motions of human existence, and ultimately ending in a suicide pact which one keeps and one declares to be as meaningless as everything else. Hermannn's mistakes in Kabbalah derive from the fact that he sees only one half of reality: its random, material and ultimately meaningless dimension. What he fails to see is that there is a spiritual, purposeful dimension to the world, as well. (It is unclear whether Hermannn's cynical outlook is really so much a product of the Holocaust, or was, indeed, a part of his character while married to Tamara even before the war. As such, Enemies, seems to also ask whether we are ultimately responsible for our own spiritual alienation.)
Enemies, it would seem, places its hopes on the generation born after the Holocaust, and those survivors (like Tamara and Yadwiga) who maintain enough faith to bring a new generation into this world. Yadwiga bears Hermannn's child (and names it, ironically, after Masha), but it is she and Tamara (apparently with Rabbi Lembeck's support) who will raise it. It is this strange American combination of a righteous Gentile (apparently converted), a corrupt rabbi, and an honest, but embittered survivor who will raise the next generation (our generation) of Jews (can the ?Who is a Jew?? question be far behind?) and it is precisely on this amalgam that Enemies entrusts the ?Wonder Wheel? of Jewish destiny.
The results, as we ourselves witness them forty years later, are far from clear, and the questions Enemies: A Love Story asks will apparently be with us for a long time to come.