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Finding the Heart of Singer's 'Love Story'

February 1, 2007 By:
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Sarah Schulman
A Jewish geometrician/alchemist, I.B. Singer long ago learned how to change a love triangle into a foursome.

He's not known as the magician of lovin' for nothin.'

Sarah Schulman has a bit of the abracadabra about her, too. "Enemies, A Love Story," originally serialized in Yiddish by Singer for the Jewish Daily Forward 40 years ago, and then adapted into a novel-cum-film directed by Paul Mazursky, has now received the Schulman shazam, as she's added her own playwright's prestidigitation to present it as a new play, bowing Feb. 14 after a week of previews in a production by the Wilma Theater in Center City; the Jewish Exponent is a sponsor of the engagement.

Valentine's Day premiere as validation for Singer's lovelorn and often love-worn warriors? In a way.

Focusing as it does on a Holocaust survivor in America unhappily married to the servant who saved him in Europe, where he lost his wife long ago to the Nazis, and then finding his heart reheated by a new acquaintance -- and the surprise reappearance of his wife -- "Enemies, A Love Story" conjures the complexities that the late Singer had been singing about since discovering how Yiddish can convey songs from the heart.

As a man who has lost God, discovered the need for Him, then quickly seeks escapes from the everyday problems that persistently plague him, Singer's Herman is a hermit crowded by three too many women.

Into this world, Singer plops problems and some solutions as he himself tried to deal with the brave new world not of Huxley but of the post-Holocaust era, where survivor guilt and survivor instincts came into an intriguing internecine interplay.

Schulman -- a "survivor" of the Lower East Side -- is on familiar turf, long fascinated by the yin-yang yield of Yiddish from her days attending the Yiddish theater with her Polish-émigré bubba on Second Avenue and then her student days at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Mamaloshen as the mother of all language? Then Singer, the noble 1978 Nobel Prize winner in literature, played the part of papa.

Papa, can you hear me? If he can, he would befriend the friendly Schulman and her own "Enemies," as has Singer's estate, which, applauds Schulman, has given her wonderful leeway in this literary scoop-de-stage.

More to the point, says the writer who has made a career as a point person for AIDS survivor advocates in her writings and activities -- which includes an octet of novels and two nonfictions, as well as plays -- this current premiere is prime opportunity for those Jews with jaded self-images to see not all is lost.

"Enemies" as a primer for Jews who are their own worst enemies? "Jewish people," says the writer, "are in a state of identity crisis; they need to think of themselves in a different way."

How much more operatic an oeuvre than that of Singer, whose works were minefields of mysticism and myth; the devil may wear Prada, but he also got a sharp walking stick to the tuches from the sassy near-nonagenarian with none to stop or top him.

"Singer presents characters so complex," marvels Schulman. "He wrote for a Jewish readership, but he had a real view of all peoples who were victimized. He showed what it mean to be a real human being.

"He also depicted Jews as a very sexual people, which was rare for a people for whom sex" wasn't such an open book as it was for this author.

But Singer knew about it chapter and verse, as evidenced in so many of his works, including "Enemies." The Yiddishist yearned for enlightenment conversely "examining complex and dark issues from the inside out."

Schulman certainly has an insider's perspective. In addition to gaining the hechsher of her idol's estate, she had attended his lectures, which Singer was still giving even just before his death at age 87 in 1991.

And if Singer would lecture anybody, it was the hush-hush Holocaust Jew, the one who didn't want to talk about the camps or his imprisoned soul not fully escaped even at war's end.

"He wanted victims to talk," to open up, says Schulman, as the hero of "Enemies" does.

"Holocaust survivors had been told not to talk about" their experiences.

And here was the carefully admonishing and avuncular Singer suddenly whipping them into taking the world stage, to also confront the fear of solitude in a selfish society.

"Singer brings up the issue that if God does not protect us, what responsibility do we have to other people?"

Schulman herself has always had a responsible side rising from the pages of her scripts. Coming to the literary aid of AIDS victims has cast a serious caste to her series of books. And in one, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, she opines how some may have just rented out her own storylines of gays in crisis for their own use.

"Rent," the award-winning musical, she has claimed, owes her much with its gay plotline troublingly resembling Schulman's People in Trouble, drawn from her own involvement with a married woman set against the AIDS epidemic and environment.

But, la vie bohème; Schulman has gone on to other concerns since, with "Enemies" possibly leading a friendly path to Broadway. In a way, that would be full circle for the 48-year-old New Yorker who "grew up seeing that [sense of post-Holocaust] anxiety all around me. People didn't know how to process it. I went to high school with a lot of kids who were children of Holocaust survivors."

It was all relative, too. "As I became more engaged with my Israeli cousins, I saw that a lot of that pain was nationalized."

Singer pinpointed that pain. Survivors in his world were not necessarily the painstakingly pure angels of others. "Look at oppressed people and you'll see they are often represented as angelic."

Heaven help us: "Not with Singer," she says. "Which makes it all so fascinating."

But then, Singer the storyteller was fascinated with all aspects of life. A man of contradictions -- much like his "Enemies" title -- he was grandfatherly cuddly in appearance while a grand lust for life earmarked much of his work.

And, as he told me himself in a lunch I had with Singer many years ago, he was constantly bedeviled by obnoxious ogres who held him back, like, he said with a pitchfork of a punchline that betrayed his humor, "the devil who makes me forget my umbrella" on a rainy day.

But perhaps this anecdote best lets the sunshine in on a man whose heart -- and writings -- were full of love and ... at times, that Jimmy Carter-like lust.

There is the story, as told by Schulman, of the play reading a 70-year-old Singer had with a prominent performer in her 20s about to be cast in one of his stories adapted for theater.

He had his own sense of stage directions for the beautiful actress, button-holing her with a ribald request, reveals Schulman.

Which was? "That she should take off her shirt."


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