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Weekly Alibi The Price of Impiety

By Susan Schuurman

JUNE 8, 1998: 

Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson

No matter how much debate ensues over the existence of a divine creator, religion will always be a popular pastime. Most faiths emphasize the infinite value of each individual soul, paint a word-picture of a watchful, benevolent god and assure followers of an overall grand design--a plan for the universe that includes them. Undeniably appealing notions, to be certain.

The late Isaac Bashevis Singer was obviously a master of incorporating the rich traditions of religion into his fiction, as evidenced in the dark novel, Shadows on the Hudson, originally published in Yiddish in 1957, only now available in English.

The year is 1947; while World War II is finally over, the State of Israel has yet to be formed. Many Jewish refugees have settled in New York City, and thanks to Singer's entirely credible imagination, we observe a half-dozen or so financially prosperous but emotionally floundering Jews struggling with their demons. While set mostly on the Upper West Side, with occasional jaunts to Brighton Beach and a month-long ill-fated move to Miami, this intense novel is more a psychological character study than a plot-driven yarn.

First we meet Boris Makaver, a successful businessman and pious Jew of average intelligence who likes to surround himself with intellectuals. Although not learned enough to be a rabbi, he has furnished his apartment as if it were a synagogue, with Hanukkah lamps, Passover seder platters and Sabbath candlesticks. His three loves seem to be the Torah, knowledge and making money on shrewd real estate deals.

Boris' only child, Anna, is married to a ghost of a man, Stanislaw Luria, who is a survivor of the death camps where he lost his former wife and three children. He is twice Anna's age and in deplorable health both emotionally and physically. This is Anna's second disastrous marriage, and she's about to embark on an illicit affair with the character Singer devotes the most energy on, Hertz Dovid Grein.

Grein has been restless his entire life. Although educated to be a scholar of rabbinical texts, he recently unexpectedly discovered a talent for lucratively managing stock portfolios. His marriage to Leah, a traditional Jewish wife and mother, has deteriorated to the point that they barely interact. His two children, Jack and Anita, have grown up to be highly Americanized and extremely distant. He yearns for an ascetic life but finds himself ensnared in rollercoaster love trysts. He wants to believe in a God brimming with loving kindness, but his rational mind won't let him. And each time he decides to stop seeing his mistress du jour, he sees his fingers dialing her phone number, arranging yet another impulsive, desperate rendezvous.

Like an Old Testament prophet, Singer makes sure his deeply flawed characters pay dearly for their weak wills and wanton ways. Makaver's devotion to both Jehovah and the dollar results in family troubles. Anna's lurid but short-lived affair with Grein indirectly causes the death of her husband Stanislaw. And Grein's infidelity is punished with Job-like plagues. From his wife developing cancer to losing all his clients to his children marrying Gentiles and Nazis, Grein slowly crumbles into a self-loathing, shell-shocked fanatic.

Such a depressing view of humanity is oppressive yet convincing. Singer's fascinating dissection of a person apparently in control but in reality paralyzed with indecision is truly a delight. And 40 years later, the relevance of Singer's cyclical questions about Jewish identity is uncanny. Self-absorbed? Perhaps. But in the face of impending violence in Israel between orthodox and non-observant Jews, a reality not to be ignored. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, cloth, $28)

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