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Sex and Survival on The Lower East Side

In 1966, the Jewish Daily Forward serialized Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish novel, “Sonim, de Geshichte fun a Leib,” a tale of the psychological and sexual neuroses of Holocaust survivor Herman Cohen in 1940s New York, and those of the female company he keeps. The story was later published as “Enemies, A Love Story” and then adapted, 23 years later, by Paul Mazursky into a film that won three Oscar nominations. Now, 40 years after its initial publication, the story is being tackled yet again — this time for the stage, by author and playwright Sarah Schulman.

Schulman is best known as a writer focused on gay and lesbian life in the 1980s, but Jewish themes have also been at the heart of her work. Schulman recently sat down with reporter Ilana Sichel to discuss her dreams (revisionist biography and a building with an elevator), her infamy (a recent, damning New York Times profile), her “millions of projects” (a novel, a screenplay, a rewrite, and an essay) and — most pertinently — the first-ever stage adaptation of “Enemies, A Love Story.” The month-long run will open February 7 at Philadelphia’s historic Wilma Theater as part of the annual New Play Festival.

Ilana Sichel: The characters in “Enemies” inhabit a New York so different from the one portrayed by most of today’s popular Jewish artists. It’s a city of refugees, poverty, linguistic confusion, emotional devastation. What attracted you to Bashevis’s world?

Sarah Schulman: I got interested in it for a lot of different reasons. First, this document seems to have emerged from my lived experience as a child. I was born in 1958, 13 years after the Holocaust, and I grew up in the East Village, in a New York with people with numbers on their arms everywhere. The kind of people in “Enemies” were the people in my world. My grandmother lived in my house, and she had two brothers and two sisters who were killed in the Holocaust. There was a guy with a sewing machine across the street who had a number on his arm. A lot of the kids I grew up with were children of survivors — so it was all normal to me, but even then I knew that their parents were crazy. I remember the kids couldn’t go anywhere, they couldn’t do anything — they couldn’t even go out in the park. This story really defies a lot of the clichés about Holocaust survivors: of little old ladies with thick accents trying to get their money, and of noble people who really suffered and tried to make a better life.

IS: What’s wrong with nobility?

SS: Well, one of the problems is something I’ve learned from all the work I’ve done on AIDS. When someone is profoundly victimized, that person is not seen as fully human to begin with. The only way to make people really care about the emotional consequences of their oppression is to make them noble. So a gay man who has AIDS has to be pure and clean, and he can never be angry, and the black man has to be kind, and the Jew has to be totally innocent and noble and helpless and weak.

IS: How does Bashevis’s work fit into that framework?

SS: It doesn’t. Because he’s writing in Yiddish for other Jews, Bashevis doesn’t have to do that. He can show them being lousy, nasty, horrible people — and in his view, that doesn’t mean that what happens to them is any less terrible. It’s a really empowered place. In the Yiddish world, though, it was his brother, I.J. Singer, who was considered the great writer, but the goyim at the Nobel Prize committee picked Bashevis to be the emblematic voice of the Jews.

[Again], it reminds me of AIDS writing within the community versus the kinds of AIDS work that straight people love. Straight people like to see the heroic gay man with AIDS who overcomes the oppression because it means that whatever cruelties they’ve committed didn’t amount to any real obstacle. The other thing is that they don’t like to see anger. They want you to rise above. These people that Bashevis describes are sexually compulsive. And it makes total sense, and you can really believe it. In the 1880s, when Jews were called Orientals, they were considered overly sexual. The reason there’s a law that tenements have to have hallway lights is because the moralists and reformers argued that Jews were f*cking in the hallways.

IS: That American history certainly doesn’t come through in much post-Holocaust literature. How is “Enemies” significant in terms of American Jews’ relationship to the Holocaust?

SS: The pathological consequences of the Holocaust are ongoing in the emotional lives of our diasporic, Ashkenazi Jewish culture. I really know that world of people yelling at each other, destroying each other over absolutely nothing. It’s such a big part of New York Jewish culture, and he makes it clear. And it makes me think about my work on AIDS and gay people, and the emotional consequences of never getting justice. You have to have acknowledgment and recognition of what you suffered. It’s a human need, and if you don’t get it, you get this pathology.

And then he has this amazing speech, which I’m sure struck you when you read it: “Fifty years from now, these people will be canonized as saints, but nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, most people are chapped to begin with, and anyway, the truly religious perish.” He is predicting that people who are brutalized and don’t get justice become brutal, and you really see it in the novel. And I just think it’s an amazing piece to look at right now. One of the other things that draws me to this piece is that reading it today, I think about Israel.

IS: Why Israel?

SS: Because Bashevis shows people who are brutalized and did not get justice and, as a consequence, do not see other human beings as equal to themselves. They’ve become dissociated culturally from other people’s struggles, desires and sufferings, and it’s a consequence of the cruelty they’ve experienced. It’s a cultural manifestation, and it’s passed down through the generations.

But the third thing that really attracted me is different; it’s the questions about God, and the anger at God. “How could there be a God if this is the way we’re treated?” And you know, you see it in the way they walk down the street, being obsessed with this question. I found that really engaging, intellectually, and I think it’s important. I just love his writing. He’s so psychologically complex, and he’s so funny, from the inside.

IS: Given what you see as the relevance of “Enemies,” did you end up making many revisions in bringing it to the stage?

SS: Yes. One of the major issues is that the novel’s female characters suck. The character arcs that they’re all on are pathetic, they’re not realistic, and I find Herman’s sexual relationships with them to be very distasteful. So I just changed them completely to have different endings in their lives. I made each of those women a person who any modern woman can identify with and be interested in.

IS: It sounds like you really got your hands dirty with the revisions — far more than Mazursky did with the 1989 film. What guided your adaptation?

SS: One of the reasons that the movie doesn’t work is because it follows the book exactly, even though it’s not that kind of book. Bashevis is not a realist writer, and he doesn’t write a conventional narrative arc, so following his story line exactly as it’s written ends you up with a very confused story. His work is so deep and soulful, but it is anchored in that time with all its prejudices, so if you treat it as a museum piece, no one will be able to relate to it. The point is to take the arc of the story, be authentic to that, and then talk about it in ways that people can get. That’s what a real adaptation is, as far as I’m concerned. The era has changed, and I want audiences to rethink how the Holocaust is represented, what clichés are in our minds now and how our behaviors are affected by this traumatic past.

IS: Your role as social critic has earned you some notoriety of late. How do you relate to such critiques as last spring’s New York Times profile?

SS: I don’t respond to it. The fact is, I could never be known as what I want to be known as. I have gotten so much further than a person like me was supposed to go, so now there’s no place for me in the structure. Judy Grahn, a pioneer lesbian writer, once said, “The best you can be is the flea in the elephant’s nose,” and that’s who I am. Maybe when I’m 60, people will do a revisionist take on me. Until then, I’ll continue striving to be the exception. So far it’s kind of worked, but not really; you had to walk up six flights to get here.

Ilana Sichel is the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.

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