Commentary Magazine


Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Shadows on the Hudson
by Isaac Bashevis Singer translated by Joseph Sherman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 548 pp. $28.00

Two men have won the Nobel Prize in this century for writing in Jewish languages, S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-91), and both have gone on publishing prolifically after their deaths.

Agnon’s posthumous career has involved many hundreds of pages of manuscript material, left behind in an all but indecipherable Hebrew handwriting, that have been laboriously decoded, edited, and brought to print. With Singer, things have been simpler. A regular contributor to the daily Forward, in which many of his Yiddish novels were serialized, he did not live to see all of them translated or even published in book form in Yiddish. Several that had not appeared in English before his death in 1991 have done so afterward.

Shadows on the Hudson was serialized in the Forward from January 1957 to January 1958, running twice weekly in some 100 installments. It is thus one of the earliest and longest of Singer’s novels, as well as one of the few set in America. Read by us today, in the light of his subsequent work, it cannot but seem a some-what different book from what it did to its Yiddish readers 40 years ago.

Not a less noteworthy one, however. On the contrary: an absorbing novel in its own right, Shadows on the Hudson has the added value of showing us a Singer who, precisely because he seems more morally earnest and religiously anguished than the artful juggler of demons, dybbuks, and eccentric Jews that his American readers came to know him as, makes us realize how elaborately crafted was this impish mask of his later years.

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As is generally true of serialized novels, a European genre that lingered on in the Yiddish press long after its disappearance elsewhere, Shadows on the Hudson has a large cast. Most of its main characters are formally introduced to us in an opening set piece, a long chapter in which we meet them as guests at a Manhattan dinner party given several years after the end of World War II by the Polish Jew Boris Makaver, a religiously observant and financially well-off widower who has successfully rebuilt his life in America.

Those seated at Makaver’s table, all mutually acquainted Polish-born Jews like himself, include: his daughter Anna, an attractive and unhappily married woman in her early thirties, who has come with her morose husband Stanislaw Luria; Hertz Grein, an ex-schoolteacher and investment consultant in his middle forties who was Anna’s Hebrew tutor in Warsaw when she was a girl; Professor David Shrage, a mathematician with an interest in occultism who shares an apartment with a Gentile medium named Mrs. Clark; Dr. Solomon Margolin, an ex-fellow yeshiva student with Makaver, now an atheistic physician; Zadok Halperin, a retired lecturer and author of several well-known works in contemporary philosophy; and Halperin’s sister Frieda Tamar, an observant Jew like Makaver, whose husband, like much of the family of the other guests, has perished in the Holocaust.

Present too at Boris Makaver’s dinner is his nephew Herman, a card-carrying Communist-party member who goes off to Russia early in the novel and disappears in a Stalinist purge there. Not surprisingly, then, Hitler, Stalin, and the Jewish people are the subject of much of the conversation around the table, which soon has the guests, old friends though they are, heatedly accusing one another of being Communists, fascists, religious fanatics, and godless blasphemers.

Something else happens at Boris Makaver’s apartment on this night: Anna and Hertz Grein, on whom Anna’s childhood crush has stayed alive over the years, commence a romance. Before many more chapters have passed, Anna leaves Luria and runs off to Miami with Hertz, who in turn deserts two women for her—his wife Leah and his mistress Esther.

By the end of Shadows on the Hudson, Hertz Grein has left Anna, returned to Leah, left Leah again to run off with Esther, and left Esther for Jerusalem, where—stricken with remorse over the deaths of Leah and Stanislaw Luria, for which he holds himself responsible—he has become a religious penitent and returned to the Orthodoxy of his youth; Anna has remarried her first husband, the dissolute but charming actor Yasha Kotik; and Boris Makaver has wed Frieda Tamar, lost most of his wealth in a bad investment, and been estranged from and reconciled with his daughter. Esther, for her part, has married the religious psychoanalyst Dr. Alswanger, who believes that only Judaism is capable of conducting “an open and unyielding war against Satan”; Margolin is back together with his German wife Lise, who deserted him in Berlin for a Nazi and is now herself a pious convert to Judaism; and a dying Dr. Shrage, having discovered that Mrs. Clark is a fake, is still “begging for a revelation, for a gleam from the other side of the curtain, a sign that there was something beyond physicality, [although] he was granted nothing but bodily aches and empty imaginings.”

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Readers conversant with Singer’s work will find plenty of recognizable themes here. There are the familiar men and women, alternately driven by sexual desire, romantic fantasy, defiant will, and repentant conscience, who oscillate among different lovers and fates. There is the conflict between the human longing for freedom, which can just as well lead to moral anarchy as to creative autonomy, and the human craving for authority, which can educate one in self-discipline no less than in blind conformity. There is the thirst for transcendence, which draws Jews abandoning their ancestral traditions to messianic politics and false gods. And there is more that one sees elsewhere in Singer, too.

What much of Singer’s work has, however, and Shadows on the Hudson lacks, is his ironic playing-off of these themes against one another, leaving him as the enigmatically winking master of ceremonies presiding over a wild discord of contradictions. More specifically, of all Singer’s fiction, Shadows on the Hudson comes down most clearly on the side of Jewish tradition—an advocacy emphasized by its epilogue, a long letter written from his Jerusalem retreat to an American friend by Hertz Grein, who literally has the book’s last word.

“One day,” Grein writes, explaining his return to the religion of his fathers, “I went to [the ultra-Orthodox quarter of] Me’ah Shearim and there I saw that there are still Jews [who] wear garments that bear witness from afar that they are God’s servants.” And he continues:

[One cannot be] a Jew if one does not belong to God’s army and does not wear God’s stamp upon oneself. . . . If one turns one step away from the old Jewishness, one finds oneself in the midst of idolaters and murderers, and one rears children who marry Nazis. . . . There is not, and there cannot be, any compromise or middle way or reform. All the restrictions and prohibitions of Jewish law are essential, as necessary as isolating and protecting people from deadly rays or from the plague. One cannot wear Gentile clothing, take pleasure in their literature, be entertained in their theaters, eat in their restaurants, and then observe the Ten Commandments.

Yet what Grein has returned to is religious practice, not faith. In fact, he writes,

Whoever has read the modern Bible critics, archeologists, historians, and all the rest of them can never again be whole in his faith. . . . At the very moment that I wind the leather strap of my phylacteries around my arm and I kiss the boxes which enclose the sacred words, it occurs to me that the Torah is a work of the imagination. . . . But then I tell myself that since my phylacteries bind the tiger within me, I have no choice but to put them on. . . . No one has better tamed that beast than the Jew. . . . As long as the other nations continue going to church in the morning and hunting in the afternoon, they will remain unbridled beasts and will go on producing Hitlers and their monstrosities.

Hitler, already an uninvited presence at Boris Makaver’s dinner party, looms large over this book—as does his fellow mass murderer Stalin, with whom he is coupled repeatedly in the declarations and thoughts of Singer’s characters. The two of them, indeed, are the shadows on the Hudson, twin proofs of the bestiality of man and the nonexistence of God that haunt even the safe streets of New York in the late 1940′s. Reduced to its thematic bones, one might say, Singer’s novel is an exploration of the paradox that the same 20th-century horrors that have made it impossible to believe in God have demonstrated the necessity for believing in Him more than ever.

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Hertz Grein, of course, is far from a simple autobiographical projection, but one cannot read Shadows on the Hudson without sensing that it was written as an act of penitence on Singer’s part, too. As the son of an ultra-Orthodox Warsaw rabbi whom he loved yet whose way of life he had cast aside long before leaving Poland; as a man who abandoned a wife and small child in Warsaw when he came to New York in 1935; and as a lonely and still largely unrecognized Yiddish writer in America, most of whose friends, colleagues, and family had been wiped out by the Nazis, Singer, one feels, set out in this novel to conduct a reckoning that had in it much guilt and remorse. As such, it may be, Shadows on the Hudson represents a temporary loss of the masterful equilibrium that characterizes most of his work—and it is this that makes it so interesting.

I began by mentioning Agnon. It is curious, for all their very different styles and temperaments, how much alike in their views the Hebrew Nobel Prize winner and the creator of Hertz Grein appear to be. Both Agnon and the author of Shadows on the Hudson would seem to agree that, although the God of Sinai is no longer contactable, the Law He gave there remains the only bulwark against inner and outer chaos; both arrive at this conclusion not from an underestimation of the human passions, but from a recognition of their strength; both are therefore located—not only folkloristically but morally and philosophically—in the mainstream of Jewish tradition.

Rereading even the later Singer in this light might lead one to discover, I suspect, that, despite the reputation he cultivated in America for being the puckish free spirit of the Jewish religious genius, a man on equally good terms with angels and devils and not inclined to side with one or the other, he never, beneath the winking mask, moved far from this position.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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