Summary: In the 1800s, the Czar of Russia plans to convert Jews by forcing them to enlist in the army. Each community has a quota to fill, and those who are reluctant to give up their boys to the military find they can be kidnapped by khappers; men hired to force them to do their twenty-five years of service. If families can afford to pay, their sons will be safe, but Zev, a khapper, has a personal vendetta against Aaron, a scholar, and abducts him anyway. Suddenly, Aaron’s bright future of discussing the Torah and marrying Miriam, the love of his life, becomes a future of having to give up his beliefs just to survive with a chance of being able to pursue his dreams again in twenty-seven years. Meanwhile, Aaron’s angry family causes Zev to leave town, and in an unexpected twist to his initial glee he finds himself sharing Aaron’s fate.
Number of Pages: 133
Age Range: 12-14
Review: While Sworn Enemies by Carol Matas explores a time in history when Jewish boys and men were forced to fight for a Russia against their will, enduring forced conversions to Christianity if they wanted to live, what I enjoyed most about the book was the dynamic between Zev and Aaron.
The historical aspect is a backdrop to a powerful tale about two teens, one consumed by jealousy and rage, and the other forced to confront his own dark side when he finally faces betrayal and true despair for the first time in his life. Matas’ writing challenges her reader to consider how they would react when faced with traumatic situation beyond their control.
I love the contrast between Zev and Aaron as Zev continually finds ways to blame Aaron for all of his troubles, refusing to see how his actions affect his own life. Aaron, on the other hand, battles his own nature, trying his best not to be consumed by hatred even though he has much to be angry about. Both are confronted with their belief in God, drawing different conclusions about what God would want. For Zev, God is an avenging bully, but for Aaron God is full of understanding and forgiveness. In the end, their differing beliefs seem to inform how they choose to go forward in their lives.
Matas’ story is just 133 pages, and for me it went much too quickly.
“Now I see how every waking moment will be pure torture for me. How can I eat without washing my hands and saying the prayer? And worse, how could I even dream of eating anything that is not kosher?
What could I do? The soldier is right. I am the czar’s now. Would God want me to break the most basic of all His laws, the laws of kashrut? I stare at the treyf food, forbidden, expressly forbidden by God. It is the spirit of the law that is important, Papa would say. But he would never eat pig. Or eat anything that wasn’t kosher. There is no bending this law, only breaking it. How much do I give up to survive? I know Papa and Mama would want me to live; if they were here they would say, “Eat.” Rabbi Benjamin? I can hear his words: “the law is given for man and not man for the law. The law is to live with and not to die for!” And I think of the teaching of the rabbis—one may do anything at all to preserve life if there is mortal danger, outside of three things and these are forbidden even if one might die. These three things are bloodshed, immorality, and conversion. If I don’t eat I will weaken and die. Perhaps that would be best. No, I cannot give up now. So soon. Perhaps I will be rescued. Perhaps I can escape. I think of Miriam. She would never forgive me if I gave up so easily. And God? What does He want? Is it His will I am here, taking this test?” – Aaron from Sworn Enemies by Carol Matas, page 23
“We march all day without rest. At least ten of the hundred recruits we joined up with fall by the wayside as we march. I imagine that they have been marching for weeks, they look so thin and miserable. And most, of course, are from poor families to begin with so they haven’t the strength or the stamina to carry on. Many are wracked with terrible coughs, and I can see by the shine in their eyes that they are burning with fever.
But I begin to understand, as the night wears on and we have more and more bodies behind, that it is not just physical weakness and disease which is killing these boys. They no longer want to go on. They have been cut off from everything that has meaning for them, taken from love into hate, or at best indifference, and they do not wish to continue. They despair and they die. I look numbly on, helpless to do anything but fight my own despair.” – Aaron from Sworn Enemies by Carol Matas, pages 40-41
“As his back recedes into the milling crowds of people on the deck I feel a huge weight lift from my heart. I do not want to spend the rest of my life filled with hate, rage, and thoughts of revenge. I realize suddenly that he can only ruin my life if I allow him to do so. And I will not. He is a poor soul who must live constantly tortured with dark thoughts. I will not let him turn me into that. It would be his final triumph. I will survive. I’ll see my family again. I’ll see Miriam again. We’ll start fresh in a better place.” – Aaron from Sworn Enemies by Carol Matas, page 131