This column is scheduled to appear on the yahrzeit of both of my parents, Abe and Belle Jaffee, aleihem hashalom. A reflection on the writings of Bernard Malamud is a particularly appropriate memorial for them since, truth be told, it is largely through Malamud’s stories and novels that I came to understand the deeper sources of my parents’ secular Yiddishkeit — to recognize its flaws and to appreciate its nobility.
Most readers of this column will already know that literary lions of the ’70s usually named Malamud as the third contender for the title of “the greatest American Jewish novelist.”
He ran neck and neck with naughty Philip Roth (whose vivid portrayal of Alex Portnoy molesting his family’s dinner is still cited by Internet anti-Semites as evidence of Jewish “hypersexuality”). According to some, he even nosed out Saul Bellow — the idol of Jewish English professors who tracked Bellow’s allusions to Augustine and Kierkegaard as zealously as their zaydes once pursued the nuances of a cherished Gemara from Rashi through the latest godol hador — “eminent scholar of his generation” — on the back pages of the Vilna Shas.
But since Malamud’s death in 1986, his reputation seems to have dimmed. After all, Roth (whose latest novel has just appeared) and Bellow (who died in 2005) continued to add brilliantly to their work long after Malamud’s was history.
I wonder if Malamud’s decline is connected to something deeper than the bad luck of dying before his rivals. It might be something basic to his work. Namely, his overheated vision of Jewish existence as Christ-like suffering for the sins of humanity. Who, among Malamud’s contemporaries, dared to celebrate as models of perfected Jewishness the losers and victims populating Malamud’s fictional universe?
Consider that classic sufferer, Morris Bober, the impoverished grocer whose self-sacrificial ethic forms the central vision of The Assistant. Malamud unlocks the door to Morris’ moral universe with a key dialogue between the grocer and his new hire, Frank Alpine, “the Italyener.”
Unbeknownst to Morris, his assistant is also a small-time hood who, some weeks earlier, had beaten Morris senseless in the course of a bungled robbery. By the end of the novel, Frank will expunge his own guilt by Imitatio Boberi — accepting upon himself, through conversion, the burden of Jewish self-sacrifice.
During a slow moment in the grocery, the conversation turns to religion, and Frank asks Morris: “What is a Jew?” Morris’ reply could have been written on parchment and rolled into the mezuzah of nearly every Jewish doorway in socialist Boro Park:
“My father used to say to be a Jew all you need is a good heart…. The important thing is the Torah. This is the Law — a Jew must believe in the Law…..”
“Sometimes,…to have to eat, you must keep open on holidays…. But I don’t worry about kosher, which is to me old-fashioned. What I worry is to follow the Jewish Law…. This is not important to me if I taste pig or if I don’t…. Nobody will tell me that I am not Jewish when I put in my mouth once in a while, when my tongue is dry, a piece ham. But they will tell me, and I will believe them, if I forget the Law. This means to do right, what is honest, what is good. This means to other people. Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt someone else?... We ain’t animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes.”
“I think other religions have those ideas too,” Frank said. “But tell me why it is that the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?...”
“If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”
“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.
“I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly….
“If a Jew forgets the Law…he is not a good Jew, and not a good man.”
Perhaps, in his own era — captive as the 1950s were to the secular universalism that so many mid-20th century Jews imagined to be the core of Judaism — Bober’s religion of mentschlichkeit seemed noble. But now? To suffer on behalf of humanity — is that the post-Holocaust mission we pass on to our children? I’ll pass, thanks. And I doubt there will be many takers among those dodging Kassams in Sderot or cleaning up body parts after suicide bombings in Dimona. Who can blame them?
Nevertheless, something of the essence of traditional Jewishness certainly glows brightly in Malamud’s struggling luftmentschen. And it is something that even (or especially?) the “religious” among us seem to have lost: the intuition that the tribalism nourishing our sense of peoplehood fulfills its purpose only in our universalist vision of the moral community of humanity.
Consider Morris. As the novel closes, he contracts a fatal case of pneumonia while shoveling a path through the snow so his Christian customers can walk safely to church. Could we imagine such a Jew debating whether the obligation to abrogate the Sabbath in order to save a human life applies as well to the life of the goy drowning before his own eyes?
Morris wouldn’t waste a second in such abstruse musings. His instincts would propel him into the river to save a creature sharing the Image of the very God he didn’t believe in. Because that’s what human solidarity requires. That’s what a mentsch does.
Never mind he hadn’t learned to swim!