An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

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Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

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