Becoming Jewish – Part VI of Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud

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Unlike any author in Jewish-American or Yiddish literature, Bernard Malamud closely traces the process of a non-Jewish character’s becoming-a-Jew. But what makes Malamud’s treatment so fascinating and thought provoking is the fact that Frank, an Italian-American character who becomes a Jew, is that Frank is inspired to become Jewish by virtue of a schlemiel. His model, so to speak, is a Jewish fool. However, as Malamud shows us, although Bober, Malamud’s schlemiel character, may be a fool he is actually very wise. Moreover, he is not a caricature in the sense that people usually think when they hear the word schlemiel. His foolishness is informed by his blindness to people’s bad qualities and his trust of others who, oftentimes, betray him. But what makes this foolishness saintly is the fact that in trusting people he and those around him suffer. His failures affect others; but, at the very least, they are honest. Frank, his assistant is deeply affected by Bober when he realizes how much Bober suffers for others and how Bober takes it in stride. This prompts Frank to do things for Bober, to repent for all the times he lied and stealed from him, and to eventually ask him for forgiveness. In the process, Frank becomes more and more fascinated with Jewishness and he realizes that he may have to become Jewish if he is to atone for what he did.   He comes to this realization when Bober, after hearing from Frank that he had been lied to, decides to turn away from Frank.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how Frank had been caught stealing from Bober. Frank did this in order to have money to meet with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   To make things worse, when he meets up with Helen he saves her from being raped from Ward; however, once he does this, he forces himself on her (albeit in a way that is less aggressive). Following this, Helen, whose last words about Frank before leaving him are “uncircumcised dog,” learns of the theft and Bober becomes very disappointed.

In the wake of this, Frank becomes deeply introspective and realizes he has done wrong and needs to make amends. Frank gets a shot at redeeming himself when, out of nowhere, he is the first to notice that Bober is in a house full of gas (the burner wasn’t turned on). He saves Bober’s life.

Bober goes to the hospital. And in the time between Bober’s admittance to the hospital and his return back home, Frank starts looking into what it means to be Jewish. One of his biggest questions is how a people that suffers so much could be called “chosen”:

He read a book about the Jews, a short history. He had many times seen this book on one of the literary shelves and had never taken it down, but one day he checked it out to satisfy his curiosity. He read the first part with interest, but after the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the Jews were having it tough, he had to force himself to keep reading. He skimmed the bloody chapters but read slowly the ones about their civilization and accomplishments.   He also read about the ghettos, where the half-starved, bearded prisoner spent their lives trying to figure out why they were the Chosen People. He tried to figure out why but couldn’t. (191)

When Morris Bober returns, Frank decides to finally confess. He does this believing, as a good Christian would, that it would do the trick. But, as I noted in the last blog entry, it doesn’t.   Although Bober is a schlemiel – and schlemiels are rarely in these kinds of situations – he makes a decision to show Frank that he is at the limit. Bober has forgiven him many times but this time, with the urging of his wife Ida, he must draw the line. He does let Frank come back to work for him, and in doing so shows compassion, but something has changed. While, in the past, he was startled when he realized that he made Frank’s efforts larger than life, now he realizes that Frank doesn’t do as much as he once imagined:

Although Morris liked the improvements Frank made in the store he saw at once that they had not made the least effect on business. Business was terrible…He thought he had seen the store at its worst but this brought him close to fainting. (200)

Now, Bober starts realizing that the store he had worked in for so many years was a total failure. And in noting it’s failure, his near death, and Frank’s lying Bober starts coming to terms with failure. He, in a Levinasian sense, faces failure by noting the suffering around him that he can not do anything about save…give up. And this suffering hurts because they are already poor. Bober is too hold to learn a new trade and so is Ida (201). The thought of more poverty kills them.   But it is real. Frank witnesses all of this, first hand, and suffers with them. And when Ida fires him, due to this economic state of affairs, Frank leaves silently. He knows that it makes sense and he can no longer protest or ask for mercy.

At this point Frank drops out of the narrative and the reader, wondering what is going on with him, is drawn into a world without Frank in it. While this is going on, we see that the thing most on Morris Bober’s mind is survival and failure.   In one fascinating moment, Bober is visited by a Jewish customer. And in this moment, we see a side of Jewishness that we haven’t seen before. One that Frank has also never seen. The man suggests that instead of falling into poverty the store can be burnt down and that Bober can collect insurance money (212). Bober turns him away, however. He would rather be poor that rip off the system (212). Strangely enough, however, Bober thinks about it and even lights a few little strips of paper just to see them burn up (not to burn the store down).   But then, like a schlemiel, the little fire he starts catches on to his clothes. And Frank emerges, from out of nowhere, to put out the flames. He utters these words: “For Christ sake,” Frank pleaded, “take me back here,” But, as the narrator notes, “the grocer ordered him out of the house”(214).

The next words, of the next chapter, tell us that “Karp’s store began to burn.” (Karp, as I noted before, is the person who told Bober about how Frank was duping him and how Bober was duped by his faith in Frank. Moreover, Karp wants Bober to marry his daughter to his son.)   Ward, one of the people who, together with Frank, robbed Bober at the outset of the novel, is the one who burns Karp’s store down (more or less out of anger and hatred of Jews).   In the wake of this, Bober sinks into mourning, something Malamud sees as a major part of being Jewish: “Pain is for poor people”(219).   He sits with Karp and has tea with him in the aftermath.

But out of nowhere, Karp says that he wants to buy Bober’s store because he likes the location (220). In response, “Morris couldn’t believe his ears. He was filled with excitement and dread that someone would tell him he had just dreamed a dream, or that Karp, fat fish, would turn into a fat bird and fly away, screeching, “Don’t you believe me,” or in some heartbreaking way change his mind”(220).

To be sure, failure and poverty are normal for Bober. So one can understand his response as being afraid that it was yet another false hope. However, this time it is real. He and Ida weap for joy as this seems to be the only real break they have had in life: real good luck (220).

But, as one can imagine, a schlemiel’s good luck doesn’t last too long.

Morris Bober, in his excitement, wakes up the next morning to see a “spring snow” falling on the ground. And instead of going outside with a jacket, boots, etc, he goes out in his regular clothes. That night, before going to bed, Bober becomes very emotional and reflective. He tells his daughter how much he loves her and, in tears, tells her how he remembers her when she was a baby and how he always wanted her to be happy (224). In response, Helen tells him how much she wants to give him and he tells her how much more he wants to give her. His last words to her, before he goes to bed are “look how it snows”(224). They both watch the snow “through the moving windows, then Morris sad good night”(224).

In his bed, alone, Morris becomes “restless, almost dejected” when he reflects on all the new changes he will have to “get used to.” Like many Jews, he worries about the future and what will be. He fears that the worst may happen to him and his family. But “what he feared most was that he would make another mistake and again settle in a prison. The possibility of this worried him intensely…His thoughts exhausted him. He could feel his poor heart running a race against the merciless future”(224). Bober remains a schlemiel because he fears he will likely make another mistake. For this reason, he sees this success as yet another possible failure.

Following this, Malamud describes how Bober becomes “drenched in hot sweat” while his “feet were freezing.” Being a good humble Jew, he worries that if he thinks to much about how sick he is and if he tells others people will suffer. He didn’t want to wake his wife or anyone else:

Gradually he accepted the thought that he had a cold- maybe a flu. He considered waking her to call a doctor but who could they call without a telephone? And if Helen got dressed and used Sam Perl’s phone, what an embarrassment that would be, waking up a whole family when he warrant their bell; also arousing a doctor. (225)

The narrator takes on a Jewish tone when he mimics Bober’s thought processes regarding the snow in April and how ironic it would be if this would lead to something bad. He reminds us that this is the state of a schlemiel: “It frustrated him hopelessly that every move he made seemed to turn into some inevitable thing”(225).

But this is not the last thought.

Malamud takes us into Bober’s last dream before dying: he dreams about his son Eprhaim, who died young. Eprhaim, to be sure, is only mentioned once in the novel. And this is, without a doubt, very important. Ephraim is Bober’s secret. He keeps his son’s death to himself and never mentions it. However, as we can see his last dream turns to him.   What Bober sees in Eprhaim is himself. He sees a man child who is poor and dies before he can live his life:

Ephraim wore a beanie cut from the crown of an old hat of Morris’s, covered with buttons and shiny pins, but the rest of him was in rags….The boy looked hungry. (226)

Bober is “shocked” by Ephraim’s hunger and he pleas with him. Bober tells him that he feeds him “three times a day.” But this statement is undergirded by Ephraim’s death: “why did you leave so soon your father?”

Bober continues to plea with him telling him that he will give him a college education and help him. But Ephraim turns away and “disappeared in a wake of laughter”(226).   Bober wakes with tears in his eyes and a feeling of regret. He “wanted to apologize” to his family and his wife for not providing enough. He even “moaned a little thinking of Frank”(226). His last thoughts are painful: “I gave away my life for nothing. It was a thunderous truth”(226).

But in the midst of this “thunderous truth,” the narrator distracts us: “Was the snow still falling?” And he tells us that Morris died in the hospital three days later. These last lines tap into what Malamud finds to be most important about being Jewish. The regret, the self-doubt, the feeling of meaninglessness, are there, they are “thunderous truth” that are belied by failure; however, in the midst of all of this there is distraction, laughter, and turning away. The pain, it seems, is too much. And though Morris Bober and the narrator acknowledge it, they both know that too much of the pain and regret will kill them. Distraction is a part of survival. But the pain is all based on suffering for the other. Bober is, in these moments, what Edith Wyschogrod would call a “sample” of the saintly. His life is committed to the other and the reader can sense Bober’s “carnal generality” through his final regrets and his realization that, with all he has done, he hasn’t done enough.   And this is the point: Malamud shows us that a schlemiel’s failures and mistakes need not be thought of as caricatures; they can teach us about what it means to be moral.

This “sample,” to be sure, has a lasting effect on Frank and prompts him to want to become a Jew and a schlemiel. Frank’s desire to become a Jew reaches its apex in the wake of Bober’s funeral.   And the process that we witness, as readers, shows us how the saintly sample can transform the life of another person and prompt them to become a Jew and a schlemiel-saint.

….to be continued…

 

 

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