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Malamud as modern Midrash.

DESCRIBING HIS APPROACH TO WRITING SHORT fiction, Bernard Malamud once suggested that one needs "to say everything that must be said and to say it quickly, fleetingly, as though two people had met for a moment in a restaurant . . . and one had time only to tell the other they are both human, and here, and this story proves it."(1) This kind of brief, but enlightening encounter could describe classical Midrash, the sermons or explications generally of biblical texts as written by the early rabbis. These midrashim were also limited in scope and content, and sought to convey a message about the human condition. Furthermore, the authors of those midrashim would easily resonate with another observation by Malamud when he explained that "writing must be true; it must have emotional depth; it must be imaginative. It must enflame, destroy, change the reader."(2)

Yet, despite these similarities, can one really speak in one breath of Malamud and Midrash? Unlike modern fiction, the midrashim in their formative period two thousand years ago were clearly developed in an oral style. They were spoken, and imparted to the public in public sermons. They were "not designed principally for entertainment but have a strong and self-conscious didactic function."(3) Another difference would be that the midrashists of the rabbinic world "believed that the Bible provided the answer--if not explicitly, then implicitly to every contemporary problem."(4) Such a claim could not be made for most modern writers. In fact, Malamud himself once wrote that the "purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry."(5)

Malamud did not write exclusively for, much less about, the Jewish community. He once explained: "I am not consciously speaking to American Jews; I am speaking to anyone who reads my books."(6) Yet, he wrote with a love for Jews and Judaism. In the last published collection of his short stories he had written that, early on in his career, he realized that "I was glad I was [a Jew] . . . I would often be writing about Jews, in celebration and expiation."(7)

With the exception of his final (and unfinished) novel, which was set in 19th-century America, Malamud's stories were centered in the twentieth century; he wrote in response to contemporary issues, and offered insights and answers. To the extent that this was so, his writing serves as a figurative parallel to the rabbis' use of midrash. They too were concerned with contemporary issues, and offered insights and answers, even though they often located their midrashim in the past.

Yet, even more than these outward similarities between Malamud and Midrash, this article shall show how Malamud often created a kind of midrash in his writing. He utilized figures from the Jewish past and recast them, reclothed them in modern dress. He lived true to his own eponymous self, for Malamud served as midrashic melamed (teacher). An analysis of several of his stories shows just how deeply he was indebted to the midrashic tradition.

Joseph Heinemann offers several characteristics for classical Aggadah (for the purposes of this article, the terms "Aggadah" and "Midrash" are used synonymously). His "three broad types" of aggadot are:

1) Aggadot that are inextricably related to the biblical narrative.

2) "Historical" aggadot which tell of post-biblical personalities and events.

3) "Ethical-didactic" aggadot which offer guidance and outline principles in the area of religious and ethical thought.(8)

Examples of all three of these categories can be found in Malamud's works.

1. Biblical Characters and Themes


The opening story of Malamud's earliest short-story collection, The Magic Barrel, is titled "The First Seven Years."(9) Like all of his works, it can be read on a variety of levels, but one clear understanding is that this is a modern rewriting of the love and seven years of service of Jacob for Rachel. The key line is found in Genesis 29:20: "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her." The biblical account is told from the point of view of the patriarch Jacob. Not so in this story, for the viewpoint is that of Feld (Malamud's stand-in for biblical Laban, Rachel's father). In broad outline, this is the tale of Feld the shoemaker, who five years earlier had suffered a debilitating heart condition. Married, with a fourteen-year-old daughter, it appeared as if he would have to close his business and the family would have to live on a pittance. Just at the moment of his deepest despair, an answer suddenly presents itself. A "Polish refugee, Sobel, appeared one night from the street and begged for work. . . . Though lie confessed he knew nothing of shoemaking, he said he was apt and would work for a very little if Feld taught him the trade."(10) Feld/Laban never thinks of Sobel as a future son-in-law until the issue comes to a head.

"Why do you think I worked so long for you?" Sobel cried. "For the stingy wages I sacrificed five years of my life so you could have to eat and drink and where to sleep?"

"Then for what?" shouted the shoemaker.

"For Miriam," he blurted--"for her."

[Feld is aghast, then angry, but finally he realizes that Sobel loves Miriam and she him.] "She is only nineteen," Feld said brokenly. "This is too young yet to get married. Don't ask her for two years more, till she is twenty-one, then you can talk to her."(11)

Throughout the story there are subtle hints presented that this is based on the biblical narrative. Just as Rachel is portrayed as "shapely and beautiful" (Gen. 29:17), so Miriam is described as "a very nice girl and also so pretty that everybody looks on her when she passes in the street. She is smart, always with a book." In the Bible, Jacob had literally fled for his life, for Esau had wanted to kill him (Gen. 27:41-28:10). Sobel is a Holocaust refugee, "who had by the skin of his teeth escaped Hitler's incinerators."(12)

There are also elusive hints that Malamud was also reflecting rabbinic midrashim in this story. In "The First Seven Years," Miriam is Feld's only child. According to Midrash Genesis Rabbah 73.1, Laban was blessed with sons only after Jacob's arrival. Likewise, according to the story, Feld is grieved because Sobel is virtually penniless, and he sees no hope for him. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah 70.14 Laban is very displeased that Jacob appears destitute.


In the same collection, The Magic Barrel, Malamud features a second biblically based modern midrash, "Angel Levine."(13) Readers familiar with the calamitous opening chapters of Job will immediately see the similarities to the opening paragraphs of this story. As a fire destroys Job's livelihood (Job 1:16), so flames consume Manischevitz the tailor's business; as Job's children are suddenly killed (Job 1:18-19), so the tailor's son is a war casualty and "his daughter, without so much a word of warning, married a lout and disappeared with him as off the face of the earth." Both Job and Manischevitz are afflicted physically (Job 2:7--Manischevitz with excruciating backaches). As Job finds his condition manifestly unjust, so does Manischevitz. Job explains that he had not denied the words of the Holy One (Job 6:10), and the tailor found his troubles "ridiculous, unjust . . . because he had always been a religious man." Further, as Job seeks an answer from God in chapter 7, so Manischevitz asks, "My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?"(14)

The purpose of Satan in Job is to test the biblical hero and tempt him to curse God. In the Bible Job has three "friends" who argue with him and seek to have Job discredit God--or himself, for some unknown sin that he has committed. Malamud combines these in the figure of--Angel Levine. When first we meet Levine he is described as "a Negro . . . a large man, bonily built, with . . . very large feet." He is dressed shabbily, in a dark suit. Though Levine explains that he is an angel, he also admits that he "cannot perform either miracles or near miracles, due to the fact that [he is] in a condition of probation."(15) Though he proposes to be of help, his actions would seem to belie this offer.

In Jewish legends, Satan is often described as appearing as a beggar or, indeed, in other disguises.(16) Levine's odd manner, his strange, shabby attire, his large feet (to disguise satanic hooves?), his being found in a honky-tonk bar in Harlem, lasciviously dancing with a prostitute, his sudden and brash offer to help the tailor, following the latter's troubles--all these help to discredit the belief that he is a real angel, much less God's messenger.

As the story develops, like his biblical counterpart, Manischevitz rails against God, but never denies the existence of the Creator of the universe. Surely it is not coincidental that, toward the end of Malamud's short story, just as at the close of that biblical book, in each case the innocent, but afflicted, protagonist affirms his belief. The tailor Manischevitz sighed: "'I think you are an angel from God.' He said it in a broken voice, thinking, If you said it, it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed." The angel's response is briefly described. "Levine burst into tears. 'How you have humiliated me.'"(17) One can easily imagine that biblical Satan may well have reached a similar conclusion when he failed to discredit his quarry. Finally, as the biblical Job is rewarded in the final chapter of that book with health, wealth, and family, so Manischevitz is rewarded at the close of the story.


If we have to speculate whether Malamud consciously was, or was not, drawing on biblical or midrashic figures in other of his works, in God's Grace(18) he clearly makes the connection for the reader in two ways. Firstly, in what serves as the "acknowledgments page" in this final full novel, he states specifically that he is indebted to the scholarship of Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial, which deals with various legends surrounding the "binding" (and near sacrifice) of Isaac, as recorded in Genesis 22. One of the alternate traditions that Spiegel writes about is the notion that Isaac was, indeed, sacrificed!(19) Secondly, Malamud makes direct references to biblical texts, and to both midrashic and talmudic legends, as shall be noted below.

God's Grace is Malamud's most bizarre, pessimistic, and, at the same time, his most sustained "fantastic" book. Many of the characters are primates, sapiens who speak. The story centers around Calvin Cohn, literally the last human on earth, for he is the sole survivor of a thermonuclear war.

While the Isaac-as-sacrifice theme pervades the novel, the first lines of God's Grace begin with a parody of the stately, rhythmic opening verses of Genesis. This is followed with material clearly based on the Noah and Flood narratives. The book starts out with these words:

This is that story The heaving high seas were laden with scum The dull sky glowed red Dust and ashes drifted in the wind circling the earth The burdened seas slanted this way, and that, flooding the scorched land under a daylight moon A black oily rain rained No one was there.(20)

Immediately following this, comes a paraphrasing of the Flood story, with Cohn-as-Noah. Cohn, a paleologist, has miraculously survived because at the time of the worldwide destruction he had been literally on the bottom of the ocean. The connections to Genesis 6-9 are fairly obvious. There, too, the fish in the seas survived. Consider also these lines: "Not long after dawn, a faded rainbow appeared in the soiled sky . . . the Flood abated. . . . The waters receded. They had risen high enough to overwhelm the remnants of the human race; now were slowly ebbing."(21)

The Noah motif notwithstanding, Malamud's clear concern is the story of the 'akedah, the Hebrew term for the "binding" of Isaac as recorded in Genesis, chapter 22. On several occasions in the novel, Cohn refers to both biblical texts and to midrashic legends surrounding Isaac.

The Talmud says that Satan pestered God to test Abraham's love for Him; and God, to test and prove that love, commanded Abraham to take his boy up to the mountain in Moriah and give him for a burnt offering to the Lord Himself.

This talmudic reference is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b), though a similar legend is recorded in Midrash Genesis Rabbah 55.4, but in this latter case the accusers are God's angels. A couple of pages later, Cohn explains about another "talmudic" legend which says that Isaac was taken by the Angel to the Garden of Eden to convalesce from the wound that Abraham had inflicted upon him.(22)

The novel concludes with a chapter ironically entitled "God's Mercy," though there does not seem to be much mercy in this tale. Cohn now is Isaac in earnest. Like his biblical forebear, he is carrying the "split wood" (cf. Gen. 22:3, 6, 9) which will be the firewood for his own sacrifice. Cohn and Buz, one of the chimpanzees who, in this strange tale, has achieved superiority over Cohn, climb up the mountain. It is clear that Buz intends to sacrifice this last human being on earth. On the way up the mountain they meet "a beggar" who "stretched forth his bony seven-fingered hand." This strange encounter also seems to have its roots in the midrashic literature surrounding the binding of Isaac. As noted earlier, in Jewish legends Satan often is described as a beggar. According to Midrash Genesis Rabbah 56.4, Samael, a well-known wicked angel--and sometimes associated directly with Satan--meets Abraham and seeks to dissuade him from his task. When Samael cannot convince Abraham he turns to Isaac, but with as little success. The Malamud text does not mention Samael by name, but clues to his demonic nature are suggested by the strange aforementioned "bony seven-fingered hand" and the fact that when the beggar fails in his mission with Cohn, he suddenly disappears "in a cloud of mist."(23)

In the biblical text, on the climb up Mount Moriah, Isaac (innocently?) asks his father, "Where is the sheep for the offering?" and Abraham answers, "God will provide . . ." (Gen. 22:7-8). The Hebrew allows several interpretations. It could be simply that Abraham is saying, "Listen son, do not worry, God will provide the sheep." Alternately, it could be that Abraham is speaking to himself. He says aloud to Isaac, "God will provide," but in his own mind Abraham confronts the awful fact that the sacrifice really is to be his own child--"my son"! In the biblical and midrashic narratives, just as Isaac is to be sacrificed, a heavenly voice stops Abraham, and the Patriarch looks up and finds a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. In God's Grace, the ending is not so sanguine.

Isaac's question to his father is reflected in the story, but Malamud raises the stakes. Here Cohn turns to the chimpanzee, Buz, and poses a similar question, but the outcome is very different.

"Where's this ram in the thicket?" asked Cohn with a bleat. Buz wagged his finger at his dod [Dad]. Though he had known, Cohn turned icy cold. "Am I to be the burnt offering?"(24)

Even some arcane midrashic material is picked up by Malamud. In God's Grace, Buz "poured spices and myrrh into the smoke" of the altar. These are not capricious choices. In the biblical account, spices are not mentioned. In several rabbinic sources, however, Moriah (". . . go to the land of Moriah," Gen. 22:2) is connected directly with the Hebrew word for myrrh--mor.(25) In addition, according to one of the legends surrounding the 'akedah, even before the knife touched Isaac's throat, blood spurted forth. This image is clearly stated in God's Grace: "Blood, to their astonishment, spurted forth an instant before the knife touched Cohn's flesh.(26) There is a further connection with midrashic legend in God's Grace, with Cohn being cast earlier as a latter-day Noah, for according to the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31),(27) the self-same altar which Noah and his sons used after the Flood was the one which was used by Abraham, ten generations later.

2. Post-Biblical Characters


According to Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah not only never died but was transported to heaven in a fiery chariot. He continues to play an important role in the everyday life of the Jewish people. He is best known for his appearance at the Passover Seder, where there is a cup set aside for him, but Elijah is also present at every circumcision where traditionally there is a "chair of Elijah." In addition to these functions, Elijah has often been portrayed as someone who reappears, often in disguise, and helps the poor and the righteous.(28) Malamud utilized the Elijah theme in at least a couple of his stories, the aforementioned "Angel Levine" and, again, in "The Silver Crown."(29)

The prophet's ability to save lives was already attested to in the Bible in 1 Kings 17:17 ff. It is also in the Bible that one finds the image of Elijah ascending to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). While, as suggested above, the self-proclaimed Negro Angel, Alexander Levine, can be understood as Satan--the instigator for Job's troubles--another viable reading of this character shows him as the legendary Elijah, who often visits old, sick, destitute couples in their homes. This paradigm certainly fits the Manischevitz family, for the tailor himself (as we have seen above) has suffered numerous physical ailments, and his wife, Fanny, is suffering from an advanced case of hardening of the arteries. Angel Levine offers to be of help, but Manischevitz refuses to believe that he really is an angel until, as we have seen toward the end of the story, he feels that he has no other options. In the concluding paragraphs, it appears as if Levine is indeed being transported back to heaven. Manischevitz "heard an odd noise, as though off whirring of wings, and . . . [he] could have sworn he saw a dark figure borne aloft on a pair of magnificent black wings."(30) In 2 Kings 2, just before he is transported to heaven, Elijah asks his disciple Elisha what final act the former can do for him. Elisha asks for a portion of his mentor's spirit. Elijah replies that this will be so only if Elisha sees him when he is taken away (which, of course, is what happens.) Similarly, Manischevitz's wish for Fanny's health is granted after he sees the figure "borne aloft." In the story, as noted before, Alexander Levine is found in a honky-tonk with what appears to be a prostitute. In one talmudic legend, Elijah, that master of disguises, appears as a harlot (!) in order to effect the escape off rabbi from the Roman authorities.(31)

In "The Silver Crown," which has been analyzed as a negative mirror image of "Angel Levine," the protagonist, Albert Gans, refuses to believe in the possibility of the miracle performed by a "wonder-worker," and, consequently, he is denied his request.(32)


Death is our common lot. When a person's time on earth is completed, rabbinic tradition indicated that the Angel of Death comes to take him or her away. There is no way that this could be avoided, but, in rare exceptions, the fatal day could be postponed.

Most contemporary writers would shy away from this notion of a physical Angel of Death. The image is too anthropomorphic. Yet, death continues to be a matter of concern. We question the timing of death, if not its actual necessity. If we could "cheat" death, or postpone dying, would not that be the choice of most people? To cheat death, or at least to buy some extra time, is exactly the intention of the old man, Mendel, in Bernard Malamud's wonderful and intriguing short story "Idiots First," which appeared in the collection Idiots First.(33)

In "Idiots First" we read of Mendel and his mentally retarded son, Isaac. Mendel believes that he has seen Death coming for him, and prior to his demise he wants to send his son off to his uncle in California. The story is set in New York City, and as it unfolds we see Mendel and Isaac running from pillar to post, seeking to find enough money for the cross-country train ticket. Whether it is at the pawnshop, at the home of a rabbi, in the presence of a supposed philanthropist, or an all-night diner, they are continually being pursued by a shadowy figure.

As in the rabbinic literature, Death is often designated by a name, so in this short story, "Idiots First," he also has a name. Here he is called Ginzburg. At times it is unclear whether it is Mendel or the son who really is the Angel's quarry. Though Mendel is described as "the dying man," he also warns his son that he should be very cautious.(34) As Mendel explains, "Ginzburg . . . came to see me yesterday . . . the one, with the black whiskers. Don't talk to him or go with him if he asks you." As an afterthought, Mendel reflects, "Young people he don't bother so much."(35) Is this Ginzburg of the story really the Angel of Death? Is this what Malamud wants the reader to understand? The inescapable answer is yes. In rabbinic literature Death can change his appearance to suit the situation. In addition, as has been shown, at times his mission can be put off, at least for a limited period of time.(36)

In this short story, the figure of Ginzburg continues to hover at the edge of one scene after another, seemingly changing shape and coloration as the story proceeds. As he moves from image to image, he always retains some of his past physical characteristics. At first he has "black whiskers," then, as the unsympathetic pawnbroker, he is "red-bearded," with black horn-rimmed glasses, and is described as eating a "whitefish." The indifferent philanthropist is "paunchy," and has "hairy" nostrils. He inquires about the idiot son with exactly the same words as did the pawnbroker. The shadow-like figure in the park is "bearded," and in the restaurant he is "heavy-set." Finally, at the train station, the ticket collector is an amalgam of the descriptions that had been seen heretofore, for the ticket collector is "a bulky, bearded man with hairy nostrils and a fishy smell."(37)

There is another reason to conclude that Malamud was retelling an ancient tale about Samael, the Angel of Death. In broad outline, "Idiots First" is the tale of an old man, an adult son named Isaac who seems unable to protect himself, and the seeming inevitability of death. Though the focus is on Isaac in God's Grace and the matter is played out differently as seen above, that story also featured a Samael figure.

According to rabbinic thought, death may be postponed but, in the end, it is inevitable. This, too, is reflected in Malamud's wonderful story. In the midrashic literature we find the story of Rabbi Simeon bar Halafta, who late one night was returning home. On the road he encountered someone who, it becomes clear, is none other than the Angel of Death. The rabbi enquired of this character who he was, and the latter replied thai he was God's messenger. "Why is it that you look so strange," the rabbi continued. On account of the talk of human beings who say "this and that we will do," and yet not one of them knows when he will be summoned to die, was the answer. When Rabbi Simeon asks to be told the date of his own death, the Angel explains that he does not have jurisdiction over righteous people. The midrash then supports this statement with this quotation from Proverbs 10:27, "The fear of the Lord prolongs life."(38) Though death may be postponed, yet none will escape this end.

As in the midrash which pictured Rabbi Simeon bar Halafta and the Angel of Death in conversation, at the conclusion of Malamud's short story Mendel turns to Ginzburg and asks him outright: "What then is your responsibility?" Ginzburg, the Angel of Death, replies that his role is "To create conditions. To make happen what happens. I ain't in the anthropomorphic business." When Mendel then asks about "pity," Ginzburg replies, "This ain't my commodity. The law is the law. . . . The cosmic universal law, goddamit, the one I got to follow myself."(39)

Ginzburg's remark sounds very much like the midrashic statement supporting 1 Chronicles 29:15 ("Our days on earth are as a shadow, with nothing in prospect"), where the rabbis explain: "None can hope to escape death; all know it and affirm it with their own mouths that they will die."(40)

3. Ethical-Didactic Themes

While the Talmud is filled with many ethical maxims, there is one section which stands out. This is the set of chapters known as the "Ethics of the Ancestors" (in Hebrew, Pirke Avot--literally, "Chapters of the Fathers," and sometimes translated as the "Sayings of the Fathers"). To illustrate Heinemann's third category of "ethical-didactic" items, the Ethics of the Ancestors provides several examples.

"Do not separate yourself from the community."

Being pan of the community, consciously associating with fellow Jews, is one of the maxims in Pirke Avot (2:4), attributed to the sage Hillel. In "The Lady of the Lake,"(41) one of Malamud's earlier stories, we find the exemplary tale of Henry Levin, a New Yorker who decides to spend some time in Europe in search of romance. When in Paris, he decides to call himself by another name. He "was tired of the past--tired of the limitations it had imposed upon him," so he chooses the deliciously ironic name of Henry R. Freeman.(42) As the story develops, Henry comes face to face with his past, and finds that he is not a "free man" at all. Indeed, he has become the prisoner of his own choice. When in Italy, he meets a mysterious, lovely, and beautiful young woman who calls herself Isabella Del Dongo. After some time together, she asks him directly, though hesitantly, "Are you, perhaps, Jewish?" Though shocked at the question, he knew in some way that it was not unexpected. "Yet he did not look Jewish, could pass as not--had. So without batting an eyelash, he said, no, he wasn't. And a moment later added, though he personally had nothing against them."(43) Later Isabella even asks him if some peaks do not look like a menorah, but he pretends not to understand the term.

At the conclusion of the story she asks one final time, and again he denies his religious heritage, damning himself in the process. Isabella then slowly

unbuttoned her bodice. . . . When she revealed her breasts . . . to his horror he discerned tattooed on the soft and tender flesh a bluish line of distorted numbers. "Buchenwald," Isabella said, "when I was a little girl. The Fascists sent us there. The Nazis did it . . . I can't marry you. We are Jews. My past is meaningful to me. I treasure what I suffered for."(44)

"In a place where there are no decent people, strive to be one."

"Judge all people in the scale of merit."

"A good heart."

Another saying of Hillel's was to "strive to be a decent person," especially in a society which lacked many such role models (Pirke Avot 2.5). That saying, in Malamud's writing, often seems joined with his basic faith in the essential goodness of humankind, a thought that was voiced in another statement in the Ethics of the Ancestors, credited to Nittai of Arbel: "Judge all people charitably" (Pirke Avot 1.6). Close to both of these ideas was a third maxim, that of Elazar ben Arakh. When asked by his mentor what was most essential for civilized life, he replied, "a good heart" (Pirke Avot 2.9).

Though one could choose many Malamud characters who exemplify these characteristics, three will suffice: Oskar Gassner, Morris Bober, and Sy Levin. Gassner is the protagonist in "The German Refugee," and Bober is a central character in the early novel, The Assistant.(45)

In 1939, Oskar Gassner is a refugee, a former Berlin critic and journalist now living in New York, and is trying desperately, literally and figuratively, to find his voice in English. He speaks with a thick German accent, and is traumatized by what he has seen and experienced. He explains: "I have lozt faith. I do not--not longer pozzezz my former value of myself. In my life there has been too much illusion. . . . Confidenze I have not. For this and alzo whatever elze I have lozt I thank the Nazis."(46)

Still, encouraged by his tutor, Gassner struggles on and, at the end of that awful summer of 1939, when Germany had invaded Poland and the war was underway, he gives his long-awaited public lecture. In it, he quotes the hopeful lines of Wait Whitman:

And I know the spirit of God is the brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters' and lovers, And that the kelson of creation is love. . . .(47)

This kind of hope in the face of despair is reminiscent of Morris Bober, the down-in-luck grocer whose story is told in The Assistant. At one point Bober tells Frank Alpine what it means to be a Jew and, by extension, about what it means to be a decent human being. Bober explains: "My father used to say to be a Jew all you need is a good heart." He then goes on to elaborate, "This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. . . . This is what a Jew believes."(48)

Malamud did not close his eyes to reality. He knew that the world could be brutal and cruel. Both Gassner and Bober die at the end of these respective stories. Their striving, the message of their inherent hope in humanity, however, triumphs over their deaths. As the rabbi who eulogizes him explains:

Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart . . . he was true to the spirit of our life--to want for others that which he wants also for himself. . . . He suffered, he endured, but with hope.(49)

Sy Levin is the protagonist of Malamud's novel, A New Life. Like so many Malamud characters, Levin struggles, he wrestles with his life. A college professor, he ponders questions of morality, and we are privy to some of his musings. As noted earlier, Malamud had written that the "purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment." Some of Levin's thoughts would seem to echo the teachings of the rabbis. In one soliloquy spoken to himself, Levin suggests that

As you valued men's lives yours received value. . . . That, if not entirely true, ought to be. . . . We must protect the human the good, the innocent. Those who had discovered their own moral courage, or created it, must join others who are moral; these must lead, without fanaticism.(50)


To endure, but with hope, to know that the kelson of creation is love, to do what is right, to be honest and good, to protect the human, the good, the innocent--this was Malamud's message: to live with the Jewish heart. Malamud wrote as a Jew, often incorporating in his works images from the past, including not only biblical themes, but the midrashic and ethical interpretations of the rabbis. He blended these into his own writing, changing and developing where he felt the need. As he had written in one of his novels, "the past hides but is present."(51)

Bernard Malamud's writing was true, it had emotional depth, it was imaginative. It had the ability to enflame, destroy, and change his readers. He had a vision for humankind which was expressed through his works. With the exception of "The Lady of the Lake," all of the short stories quoted in this article appeared in his final collection, The Stories of Bernard Malamud. It is likely, therefore, that many of those themes represented for him the quintessence of his writing.

"It is life that makes one a Jew." So Italo Svevo. Elie Wiesel amplified the thought when he said, "At one point or another, every person becomes Jewish--the moment he becomes authentic he genuinely--though metaphorically--becomes Jewish. And every Jew is universal the moment he is genuine."(52) Bernard Malamud left us a wonderful legacy, a universal and genuine message which reflected the richness of the biblical and midrashic past. He honored his heritage in many ways, and it continues to live and echo through his works.


1. Quoted in Granville Hicks, "His Hopes on the Human Heart," in Saturday Review, October 12, 1963:32.

2. Malamud, quoted in Dean Cadle, "Bernard Malamud," Wilson Library Bulletin, Vol. XXXIII (Dec. 1958): 266.

3. Heinemann, Joseph, "The Nature of Aggadah," trans. Marc Bregman, in Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budi (eds.), Midrash and Literature (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 47.

4. Ibid., p. 49.

5. Malamud, quoted in Cadle, op. cit., p. 266.

6. Communication from Bernard Malamud to the author, January 21, 1969.

7. Bernard Malamud, The Stories of Bernard Malamud (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), p. ix.

8. Heinemann, op. cit., p. 43. Heinemann further explained that "neither the names nor the boundaries of these categories are entirely fixed," and that there is some necessary fluidity between these categories.

9. "The Fire Seven Years," in Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958), pp. 3-16.

10. Ibid., p. 7.

11. Ibid., pp. 14-15.

12. Ibid. pp. 5, 15.

13. Bernard Malamud, "Angel Levine," in The Magic Barrel, op. cit., pp. 43-56.

14. Ibid., pp. 43-44. Malamud would return to the Job theme in God's Grace; see below, note 21.

15. Ibid. pp. 45, 47.

16. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1908-1938), vol. 5, p. 248, n. 226; see also vol. 6, p. 418, "Satan, the guises assumed by."

17. Ibid. p. 55.

18. Bernard Malamud, God's Grace (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982).

19. Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice: The Akeda, translated and introduction by Judah Goldin (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967), pp. 3-8, 30, ad. loc.

20. Malamud, God's Grace, op. cit., p. 3.

21. Ibid. p. 7. Though he does not do so extensively, Malamud also features Cohn-as-Job when this-latter day lonely man argues with his Creator. Cohn and God both make reference to Job and Malamud paraphrases some of the themes found in Chapters 38-41 of Job, where God answers Job out of the whirlwind (God's Grace, op. cit. pp. 136-137).

22. Ibid. pp. 72, 74. The legend about Isaac being taken to the Garden of Eden comes from the Midrash Ha-Gadol to Genesis 22:19, not the Talmud. See Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 285-286, and Spiegel, op cit. p. 7, n. 18.

23. Malamud, God's Grace, op. cit., pp. 221-222. See also Pesikta Rabbati 40.6; Tanhuma Vayera to Genesis 22.6. The beggar's "bony" hand reminds one that Angel Levine was described as being "bonily built."

24. Malamud, God's Grace, op. cit., p. 222.

25. Ibid., p. 223. See Midrash Genesis Rabbah 55.7; Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 4.6.2; Targum Onkelos to Genesis 22:2; Rashi to Genesis 22:2.

26. Malamud, God's Grace, op. cit., p. 223. See Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (Cleveland and New York: World: Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961), p. 258; Louis Ginzberg, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 204.

27. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, translated and annotated by Gerald Friedlander (New York: Sepher-Hermon, 1981), p. 227. See also Midrash Ha-Gadol to Genesis 22:9.

28. David Goldstein, Jewish Folklore and Legend (London and New York: Hamlyn, 1980), pp. 158-165. See also the entries "Elijah" in the Jewish Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Judaica.

29. Bernard Malamud, "The Silver Crown" in Rembrandt's Hat (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1973), pp. 3-29.

30. Malamud, "Angel Levine," op. cit., p. 56.

31. B. Avodah Zara 18b.

32. For a fuller discussion of both "Angel Levine" and "The Silver Crown" in a somewhat different context, see my article, "Strangers, Angels and Redemption: Jewish/Christian Images in Two Malamud Stories" in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 37 (3) (Spring 1984): 43-50. In the rabbinic literature, Elijah is presented not only as one who helps; he also is someone who demands high standards of action. See B. Berakhot 6b and Louis Ginzberg, op. cit., Vol. 4, pp. 211 ff.

33. "Idiots First," in Idiot's First (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1963), pp. 3-15.

34. Ibid., p. 5.

35. Ibid., p. 4.

36. B. Moed Katan 28a; Midrash Numbers Rabbah 16.24; Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 11.10; Louis Ginzberg op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 227-229.

37. Malamud, "Idiot's First," ibid., pp. 4, 5, 7, 9, 13.

38. Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 9.1 (see 9.3), as well as Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3.2.3.

39. Malamud, "Idiot's First" op. cit., p. 13.

40. Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 96.2.

41. Bernard Malamud, "The Lady of the Lake," in The Magic Barrel, op. cit., pp. 105-133.

42. Ibid., p. 105.

43. Ibid., p. 113.

44. Ibid., p. 132.

45. Malamud. "The German Refugee," in Idiots First, op. cit., pp. 195-212; The Assistant (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1957).

46. Malamud, "The German Refugee," op. cit., pp. 206, 207.

47. Malamud, "The German Refugee," ibid., p. 211. Walt Whitman's statement is reflected in a quotation from an earlier Malamud novel where the chief character says "The source of freedom is the human spirit." A New Life (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961), p. 202.

48. Malamud, The Assistant, op. cit., p. 124.

49. Ibid., p. 229.

50. Malamud, A New Life, op. cit., p. 258.

51. Ibid., p. 56.

52. Quoted in Pamela White Hadas, In Light of Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1980), p. x. There the author explains that the Weisel quote comes from Harry Cargas's Conversations with Elie Wiesel.

DAVID J. ZUCKER is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Teikyo Loretto Heights University in Denver, Colorado.
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Title Annotation:Jewish author Bernard Malamud
Author:Zucker, David J.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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