Page 166 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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e w i s h
o o k
n n u a l
certainly the first to have consciously utilized the ethic of
mentshlekhkayt as the construct of his moral vision. If
H erzog
could be hailed as the pay-off Jewish novel, as Julian Moynihan
did in his review,
Th e Assistant
is certainly the kick-off Jewish
novel. What was implicit in Malamud’s first novel, the experi-
mental and amazingly bold
T h e N a tu ra l ,
became explicit in
Th e Assistant
and in the two novels that followed it. The basic
pattern of each is the same—the evolution of man into mentsh,
the slow, painful discovery of the ways and values of mentsh-
lekhkayt. His heroes are Everyman from Anywhere. They come
from the west, like Roy Hobbs and Frank Alpine, or from the
east, like Sy Levin. They are lonely men in a lonely world,
morally plain men who are buffeted by life; but instead of
yielding to degradation, they discover, a struggle at a time,
the values of mentshlekhkayt as a pattern of human decency.
The Jewish Experience is in Malamud not the experience
either of alienation or of suffering as it is sometimes presumed
be; it is a metaphor for man’s growth to morality in a world
in which suffering is indigenous and inescapable, a metaphor
for his evolution from moral nonentity as slavery, through
moral struggles and wanderings, to moral liberation under Law,
a growth moved by an ultimate refusal to capitulate to evil,
impelled by a basic hunger for morality. All men are Jews in
that all men are morally educable, capable of undergoing the
Jewish experience, of acquiring morality in a world of suffer-
ing. “I need the experience,” Frank Alpine remarks at the be-
ginning of the assistantship which teaches him that every man
is every other man’s assistant. In his achievement of the disci-
pline of moral law lies a great beauty for him, the union of
morality and aesthetics.
If reluctant, less-than-ordinary men, seeking only to survive,
unlikely candidates for moral greatness, are the characters who,
in Malamud’s parables for our times, grow into heroes that
illustrate his theme of the ability of any man to redeem himself
by acquiring the moral identity of a mentsh, Bellow’s heroes are
more often conscious seekers of fulfillment, in essence intel-
lectuals, driven like Henderson by a persistent and inchoate
“I want, I want, I want,” searching the hemispheres of time and
space for a pattern of responsible fulfillment. Augie March’s
geographical quest over the face of two continents, Henderson’s
quest into an Africa that becomes for him a heart of light, Bum-
midge’s vertical plunge through the years of his life, Herzog’s
quest through time, his far-ranging review of intellectual history,
hungering for an answer to the question “How shall a good man
live?” lead to the same affirmation of the values celebrated by
the ethic mentshlekhkayt: the affirmation of each man's right
to his fulfillment; the concomitant affirmation of human re­