Page 19 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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ew ish
ew ish
this clause and one of the keys to Malamud’s style. It converts the
sentence from a commonplace descriptive statement into a colorful
ethnic “truism.” Anyone might give off a fishy odor. Only a Jew
would “smell frankly of fish.” Malamud uses many tricks of this
kind: inverted syntax, juggled or eliminated prepositions, liberal
use of the relative pronoun “this” as a vague expletive, and so on.
Yet all these tricks, while undoubtedly adding spice to Malamud’s
prose, seem to me to be only the trappings and the suits of
It will be said, perhaps, that the essence of Jewishness in Mala-
mud’s characters lies not only in their tortured syntax but in their
suffering. But here again there are problems, primarily the prob-
lem of how suffering is related to Jewishness. Morris Bober, the
Jewish grocer in
The Assistant,
suffers with the best of them. But
the relationship between this suffering and his Jewishness is
puzzling. When Frank Alpine, the Italian assistant, asks him,
“What is a Jew anyway?” Morris replies, “My father, used to say
to be a Jew all you need is a good heart.” Pressed further, he
expresses his own view that “The important thing is the Torah.
This is the Law—a Jew must believe in the Law.” When Frank
points out to him that he does not keep the Sabbath and that he
eats prohibited food, and that such acts are transgressions of the
Law, he rejoins
This is not important to me if I taste pig or if I don’t. To
some Jews is this important but not to me. Nobody will tell
me that I am not Jewish because I put in my mouth once
in a while, when my tongue is dry, a piece of ham. But they
will tell me, and I will believe them, if I forget the Law.
This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good.
Here, the thinking seems to be as perturbed as the syntax. Morris’s
position appears to be that he will obey the Law as long as it suits
him to do so. Little laws, if they inconvenience him, he need not
pay attention to. Big laws, like do right, be honest, be good, he
will observe.
No one has expressed the paradox inherent in this position
more powerfully than Father Mapple in his sermon in
Moby Dick
“If we obey God,” he says, “we must disobey ourselves; and it is in
this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God
consists.” Of course, the problem would not present itself to Bober
in this way because for him, apparently, the Law is an abstraction
that does not seem to be in any way connected to a Divine Revela-
tion, and he does not seem capable of conceiving that by obeying
himself he may be disobeying God. His ethic is purely human
and rational: the golden rule. A perfectly good ethic, but one