Page 29 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

Basic HTML Version

RIBALOW / SAUL BELLOW
19
great novelist should. He creates a world, pushes the reader into
that world and then, through dramatic conflict and confronta­
tion, makes one understand how God and religion and Jewish
customs and tradition affect the daily life of his characters.
In Bellow’s short story, “The Old System,” Isaac Braun is an
old Jew who has become a m illionaire through real estate deals.
His sister T ina is dying and she has been bitter for years be­
cause she has believed that Isaac had shut her out of a lucra­
tive deal. He agonizes over the enmity and attempts to visit her
on her deathbed. She finally acceeds, but only if Isaac is pre­
pared to pay $20,000 for the visit. He agrees. Ultimately, when
he comes, she rejects the money. The close family ties and ten­
sions are beautifully depicted. Bellow, in the meantime, allows
himself many observations about Jews in this story. His old hero
visits an orthodox rabbi in W illiamsburg to get advice on wheth­
er to pay T ina the money. Bellow describes the rabbi: “He had
the old tones, the manner, the burly poise, the universal calm
judgment of the Jewish moral genius. Enough to satisfy anyone.
But there was also something foreign about him. Tha t is, con­
temporary.” Here is Bellow, in the same story, on another rabbi:
“The worldly rabbi with his trained voice and tailored suits, like
a Christian minister except for the play of Jewish cleverness in
his face, hinted to the old-fashioned part of the congregation
that he had to pour it on for the sake of the young people. If
you wanted the young women to bless the Sabbath candles, you
had to start their rabbi at $20,000 and add a house and a Jag­
uar.”
In Seize the Day, highly regarded in the Bellow canon, Tommy
W ilhelm (born Velvel Adler) is a failed businessman in his for­
ties, on a day when his business, his speculations, his relation­
ships with people are all unravelling. Tommy is still a handsome
man (as is Bellow and most of his major male characters), who
failed in Hollywood. His mother had been “Reformed.” And
his father “had no religion.” But he realizes that, in his father’s
eyes, he is the wrong kind of Jew. W h ile Tommy is squeezed
for money by his wife, and he cannot find a job any longer, he
also cannot extract any money from his elderly, dignified, wealthy
father, who looks upon Tommy, or Velvel, as an abject figure
of a man.