Monday, August 24, 2009

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Bernard Malamud seems to be the forgotten giant of Jewish-American fiction. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth receive the lion’s share of recognition in the genre, and so it’s easy to forget just how good Malamud is. His personal life may have been less exciting than his peers, but his writing snaps and crackles and is, in its way, far more indebted to the Jewish way of speaking than theirs is. (His authorial voice, I mean to say, utilizes Jewish diction far more than Bellow’s or Roth’s; for example, the narrator of The Assistant remarks that “Twice he had painted all over, once added new shelving”—this diction recalls the reversals in Jewish humor: “An artist he wants to be,” as Asher Lev’s father might say.)

The Assistant, Malamud’s second novel, takes Judaism as a culture and a religion as seriously as any I’ve ever read. World War II had been over for just a bit more than a decade when Malamud wrote his novel, and Elie Wiesel had not yet come up with the term Holocaust to describe the German slaughter of the Jews. The book itself takes place in the 1920s or ‘30s and thus does not deal with the war itself, but the main Jewish protagonist, Morris Bober, is a Polish refugee living in New York, and in 1957 this could not have been an accidental decision on Malamud’s part. The Assistant, in many ways, functions as an allegory of the World War II refugee experience, but its setting before the displacement allows the author to talk about the event indirectly, without getting bogged down in historical details or horrific images. Morris is thus meant to be a typical post-war Jew, and his story is supposed to suggest—although not stand for—those of others.

Morris is hardly Orthodox—he sells and eats pork products and does not celebrate Jewish holidays—and yet he is disgusted midway through the novel when his gentile assistant, Frank Alpine, asks him if he considers himself a “real Jew.” Morris’ survival is based off of selective Judaism; pragmatic concerns take precedence over religious ones. “Sometimes,” he says, “to have to eat, you must keep open on holidays. On Yom Kippur, I don’t keep open. But I don’t worry about kosher, which is to me old-fashioned. What I worry is to follow the Jewish Law." Frank, understandably, points out that holy days and a kosher diet are part of Jewish Law, and Morris’ response redefines 6,000 years of Jewish history:
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 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. This means to other people. Our love is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain’t animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes.
Morris thus elects to follow the spirit of the law over the letter of the Law.

In this respect, he resembles existentialist Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Their two names are similar enough to beg the comparison, and indeed, it seems as though Malamud meant for the reader to make this connection. The essence of life—the “why we need the Law”—is, according to Buber, to be able to face another person in the full implications of one’s humanity. He deals with this in some detail in his dense and complicated philosophical treatise I and Thou. Buber postulates two forms of human relationships, the “I-It” and “I-Thou.” The “I-It” treats the other as an object; it is by nature dehumanizing and objectifying. But the “I-Thou” encounters the other at the full extent of its being; in doing so, it humanizes both the I and the Thou. The I-Thou becomes the fullest expression of humanness:
Whoever says You does not have something for his object. For wherever there is something there is also another something; every It borders on other Its; It is only by virtue of bordering on others. But where You is said there is no something. You has no borders.
The “I-Thou” relationship therefore becomes the essence of proper human relationships; Morris Bober agrees with his namesake when he says that the individual laws are less important than the way people interact with one another.

And it is clear that Morris treats Frank Alpine as a Thou. Frank, having already been involved in a robbery of Morris’ grocery store that results in a dangerous head injury to the grocer, begins to hang around the grocery store and begging for a job. Although it is clear that Morris at least suspects Frank’s involvement in the robbery, he not only gives him a job but also allows him to live in his basement (and later, he procures him an apartment upstairs). He talks to his assistant, spiritually reveals himself to him, and answers the questions Frank asks about Judaism. Morris seems to view their relationship as one of self-sacrifice:
“But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”
“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.
“I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.
Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you suffer for me.”
Morris equates suffering for the Law with suffering for another person, with seeing another person as “Thou” rather than as “It.”

Frank Alpine, on the other hand, does not seem concerned with Buber’s system of ethics. He is interested in Judaism, but in some respects, he is interested in Judaism only because he is interested in Morris’ daughter, Helen. His interest in Judaism, in other words, has no discernable element of either religion or ethics. This is reified when he and Helen grow closer. Helen gives him a list of books to read, which he does dutifully, not making much connection to the likes of Flaubert and Tolstoy, but Dostoevsky strikes his interest. This is not an arbitrary choice on Malamud’s part. Crime and Punishment is one of the classics of religious fiction, and it is important both that Frank has a revelation while reading it and that the revelation is not religious in nature. As Frank reads the book, he connects to it, the first time he has connected to one of Helen’s novels; he has, Malamud says, “this crazy sensation that he was reading about himself.” More specifically, the book makes him feel “as if his face had been shoved into dirty water in the gutter” and “as if he had been on a drunk for a month.” Dostoevsky seems to speak directly to Frank’s life; no doubt, he connects Raskolnikov’s brutal murder with his own unconfessed crime.

But the connection Frank feels to Crime and Punishment is a double of a scene in Crime and Punishment itself. As Raskolnikov serves a seven-year sentence in Siberia, he looks at a copy of the New Testament:
The book belonged to Sonia; it was the one from which she had read the raising of Lazarus to him. At first he was afraid that she would worry him about religion, would talk about the gospel and pester him with books. But to his great surprise she had not once approached the subject and had not even offered him the Testament. He had asked her for it himself . . . He did not open it now, but one thought passed through his mind: “Can her convictions not be mine now? Her feelings, her aspirations at least…”
With the power of Sonia’s religious faith embedded into her New Testament, Raskolnikov is ready to live a “new life” and views his sentence as “only seven years.” The Bible gives him an existential revelation that cures his alienation, explicitly comparing his own redemption to the resurrection of Lazarus. Frank Alpine’s redemption, on the other hand, contains no references to God or to Lazarus or to anything else associated with religious belief. It is a secular redemption, coded as a rite by its association with Crime and Punishment.

Morris Bober dies of pneumonia two-thirds of the way through the novel, and his family wants nothing to do with Frank because of his involvement in the robbery (and because of his frequent shoplifting after beginning work at the grocery). Frank, however, takes over the grocery out of necessity—who else is there to do it? Who else can take care of the family?—and passes his time reading and dreaming of the day when he can again talk to Helen. Frank becomes Jewish in the last paragraph of the novel: “One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised . . . The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.” This ending is ambiguous, however; it is not clear whether Frank is engaging in a rite stripped of its religious connotations—does he become a Jew so that Helen’s mother will approve of him?—or whether Morris’ memory has won out and he suffers the pain of the circumcision because he finally sees Helen as a Thou and views Morris’ Judaism as the best way to express that.

Either way, the central conflict in the novel—perhaps the central conflict in the majority of post-war Jewish fiction—remains intact: Belief in God is difficult if not impossible in a post-Auschwitz world. But Jewish culture, heritage, and ritual remain worth preserving and worth protecting, even if that preservation and protection result in a rite free from religion.

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