In Ð²Ð‚ÑšJewbird,Ð²Ð‚Ñœ Bernard Malamud skillfully uses three elementsÐ²Ð‚"theme, characters, and conflict to show the issues surrounding personal identity and assimilation among American Jews. The dominant themes in this short story are the human capacity to foster hatred towards those who are different in the form of anti-Semitism, and the conflict that exists between Jews who have assimilated into American culture and those who have not relinquished their Jewish identity. Humor and irony can be found throughout the story to define the characters and the conflict that exists between the protagonist Schwartz and the dominant antagonist Harry Cohen.
Anti-Semitism, assimilation, and personal identity comprise the story of a talking crow which lands in the home of Harry Cohen a beer-drinking, cursing, assimilated American Jew. Schwartz, as the bird asks to be called, symbolizes the old ways of Jews and their constant flight to find a safe haven away from anti-Semitism. Ð²Ð‚ÑšIÐ²Ð‚™m running. IÐ²Ð‚™m flying but IÐ²Ð‚™m also running. From whom? Asked Edie with interest. Anti-Semeets. Anti-Semites? They all said. ThatÐ²Ð‚™s from whoÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (321). The old ways the bird symbolizes are quickly demonstrated to the Cohen family when the bird begins dovening, or praying intensely, Ð²Ð‚ÑšHe prayed without Book or tallith, but with passion. Edie bowed her head though not Cohen. And Maurie rocked back and forth with the prayer, looking up with one wide-open eyeÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (321). Cohen is immediately skeptical, sarcastic, and uncharitable toward the unwelcome visitor. When asked by his wife Edie what he has against the poor bird, Cohen responds, Ð²Ð‚ÑšPoor bird, my ass. HeÐ²Ð‚™s foxy bastard. He thinks heÐ²Ð‚™s a JewÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (323). Cohen is clearly disturbed by SchwartzÐ²Ð‚™s Jewishness. As an assimilated Jew, Cohen has distanced himself from everything Jewish and he is repulsed and angered by the reminders that Schwartz brings into his home. Malamud symbolizes the conflict between American Jews who have assimilated into American culture and those who have retained their Jewishness through the portrayal of Cohen and Schwartz.
Schwartz and Cohen represent opposing Jewish cultures, traditional versus modern American. The traditional Jewish culture, symbolized by Schwartz, has held onto its spiritualism and values such as religious observation, dress, compassion, and humanism. For this reason, behaving differently and looking differently than the mainstream culture, traditional Jews often struggle against anti-Semitism. On the other hand, assimilated American Jews, symbolized by Cohen, have relinquished traditional values for the mainstream culture often leaving all reminders behind, even celebrating mainstream holidays such as Christmas. Malamud uses humor to demonstrate these differences through the characterization of a talking bird who uses Yiddish-inflected speech with the phrase Ð²Ð‚Ñšthanks GodÐ²Ð‚Ñœ (322), and Ð²Ð‚ÑšIf you havenÐ²Ð‚™t got matjes [herring prepared in salt, vinegar, and spices], IÐ²Ð‚™ll take schmaltz [herring in chicken fat]Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (322). Irony can be found in the names of the characters Schwartz and Cohen. Schwartz, in Yiddish, means black and Cohen refers to the Cohen tribe of the twelve tribes of Israel. Cohens are the high priests of Judaism. It is ironic that Cohen is the last name of the one who has lost his religion and Schwartz is the name of the one who has remained steadfast and rooted in his religion. It is this particular irony that establishes the conflict between Cohen and Schwartz.
Cohen is the embodiment of anti-Semitism. He has rejected his Jewish heritage, lost his capacity for charity, is more concerned with assimilating and raising his status; hence, persecutes and torments the bird because Schwartz represents everything that Cohen has attempted to leave behind. It is ironic that Schwartz, who is displaced
Bloostein is not after light bulbs. It is justice that interests him, the dignity of the apology of Malamud's title, and only when he gets it does he walk away, until, as Walter looks out the window, ''the long, moon-whitened street had never been so empty.''
Like ''An Apology,'' many of these stories are dense with stubborn character, the grim truculence of people refusing to let go of the tattered remnant of pride and glory left to them. The earliest stories in the collection, written when Malamud was in his late 20's and early 30's, take figures from the immigrant Jewish petty bourgeoisie and place them into struggles worthy of the Greeks.
''The First Seven Years'' is the story of a contest between a young scholar and an older apprentice for the hand of a shoemaker's daughter. In the wonderful ''Literary Life of Laban Goldman,'' Malamud plays with the imbalance between artistic aspiration and artistic mediocrity, a theme he will develop to raucous, comedic perfection in some of the later stories. Laban Goldman publishes ''a vital letter I wrote'' in The Brooklyn Eagle and then extracts so many compensatory delusions of literary importance from this achievement that he cheerfully shatters his life.
As Malamud reaches what might be seen as his middle period in the 1950's and 60's, his world expands beyond the confined Yiddish-inflected world of his own origins into a more spacious arena. His characters speak English correctly now; they travel; the stories are less naturalistic, more fanciful, whimsical, allegorical, though they remain, as Richard Gilman (cited in Robert Giroux's helpful introduction to this book) wrote, ''anchored in pebbly actuality.''
Malamud is at the top of his form in his stories about Fidelman, a ''self-confessed failure as a painter'' who goes to Italy to study Giotto and stays for years. Fidelman endures under the prickly weight of his circumstances and, at times, triumphs heroically over them.
''The Jewbird'' illustrates what Cynthia Ozick has called ''the heat of a Malamudian sentence,'' the sudden unexpectedness in a narrational style reminiscent of Isaac Babel, Malamud's fellow master of the short-story form. ''The window was open so the skinny bird flew in'' is the opening line. ''Flappity-flap with its frazzled black wings. That's how it goes. It's open, you're in. Closed, you're out, and that's your fate.''
The bird, who perfectly satirizes a recognizably Jewish philosophy of chutzpah and self-abnegation, can talk, his first words being ''Gevalt, a pogrom!'' The bird's name is Schwartz, and he suffers from anti-Semitism as well as persecution by the antagonistic frozen food salesman named Cohen into whose home he has flown searching for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. The story is affectionate and sardonic, a funny, embittered reflection on the survivalist world that Malamud treated in more purely melancholy tones in his earlier stories. The Jews, it seems, have a rough time of it even when they take on the form of undernourished crows.
''Idiots First,'' another brilliant achievement, adds an absurdist, hallucinatory quality to the theme of Yiddish suffering. The story is about a father facing death, who strives to find money to send his grown, retarded son to an uncle in California.
Haunting the story like a evil demon is Ginzburg, a ticket collector at the railroad station with whom Mendel, the father, fights, producing this stunning scene: ''Clinging to Ginzburg in his last agony, Mendel saw reflected in the ticket collector's eye the depth of his terror. But he saw that Ginzburg, staring at himself in Mendel's eyes, saw mirrored in them the extent of his own awful wrath. He beheld a shimmering, starry, blinding light that produced darkness.''
There are many such passages in this collection, which establishes beyond any doubt Malamud's complete mastery of the short story. Malamud died just 11 years ago. We will not see his like again.Continue reading the main story