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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Malamud, Or Yiddishkeit in America


Born and raised in the United States, Bernard Malamud was at one point considered part of the triad of defining Jewish-American novelists, along with Bellow and Philip Roth (Singer is less quintessentially American, a transplant who wrote in Yiddish and was translated). Of the three, Malamud stands most obviously in the tradition of Yiddish literature, particularly in his short stories, which combine the folksy realism of the East European masters with Singer's supernatural folk tales. Although Malamud did not speak Yiddish, critics consider him to have brought the cadences and irony of that language into American English.

Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud
Malamud's characters can be seen as following the tradition of "Gimpel the Fool," humble protagonists often living in obscurity. Indeed, to suffer quietly seems Malamud's portrait of the human condition. His epigraph "All Men Are Jews" (qtd. In Benedict) points to a sensibility less American than universal, and his stories are imbued with a mythic, timeless quality. Jewish suffering, then, is seen as a pointed metaphor for the human condition; we are born to struggle, although the Jews perhaps more. The Book of Job might be seen as Malamud's ur-text, with many of his characters little Jobs. The protagonist of "Angel Levine," for instance, loses his business, his son, and his daughter, and he and his wife lose their health as the story begins. Although "Angel Levine" ends with a vision of hope, it is not necessarily the redemption of the biblical Job. Other stories hark back to eastern European persecution, as in "The Jewbird," wherein a bird is persecuted, first by other birds and then by humans. The persecutors, however, are Jews; the human condition is to suffer and cause suffering. Against a problematic humanity, for Malamud, our only defense is a wry, resigned humor, exemplified by rhythms of the Yiddish language, albeit in English.

More so than his parabolic short stories, Malamud's most famous novels are characterized by a stark naturalism. While The Natural, his first novel, is a paradigmatic tale of an extaordinarily gifted baseball player, his later novels are more Jewish and less prototypically American. In The Assistant (1957) Frank Alpine an Italian American, betrays a Jewish storekeeper. The narrative is one of atonement, and Alpine ends the novel by converting to Judaism, in Malamudian terms joining the stream of humanity who suffer and, ultimately, do the right thing. The Fixer (1966) is a historical novel of a Russian Jew unjustly imprisoned. Malamud's later novels are less realistic, employing the magic realism of his short stories on a larger canvas. The Tenants (1971) is a parable of black-Jewish relations, while God's Grace (1982) portrays a post-apocalyptic world.

Following his death in 1986, Malamud's reputation has gone into decline. This may be partly due to the relatively small number of his publications. Their universal nature, too, may limit them as part of an ongoing commentary on Jewishness in the American context. Yet Cheryl Miller argues that Malamud might simply have been out of touch with the zeitgeist. She cites Philip Roth's 1974 attack on Malamud's portrait of the virtuous, suffering Jew, and argues that "Nothing was more at odds with Malamud than the spirit of the age that made the taboo-breaking Roth into a celebrity." Whether this taboo-breaking was a hallmark of the 1960s and '70s, or is an enduring feature of consumerist America, Malamud remains in eclipse, less read and discussed than Singer, Bellow, or Roth.

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