The Jewbird by Bernard Malamud, 1958
by Bernard Malamud, 1958
Although many of his stories and novels are written in a strictly realistic mode, some of Bernard Malamud's most compelling fiction combines realism and fantasy in ways that recall the tradition of Yiddish writers and artists such as Sholem Aleichem and Marc Chagall. On occasion his blending of these elements is extremely subtle, so that readers of his first novel, The Natural, may miss its mythic aspects and regard it purely as a baseball book, just as readers of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may find that novel to be simply a boy's adventure story and nothing more. But there can be no mistaking the combination of fantasy and reality in such important stories as "Angel Levine," "Take Pity," "Idiots First," and, above all, "The Jewbird."
Malamud's basic technique in these stories is to combine fantasy and reality so that the fantasy appears almost as mundane, as natural, as the realism that surrounds and includes it. In "Take Pity," for example, it is not until the end that we become fully aware that the entire interview between Davidov, the census taker, and Rosen, the ex-coffee salesman, takes place in a kind of otherworldly limbo, or purgatory. At the beginning of "Idiots First" we scarcely recognize Ginzburg as an angel of death, for he speaks in the same cadences and accents as Mendel, who is trying to scrape together enough money to send his retarded son to a relative in California before the hour of his death approaches—as it does at the very end of the story. The black angel in "Angel Levine" tests both our credulity and Manischevitz's until we finally concede with the poor tailor that such things—a black man who seems to come straight out of Harlem, where Manischevitz later finds him—may indeed be a Jewish angel trying to earn his wings.
Thus, in "The Jewbird" the credible incredible, an expression Philip Roth has used about some of his own fiction, occurs. One summer evening a skinny crow calling himself Schwartz flies through the open window of the Cohens' apartment on First Avenue near the lower East River in New York City. "That's how it goes. It's open, you're in. Closed, you're out and that's your fate," the anonymous narrator comments, doubtless voicing the opinion of the worldly-wise bird who speaks English bountifully sprinkled with Yiddish words and phrases. For the elder Cohen, whom some critics see as an assimilationist, anti-Semitic Jew—though he has not changed his quintessentially Jewish name—Schwartz is a schnorrer, a beggar who does not merit any consideration from either him, his wife, or his young son Maurie. But Cohen's family is more tenderhearted and compassionate. They see nothing wrong in yielding to Schwartz's request for "a piece of herring and a crust of bread" (typical Jewish fare). By contrast, the elder Cohen replies, "This ain't a restaurant." Furthermore, he wants to know what brings Schwartz to his address.
"I'm running. I'm flying but I'm also running," Schwartz says. "From whom," Cohen's wife, Edie, asks. "Anti-Semeets," comes the reply. The entire family reacts with amazement. How can a bird, a crow, be the victim of anti-Semitism? Schwartz explains that he is a "Jewbird," fleeing from all kinds of anti-Semites, "also including eagles, vultures, and hawks." He adds, "And once in a while some crows will take your eyes out." Thus, Malamud introduces the idea of Jewish anti-Semitism, one of the story's central themes. For at the end, despite all of Schwartz's help to little Maurie—a nice kid but not very bright—Cohen does him in. He just cannot stand Schwartz and what he represents.
On that first evening, after identifying himself as a Jewbird, Schwartz begins davening (praying): "He prayed without Book or tallith [prayer shawl], but with passion." Respectful of his attitude, Edie bows her head, and even Maurie rocks back and forth in imitation of Schwartz. But not Cohen. After the prayers Cohen continues the conversation, inquiring about Schwartz's background. Though his skepticism mounts, the reader's does not. Malamud has so skillfully developed the dialogue that we suspend disbelief more than willingly to hear all Schwartz has to say and to see its effect on the Cohens. The more Jewish Schwartz appears, the greater the antagonism between him and Cohen, who nevertheless yields to Edie and Maurie's pleading to let the bird stay for awhile.
Schwartz stays until the start of the school year in September. Although he prefers a "human roof" over his head, he settles into the birdhouse on the balcony that Edie buys him, but he is allowed indoors a couple of hours a night to help Maurie with his school-work and the violin. (Remarkably, Maurie improves in both.) Schwartz balks, however, when Cohen brings home a bird feeder filled with dried corn. "Impossible," Schwartz complains. His digestion cannot take it. So Edie feeds him herring, surreptitiously slipping an occasional piece of potato pancake or a bit of soup meat.
As these events concerning Schwartz's diet indicate, "The Jewbird" contains a good measure of ironic Jewish humor. But neither Schwartz's wit nor Maurie's evident improvement in his studies assuages Cohen's hostile feelings, and he orders Schwartz to head south when winter comes. When Schwartz refuses, Cohen embarks on a campaign of secretly harassing the bird, even bringing home a cat, ostensibly a pet for Maurie but in reality a ferocious enemy to Schwartz. The campaign has its comic moments, but both the humor and the comedy have their darker side. In the end, his patience exhausted after his mother has died and Maurie has gotten a zero on an arithmetic test, Cohen directly attacks Schwartz, who vainly tries to fight back. They are alone, and when Edie and Maurie return, Schwartz is gone and Cohen greets them with a badly wounded nose. In the spring Maurie finds a dead black bird in a small lot near the river, his wings broken, his neck twisted, and both eyes plucked out. Maurie weeps and asks his mother who killed Schwartz. "Anti-Semeets," Edie explains, as the reader recalls that Schwartz had earlier said that crows sometimes pluck out other crows' eyes.
—Jay L. Halio