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Invention or proclamation: Jewish identity in the stories of Bernard Malamud and Isaiah Spiegel

Hilary Siebert et Begoña Sío-Castiñeira


Comparer les nouvelles de l’auteur américain Bernard Malamud et celles de son contemporain polonais Isaiah Spiegel permettra d’examiner les différants processus de  construction de judéité de leurs personnages. En effet, c’est en livrant des luttes de nature différente que les uns et les autres parviennent à cette fin commune : ceux de Malamud, auteur des années de l’après-guerre, se débattent pour reconstruire une judéité perdue ou construire une nouvelle identité tout court ; ceux de Spiegel, auteur qui, lui, composa ses œuvres dans le ghetto de Lodz durant  les années de l’occupation nazi, se démènent pour maintenir le plein sens d’une judéité que les Allemands menaçaient d’avilissement  et d’anéantissement.

Immigrants débarqués en Amérique depuis peu ou enfants d’immigrants, les personnages de Malamud s'efforcent de choisir entre une tradition qui laisse à désirer, et la sécularisation, afin d’inventer ou réinventer une identité juive adéquate.  En revanche, les personnages de Spiegel n’ont pas de choix à faire ; ils réaffirment leur identité juive à travers ce qui leur est enlevé : conscients à tout moment de qui ils sont, d’où ils viennent et de la communauté à laquelle ils appartiennent, ils manifestent un attachement tenace à la société organique à laquelle ils appartiennent, une affection obstinée à leur terre natale – ce que les personnages de Malamud ne sauraient faire. Car, en effet , les histoires de Malamud sont privées d’un élément contenu dans celles de Spiegel  qui a voulu offrir une image précise de ce qu’avait été l’extermination des Juifs Polonais, et laisser un témoignage fidèle de leur lutte pour conserver leur identité et intégrité spirituelles : c’est le sens de territorialité qui, chez ce dernier, fait partie intégrante de la définition de la communauté. Ainsi, la distance qui sépare l’individu de ses racines, la situation de proximité entre celui-ci et la terre, ainsi que  le sens qu’on attribue à la notion de communauté, sont les facteurs qui déterminent le besoin d’inventer une identité chez les uns, et le privilège d’en proclamer une chez les autres.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Bernard Malamud, Isaiah Spiegel

Texte intégral

1By contrasting the short stories of the American writer Bernard Malamud with those of the Polish writer Isaiah Spiegel, this paper attempts to explain differences in the way Jewish literary characters acquire identity, depending on their proximity to the cultural centers of “Yiddishkeit” and their ability to use resources found within the Jewish ethnic community. In Malamud and Spiegel we have two comtemporary Jewish story writers whose characters face very different struggles for identity. Malamud, writing in the postwar decades, concerns himself with the struggles of Jewish American immigrants and their decendants to reconstruct lost Jewish identities or to construct new ones. Spiegel, writing from within the Lodz Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, concerns himself with the struggles of his fellow Jews to maintain a meaningful sense of Jewish identity in the face of their degradation and annihilation by Germans. Malamud’s characters seek again and again to reinvent an adequate “Jewish” identity, caught bewteen the unsatisfactory options of tradition and secularity. Spiegel’s characters, by contrast, seek to proclaim the truth of their traditional identities, using the resources of nature and community to reaffirm a Jewish sense of self.

2The works of Malamud and Spiegel focus our attention too on the short story cycle as a means of portraying the quest for ethnic identity. In the case of Malamud, his Selected Stories (1983) is a personally selected anthology which, in its design, traces the various pathways of post-immigrant identity. In Spiegel’s case, we have a collection of stories primarily written and hidden within the Lodz Ghetto during the German Occupation, published in part under the title Malchus Getto (Ghetto Kingdom) in 1947, and translated into English as a complete body of stories for the first time in 1998 by David H. Hirsch and Roslyn Hirsch, and ordered chronologically. Spiegel’s cycle traces the pathways of identity among Jews in Poland from the first arrival of German troops in 1939 to the bitter ghetto days of starvation and disease in 1944, before his deportation to Auschwitz. Both authors lived from the first decades of the century until the last, and Spiegel in fact outlived Malamud.

3What distinguishes the quests for identity among Malamud’s characters is their consciousness of having left behind the essential cultural practices of Jewish tradition--including the kinds of connection to place to be found in Spiegel’s world. Without these sources of connection, identities must be re-established on new grounds or invented on entirely new terms.

4Malamud´s aim was to show how American Jews make attempts to reconstruct their lost identities, either by avoiding both options of tradition and secularity, or by clinging to one of these options. His personal anthology of his stories (Selected Stories 1983) provides an answer to that necessity of reinventing what being Jewish means in twentieth century America. Throughout twenty-five different stories or paths, away from orthodoxy--as “Black Is My Favorite Color” illustrates-- and distant from assimilation--as “The Loan” and “The Death of Me” show-- the author looked for sources of nourishment to revive his weakened identity, for new strengths to achieve transcendence.

5By collecting his twenty-five stories in a personal anthology, Malamud has helped his readers understand the complex devices by which American society has shaped Jewish-American identity in the generations between the 1950s and 1980s, affecting concepts of family, community, and religion. The progressive distance developed toward the Semitic tradition transported from Europe increases with each generation. That increasing distance creates, in turn, a more pervasive feeling of emptiness. And, as the solid, traditional system of values is left behind, we sense the imminent need of finding a new one.

6Malamud’s anthology attempts, therefore, to re-capture the poetic subject’s identity, behind whose mask the author lies. The anthology can be considered a global journey of the self, but we also need to consider the collected stories as independent units, as different masks, different poetic characters or fictionalized subjects. This is a reading that posits a multiplicity of “personae” composed in a particular symphony that interprets the search for identity in a peculiar light. It focuses on all the particularly chosen thematic situations and the pervasive, multishaped unifying symbol that keeps the stories together: the prison—either physical or spiritual, acting as a prompt of the crisis that initiates each protagonist’s journey in search of himself. The wandering Jews in this anthology wander from the confining demands of the Judaic ancestral past, to the new resources of assimilation in the new world; from the suffocating urge to keep to oneself, avoiding the others, to social isolation brought forth by the failure to communicate; from despair to desperation. The anthology becomes a powerful statement proclaiming the necessity of transcendence and denouncing the sterility of a false “freedom” that American Jews have the illusion of enjoying, at a time when that anti-Semitism is no longer an enemy to fight. The discourses made by the characters are reduced to words which lack the power to communicate; at the same time, they leave a moaning echo in the face of the dissolution of what in ancient times was a tangible reality: communion with others (“My Son the Murderer”).

7In Malamud, the unfolding of the fictional entity in the device of the couple responds, to a great extent, to the problems the characters experience with two different dimensions of self-experience--self-image and self-esteem. Malamud´s characters have trouble dealing with their Jewishness in a social context that favors non-difference

8Personal identity refers to a sense of self that is built up over time as the person participates in social life. Its frame of reference is not the immediate situation and its role, but rather a community, the set of real others with whom the person feels a sense of similarity and common purpose. To have a personal identity is to identify with some set of other people, with whom one feels an affinity, in whose company one feels comfortable, and whose ideas and beliefs are similar to one´s own. One feels real and whole as a person in relation to this community, and one also has a place in the larger society as a result of one´s membership and identification with it. Whatever the basis, personal identity is a feeling of selfhood that underlies and, in a sense, makes possible the variety of situated identities the person assumes.

9The American sociologist Gregory P. Stone explains that when a person has an identity, “...he is situated, that is, cast in the shape of a social object by the acknowledgement of his participation or membership in social relations” (Stone 188). To have an identity is thus not only to have a sense of how one is located relative to others in a situation, but it is to gain energy and direction in one´s conduct by adopting the perspective and purposes of the situation and of one´s role in it as one´s own.

10People develop images of themselves and of one another in relation to those qualities and attributes that are important to their social roles and their sense of identification with one another. Cultural roots establish the qualities that are considered important and that people feel they ought to possess or seek. Thus, there is a powerful link between the person and his society, for it is social life that provides not only the standards people are expected to emulate but the means of doing so. If one is expected to be Jewish, for instance, it is through the situated roles and identities provided by society that Jewishness may be cultivated and demonstrated.

11The concept of self-esteem is very closely linked to that of self-image. The characters, like real people, respond in affective ways to themselves. They like or dislike themselves, feel proud or ashamed, experience sadness or joy as a result of the ways they come to see themselves. One is apt to feel a sense of pride or joy in his origins depending on whether one basks in the praise of others or takes pride in his ethnic community, and one is likely to feel ashamed when one acts in ways that others condemn--as happens with Nat Lime or Harry Cohen. Low self-esteem implies a high level of anxiety, a state of apprehension or psychic tension that characters such as Bessie or Feld show. Feelings such as uncertainty, threat, danger, fatigue, pressure, and other circumstances may give rise to anxiety from time to time, and in moderate amounts the state of being anxious may be helpful to the person´s adjustment to the situation. In the same way that being “up” for an exam is useful to a student provided the anxiety is not too much, being alert and watchful for the customers to come to the bakery helps Bessie in “The Loan” prepare ways to be able to survive bankrupcy. Anxiety proves to be an important motivational state. As a derivative of low self-esteem, it sensitizes the protagonists to others in a particularly painful way, making the them more vulnerable to the negative judgments of others as they verbalize them and more likely to see others in positive ways and to judge themselves negatively. And thus each social encounter produces an incremental reduction in overall self-esteem (Hewitt 121). This is exactly what we see in Malamud´s stories such as “Rembrandt´s Hat” or “A Girl of My Dreams”. Anxiety in these cases is a paralyzing experience that makes it difficult for both Rubin and Mitka to act in ways that would present a favorable self to others. Anxiety interferes with their conduct--it makes it difficult for them to show appreciation of others´ qualities even when they always, in some way or other, want to emulate them. These characters with low self esteem thus seem caught between a desire to be like others whose qualities they value and the inability to be like them. Malamud´s characters need to use their alter egos to refill whatever nonexistent or impoverished dimension of the self they lack, whether caused by an excess of guilt, as in Nat Lime, a diminution of the ego, as in Rubin, or an over-instinctive behavior, as in Dr. Morris. In each story we attend a different unfolding whereby the poetic subject sees his other self, his dormant or dead potentialities, his personal identity in the thou.

12Bernard Malamud has portrayed in his stories a type of character that stages one of the most crucially pathological processes of the new era, having to do with personal identity--the elimination of the subject that has the capacity to know who he is. Men and women who once had been able to create and construct have now turned, according to the Malamudian sense of self, into humilliated beings, imprisoned both in their own slavery to work and in a world of things whose fabrication they are responsible for. The egos in Malamud´s stories are enclosed in characters that are subjected to circumstances they are unable to either direct or control. They have been uprooted from nature and they face themselves and their interior realities as alien occurrences that they also need to dominate and enslave in settings provided by nature-less environments, or where nature has almost no role at all. The means that once enabled human beings keep their identity have been taken away from them so that the general social situation of the American production system, leading to an aimless tedium and emptiness, can grow and proliferate (Max). Malamud´s characters suffer all the miseries and all the pain caused by the destruction of man´s connection to his natural place. On a social level, in art, or even in the personal relationship between man and Nature, there is very little left of the historic project of Modern Humanism. Selfishness (Nat), other-directedness (Rosa), and diverse manners of terrorism (“My Son the Murderer”) are what is left of it. The abandonment of the motherland by force to start a new life in a promised “paradise” has rendered in Malamud´s stories a new type of obscurantism, a new historical night where the pain and humiliation caused by the empire of Capitalism are legitimated in the name of progress--the new transcendent principle and stifled by an impending need to survive.

13Through Isaiah Spiegel´s stories in Ghetto Kingdom, we look at a different Jewish world: one where invention and re-creation are not necessary; one in which tanscendence and identity are found every step of the way in reading his stories. Rather than a search, what we witness here is a colorful canvas where each character leaves a footprint to tell the world how meaningful and nourishing being a Jew is. And despite the pain and the torment of the everyday life these texts reflect, despite the martyrdom of the characters in the camps, whatever is missing has certainly little to do with a sense of identity.

14The characters in Ghetto Kingdom seldom find themselves free from the paralysis caused by the Nazi slaughter. Nevertheless they retain the ability to turn the torture of life in the ghetto into a form of a celebration of Jewishness itself. Even though the stories might seem primitive in form and structure at a first glance, it becomes obvious that the characters are endowed with an unusual self-containment, a moral pride that separates them from Malamud´s characters in his anthology.

  • 1  Niger’s comments appear in Yiddish in a review from 1954, which was reprinted in In Licht fun der (...)
  • 2  Translated by Hirsch in E-Mail correspondence; from Niger, pp. 10-13.

15Spiegel’s texts, written inside the Lodz Ghetto in Poland between 1939 and 1944, demonstrate the author’s remarkable capacity to create Jewish characters within the form of the short story that allow the author and his potential audience to see beyond their immediate victimization. One aim of this study is to elucidate Shmuel Niger’s observation in a review from 19541 that “unexpected transformations... constitute the secret, the magic, of Spiegel’s ghetto kingdom” (qtd. in Hirsch xv). These transformations are the element variously described by Niger as the lyrical, fantastic, or dream-like element in the perceptions of protagonists who, despite the pervasive facts of starvation or death, develop a “lyrical” vision of life and the ability to dream a more powerful reality than the one that is apparent. Niger comments, “In fantasy or in a fantastic reality, in a reality that is more dream than real, people in the ghetto kingdom also [must] satisfy their hunger for love [as well as for food]” (12).2

16The imaginative power of these texts, then, can be seen in their ability to portray the historical facts of life and death in the ghetto while simultaneously looking beyond them to a life-affirming sense of otherness. It is an otherness that is both spiritual without any sense of forced or false belief and dream-like without any sense of false escape into mere romantic fantasy. This is because transformative moments in Spiegel’s stories are rooted in a vision of nature which affirms ethnic identity, community, and continuity beyond the present moment, no matter what the degree of human suffering or human depravity. Spiegel portrays ordinary people who, under the pressure of the holocaust and intensity of the short story form, find new visions of themselves that become more real than the facts of mimetic reality, without denying or forgetting any of those facts.

17Because the primary physical and experiencial feature of the ghetto is the artificially imposed sense of boundary, boundaries in these stories figure prominently in the imaginative process of transformation. Most immediately, they serve to remind the Jews that they are inside a blighted, disease-ridden space, cut off even from the sustenance of nature, while the gentile Poles all around them continue to live in relatively normal conditions. But Spiegel transforms this central metaphor of ghetto identity from one of boundary--which cuts Jews off from a sustaining sense of identity--to one of frontier, of connection--to a larger conception of Jewish identity which is mythic or cosmic, and which allows for survival beyond the present. Boundaries--which constrict movement and identity in obvious ways when viewed as physical impediments--are probed for their metaphysical and moral potential to transform the lives of ordinary Jews.

18This transformation of boundaries is possible because in the world of Spiegel’s stories, nature imagery plays a central role. Many stories use descriptive imagery of nature in the opening passages to orient the reader to the storyworld as that world is known to its characters. This is important, because what readers see in these stories are epistemological transformations in the minds of ordinary Jews who at first perceive the limitations of their surroundings and then learn, as we watch with them, to see beyond these limits, to see boundaries themselves as temporal and limited. In keeping with traditional topoi of the short story genre, we see Frank O’Connor’s concept of the ordinary person, the “Little Man” (15), caught in a Joycian, epiphanic moment of surprise, change, and potential learning.

19In a typical story opening, positive images of nature provide a contrast--and often a physical boundary--to the grim facts of survival faced by characters within the ghetto, once the exposition of social facts occurs. “Nature,” pictured in its positive, life-giving imagery as light, blue sky, birdsong, fresh air, green vegetation, flowering or fruiting plants, is typically outside the ghetto, whereas the ghetto is pictured as dark, enshrouded, cut off from sunlight, destitute of plant life or life-sustaining crops, and ridden with disease--images, again in reference to nature, but in its negative and opposite face. However, with the unfolding of the story’s plot, nature gradually becomes a resource through which both characters and the reader learn to recognize a larger sense of Jewish identity within this context--drawing on Jewish notions of family and faith, of possibility and providence. Nature in this sense is a resource for communion, for sharing one’s faith with an organic sense of community.

20I want to illustrate Spiegel’s technique of transformation by examining four stories from the collection, each of which is distinctive: “Ghetto Kingdom” (1943), the title story, reads like a tone poem of local images with cosmic significance, including a Christian church abandoned in the ghetto, and portrays transformation in reference to religious and philosophical concepts; “Enchanted Fruit,” from the same year, also approaches transformation using overt, symbolic markers of Jewish identity in terms of religion, faith, and law, but here the concepts are plotted around the life of an individual character, a gravedigger. “Earth” (1940) and “Blossoms” (1944) are distinctive both as the stories which frame the collection and because they portray transformation and salvation less in overtly religious terms and more in highly personal terms: the opening story pictures transformation as a transcendence in the moment of a Jewish peasant’s death as the Nazi’s approach Poland, while the closing story portrays transformation as the power of hope in the mind of a boy who continues to dream of nature’s nourishment from his uncle’s orchard, despite the reality of starvation and his mother’s bitter reproaches.

21As David Hirsch observes in his introduction to Spiegel’s stories of the ghetto, “the Nazi onslaught was designed to obiterate human dignity and destroy any possibility of believing in a just and caring God” (xii). Spiegel’s stories aim, in this light, to reveal the “consoling and redemptive God” which had guided Jews through many previous ages of struggle--a God which, clearly, he and his immediate audience needed in the face of their imminent, daily degredation in the ghetto.

22“Ghetto Kingdom” presents a series of images of ghetto life, juxtaposed against one another, and moving from the ordinary facts of reality to a vision of their cosmic significance. The first scene portrays the acute poverty within the ghetto at dawn in which the starving inhabitants “pour[...] out of every hole... [l]ike a flock of frightened mice drawn to slimy decaying garbage” (95). In the second scene, the former site of the marketplace, mouldy scraps of bread are being sold by Jews, when suddenly a vision appears of the market as in its former state of plenty among the gentiles; the image only seems to strangle a passing Jewish woman, who grasps her throat and falls unconscious. In the final scene, we see images of Holy Mary Church, a former site of Christian worship, abandoned now to the ghetto, where Jews manufacture bedding in order to be useful to the Germans in hopes of being spared (Hirsch XVIII).

23The final scene presents the genuine and full sense of transformation. Spiegel creates a new sense of identity for Jews in the Lodz ghetto by refiguring the concept of light from the opening desolate scene of dawn; simultaneously, he trasnfigures traditional understandings of Christian and Jewish suffering. As we see Jewish workers tearfully struggling to make bedding in the church factory, the figures of saints above seem tearfully sympathetic, casting down a “golden light” from their faces (98). The wind continues to whistle around the nearby church tower, whose clock has long since stopped. Human time, the present history of the Nazi occupation of Poland, is thus cast aside in favor of spiritual time, mythic time, in which present suffering is understood in reference to timeless images. When the scene shifts to darkness at the hour of curfew, an “‘eternal light’” burns inside a nearby Christian chapel beneath a statue of Christ, “the Crucified One.” The internal light is eerie in contrast with the darkness outside. The aim here is to refigure light and darkness as cosmic symbols in relation to Christian mythology. Jews now play the role of suffering which Christ played; the meaning of Christ’s suffering has been forgotten by the Germans, just as they have abandoned this chapel and the nearby church (Hirsch iii). The flame is “holy” but it is red, it lashes the face of the last Jew running home for the curfew, his “thin tortured Jewish body... curled in a red pool of warm blood” like the statue of Christ which is “now drenched in flame” (99). Ironically, Jewish identity at the end of this story is pictured as redeemed in terms of the ideology of the very Christians who are torturing the Jews. Present Jewish suffering is explained in light of the suffering of Christ, the most famous of Jewish sufferers in the Christian world.

24“Enchanted Fruit,” uses the same technique: it orients the reader to a setting of natural facts and social realities, and then interanimates those givens to create a kind of epiphany in which the meanings of human actions appear enlarged and transformed. In the large Jewish graveyard bordering the barren ghetto, blossoms and then blood-red berries seem to prosper unnaturally among the ever-increasing graves of the dead. The berries seem grotesquely large and abundant, functioning on the one hand as a sign of natural distortion in the face of so much death, while at the same time transforming the image of blood and death into a bounty of fruit, offering God’s blessing in a time of starvation and suffering.

25As the story opens, we see the odd image of the prospering, “blessed” berry bushes in the Jewish graveyard above the city and the ghetto, while in the ghetto itself the Jews are dying in large numbers. The images of natural prosperity--particularly in the white blossoms--contrast sharply with the black sheets, black wagons, and bloated bodies at the sites of new graves. Within this social reality, we then learn about the life and death of a particular Jew, an aging Jewish gravedigger named Kiel, who feels driven to find some revelation, some hope, amid his ever-increasing toil of burying the disease-ridden bodies of his people.

26The plot of the story gradually charts for us the means by which such a revelation or transformation can take place--despite the unrelenting destruction of the Jews and the death of this gravedigger himself. As the final days of Jewish life in the ghetto approach, Kiel lies down in the mouldy earth of a mausoleum for days, praying for a miracle. Then, when his sister dies and he goes to take care of her only daughter, he is suddenly filled with a larger sense of mission. He leaves his hilltop cemetary and heads down into the dark, barren ghetto with two goals in mind: to bring raspberries to his niece and to bury the dead according to ritual, which Jews have been forbidden to do. At this moment he feels a sudden “yearning in his heart to be as close as possible to the last remnants of the Jewish community” (107). The raspberries seem to take on spiritual signficance when we notice that Kiel carries part of them in his prayer-shawl. And, in fact, when Kiel later confronts a German soldier who is clearing the last of the Jews out of the ghetto and is murdered, we see that his actions allow him to die with a greater sense of identity and purpose than he ever possessed. The reason for this possibility is specific and again derived from divine overtones within images of nature.

27A sense of hope in other-worldly spiritual reality is presented in subtle visual, aural, and olifactory images. From the very first paragraph, there are hints of otherness that develop gradually around the image of the enchanted raspberries as they grow miraculously. The spring wind and “strange song birds, not the usual sparrows” fill the air. Kiel’s laughter even from the start sounds “enchanted,” as though from “the world beyond,” like, too, the mud on his boots (103). A “flickering light” emanates from the graves when he lies praying in the mausoleum, where he lies with “otherworldly spiders” (106). When his sister dies, there is a comforting and “mysterious light” in her eye, as he promises to care for her daughter (106). When the daughter tastes the berries, she sees the stains they leave behind as “little red stars in the sky, sending out red rays from an alien world no longer in existence” (110). At one point in this story--in contrast to Spiegel’s much subtler suggestions of spiritual truth in “Earth” and “Blossoms”--the first-person narrator goes so far as to portray a green twinkling star shining down on Kiel, which “must have been the eternally watchful eye of God peering into the little room” (112).

28As Kiel lies dying with his niece supporting him, after being stabbed and left to bleed to death, he prays for a meaningful death and proper burial. He thinks his prayer has not been answered. But as Jewish prayers and screams fill the air--the reality which Spiegel does not let us forget--the story closes with an affirmation of divine immanence as it can be sensed in the natural images. As Kiel’s eyes take in “the age-old graves where generations of pious Jews rested,” the gravestones “reflect the rays of the silvery sun.” Along with the sound of the prayers and screams,

A sweet scent of plowed earth blew in from the surrounding fields. The aroma of red raspberries descended like a soft curtain on the Jews. God’s mellow enchanted fruit was overripe and heavy, swollen with blood-like juice. (116)

29Earlier, the berries seemed like blood; at this moment, the blood itself seems transformed into a life-affirming sense of the berries’ blessing. At his death, Kiel seems to merge with the berries and their significance. Like the berries, Kiel, the gravedigger, is a man filled with death, who, in his own dying and consumation. perpetuates the life of his community.

30As in “Ghetto Kindgom,” Spiegel is again ironically transforming traditional Christian imagery with reference to Jewish suffering. Whereas Christians drink wine in a shared communion with Christ’s bloody suffering, here the images of shared communion in blood, suffering, sacrifice, and renewal all pertain to the Jews.

31“Earth” (1940), the first story in Spiegel’s collection, and “Blossoms” (1944), the final story, are typical of texts where the title itself points to the importance of the natural world in the mind of the story’s protagonist in which a transformation takes place. “Earth” reflects the experience of a farm couple at the time of the German occupation of 1939. An omniscient narrator sets the natural scene at length to indicate how the silent, pastoral, moonlit image of the Varta river and its fertile fields is being disturbed on this night by the wagons of Jewish peasants, frantically fleeing the German onslaught. The key transformation in this story then takes this nature imagery beyond the initial contrast between pastoral bliss and impending chaos in order to explain conflicting reactions to the German occupation: flight, on the one hand, and an acceptance of death on the other.

32Moving into the limited perspectives of the farm couple, the narrator highlights for us the wife’s desire to flee and the husband’s desire to stay. First, we see the wife, Dobbe, waking, filled with fear, wondering where they might go. Flight seems the obvious choice, but in a narrative flashback introducing the husband, we see how his love of the earth, fields, and river connect him to his father, his ancestors, and to a world ironically both essentially centered in the natural world of this place and yet beyond it--further beyond it than places like Warsaw, to which the wife and others hoped, we now know in vain, to find refuge.

33The husband, Yossi Ber, refuses his wife’s entreaties to flee--she says that staying is like “putting the slaughterer’s blade to your own throat”(7)--and even before the German soldiers arrive, ethnic Germans from the town take turns stabbing the husband in the feet with bayonets, telling him to dance “a Jewish dance” on one foot at a time. This is the moment of transformation:

Although it was midday the stars suddenly appeared. The moon peeped out pale and trembling and twirled with the stars in a dizzying dance with the poplars and the ponds. A song wafted down from the clouds and Yossi Ber heard his father singing to him. His father bent over him and whispered: “Yossi Ber... Yossi Ber... Dance! Dance, my son, Dance!... His father’s melody harmonized with the song emanating from the white stones, the sand, the poplars, the stables and fences, while the swelling sunframed Dolny-Yary like a golden bowl. (9)

34This ending, as in the other texts, transforms the present moment of historical reality and identity. In the case of this story, the transformation is marked by no traditional religious imagery or concepts; rather, it is intended to explain the degree to which Jewish peasants in Poland like this man had become a part of the land and attached to it. Despite the lack of conventional religious symbolism, the transformation connects historical time to mythic time, thus connecting Yossi Ber to his father, his ancestor-farmers of the past, and the land itself which they loved.

35The final scene in “Earth” shows the power of this transformation by contrasting the perspective of the dying person and the survivor. In the story’s coda, we see the wife crawling out of the cellar after two days, untransformed, finding the body of her husband in a mound on top of the earth, a patch of black earth fluttering “in the wind like an amputated wing.” Despite the husband’s experience of transformation, a survivor at the beginning of the Holocaust has only the distant image of the sinking sun here, “pour[ing] an unending web of red and blue tasselled kerchiefs across the void” (10). Dobbe lacks the power of transformative vision and faith, and so is left to an unredeemed reality.

36“Blossoms” too presents nature as a potentially transforming resource, while again holding both reader and characters poised between harsh reality and saving transformation. A Jewish boy named Mendele climbs the roof of his house and sees for the first time out across the fence of the ghetto, where cherry trees of formerly Jewish houses are blossoming, unlike those within the ghetto which were cut down for fuel. A neighboring boy across the fence, after taunting him with cries of “J-E-W-B-O-Y,” nevertheless offers him a tiny branch of blossoms which he craves. Suddenly, the Jewish boy’s mother pulls him down from the roof, scolding him for bringing ruin on them by talking to someone outside the ghetto.

37The transformation here occurs in a dream--recalling transformations in other stories of the collection--which is both pleasant and nightmarish, both illusory and strangely capable of blessing the child. Climbing fruit-laden trees in his uncle’s orchard which he remembers from before the war, the child seems about to have his wishes fulfilled, when he reaches out for another boy’s offerings, and this time falls endlessly, “as if into an empty, bottomless well” (128). Yet, when the boy wakes and hears his mother shouting beside him, he feels unable to open his eyes. And in the final moments, he returns in his mind to his uncle’s orchard, sun enters the room “like a flock of summer birds,” and “a cool breeze hovered over his face like a sweet dawn mist slowly rising from a meadow in blossom” (128). Dream here provides not a useless illusion of escape for the boy but a life-sustaining sense of hope and desire in the face of his mother’s life-numbing fear, bitterness, and anger.

38As a victim of human history, Spiegel looks toward nature for the continuity it provides, taking characters beyond the limitations and horrors of the present moment into immanently perceivable images of health, connection, and salvation. Spiegel’s characters, even in accepting their deaths, as Yossi Ber does in “Earth,” are far from passive. They seek sustenance and life from nature, and in nature they find signs of a caring God. Nature furthermore provides cues for appropriate action--Kiel, Yossi Ber, and Mendele take their cues respectively from the raspberries, the farmland, and the blossoming fruit trees. And in their actions, each character acts in recognition of devine presence and guidance through images in nature. Their identities are thereby transformed, leading them to a sense of spiritual survival beyond the immediately blighted world.

39Roslyn and David Hirsch have commented that long descriptive passages in Spiegel’s stories presented a difficulty in considering the interests and patience of contemporary readers (Hirsh, “Conversation”). While such passages are more typical of prose fiction from earlier eras, they are crucial to the technique of Spiegel’s stories, setting the present moments of ghetto life on a larger stage in which forces greater than the Nazis manifest themselves to the Jewish community, revealing to them the active hand of God in their lives.

40Malamud´s stories lack something that Spiegel´s stories contain. It is a sociological conception of community as a territorially based social unit that thoroughly embaraces the lives of its members, who feel bound to one another as whole persons and whose sense of identification with one another and with the community is strong. Where personal identity is based on an organic community, the self is a very stable object. The direction of the person´s life is fixed, the self is given continuity and integration by its place in the community. Spiegel conceived of his work as a way to portray the extermination of the Jews in Poland and to leave testimony of their struggle to keep their spiritual identity and integrity, despite its annihilation. Spiegel´s characters always know who they are, where they come from, and where they belong. They show a tenacious attachment to the land where they were born, and, where that land is physically missing, to the community they belong to. The level of closeness to the root, the level of proximity to the land, and the quality of the sense of community is what determines the need to invent an identity or the priviledge to proclaim one.

41Malamud´s characters in his short stories own a bourgeoise individuality, a necessary passion toward everything that imposes limits (Feld, Rosa.) Their identities are based on a fear of exaggeration or “going overboard” (Harry Schwartz). Bessie doesn´t leave the bakery´s counter, which she defends as an animal defends its territory, and she treats her customers with coldness, always in a business-like way that doesn´t leave room for the warmth that would naturally derive from years of human contact. Manischevitz despises and deprecates Levine on the basis of his rational consideration that cannot envision the possibility of a black angel. Eva, in “Take Pity,” will go as far as destroying Davidov´s life instead of accepting his charity that was aimed to put an end to her predicament. Davidov, in turn, destroys himself for not succeeding at completing his “task.” Harry, in “My Son the Murderer,” will break his father´s heart for not allowing him in his affairs and not letting him through his door. The bourgeois Malamudian egos love manners (Nat Lime) and borders (“Man in the Drawer,” “The Letter,” or “Rembrandt´s Hat”), everything that means territory (“The Death of Me”). Of their “virtues,” the first one is precaution (Nat Lime, Dr. Morris, Harry Schwartz), a sensitivity, cultivated to a fine point, to limits, territories and distances in interpersonal relationships. To that longing for limits and limitations also corresponds their fondness of order and logic. It is as if the world only worked efficiently if it follows the power of concepts and ideas (Cesare, Albert Gans). A subtle but powerful wish to be stripped from ambiguity and complication, a longing for transparency and social purification can be seen in these characters. They seem to want to get rid of their conflictive Jewish flesh, of their empirical realities and implications as if they were contaminating factors. The bourgeois character in Malamud´s stories flourishes in the soil of a chaos that has almost exclusively to do with uprootedness in all possible senses.

42The historical crisis of the Jew that Malamud describes in his stories stages the demolition of the belief that the ego ever had any power to transcend material reality, a belief that is present in Spiegel´s stories. If Hitler liquidated the Jews in the gas chambers, Malamud is also talking of the historical liquidation of the American Jew by the bourgeoise domination exercised through the tearing and dismanteling of the historical unity of conscience and identity. Rather than as a homogeneus and concrete reality with a concrete beginning and end, Malamud conceives of this “liquidation” as a multiple and differenciated process. It is a common assumption that all these people that come to life in the pages of the stories can be labeled as ghosts, wandering souls, or even as identity-less escapees. But the only common denominator they have is the characters´ negativity and incapacity to recognize their own selves or their urge and compulsory dependence on a continuous “invention” of themselves based upon the here and now.

43The contemporary American community provides a psychological world and a place of identification for its members, but it is not the same kind of secure world as the European organic community. The surrounding society is a tempting field of opportunities.

44The common dilemma of the Jewish-American community in modern American society is how to retain the loyalties of members who are tempted by the glamor of the outside world. For each member of a modern, heterogeneous society, there are many possible grounds on which one might identify with others. To some extent, therefore, the modern community relies on the individual´s imagination. The creation of identity requires more self-consciousness in this case. Finally, it happens that those who do not have an organic community with which to identify, or who feel torn between the conflicting demands of various communities, may feel that the only authentic expression of their identity is found when they act on a more autonomous basis. The modern community is a source of personal identities, rather than of communal identities. The American Jew in Malamud is a more self-conscious being than the resident of a traditional community. The self is not a spontaneous product of a fixed community that surrounds it from birth and that assigns it a place. It is something to be found, constructed or invented, as Malamud demonstrates by staging the demolition of traditional values along his anthological journey.

45In Malamud, the work of art loses its magical power at a historical moment when mechanical reproductions is what counts, and when the value of art is measured in monetary terms (“The Model”). Art is severed from lyricism, from its ability to capture and retain the empirical (“Rembrandt’s Hat”). Art becomes a waste land, a chaotic situation, reflecting a conflict that dramatizes the incapacity of the human to survive away from tradition and also away from modernity.

46A generation marked with a sexual obsession, which is the product of the incapacity to love, becomes alive in this anthology (Leo Finkle, Nat Lime, Etta Oliva, Cesare Montaldo, Doctor Morris, Ephraim Elihu, Luci Glasser). Love turns into a simulacrum needing to be concretized. But even when sexuality is materialized it fails to fulfill the individual (“God’s Wrath”). Sexuality, love, art, family, community, and religion, realities conceived of as long-term human resources of internal growth, have disintegrated, leaving only smoke to suggest their former existence (“The Loan”). Malamud has created in his book a whole spectacle based upon the great theater of the American way of life in the second half of the century. His personal anthological tragedy ultimately demonstrates the overwhelming fact that overcoming nothingness in a world where the human being is astray is a difficult task. Without some values to shape the validity of such concepts as transgression, sin, or virtue, values erased in the mass of the secular, main-stream society, without a solid sense of the self, the human being has no sense of direction.

47The Malamudian concept of the Jewish-American tragic soul comprises, also, the individual pain that goes with the crisis of identity. This pain, and the anxiety that it causes, is the most fundamental reality that his short stories contain as a critical reaction to the insufficiency that American life in the twentieth century represents for the Jews as a substitute“new civilization.” But pain always presents a battle to the objective facts that cause it, and there is no pain without rebellion. Malamud´s characters protest, in their own way, against the foreign slavery, whence their feverish activity in their invention of identity.

48Each of the characters in Malamud´s anthology responds to his or her individual experience in different ways. In Bessie, the protagonist of “The Loan,” paralyzing terror is the central experience of the wandering subject. Manischevitz´s crash against his Jewish identity makes him hallucinate to the point of paroxism in “Angel Levine.” Harry Schwartz´s disease is a pathological hatred toward his ancestors that leads him to commit a “Jewish suicide” of one half of his self in “The Jewbird.” There where the American Jew is solely defined by his rational capacity to get to know and defend his spot and by pure rational behavior is where the beast of depression, (“The Girl of my Dreams“) nausea (“God´s Wrath”), or the tragic urge of suicide (“My Son the Murderer”) lurks.

49In “Talking Horse” (1972), Malamud uncovers the three Freudian categories corresponding to the three psychic zones that regulate human mental functioning--id, ego, and superego--to subject them to a final duel and find a definitive answer to the poetic subject’s existential conflict.

50This story culminates a long struggle among the three psychological powers for the management of the human being, through which Malamud makes a literary confession. His “solution” to the problem of identity at the end of the literary journey seems to point at the legitimation of the human being’s right to claim his individual condition, his capacity to experience reality through the eyes of the ego, to accept part of the id’s demands and to achieve, eventually, an equilibrium between instinct and total social resignation. The importance of this story lies on the strategic position it takes in the order of the stories in the anthology. It closesthe anthology both in its being the twenty-fifth story, and in the method of transcendence it shows.

51The story opens with a dialectic doubt formulated by the horse: “Am I a man in a horse or a horse that talks like a man? (329). The horse, as the figure of the Jew in Malamud’s stories, acquires universal dimensions here, since it becomes the personification of a metaphysical conflict that is common to the members of the human species. The doubt posed by the horse is the dilemma that the anthology has not been able to resolve throughout the former twenty-four experiments or stories: Is the human being a product of rationality repressing instinct or instinct repressing rationality?

52In the story, the animal part of Abramowitz represents the id, the storehouse of the libido, and the source of what Freud called the pleasure principle. It is characterized by an overwhelming vitality, thoroughly alien to the rational order, and it is textually illustrated by the description of the horse’s sexual needs (333).The animal’s capacity to talk corresponds to the ego, or psyche’s reasoning capacity, which controls the unmeasured drives of the id. This aspect of Abramowitz’s is governed by the reality principle, whereby he perceives his present situation, the origin of his incessant process of questioning—a process rejected by Goldberg. Goldberg represents the superego, a defender of pride, social hyper-correctness and purified conscience, and the impulse toward perfection. The superego aspires to the morality principle. The ego’s task is to keep balance between the excessively instinctive forces of the individual, and his extremely perfectionist cravings.

53The interpretation that I suggest focuses on the final metamorphosis of the horse-man: first as the re-birth of the ego, in the new position of controlling the id, to which it is naturally physically attached; and second, as the submission of the superego, which loses its physical presence in the vanishing of Goldberg at the end of the story, when the ego is restored to the position that corresponds to it, this is, as the provider of equilibrium between instinct and reason. This is the way balance is restored and how the human being’s sense of identity is recovered. The fight between horse and man stages all the fights between the different forces that take part in shaping identity in the American reality of the Jew.

54The last fight shows the birth or re-creation of the ego, harmoniously joined to the animal by the waist. The final product, or re-invention, incarnates the duality of the human being—the instinctive id and the rational ego—where all tyrannical inhibitions are discarded in the final image of the centaur galloping free on the prairie, in communion with nature.


Hewitt, John P. Self and Society. A Symbolic Interactionist Social Psychology. Allyn and Bacon, Newton, MA: 1988.

Hirsch, David H. and Roslyn. Personal conversation with the authors. June 1998.

Hirsch, David H. E-Mail correspondence with the authors. February 11, 1999.

Hirsch, David. “Introduction to the Ghetto Stories of Isaiah Spiegel.” Ghetto Kingdom. Isaiah Spiegel. Trans. David and Roslyn Hirsch. Northwestern UP, Evanston, 1998.

Malamud, Bernard: Selected Stories. Penguin Books, Newton, MA, 1985.

Niger, Sh[muel]. “Stars Over the Ghetto.” In In Licht fun der Farloshener Pen (In the Light of the Extinguished Pen) Tel Aviv: Israel Book, 1986. 10-14.

Spiegel, Isaiah. Ghetto Kingdom. Trans. David and Roslyn Hirsch. Northwestern UP, Evanston, 1998.

Stone, Gregory P. “Appearance and the Self: A Slightly Revised Version,” in Social Psychology through Symbolic Interaction, 2nd. ed., ed. Gregory P. Stone and Harvey Faberman. Wiley, New York, 1981. 187-202.


1  Niger’s comments appear in Yiddish in a review from 1954, which was reprinted in In Licht fun der Farloshener Pen (In the Light of the Extinguished Pen) Tel Aviv: Israel Book, 1986. The review is cited by Hirsch as “Stars Over the Ghetto,” and originally appeared in The Canadian Eagle, Oct. 3, 1954. We are grateful to David Hirsch for his helpful correspondence and the translation of passages from this review for our use.

2  Translated by Hirsch in E-Mail correspondence; from Niger, pp. 10-13.

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Hilary Siebert et Begoña Sío-Castiñeira, « Invention or proclamation: Jewish identity in the stories of Bernard Malamud and Isaiah Spiegel », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 32 | Spring 1999, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2008, consulté le 28 mai 2018. URL :


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