Publishing “The Magic Barrel” in 1954, Bernard Malamud was at the beginning of his career, and near the beginning of a brief and remarkable period in the history of Jewish-American writing. For perhaps a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid1960s, the American literary imagination seemed to have been captured by a series of books by and about Jews. In 1953 Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, a story of tragicomic misadventures set in Chicago’s Jewish immigrant milieu. In 1957 Malamud brought out his second novel, The Assistant, the tale of an impoverished Brooklyn grocer who becomes a kind of Jewish every man. 1959 saw the literary debut of Philip Roth, whose Goodbye, Columbus was the account of a doomed love affair between two Jewish young people divided by social class.
Goodbye Columbus won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1960, as Bellow’s Augie March had done in 1954, and as Malamud’s collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, had in 1959. Equally distinguished Jewish-American writers—such as Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Chaim Potok—attracted attention on the literary scene during these years as well.
The novelists who made their reputations during this time didn’t always have Jewish concerns as the focus of their fiction. Still, for a decade or so, Malamud’s fiction seemed to be part of a movement of the American novel toward the lives and problems of Jews. Of course, Jewish-American fiction was not invented in the 1950s; novels by and about American Jews comprised a tradition of some significance and depth by the time Malamud began his career. In one important respect—in its theme of change and conflict between generations— Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” is solidly embedded in the tradition of Jewish-American fiction.
The first important Jewish-American novel was Mary Antin’s The Promised Land of 1912. Born in Russian Poland, Antin immigrated to Boston as a child in 1894 and became a social worker in the immigrant neighborhoods of that city. The Promised Land is based on Antin’s own immigrant experience, contrasting the poverty and persecution of Jewish life in Eastern Europe with the freedom and economic opportunity available to immigrants in the United States.
The vision of America is not so happy, however, in The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917). Cahan was a Russian immigrant who found success in America as an editor and journalist. (He edited the The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper in which Leo Finkle reads Pinye Salzman’s ad.) Like his creator, David Levinsky encounters an America where opportunity is purchased at great sacrifice. As David rises in New York’s garment industry, his success costs him love and personal integrity. Most of all, David’s success results in his betrayal of those Jewish spiritual traditions that had sustained his ancestors in Russia. David ends the novel as a representative of an immigrant generation that has lost the integrity of its ancestors.
The theme of change and conflict among generations appears powerfully in Anzia Yezierska’s 1925 novel Bread Givers. Yezierska’s novel dramatizes the conflict between Sara Smolinsky, a lively young Jewish woman, and her dictatorial father, a Russian immigrant Rabbi. Rabbi Smolinsky has devoted his life to study of the Torah, and insists that his daughters work to support him as he continues his studies in America. Sara dreams of receiving a secular American education and becoming a teacher, but to do so she must defy the will of her father: “More and more I began to see that father, in his innocent craziness to hold up the Light of the Law to his children, was a tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia.” Sara eventually realizes her dream, becoming a teacher in the New York Public Schools, but only at the price of breaking off her relationship with her father. When the two reconcile at the end of the novel, it is because Sara has come to recognize that the drive and will that allowed her to finish her education came from her father.
As Leo Finkle and Pinye Salzman pursue each other through the pages of Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” the theme of generational conflict presents itself with rich ambivalence. It’s as clear from his profession—an arranger of marriages in the way traditional to nineteenth-century European Jewish communities—as it is from his Yiddish-inflected speech that Pinye Salzman is the story’s representative of an older generation of immigrant Jews. Leo Finkle, born in Cleveland and bearing a gentile given name, as clearly embodies a younger population—perhaps those second- or third-generation American Jews who came to maturity in the 1950s. What’s less clear, however, is with which of the two generations the story encourages us to empathize. Who has moral authority in the story, old Salzman or young Finkle?
It is tempting to read the story as favoring youth, especially in light of the emotional transformation that Leo Finkle undergoes. Leo enters the story as a cold and passionless young man. He requires a bride not because he is in love, but because he is about to be ordained as a rabbi and believes that he will find a congregation more readily if he is married. Leo praises Salzman’s profession with chilly formalism; the matchmaker, he says, makes “practical the necessary without hindering joy.” After his date with Lily Hirschorn, Leo comes to recognize and deplore his own passionlessness. Prompted by the matchmaker, Lily had expected Finkle to be a man of great human and spiritual fervor. Leo disappoints her, of course, and sees ”himself for the first time as he truly was— unloved and loveless.”
In the aftermath of this revelation, Leo appears to change. He tells the matchmaker, ”I now admit the necessity of premarital love. That is, I want to be in love with the one I marry.” Salzman’s reply to this declaration seems to identify the matchmaker with the older generation: “‘Love?’ said Salzman, astounded. After a moment he remarked, ‘For us, our love is our life, not for the ladies. In the ghetto they—.'” (Finkle interrupts here with more about his new resolve to find love on his own.) In his fragmentary response Salzman seems to say that for the older generation—those who had lived in the Jewish ghettoes of Europe—romantic love was a frivolous luxury. Survival was what mattered (“our life”), not “the ladies.” With that remark, Salzman appears to inhabit a past whose dangers are no longer real to any but himself.
Finkle’s transformation is complete when he falls in love with the photograph of Salzman’s daughter, Stella, left accidentally among pictures of the matchmaker’s other clients. Loving this fallen woman, and loving her only on the basis of her photograph, is just the passionate leap of faith of which Leo has been previously incapable. His eyes now “weighted with wisdom,” Leo has learned at last the redemptive nature of passion.
When Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” first appeared in Partisan Review in 1954, it provided a colorful glimpse into the world of American Jews. Fours years later, after his second novel, The Assistant, had been enthusiastically received, Malamud reprinted “The Magic Barrel” as the title story in a collection of his short fiction. The collection sold well, and was praised by reviewers for its honesty, irony, and acute perception of the moral dilemmas of American Jews. It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1959.
Between the publication of the collection in 1958 and his death in 1986, Bernard Malamud became one of America’s most respected writers of fiction, publishing six more novels and numerous collections of short fiction. Malamud’s writing has been the subject of critical debate for three decades. Writing in 1966, Sidney Richman examines the emotional sterility of the protagonist Leo Finkle. According to Richman, “… Finkle knows the word but not the spirit; and he makes it clear that in a secret part of his heart he knows it.”
Theodore C. Miller, in 1972, compares “The Magic Barrel” to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, pointing out that both stories explore ”the love of the minister and the whore.” Unlike Hawthorne’s minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, however, Malamud’s rabbinical student, Finkle, ”comes to accept Stella for the reason that he accepts universal guilt.” Miller also contends that Salzman has arranged the love affair between Leo and Stella because he wishes “to initiate Leo Finkle into the existential nature of love.” When at the end of the story Salzman says Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, he is ”commemorating the death of the old Leo who was incapable of love. But he is also celebrating Leo’s birth into a new life.”
Both Richard Reynolds and Bates Hoffer offer interpretations of “The Magic Barrel” based on specific Jewish religious traditions. Reynolds’s focus is on the role of Kaddish, maintaining that Salzman hopes that Leo will bring Stella, “the prodigal daughter,” back to a moral life. In that case, reciting the Kaddish is particularly appropriate given the ancient prayer’s emphasis on resurrection. Hoffer compares the five-part structure of the story to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, the sacred text of Judaism) and claims that Leo has broken a majority of the ten commandments.
Finally Carmen Cramer maintains that Leo’s story is a journey of emotional maturity. Rather, “The Magic Barrel” chronicles the rabbinical student’s “Americanization,” his gradual assimilation into American culture. Cramer asserts that Finkle “possesses few of the typical American traits— decisiveness, emotionality, action-orientation—but he melts into the American pot by the end of Bernard Malamud’s polished piece of writing….”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Bernard Malamud, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.