Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” was first published by the Partisan Review in 1954 and reprinted as the title story in Malamud’s first volume of short fiction in 1958. The period between those two dates was an eventful time in American history. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected the concept of segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which found that the practice of maintaining separate classrooms or separate schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.
In the same year Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate for having unjustly accused hundreds of Americans of being communists. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to successfully orbit the earth, sparking concern that the Soviets would take control of space.
While the text of ”The Magic Barrel” is almost entirely free of topical or historical references that might allow readers to place the events of the story at a particular date, one detail establishes Leo’s encounter with Salzman as taking place roughly at the time of the story’s publication in the mid-fifties. Finkle is about to complete his six-year course of study to become a rabbi at New York City’s Yeshivah University. Yeshivah, in Hebrew, means a place of study. Yeshivah University is the oldest and most distinguished Jewish institution of higher learning in the United States. While its history goes back to 1886, the school was not named Yeshivah until 1945, when its charter was revised. At the end of the traditional six years of study to become a rabbi, then, Leo would probably be considering marriage sometime early in the 1950s.
By consulting a professional matchmaker to find a bride, Leo is acting more like his immigrant grandparents than an American Jew of the 1950s. In Yiddish, the secular language of many European and American Jewish communities, the word for “matchmaker” is shadchen (pronounced shod-hun). Before the seventeenth century, the shadchen was a highly respected person, responsible for the perpetuation of the Jewish people through arranged marriages. As European Jewish communities grew larger and as modern secular notions of romantic love became pervasive, professional matchmakers became less scrupulous in their dealings and were frequently the objects of satire and derision. Indeed a wealth of humor at the expense of the shadchen developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; representative is the remark of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), who quipped that the shadchen was best defined as “a dealer in livestock.”
Regardless, the shadchen tradition survived Jewish immigration to the United States. In his history of Jewish immigrant life on New York City’s lower east side, World of our Fathers, Irving Howe describes the typical shadchen as similar to Malamud’s Pinye Salzman: “Affecting an ecclesiastic bearing, the matchmaker wore a somber black suit with a half-frock effect, a silk yarmulke (skullcap), a full beard.” The matchmaker, according to Howe, “customarily received 5 percent of the dowry in addition to a flat fee, neither one nor both enough to make him rich.” Pinye Salzman is in many ways, then, a stereotypical figure who has stepped from the world of Jewish oral humor into the pages of Malamud’s story. Leo, in seeking the shadchen’s help in the 1950s, reveals himself not only as a formal, but as a very old fashioned young man.
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.