Leo Finkle has spent the last six years studying to become a rabbi at New York City’s Yeshivah University. After hearing that he would have better job prospects if he were to get married, Leo decides to consult a matchmaker. Matchmakers, also called marriage brokers, were common in many European Jewish cultures, as well as in some Jewish immigrant communities in the United States. Leo’s own parents were brought together by a marriage broker, and Leo is determined to find his bride through the same tradition. He contacts Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker who has advertised in The Jewish Daily Forward, New York’s leading Yiddish newspaper. (Written in Hebrew characters and based on the vocabulary and syntax of medieval German, the Yiddish language was spoken by many European Jews and their American immigrant descendants.)
Salzman arrives at Pinkie’s apartment one day late in February and the two set about their task:
“Leo had led Salzman to the only clear place in the room, a table near a window that overlooked the lamp-lit city. He seated himself at the matchmaker’s side but facing him, attempting by an act of will to suppress the unpleasant tickle in his throat. Salzman eagerly unstrapped his portfolio and removed a loose rubber band from a thin packet of much-handled cards. As he flipped through them, a gesture and sound that physically hurt Leo, the student pretended not to see and gazed steadfastly out the window. Although it was still February, winter was on its last legs, signs of which he had for the first time in years begun to notice. He now observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge den, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself. Salzman, though pretending through eyeglasses he had just slipped on, to be engaged in scanning the writing on the cards, stole occasional glances at the young man’s distinguished face, noting with pleasure the long, severe scholar’s nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain, almost hollow quality to the dark cheeks. He gazed around at the shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh.” (Excerpt from “The Magic Barrel”)
Salzman boasts to Finkle that he has so many clients that he has to keep their cards in a barrel at his office. He summarizes the attractions of three young women to Finkle, listing their age, appearance, dowry, and the financial assets of their respective fathers. Finkle becomes embarrassed by the overtly commercial nature of the conversation and, wondering what role love might play in an arranged marriage, asks Salzman to leave.
Leo spends the next day restless and unsettled, wondering if he should try another matchmaker or if he should find a wife on his own. That evening Salzman returns to Leo’s apartment, asking if the student has reconsidered any of the three women he described. Salzman particularly recommends one Lily Hirschorn, an unmarried schoolteacher. Finkle pretends to be ambivalent about the idea, but is intrigued; Salzman leaves the apartment confident that Leo and Lily will meet.
The next Saturday Leo takes Lily for a walk. She turns out to be ”not unpretty,” is au courant (or up to date) on a variety of topics, and talks easily and intelligently. Leo has the uneasy feeling that Salzman is hiding somewhere nearby, watching them. He pictures the matchmaker as “cloven-hoofed Pan” (in Greco-Roman mythology Pan is the god of nature, depicted as half man and half goat) sprinkling flower buds in their path to celebrate their union. Lily presses Leo for details about his calling as a rabbi, and Leo realizes that Salzman has represented him to Lily as a passionately religious man. In a moment of unguarded honesty, Leo confesses to Lily: “I think … I came to God not because I loved him, but because I did not.” Lily is disappointed in his answer and the afternoon ends with the understanding that there will be no match.
Leo returns home in despair. The conversation with Lily has made him realize some disturbing things about himself, in particular that he lacks the ability to love. Leo’s religious vocation seems meaningless because he has lived an empty life. How can he love God if he does not love man? He considers leaving the university, then decides to continue his studies, but to find a wife to love on his own terms. When Salzman arrives the next day, Leo criticizes the matchmaker for having misrepresented the situation to Lily, and tells him that he will no longer require his services. Salzman departs, but leaves an envelope containing photographs of other women for Leo to consider.
After a few weeks, Leo opens the envelope. Inside are six photographs of women who are ”past their prime.” Disappointed, he returns the photographs to the envelope; at the last moment, a seventh photograph falls out. Leo looks at it a moment, then lets out a cry of love. The face in the photograph is beautiful, melancholy, and carries “an impression, somehow, of evil.” Leo falls desperately in love with the image in the picture. He finds Salzman and presses him for the woman’s name. Salzman hesitates, claiming that the picture was included in the envelope by accident, then bursts out: ”This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell.” Salzman’s daughter Stella, it is implied, has committed some terrible act of disobedience against her father and Jewish tradition. As punishment, she has been disowned.
Leo cannot stop thinking of Stella. Finally, he resolves to find her and to ”convert her to goodness, himself to God.” He encounters Salzman in a Broadway cafeteria and insists that Salzman set up a meeting. Salzman agrees, and Leo suspects that Salzman had planned for him to fall in love with Stella from the beginning.
Shortly after, Leo finally meets Stella on a spring night. She stands smoking beneath a street light and he runs to her with a bouquet of flowers. We are then told that: ”Around the corner Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.” In Jewish tradition, a parent will say the Kaddish, or the prayer for the dead, for a living child only when that child has committed a sin of disobedience so grave as to cause a final separation from the parent.
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.