Morality, A Living Breathing Struggle
By Rachel Kadish
By Bernard Malamud
With a new introduction by Jonathan Rosen.
264 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $13.
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur approach and we assess the year’s yield of deeds, there is a novel by
one of our greatest writers that ought to be included on the roster of
recommended holiday readings. Bernard
Malamud’s 1957 work, The Assistant, is a
morality tale of Shakespearean scope, enacted on the most modest of
stages: a failing grocery in a dead-end
neighborhood; a place where survival is meted out in quarters and dimes, where
the question of a rival grocery moving in next door takes on epic proportions,
and small favors or thoughtless slights can derail a family’s future. It is a
simple, searing tale of temptation and transgression; and in this year of
eroding trust in our nation’s public edifices, it is freshly, even urgently
New to a down-and-out neighborhood, Frank—a well-meaning
Italian-American drifter—is persuaded to help an acquaintance rob a grocery
store. When the victim, the Jewish
grocer Morris Bober, claims to have only a paltry sum in the till, Frank’s
accomplice disbelieves the aging Jew and, over Frank’s objections, delivers a
powerful blow to Morris’ head. The two
masked men flee.
During Morris’ painful recovery, as he and his wife and
daughter face destitution, a mysterious Italian-American stranger shows up and
volunteers to work in Morris’ grocery for paltry pay, claiming he wishes to
learn the grocer’s trade.
What follows is a brilliant study in the fine tunings of
regret and morality. As Frank tries to
work off his guilt by helping the grocer get back on his feet—and as he earns
the family’s trust along with access to the cash register—he is brought face to
face with temptation. He handles the store well, helps Morris improve business
… and soon enough begins a program of petty thievery.
“He had nothing to be ashamed of, he thought—it was
practically his own dough he was taking.
The grocer and his wife … wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for his hard
work …Thus he settled it in his mind only to find himself remorseful.”
Remorse, in Malamud’s hands, is the watermark and measure of
the human condition. Frank’s punishment for his crimes is neither exposure nor
censure, but the slow grinding of his own conscience. And his repeated, tortured recourse to theft testifies to the
truest impediments to teshuvah: the enormous exertion required to forge
personal change, the peculiar comfort of our familiar mistakes.
The Rambam, in his Mishneh
Torah on Teshuvah, writes that
true repentance is attained only when the penitent passes up the opportunity to
repeat his transgression, despite temptation.
Over and again, Frank fails this test.
His struggles illustrate the supreme difficulty of choosing virtue. In Malamud’s world, taking a moral path is
neither a simple decision nor an obvious one.
Morris’ morality has driven his beloved family to penury; the path of
honesty is impoverished and its wisdom debatable. Even Helen, Morris’ daughter, poses this anguished ultimate
question about her father: “Papa was
honest but what was the good of such honesty if he couldn’t exist in this
Thus Malamud challenges us to think hard about the proper
use of that most delicate of organs, the human conscience. Frank, for all his faults, is a deeply
Unlike other religions that classify thoughts as virtuous or
sinful, Judaism is concerned not with temptation but with action. A person’s merit is judged on what he or
she ultimately chooses to do. It is
no sin to be tempted by yetzer ha’rah
(the ‘evil inclination’), only to obey its urgings. Thus Judaism leaves room
for a nuanced humanity, while imposing a strict moral code.
Frank screws up his courage to confess his crime to Morris,
only to lose his nerve. He struggles to
right his wrongs without sullying his reputation by confessing. This effort is doomed; true teshuvah mandates confession. (Maimonides again, 2:5: “Anyone who, out of
pride, conceals his sins and does not reveal them will not achieve complete
repentance as [Proverbs 28:13] states: ‘He who conceals his sins will not
succeed.’”) Frank’s mutely burning conscience is useless. His love for Helen, the grocer’s daughter,
leads him down further paths of transgression.
He lies for fear she’ll hate him if he confesses his part in injuring
her father. He lies to win her love,
and then cannot truly unite with her because he’s been dishonest. His inner turmoil culminates in violence
Only after this violence does Frank truly change his
actions. He stops stealing. He confesses his part in the burglary to
Morris, and despite the grocer’s dismissal of him, continues to labor on
Morris’ behalf, at one point saving the grocer’s life. Gradually Frank turns into the very image of
the suffering Jew—standing Morris-like at the grocery’s empty till, fretting as
he watches customers take their business to a fancy new shop that has opened
nearby. After Morris’ death, it is
Frank who, despite Helen’s disdain, sustains her and Morris’ widow and insists
on keeping the grocery running.
It is left to Helen to deliver the final judgment on Frank’s
teshuvah and on the possibility of
true repentance. Helen forgives Frank,
concluding that there can indeed be “an end to the bad and a beginning of
In real life, those deeply wronged against are rarely so
forgiving. Malamud lets Frank off the
hook a bit easily; Morris has died, thus Frank never has to make the most
powerful confession of all—telling Morris what he did to his daughter. One wonders whether Frank would have been
bold enough to utter this confession.
But Frank has made nearly as full a repentance as possible under his
circumstances. His conversion to Judaism, which closes the novel, completes his
moral journey. Teshuvah, in The Assistant,
is no abstract concept, but an earthy redemption attainable only through great
turmoil. In Malamud’s world, as in
ours, morality is a living, breathing struggle.
Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where
birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.