Morality, A Living Breathing Struggle

By Rachel Kadish

The Assistant
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 relevant.

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 world?”

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 sympathetic character. 

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 against her. 

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 good.”

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.