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4.2.2.3 Conclusion about Real Jewishness and Humanity

4.2.2.3.1 Herzlekhayt and Mentshlekhayt

Iska Alter also wrote about the topic of Jewishness in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and he mentioned two important topics which are named with the Yiddish terms herzlekhayt and mentshlekhayt.
„Mayer Shticker has noted that with The Assistant Bernard Malamud […] has brought into American literature … the emotional sensibility of the heart [herzlekhayt].“
As in the scene when Morris Bober offers something to drink to poor old Breitbart, Bernard Malamud shows in his work that the topic of herzlekhayt is not just a word, but a concept to live with.
Isak Alter quotes another person who also writes about those topics:
„For Josephine Zadovsky Knopp, the concept of mentshlekhayt is the core of Malamud’s work and is the source of its strength.“
The author, Bernard Malamud, as well as his character Morris Bober represent the concept of what he calls mentshlekhayt. So in the end you can conclude that real Jewishness means one’s behaviour is based not only on the warmth people have to give to each other but also on the importance for people to try to be as human as possible, even to those they have not known before, such as Breitbart or Frank Alpine who is a stranger to Morris Bober at the beginning of the novel.
The only problem of this idea of Jewishness is that it is completely different to what the society understands by being successful. The American society of those days, as well as today’s, tried to follow the so-called American Dream, this meant pecuniar success as the only way to be successful in society. Those who could not be economically successful were members of the American Dream.   
The American dream is „a paradox to be sure, on that it embodies both the idealism of the nation and the corrosive materialism that appears to be its tangible outgrowth.“ As mentioned in this quote, there is something resembling freedom in society on the one hand, but on the other hand materialism makes society so competitive.
„Those very elements that constitute the culture’s visionary potential are also the source of its terror: alienation, loneliness, transience, the psycological and geographical movement from roots to tradition. It is a civilisation that defines achievement externally and success acquisitively, making failure a punishment, poverty a sin, and love a purchasable commodity. And it is an increasingly firm axiom of Malamud’s fiction that to succeed in such an environment is to lose one’s soul; to fail is to perserve one’s moral integrity.“
The American Dream cannot be Morris Bober’s dream. Although he is a Jew like the Pearls and the Karps he believes in another concept of Jewishness. While the Pearls and the Karps fit into the concept of the American Dream Morris Bober does not. They accept and celebrate all the Jewish holidays, while Morris Bober does not – because he cannot. He has to keep his shop open to be able to live. From Rag to Riches, as the American Dream is also described, can be used as a symbol of how the neighbourhood behaves. On the one hand Morris Bober who stays poor and does not follow that concept and on the other hand Karp who sells liquor in a predominantly poor surrounding and behaves unscrupulously towards his socially disadvantaged neighbours. Pearl who does not care very much about his shop is also economically successful because he is lucky with bets. 
Finally you can say that people who live with a pseudo-Jewishness that goes very well with the American Dream are economically successful and manufacture their luck selfishly, yet they lose their soul. People who live a real Jewishness, hence to be honest, right and good, remain economical losers but have success when it comes to the topics of herzlekhayt and mentshlekhayt.

4.2.2.3.2 Frank Alpine’s process of becoming a Jew

The Jewish Identity comes out in the following description of Frank Alpine’s conversion. Frank Alpine does not only convert from christianity into Jewishness, but also from a bad person into a good one. At the very beginning of the novel Frank Alpine is obviously tempted by anti-Semitic ideas and he therefore joins Ward Minogue to rob Morris Bober. As the novel goes on, Frank Alpine stops thinking badly about Jews because he gets to know them better and in the end even joins Judaism.
The following passages of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant should show Frank Alpine’s change of mind.
At the very beginning of the book, when the assistant and the grocer meet each other for the first time, Frank Alpine and his acomplice Ward Minogue make the hold up against the shop-owner. Ward Minogue is really anti-Semitic and so he therefore selects a Jewish victim. Frank Alpine is not against Jews, because of conviction, as already explained, but because of not knowing them. After having participated in the robbery he tries to make up for the harm he caused.
„The one at the sink [Frank Alpine] hastily rinsed a cup and filled it with water. He brought it to the grocer, spilling some on his apron as he raised the cup to his lips.“  
In this moment Frank Alpine realises that there is nothing more to rob, so he wants to leave the grocery without doing any further damage. This scene shows that Frank Alpine is not an evil man or a racist, but a person who could be called a participant. His conversion towards good, not only to become a good Jew but also a good man, what is impossible at this scene because he has not yet had further contact with those Jews. The change starts around page 65.
„One night he felt very bad about all the wrong he was doing and vowed to set himself straight. If I could do one right thing, he thought, maybe that would start me off;“
Frank Alpine starts to think about the harm he did and this can be seen as the first step towards becoming a better man. Frank Alpine’s complice selected Morris Bober to be the victim because of being a Jew. Frank Alpine realises that his attitude was wrong.
„He remembered thinking as they went into the store, A Jew is a Jew, what differencedoes it make? Now he thought, I held him up because he was a Jew. What the hell are they to me so that I gave him credit for it?“
At this time Frank Alpine thinks about doing no further crimes and even wants to throw his gun into the ocean. Throwing a gun into the ocean can be seen as a try for a complete break with the criminal past. Although Ward Minogue tries to convey him to go on, Frank Alpine refuses.
„[Ward Minogue says:] `We will go somewhere else.´
`Not with me,´ Frank said.
`Think it over.´
`I’ve had all I want.´
Ward showed his disgust. `The minute I saw you I knew you would puke all over.´“
Frank Alpine wants to break with the criminal life he led. He also begins to feel uncomfortable about spying on Helen Bober while she is taking her shower and also stops this. He then starts to be gentle to everyone who is around him, to the customers, to Morris Bober and to Helen, without spying behind her back.
„He was afraid to look into the mirror for fear it would split apart and drop into the sink. […] He was full of sudden rages at himself. These were his worst days and he suffered trying to hide his feelings. […] The rage he felt disappeared like wind-storm that quietly popped out, and he felt a sort of gentleness creeping in. He felt gentle to the people who came into the store, especially the kids, whom he gave penny crackers to for nothing. He was gentle to Morris, and the Jew was gentle to him.“
During this period the anti-Semitic Frank Alpine becomes the Jew’s Assistant. The longing for Helen Bober becomes more and more powerful. He wants to go out with the grocer’s daughter but he cannot, as he is not a Jew. While living with the Jewish family he feels worse and worse about what he has done to Morris Bober. He is full of pain about this thinks about confession.
„He wasn’t really sorry they had stuck up a Jew but he hadn’t expected to be sorry that they had picked on this particular one, Bober; yet now he was. He had not minded, if by mind you meant in expectation, but what he hadn’t minded no longer seemed to matter. The matter was how he now felt, and he now felt bad he had done it.“
He really feels bad at this point and in the following paragraphs he thinks about confession. He is not yet ready for the necessary confession but he starts to rethink and comes to the result that he has to change something.
„I started out wrong and have to change my direction where I am going. The way it happened I landed up in your father’s store, but I’m only staying there till I figure out what’s my next move.“
During a conversation with Helen Bober Frank Alpine realises that one possible way out of his actual situation could be education. Helen, as well as her father – see chapter about education –, believes that education is important. From that day Frank Alpine passes more and more time in the library.
„He was often in the library. Almost every time Helen went there she saw him sitting over an open book at one of the tables; she wondered if all he did in his spare time was come here and read. [And is important:] She respected him for it.“
Reading books he gains Helen’s respect. His dream of being loved by Helen seems to comes true with the help of books. Finally he even wants to go to college.
On page 108, there is a comment which seems remarkable:
„My nature is to give and I couldn’t change it even if I wanted.“  
Although Frank Alpine does not yet know very much about Judaism, this quote expresses exactly what Morris Bober understands by his idea of the real Jewishness. Having reached that point of view on life, he is now able to learn more about Judaism, the Jews and the real Jewishness.
„`Say, Morris, suppose somebody asked you what do Jews believe in, what would you tell them? […] What I like to know is what is a Jew anyway?´“
Now Morris Bober gives his explanation about Jewishness, as explained in a previous chapter. Frank Alpine is curious and as he wants to know more about the Jew, he is on his way to become a better man. And now he confesses to Morris Bober that he used to be quite anti-Semitic but this has changed now because of knowing Jews.
„`Once I didn’t have much use for the Jews. […] But that was long ago.´ said Frank, `before I got to know what they were like. I don’t think I understood much about them.´“
From this scene on Frank Alpine can be regarded as free of anti-Jewish prejudices. Helen realises that Frank Alpine is worth her support, thus you can say that he is now on the best way to become a good person in Morris Bober’s sense. However, afterwards comes a terrible fall back, he rapes Helen Bober, yet shortly after that he cannot believe what he has done.
„Oh my God, why did I do it? Why did I ever do it? Why did I do it?“  
He is shocked about his action. At this point he realises that he had confessed neither the hold-up, nor the stolen money and sees how badly he has behaved.
This shocking event finally changes him into a good person. He becomes active. He starts to pay back the money he has stolen:
„He withdrew twenty-five dollars from his savings account and put the money into the register, five on Thursday, ten on Friday and ten on Saturday.“
And then there is the problem with the raped Helen. She had not told anyone and wanted to make it right again.
„He would do anything she wanted, and if she wanted nothing he would do something, what he should do; and he would do it all on his own will, nobody pushing him but himself. He would do it with discipline and with love.“
Thirdly, as well as giving back the stolen money and trying to repair the harm he had caused to Helen, he learns about the Jews and their history, which means trying to get in contact with Jewishness. He had not dared before to read the book about their history.
„He read a book about the Jews, a short history. He had many times seen this book on one of the library shelves and had never taken it down, but one day he checked it out to satisfy his curiosity. He read the first part with interest, but after the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the Jews were having it tough, he had to force himself to keep reading. He skimmed the bloody chapters but read slowly the ones about their civilization and accomplishment.“
While reading the book, he may have remembered and realised the harm he has done to the Jewish family. Feeling even more guilty, he then takes a second job to act against his bad conscience and give more of the stolen money back.
The final and arguably the most important point of his conversion from a bad  into a good man is the confession of the hold-up he has committed. He first confesses having stolen money, even though Morris Bober already knows about it, then Frank Alpine adds:
„I couldn’t look you in the eye. Even now I feel sick about what I am saying, but I’m telling it to you so you will know how much I suffered on account of what I did, and that I am very sorry you were hurt on your head – even though not by me. The thing you got to understand is I am not the same person I once was. I might look so to you but if you could see what’s been going on in my heart you would know I have changed.“
Morris Bober already knows about all this and does not throw Frank Alpine out of the grocery. The tragic point, however, is that there is no chance to keep Frank Alpine in the business because of financial reasons.

4.2.2.3.3 Frank Alpine’s conversion

After Morris Bober’s death Frank Alpine finally converts to Judaism, and together with this conversion to the new religion, Frank has to reexamine his moral and spiritual life; he becomes a good man and from that point on he lives according to the `rules´ of real Jewishness. From that moment on, he does everything right and even tries to live according to the Jewish rules, for instance during the scene already quoted in the synagogue when he takes off his hat and puts it on again, because hats have to be worn in synagogues (page 201). Things change a lot from now on. He supports Helen financially so she can attend a night college and even confesses to her about the hold up. She is shocked. He takes over the shop and never misses to give the payment to Ida Bober at the right time. He finally even stops spying on Helen and stops cheating the customers. This is a further step towards Morris Bober’s real Jewishness.
„Then one day, […] he stopped climbing up the air shaft to peek at Helen, and he was honest in the store.“   
In the end even Helen Bober has the impression that Frank Alpine had changed, he had changed into a better person.
„It came to her that he had changed. It’s true, he’s not the same man, she said to herself. I should have known by now. She had despised him for the evil he had done, without understanding the why or aftermath, or admitting there could be an end to the bad and a beginning of good.“
After all these small steps from evil to good Frank Alpine’s development finds its culmination and final point in his conversion to Judaism. Judaism can be seen here as an equivalent to Morris Bober’s definition of Jewishness, and in a way it arguably represents a new Frank Alpine, who lives among his new guide lines, the Jewish Law: you have to be right, you have to be honest and you have to be good.
In a way, Frank Alpine becomes a second Morris Bober and as such, he embodies Bernard Malamud’s idea of the Jewish Identity.


 

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