Book Review 

Five Jewish Authors, Five Themes

Daphne Drohobyczer - July 8, 2020

Five stories—one each by the Jewish writers Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, and Philip Roth—include themes of love, death, afterlife, friendship, and the feeling of being an outsider or minority. These are obviously popular topics for Jews but are relevant for all of humanity. These themes intertwine as a reflection of topics emanating from the Holocaust and from the effects of Pogroms Jews suffered in various countries.

The five writers explore the level of freedom after World War II. American citizens, Black, White, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other viewpoints, express themselves as free citizens. The Jewish Authors are able to write about several of these universal themes despite the fact that their experiences are personal.

Even though this collection of stories is written by Jewish authors, the themes are universal and exclusive within their topics of interest. The themes are diverse when considering they apply universally. The more widely known authors write more with a flow, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth, both known in the greater literary world, famous to Jews and non-Jews alike. The tone that these five authors take on, within the themes, is dismay, and a hierarchy or absence thereof. Each of these themes – love, death, afterlife, friendship, and the feeling of being an outsider or a minority – relate to each other in a logical way. Love is what we strive and wish for. Death is usually sudden, and according to Isaac Bashevis Singer, there is an afterlife however fictitious. The afterlife is what two friends start to explore with each other in The Reencounter. This Afterlife is about the two friends’ experience. There is an implication, according to the short story, that the two characters are also lovers.

In Jewbird, we observe the bird as an outsider or minority, however he strikes up a friendship with the father’s son. The father eventually kills the Jewbird, this magical bird who claims he is a Jew. Bernard Malamud creates a “father of the father” tone by being anti-Semitic towards another Jew and in the end harbors no compassion. This is both logical (the father is disturbed by the bird), and illogical (how can a bird speak so eloquently?). Jewbird can speak Yiddish, and the family wonders how did he come to be? The bird says that only God knows. The question being, is the Jewbird real or a construct from a man? That is potentially very disturbing. It is very quizzical that the Jewbird can speak. He presents himself as an enigma.

Cynthia Ozick writes both about death and being a minority as her story takes place during the Holocaust. A Nazi strips Rosa of her baby, Magda, from her hands and throws her on an electric fence, the baby meets her death in a few seconds. This story is fictitious as well but very much reflects the cruel, heartless actions of the Nazis during this time. In the story The Shawl, Rosa’s shawl acts like a womb for the baby where she is protecting the baby, Magda. This story acts as a warning to people to choose life because the Nazis perpetuate to destroy Jewish life, because they view the baby as the enemy. This supports the belief that pro-life zealots cherish: to view life in progress even when the baby is in gestation, regardless of the race, religion, construction, or deconstruction. However, in free societies, the choice is based on what the woman wants to do with her body. Furthermore, Magda hides under a shawl, but does not enjoy the safety of the woman’s womb.

Philip Roth explores the freedom that Jews have in the Unites States of America in Conversion of the Jews. Jews do not have to accept Jesus as their Messiah, and Jews are free to practice Judaism based on the freedom to practice one’s religion. However, Jews are able to recognize Jesus as a historical figure. Jews feel free to intermarry or convert to other religions.

Simultaneously, the protagonist in Roth’s short story is Jewish despite the fact that he believes in Jesus. The kids and Rabbi Binder debate the notion that Jesus has a father who is indeed God. Ozzie, the protagonist student starts to consider that this could be true.

“His mother was Mary, and his father probably was Joseph,” Ozzie said. “But the New Testament says his real father was God.” “His real father?” “Yeah,” Ozzie said, “that’s the big thing, his father’s supposed to be God.” “Bull.” “That’s what Rabbi Binder says, that it’s impossible—“ “Sure it’s impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,” Itzie theologized. “Mary hadda get laid.” “That’s what Binder says: ‘The only way a woman can have a baby is to have intercourse with a man.” (Roth, 1)

Ozzie finds himself on the top of the school building because of a stairwell. His teacher and his mother are in the crowd watching a potential suicide, and all the child asks is that his teacher and his mother will agree that Jesus is the messiah. When one dissects this dangerous undertaking, the boy who believes in Jesus, just wants them to affirm his beliefs, yet he threatens his mother and teacher with his death. He deals with not only being a minority but also death. Due to personal freedoms that Jews have living in the United States, Jews are able to break away from their sects of Judaism, including orthodoxy.

In A Silver Dish the author, Saul Bellow, presents the reader in both the start and finish with the telling of the death of Woody’s father, a petty thief according to the story. The father, Pop, is a liar and a small-time crook. He is looking for a loan, but in the meantime, he steals a silver dish from the woman he is borrowing the loan from. The tone of the author shows Pop as a man of misdemeanors who is very careless.

He does not care about anyone but himself, however, he has a friendship with his son, yet he is an outcast minority. This story is about Jews who convert to Christianity; however, they are not trustworthy. Somehow, Pops gets by. Woody still displays love for him. Bellow paints them as low-standing. The fact that they are unsophisticated, reflect on their actions.

Isaac Bashevis Singer recounts what he imagines about the afterlife in The Reencounter. Both Max and Liza experience the afterlife together in an existential manner. Liza looks like someone who can be her sister. He immediately figures this out and they are able to experience the afterlife together with thoughts of what is coming ahead of them. Afterlife, for them, is a refuge to enjoy each other’s company. The encounter surprises them because they are aware of their past a relationship but have not seen each other for many years.

Dr. Greitzer lay still for a while. So Liza was gone. Twelve years had passed since their breaking up. She had been his great love. Their affair lasted about fifteen years-no, not fifteen; thirteen. (Singer, 587)

Max realizes that he is dead when Liza points out that he was also in the obituary. We do not know if this is God’s doing, or just existential contemplation. Who choses for them to be together? Why these two? Why are they revisiting their relationship, a.k.a., friendship – the quote explains their relationship more according to reality. To Max, she is the epitome for true love even though they have not spoken for twelve years after their thirteen-year friendship or relationship.

In essence the authors confront the notion of relationships and approach it from different angles always leaving it up to the reader to decide. The themes we explore as readers are scattered in these stories and are significant for the conclusions of these starkly different stories. What these stories have in common is indeed the topics I discuss throughout this paper. There are so many more themes that could be tapped into; such as wars, family, loneliness, contemplation, race and religion etc. However, these specific themes of love, friendship and human suffering are evident, in the above stories. These stories take on these intense themes and the reader is able to decipher the deeper meanings. Each author tells his or her own story and displays via the storyline. The audience can interpret life the way they see it. In the end, the themes string along their own agenda and present that to the voracious audience, who enjoys the suspense and hopefully gains a new perspective.

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