“Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities. Previously a man of comfortable means, he overnight lost all he had” (43). So begins Bernard Malamud’s Angel Levine, the fourth story in The Magic Barrel (1958), his first collection of short fiction. The story was originally published three years earlier in Commentary (September 1955). As does “The First Seven Years,” also in The Magic Barrel, “Angel Levine” has roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. As “The First Seven Years” recalls Jacob’s 14 years of labor to gain Rachel as his bride, so “angel Levine” initially echoes the tribulations of Job, bewildered over the extent of his suffering and grief despite his loyalty to God; “it was in sheer quantity of woe incomprehensible” (44). However, where Job is cajoled by a series of tempters who try to overcome his faith in God, Manischevitz is confronted in his living room by one Alexander Levine, a black man wearing shabby clothes topped by a derby, who claims to be a Jewish angel sent by God. If Manischevitz will request his help, Levine can assist him, but because he is still in a state of angelic internship, Levine says that he cannot restore the health of the tailor’s dying wife without being acknowledged as an angel. When Levine tests him as a Jew with probing questions, Levine responds well, but the answers do not assuage his doubt, and the professed angel leaves, vaguely advising the woe- begone Manischevitz that if needed he may be found in Harlem.
As he continues to suffer and his wife declines fur- ther toward death, Manischevitz relents and finds Levine in a Harlem honky-tonk. Dissuaded anew by such an ungodly atmosphere for an angel, however, he leaves, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that Levine is what he claims to be. Soon afterward, when his wife seems to be breathing her last, Manischevitz returns to Harlem and finds Levine under even more abhorrent circumstances, but seeing no alternative, he addresses the black man as an angel of God. With this remark, the two return to Manischevitz’s dingy apart- ment building. Levine climbs the stairs directly to the roof, locking the door behind him before Manischevitz reaches it. Hearing what sounds like a rush of wings, the tailor peeks through a small broken window and sees a dark figure aloft on large black wings. When Manischevitz returns to his apartment, his wife is out of bed, dust mop in hand. “A wonderful thing,” he tells her; “believe me, there are Jews everywhere” (57).
“A wonderful [wonder-full] thing,” indeed, is this story, which creates its effect in a multitude of ways. It is fanciful and fantastic; it depicts profound suffering and sordid conditions yet qualifies them with poignant humor, leaving readers with relief and the pleasant sensation of having tasted the bittersweet. It is also socially rewarding through its humanistic representation of interracial harmony, especially when one considers it as having been published only a year after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools are unconstitutional (Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka) and a few months before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Selma, Alabama (December 1, 1955). But Malamud’s seemingly hopeful vision of black-Jewish relations in “Angel Levine” was no harbinger of imminent changes. As Cynthia Ozick has pointed out, the “redemptiveness of ‘Angel Levine’” and “the murderous conclusion of The Tenants” (1971), a novel also by Malamud, are thematically at odds although separated by only 13 years (Field and Field 83). Yet a careful read- ing of “Angel Levine” shows that Malamud was not as sanguine as Ozick suggests about an early resolution to interracial conflict in the United States when he depicts Manischevitz in Harlem as the object of both anti-Semitic and antiwhite derision and scorn. In 1963 Malamud focuses more specifically on such hostility in another story, “Black Is My Favorite Color,” which implies little hope of assimilation or even harmonious racial relations in the near-future. The Ten- ants, then, does not mark a change but a reinforcement of his earlier views.
Yet it would be a great exaggeration to assess “Angel Levine” chiefly in terms of black and white, which would be the result of confusing a part of the thematic design for the whole. Essentially, it is a moral tale, a story of renewed faith that overrides Manischevitz’s despondency and reconfirms his trust in God as he sees his wife’s health miraculously restored. He knows that such events occur only through miracles, yet they happen. As Levine’s black wings lift him heavenward, a dark feather seems to flutter down before Manischevitz’s eyes, but it turns white and proves to be only a snowflake. Here is an imaginative touch that recalls a scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s’s famous tale “Young Goodman Brown,” where a pink ribbon, apparently belonging to Brown’s wife, Faith, floats down beside him as he walks to a witches’ meeting in the forest, but Malamud reverses the implication. Instead of his losing faith as Brown does, for Manischevitz faith is restored; nevertheless, the fanciful auctorial device in both stories operates similarly by drawing on the supernatural to support a moral position, for Brown a rejection of faith and for Manischevitz a strengthening of it.
Malamud, a realistic author in his own way, said: “With me it’s story, story, story; . . . story is the basic element of fiction” (Solotaroff 147). For him, because humor and fantasy are as much a part of life as suffer- ing and despair, he would not deprive them of a role in his fiction. The appearance of a black Jewish angel in the constricted life of a poor, ailing tailor and his wife is bittersweet humor, indeed, but it is necessary for the underlying truth as well as the effectiveness of the story. Finally, if Manischevitz believes, why should not we? He and his wife receive the divine blessing, so maybe we shall too. Keep the faith, Malamud implies; keep the faith!
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