One of the most frequently anthologized of Bernard Malamud’s stories, “The Jewbird,” from the 1963 collection Idiots First, with its original blending of magical realism and humor to demonstrate the serious effects of bigotry and hatred, rarely fails to elicit sympathetic responses from readers. The story opens one August evening in New York City when a black bird flies through the open window into the top-floor apartment where the Cohen family is eating supper. When the bird lands on the kitchen table, the father, Harry Cohen, curses; while his wife Edie admonishes him not to curse in front of their 11-year-old son, Maurie, the bird flies to the top of the kitchen door, opens its mouth, and says, “Gevalt, a pogrom! [Heaven, an anti-Jewish uprising!]” The family is, naturally, stunned to note that it is not only a talking bird but a bird who speaks “Jewish,” is named Schwartz, and is fleeing “Anti-Semeets” (191). From this moment on, the four of them converse in a very human, nonbirdlike way—and this is Malamud’s point, because the family is split between a humane view of the world—represented by Edie and Maurie and Schwartz—and the inhumane, hate-filled one that Cohen so aptly demonstrates. In Cohen, we learn that the anti-Semite is not only without but within the Jewish community.
From the beginning, the battle rages between Cohen and Schwartz, two Jews who are polar opposites. To many critics, Cohen represents the assimilated American Jew who has forgotten his Jewish roots and the meaning of Judaism. His speech is American vernacular: “Poor bird, my ass. He’s a foxy bastard. He thinks he’s a Jew” (193). In such statements, Cohen reveals his own warped view of Jewish identity (himself, the rough, anti-intellectual frozen foods salesman) and his inability to recognize or appreciate the old values inherent in Schwartz. His resentment of the bird increases despite—and perhaps because of— the affection that develops among Edie, Maurie, and Schwartz; when, with the coming of winter, Schwartz refuses to “hit the flyways” (197), as Cohen puts it, he increases his harassment of Schwartz, beginning with the introduction of a cat into the family and ending with Cohen’s brutal, violent attack on the bird.
Schwartz, on the other hand, is the image of the old-fashioned Jew that Cohen has been trying to escape. In Robert Solotaroff’s words, Schwartz is “just somebody’s cranky, sly, Old World Jewish uncle who moves into crowded quarters for awhile” (78), a slightly unkempt one with a yen for warmth and the smell of cooking, along with a taste for pickled herring. His idiom contrasts sharply with Cohen’s: “If you’ll open for me the jar I’ll eat marinated,” he tells Edie, and he would like “to see once in awhile the Jewish Morning Journal and have once in awhile a schnapps because it helps my breathing, thanks God” (192, 193). Schwartz also connects the historically ignorant Cohen with centuries of Jewish oppression when he intones the word pogram and, in his refusal to “migrate” (197), with a history of escape from persecution (Hanson 1). Edie is afraid to anger her husband but slips food to Schwartz and protects him whenever possible. Maurie’s grades at school begin to improve while under Schwartz’s tutelage, and Cohen envisions enrolling his son in an Ivy League school.
Both Philip Hanson and J. Gerald Kennedy have drawn intriguing parallels between Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Malamud’s “The Jewbird,” in that both birds speak and represent selves that are onerous, even horrific, to the humans with whom they converse. Another viewpoint involves Cohen’s mother, who, although we never see her, has been ill throughout the story. At her death, Solotariff believes that the last restraints on Cohen are dissolved (79), and he craftily waits until Edie takes Maurie to his violin lesson and then savagely attacks the bird and hurls him out the window to his death. Although on their return both Edie and Maurie are too cowed to protest Schwartz’s disappearance, Maurie deliberately searches for him in spring, when the melting snow reveals Schwartz’s violated body, “his two wings broken, his neck twisted, and both bird-eyes plucked clean” (199). When he tells his mother and asks her who would commit such a crime, Edie’s response— “Anti-Semeets”—is clearly directed at her husband. Schwartz’s death evokes one of his opening remarks, that he has been fleeing the anti-Semites, who will actually “take your eyes out” (191).
Alter, Robert. “Jewish Humor and the Domestication Myth.” In Veins of Humor, edited by Harry Levin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. Hanson, Philip. “Horror and Ethnic Identity in ‘The Jewbird,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Summer 1993). Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Parody as Exorcism: ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Jewbird.’ ” Genre 13 (1980): 161–169. Malamud, Bernard. “The Jewbird.” In The Signet Classic Book of American Stories, edited by Burton Raffel. New York: New American Library, 1985. Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Watts, Eileen H. “Jewish Self-Hatred in Malamud’s ‘The Jewbird.’ ” MELUS 21, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 157–163.