Eileen H. Watts
Recent mass shootings and policies targeting immigrants have been fueled by fear of “the stranger.” Nowhere is the mandate to treat the stranger as an equal more pronounced than in the Bible. And yet, somehow, biblical ethics themselves – the argument from empathy – apparently is insufficient. Sadly, our current frenzy of nationalism cries out for a moral voice that not only harks back to these Jewish sources of ethics, but extends them to redefine what it means to be a Jew. Such a voice belongs to Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), a Pulitzer-prize winning writer who grappled with post-Holocaust anti-Semitism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the savage racism of the 1950s and 60s.
Malamud’s work was written off a decade ago because he wrote primarily about the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in mid-twentieth century New York. Not only has that generation all but died off, but the newer generations of Jewish American writers are writing about bringing Judaism into American life. In any case, no one speaks with or hears the Yiddish-inflected English that many of Malamud’s characters use. Nonetheless, his works about race relations – which are ultimately about how to relate to the Other, an essential aspect of the immigration debate – are as relevant today as they were sixty-five years ago. His short story “Angel Levine,” published in Commentary in December 1955 and collected in The Magic Barrel (1958), is particularly timely.
Born in Brooklyn in 1914 to Russian immigrant parents, Malamud enjoyed a close boyhood friendship with a black child, taught English to immigrants in night school, and taught in Harlem. These experiences led him to respond sympathetically to the state of race relations in the 50s, and to their deterioration in the 60s, particularly between Blacks and Jews. To address these, he sought to project a broader notion of Jewishness. In accord with this aim, he wrote several short stories and a novel (The Tenants, 1971), to bring what was, for him, a particularly Jewish, i.e., universal, humanity to bear on the problem. It is for this reason that Malamud’s Jews have been generally seen as metaphoric and emblematic of humanity.
As Malamud put it in a 1980 interview: “I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethicality – how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living.” This is perhaps why, late in life, as president of P.E.N. (The American Center for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists), Malamud became an activist, campaigning against Soviet and South African oppression of their writers, the development of publishing conglomerates, and attacks on First Amendment rights.
In “Angel Levine,” the story of Manischevitz, a Job-like character who must believe that a black man from Harlem is an angel from God, Malamud weaves together strands of our biblical, historical, traditional, and ritual pasts to remind us that there is a source of guidance for our troubled times. For Malamud, paralleling a number of themes in the thought of Hermann Cohen, following these threads leads to a new definition of revelation. Cohen believed that God’s revelation was a revealing of Himself in terms of his morality. Moreover, since the only way we can know God (his image) is through His acts, His morality, our acting morally is the only way we can follow His will. Doing so, then, involves finding and acting on the ethical in oneself, which is the image of God. In this sense, being a Jew is about seeing your own godliness in the stranger, here, a black man from Harlem.Thus, Malamud not only offers a new definition of revelation, but also sets forward a novel, programmatic path to see the Other in a radically new light.
“Angel Levine”: A Summary
Manischevitz, a poor tailor, has suddenly lost everything. When he prays for his dying wife Fanny’s health, a black angel-on-probation appears in the tenement apartment and explains that he had been Jewish in life, but will not be able to produce miracles or attain full angel status until Manischevitz believes he is an angel from God. Levine tells Manischevitz he can be found in Harlem, and leaves. As his own health fails, the tailor travels to Harlem and meets his black counterpart: a tailor, to whom he says nothing. Directed to Bella’s, a honky-tonk, Manischevitz sees Levine dancing with Bella, but says nothing to him either. Later, with Fanny at death’s door, the now-desperate tailor speaks to God in a synagogue; finding Him absent, Manischevitz looks into his own heart and finds no hope.
Having lost even his belief in God, Manischevitz later dreams of Levine with “small decaying opalescent wings” (Malamud 54), and is convinced Levine could be an angel. The beleaguered man again travels to Harlem, where Bella’s is now a synagogue. So continues Malamud’s use of magic realism, in which elements of fantasy co-exist with reality. Here, the technique might suggest the hand of God guiding Manischevitz to his revelation. In the synagogue he sees four black men wearing yarmulkes discussing the nature of souls, questioning why, if souls are without substance, the men happen to be black. The tailor asks where he can find Levine, and is directed to Bella’s, which is now across the street.
There, Manischevitz tells Levine he believes the black man is Jewish, but when Levine asks if the white man has anything else to say, the tailor is silent. He imagines a whirring arrow on a wheel, like those used in board games, marked yes, no, believe, and decides to believe. He tells Levine: “I think you are an angel from God” (Malamud 57). Immediately, they return to the apartment, and Manischevitz follows Levine up to the roof, from which he ascends on “a pair of magnificent black wings” (58).
A black feather drifts down, but it was only snowing. The tailor’s wife is miraculously cured and Manischevitz tells her: “A wonderful thing, Fanny. There are Jews everywhere” (58). So ends the story.
Revelation from Without
As noted, after Fanny becomes even more ill, the tailor seeks a visibly deteriorated Levine in Harlem, but says nothing to him. Manischevitz then “[spokes] to God in a synagogue, but God had absented himself. The tailor searched his heart and found no hope” (54). Absent the man’s decision to believe that Levine is an angel and to verbalize that belief, Manischevitz’s words to God fail, and his heart is empty. This language echoes Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
This commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off…
It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?
Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’
But the word is very nigh unto thee, in my mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
Using his encounter with the Other, Manischevitz must turn inward and find God’s words in his own heart and speak them to Levine. That is God’s definition of following His commandments. Jeremiah also emphasizes this when he declares that God will make a new covenant with the house of Israel:
“I will put My law in their minds
and inscribe it on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
and they will be My people.
No longer will each man teach his neighbor or his brother,
saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know Me.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
In other words, knowing God means that His laws are written on the heart. Manischevitz’s heart is empty because he does not know God, even though he says repeatedly that “he had always been a religious man… a faithful servant who had from childhood lived in the synagogues, always concerned with the word of God” (Malamud 48, 50). Here, Malamud is pointing out the difference between observance and ethical action. For him, being a Jew is not just being faithful to ritual and observance; it is following the injunction of Exodus 22:20: “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Furthering the Exodus theme, the fact that Malamud names his character Manischevitz puts us right at the Seder table, a humorous shorthand for all the history, memory, symbolism – and resulting ethical obligations – that the name evokes. And the scene of the four Black questioners in the Harlem synagogue is an obvious reimagining of the Seder’s four questions.
When the tailor seeks Levine in Harlem a second time and visits the synagogue, the four black men – one old, one thirteen, and two physically impaired – are discussing the meaning of Neshoma: “The substanceless substance from which comes all things that were incepted in the idea – you, me, and everything and body else” (Malamud 55). The four questioners go on to ask whether this ‘spirit’ has a color, and if not, then why are they colored? The young boy answers:
God but the spirit in all things… He put it in the green leaves and the yellow flowers. He put it with the gold in the fishes and the blue in the sky. That’s how come it came to us. (56)
So begins Manischevitz’s journey toward revelation. When he confronts Levine, he tells him, “You are Jewish. This I am sure” (57). Levine says, “Anything else yo’ got to say?… Speak now or fo’ ever hold off.” Through blinding tears, the tailor asks himself whether he should “say he believed a half-drunken Negro to be an angel.”
Now Manischevitz imagines the whirring pointer: “[He]” was recalling scenes of his youth as a wheel in his mind whirred; believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice. ‘I think you are an angel from God.’ He said it in a broken voice, thinking, If you said it, it was said. If you believed it you must say it” (57-58).
Manischevitz finally realizes that God’s word is in his heart and mouth: “If you believed it you must say it.” Yet note the word whirring. Not only does it allude to the whirlwind out of which God speaks to Job, but it is also repeated in the story’s final image. Manischevitz hears a “whirring of wings” when Levine flies off. This whirring evokes God’s presence in Manischevitz’s mind and heart – the divinity within, another step toward Manischevitz’s revelation.
Revelation from Within
Upon their return from Harlem to Manischevitz’s apartment, Levine assures Manischevitz that his wife has been cured. Then the tailor
followed Levine up three flights of stairs to the roof. When he got there the door was already pad-locked.
Luckily he could see through a small broken window. He heard an odd noise, as though of a whirring of wings, and when he strained for a wider view, could have sworn he saw a dark figure borne aloft on a pair of magnificent black wings.
A feather drifted down. Manischevitz gasped as it turned white, but it was only snowing.
He rushed downstairs. In the flat Fanny wielded a dust mop under the bed and then upon the cobwebs on the wall.
“A wonderful thing, Fanny,” Manischevitz said. “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” (Malamud 58)
Now we can see the purpose for the fantasy image of the black feather turning to snow: It’s the visual representation of the gap closing between black and white, between racism and acceptance, made possible not only by Manischevitz’s revelation that Levine is an angel from God, but by his action of telling the stranger so. In other words, Malamud is urging us to reach out to those whose humanity has been diminished by others and in doing so, we will discover our own humanity. Yet when Manischevitz exclaims that there are Jews everywhere, he seems unaware that this now includes him.
Still, the black feather’s turning to white snow represents a redemptive moment for the tailor; he has mended his own prejudice. Perhaps this is why, after his initial outburst at God, Manischevitz “realized… that he was expecting to discover something about himself” (Malamud 48.) Early on, Malamud has reminded us that revelation from without leads to revelation from within. He raises the stakes, however, by suggesting that this mode of revelation brings godliness into the world by demanding that we act on our beliefs. By treating the Other properly, we gain revelatory insight into our own Jewishness, and ultimately our humanity.
Malamud once said, “The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself” (Lasher 6). How we relate to the Other, such as the immigrant, lies at the core of our very civility. In some sense, just as we are all Jews, we are all tailors. We shape our attitudes, valuations, and prejudices toward people based on the measures we take of them.
In Manischevitz’s revelatory cry, “There are Jews everywhere,” lies Malamud’s plea that we believe in each other’s humanity. His is almost like a voice heard in today’s wilderness, a moral voice that has so much to offer when we really need it. Malamud beseeches us to be attuned to the inner call of our souls to be authentic Jews, to do what God has been telling us to do for millennia: To treat the stranger as we would treat ourselves. This is what it means to be a Jew, not just in the 20th century, but in the 21st.
 See Cheryl Miller, “Why Malamud Faded,” Commentary, June 2008.
 For more on Malamud’s fiction, see my “Bernard Malamud’s The German Refugee, A Parable for Tishah be-Av” Lehrhaus.com July 12, 2018.
 All references will be to The Magic Barrel. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
 In an interview, Malamud described the impetus for writing “Angel Levine,” “Black Is My Favorite Color,” and The Tenants this way: “I was aware of anti-black feeling in the vaguest sort of way… I used to make it a point to sit next to blacks on the subway. I remember a certain sadness and a strangeness. Perhaps it was just the fear of the other man’s differences. Perhaps these were feelings I worked from in… Angel Levine” (Conversations with Bernard Malamud. Ed. Lawrence Lasher, Jackson: U Mississippi Press, 1991: 147).
 See my “The Art of Racism: Blacks, Jews and Language in The Tenants.” Studies in American Jewish Literature. Vol 15. 1996, 24-48).
 See Edward Abramson. “Bernard Malamud and the Jews: An Ambiguous Relationship.” The Yearbook of English Studies Vol 24 1994, 146-156.
 Interview with Michiko Kakutani, NYT 15 July 1980, 67, reprinted in Lasher, Conversations with Bernard Malamud, Jackson: U Mississippi P, 1991, 92-95.
 Actually, Malamud is paraphrasing Camus’ 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech. See “Beginning the Novel” in Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco. Talking Horse. NY: Columbia UP: 100.