The first short story I read this year, the latest in the year I think I’ve ever done so, way past mid-May, was a good one, “The Magic Barrel” by Bernard Malamud, and I’ve been giving it thought ever since. Born in New York City or more precisely the borough of Brooklyn, and the son of Jewish immigrants, Malamud is known for his well-crafted short stories about Jewish-American life, but also for several novels, including The Natural. I have not read any of his novels, but I have been impressed with his short stories. In fact, one of the most prestigious awards for an American short story, the PEN/Malamud Award for “excellence in the art of the short story", is named in his honor.
“The Magic Barrel” may be one of his best known, and a really fun read. You can find it online, here, in PDF if you wish to read it ahead of my post.
The story begins in New York City with an almost “Once upon a time” opening.
Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a sma ll, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
The matchmaker appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house where Finkle lived, grasping a black, strapped portfolio that had been worn thin with use. Salzman, who had been long in the business, was of slight but dignified build, wearing an old hat, and an overcoat too short and tight for him. He smelled frankly of fish, which he loved to eat, and although he was missing a few teeth, his presence was not displeasing, because of an amiable manner curiously contrasted with mournful eyes. His voice, his lips, his wisp of beard, his bony fingers were animated, but give him a moment of repose and his mild blue eyes revealed a depth of sadness, a characteristic that put Leo a little at ease although the situation, for him, was inherently tense.
As a New Yorker, I know these characters, know them in the sense that similar people walk in the neighborhoods I grew up. The story was written in the 1950’s, in what is sometimes considered the golden era of New York City. I’m not that old, but similar people were around when I was growing up a couple of decades later. So we have the rabbinical student and a sort of old world peddler who in this case hawks brides. It’s is interesting that Salzman smells of fish, and fish is a motif that goes with the matchmaker throughout the story. But the sadness in his eyes is an interesting detail that contrasts with Finkle’s youthfulness and inexperience.
Next we get some critical information about Finkle.
He at once informed Salzman why he had asked him to come, explaining that his home was in Cleveland, and that but for his parents, who had married comparatively late in life, he was alone in the world. He had for six years devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, as a result of which, understandably, he had found himself without time for a social life and the company of young women. Therefore he thought it the better part of trial and error--of embarrassing fumbling--to call in an experienced person to advise him on these matters. He remarked in passing that the function of the marriage broker was ancient and honorable, highly approved in the Jewish community, because it made practical the necessary without hindering joy. Moreover, his own parents had been brought together by a matchmaker. They had made, if not a financially profitable marriage--since neither had possessed any worldly goods to speak of--at least a successful one in the sense of their everlasting devotion to each other. Salzman listened in embarrassed surprise, sensing a sort of apology. Later, however, he experienced a glow of pride in his work, an emotion that had left him years ago, and he heartily approved of Finkle.
Here we learn of the parallel situation with Finkle’s parents in that they too have met through a marriage broker, and their marriage was a happy one. But that was an old world relationship and they lived in Cleveland. Finkle is now in the modern world and lives in the big metropolis.
Next Salzman takes out a half dozen cards with woman’s information on it. As Salzman tries to sell Finkle on the women on the cards, what follows is some of the most entertaining dialogue I can remember. I can’t quote all of it, but here is a sample.
When Leo's eyes fell upon the cards, he counted six spread out in Salzman's hand.
"So few?" he asked in disappointment.
"You wouldn't believe me how much cards I got in my office," Salzman replied. "The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel, but is every girl good for a new rabbi?"
Leo blushed at this, regretting all he had revealed of himself in a curriculum vitae he had sent to Salzman. He had thought it best to acquaint him with his strict standards and specifications, but in having done so, felt he had told the marriage broker more than was absolutely necessary.
He hesitantly inquired, "Do you keep photographs of your clients on file?"
"First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind of promises," Salzman replied, unbuttoning his tight coat and settling himself in the chair. "After comes pictures, rabbi."
"Call me Mr. Finkle. I'm not yet a rabbi."
Salzman said he would, but instead called him doctor, which he changed to rabbi when Leo was not listening too attentively.
Salzman adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, gently cleared his throat and read in an eager voice the contents of the top card:
"Sophie P. Twenty-four years. Widow one year. No children. Educated high school and two years college. Father promises eight thousand dollars. Has wonderful wholesale business. Also real estate. On the mother's side comes teachers, also one actor. Well known on Second Avenue."
Leo gazed up in surprise. "Did you say a widow?"
"A widow don't mean spoiled, rabbi. She lived with her husband maybe four months. He was a sick boy she made a mistake to marry him."
"Marrying a widow has never entered my mind."
"This is because you have no experience. A widow, especially if she is young and healthy like this girl, is a wonderful person to marry. She will be thankful to you the rest of her life. Believe me, if I was looking now for a bride, I would marry a widow."
Leo reflected, then shook his head.
Salzman hunched his shoulders in an almost imperceptible gesture of disappointment. He placed the card down on the wooden table and began to read another:
"Lily H. High school teacher. Regular. Not a substitute. Has savings and new Dodge car. Lived in Paris one year. Father is successful dentist thirty-five years. Interested in professional man. Well Americanized family. Wonderful opportunity."
"I know her personally," said Salzman. "I wish you could see this girl. She is a doll. Also very intelligent. All day you could talk to her about books and theyater and whatnot. She also knows current events."
"I don't believe you mentioned her age?"
"Her age?" Salzman said, raising his brows. "Her age is thirty-two years."
"Leo said after a while, "I'm afraid that seems a little too old.
Salzman let out a laugh. "So how old are you, rabbi?"
"So what is the difference, tell me, between twenty-seven and thirty-two? My own wife is seven years older than me. So what did I suffer?--Nothing. If Rothschild's daughter wants to marry you, would you say on account her age, no?"
"Yes," Leo said dryly.
Salzman shook off the no in the eyes. "Five years don't mean a thing. I give you my word that when you will live with her for one week you will forget her age. What does it mean five years--that she lived more and knows more than somebody who is younger? On this girl, God bless her, years are not wasted. Each one that it comes makes better the bargain."
"What subject does she teach in high school?"
"Languages. If you heard the way she speaks French, you will think it is music. I am in the business twenty-five years, and I recommend her with my whole heart. Believe me, I know what I'm talking, rabbi."
"What's on the next card?" Leo said abruptly.
There is a folktale feel to this story, as the rabbi goes through female candidate after female candidate. Leo, as he goes through the list, can’t be satisfied with any of the women. But there are some questions that are brought here that drive the story forward. What is a right fit for a rabbi’s bride and how does Leo’s lack of experience with the opposite sex cause him select or reject potential brides? The bulk of the story presents the drama inherent in these abstract questions, and it’s quite entertaining. But I want to move toward Leo’s central crises and then finally toward the climax. He finally accepts going out on a date with the older woman, the one he rejected because of her age, Lily. And her probing questions, questions natural of people trying to learn of each other, leads him to respond as to why he chose to be a rabbi: "I was always interested in the Law."
"You saw revealed in it the presence of the Highest?" He nodded and changed the subject. "I understand that you spent a little time in Paris, Miss Hirschorn?" "Oh, did Mr. Salzman tell you, Rabbi Finkle?" Leo winced but she went on, "It was ages ago and almost forgotten. I remember I had to return for my sister's wedding." And Lily would not be put off. "When," she asked in a trembly voice, "did you become enamored of God?" 7 He stared at her. Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her--no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness. The trickster had obviously sold her a bill of goods, just as he had him, who'd expected to become acquainted with a young lady of twenty-nine, only to behold, the moment he laid eyes upon her strained and anxious face, a woman past thirty-five and aging rapidly. Only his self control had kept him this long in her presence.
Lily probed too deep. She hit a nerve, and just like she had misrepresented her age, it became apparent that Leo had misrepresented his faith, only not just to her, but to himself. Salzman had played up his devoutness, which ultimately, days after the date came back to sting Leo into a self-realization.
He was infuriated with the marriage broker and swore he would throw him out of the room the minute he reappeared. But Salzman did not come that night, and when Leo's anger had subsided, an unaccountable despair grew in its place. At first he thought this was caused by his disappointment in Lily, but before long it became evident that he had involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent. He gradually realized--with an emptiness that seized him with six hands--that he had called in the broker to find him a bride because he was incapable of doing it himself. This terrifying insight he had derived as a result of his meeting and conversation with Lily Hirschorn. Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing --to himself more than her--the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was--unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point to panic, controlled only by extraordinary effort. He covered his face with his hands and cried.
The experience of finding a wife has made him realize his “relationship to God.” If he didn’t love anyone, he didn’t love God, and of course this brings him to a spiritual crises, questioning his faith and his vocation.
And finally we get to the climax. Leo falls in love with a girl of a picture Salzman accidently left behind. He tries to get Salzman to arrange a meeting. Salzman refuses. This girl would not be suitable for him. As it turns out the girl is Salzman’s daughter who he has banish from his house because she is “wild.” But Leo cannot let go.
Although he soon fell asleep he could not sleep her out of his mind. He woke, beating his breast. Though he prayed to be rid of her, his prayers went unanswered. Through days of torment he endlessly struggled not to love her; fearing success, he escaped it. He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him.
So he convinces himself he can convert her to goodness. And so there is an arrangement.
Leo was informed by better that she would meet him on a certain corner, and she was there one spring night, waiting under a street lamp. He appeared carrying a small bouquet of violets and rosebuds. Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking. She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white. She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes--clearly her father's--were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. Leo ran forward with flowers out-thrust.
Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.