Written in 1950, ‘‘The First Seven Years’’ was published in Bernard Malamud’s first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, in 1958. The story is about Feld, a Jewish shoemaker who seeks a suitable husband for his daughter Miriam. But she is not interested in his choice of Max, a college student. Feld soon discovers that his assistant, Sobel, a Polish Jewish refugee, is in love with Miriam, and that she returns his affections. Miriam sees spiritual qualities in Sobel, but Feld is dismayed because he wants her to do better for herself. Feld is faced with a moral choice: will he allow Sobel to wed Miriam? Can he put his daughter’s feelings above what he thinks is appropriate for her? Can he learn to see in Sobel what Miriam sees in him? In the climax of the story, Feld tells Sobel that if he works for two more years, making seven in all, he can ask Miriam for her hand in marriage. Hence the title of the story, which is an allusion to the Biblical story of how Jacob labored in the service of Laban for seven years to win the hand of Rebecca, whom he loved.
‘‘The First Seven Years’’ is one of many stories Malamud wrote about Jewish immigrants living in New York. As such, it is a representative work of one of the most distinguished American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Although Malamud often wrote about Jews, he is usually regarded not as a ‘‘Jewish’’ writer but as one who explored, through the Jewish experience, universal human hopes, struggles, conflicts, and dilemmas.