Study Guide

Perfection

by Mark Helprin

Perfection Summary

Introduction

“Perfection,” by Mark Helprin, was published in the 2004 collection The Pacific and Other Stories. The protagonist, a Hasidic Jewish boy called Roger Reveshze, lives in post–World War II Brooklyn and becomes the unlikely ally of the New York Yankees baseball team in helping them out of a string of defeats. Roger is physically puny and knows nothing about baseball but draws his power from a divine source (angels help him hit the ball out of the stadium). This agency is available to him because of his extraordinary piety and devotion to perfection in his own life. In the greater scheme of things, his unusual abilities are portrayed as a God-given compensation for the Holocaust, in which he lost his parents in horrific circumstances. Rejecting the cynicism of much twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, Helprin invokes such traditional themes as the perfection of God’s ordering of creation, the inspirational quality of the life lived with honor and integrity, and the limitations of materialism.

Perfection Summary

“Perfection” opens in the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in June 1956 but immediately flashes back a year to March 1955, to the incident that sets off the events of the story, when “the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.” (Rebbe is the Hasidic Jewish word for rabbi, which means spiritual teacher or master while Saromsker refers to the Hasidic dynasty or family group from which the rebbe descends.) The Saromsker Rebbe’s family had taken in many children who survived the Holocaust though their parents had not.

The events leading up to the drawer incident are described. The Saromsker Rebbe wishes to telephone another rabbi to discuss a theological point. But snow has snapped some telephone lines, so the Saromsker Rebbe puts his points in a letter and asks one of his students which student may be trusted to take the message to the other rabbi. The student recommends Roger Reveshze, a fourteen-year-old boy who escaped the Majdanek Nazi extermination camp in Poland and spends much time praying for his parents. The student says Roger is suitable for the errand as he is extraordinarily fast and has unusual spiritual purity. The Saromsker Rebbe summons Roger and asks him what he sees when he closes his eyes. Roger describes a scene in Eastern Europe with an old man (probably his father) with snow settling on his hat.

Looking for sealing wax for his letter, the Saromsker Rebbe opens a drawer of his desk. It is the wrong drawer, and when he sees what is in it, he rapidly slams it shut, though not before Roger catches sight of it. It is a box marked with the brand name “Lindt,” a kind of Swiss chocolate which is non-kosher.

Roger reflects that the Saromsker Rebbe has eaten non-kosher food over time, lied, and concealed his sin from his followers. Roger concludes the rebbe is imperfect. Roger hates lying because it weakens a person against worse evils. He knows what happened to his parents and others in the Holocaust, and he is determined to bear witness to this truth until he dies. He aims for perfection in this aspect of his life, in the conviction that his persistence and love will lead to reunion with his parents in the afterlife. The Saromsker Rebbe’s lie tells Roger that the rebbe cannot be trusted to study current affairs honestly and sense when there may be another impending holocaust. Roger decides that he himself must listen to the radio. His classmate Luba, who works for the butcher, Schnaiper, tells him that in the butcher’s shop there is a radio that cannot be turned off. Roger arranges to do Luba’s job in order to listen to the radio.

Roger hears an entrancing narrative on the radio. Schnaiper tells him that it is a baseball game taking place in “the House That Ruth Built.” This is a popular nickname for Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, after the famous baseball player for the Yankees, Babe Ruth, the nickname of George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895–1948). Roger, in his ignorance of U.S. culture, believes that it is a reference to Ruth, the supposed author of the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth is celebrated by Jews as a convert to Judaism as well as for being the great-grandmother to King David of Israel (c. 1011 b.c.e.–971 b.c.e.), from whose lineage Jews believe that the Messiah will come.

Roger is excited that there is a place in the Bronx with a direct link to the Israelites. He asks Luba about it, and Luba solemnly describes his fantasy as if it were reality. He envisions a huge sacred construction, lit by divine light and filled with beautiful women who are descended from Ruth. There are rabbis reading sacred Jewish texts, Jewish bands playing music for dancing, and endless supplies of Jewish food. Luba says that no one can go there except if they die, when they are taken there on a sled, or the women are in danger and need a champion to save them. In his Western mind, Roger knows that what Luba says is impossible, but in his Eastern mind, he knows that rabbis and mystics could defy gravity and fly.

From his time spent in Schnaiper’s shop listening to baseball games on the radio, Roger emerges with the garbled message that the Yenkiss (the Yankees) are suffering a string of defeats, and even with the great Mickey Mental (the real-life player Mickey Mantle, 1931–1994) on their team, the Kansas City team could easily “kill” them.

After much prayer, Roger knows the answer. He has to save the Yankees. Dressed in his Hasidic black robes and fur hat on a hot June day, he packs a suitcase and sets off on the subway for the House of Ruth, where he is convinced that “a miracle will come.” Roger arrives at the stadium and, though he has no money to buy a ticket, gets in by helping a peanut delivery man carrying in supplies. He goes to the stands and watches as Mantle and Berra (the real-life player Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, born 1925) are engaged in a practice session. Roger repeatedly calls out, “Mickey Mental!” Mantle thinks he is being mocked. He walks over to Roger and asks what he wants. Roger says that God has sent him “To lift you from the darkness of defeat,” adding that he has received no specific instructions as to how. He asks Mantle where the ideal place to direct the ball is, and Mantle replies that it is over the clock and out of the stadium. Roger offers to show him how to do this. Mantle discusses the idea with Berra. Berra thinks that Roger is a “hayseed” (a mispronunciation of the word...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)