Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316

In Angel Levine, the author traces the relationship between two Jewish American men of different backgrounds: Manischewitz is white and of European heritage, while Levine is black and of African heritage. Overall, Bernard Malamud’s story is concerned with the power of faith. The primary theme is the relationship between sacred and secular ways of knowing the world. Closely connected is the idea that race and ethnicity play secondary roles to the fundamental humanity of interpersonal relationships. Malamud presents the two very different characters to emphasize the theme of transcending boundaries so that fellow humans can help others in need. Manischewitz must place his faith in another person, who may actually be a divine emissary, in order to help not only himself but his wife, Leah.

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Manischewitz, a tailor, lapses into despair after a combination of misfortunes lays him low. These include the loss of his business to fire, the related financial problems due to inadequate insurance and concomitant legal complications, and his own injuries. From his perspective, however, the greatest calamity is his wife’s serious illness and his inability to effect any real change in her condition. With all these woes, his situation is reminiscent of that of the Biblical Job. While Manischewitz is emotionally invested in his Jewish faith, his faith is being tested through enduring these hardships. When an angel appears in the form of Alexander Levine, a black man who offers him assistance, he is dubious.

Seeking Levine out in Harlem as he suggested, Manischewitz doubts him more, as he is involved in worldly matters such as nightclub life. After finding other African American Jews, the tailor becomes persuaded of Levine’s divinity. Whether his faith or the angel’s powers are effective, Malamud does not say. Leah, his wife, recovers from what had seemed to be the terminal stages of illness. Levine then disappears—perhaps flown away on invisible wings.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

Perhaps the most ubiquitous figure in Bernard Malamud’s fiction is the person, usually Jewish, who suffers, like Job in the Old Testament, without any apparent reason. Manischevitz is not a bad man; no sin accounts for his fall. As he complains, he suffers far more than would seem to be just.

The tailor’s mistake is in wanting to understand why he should suffer, and in expecting there to be some cause and effect in life. Just as he will want proof that Levine is an angel, he wants some sign that God exists. When he fails to achieve either of these assurances, Manischevitz undergoes a crisis of faith when he renounces his belief in God and surrenders to despair. It is then that his dream vision of Levine preening his wings gives him new hope and sends him in search of the angel. Still, his faith must be tested, so Levine forces him to acknowledge before the assembled crowd in the honky-tonk that the black is an angel. At this point, not only is Manischevitz’s problem solved, Levine casts off the clothes of a pimp and becomes the angel he is meant to be. Faith is necessary both for God and for humankind.

Manischevitz’s final realization that there are Jews everywhere reflects Malamud’s theme that all men are Jews. Jews, in Malamud’s fiction, are those who suffer without cause and who maintain their faith in humanity (or in God) despite the injustice of their plight. Manischevitz does not suffer because he is a Jew; he is a Jew because he suffers. He does not believe because he is a Jew; he is a Jew because he believes.

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