Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bernard Malamud, like many Jewish writers, frequently examines in his fiction the changing attitudes Jews display about their religion and their heritage. In this story, readers see a Jewish family that is moving away from the orthodox Jewish traditions. Schwartz, who says he is a Jewbird, represents those traditions. His black color resembles the dark clothing traditionally worn by rabbis; he instantly falls into prayer on his arrival. He eats traditional Jewish food and generally scorns the meals the Cohens serve. Schwartz’s values reflect the values of orthodox Judaism, values Harry Cohen, at least, has forgotten or is trying to forget. Schwartz becomes the equivalent of an aging Jewish relative: a grandfather or uncle for Maurie, a Jewish father for Harry. Ironically, Harry’s real mother (Maurie’s grandmother) is slowly dying in her own apartment, ignored except when her illness interrupts Harry’s life. If she were brought into their household and cared for, she would probably help Maurie in the way that Schwartz does; presumably she would also irritate Harry in the way that the Jewbird does. Schwartz tells the Cohens that he is fleeing from anti-Semites, people who persecute Jews because of their religion and traditions. Edie Cohen’s remark that anti-Semites killed Schwartz points out that Harry Cohen is a kind of anti-Semite himself, although he is probably not aware of it. He has turned his back on his religion.