Identity Problems of Jews

Seminararbeit, 2001

13 Seiten, Note: 2


Table of Contents


The Jewbird
Importance of the exposition in the context of the story as a whole
Characterisation in the story
Importance of language in the story
Irony in the story
Theme and interpretation of the story

Opiate of the People
Time structure and coherence in the story
Characterisation of people and situations in the story
The role of symbolism in the story
Interpretation of the story

Comparing the stories




The problems Jews have in different cultures from their own, especially in America, are dealt with in almost every genre of the media. From TV over newspapers to books. It is remarkable that criticism of the way Jewish people deal with these problems, is for the most part raised within their own ranks. Especially the problem of practised Judaism in a modern western society and the resulting ambivalence of habits and attitudes is openly discussed for example in TV comedies (Woody Allen; “The Nanny” etc.) but also by highly intellectual literates (e. g. Marcel Reich-Ranicki). Furthermore, this theme is dealt with in fictional literature. Two examples will be the subject of discussion in this essay. In the following I will analyse the two short stories “The Jewbird” by Bernard Malamud and “Opiate Of The People” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz focusing on composition, means of style and characterisation, role of language, and possibilities of interpretation. We shall see that both stories deal with the same topic: The problem of a Jew trying to integrate as much as possible into the American culture and at the same time neglecting, if not even negotiating, his Jewish descent and his past as a member of a Jewish society.

In the last part of this research paper I will consider further parallels and differences between the two stories and their intended message. And I will discuss what conclusion can be drawn from it.

The Jewbird

Importance of the exposition in the context of the story as a whole

The first paragraph of “The Jewbird“ gives an introduction to the story by supplying the reader with information about its setting (“top-floor apartment on first Avenue near the lower East River”, p1, ll. 6 – 5), atmosphere and characters. After having read the story one discovers that this first paragraph does not only give this information in a very compressed way but actually even hints at the main aspects of the story. Cohen is introduced as “a heavy man with hairy chest and beefy shorts” (p. 1, l. 13): The reader gets the image of a rough and slightly vulgar man, which is supported later in the story by the type of language used by Cohen (“son of a bitch”, p. 2, l. 2; “Poor bird, my ass!”, p. 4, l. 28 ). Harry Cohen’s second name makes it obvious to the reader that he is of Jewish origin, which turns out to be an important point in the story. The paragraph shows Edie as “skinny” and “wearing a halter” (p. 1, l. 13). A “halter” can either be a dress, held up by straps, or a leather strap, to guide horses with. By describing her stature and using the double meaning of the word “halter” the author creates the picture of a weak and not very confident person. And indeed Edie does not play a very powerful role in the family, as seen in the rest of the story. Maurie is described as “a nice kid, though not overly bright” (p. 1, l. 15), a characterisation that is repeated by Schwartz, only in other words (“He’s a good boy […] but a scholar he’ll never be”, p. 6, ll. 20-22). In the first paragraph Schwartz is not directly introduced as being Jewish, but is described as the stereotypical caricature of a Jew (hook nose, “ruffled” hair, “small dull eyes”, p. 1, ll. 8 - 9).

Looking more closely at the paragraph one sees that it gives a lot of hints at the personality of the characters and their behaviour and thus foreshadows a lot of the further action: The sentences “It’s open, you’re in. Closed you’re out and that’s your fate.” (p. 1, l. 3) obviously allude to the fact that Schwartz’s stay at the Cohens’ completely depends on the goodwill of Harry Cohen, who is going to throw him out of the house at the end. Schwartz does not land inside the bird’s cage, as you would expect him to, but flies right onto the table landing near Cohen’s food. From this the reader can guess Schwartz’s demanding character. He refuses to take second best and is not ashamed of demanding food and hospitality from others (“I would rather have a human roof over my head […] and have now and then a schnapps.”, p. 5, ll. 3-7) and refuses the corn given to him by Cohen.

Malamud makes the first paragraph of his short story so special and highly interesting by foreshadowing so much of the later development without letting the reader recognise this until he has read the whole story. Only when re-reading it can the reader discover and understand all the predictions given and the high literary standard.

Characterisation in the story

Principally an author may portray people in his work of literature through direct characterisation, by describing him by directly attributing certain characteristics, qualities to him, or more indirectly through a character’s language, behaviour, social role etc. A lot of the information about the characters in this story is given in the latter, in a very sublime way. For example Cohen is described as “a heavy man with hairy chest” (p. 1, l. 12) which on the one hand gives an image of his stout and not very elegant figure, but also implies, that the hair on his chest is visible. Therefore he must be sitting at the table either in an undershirt or with completely bare chest. Seeing him like this the reader will think of him as a rather crude man. Furthermore, he is introduced as a “frozen foods salesman” (p. 1, l.10), which allows assumptions about his education.

However, Cohen seems to have higher social ambitions for his son Maurie ”I’ll get him an Ivy League college for sure.”. This sentence also shows that Cohen is not always trying to see things realistically, be it his son’s intellect or the true reason why he does not like Schwartz. Cohen ignores his Yiddish origin, at least he never mentions it. Nevertheless he seems to know a lot about it as you can guess from some allusions he makes when talking to Schwartz (“ghost of dybbuk”, p. 3, l. 6; “No hat, no phylacteries?”, p. 3, ll. 3-4)

Edie appears very reserved and passive in the story. She only reacts to what Cohen says but never starts off a conversation or topic (“’I hope so,’ sighed Edie”, p. 6, l. 19), she seems powerless towards Harry and is not very confident in expressing her feelings and wishes. All this is underlined by the kind of words associated with Edie (“sighed”; “…asked, frightened”, p.11, l. 13) Furthermore, Edie does not only have a weak personality, but also a fairly gullible and naive character (”When the cat gets to know you better he won’t try to catch you anymore.”, p. 10, ll. 8-9).

Maurie is characterised very directly and clearly. First by the narrator as “a nice kid though not overly bright” (p. 1, l. 15) and again by Schwartz only in different words (“He’s a good boy … but a scholar he’ll never be.”, p. 6, ll. 20-22) These two aspects of Maurie’s personality are illustrated by Maurie’s friendly way in which he associates with the bird, on the one hand, and his rather weak results in school on the other.

Schwartz is hardly ever characterised in a direct way, but mainly by his appearance and what he says and does. Introduced as the typical Jewish caricature the reader has got the stereotypical characteristics of Jews in the back of his head all way through the story. Schwartz justifies these prejudices against him in the course of the story: He is a “schnorrer” and turns out to be very cunning when he is using a kind of emotional blackmail to persuade the Cohens to let him stay and look after him (“Where there’s charity I’ll go.”, p. 4, l. 13) and is putting on a play to receive their hospitality (“…laughed sadly in breathy caws.”, p. 5, l. 21). Schwartz is obviously on a higher educational level, than Cohen, which is indicated by his language but also by the fact that Schwartz is able to help Maurie with his homework and improve his results, which Cohen is not willing or able to do.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 13 Seiten


Identity Problems of Jews
Universität zu Köln  (Englisches Seminar)
Seminar: Englische Litraturwissenschaft
ISBN (eBook)
503 KB
In dieser Arbeit werden Identitätsprobleme von Juden in westlichen Kulturen erörtert. Als Grundlage dienen zwei englische Kurzgeschichten: "The Jewbird" und "Opiate for the People". Diese zwei Werke werden ausführlich analysiert und miteinander verglichen.
Identity, Problems, Jews, Seminar, Englische, Litraturwissenschaft
Arbeit zitieren
Benjamin Althaus (Autor:in), 2001, Identity Problems of Jews, München, GRIN Verlag,


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