Commentary Magazine


The Angel Levine:
A Story

It is several years since we have printed a short story by Bernard Malamud; his last previous one was “The Loan,” in our July 1952 number. Meantime, in 1953, he published his first novel, The Natural, which attracted favorable attention.

_____________

To the memory of Robert Warshow

Manischewitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities. Previously a man of comfortable means, he overnight lost all he had when his establishment caught fire, and, because a metal container of cleaning fluid exploded, burned to the ground. Although Manischewitz was insured, damage suits against him by two customers who had been seriously hurt in the flames deprived him of every penny he had collected. At almost the same time, his son, of much promise, was killed in the war, and his daughter, without a word of warning, married a worthless lout and disappeared with him, as if off the face of the earth. Thereafter Manischewitz became the victim of incessant excruciating backaches that knifed him over in pain, and he found himself unable to work even as a presser—the only job available to him—for more than an hour or two daily, because after that the pain from standing became maddening. His Leah, a good wife and mother, who had taken in washing, began before his eyes to waste away. Suffering marked shortness of breath, she at last became seriously ill and took to her bed. The doctor, a former customer of Manischewitz, who out of pity treated them, at first had difficulty diagnosing her ailment but later put it down as hardening of the arteries, at an advanced stage. He took Manischewitz aside, prescribed complete rest for her, and in whispers gave him to know there was little hope.

Throughout his trials Manischewitz had remained somewhat stoic, almost unbelieving that all this had descended upon his head, as if it were happening, let us say, to an acquaintance, or to some distant relative; it was in sheer quantity of woe incomprehensible. It was also ridiculous, unjust, and because he had always been a religious man—an affront to God. This, Manischewitz fanatically believed amid all his suffering. When, however, his burden had grown too crushingly heavy to be borne alone, he eased himself into a chair and with shut hollow eyes prayed: “My dear God, my soul, sweetheart, did I deserve this to happen to me?” But recognizing the worthlessness of this thought, he compelled himself to put complaint aside and prayed humbly for assistance: “Give to Leah back her health, and give to me, for myself, that I should not feel pain in every step I make. Help now, or tomorrow we are dead. This I don’t have to tell you.” And Manischewitz, aching all over and grief-stricken, wept.

_____________

Manischewitz’s flat, which he had moved into after the disastrous fire, was a meager one, furnished with a few sticks of chairs, a table, and bed, in one of the poorer sections of the city. There were three rooms: a living room, small, poorly papered; an apology for a kitchen, with a wooden icebox; and the comparatively large bedroom where Leah lay in a secondhand bed, panting for breath. The bedroom was the warmest room of the house and it was here, after his outburst to God, that Manischewitz, by the light of two small bulbs overhead, sat reading his Jewish newspaper. He was not truly reading, because his thoughts were everywhere but on the print. However the print offered a convenient resting place for his eyes; and a word or two, when he permitted himself to comprehend them, indeed had the effect of aiding him momentarily to forget his troubles. After a while he discovered, to his surprise, that he was actively scanning the news, searching for an item of great interest to him. Exactly what its contents would be he could not say—until he realized with astonishment that he was expecting to discover something regarding himself. At that moment he gazed up with the distinct impression that someone had entered the apartment, though he could not remember having heard the sound of the door. Manischewitz looked around: the room was still, Leah sleeping peacefully. Half-frightened, he observed her until he became convinced she was not dead; then, still disturbed by the thought of an unannounced visitor, he stumbled into the living room, and there had the shock of his life, for at the table sat a burly Negro reading a newspaper he had folded up to fit into one hand.

“What do you want here?” Manischewitz cried out in fright.

The Negro put down the paper and glanced up with a gentle smile. “Good evening.” He seemed not to be sure of himself, as if he had happened into the wrong house. He was a large man, bonily built, with a heavy head covered by a hard derby hat, which he made no attempt to remove. His eyes seemed sad, but his lips, above which he wore a slight mustache, were on the verge of laughter; he was not otherwise prepossessing. The cuffs of his sleeves, Manishewitz noted, were frayed to the lining, and the dark suit was badly fitted. He had very large feet. Recovering from his fright, Manischewitz guessed he was being visited by a case worker from the Welfare Department—some came at night—for he had recently applied for relief. Therefore he lowered himself into a chair opposite the Negro, returning, as well as he was able, the man’s somewhat troubled although pleasant smile. The former tailor sat stiffly but patiently at the table, waiting for the investigator to take out his pad and pencil and begin asking questions; but before long he became convinced the man intended to do nothing of the sort.

“Who are you?” Manischewitz asked uneasily.

“If I may, insofar as one is able to, identify myself, I bear the name of Alexander Levine.”

Despite himself, a trace of smile appeared on Manischewitz’s bitter lips.

“You said Levine?” he politely inquired.

The Negro nodded. “That is exactly right.”

Carrying the jest a bit farther, Manischewitz asked, “You are maybe Jewish?”

“All my life I was, most willingly.”

Manischewitz hesitated. He had heard of black Jews, but had never met one. It gave an unusual sensation.

Recognizing in afterthought something strange about the tense of Levine’s remark, he said doubtfully, “You ain’t Jewish any more?”

Levine, at this point, removed his hat, but immediately replaced it. He said quietly, “I have recently been discarnated into an angel. As such I offer you my humble assistance, if to offer is within my province and ability—in the best sense.” He lowered his eyes in apology. “Which calls for added explanation: I am what I am granted to be, and at present the completion is in the future.”

“What kind angel is this?” Manischewitz gravely asked.

“A bona fide angel of God, within prescribed limitations,” answered Levine, “not to be confused with the members of any sect, order, or organization here on earth operating under a similar name.”

_____________

Manischewitz was thoroughly disturbed. He had been expecting something but not quite this. What sort of mockery was it—provided Levine was an angel—of a faithful servant who had from childhood lived in the synagogues and houses of study, concerned with His word?

To test Levine he asked, “Then where are your wings?”

The Negro blushed as well as he was able. Manischewitz understood this from his expression. “Under certain circumstances we lose privileges and prerogatives upon returning to earth, no matter for what purpose, or endeavoring to assist whosoever.”

“So tell me,” Manischewitz said triumphantly, “how did you get here?”

“I was transmitted.”

Still troubled, the tailor said, “If you are a Jew, say the blessing for bread.”

Levine recited it in sonorous Hebrew.

Although moved by the familiar words, Manischewitz still could not believe he was dealing with an angel.

Somewhat angrily he demanded, “If you are an angel, show me the proof.”

Levine wet his lips. “Frankly, I cannot perform either miracles or near miracles, due to the fact that I am in a condition of probation. How long that will persist or even consist, I admit, depends on the outcome.”

Manischewitz racked his brains for some means of causing Levine positively to reveal his true identity, when the Negro spoke again:

It was given me to understand that both you and your wife require assistance of a salubrious nature?

The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of some jokester. Is this what a Jewish angel looks like? he thought. This I am not convinced.

But he asked one last question. “So if God sends to me an angel, why a black? Why not a white that there are so many of them?”

“It was my turn to go next,” Levine explained.

Manischewitz could not be convinced. “I think you are a faker.”

Levine slowly rose. His eyes showed disappointment and worry. “Mr. Manischewitz,” he said tonelessly, “if you should desire me to be of assistance to you any time in the near future, or possibly before, I can be found”—he cast a quick glance at his fingernails—“in Harlem.”

He was by then gone.

_____________

The next day Manischewitz felt some relief from his backache and was able to work four hours at pressing. The day after, he put in six; and the third day four again. Leah sat up a little and asked for some halvah to suck. But on the fourth day the stabbing, breaking ache returned to his back, and Leah once again lay supine, breathing with blue-lipped difficulty.

Manischewitz was miserably disappointed at the return of his active pain, and suffering. He had hoped for a longer interval of easement, long enough to have some thought other than of himself and his troubles. Day by day, hour by hour, minute after minute, he lived in pain, with pain as his only memory, and questioned the necessity of it, inveighed against it, and occasionally, though with affection, against God. Why so much, Gottenyu ? If He wanted to teach His servant a lesson for some reason, some cause—the nature of His nature—to teach him, say, for reasons of his weakness, his neglect of God during his years of prosperity—give him a little lesson, why then, any one of the tragedies that had happened to him, any one would have sufficed to chasten him. But all together—the loss of his means of livelihood, of both his children, the health of Leah and himself—that was too much to ask one frail-boned man to endure. Who, after all, was Manischewitz that he had been given so much to suffer? A tailor. Certainly not a man of talent. Upon him suffering was largely wasted. It went nowhere, into nothing: into more pain. His pain did not earn him bread, nor fill the cracks in the wall, nor lift, in the middle of the night, the kitchen table; only lay upon him, sleepless, so sharply oppressively that he could many times have shrieked yet not heard himself through all the misery.

In this mood he gave no thought to Mr. Alexander Levine, but at moments when the pain wavered, momentarily slightly diminishing, he sometimes wondered if he had been mistaken to dismiss him. A black Jew and angel to boot—hard to believe, but sup pose he had been sent to succor him, and he, Manischewitz, was in his blindness too blind to comprehend? It was this thought that set him on the knifepoint of agony.

Therefore the tailor, after much self-questioning and doubt, decided he would seek the self-styled angel in Harlem. Of course he had great difficulty, because he had not asked for specific directions, and all movement was tedious to him. The subway took him to 116th Street, and from there he wandered in a dark world. It was vast and its lights lit nothing. Everywhere were shadows, often moving. Manischewitz hobbled along painfully, with the aid of a cane; and not knowing where to seek in, the blackened tenement buildings, looked fruitlessly into store windows. In the stores he saw people and everybody was black. It was an amazing thing to observe. When he was too tired, too unhappy to go farther, Manischewitz stopped in front of a tailor’s store. Out of familiarity with the appearance of it, and with some heartbreak, he entered. The tailor, an old skinny Negro with a mop of woolly gray hair, was sitting cross-legged on his workbench, sewing a pair of full-dress pants that had a razor rent all the way down the seat.

“You’ll excuse me, please, gentleman,” said Manischewitz, admiring the tailor’s deft, thimbled fingerwork, “but you know maybe somebody by the name Alexander Levine?”

The tailor, who, Manischewitz thought, seemed somewhat antagonistic to him, scratched his scalp.

“Cain’t say I ever heered dat name.”

“Alex-ander Lev-ine,” Manischewitz pronounced slowly.

“Cain’t say I heered.”

Discouraged, Manischewitz was about to depart when he remembered to say: “He is an angel, maybe.”

“Oh him,” said the tailor, clucking. “He hang out in dat honky-tonk down a ways.” He pointed with a skinny finger and returned to the slit pants.

Manischewitz crossed the street against a red light and was almost killed by a taxi. On the block after the next, the fourth store from the corner was a cabaret, and the name in sparkling lights was Bella’s. Ashamed to go in, Manischewitz gazed through the neon-lighted window, and when the dancing couples parted and drifted away, he discerned, at a table towards the rear, Levine.

He was sitting by himself, a cigarette butt dangling from the corner of his mouth, playing solitaire with a dirty pack of cards, and Manischewitz felt a touch of pity for him, for Levine had deteriorated in appearance. His derby hat was dented and had a white smudge across the top. His ill-fitting suit had grown shabbier, as if he had been sleeping in it. His shoes and the bottoms of his trousers were caked with mud, and his face covered by an impenetrable stubble the color of licorice. Manischewitz, though dreadfully disappointed, was about to enter anyway, when a fat-breasted Negress in a purple evening gown appeared before Levine’s table, and with much laughter through many white teeth, broke into a vigorous sinuous shimmy. Levine looked straight at Manischewitz with a haunted expression, but the tailor was too paralyzed to move or acknowledge it. As Bella’s heavy gyrations continued, Levine rose, his eyes lit in excitement. She embraced him with vigor, both his hands going around her big restless buttocks, and they tangoed together across the floor, loudly applauded by the other customers. She seemed to have lifted Levine off his feet and his large shoes hung lifeless as they danced. They slid past the window where Manischewitz, white-faced, stood staring in. Levine winked slyly and the tailor fled home.

_____________

Leah lay at death’s door. Through shrunken lips she muttered concerning her girlhood, the sorrows of the marriage bed, the loss of her babies, yet wept to live. Manischewitz tried not to listen, but even without ears he would have heard her thoughts. It was not a gift. The doctor panted up the stairs, a broad but bland, unshaven man (it was Sunday) and shook his head. A day at most, or two. He left at once, not without mercy, to spare himself Manischewitz’s multiplied despair; the man who never stopped hurting. He would someday get him into a public home.

Manischewitz visited a synagogue and there spoke to God, but God was strangely absent. The tailor searched his heart and found no hope. When she died he would live dead. He considered taking his life although he knew he never would. Yet it was something to consider. Considering, you existed in dregs. He railed against God—shouted his name without love. Can you love a rock, a broom, an emptiness? Baring his breast, he smote the naked bones, cursing himself for having believed.

That afternoon, asleep in a chair, he dreamed of Levine. He was standing before a faded mirror, preening small, decaying opalescent wings. “This means,” mumbled Manischewitz, as he broke out of sleep, “that it is possible he could be an angel.” Begging a neighbor lady to look in on Leah, occasionally wet her lips with a drop of water, he drew on his thin coat, gripped his walking stick, exchanged some pennies for a subway token, and rode to Harlem. He recognized this act as the last desperate one of woe: to go without belief, seeking a black magician to restore his wife to invalidism. Yet if there was no choice, he did at last what was chosen.

_____________

He hobbled to Bella’s but the place had changed hands. It was now, as he breathed, a synagogue in a store. In the front, towards him, were several rows of empty wooden benches. In the rear stood the Ark, its portals of rough wood covered with many-colored sequins; under it a long table on which lay the sacred scroll unrolled, illuminated by the dim light of a bulb on a chain overhead. Around the table, as if frozen to it and the scroll, which they all touched with their fingers, sat four Negroes wearing black skullcaps. Now as they read the Holy Word, Manischewitz could, through the plate-glass window, hear the singsong chant of their voices. One of them was old, with a gray beard. One was bubble-eyed. One was humpbacked. The fourth was a boy, no older than thirteen. Their heads moved in rhythmic swaying. Touched by this sight from his childhood and youth, Manischewitz entered and stood silent in the rear.

Neshoma,” said bubble eyes, pointing to a word with a stubby finger. “Now what dat?”

“That means soul,” said the boy. He wore glasses.

“Let’s git on wid de commentary,” said the old man.

“Ain’t necessary,” said the humpback. “Souls is immaterial substance. That’s all. The soul is derived in that manner. The immateriality is derived from the substance, and they both, causally and otherwise, derived from the soul. There can be no higher.”

“That’s the highest.”

“Over de top.”

“Way, way.”

“Wait a minute,” said bubble eyes. “I don’t see what is dat immaterial substance. How come de one gits hitched to de odder? Speak up, man.” He addressed the humpback.

“Ask me something hard. Because it is substanceless immateriality. It couldn’t be closer together, like the organs of the body under one skin.”

“Hear now,” said the old man.

“All you done is switched de words.”

“It is the primum mobile, the substanceless substance from which comes all things that were incepted in the idea—you, me, and everything and body else.”

“Now how dat happen? Make it sound simple.”

“It de speerit,” said the old man. “On de face of de water moved de speerit. An’ dat was good. It say so in de Book. From de speerit ariz de man.”

“But now listen here. How come it become substance, if it all de time a spirit?”

“God alone done dat.”

“Holy! Holy! Praise His Name.”

“But has dis spirit got some kind of a shade or color?” asked bubble eyes, deadpan.

“Man, of course not. It colorless.”

“Then how come we is colored” he said, with a triumphant glare.

“Ain’t got nought to do wid dat.”

“I still like to know.”

“God put the spirit in all things,” answered the boy. “He put it in the green leaves an’ the red flowers. He put it in little gold fishes in the water an’ in the big blue sky. That’s how come it came to us.”

“Amen.”

“Praise Lawd and utter loud His speechless name.”

“Blow de bugle till it break de sky.”

They fell silent, intent upon the next word. Manischewitz approached.

“You’ll excuse me,” he said. “I am looking for Alexander Levine. You know him maybe?”

“That’s the angel,” said the boy.

“Oh, him,” snuffed bubble eyes.

“You’ll find him at Bella’s. It’s the establishment right across the street,” the humpback said.

Manischewitz explained that he could not stay, thanked them all, and limped across the street. It was already night. The city was dark and he could barely find his way.

_____________

But Bella’s was bursting with strains of blues. Through the window Manischewitz recognized the dancing crowd and among them sought Levine. He was sitting loose-lipped at Bella’s side table. They were tippling from an almost empty whiskey fifth. Levine had shed his old clothes, wore a shiny new checkered suit, pearl-gray derby, cigar, and big two-tone button shoes. To the tailor’s dismay, a drunken gaze had settled upon Levine’s formerly dignified face. He leaned toward Bella, tickled her ear lobe with his pinky, and whispered words that sent her into gales of raucous laughter. She fondled his knee.

Manischewitz, girding himself, pushed open the door and was not well received.

“This place reserved.”

“Beat it, pale puss.”

“Exit, Yankel, Semitic trash.”

He gasped, but moved towards the table where Levine sat, the crowd breaking before him as he hobbled forward.

“Mr. Levine,” he spoke in a trembly voice. “Is here Manischewitz.”

Levine glared through bleary eyes.

“Speak yo’ piece, son.”

Manischewitz shivered. His back plagued him. Cold tremors tormented his crooked legs.

“You’ll excuse me. I would like to talk to you in a private place.” He looked around, but people were everywhere and all of them listening.

“Speak, Ah is a private pu’son.”

Bella laughed piercingly. “Stop it, boy, you killin’ me.”

Manischewitz, no end disturbed, considered leaving, but Levine addressed him:

What is the pu’pose of yo’ communication with yo’s truly?

The tailor wet his cracked lips. “You are a Jew. This I am sure.”

Levine rose, his nostrils flaring.

“Anythin’ else yo’ got to say?”

Manischewitz’s tongue was in torment.

“Speak now, or fo’ever hold yo’ peace.”

Tears blinded the tailor’s eyes. Was ever man so tried? Should he say he believed a half-drunken Negro to be an angel?

The silence turned to stone.

Manischewitz was recalling scenes of his youth, as a wheel in his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. One had still to make a choice.

“I believe you are also an angel—from God.” He said it simply but in a broken voice. Yet he thought, If you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.

The hush broke. Everybody talked but the music commenced and they went on dancing. Bella, grown bored, picked up the cards and dealt herself a hand.

Levine burst into tears.

“How you have humiliated me.”

Manischewitz sincerely apologized.

“Wait’ll I freshen up.” Levine went to the men’s room and returned in his old clothes.

No one said goodbye as they left.

They rode to the flat via subway. As they walked up the stairs Manischewitz pointed with his cane to his door.

“That’s all been taken care of,” Levine said. “You best go in now.”

Disappointed that it was all over, yet torn by curiosity, Manischewitz followed the angel up four flights of stairs to the roof. When he got there the door was padlocked.

Luckily he could see through a small broken window. He heard a strange noise, as though of a vibration of wings, and when he strained for a wider view, could have sworn he saw a dark figure borne aloft on strong-pinioned, magnificent black wings.

A feather drifted down. Manischewitz gasped as it turned white, but it was only snowing.

He rushed downstairs. In the flat, Leah wielded a dust mop under the bed and upon the cobwebs on the wall.

“A wonderful thing, Leyka,” Manischewitz said. “There are Jews everywhere.”

_____________

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