With a title like “The Jewbird,” how could one not read this story?
Bernard Malamud recounts the tale of Schwartz, a talking crow-like “Jewbird” and his dealings with the Cohen family.
I won’t spend much time detailing the plot of the story — for that, you should read it. This tale is rife with symbolism and metaphors, and that will be the focus of the coming review. Though, be warned, there are spoilers.
In the first few lines of the story it becomes apparent Schwartz, the bird, and the Cohens are both Jewish.
Harry Cohen, the father, mentions his ill Jewish mother, who is living in an apartment, not far from them.
Malamud lets this piece of information sit in the background for the rest of the story. It becomes important much later.
Most of the story follows Schwartz as he settles in and lives with the Cohens. He helps them in various ways but can never seem to get on Harry’s good side.
Harry constantly questions why the bird must live there and always finds some excuse to make his stay unpleasant.
There’s no concrete reason Harry should feel such irritation toward Schwartz. Malamud leaves it up to the reader to create one.
This is the first inclination toward the larger idea Malamud explores in his story: the idea that Jewish people are tenants in other peoples’ lands and that humans can exhibit extreme hatred toward their own kind.
One sees Schwartz embody this concept of tenancy from the beginning, as the story opens with him plopping right down on the Cohens’ dinner table.
He then spends the next six or more months with the family.
This is much like Jewish people today, who’ve experienced a diaspora and thus must live elsewhere besides their original home, Israel.
It’s important to note Schwartz doesn’t classify as a freeloader. He provides value through tutoring their youngest son.
This idea of tenancy means to stay under the radar and not make waves for fear of being evicted. Schwartz does this for a while but eventually sticks up for himself.
What he gets for his efforts are two broken wings and kicked out of his home.
The parallels between Schwartz’s predicament and the global Jewish population are prevalent.
Perhaps the sadder theme is that of self-hatred.
Harry, though Jewish, repeatedly acts anti-Semitic toward Schwartz. The bird acts much like an elderly Jewish person might: very polite and stuck in traditions like drinking Schnapps to help his breathing.
This is reminiscent of Harry’s elderly mother. The implication is Schwartz is a representation of Harry’s Jewish mother who he has neglected and left to die alone.
The bird is a constant reminder Harry has neglected his heritage and the mother who loves him. Harry can’t help but brood on his own failings every day Schwartz stays with them, which is likely why he dislikes Schwartz.
It isn’t until the end that Malamud drags Harry’s mother back into the picture. The reader learns of her death, and on the same day Harry attacks Schwartz.
They fight on the balcony and it ends with Schwartz falling, “like a stone,” to the ground below.
It isn’t until spring that the youngest Cohen son finds Schwartz, dead by the river.
The mother, Edie, says it was “anti-Semeets” that killed him.
Harry, the anti-Semitic Jew, killed the representation of his failings as a son and a Jewish man, exorcising the guilt and self-hatred he felt with that one fatal act.
It is up to the reader to decide whether Harry will recognize his wrongdoings. It seems unlikely, but one can hope.
Griffen Winget can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org