Tonight we explored Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel — and its interesting connection to the work of Marc Chagall.
Both Malamud and Chagall — Jewish artists — found ways to echo the Jewish world in a magical way.
Steve Olson facilitated with the assistance of Ellen Meyer.
Bernard Malamud was one of a few Jewish writers who came into prominence after World War II. He was born in 1914 to Ukranian parents — his father was poorly educated and ran a grocery store at 1111 Graves End Avenue in Brooklyn.
He spoke Yiddish at home and his parents spoke Russian. At thirteen years old he wanted a bar mitzvah. His parents provided him with an Orthodox tutor who hit his hands whenever he made a mistake…which, needless to say, was not the best learning environment for him. On his birthday morning, his father took him into the living room, wrapped tefillin on his son and said “ok, that’s it”. No party, nothing.
Later that year he found his mother after a suicide attempt. She died three years later. She was paranoid schizophrenic — as was his brother Eugene.
Bernard Malamud was a storyteller. He would listen to the customers at his father’s store — he would go to the movies and he would recall the stories to his friends.
He began courting non-Jewish Ann — he tells her that his writing is the most important thing to him. He marries her at the Ethical Culture Society in 1947. She cries all the way to the ceremony.
His father sat shiva after the wedding….but later reconciled with him after the birth of their first child.
Malamud lands a job teaching at a community college on the coast of Oregon.
In 1958 the collection of short stories entitled The Magic Barrel won the American Book Award.
At some point Malamud found his Jewish voice…amidst his own background and suffering. His writing suddenly took on depth and richness that was new in American literature.
He was remarkably compassionate to those who are usually overlooked in society — was compassionate to his father.
You can read The Magic Barrel short story HERE:
The story, The Magic Barrel, represents the non-realism of story usually characteristic of folkloric Yiddishkeit stories.
Some of the symbolism in the story — the gift of the tomato — representing life, love, vibrance, generosity… Red like the red shoes, the red and purple flowers — passion, love, life.
The fish representing fertility, good luck — fish is the symbol of G-d watching over us at all times.
The images of “Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky” — so very “Chagall-like”…almost as though Malamud wanted to create a Chagall-like feel to his story.
Here in the story there are echoes of love — echoes between people and their desires. The author was so worried that he would never find love — and never be deserving of it.
This story represents a beautiful dance of our hope for love, our desire for love and our fear of it….and our fear that we will never find it.
Now — on to Chagall.
Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in Russia — one of nine children. For his living, his father sold herring.
He wrote a book “My Life” — with his wife Bella.
Marc Chagall decided to become an artist and left the shtetl….which was very fortunate for him. He painted what was around him as well as his hopes and dreams — life in the shtetl. Interestingly, though, he was not an academic artist. He attended a Russian experimental school which was influenced by ideas of Parisian art.
He moved to Paris in 1910-12. He held studio space in LaRouche, surrounded by many other Russian Jewish artists. They were heavily influenced by Modernism, Cubism, Abstract art.
Chagall was personally influenced by Russian icons. He created separate spaces of color which would represent different people — in icons people are always floating through space.
He was influenced by circuses. He created circular spaces to indicate movement.
Here, in “The Birthday”, he is together with Bella. He met Bella in Vitelosk. He never wanted to tell his birthday. One year Bella figured it out and ran all over town to buy his favorite things for the birthday. In this painting Chagall is falling over backwards with ecstasy and joy from what she did for him. This was an emotional piece.
Here we have lovers, pig, cow (a chicken representing sin?) and eggs representing fertility and life.
These paintings are dreamlike.
The White Crucifixion was painted after the breakout of the Nazi pogroms in November 1938. So many symbols of hope and despair intermingled…like life, like love.
We continue to be inspired by these amazing artists and their magical way of echoing dreams and folklore and reality.
Such an interesting session! (I was so inspired!)