Summary of Bernard Malamud’s The Jewbird

The Jewbird is a short story by the Jewish-American writer Bernard Malamud. It is a witty, sassy yet tragic story that enunciates in an unconventional way, the disastrous consequences of anti-Semitism. The tale is written with a lot of style and subtle humor yet it contains a disturbing side to it.

A strange, bedraggled bird flies into the kitchen of a lower East-side apartment. This apartment belongs to a frozen food salesman by the name Harry Cohen who lives there with his wife Edie, and their son Maurice. They quickly discover that the bird can talk and that his name is Schwartz. What is even more remarkable is that Schwartz is a Jewbird. He can even pray without a book or tallith as he demonstrates to them. Schwartz declares that he is flying away, away from the Anti-Semites. Schwartz is loaded with personality but his appearance is homely. His wings are ragged, his beak is long and his eyes cross. Edie suggests that Schwartz could be an old few that someone turned into a bird, Schwartz reply is “Who Knows, does God tell us everything?”

Schwartz endears himself to Edie and Maurice with his sense of humor but Harry is a hard nut to crack. Although he is amused by Schwartz at first, he soon tries of him. Edie and Maurice want Schwartz to stay but Harry has given Schwartz a deadline. He wants Schwartz to migrate soon. Meanwhile in order to make himself useful, Schwartz helps Maurice, who is a poor student with his homework and violin lessons. Maurice’s grades soon improve. Schwartz even reads comic books to Maurice when he is sick, although Schwartz doesn’t like them much.

Harry distrust Schwartz, although Schwartz does not give him any reason and Harry attitude towards him becomes antagonistic. When Schwartz asks Harry why he hates him, Harry’s answer is that he considers Schwartz to be a trouble-maker and a freeloader. The weather becomes cooler and Harry forces Schwartz to line outside in a bird house instead of the warm apartment. The cold weather causes the old bird to become stiff in his joints.

One day, when Edie is out and Maurice is taking a shower, Harry starts an argument with Schwartz. When Schwartz responds to Harry verbal abuse, Harry tries to throttle Schwartz luckily, Maurice comes out of the bathroom and interrupts the struggle. However, Harry’s manner towards Schwartz becomes more and more aggressive and he begins a crusade against the bird to force him a leave. He mixes cat food with Schwartz’s food to cause him to become sick. He blows up and pops large paper bags outside the bird house to frighten Schwartz at night. He even buys Maurice a cat to terrorize the bird. Schwartz is afraid but he has no place to go. He is old and frail and cannot fly very far.

Weeks go by and one day, Harry’s mother, who is sick and elderly dies. Maurice’s report card is a bad one. Harry is fed up and he takes out his frustration on Schwartz. Enraged he goes to the bird house, grabs Schwartz by his scrawny legs and flings him to the ground, and it crashes. Harry waits for Schwartz to return but he does not.

Time goes on. Maurice forgets about Schwartz because of his pet cat. Edie does think about him from time to time. Harry is just plain happy that he is gone.

One spring day, when the snow is melting, Maurice remembers Schwartz and goes looking for him in the neighborhood. He finds a dead black bird in a small clearing by the river. The bird’s wings have been broken, its neck twisted and its eyes have been plucked out. It is Schwartz. When Maurice tearfully asks his mother why would anyone do such a thing to a poor old bird, his mother replies: It’s the anti-Semites.

Malamud creates Harry as the embodiment of hate, Anti- Semitism and murderous mischief and worse still, he is a Jew simultaneously, Schwartz becomes Malamud’s representation of a traditional Jewish person, may be even a rabbi of sorts. He is funny, intelligent Schwartz’s fate is a powerful and disturbing ending to the story with the chilling effects of hate so clearly illustrated. Malamud’s, the Jewbird is a critique of Anti-Semitism.

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