The novel is set in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is a rundown conglomeration of tenements and stores not far from a small park, a movie theater, and a public library. With the exception of Frank Alpine and Ward Minogue, the important characters are Jews, but since they are in a neighborhood of gentiles, they are drawn to one another — however vaguely or antagonistically at times — by the bond of their Jewishness. Judaism as a formal religion seems to have little place in their lives, but their consciousness of themselves as Jews is always present
The sources and nature of such an identity are complex, and to those who have had little contact with ethnic groups especially in big cities — ethnic identities may be puzzling. They are, however, a widespread element in American society, subject to scrutiny by social scientists and manipulation by politicians. In earlier twentieth-century America, they were of more concern in Eastern cities than in Midwestern farm communities because in rural communities they seemed colorful and accommodative but in cosmopolitan places they were often sources of tension.
These ethnic identities take their origin from the large-scale transplantation of European cultural and religious groups. Wave after wave of immigrants poured Irishmen, Italians, Poles, Jews, and many other groups into seaboard cities where they clustered together because of a common language, religion, eating habits, and ways of earning a living, but of equal importance was their sharing of a folklore, a history, a temperament, and a fund of culture and humor.
They took pleasure but, even more important, they took great security from mutual support and mutual ritualization of the essentials of their identity. The keystone of their mutual reliance was a sense of trust in this new, strange land. A sense of joy and safety infused their formal religion, their social clubs, their everyday gossip, their courtship and mating habits (intermarriage was frowned on bitterly), and sometimes their education and their criminal elements.
Unlike other immigrant groups (such as the Irish and Italian), the Jews did not come from a single country, a fact which still eludes many Americans, as does the feeling of Jewish identity of some American Jews who do not observe the Jewish religion. The roots of Jewishness run strong and deep. The modern Jew (unless he moves to Israel) lives in what is called the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews throughout the Western world after the destruction of ancient Israel in the first century of the Christian era. Into the dispersion the Jews carried their religious laws with an ever-expanding written and oral commentary, which covered not only issues of basic morality but also injunctions about eating, dressing, observing the Sabbath and holy days, conduct of marriage, rearing of children, and so on. The law was conveyed through the ancient Hebrew language, the language of the Old Testament and of religious discourse. Learning in this rich lore was highly honored.
Out of compulsion but sometimes by choice, the Jews tended to live among themselves and were often brutally herded into ghettos. As the victims of large-scale animosities and cruelties, the Jews learned to be mobile (hence such trades as jeweler, peddler, pawnbroker, and salesman); they developed a rich tradition of parable and an often self-mocking and emotion-relieving humor, but above all they developed a will to survive as individuals and as a people. The culmination of their persecution was the European Holocaust of 1939-45, in which about six million European Jews were systematically murdered and cremated by Nazi Germany.
Thus Jewish culture and identity became a kind of national identity independent of any geographical locale. In the Middle Ages, this culture developed a Germanic vernacular language called Yiddish, which until the early twentieth century was often the first language learned by a Jew, whether he was born in Russia, Poland, Germany, or an eastern American city. A highly expressive tongue, Yiddish served as a vehicle for folklore and humor, some of it formalized in newspapers and books. Morris Bober reads The Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper published in New York City, and The Assistant is embellished with a number of Yiddish words.
The Jewish law always called for the highest morality (indeed, a kind of moral passion); for joy in God' s gifts within the limits of the law; for justice among nati6ns; and for equal treatment of stranger and friend; but some of these requirements often clashed with the structure and demands of modern life. Anti-Semitism led to fear and suspicion of the gentile; isolation, religious observance, and dietary laws led to a feeling of alienation from the gentile. These conflicts, plus the upsurge of anti-religious scientific and social thought in the modern world, and the general decline of traditional faith, led to the paradox of the modern intellectual Jew: He became a man who is often profoundly skeptical of religion, unable to observe the Sabbath and the dietary laws, usually passionately liberal, deeply attached to fellow workers and friends by bonds other than those of Judaism, and often searchingly keen in his questions about social structures and traditions. In the modern Jew, the puritan element of traditional Judaism turned in him to a passionate but not always comfortable concern with social ethics. Men like this are not very conspicuous in Malamud's fiction but knowledge of them as part of the Jewish identity helps explain such persons as Morris Bober, S. Levin, and Yakov Bok. Above all, it helps explain the tenacious identity of the nonreligious Jew.
It is within the borders of this changing social context that the Jews of The Assistant, especially the Bober family, steer their precarious way, though it is indeed their character traits that shape their destiny and give them their frequently appealing (though somewhat bumbling) characteristics. Anti-Semitism is on a fairly small scale because there are few Jews in the neighborhood, but one senses a delicately ritualized distancing between Jew and Italian, and an identification of German, Irish, Norwegian, and Swedish as somehow to be suspected but, in one's deeper soul, to receive recognition as fellow humans. Malamud also makes subtle use of the interplay between the Bobers, the Karps, and the Pearls to show ordinary human variations among Jews and to show that the most meaningful bonds and trust do not follow ethnic lines — one of the major things that Frank Alpine (and Helen Bober as well) and the reader must learn.
The all-important desperation and precariousness of the Bober family have many roots: in Morris' lack of education, in bad luck related to his bumbling character, and in the socioeconomic changes which are impinging on the neighborhood-type small grocery. The immediate temper of the times is also important, but Malamud, perhaps purposely, has made it difficult to place the time of the action. We learn repeatedly that times are bad, coffee still costs a nickel a cup, Frank buys himself an outfit of clothes for a surprisingly low cost, Helen's complaint that "This is our youth" has a depression ring, and Louis Karp drives a Mercury — a car first manufactured in 1938 — but the most decisive evidence seems to be Frank's $35 weekly pay for working in an all-night café — a wage extremely unlikely for the later Depression years. Possibly the action occurs in the immediate post-World War II years, a period colored by a feeling of depression.
Vital as are all these background factors, one should not forget that Malamud's tale focuses on the quality of the noble yet bitter and unsuccessful life of Morris Bober but even more essentially on the struggles and transformations in Frank Alpine's life — all of which demonstrate the complexity, ambiguity, and painful triumph of a human life which could happen almost anywhere. Malamud shows us in Alpine's struggles that, despite one's heritage, "there are Jews everywhere."