This post is the first entry in my Religion in Pop Culture Series. Each week, usually on Wednesdays, I will be looking at the representation and interpretation of religion in literature, film, television, and video games. Spoilers will abound. You can read the introductory post here.
Frank Alpine is fond of St. Francis of Assisi: “He was a great man. The way I look at it, it takes a certain kind of nerve to preach to birds.”
The titular character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, Frank admires Francis more for his spunk than his piety, praising the saint for his enjoyment of poverty and talent for basic goodness. “Every time I read about somebody like him I get a feeling inside of me I have to fight to keep from crying.” Frank dreams of being something great, and he wishes he had the saint’s nerve and self-control.
Frank grew up in an orphanage where an old priest would come and read stories. The tales have stayed with him, although Frank is not a religious man. After drifting from this to that, he’s come to Brooklyn with the plan of being a great criminal, believing for the moment that he is meant for a life of crime. Fortunately for him, his participation in an armed robbery quickly rids him of this particular sense of purpose.
The store he helps rob is run by an old Jewish grocer named Morris Bober. Times have not been good to Morris and his wife, Ida. Their small grocery hasn’t brought in the business they used to have, and their adult daughter Helen has had to forsake college and work a secretarial job to help keep her parent’s store afloat. Adding injury to insult, Morris has to be hospitalized after the lead robber, enraged by antisemitism, assaults him.
Frank is beside himself with guilt for the small part he played, and without admitting his involvement in the crime, he offers to work as a clerk at the store simply for a place to stay and for the experience. At first Morris is opposed, not wanting Frank to be imprisoned in the grocery business as he is, but he finally relents when his wound reopens and he has to return to the hospital. Morris soon decides to keep Frank on the job and pay him a meager wage after the clerk shows promise and brings in additional customers, some of whom seem to prefer buying groceries from the Italian rather than a Jew.
A lot of Jews had come to Brooklyn by this time (the 1950s), but the Bobers live in a neighborhood with only a few other Jewish families. The lead robber of their store, Ward Minogue, had targeted their place specifically because they’re Jews, and Frank had gone along with it, repeating Ward’s prejudiced words, “a Jew is a Jew.” Frank doesn’t share Ward’s hostility to Jews, but he’s deep enough in his own quiet antisemitism to go with the flow.
Nevertheless, Morris’s faith fascinates Frank. As the two men get to know one another, Frank asks Morris about his heritage and beliefs and challenges him on his selective approach to Judaism. The grocer keeps his store open on most Jewish holidays and occasionally eats ham. Being kosher is less important to Morris than following the Law, which for him means being honest and treating others with kindness and respect. “If a Jew forgets the Law…he is not a good Jew, and not a good man.”
Frank is particularly curious about the excessive suffering the Jews seem to experience. “Why is it the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris?” Frank asks. “It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?” Morris answers that the Jews suffer because they are Jews: “If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”
To this, Frank asks Morris what he suffers for, and Morris says, “I suffer for you” and “you suffer for me.” Frank isn’t satisfied, but this talk with Morris has opened his eyes. He admits to Morris that he didn’t used to have much use for Jews and didn’t understand them. Now that he’s begun to know what they are like, he appreciates their history, their struggles, and who they are. Admittedly, he also wants to date Helen.
Through his own weakness and depravity Frank has greatly suffered and caused tremendous suffering in others. He betrays the Bober’s trust by lying, stealing, and, in a moment of fear and despair, raping Helen. He does all he can to make amends, too much really. Instead of disappearing from their lives, he haunts the store, begging Helen to forgive him and Morris to give him back his job. Understandably, neither one of them wants anything to do with Frank, but when Morris dies of pneumonia, Ida and Helen feel they have no choice but to accept Frank’s help. Without him, they’re ruined and homeless. With him, they can get by. Their poverty gives them no choice.
Wanted or not, Frank now belongs with them. Their suffering is his and his suffering is theirs. He takes a separate night job to help pay the bills and cover the costs necessary for Helen to return to college. Despite Frank’s attempts to improve business, the customers don’t come. Frank takes to reading the Bible as a way to keep away his anxiety, and “he sometimes thought there were parts of it he could have written himself.” As if to completely share their place in the world, Frank converts to their faith. He has himself circumcised at the hospital, the pain enraging and inspiring him, and after Passover becomes a Jew.
His conversion has little to do with theology or even belief in God. Judaism appeals to Frank not because it explains human suffering to him, but because it gives him a way to suffer meaningfully for the people he cares about. As a Jew, striving to follow the Law as Morris had done, Frank knows that he will continue to suffer, but he hopes that his suffering will mean something more than his weakness of will. It will enrage him still, yes, but it will inspire him as well. He can’t make sense of suffering, but as a Jew he has a way to make sense out of it, a way to accept and embrace suffering with a nerve akin to that of St. Francis. His conversion isn’t a cure, but it’s a way forward, a strong sense of purpose, a chance for greatness, and that’s enough for Frank.