the last jew in east harlem: edward lewis wallant’s the pawnbroker

“the thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro”


From Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961):

You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend, nothing else. You have no land to grow food on, no land on which to hunt, not enough time in one place to have a geography or an army or a land-myth. Only you have a little brain in your head and this bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that there is something special about you, even in your poverty. But this little brain, that is the real key. With it you obtain a small piece of cloth—wool, silk, cotton—it doesn’t matter. You take this cloth and you cut it in two and sell the two pieces for a penny or two more than you paid for the one. With this money, then, you buy a slightly larger piece of cloth, which perhaps may he cut into three pieces and sold for three pennies’ profit. You must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread at this point, a luxury like a toy for your child. Immediately you must go out and buy a still-larger cloth, or two large cloths, and repeat the process. And so you continue until there is no longer any temptation to dig in the earth and grow food, no longer any desire to gaze at limitless land which is in your name. You repeat this process over and over for approximately twenty centuries. And then, voilá—you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you. But then it is instinct. Is it not simple? My whole formula for success.

Thus the protagonist Sol Nazerman explains to his Puerto Rican employee the "success story" of the Jewish people (p. 22).

Later, Sol takes upon himself the burden of the sins of the world (p 176; p. 189):

The thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro. . . . And He was a Jew, too, just like the Pawnbroker; there’s a laugh for you. He tried to imagine the pawnbroker in a position like that, nailed upon a cross, the heavy, graceless body broken and naked. . . .

They looked around at the stock of the store and saw it as a tremendous weight on him. And that seemed to awe them, too, for as they added their own small item it was as though they piled on weight to prove his immense power, so that some of them even went out laughing, having left him a piece of their pain.


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