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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world

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Mendel Beilis (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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The blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis, which occurred 100 years ago this month, was one of the great legal dramas of the 20th century. Beilis, a Jew, was arrested in 1911 by the Czarist Russian secret police in Kiev and accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy and using the boy’s blood to bake matzah for Passover. Jailed for over two years while awaiting trial under horrible conditions, Beilis heroically resisted all pressure to implicate himself or other Jews.

In 1913, after a dramatic trial that riveted the Jewish people and much of the rest of the world, Beilis was acquitted by an all-Christian jury. After his acquittal, Beilis moved to Palestine, and then to New York. In 1925, he published a memoir in Yiddish. In 1926, Beilis published an English translation of his memoir titled The Story of My Sufferings, with translation by Harrison Goldberg.

But the most famous evocation of Beilis’ story was written not by him but by Bernard Malamud, whose 1966 novel The Fixerwith a protagonist, Yakov Bok, patterned after Beilis—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. “By the late twentieth century,” the historian Albert Lindemann noted, “memory of the Beilis case came to be inextricably fused (and confused) with … The Fixer.” And yet, neither in The Fixer nor in any of his public statements about The Fixer did Malamud ever acknowledge the great debt he owed to Beilis’ book.

We, the authors of this article—including Jay Beilis, a grandson of Mendel Beilis—have published a new edition of Mendel Beilis’ memoir, in a volume titled Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis. Our book also contains a long essay, “Pulitzer Plagiarism,” setting forth two complaints about The Fixer: that Malamud debased the memories of Beilis and his wife, and also that he plagiarized extensively from Beilis’ memoir, presenting another man’s account of his terrible suffering and heroic choices as fictions of his own invention.

***

In Blood Libel, we detail 35 specific instances of plagiarism. Following are a few of them. When quoting from Beilis’ memoir in this part of the article, we quote from the 1926 English edition, rather than our own edition, because the 1926 edition is what Malamud read.

In the first interrogation, Beilis is questioned by the hostile District Attorney Karbovsky:

The District Attorney, Karbovsky who had been leaning back on his chair, watching me intently, suddenly bent over the table and asked me:

“They say there are people among you Jews who are called ‘tzadikim’ (pious men). When one wishes to do harm to another man, you go to the ‘Tzadik’ and give him a ‘pidion’ (fee), and the ‘tzadik’ uses the power of his word which is sufficient to bring misfortune upon other men. …”

The Hebrew words that he was using, “Tzadik,” “pidion” and the like were written down in his notebook and each time he wanted to use the word he would consult his notebook. I answered:

“I am sorry but I know nothing about ‘tzadikim,’ ‘pidionoth’ or any other of these things. I am a man entirely devoted to my business, and I don’t understand what you want of me.”

Malamud depicts Yakov Bok’s interrogation by the hostile Prosecuting Attorney Grubeshov in strikingly similar fashion:

Grubeshov addressed Yakov, reading aloud certain words from his notebook and pronouncing them slowly.

“There are those among you—are there not?—Jews who are called ‘tzadikim’? When a Jew wishes to harm a Christian, or as you call him ‘goyim,’ he goes to the ‘tzadik’ and gives him a ‘pidion,’ which is a fee of some sort, and the ‘tzadik’ uses the power of the word, in magical incantations, to bring misfortune on the Christian. Isn’t that a true fact? Answer me.”

“Please,” said Yakov, “I don’t understand what you want of me. What have I to do with such things?”

At the prison hospital, Beilis is treated for his infected feet by an anti-Semitic doctor:

After the good rest I had … I was operated upon by the physician. When he commenced to open the sores, the pain made me wince and scream. The doctor smiled and observed, “Well, Beilis, now you know for yourself how it feels to be cut up. You can imagine now how Andriusha had felt when you were stabbing him and drawing his blood—all for the sake of your religion.” You can imagine how cheerful I felt at this raillery of the doctor. He kept on cutting leisurely and I had to bite my lips not to let myself scream.

Malamud’s Bok is also treated by an anti-Semitic doctor:

When he awoke, the surgeon, smoking a cigar, unwound the bandages and operated on his feet. He cut into the pussing sores with a scalpel, without anesthetic. The prisoner, biting his lips to be silent, cried out at each cut.

“This is good for you, Bok,” said the surgeon. “Now you know how poor Zhenia felt when you were stabbing him and draining his blood, all for the sake of your Jewish religion.”

Every time Beilis was searched, all the locks on his cell had to be opened, which unnerved him: “[E]ach time the door was to be opened, all thirteen locks had to be shot back. The sound of the rasping lock-springs used to set my nerves on edge. I was obsessed with the illusion that somebody behind me was hitting me repeatedly upon the head—it was one blow after another.”

Malamud’s Bok has the same reaction to the unlocking of his cell: “Hearing the six bolts being snapped back one by one, four or five times a day, put the fixer on edge. … Six times a day [the] key grated in the lock, and one by one the twelve bolts were snapped back, each with a noise like a pistol shot. Yakov put his hands to his head, obsessed by the thought that someone was hitting him repeatedly.”

The list of passages in The Fixer that borrow without attribution from Beilis’ autobiography goes on and on. In one striking passage of his memoir, Beilis is warned by his attorney that the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds might attempt to kill him by poisoning his individual portions of prison food, in order to stave off defeat in the courtroom. Beilis therefore petitions the court authorities to allow him to take food from the common kettle:

My petition was at first refused. I was told, “if you want to eat, eat what you are given—if not, you can starve. No special privileges for you. We shall not poison you—it is your Jews that you have to beware of. They are not satisfied with using our blood and are inventing additional lies to make us appear ridiculous.”

I had reasons to be stubborn. I declared a hunger strike. Three days elapsed—whenever a prisoner doesn’t eat for a few days the [prosecutor] is summoned to investigate. The [prosecutor] appeared. I told him I should like to get my food myself from the kettle—not to have it brought into my room.

His reply was: “It cannot be permitted; you must not leave your cell. You are supposed to be under strict confinement. The other prisoners and guards must not even look at you.”

“Well,” I answered, “let them turn away.”

In The Fixer, Bok is actually poisoned by prison authorities, goes on a hunger strike, then demands to eat from the common pot. The almost verbatim borrowings from Beilis are italicized:

“I won’t eat what you give me. You can shoot me but I won’t eat.”

“If you expect to eat, eat what you get. If not you’ll starve.”

For the next five days Yakov starved. He exchanged the sickness of poisoning for the sickness of starving. He lay on the mattress, sleeping fitfully. Zhitnyak threatened him with a whipping but nothing came of it. On the sixth day the warden returned to the cell, his cross-eye watering and face flushed. “I command you to eat.”

“Only out of the common pot,” Yakov said weakly. “What the other prisoners eat. I will eat. Let me go to the kitchen and take my gruel and soup out of the common pot.”

“It cannot be allowed,” said the warden. “You mustn’t leave your cell. You are under strict confinement. Other prisoners are not allowed to look at you. It’s all in the regulations.”

They can turn their heads while I draw my rations.”

The following illustration of Malamud’s plagiarism is perhaps the most distressing, though it does not involve as much verbatim copying as many of the others. After one year of imprisonment, Beilis reports being approached by a curious contingent led by a general:

The general came closer to me and said: “Beilis, you will soon be let free.” “On what grounds?” I ask him. His answer was: “The tercentary jubilee of the reign of the Romanoff dynasty is soon to be celebrated. There will be a manifesto pardoning all ‘katorjniks’ [convicts].”

“That manifesto,” said I, “will be for ‘katorjniks,’ not for me. I need no manifesto, I need a fair trial.”

“If you will be ordered to be released, you’ll have to go.”

“No,—even if you open the doors of prison, and threaten me with shooting, I shall not leave. I shall not go without a trial. I am strong enough to suffer all until the trial.”

Similarly, after years of imprisonment, Malamud’s Yakov Bok is informed that in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the rule of the House of Romanov he is “to be pardoned and permitted to return to his village.” Bok demurs, however, since he would be pardoned as a criminal and not released as innocent. “Yakov said he wanted a fair trial, not a pardon. If they ordered him to leave the prison without a trial they would have to shoot him first.”

As discussed below, literary critics have congratulated Malamud on his great inventiveness in making up the pardon incident, not realizing that the incident actually happened, and that Beilis’ heroic refusal of a pardon was lifted by Malamud from Beilis’s memoir.

In Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, Malamud’s biographer Philip Davis does take note of our plagiarism claims. Davis acknowledges that we had made “a case for plagiarism against Malamud, quite properly and carefully detailing some close verbal parallels.” Davis also offers a justification of Malamud’s conduct, however; he argues that “[w]hen it mattered most, [Malamud’s] sentences offered a different dimension and a deeper emotion.”

Yet we believe that unauthorized copying is plagiarism, whether or not the plagiarist uses his undeniably literary talent to improve on his source. We also believe, and argue in our book, that, in this case, Malamud did not improve on his source: Beilis’ memoir, in its truth and directness, is a better book than the often-labored fictionalized version produced by Malamud.

***

The differences between the historical Mendel Beilis and Malamud’s character Yakov Bok have caused considerable confusion. As drawn by Malamud, Bok is angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, and childless. Also, he is not at all religious; indeed, he is anti-religious. A penniless shtetl Jew just arrived in Kiev, Bok has virtually no friends and virtually no family save his father-in-law Shmuel. His faithless wife Raisl has deserted him. Bok appears to bear much or most of the responsibility for the breakup of their marriage: He treated her poorly, blaming her for their failure to have children.

When his father-in-law implores him not to forget his God, Bok replies: “Who forgets who? … What do I get from him but a bang on the head and a stream of piss in my face. So what’s there to be worshipful about?” On the way to Kiev, Bok admonishes his horse: “I’m a bitter man, you bastard horse. Come to your senses or you’ll suffer.”

While Bok is in prison, his wife Raisl visits him. She exclaims: “Oh, Yakov, what have they done to you? What did you do to yourself? How did such a terrible thing happen?” He responds: “You stinking whore, what did you do to me? It wasn’t enough we were poor as dirt and childless. On top of that you had to be a whore.” During this meeting, Yakov’s wife informs him that she has had a child as a result of a relationship with another man, evidently one of several such relationships. He thinks: “There’s no bottom to my bitterness.” (However, in a moving scene, Yakov does agree to sign a paper stating, falsely, that the child is his.)

The actual Mendel Beilis was very different: a dignified, respectful, fairly religious man with a faithful wife and five children. When arrested, Beilis had been working as superintendent of a brick factory for about 15 years. By all accounts he was good at his job and was extremely well-liked by his co-workers and neighbors (as discussed further below). Beilis was not a totally observant Jew. He worked on Saturday—fortunately for him, as he was signing shipping slips and dealing with co-workers during the time when he was alleged to have kidnapped the Christian boy. Nevertheless, Beilis was fairly observant. Here is how he describes his first Friday night in the Okhrana (secret police) jail:

As night came on, I remembered that this was the first Friday night in all my life that the evening was spoiled. I thought of my usual Friday nights with the candles on the table, with the children dressed in their Sabbath best, and everybody so warm and friendly. And now? The house in disorder. My poor wife alone at the cheerless table. No light, no joy. And all of them weeping their eyes out. I almost forgot my own troubles, thinking of my unfortunate boy [David Beilis, then 8 years old, who was briefly imprisoned in the Okhrana jail] and my mourning family.

The New York Times story on Beilis’ funeral, dated July 10, 1934, begins: “Orthodox Jewry paid tribute yesterday to one of its leaders when more than 4,000 attended funeral services for Mendel Beiliss [sic].” This was inaccurate in that Beilis was not a leader of Orthodox Jewry; a more accurate statement would have been that “Orthodox Jewry paid tribute to one of its honored figures.” Still, the Times story is an indication that Beilis was broadly part of the world of traditional Judaism. Another indication is the 1930 letter of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, which Beilis included in the 1931 Second Yiddish edition of his memoir (the letter is also reproduced, in translation, in our own edition of Beilis’s memoir).

***

David Beilis, one of Mendel Beilis’ five children (and the father of Jay Beilis), complained to Malamud soon after The Fixer was published. David Beilis was upset about Malamud’s plagiarism, but far more upset about the debasement of his father’s memory and that of his mother, Esther Beilis. In a letter to Malamud dated Dec. 11, 1966, David Beilis criticized The Fixer as “lousy” and as “an unkind view” of his father. David Beilis felt that Malamud’s portrayal of Bok as a God-despising Jew demeaned his father’s crucial role as surrogate for the Jewish people and its holy texts, which were collectively accused of ritual murder by the Russian Black Hundreds. David Beilis wrote, “Everybody knows that in the defendant’s dock at the trial with my father sat fifteen million Jews with the glorified book the Bible which we are proud of for centuries before, and to come.”

This complaint of David Beilis echoes the 1930 letter of Rabbi Kook:

The man Beilis endured these severe tests in a spirit of truth and righteousness, fortified by the sanctity of Judaism, and with an unwavering conviction that his hands were innocent and clean. He emerged with honor, crowned with the wreath of victory. And his honor was also that of our entire nation and the honor of the holy and pure Torah.

David Beilis wrote another letter protesting The Fixer to Francis Brown, editor of The New York Times Book Review, who then forwarded the letter to Malamud.

Malamud responded in a letter dated April 19, 1967: “Though The Fixer is based on an historical event it is a fiction and makes no attempt to portray Mendel Beilis or his wife. Yakov and Raisl Bok, I am sure you will agree, in no way resemble your parents.” The problem, of course, is that readers of The Fixer, knowing that the character Yakov Bok was based on Mendel Beilis, might well believe that Yakov and Raisl Bok did resemble Mendel Beilis and his wife Esther.

Malamud’s Bok is ultimately a sympathetic and heroic figure. Most people are not as heroic as Yakov Bok, and perhaps would not complain if they were assumed to have qualities similar to those of Bok. But Beilis himself was at least as heroic as Bok. Malamud copied Beilis’ character in that respect (even dialing down Beilis’ heroism a bit), while making Bok in other ways less appealing. So, for Beilis, the comparison is unflattering. In creating a character so close to Mendel Beilis in historical details, in fortitude and courage, yet endowed with many unappealing personal traits, Malamud assaulted the reputation and dignity of Mendel Beilis, his wife, and his descendants.

There is one matter as to which we commend Malamud. In response to David Beilis’ complaints, Malamud wrote David Beilis that he was attempting to arrange for the republication of Mendel Beilis’ memoir by his own publisher, Roger Straus, Jr. of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with royalties going to Beilis’ surviving family. This plan did not come to fruition.

***

It might be thought that by complaining both about Malamud’s plagiarism from Beilis’ memoir and his debasement of Beilis’ memory, David Beilis was making, and we are endorsing, two inconsistent accusations against Malamud. Are we saying both that Malamud’s character Bok is too much like Beilis and not enough like him?

In fact, the accusations are not inconsistent. In writing The Fixer, Malamud caused two kinds of confusion about Beilis. First, he created the perception that Beilis’ work, which he copied without attribution, was in fact Malamud’s own work. Second, he created the perception that the traits of his characters Yakov and Raisl Bok were the traits of Mendel and Esther Beilis. Both of these confusions can exist at the same time; indeed, they can coexist in the same reader. We will illustrate what we call the two confusions through the response of literary critics to The Fixer.

The first kind of confusion (the perception that Malamud originated what in fact he copied from Beilis) is of course to be expected when there is copying as extensive as Malamud’s. This confusion is reflected in critical commentary on the rejected-pardon incident.

As previously described, Beilis was told he would be freed through a general pardon for convicts on the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. He refused, stating: “[E]ven if you open the doors of prison, and threaten me with shooting, I shall not leave. I shall not go without a trial. I am strong enough to suffer all until the trial.” Malamud copies the basic details of this incident, patterning Yakov Bok’s response after Beilis’: “Yakov said he wanted a fair trial, not a pardon. If they ordered him to leave the prison without a trial they would have to shoot him first.”

Several critics have called attention to this incident as the high point of the novel. Sheldon J. Hershinow, author of Bernard Malamud, writes:

The tsar has agreed to grant certain classes of criminals, including Yakov, amnesty. But Yakov does the unimaginable, he refuses—because he is to be pardoned as a criminal rather than freed as an innocent man. The gesture is absurd but magnificent, an affirmation of his personal dignity and moral integrity. This emotional high point of the novel inspires the reader at the same time that it defeats Yakov’s enemies.

In his essay “The Hero as Schnook,” in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, Alan Friedman writes:

[L]ater he [Bok] is offered freedom without conditions—he need sign nothing, he need confess to no crime: “He was to be pardoned and permitted to return to his village” … And Yakov Bok, long victimized by a horror and degradation that would make the strongest of men despair, and long after we who have identified with him—and to read the book is to identify with him—long after we have stopped hoping for a way out, have in fact asked ourselves again and again why the poor schnook doesn’t simply give up this farce, this absurd parody of human life, then Yakov Bok is offered this way out—and he refuses, refuses because he is to be pardoned as a criminal rather than freed as the innocent man he is. And our shock at his absurdly magnificent refusal is intense, and it endures long after we have finished the book, and it remains with us as perhaps its supreme affirmation.

With vast unintentional irony, Friedman then adds: “No one, we feel, no one … could have made such a grand refusal under such circumstances.”

In the view of these literary critics, Bok’s rejection of a pardon is a credit to Malamud’s great inventiveness. In fact, however, this “absurdly magnificent refusal,” this “emotional high point,” was not the invention of Malamud at all, but rather a retelling of the courageous act of Beilis himself, lifted by Malamud from Beilis’ memoir.

The second kind of confusion (the perception that the traits of Malamud’s characters Yakov and Raisl Bok were the traits of Mendel and Esther Beilis) is illustrated in the work of the critic Alfred Kazin. In 1997, Kazin published an article on Malamud in The New York Review of Books, titled “A Single Jew.” Shockingly, Kazin had this to say about Beilis:

Beilis … could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell.

As Dreyfus was personally not liked by many who fought for his release from Devil’s Island, so Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best.

These insults are demonstrably false. Kazin’s statement that “Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best” is contradicted by the view of historians, based largely on the trial transcript, that Beilis was well-nigh universally liked, even loved, by his neighbors and co-workers in Russia. As Professor Lindemann puts it,

Mendel Beilis was a modest person, but he seems to have been one of the most respected, even beloved men in his neighborhood. That neighborhood, it should be noted, was composed entirely of Gentiles, since Beilis and his family, benefiting from [his employer’s] special privileges, did not live in the Jewish districts of the city. The prosecution was repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to get hostile testimony against Beilis. Time and again, those who knew him had only praise for “our Mendel.”

Beilis’ defense attorney, in his summation, referred to Beilis’ co-workers who had testified at the trial: “You have seen these simple, earthy Christian workers, who worked alongside of Beilis day in and day out. Did they utter one derogatory word against Beilis?” Beilis’ reputation was so sterling that the prosecutor, Vipper, had to argue that a good man could commit ritual murder. The historian Maurice Samuel describes Vipper’s argument as follows:

Apart from his participation in ritual murders, argued Vipper, Beiliss [sic] might very well be an admirable character. … So many witnesses had testified in his favor, none in his disfavor. “It is entirely possible,” said Vipper, “that Mendel Beiliss is a fine family man, a virtuous and industrious worker like any other Jew living in modest circumstances, and a religious one. But does that prevent him from committing a crime?”

It might trouble the jury, said Vipper, that a man with such an excellent reputation should be capable of ritual murder, but they were not for that reason to suppose that the reputation was undeserved. On the contrary, the more Beiliss deserved the good opinion of his neighbors, the more likely was it that as a Jew he practiced ritual murder.

Kazin’s statement that Beilis “could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell” is also demonstrably false. Beilis’ memoir is brimming with gratitude to the many Jews and non-Jews who aided him. His most effusive thanks went to his Gentile defenders who took up his cause outside the courtroom. In Chapter 26 of his memoir, he remarked:

For the first time during the trial, I became fully aware of the remarkable work performed by Messrs. Brazul-Brushkovsky [a journalist] and Krasovsky [a detective]; of their heroic efforts to uncover the highly-protected murderer. While in prison, I had only a vague idea of their energy and the results achieved by them in my behalf. I had already received some information about Mr. Margolin [one of Beilis’ Jewish attorneys]. I had never imagined, however, that “real” Russians, non-Jews such as Messrs. Yablonovsky [a journalist], Brushkovsky and Krasovsky, would actually sacrifice their safety and positions, all in the interest of truth. Never will I, or my family, forget, to the last day of our lives, these wonderful and enlightened men.

To similar effect is an interview Beilis gave to the Jewish Daily Bulletin in 1933, on the 20th anniversary of the trial in Kiev. The last question Beilis was asked in this interview was: “Could Mr. Beilis give one outstanding impression of the trial in Kiev?” Beilis responded:

Yes. The Russian Gentiles, who sacrificed themselves for me. There was real heroism, real sacrifice. They knew that by defending me their careers would be ruined, even their very lives would not be safe. But they persisted because they knew I was innocent.

But I lived to see the rotten Czarist regime crumble. I lived to tell the whole story, and that is a miracle.

Approximately two months before his death in 1934, Beilis sent a letter to Oskar Gruzenberg, a Russian-Jewish attorney who had been the lead defense counsel at his trial in 1913. After Beilis’ death, Gruzenberg made the letter public, and it was published in English translation by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. As published, Beilis’ April 1934 letter to Gruzenberg begins:

I can never forget you. In your works then you suffered just as I did, and your great pride and courage gave me much strength.

I remember very well when you, my dear friend, came to me when I was in the prison at Lukianov. When I saw you for the first time I was immediately comforted. I am happy. God permitted me to live and I am able to write to you. I have not lived a single day without mentioning you.

I read in an American newspaper what you wrote [on the 20th anniversary of the trial]. At each word I shed tears, and I kissed each of your words, dear friend.

This letter is, as far as we know, the last recorded utterance of Mendel Beilis.

So, where did Kazin get his false notions about Beilis? Let us quote Kazin again, this time in broader context:

Beilis … could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell.

As Dreyfus was personally not liked by many who fought for his release from Devil’s Island, so Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best. Malamud describes Bok’s gruffness, his hatred of the deserting wife, and especially his refusal to ask God for help.

Thus, in the very next sentence after asserting falsely that Beilis was generally disliked, in the very same paragraph, Kazin goes on to describe some qualities of the fictional character Bok that made him disliked or unlikable. It is obvious, from this context, that Kazin thinks the less favorable character traits Malamud gave to Bok represent traits of the actual Mendel Beilis. This confusion, on the part of a leading literary critic, proves the worthlessness of Malamud’s blithe reassurance to David Beilis that The Fixer “makes no attempt to portray Mendel Beilis or his wife.”

***

Granting that David Beilis was right to be concerned about the memory of his parents, it might be wondered whether he or anyone else can justly complain about the debasement of a real person in fiction. Authors of novels often base their characters on real people and portray those characters in an unflattering light—and countless parents and spouses of novelists have suffered heartache as a result. Was Malamud’s transformation of Beilis any different from what novelists do as a matter of course?

We believe that false and unflattering portrayals of clearly identifiable persons in fiction do present an ethical question for writers. But Malamud is particularly subject to rebuke. It is surely worse for a novelist to portray a real person in an unflattering light when that person has come into the public eye because he or she has suffered unjustly. And Malamud’s conduct is worse still, because he plagiarized so extensively from Beilis’ memoir. Having done so, we contend, Malamud forfeited any artistic license to give his Beilis-based character, and that character’s wife, unfavorable traits that would predictably be imputed to Beilis and his wife.

We have criticized Bernard Malamud at length for his plagiarism and his debasement of Beilis’ memory. We want to make it clear, however, that the term “blood libel,” in the title of our book Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis, does not refer to anything that Malamud did. The blood libel was visited on Beilis by the “wicked, bestial hands of [the] enemies” of the Jewish people, in Rabbi Kook’s phrase, not by a novelist. We do not believe that Beilis would have wanted the term “blood libel” to be used to describe mere literary misbehavior, even when he was himself the victim of that misbehavior. To do so would minimize the blood libel that imprisoned Beilis and threatened his life and that, distressingly, is still brandished by enemies of the Jewish people.

Some may also wonder if it is worthwhile to criticize Malamud at all at this late date. After all, Malamud is dead, as are Mendel Beilis and all of his children. Yet the confusions that Malamud created persist: People continue to read The Fixer and continue to believe, falsely, that Malamud invented those parts that he copied from Beilis and then cite those passages as evidence of Malamud’s literary genius, rather than the moral genius of the man whose life the novelist appropriated without attribution, and then distorted. In order to do justice to the memory of Mendel Beilis, who behaved heroically in real life, it is necessary to clear away the fictional confusions created by Malamud.

***

This article is adapted from the authors’ 2011 book Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis. Portions of this article also previously appeared in the authors’ law review article “Pulitzer Plagiarism,” published by Cardozo Law Review de novo in 2010.

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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world

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