Short stories I wish that I had written. This week: “The Silver Crown” by Bernard Malamud

Author’s note:  For years, I have been telling my English classes that someday I wanted to edit an annotated anthology titled “Short Stories I Wish I Had Written.”  I do not have any publishers beating down my door to get such a volume into print, but since we are all stuck in our homes these days, this seemed a good time to share some of my appreciation of these stories with Enterprise readers.  For the next few weeks I will offer brief appraisals of these works, some of which are available on line but all of which can be found in various popular anthologies.


Bernard Malamud is best known for his short stories and novels such as “The Assistant,” which deal with middle-class Jewish people trying to maintain both their identity and their faith in the increasingly secular modern era, many set in New York and written in the long shadow of the Holocaust. His novels “The Fixer” and “The Natural” became best-sellers.

I first encountered his short story “The Silver Crown” many years ago when I was teaching college English at New York University’s Bronx campus — which has since been sold to Bronx Community College. The school was in a neighborhood almost exactly like the one in “The Silver Crown,” even including a tiny synagogue on 183rd Street frequented mostly by elderly men, many of them undoubtedly survivors of the Holocaust.

This fact gave the story an extraordinary immediacy to both me and my students and lent its fantastical elements that indefinable quality known as “verisimilitude.”

Set in the mid-1950s, the plot centers on a young Jewish high school biology teacher named Albert Gans, a solitary bachelor who has had a couple of rather emotionless one-night stands with women on the faculty of the school.

As the story begins, he is trying to deal with the grave illness of his father, with whom he has never been on very good terms and about whom he has deep feelings of guilt. Doctors are at a loss to treat or even diagnose the old man’s illness, though one has suggested cancer. “Of the heart,” the old man suggests — summing up in three words his relationship with his son.

Albert has little connection with his Jewish heritage and as a man of science he has no belief in religion or mysticism. He is thus at a loss as to how he should deal with his father’s illness. And when a woman with whom Albert once slept suggests to him that he seek out a faith healer he at first rejects it outright.

Anyone who has ever strolled the streets of New York will have been approached by people handing out leaflets for all sorts of things: “Gentlemen’s Clubs,” esoteric religions, psychics, going-out-of-business sales — and spiritual healers. It is thus only a coincidence — or is it? — that within a day Albert encounters on the street a strange, seemingly autistic woman who hands him a leaflet advertising a certain Rabbi Lifschitz who purports to heal illness through the crafting and invocation of silver crowns.

Albert at first dismisses the whole concept, but as his father grows weaker and Albert’s guilt increases he decides to visit the rabbi and find out precisely what these “silver crowns” are all about.

Then begins an eerie series of encounters with the old man in his simple, even impoverished flat, dimly lit and lined with musty books and featuring stained window shades that resemble “faded maps of ancient lands.” The rabbi presents the appearance of an aged scholar and at odd moments appears to have the power of ESP. 

He is the father of Rifkele, the autistic woman Albert met on the street, and although her behavior is that of a small, petulant child, the rabbi tells Albert that in her own way, God has made Rifkele perfect. The rabbi’s Eastern European-accented conversation is filled with wise sayings indicating a deep religious faith — and he tells Albert that for a certain sum he can make a silver crown like those that guard the Torah scrolls in synagogues. 

However, these have the power to heal the desperately sick — the caveat being that the donor must have love. The rabbi produces scrap-books filled with handwritten testimonials from scores of people praising the rabbi’s crowns for their miraculous healing effects on loved ones.

And when Albert indicates he has doubts about the process, the rabbi replies, “We doubt God and God doubts us. Of these kind doubts I am not afraid,” assuring Albert that, if he loves his father, the crown will work. But Albert never gives the rabbi — or himself — that assurance.

Despite his skepticism, over the course of a couple of days, Albert is drawn into the rabbi’s mystical world but insists on seeing one of the crowns before he puts down close to a thousand dollars, which is the price of the silver from which the crown will be made.

The rabbi at first insists that he never shows the crown since the purchaser’s faith should be sufficient. But he then reluctantly agrees to show one to Albert and does so in a stunningly beautiful and eerie sequence that appears to leave no doubt that the rabbi is a saintly man with access to supernatural powers.  And Albert purchases the crown.

Yet almost at once his and the reader’s doubts begin to creep in. Why does the rabbi have two prices for crowns — one for $986 — and a smaller one for $401, either of which must be paid for in cash? Why do the rabbi and Rifkele appear on the street coming from religious services dressed in new and expensive-looking clothing? Why does the rabbi no longer attend services at the small side-street synagogue but go instead to a wealthy synagogue on the Mosholu Parkway, which is described as a “palace?”

Malamud never answers these questions, but cleverly deals out equal amounts of evidence indicating that the rabbi is precisely the saintly intermediary he claims to be — or a smooth-talking con-man. But the crux of the story is the rabbi’s insistence that, for the crown to work its miracle, Albert must love his father.

The final episode begins when Albert wakes up with the conviction that he has been the victim of a swindle and heads off to angrily confront the rabbi, leading to a shocking conclusion. Like life itself, the story offers no certainties but, with its affirmation of the power of love and in its exploration of the tantalizing, mysterious topic of religious faith, it leaves the reader with much to ponder — and a story to savor again and again.

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