The name “Bober” is highly connotative. Helen Bober reflects that she is “as poor as her name sounded” and Morris Bober thinks “with that name you had no sure sense of property.” In addition, the name Bober is akin to the Yiddish word bubber, meaning someone who peddles beans. An American equivalent would be someone who “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” but the novel suggests that this idea applies to Morris’ business and not to his character. Although Morris himself tends to think that his life has amounted to nothing, he is rich in spirit and poor only in material things.
Morris is in several ways a displaced person. He is an exile from his Jewish community in the old world and he is an exile from the Jewish community in America and from the widespread life of the city in which he makes his home. Morris fled from Czarist Russia to escape the tyranny of the Czarist army, but his flight for freedom separated him from the outdoor life he loved as a child, and did not lead to significant opportunities in America, where materialism stood in the way of success for a man with a good and non-devious heart. Not only has Morris lost contact with nature but he lives in the prison of his store, frightened by the throbbing life of the city — as is shown during his futile attempts to find a job.
Julius Karp thinks of Morris as a shlimozel and thinks that Morris is “inept, unfortunate,” meaning that he is unfortunate because he is inept, but Karp is only partly right, and much that he thinks is inept results from the warmth in Morris that contrasts strikingly with Karp’s calculating coldness (Karp’s name suggests that he is a cold fish, a carp). Morris’ variant of the shlimozel is the man who can do for others but not for himself, in this case because of a combination of charitable kindness and a too passive acceptance of his own doom. Morris allowed Charlie Sobeloff to cheat him. He took a store in a poor neighborhood and almost literally buried himself in it. But some of his best traits are related to his failures. He extends credit that will never be redeemed, but not only out of kindness; it is also a kind of self-torture, an embracing of his miserable lot. His generosity is chiefly based on kindness and compassion, his sense that humans suffer and ought to relieve one another as much as possible. He is devoted to his daughter, and his trust follows the Jewish law that a stranger shall be treated as a friend when he forgives Frank for stealing milk and rolls and when he assures Frank that Frank’s being a stranger casts no doubts on his honesty. He is anxious to think the best of Frank, even when he suspects that Frank is stealing from him.
Morris believes that being Jewish accounts for the best elements in his character — honesty, trust, and kindness — but he cannot help being a product of his world and he does have certain suspicions and animosities toward gentiles. These feelings, however, are far less vicious than similar ones in Ida and are more nearly like Helen’s anti-sectarian feelings. Morris pays cash to Otto Vogel because he wants no favors from a German. Here the association with German anti-Semitism is almost impersonal. Morris finds it easy to accept the Polish woman’s anti-Semitism because it is “a different kind of anti-Semitism” than that in America. He regards it as an almost natural kind of ethnic suspicion, a slightly shameful recognition of one another’s humanity, a suspicion that doesn’t prevent all trust. His distress that Frank’s success in the store is due to Frank’s being a gentile is amusing when we see the contradiction between Frank’s thinking that “only a Jew” could stay in a place like the store and Morris’ later reflection that only a goy (a non-Jew) with a heart of stone could stay in such a place.
Morris finds himself wishing for misfortune to happen to his competitors, but he upbraids himself for such immorality. Morris’ naivete is not wholly admirable, and his self-mocking and self-comforting defensiveness in his dialogues with Ida is not endearing, but he is a very good, loving, and just man.