Themes and Characters

The most important character in these stories is of course Isaac, and his experiences as a young boy provide the main theme. But other characters play significant roles as well, including the rest of the Singer family, Isaac’s friends, and the people he meets. One of Isaac’s best friends is Boruch-Dovid, who takes him on an adventure into the outlying countryside around Warsaw to see the “wild cows.” The day fills Isaac with delight, mostly from the wonderful sights of nature denied city dwellers. In addition, Isaac learns that the wild cows exist only as figments of Boruch-Dovid’s imagination, which Isaac comes to appreciate. In “The Strong Ones,” Isaac has a temporary falling out with his friend Mendel for reasons he at first does not understand, but eventually the two make up. “The Mysteries of the Cabala” demonstrates Isaac and Mendel’s shared passion for inventing stories. Throughout the book, Isaac develops and grows. His father recognizes this at one point and does something he has never done before: he bends down and kisses his son on the forehead.

Many of the stories focus directly or indirectly on the conflict between the religious and the secular ways of life. Within the Singer household, the eldest son, Israel Joshua, becomes a renegade and finally leaves home. Isaac, too, feels the tug of non-Hasidic ideas and attitudes, as he shows in “The New Winds.” But everywhere there remains the constant element of interest in, if not passionate devotion to, real human beings in all their human qualities. The characters Singer offers may not be quite as colorful as Sholom Aleichem’s characters in the Tevye stories, which were made into the popular musical comedy Fiddler on the Roof, but they have the depth and vividness of characters created by the greatest writers of fiction, such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski, and their struggles and predicaments are always convincingly real.

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