(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Tumblers” is told in the third person through an omniscient narrator. The main action in the story occurs during the Holocaust both in Chelm, a ghetto town that in the classic Yiddish tales is traditionally peopled by fools, and on a second-class train filled with a circus troupe.

The protagonist, Mendel, is the grandson of Gronam the Ox, a town leader whose comic actions follow the tradition of the absurd tales involving the fools of Chelm. Gronam won notoriety for his quick thinking when he renamed all the bad things in the ghetto as good things and renamed those items in short supply as those items that were in abundance. When the town’s dairy restaurant ran short of sour cream, a necessary ingredient for many traditional dishes during the Feast of Weeks, Gronam told the townspeople to think of water as sour cream and sour cream as water. These examples demonstrated his ludicrous wisdom. Mendel trades gold for potatoes from the surrounding town. He moves from the ghetto to the surrounding town through the sewer passages, thus learning about life outside the confines of the ghetto. He brings news of the German trains that are coming to Chelm.

In Chelm, as in other towns, there are two distinct religious Hasidic Jewish groups: the students of the Mekyl Hasidim, or lenient interpreters of Jewish law, and the students of the Mahmir Hasidim, or strict interpreters of Jewish law. When it comes time to board the German trains and the Jews are told to bring only “essential items,” the Mekyls’ leader interprets this as meaning that his followers should...

(The entire section is 650 words.)