Singer dedicates When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories to the memory of his father and mother, “great and enthusiastic storytellers.” Reared by adherents of Hasidism—a mystically fervent, pious sect of Judaism—Singer believed in the transforming power of stories and in the ability of children to grasp profound ideas presented imaginatively in tales. Legends and fables, known in Yiddish as bubah meises (roughly translated as “tales my grandmother told me”), have served to transmit lessons and values from generation to generation.
According to Canadian critic J. A. Eisenberg, Singer’s fiction owes its emotional charge to the principle that the greater the fall, the more forceful the moral or message communicated. In “Utzel and His Daughter Poverty, ” Utzel’s redemption is highlighted by the contrast between the degraded state in which the reader finds him and the exalted state that he achieves. In “Rabbi Leib and the Witch Cunegunde,” just as it appears that Cunegunde has secured Rabbi Leib’s defeat, her own greed and vanity seal her destruction. The extremes that they absorb not only add to the emotional tension of Singer’s stories but also invest his characters with an archetypal significance.
Because archetypal figures—from saints to fools to devils—formed a vibrant part in shtetl consciousness, the real and the mythical appear to coexist naturally in Singer’s tales. By surrounding his shtetl characters with a mythology authentic to their lives, Singer keeps his work free of the artificiality and abstractions that can sap the vitality from allegorical writing,...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second collection of stories and fourth book for children. It appeared on the Horn Book honor list and was an American Library Association Notable Book. Reviewers praised its period flavor, as well as its humor and insight into human nature. As The New York Times declared, “In this book children are getting what they deserve—some of the most imaginative stories that have been available in recent years.”
According to Singer, the “same spirit, the same interest in the supernatural,” is in all his tales, for adults and for young people. “No matter how young they are,” he stated, “children are deeply concerned with so-called eternal questions.” Singer, who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, considered children “the best readers of genuine literature.” That it is “rooted” in folklore “alone makes children’s literature so important,” he claimed, adding that without folklore, “literature must decline and wither away.”
The resemblance of the wise men of Chelm in Singer’s stories to the wise men of Gotham in British lore has been critically noted. Additionally, folk literature the world over has its schlemiels, or typically foolish characters. As Singer himself observed, “The more a writer is rooted in his environment the more he is understood by all people.” As multiculturalism became a significant trend in the United States toward the latter half of the twentieth century, When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories was joined by more books for children featuring folktales from around the world.