When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories Essay - Critical Context

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Critical Context

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.