Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

In his preface to this collection of eight stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer explains that some are folktales with which his mother entertained him as a boy. In When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, he has retold these tales, re-creating them in “plot, detail and perspective.” The remaining stories, from his “own imagination,” include “Tsirtsur and Peziza,” “Rabbi Leib and the Witch Cunegunde,” and “Menaseh’s Dream.”

Whether derivative or original, each story re-creates life in shtetls, the villages or small towns that were home to millions of Eastern European Jews prior to World War II. Margot Zemach’s illustrations, notes critic Eric A. Kimmel, “capture the humor and sighs” of shtetl folk. Singer wrote the stories initially in Yiddish, the language of the shtetl, then translated them into English with his editor, Elizabeth Shub.

The title story takes place in Chelm, the legendary village of fools, and features Shlemiel, the quintessential Chelmite. When Shlemiel sets off to visit the great city of Warsaw, he loses his way and ends up back in Chelm. Perplexed over Warsaw’s resemblance to his own village, he is convinced that he has discovered a Chelm Two. Chelm is also the setting for “Shlemiel the Businessman” and “The Elders of Chelm and Genendel’s Key.” In the former, Shlemiel, in his efforts to sell a goat, repeatedly becomes the target of swindlers. In the latter, a wife’s attempt...

(The entire section is 568 words.)