Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
Reb Yudel Nathanson
Reb Yudel Nathanson, a Hasid (member of a Jewish mystical sect) who has devoted his life to the study of the Torah (Jewish sacred literature). An ascetic who has no concern with earthly goods, he wears rags, sleeps on a floor mat, rises early to begin the long day’s study and prayer, and eats only to keep body and soul together. At the beginning of the novel, he leaves his town of Brod in Poland to wander far and wide among Jewish villages to seek a bridegroom for his eldest daughter. As naïve as a child, he is exposed by his journey, for the first time, to a vast array of people, each with his own story to tell, and he is involved in continuous adventures and misadventures. He finds a moral and a purpose in all things, and all that he sees and hears draws from him an endless stream of commentary and gloss from Hebrew holy books. He lays all problems in the lap of the Almighty, including his complete ineptitude in fulfilling the goal of his travels. Through a series of coincidences and fortunate accidents, he arranges his daughter’s marriage to the son of a very wealthy man, and he happily returns to his life’s work of prayer and study.
Nuta, the drayman who takes Yudel on his search. Fat and robust, he is as secular as Yudel is religious. Because he and his wife are constantly quarreling, he is eager to accompany Yudel for as long as possible and finds no greater happiness than to fill his belly with fine food and drink and to listen to the stories of those they meet on their travels. He is not above an occasional minor theft or deception, but after meeting an old man who is a saint, he gradually becomes transformed, establishes a good relationship with his wife, gives up the occupation of drayman, and is appointed inspector of weights and measures.
Frummet, Yudel’s long-suffering wife and mother of his three daughters. She and the daughters earn their meager livelihood by plucking feathers to use for pillow stuffing. When her husband disregards her insistence that he must arrange for the daughters’ marriages before they are too old, she appeals to the holy Rabbi of Apta, who orders Yudel to fulfill the commandment of the bridal canopy. Near the end of the novel, Frummet discovers the hidden treasure that enables her daughter to match the twelve thousand gold pieces offered by the groom’s family as their half of the dowry.
The Old Man
The Old Man, a holy man, one of the Thirty-Six Hidden Saints for whose sake the Almighty preserves humankind. He humbly digs clay for Jewish women to spread on the floors of their homes, and they pay him handsomely in wine, food, and candles. He and his aged wife live in the forest in a booth constructed of the materials of forest and field. His intervention in the decree that prohibits the marriage of minor men allows Yudel’s daughter to wed her youthful groom.
Reb Ephraim (eh-FRAH-eem), one of scores of people Reb Yudel encounters in his travels. His former poverty leads him to excess in food and drink following his marriage to a wealthy woman. He soon forswears his gluttony and adopts a spartan diet, interspersed with prolonged fasts. Eventually, he eats only when he can share the bounty of his table with a guest. All travelers and beggars, Yudel among them, are immediately taken to his house. The arrival of a guest is an occasion for rejoicing, for without them Reb Ephraim might have starved.
Reb Vovi Shor
Reb Vovi Shor, the father of the groom, a wealthy man who is practical, efficient, and decisive in word and action.
Reb Yudel Nathanson
Reb Yudel Nathanson, a wealthy man from Brod for whom Yudel the Hasid is mistaken.