Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Singer was born in a little village near Warsaw, the son of a very poor rabbi. Most of his fiction is drawn from life in Poland’s Jewish communities, a life that in his childhood was rife with tales of the supernatural and mysterious. His stories often suggest a belief in a spiritual dimension to existence that science cannot explain, and his imaginative tales often exploit the folklore and superstition on which his childhood fantasies fed. All these aspects of his work are well exemplified in “The Gentleman from Cracow.”

The moral of the allegory is clear: To ignore the laws and traditions is to open oneself up to calamity. Easy riches are a delusion. Nevertheless, the gentleman is so glamorous, the people so miserable in their poverty, that the temptation is hard to resist. The good Rabbi Ozer laments after the catastrophe that he should have had more foresight: “And when the shepherd is blind, the flock goes astray.”

However, there is more to the allegory than simply the story of the people’s weakness, for at the end the villagers are truly regenerated. Their neighbors in the nearby town of Yanev send food, clothing, and dishes. Timber merchants send logs to rebuild the homes and public buildings. The people, including the scholars and town leaders, work diligently, so that a new town is soon created, one wiser and more truly pious. Never again do the townspeople lust for gold and fine things.

The story also expresses a political moral of a sort. Jewish communities in Eastern Europe often were threatened with extinction, and close conformity to laws and accepted practices was vital in unifying a besieged people against external pressures. When life became somewhat easier for these Jewish communities, many of the younger people would feel the pull toward assimilation, regarding the old rituals and mores as outmoded and burdensome. Then it was natural for the elders to lament the temptations of the secular Gentile life to which they saw their youths attracted, and they voiced their fears in warnings of the dangers of the Evil One. Singer must have observed this conflict as a young man in Poland, and “The Gentleman from Cracow” dramatizes not only the moral problems involved in expecting something for nothing but also the strain of conflict between two generations.