Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1451
Mendel Singer teaches Hebrew in Zuchnow, a small Ukrainian village. His life is sparse and meager, but he is healthy and eats well, and he loves his wife, Deborah, and his children. Still, his prospects are not good in this impoverished region. Then, Deborah bears a fourth child, Menuchim.
For a year Menuchim seems to develop normally, but in the thirteenth month a change comes over him, affecting his breathing, color, and shape. At first Mendel worries little; after all, he is an upright man. When the doctor from the inoculation commission examines Menuchim, however, he declares the boy an incurable epileptic. With little other hope, Mendel increases his devotions. Deborah invokes the spirits of her dead forebears.
One day, Deborah takes Menuchim to Klucysk to visit the rabbi. Singling her out from the throng of the afflicted, he pronounces that Menuchim will become sound, though not soon, and that his parents should never lose hope or abandon him.
Deciding that the older children should help with Menuchim, Deborah makes them carry him around with them. Hating this burden, they eventually drop him in a ditch filled with water in which he nearly drowns. Yet he somehow manages to survive. Life continues, punctuated only by Menuchim’s first word, “Mama.” That, however, remains his only word.
Ten years pass. The children grow up, although Menuchim changes very little. Suddenly, the daughter, Miriam, begins to wander in the evenings, delighting in arousing the Russian soldiers. When the two healthy boys are taken for military training, Deborah rages at Mendel for doing nothing about it, then she rushes out to spend the night in the graveyard praying.
She decides to seek help from a middleman, leaving Mendel with the children. Mendel loves these quiet hours with Menuchim; yet, after vainly trying to teach him to read, Mendel sinks into despair. Meanwhile, Deborah discovers that her meager hoard of cash can buy only one exemption, for her son Jonas. Nevertheless, Jonas declares that he wants to enlist. Early the next morning, he leaves home, although he does not join the service immediately.
Shortly thereafter, the son Schemarjah is taken for duty. Led out to replace the outpost guard at the border, the new recruits come under fire; they desert, by morning arriving at a town at which they are taken into custody. For a while, the Singer family hears nothing of Schemarjah, although Jonas writes occasionally.
A few years later, a foreigner appears at the Singer home. He brings a letter from Schemarjah, who is in New York, where he has gone into business with this man, named Mac. Now calling himself “Sam,” Schemarjah has married and invites his family to visit him in the United States. Unfortunately, the family’s traveling is limited by Menuchim’s disabilities.
Mendel attends the New Moon ceremony, after which he lingers, rapt in thought. Unseen, he watches a Cossack soldier and a Jewish girl in a familiar yellow shawl making love. Back home, he asks after the absent Miriam, only to learn that she has gone walking. He prays and contemplates all night, concluding that his daughter is in danger. He confides in Deborah.
She resolves on action. Breaking out her carefully hidden hoard of cash, she urges Mendel to buy the necessary papers for traveling. They await only the passage money from Schemarjah. Deborah nearly balks at leaving Menuchim because of the rabbi’s stipulations. Yet she realizes that her daughter’s only hope is to be taken away from Cossack temptation. They find a young couple to live in their house and care for Menuchim. On the last day, Deborah can hardly bear to be torn from her ten-year-old baby, and Mendel is racked with doubts. Still, they bend to necessity, and the journey passes uneventfully. New York teems with streets full of hot, hurrying, dusty people. Mendel is struck dumb to discover that he has abandoned home and son for pandemonium.
At first, the exchange seems ill-advised. For the aging couple, life is a struggle in the new land, as it was in the old. The younger generation, however, seems to thrive in the superficial glitter. Schemarjah promises to send for Menuchim as soon as the child is able to travel. Mendel resigns himself wearily to this new, meaningless life. Then things suddenly change. One day, two letters arrive: Menuchim has miraculously learned to run and speak, and Jonas has finally joined the army.
Mendel grows old; he lives only in the hope of seeing Menuchim again. Mac plans to go to Russia and bring Menuchim back, but suddenly the long-threatened war breaks out. News from the war zone is scarce. Nothing is heard of Menuchim, and Jonas is declared missing in action. Then the United States joins the war, and Schemarjah and Mac volunteer. Miriam, who has been going with Mac, takes to seeing other men. Before long, Mac returns, bearing Schemarjah’s watch and his final good-bye. Deborah begins to sing a lullaby for a dead child but collapses, and before help can arrive, she dies.
After a week of mourning, Miriam’s latest companion calls on Mendel. When Mendel goes to her, he sees that remorse over her infidelity has driven her insane. She is committed to an asylum and pronounced incurable.
From the depths of his misery, Mendel renounces God and burns all of his sacred objects except for one small purse. He declares that he is burning God. His neighbors gather to console and pacify him, but he rejects their counsel; he believes that he has not deserved this treatment. Not even the example of Job can offer him relief.
Mendel’s anger smolders within him while he leaves his home and pursues a meaningless routine as an assistant in Skowronnek’s music shop. Everything about him grows shabbier and older. Even the end of the war brings no satisfaction. Nevertheless, Mendel decides to celebrate like everyone else. Alone in the music shop, he plays a record on the gramophone. It works like a magical balm on him; for the first time during his suffering, he begins to weep. Mendel asks the name of the record; it is “Menuchim’s Song.” Mendel identifies it with his own lost Menuchim.
During a special Passover concert by a European orchestra, Mendel decides to sneak into his old home to retrieve Deborah’s hoarded money. He needs the money to search for Menuchim. The next day, he learns that the new tenant is looking for him, and he fears that his robbery has been discovered. He also learns that the director of the orchestra, a young musical genius named Alexej Kossak, seeks him. Preoccupied with his mission, Mendel declines to meet with him.
The following day, Mendel is to take the Passover meal with the Skowronneks. At the point in the ceremony when the door is opened to let in the prophet Elijah, a stranger knocks to be admitted. It is Kossak. After the meal, he reveals that he is from Zuchnow. He tells Mendel that the man who had taken Mendel’s house has died of typhus, the woman has gone back to her parents, and the house has been taken over by soldiers. Kossak bought the house and has now brought Mendel the money.
After inquiring everywhere for Jonas, Kossak has learned only that he fled to Poland, thereafter fighting in a resistance unit. Still, Kossak has hopes, and his inquiries continue. He then tells something of his own life: A sickly child, he was placed by his parents in an institute, where he developed a remarkable gift for music.
Mendel is desperate to ask about Menuchim, but in his despair, he cannot speak. Instead, Mrs. Skowronnek brings out the question, and Kossak declares that Menuchim is still living. Mendel is overwhelmed. Kossak adds that Menuchim, now a young man, has become completely normal. Finally, he announces that he himself is Menuchim. After the entire neighborhood joins in the celebration, the restored Menuchim leaves with his father for the Astor Hotel.
There, the splendor of the decor and of the lighted city below makes Mendel feel as if he has been swept to heaven. He and Menuchim reminisce over family history. This reminds them of Miriam and the others; Menuchim suggests that one miracle, his restoration, may beget others. Mendel agrees to go wherever his son leads. He has a vision of reunion and restoration, in the manner of Job. At that moment, a dove flies below the marquee of the terrace. Mendel allows Menuchim to put him to bed, where he dreams of his family while his son prepares for their journey back to their home in the Ukraine.