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...
(The entire section is 1,451 words.)