Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709
“The Magic Barrel” begins with the introduction of Leo Finkle, who is twenty-seven and in search of a suitable wife, to Pinye Salzman, who has advertised his services as a matchmaker in a local Jewish newspaper. Leo has spent six years in study, with no time for developing a social life. Inexperienced with women, he finds the traditional route of obtaining a bride appealing, an honorable arrangement from which his own parents benefited.
At their initial meeting, Salzman brings names from which to choose a proper wife for a respectable rabbi. The cards on which they appear, which he has selected from a barrel in his apartment, include significant statistical information: dowry, age, occupation, health, and family. When Leo learns who some of his prospects are (a widow, a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher, a nineteen-year-old student with a lame foot), he dismisses Salzman. The experience leaves Leo in a state of depression and anxiety. Salzman, however, appears the next evening with good news: He has been assured that the schoolteacher, Lily Hirschorn, is no older than twenty-nine.
Leo agrees to meet Lily, whom he finds (as Salzman has claimed) intelligent and honest. However, in addition to being “past thirty-five and aging rapidly” Lily appears overly in awe of Leo’s profession—a result, the young man concludes, of Salzman’s misrepresentation. Additionally, Lily’s questions concerning Leo’s love of God are threatening; in a moment of self-revelation, Leo harshly confesses that he desired to become a rabbi not because he loved God but because he did not.
Their meeting results in Lily’s disenchantment and Leo’s despair. Angry at first with Salzman, Leo comes to realize that it is his lack of self-knowledge and fear of finding himself incapable of affairs with women that have led him to Salzman in the first place. With brutal clarity, Leo sees that he has set limits in his relationships with both God and women, limits that have left him feeling empty and unloved. These insights, although terrifying and painful, serve as turning points in Leo’s life as self-realization propels him toward understanding and possible change.
After a week of inner conflict—during which he abandons himself to an all-consuming loneliness—Leo recommits himself to his rabbinic goals and dedicates himself to obtaining love and perhaps even a bride.
Once at peace, Leo is visited again by Salzman. Leo confronts the matchmaker with his unfair misrepresentations, terminates their business agreement, and declares that it is now love he seeks. In a final attempt to make a sale, Salzman gives Leo a packet of photographs with which to find love. After many days, Leo opens the package and examines the pictures. He sees many attractive women, but they all lack a certain quality that he desires. As the photos are returned to the packet, a small snapshot of a woman falls out; although not especially attractive, she seems to possess the soul, the depth, the suffering, the potential—and even a certain lack of goodness—that Leo feels he himself must attain.
Hit hard by this recognition of a bond between them, Leo hurries across town in search of Salzman. Salzman reacts to Leo’s choice in inexplicable horror and pain. Claming that the photo fell mistakenly into the packet, he rushes out the door, pursued by Leo, whose only chance for love and happiness is now threatened. Salzman tries to convince Leo that this woman is not a suitable match for a rabbi and eventually reveals the source of his anguish: The snapshot portrays a wild woman who disdains poverty, who Salzman now considers dead—his daughter, Stella.
Tormented by this discovery, Leo finally concludes a plan: He will dedicate himself to God, and Stella to morality and goodness. Encountering Salzman one day in a cafeteria, Leo reveals that he at last has love in his heart and implies that perhaps he can now be the one to provide a valuable service. A meeting is arranged for Leo and Stella one spring evening on a street corner.
Leo approaches Stella, who, although smoking a cigarette under a street lamp, is nevertheless shy and not without innocence. While Leo exuberantly rushes forth, Salzman stands around the corner chanting the traditional Hebrew mourning prayers.