“The Magic Barrel” explores many aspects of the theme of self-discovery: the awakening of passion and desire; the definition of identity; the search for love. As the story begins, Leo is emerging from years of study to embrace life’s dilemmas. He experiences the awakening of passion and desire with resistance and confusion; his search for a wife begins not out of desire for love or devotion but, rather, to improve his chances of securing a congregation. Through his experiences with the matchmaker, Leo discovers what kind of bride he does not want—someone who sees him not for who he is but for his position in society.
As he attempts to define his priorities, Leo is caught in a web of contradictions: “apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.” Leo’s relationship with God constitutes a major part of his struggle for identity. When he accepts the shortcomings of his studies (his books have not taught him to love either God or women) and himself, Leo is able to redefine his goals and begin advancement toward them. His major goal is to achieve love: not only love for God but also love for a woman.
In his efforts to meet and woo Stella, Leo is no longer content merely to take what Salzman has to offer—especially in a situation that causes the matchmaker much pain. Leo can now offer internal peace to both Salzman and himself through his involvement with Stella. Having come to terms with his own limits and with God, Leo is capable of fulfilling his need for love and of allowing himself to influence another’s life. He has finally achieved the attributes of passion and compassion that allow him to open his heart and reach for someone else. During their final encounter in the cafeteria, Salzman barely recognizes Leo, who “had grown a pointed beard” and whose eyes were “weighted with wisdom.” Clearly, the reference is to a man who looks like and is a rabbi, not to a man studying to become one.