Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Magician of Lublin is one of the most widely read and perhaps the best book by the Nobel Prize-winning Singer. In this book as in many of his other works, he considers the nature of faith and the existence of God; he establishes the traditional tenets of the Jewish faith—belief in one personal God and service to Him through Halakah—as the accepted background for his characters. Yet this book is more easily accessible than some of Singer’s other works. It relies not on an intensely violent backdrop such as that found in Satan in Goray (1935; English translation, 1955) or on the all-accepting attitude of a character such as Gimpel the Fool. Rather, it poses for its protagonist a very basic, modern dilemma: Should he maintain faith in a God in whom he believes yet whom he views as an unconcerned observer, or should he cling to his freedom, knowing he risks falling into a moral abyss?

Though widely acclaimed, The Magician of Lublin has been criticized on the grounds that it overemphasizes the sexual aspect of Yasha’s temptations. Nevertheless, that aspect is a valid and necessary one. Particularly, Yasha desires Gentile women, who symbolize not only sexual taboo but also that world of wealth and social status into which he hopes to escape through his marriage to Emilia.