Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
“The Tumblers” is told in the third person through an omniscient narrator. The main action in the story occurs during the Holocaust both in Chelm, a ghetto town that in the classic Yiddish tales is traditionally peopled by fools, and on a second-class train filled with a circus troupe.
The protagonist, Mendel, is the grandson of Gronam the Ox, a town leader whose comic actions follow the tradition of the absurd tales involving the fools of Chelm. Gronam won notoriety for his quick thinking when he renamed all the bad things in the ghetto as good things and renamed those items in short supply as those items that were in abundance. When the town’s dairy restaurant ran short of sour cream, a necessary ingredient for many traditional dishes during the Feast of Weeks, Gronam told the townspeople to think of water as sour cream and sour cream as water. These examples demonstrated his ludicrous wisdom. Mendel trades gold for potatoes from the surrounding town. He moves from the ghetto to the surrounding town through the sewer passages, thus learning about life outside the confines of the ghetto. He brings news of the German trains that are coming to Chelm.
In Chelm, as in other towns, there are two distinct religious Hasidic Jewish groups: the students of the Mekyl Hasidim, or lenient interpreters of Jewish law, and the students of the Mahmir Hasidim, or strict interpreters of Jewish law. When it comes time to board the German trains and the Jews are told to bring only “essential items,” the Mekyls’ leader interprets this as meaning that his followers should bring everything one would need to stock a summer home. However, the Mahmir rabbi (or Rebbe) interprets the word “essentials” more strictly—and also in response to what he sees as the shameful indulgence of the Mekyls—so he tells his followers that they should bring only their long underwear.
At the train station, the Mahmir Rebbe orders his followers to stay away from the Mekyls with all of their possessions and heads for a passenger train far down the track, a distance away from the Mekyls. The trains that the Mekyls were waiting for were packed with people; the train that the Mahmirim boarded was filled with circus people, entertainers waiting for clear passage to an important engagement.
On the train with the circus troupe, the Mahmirim are mistaken for acrobats because of their shaved heads, skinny bodies, and colorless attire. Mendel uses his skills with outsiders to infiltrate the non-Jewish circus community. Because he was once a Mekyl and still enjoys drinking excessively, he goes penniless to the club car to try to get someone to buy him a drink. There he meets a woman French horn player who buys him a drink and tells him that the others on the train think they are acrobats. She also tells him that the other trains went away full of people and returned empty. When Mendel returns to the car with the Mahmirim, the Rebbe acts quickly. He realizes that the people in the other trains were being eradicated. He tells his followers that they must learn to tumble in order not to disappear like those in the other trains.
Mendel learns about costumes and acrobatic moves while the Mahmirim practice tumbling moves. The Rebbe keeps the group focused on tumbling practice and religious prayers while Mendel works on gathering discarded articles for Raizel to sew onto the Mahmirim’s long underwear for costumes.
On arrival at a large ornate building filled with elegantly dressed patrons, the other circus performers exhibit efficiency, a quality Mendel realizes is lacking in the Mahmirs. The Rebbe acts as a booster for their routine and encourages his followers. During their performance, the audience laughs at them and hurtles anti-Jewish remarks, thinking that the acrobats are not Jews, but individuals who are mocking stereotypical Jewish behavior.
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