Themes and Characters
Most of the characters in this collection fall into two groups, fools and heroes. Among the fools is Atzel, the young man in "Fool's Paradise." Because he is too lazy to do the real work of living and is enamored of paradise, where he thinks he belongs, he tries to make people believe that he is dead. Some of the fools, like the bridegroom, Lemel, in "The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom," seem unable to learn anything from their experiences and will go through life as the simple-minded but harmless people they are. Others, like Atzel, can profit from an object lesson, such as Dr. Yoetz teaches him. In both cases, the characters' foolishness shows readers how to use common sense and avoid self-indulgence.
While many of the predicaments the fools find themselves in are humorous, they are not pointless. Even those who are not foolish, like Mrs. Shlemiel in "The First Shlemiel," have something to learn from protecting fools from themselves or preventing them from making a shambles of everything.
The heroes, like David in "The Devil's Trick" and Aaron in "Zlateh the Goat," demonstrate how courage and good sense can overcome the most difficult obstacles and dangers. Setting out to find his mother and father, who have disappeared in a terrible snowstorm, David soon realizes that the devil is after him and has probably captured his parents. But his faith shines as brightly as the Hanukkah candle burning in the window of his home that steers him safely back. Through a trick of his own he outsmarts the devil and rescues his parents.
We must accept all that God gives us—heat, cold, hunger, satisfaction, light, and darkness.
Similarly, Aaron saves himself and his goat when a terrific snowstorm overwhelms them on their way to the butcher, where Zlateh is to be sold. Aaron finds them shelter in a haystack, which provides food for the goat and warmth for them both until the storm passes. Aaron also has sense enough to realize that it is no ordinary snowstorm; hence, instead of continuing on his journey to the butcher, he returns home with Zlateh—to the relief and delight of his whole family.
The Elders of Chelm, who appear in several stories, represent an interesting combination of foolishness and heroism. In "The Snow in Chelm," only their foolishness seems apparent, as they decide that a snowfall is really made up of precious stones and silver—gifts that will save their village from poverty. But in "The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom," one of the Elders really does come up with several practical solutions to the problems that beset poor Shmelka and his wife and daughters. Despite their white beards and high foreheads, the Elders have a reputation for the dubious quality of their wisdom, but they are not entirely ridiculous. They bring a smile and occasionally an idea that works.
Another important character in these stories is the devil. Invariably, he tries to work his mischief, and though he almost succeeds, he is eventually found out and repulsed, as in "Grandmother's Tale." If he does not directly appear in "The First Shlemiel," he seems to be lurking somewhere in the background, as disaster after disaster befalls poor Mr. Shlemiel. But Shlemiel's essential innocence is his protection, and everything works out well in the end—the baby's bruised skull, the temporarily lost rooster, and the devoured pot of Hanukkah jam notwithstanding. The world is not a simple or a very safe place, Singer is saying, and there are demons enough; but if one has faith or at least a good heart, evil will have a difficult time achieving victory.