Form and Content

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The seven stories in this collection recapture a world that no longer exists—that of the pre-World War II, Eastern European Jewish shtetl (village or small town). It is the world that Isaac Bashevis Singer knew as a child, and his stories have their origins in the folklore and legends of the shtetl. Singer wrote them initially in Yiddish, the language of the shtetl, and then translated them into English with his editor, Elizabeth Shub. Award-winning illustrator Maurice Sendak also traces his family roots to the shtetl. Arthur Bell’s review of Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories notes how Sendak’s illustrations resemble early twentieth century photographs of New York City’s Lower East Side, many of whose inhabitants immigrated from Eastern Europe.

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The book’s title story, “Zlateh the Goat,” takes place in a shtetl very much like those in which Singer lived as a small boy. A warm winter means bad business for Reuven the furrier, and his young son Aaron is sent to sell the family goat, Zlateh, to a butcher in town. A fierce snowstorm forces them off the path, and they seek shelter in a haystack, which furnishes them warmth and also nourishment. Zlateh eats the hay and feeds Aaron with its milk, and each has a way of comforting the other. On the third night, after the storm has ended, Aaron and Zlateh return home. There is no more talk of selling Zlateh, and, adding to the celebratory mood, the storm has brought colder weather and thus business to Reuven.

“Fool’s Paradise” offers wry insights into human nature. A lazy young man named Atzel, who learns that those in Paradise have no need to work, wishes that he were dead. After seemingly getting his wish, he is overjoyed to learn that there has been some mistake and that he must return to Earth. He marries his longtime love in a finale frequent in Singer’s work—that is, a wedding feast.

A few rollicking, humorous stories introduce readers to comic characters popular in Jewish folklore: the schlemiel and the townsfolk of Chelm. The schlemiel is a fool who is always getting into trouble. Schlemiels tend to come from Chelm, whose inhabitants appear all the more foolish because they are convinced that they are wise. “The First Shlemiel” is about a fellow who bungles everything, including his suicide, when he is left home to mind the baby while his wife sells vegetables in the marketplace. In “The Snow in Chelm,” the Chelmites aspire to wealth from the jewels that they see in the new-fallen snow, while in “The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom,” the Elder of Chelm resolves dilemmas involving Shmelka, his wife Shmelkicha, and their four daughters.

Goblins, demons, and the Devil himself appear in two brief tales that take place during the Hanukkah festival. In “Grandmother’s Tale,” the Evil One is exposed deceiving children playing dreidl, a Hanukkah game. In “The Devil’s Trick,” the Hanukkah lights shining through the window guide a lost young boy home; the quick-witted boy saves his parents by catching the Devil’s tail in the door and threatening to cut it off unless they, too, are returned.

Setting

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The first story, "Fool's Paradise," begins "Somewhere, sometime, there lived a rich man whose name was Kadish." In this way Singer indicates that his stories are not confined to any particular time or place. On the other hand, as the name "Kadish" suggests, the people in these stories belong to the centuries-old Jewish folk culture that flourished in central Europe until the utter devastation caused by the Nazis in World War II.

References to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, as well as descriptions of village life and other indications, all point to the world in which Singer grew up, as recounted in autobiographical stories in A Day of Pleasure and In My Father's Court (1966). But the stories are also timeless. The dress, habits, and beliefs may be unfamiliar, but in essentials the characters could easily change places with the reader's friends and neighbors.

Literary Qualities

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Singer is neither a literalist nor a crusader. He is first and foremost a storyteller. A major attribute of Singer's literary style is his mixture of reality and fantasy. Maurice Sendak's illustrations may help the reader visualize the nightmare experience of David in "The Devil's Trick," but Singer's prose—especially the concrete, deft strokes he uses to describe his characters and situations— is often a sufficient stimulus to the imagination.

With gentle humor, Singer describes the antics and predicaments of his fools and pokes fun at their foibles and follies. The humor makes them appear less threatening or satirical than they might otherwise have been portrayed. A related gentleness characterizes Singer's depiction of children, for whom he shows a genuine love and affinity. Indeed, the childlike quality of his imagination and the directness of his approach make his stories appealing.to readers of every age. This directness is perhaps best demonstrated through Singer's use of dialogue. He often lets his characters speak for themselves rather than having the narrator talk about them.

Social Sensitivity

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All of the stories in Zlateh the Goat are geographically and culturally circumscribed, almost insulated. They are set in predominantly Jewish villages in Poland, and little if any mention is made of Gentile neighbors. Although anti-Semitism historically was a virulent force in the area, Singer does not let it intrude in these stories, for his purposes are far from political. He is interested in men and women and children who happen to be Jewish.

Singer is a humanist, interested in people as people, in their problems, predicaments, ambitions, attitudes, and aspirations. He has no axes to grind, no social programs to advocate. If he has a social message, it is that most people are decent and loving, however silly they may sometimes appear, and they can get along well if they genuinely try to understand one another or at least tolerate one another as human beings.

For Further Reference

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Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A critical and biographical study that covers Singer's work up to 1978. Contains an annotated bibliography.

Allentuck, Marcia, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. Contains H. R. Wolfs essay, "Singer's Children's Stories and In My Father's Court: Universalism and the Rankian Hero," and Eli Katz's "Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Classical Yiddish Tradition," among other valuable studies.

Beacham, Walton, ed. Research Guide to Biography and Criticism. Washington: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Contains a useful brief survey of the major books on Singer's life and work.

Kresh, Paul. Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Dial Press, 1979. A biography of Singer with many interviews and excerpts of conversations with Singer, his wife, and others.

Malin, Irving, ed. Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Begins with an interview and a conversation with Singer and contains many useful essays and a bibliography.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Schlemiel as Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. Contains a chapter on "The Isolated Schlemiels of Isaac Bashevis Singer."

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, and Richard Burgin. Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Enlightening interviews.

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