Berl is a man in his eighties, married to Berlcha. Berl is Jewish, and he used to live in Russia but was driven from that country by persecution. He settled with his wife in a small village in Poland, where they keep a goat, a cow, and chickens and a small field. Berl walks with a shuffle, and his eyesight is fading, but he is the kind of man who is content with what he has and makes no complaint. He cannot conceive of a kind of life other than the one he lives. He and his wife have a son, Samuel, who lives in America and regularly sends them money, but Berl has no use for it. He cashes the money orders and puts the money in an old boot that he keeps under his bed. He and his wife live simply in their one-room hut. They have all the necessities of life and have no aspirations for anything more. Berl simply has no material desires. He keeps in touch with what is happening in the world through his visits to the village synagogue, but his own horizons are very narrow. He has no desire to travel and see the world, and he rejects all of his son’s suggestions about how the village might be improved. Berl is also a very pious man. When he realizes that the stranger who is visiting them is in fact his own son, his reaction is to ‘‘recite holy words that he had read in the Yiddish Bible.’’ He refuses to touch money on the Sabbath, because it is forbidden. Berl follows the precepts of his religion without question, and this is enough for him.
Berlcha is Berl’s wife. She is also old, and her appearance is described as follows: ‘‘Her face was yellowish and wrinkled like a cabbage leaf. There were bluish sacks under her eyes.’’ Berlcha has been married to Berl for well over fifty years. She is half deaf, and as with Berl, her eyesight is failing, but also like her husband, she makes no complaint about her life, which follows a simple routine of performing household chores and cooking meals. She also sells chickens and eggs so there is enough money to buy flour for bread. On winter evenings, she spins flax at her spinning wheel. This is probably the routine she has followed almost all her life, and like her husband, she cannot envision things being any different. She does not take much interest in current affairs. When Berl reports what he has heard at the synagogue about life in the wider world, she simply wonders at the strange events that go on in the cities. She has no idea what life is like in America, where her son Samuel lives.
In the story, Berlcha’s main activity is to prepare the Sabbath meal, and she is very emotional when her son, absent for forty years, returns home. She is also touched when Berl calls her Pescha, which is her first name. Normally he does not use it. Like her husband, Berlcha has a simple religious faith. She observes the rituals and prayers of her Jewish religion as she has known them all her life and as has been the practice for generations before her. She prays for divine protection. It seems that for Berlcha, prayer is as natural as breathing.
Samuel is the son of Berl and Berlcha. He left the family home when he was fifteen to go to America. He has been successful there, settling in New York City and marrying and raising a family. He worked many years as a baker. He is well dressed and prosperous, and when his mother sees him for the first time in forty years, she thinks he is a nobleman.
It appears that Samuel has at least partially assimilated into mainstream American life, since his children have gentile names, but when he returns to visit his parents after a long absence, it is clear that he still identifies himself to some extent as a Jew. He still speaks Yiddish, although his parents do not understand it well because it is different from the Yiddish they speak and contains foreign words.
All the years he has been in America, Samuel has sent money back to his parents. He has also been active in the Lentshin Society in New York, which raises funds to help the impoverished village where his parents live. Samuel is therefore the dutiful son, and he is full of plans to inject funds into the village. Living so long in a materialist society, he thinks that everyone must need money. He cannot understand why his parents did not make use of what he sent them, but he also notices that the village has not changed in forty years, and eventually he realizes that it does not need the gifts he has brought.
The Old Man
When Samuel goes alone to the synagogue at night, he finds an old man there who is reciting psalms. Samuel questions him and discovers from the man’s simple answers the gulf that separates the ideas he has brought with him from America and the traditional, pious life led by the villagers.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2010