‘‘The Son from America’’ is set in Lentshin, a small Jewish village in Poland in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. In Lentshin live old Berl, a man in his eighties, and his wife, Berlcha. Berl was driven from Russia by the persecution of Jews there, and he and his wife settled in Poland. They live in a one-room hut and keep a goat, a cow, and chickens, and they have a field of half an acre. They also have a son called Samuel, who emigrated to the United States forty years ago. It is said that he became prosperous there, and every week he sends a money order to his parents. Every four months, Berl and Berlcha drive to a larger town, Zakroczym, and cash the money orders, but they never use the money, since their wants are few, and they have all they need. No one knows or cares where they put the money, since there are no thieves in the village.
Berl and his wife are happy with what they have and the simple life they lead. They do not envy the more prosperous villagers who have kerosene lamps, since they do not trust such new devices.
Berl keeps in touch with world events at the synagogue. He tells his wife that there is unrest in Warsaw, Poland’s capital city, where striking workers are calling for the abdication of the czar. A man named Dr. Herzl is promoting his idea that the Jews should return and settle in Palestine. This is a reference to Theodore Herzl (1860–1904), founder of the Zionist movement, which sought the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Berl’s wife expresses astonishment at what goes on in cities nowadays. In the tiny village of Lentshin, nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. There are few young people there. The young seek their fortunes elsewhere, in the big cities and sometimes even in the United States.
Samuel sends Berl and Berlcha photographs of his children and grandchildren, but they have gentile names that Berl and Berlcha cannot remember. They know nothing of life in the distant land of America.
One winter morning, when Berlcha is preparing bread for the Sabbath the following day, a tall man she believes to be a nobleman appears at the door. A coachman carries his bags. The nobleman pays the coachman and then turns to Berlcha and tells her that he is Samuel, her son. Berlcha is astonished. Then Berl enters and is equally astonished when the stranger announces that he is Berl’s son. Berl does not recognize Samuel because he was only fifteen years old when he left home. Samuel asks whether they received his cable telling them that he was coming, but Berl does not even know what a cable is.
Berlcha begins to cry and says she must knead the dough in preparation for the Sabbath. She must make a bigger meal now that her son is here. Samuel offers to help, but she refuses to let him, but Samuel removes his coat and rolls up his sleeves, saying that for many years he was a baker in New York. Berlcha is overcome with joy and collapses on the bed, while Berl goes to the shed to get some wood.
The neighbors hear the news and come to meet Samuel. The women help Berlcha prepare for the Sabbath, and everyone asks Samuel questions about what life is like in America, especially for the Jews.
Berl and Samuel go to the synagogue together. When they come out, snow covers the village. Samuel remarks that the village is the same as he remembers it.
Over the evening meal, Samuel talks a lot, but his parents do not understand everything he says because, although he speaks in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jews, he adds foreign words to it. Samuel asks his father what he did with all the money that was sent. It transpires that Berl stored the money in a boot placed under the bed. When Samuel asks him why he never spent any of it, Berl replies that there is nothing to spend it on, since they have everything they need. They have no desire to travel. When Samuel asks what will happen to the money, Berl suggests that Samuel should take it back. Samuel suggests that perhaps they need a larger synagogue, but Berl replies that the synagogue is big enough. He also says, in response to another idea of Samuel’s, that the village does not need an old people’s home.
The next day, while Berl and Berlcha take a nap, Samuel goes for a walk. He enters the synagogue, where he finds an old man reciting scriptures. He asks the man whether he makes a living, but the old man does not understand the question. He says that he goes on living as long as God gives him health.
Samuel returns home at dusk. Berl goes to the synagogue, and Samuel remains at home with his mother. Berlcha recites a prayer, which includes a petition for wealth. Samuel says she does not need to pray for wealth because she is wealthy already. He thinks back over the plans for the village he has brought with him. He wanted to give the village gifts. There is even a Lentshin Society in New York that has collected money for the cause, but now Samuel realizes that the village needs nothing.
The story ends with the sounds of the crickets outside, the chanting from the synagogue, and Berlcha still reciting her prayers.
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