From a modern perspective, Berl and Berlcha do not possess much. They have enough to eat, and they have a roof over their heads, but that is about all. They are poor. They have no luxuries. The only extras they make sure they have are the candles needed for the Sabbath, but they regard those as essentials. These are people for whom religious faith is all important. They live by the precepts of the Torah (the Jewish holy book of scriptures and laws) handed down from generation to generation. It is a spiritual way of living that accepts with composure what the Lord gives or does not give. Berl and Berlcha trust that God will provide for their needs, and they are not disappointed. Their prayers are heard, and their lives seem to them full rather than empty or deprived. Secure in the unchanging rhythm of their days, Berl and Berlcha do not believe in progress. They do not care for ‘‘newfangled gadgets’’ such as kerosene lamps. They live in a static world where change is neither sought nor desired. This is what Samuel notices when he returns after a forty-year absence. ‘‘Nothing has changed here,’’ he says. The world of Lentshin is defined by simple, everyday tasks and religious faith, ritual, and worship. There is no need for anything to change, at least as far as Berl and Berlcha are concerned. All things, they believe, come from God. There is no need for people to try to take the lead and alter what God gives, although Berl and Berlcha do pray for divine support and protection in their lives, but that is up to the will of God; it is not for Berl and Berlcha to decide what is best for them.
In contrast, Samuel has for forty years lived in a society that values material things and is always in the vanguard of progress, understood in terms of improving the material lot of people. The materialism that prevails in a city such as New York is completely at odds with the spirituality that permeates the simple village of Lentshin. One worldview defines the value of life in terms of how many possessions and material comforts people have; people who do not have much by definition must be in want of more. In contrast, in the religious view of life that dominates with the villagers of Lentshin, fullness and plenty are spiritual terms. Plenty is provided not by the ingenuity and inventions of humans on the material plane of existence but by the ‘‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’’ who always gives enough.
Samuel is a bridge between these two worlds. He grew up in the village but made the United States his adopted home. He obviously values the material aspects of life and has much that others might envy. This is obvious from the first description of him, in which he is dressed in a cloak with a fur border and carries leather suitcases with brass locks on them. He also wears a solid-gold watch chain. He overpays the coachman but will not allow the man to give him any change. He is clearly a representative of that prosperous world across the ocean of which Berl and Berlcha know nothing. At first, Samuel, who has been away so long, cannot understand the way his parents think about such matters as human need. Surely they and the other villagers are in need of the money and other gifts that he brings? Slowly he comes to remember what life in this village is all about. By the end of the story, he realizes that the village needs nothing from him. He tells his mother, ‘‘You are wealthy already,’’ thus showing his understanding that wealth can mean different things to different people. He may have a certain kind of wealth that is honored in New York City, but his parents have another form of wealth that flows from the spirit and is not counted in gold coins.
Lentshin is a thoroughly Jewish village; all of its inhabitants share the same culture and religion, but it is a different matter for Samuel. He grew up in Lentshin but departed for America when he was fifteen. Like thousands of other Jews who immigrated to the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, he has been subject to the process of assimilation into the mainstream of American life. He appears to have married a non-Jew, since his children do not have Jewish names. The extent to which he has remained a Jew is a subject of concern for his parents. They ask him how Jews fare in America: ‘‘Do they remain Jews?’’ Samuel’s reply is a little ambiguous. He replies not with a positive statement that he is still a Jew but with the negation, ‘‘I am not a Gentile,’’ which suggests perhaps that he is not as strict in his observance of Jewish laws, customs, and rituals as the people of Lentshin are, but he has not altogether abandoned the Jewish culture or religion. He is perhaps, like many immigrants, caught between two worlds.
Another indication of the extent of assimilation is language. In Lentshin, the inhabitants speak Yiddish, but when the young people leave the village, which most of them do, they write back to their families in Yiddish intermixed with words from the languages of the countries in which they now live, which their families cannot understand. Berl and Berlcha cannot understand Samuel’s letters because he uses English words along with the Yiddish.
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