Gimpel the Fool
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Schiff’s opera Gimpel the Fool—originally written almost entirely in Yiddish and based faithfully on (or, more aptly, a musical stage setting of) Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous short story of the same title—had a protracted and cumulative gestation. The idea came to the composer in fulfillment of an undergraduate assignment to develop a libretto for a composition class with Nicholas Flagello at the Manhattan School of Music. Schiff, who had read none of Singer’s stories either in Yiddish or in translation, was teaching a literature class at the New York branch of Hebrew Union College (along with another in music theory), and he had put some of those stories in their English translation on the reading list for his class—“as an excuse to read them” himself, he later confessed. He was immediately drawn to Gimpel. Like Gimpel in the story, his own grandfather had been a baker, but Schiff also had a growing urge to explore some of his ancestral roots in Poland, and this story served as a conduit. At the same time, he intuited the operatic potential of the story and its characters, especially in terms of “the true believer who appears foolish in the eyes of the world.” With Singer’s permission, Schiff proceeded to adapt a libretto directly from the author’s words, returning to the original Yiddish. Singer of course approved the libretto prior to the premiere, but Schiff has explained that it was not a collaborative process: “I can’t say I wrote it [the libretto], because it is Singer’s words; I ‘arranged his words.’ But the structure is mine.” By the time Schiff actually began composing the music, in 1974, he was a doctoral student at Juilliard working with Elliott Carter, and the opera ultimately became his dissertation.
The initial version amounted to a small part of what would eventually become the full opera, and it was first performed, with piano accompaniment, at Schiff’s family synagogue, Beth El, in New Rochelle, New York, in 1975. At that point it was, in his words, more like a little cabaret piece. Subsequent performances followed in New York and Boston, each time with additions and refinements to the score and even to the structure and theatrical concept. But it remained unorchestrated until the opportunity came for a full production of the completed work (its “first completed version”) in 1979 at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, more or less inaugurating the imaginative “Jewish Opera at the Y” annual series, which became a formal program the following season and lasted until 1985.
Apart from Schiff’s masterful score, colorful musical depictions, and engaging use of melodic and modal materials, that premiere of Gimpel the Fool as a full-length and fully staged opera resonated with significance in the general music, operatic, and Jewish literary worlds on two planes. Singer, considered for some time one of the great writers of Yiddish fiction in the modern era, and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer to the non–Yiddish-speaking public in America, had just received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978. Marking the first—and to date the only—instance of that award given to a Yiddish writer, its citation referred to his “impassioned narrative art, which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal conditions to life.” Still, although some of his stories had enjoyed stage adaptations as plays, this was the first opera based on any of them. Moreover, Gimpel was probably his most widely known story, having been written originally for publication in the largest circulating Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward) and then published in an English translation by Saul Bellow, another Nobel laureate, in the Partisan Review in 1953.
Together with the 1950 published translation of Singer’s novel The Family Moscat, that translation of Gimpel was largely responsible for introducing him to the American reading public. There was also the considerable intrigue, even in New York, surrounding the very fact of a serious opera by a classically oriented serious composer—not a commercial musical comedy or Second Avenue “operetta” and not a cantata, of which there were many—in Yiddish, and in no less an established venue among New York’s concertgoing public than the Kaufman Auditorium of the 92nd Street Y. Gimpel was not the first opera in Yiddish; that honor is usually—in the absence of documentation to the contrary—accorded to Samuel Alman’s (1877–1947) Melekh akhaz (King Ahaz; 1912), which he wrote in London, and for which the full score has only recently been found. And there were other sporadic instances prior to Gimpel, but none that achieved either artistic success, permanence in any repertoire, or acceptance by the general music world. In that regard, Gimpel was a watershed event.
Following the 1979 production, Schiff continued to revise and polish the opera, which was produced again at the Y in 1980. Then, anticipating its third production there, in 1985, Schiff realized that despite clever theatrical measures he had taken and devices he had created to mediate the language barrier for an obviously mixed audience, much of the meaning—and especially the humor—was still lost on those who were not fluent in Yiddish. And even those moments that induced howling laughter from the entire audience at the premiere—such as “Jesus” rendered in the diminutive Yiddish equivalent, Yossl—would probably not fly elsewhere in the country and, after another generation or two, perhaps not so easily in New York either. Moreover, Schiff felt that even at the Y in 1979, some of the audience was at a disadvantage—although the reaction was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Given the highly idiomatic nature of the Yiddish language and its suggestive expressions, many veiled connotations, and references to ethnic and religious matters, no amount of listener preparation with a translated libretto could compensate adequately. Supertitles had not yet been implemented in theaters, but even those would probably not provide a satisfactory solution.
In addition, there was the complex problem of diction, pronunciation, and inflection, especially for envisioned tours and productions outside the New York area. Even in New York, those issues had required serious attention, but at least at that time there were still a few classically trained veterans of serious Yiddish theater or art who could—and did—participate in the cast. Even so, Mascha Benya, the foremost authority on learned, artistic Yiddish vocal rendition and diction (as well as pretty much everything Yiddish), was called in to coach the cast intensively during rehearsals—not only for the benefit of those to whom Yiddish was entirely foreign, but also to ensure uniform pronunciation according to accepted standard literary Yiddish. Even for experienced Yiddish-speaking singers (who made up only a part of the cast), that was necessary in view of the many and varied prevailing dialects, which depend on one’s family background and European geographic tradition. And there would be no Mascha Benyas in Portland, Omaha, St. Louis, or Houston.
Schiff also knew that as time went on, few singers experienced in or even familiar with Yiddish would remain active. The problems would only become magnified, since some of the particularities of Yiddish—especially with regard to certain specific sounds, vocalizations, and consonant-vowel combinations—are not part of any of the standard languages in which American singers are trained, or to which they might at least be exposed: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and so on. These particularities and relative peculiarities can prove difficult if not impossible to teach or absorb, or even simply to imitate—the more so out of any regular aural context or exposure to the emblematic authentic cadences and nuances. And one could not rely on the rare exceptions of naturally gifted mimics. This has been proved by the embarrassing results of most attempts to pronounce even a few words in Hollywood films, where there are virtually unlimited budgetary resources to provide for adequate coaching. Similarly so for recently released CDs by high-powered labels with superstar pop or classical singers, who we know for a fact received substantial coaching by knowledgeable native speakers and even experts—sadly to little or no effect.
With all that in mind, Schiff decided to do an English version for the third production at the Y in April 1985. This represented his own translation—with some untranslatable Yiddish expressions and terms left intact to preserve the flavor—which was used for the Milken Archive recording of excerpts. Although he now considers this the final and principal version (“I would rather have the opera sung well in English than badly—or not at all—in Yiddish”), he has nonetheless expressed the hope that both versions may be produced “as is most appropriate for the performers and the audience.”
For the full-length Yiddish production at the Y, Schiff ingeniously provided organically integrated and connecting narration in, or mostly in, English. This was drawn from Singer’s own words but assigned to the stage role of the badkhn, the quintessential wedding jester and bard who typically presided over post-ceremony entertainment in traditional eastern European circles and even early on at immigrant celebrations in America. That role has wisely been retained in the English version, to fill out otherwise unexplained elements of the story and permit the music to focus on dramatic moments.
Gimpel the Fool is infused with many of Singer’s favorite themes, fixations, and enigmas: daily life in the lost world of small-town Jewish life in eastern Europe; sexual repressions and frustrations; spirits, ghosts, and superstitions; mysteries that might at first appear to be perfectly transparent; inner as well as outer demons; willing self-deception; blurred lines between fantasy and reality, between fabrication and truth, and between the imagined and the known; and the desire and need to believe, sometimes contrary to rational thought. The story has been cited by some as a parable of faith—not only in God, but in people and in life—and of common goodness triumphing over deceit. It centers around Gimpel, a baker and the supposed town fool in the fictional village of Frampol, somewhere in Russian Poland in the nineteenth or very early twentieth century. The constant butt of the townspeople’s practical jokes and pranks, which often involve concocting impossible stories that he, as a fool, believes—or either pretends or chooses to believe—he is also the willing and long-suffering victim of an unfaithful, shrewish wife who berates him for being such a fool. He is mocked relentlessly by the townsfolk for his gullibility, and they cruelly take delight at his expense. They have told him that the Czar was on his way to visit their village, that the moon fell out of the sky, that the Messiah was on his way to Frampol, and even that his dead parents have risen from their graves and are looking for him. And he always falls for the gag. To the one about his parents, he muses that he knows full well that this is both impossible and untrue, but as he says, “What did I stand to lose by just looking [for them]?” Nonetheless infuriated as well as confused, he consults the town rabbi for advice on how to cope, and the rabbi tells him that the deceiving townsfolk are the fools, not Gimpel, for by their deceit they will forfeit olam haba—eternal life in the “world to come.” “It is written,” the rabbi reminds Gimpel, “that it is better to be a fool all your days than to be evil for one hour. For he who causes his fellowmen to be shamed loses paradise for himself.” Indeed, deliberately shaming, embarrassing, or humiliating someone without cause is considered a major transgression of Jewish law, as illustrated in the legend of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, wherein a rich man’s unnecessary public humiliation of his personal enemy is said—not literally or historically of course—to have hastened the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Much of this occurs in the first act, during which the townsfolk also organize a match for Gimpel with Elka, the town strumpet, whose out-of-wedlock child she passes off as her brother. He resists, not only for that ruse but for other unpleasant features he finds in her, but the townspeople, knowing full well the truth about Elka, nonetheless threaten—as part of their torment of Gimpel—to bring charges of slander against him that could result in a fine by the rabbinical court. In the end, he not only marries her, he solicits contributions so that she may have a dowry with dignity. But on their wedding night Elka refuses to have sex with him and throws him out of bed and out of the house—on the fabricated pretense that she had not been to the mikve (ritual bath), a monthly prerequisite for sexual relations.
The scenes excerpted for the Milken Archive recording occur in Act II. Only four months after their wedding, Elka gives birth to a boy. Gimpel knows that the child cannot be his, and naturally he feels disgraced and angry. Yet after being placated by the rabbi, who mysteriously compares Elka to the biblical Eve (the connection is never made clear other than that no particular gestation period is given in Genesis), Gimpel not only pays for the brit mila (circumcision) celebration, but he names the boy after his own father as a de facto adoption. In Scene 10, which finds Gimpel singing a lullaby to the baby, Elka insists that he was simply born prematurely, trying to make an even greater fool of him and insulting his intelligence by claiming that the boy was a “Seven-month” birth. Gimpel makes it clear that he knows simple arithmetic: “seventeen weeks is not seven months.” Deciding to accept the situation with the ever-so-slight hope that his worst fears might be unfounded, he consoles himself by recalling, “After all, they say that Jesus never had a [human biological] father either.”
Scene 11a finds Gimpel actually having come to love Elka despite her incessant mistreatment of him and her lies, and he steals little bits of customers’ dough and baked goods for her: a kikhl (a hollow type of cookie), a shtritzl (a little cake), a khale (ḥalla—the special bread for the Sabbath, Festivals, and the High Holy Days), and a bubele a flodn (a little fruit layer cake). Oblivious to Elka’s affair with his apprentice (which the audience does not realize at that point), he praises the young lad’s good heart and sends him home while he remains working at the bakery.
In Scene 11b, Gimpel returns home to jeers of the townspeople, only to hear two sets of snores coming from his and Elka’s bedroom. To buy time for the apprentice to escape unseen, Elka sends Gimpel outside to check on their goat, which she claims has been ill.
The white goat, which Gimpel describes as trading in (selling) the symbolic confection of raisins and almonds, is no mere goat, but a ubiquitous motif in eastern European Yiddish folklore—specifically in lullabies. Usually the goat is found either under or near a baby’s cradle (in this case, the fact that the goat is left outside may say something about Elka’s priorities; or the scene may represent Gimpel’s projection onto it out of his concern for the child’s future). The goat image has been perceived either as a companion or as a symbol of protection for the baby. Among various probing constructions, however, the goat has been interpreted as representing the father, who, on a metaphoric plane, seeks to ensure not only a sweet future for his child (the raisins and almonds) but also a better world in the form of national or spiritual redemption, or both—all of which may be symbolized in that interpretation by the acquisition of raisins and almonds. In Yiddish folksong, many variants of the archetypal lullaby containing this goat image as a trader of raisins and almonds also go on to express the prototypical hope that the child grow up to be Judaically learned and religiously observant (“study of Torah is sweeter than honey”). This might also refer to the old custom of having a child lick some honey placed on a page of sacred text in order to create a quasi-Pavlovian association between sweetness and study at the earliest possible age.
This goat image is undoubtedly most widely known now from its expression in the theatrical song Rozhenkes mit mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), which Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908) apparently stitched together from multiple folk tune sources for his famous 1904 operetta Shulamis. One of the principal phrases of that song has an echo in Mahler’s sixth symphony.
The goat image itself (apart from the raisins and almonds) may also have been derived from even earlier Judaic sources (predating Jewish folklore), in which the kid symbolizes the Jewish people and its determination for, as well as faith in, redemption and survival—themes that could have resonated on a personal level with Gimpel. Moreover, the goat in the refrain of the popular Aramaic-Hebrew Passover seder song Ḥad gadya (A Single Kid)—although some literary critics insist that the text is simply children’s verse based on a popular French ballad—also has been interpreted as a metaphor for God’s having taken the people Israel as “His own” through the Decalogue of the Sinaitic covenant. All these things were undoubtedly known to Singer, and it is worth considering that Gimpel has taken Elka’s child “as his own.” Gimpel’s song to his goat is the only instance in the opera where Schiff used, appropriately for this moment, an actual Yiddish folk tune, Unter soreles vigele (Under Little Sarah’s Cradle)—unrelated to and preceding Goldfaden’s song—that appears in one of the first collections of Yiddish folksong. It is also known in many text variants as Unter yankeles vigele (Under Little Jacob’s Cradle) and Unter dem kinds vigele (Under the Child’s Cradle).
Elka’s diversion is not successful, for Gimpel catches a glimpse of his apprentice fleeing. But Elka’s “offensive defense” in Scene 11d is to curse and berate Gimpel for even suggesting what he saw, insisting that he had imagined it and she is the victim (“your mind is possessed”). Her abuse is echoed by the townspeople, who always take her side merely to irritate Gimpel for fun. But this time Gimpel has had it. (“even to Gimpel’s foolishness there must be a limit”).
In Scene 11e, Gimpel is determined to divorce Elka, which means that he must persuade her to agree to accept a get (a bill of divorcement), since under Jewish law both parties must agree to a divorce. Gimpel goes to the rabbi to discuss the matter, and the townspeople once again jeer outside, claiming that Gimpel’s charges for the proposed divorce amount to punishable slander. Despite Elka’s continued protests that Gimpel has imagined what he saw, the rabbi agrees that he must try to divorce her. The rabbi tells him that if she refuses to appear to accept the get in person, he should “declare” a divorce. By that he means a get zikku’i, whereby the husband prepares a proper legal get and has it delivered to an agent appointed by the court on her behalf, based on the assumption that it would be in her interest to accept it. Since she would otherwise be unable to remarry, and Elka would probably want to find a husband to support her two children. (Gimpel has no financial obligations to them; he has not adopted them legally.) No sooner has the rabbi expressed his view than Gimpel begins to relent—asking if he would still be able to see the children, of whom he has obviously grown fond. The rabbi replies that he must not, that he must remove himself immediately not only from Elka (“that whore”) but also from her children. (“Bastards” is actually misused here and in the translation of the story. Under Jewish law, a bastard (mamzer) is the child of a biblically forbidden union, such as a married woman with a man other than her husband; but both Elka’s children were obviously conceived before her marriage to Gimpel, and it is presumed in the story that she was unmarried at the time.) Clearly, he also has some second thoughts about never seeing Elka again. He begins to back down at the rabbi’s admonition to leave—“Good, Rabbi, I’ll consider it”—to the taunts of the townspeople, who seem to know that the whole matter is painful and not so simple for Gimpel.
In his monologue in Scene 11f, Gimpel rebukes himself for his inability to sustain anger. But then he begins to question his own memory—seizing on the skillful acting in Elka’s denial—believing what he so desperately wants to be the case, trying to ignore that which he would rather not confront. Here we find Singer in his almost mystical merging of fantasy, imagination, and delusion with reality and truth—a subordination of truth itself to the human quest for belief. For in Singer’s mysterious and mystery-filled universe, there can be, as he suggested in a 1963 interview in Commentary, something of truth after all in fantasies and self-deception—some revelation about the depth of the human psyche from which such fantasies emerge. And what this might reveal is the human realization that the search for truth cannot result in its attainment—hence, the need to choose belief, even if that choice may be untenable.
Since Gimpel truly loves Elka’s children as his own, his words in the monologue suggest that rather than being the fool he appears to be, perhaps he is possessed of a certain folk wisdom in his retreat to acceptance, his inclination to forgo his dignity for the children’s sake, and his search for an excuse to overlook reality. His conflict, and the way he tries to cope with it, also illustrate what Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, in their Treasury of Yiddish Stories, have cited as the thematic “sanctity of the insulted and the injured” in Yiddish literature.
Gimpel concludes by reminding himself (through the nudging of the badkhn in the staging) what the rabbi once told him about the need for faith and trust in marriage: “If today you don’t believe your wife, tomorrow you won’t believe in God.” In the balance of Act II, Gimpel, missing his family, returns to the rabbi, seeking permission to return to his wife and home. After prolonged deliberation, the rabbi finds some rabbinic authority to allow the reunion with a sexually faithless and therefore forbidden wife, and Gimpel returns. Over the course of the twenty years of marriage, Elka bears six more children, finally succumbing to a fatal illness. On her deathbed (at the beginning of Act I as a prologue), she confesses to Gimpel that none of them are his. In his shock—which one assumes is possible only for a fool, given all that has transpired—Gimpel grapples with his naïveté in having allowed himself to be deceived all that time.
After the funeral, an “evil spirit” appears to Gimpel in a dream and urges him to seek revenge upon the townspeople—who tricked him into the marriage in the first place—by urinating on the dough for the ḥallot they will be purchasing for the following Sabbath. After he does so, Elka appears to him in another dream and urges him not to go through with his revenge, since she is being punished in the afterlife for all she has done. This is justice enough for Gimpel, who should not allow himself to become an evil deceiver because of her deceit. Why should he, because of her, forfeit the reward of eternal life in olam haba? Why should he succumb to the “evil spirit” after all he has endured? In the end—in Singer’s portrayal of her ultimate realization—she had deceived only herself, and on her deathbed she had remarked pathetically that her deception of Gimpel had been the “meaning of her brief life.”
Realizing that surrendering to the evil impulse and becoming no better than the townspeople would be a mistake, Gimpel—after awakening from the dream—heeds Elka’s advice and discards the contaminated dough. He relinquishes all his belongings, leaves town permanently, and becomes an itinerant raconteur and yarn spinner for children, who eagerly run after him asking him to repeat his fantastic stories. He draws on many of the same stories that had been told to him as lies. Now, however, they are not lies, but entertainment for children. And he is no deceiver, but a performer of worthy deeds in the eyes of Jewish law and tradition, since he brings laughter and joy to the children. He has come to believe that “there really are no lies,” for whatever does not actually happen is—or can be—dreamed, even coming to pass sooner or later.
Gimpel’s newfound mission seems to echo an apocryphal story, rooted in a talmudic vignette about Elijah, in which a Jew in a busy public square is asked by his friend to predict which of all the other Jews congregated there will be found worthy of eternal life in olam haba—if, for the sake of intellectual exercise, only one could be selected. Looking around, the man notices pious Jews engaged in study and deliberation of Torah and other sacred texts, Jews dispensing charity, Jewish merchants striving to earn a living to support their families, Jews praying the afternoon service, and, finally, a shoeless simpleton street entertainer and clown—to whom he points as his sole predicted candidate. Astounded, his friend asks him why, when there are so many more worthy pious and learned Jews in the square fulfilling so many of God’s commandments, he would single out the simple buffoon for God’s favor. “Why?” came the answer. “Because he brings laughter to sad people.”
Gimpel finds comfort not only in his entertainments for children and the respectful treatment he is given everywhere he goes, but also in his communication with Elka through dreams and, in view of her rehabilitation, his hopes to be reunited with her in the end. In that perfect “world to come,” there will of course be no such thing as deceit, and even Gimpel will not—cannot—be fooled.
In composing the opera, Schiff sought consciously to evoke through its music some of the vanished world of Singer’s story. In part, he relied on traditional cantorial inflections and Ashkenazi synagogue modalities and idioms, but he also wanted to reflect some of the typical sounds, wails, and spirit of traditional 19th-century eastern European Jewish wedding bands—now often called “klezmer” music. But, as Schiff has pointed out, the so-called “klezmer revival” movement had not quite yet gotten off the ground.
Klezmer simply means an instrumental musician, with the connotation of a band player for Jewish celebrations, rather than a classical orchestral musician. Even by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such bands of klezmorim played many different styles of music, emanating from various sources and outside traditions: Romanian, Ukrainian, Gypsy, and other musics. “Klezmer” cannot possibly signify a style or genre. Moreover, klezmorim have reflected the musical fashions of their time and surroundings since the Middle Ages in western Europe. Klezmorim in the Baroque era, for example, played music imitative of Western minuets, gavottes, sarabands, and other Baroque dance forms—and with Western modalities and melodic content.
That “revival” is also misnamed, since the 19th-century phase (viz., the tunes and flavors typical of 19th-century klezmorim) never really died but remained current throughout the 20th century at American Jewish weddings within orthodox—and certainly Hassidic—circles. The continuum stretches back to immigrant bandmasters from eastern Europe who transplanted their craft to American soil beginning late in the nineteenth century. Only the introduction of such music as exotica to the ethnic “outsiders”—non-Jews as well as younger generations of Jews or Jews from nontraditional backgrounds—awaited the “movement” in the 1970s and thereafter. But, as ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin suggested to Henry Sapoznik, the Jewish band historian, popular music authority, and accomplished klezmer, as quoted in Sapoznik’s book Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, “[the word] ‘revival’ only makes sense in the case of Lazarus, or in giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitations. Short of that, terms like ‘reevaluation,’ ‘remembrance,’ or ‘reenergizing’—as in lost battery power—are far more appropriate.” Sapoznik agreed in part: “Affixing it [revival] to the active across-the-board performance of klezmer music denigrates the subtle and irrevocable process of continuity that is key to widespread renewal of the music.” Nonetheless, like the confusing, constricting, and even belittling term klezmer itself misused as a style or genre, or like many misnomers born of philological or historical naïveté, we may be irrevocably stuck with its popular usage.
Although Schiff had heard music played by such traditional Jewish wedding bands in his youth, it was dormant in his mind and ear by the time he began working on Gimpel. He would have had to make a project out of frequenting the then more closed world of orthodox weddings or Hassidic celebrations for other occasions, or else to engage in ethnomusicological research involving thousands of old 78-rpm records in private hands or still uncatalogued archives—to which access was far more difficult then than now. And the plethora of archival re-pressings onto contemporary formats had barely begun. In addition, he felt that the sounds of the current “revivalist” klezmer groups that he heard in the mid-1970s, some of which used such historically incongruous substitute instruments as electric piano, were “too American.” What he wanted for this opera was “something more European.” So he turned instead, especially for his instrumentation and orchestration, to the perceived sounds of klezmorim as reflected in classical works by such composers as Mahler, Weill, and Stravinsky. The particular ensemble of fourteen musicians on which he eventually decided was influenced by his restudy of certain works by those composers. Schiff also feels that, although the music itself in Gimpel was not suggested by those pieces, the opera does exhibit their influence in terms of orchestra and instrumental idiom and style.
Schiff has credited his teacher at Juilliard, Elliott Carter, with good suggestions about the orchestral ensemble. “Start with an unusual ensemble,” he recalls Carter advising, to avoid artificial efforts to produce unusual sounds. “You wouldn’t think Carter [not only a non-Jew, but an avatar of rigorous nontonal music] would be of much help with this kind of music,” Schiff said in a 1999 interview, “but he was!” He also worked on the orchestration with composer Trude Rittman, who introduced him to some Broadway techniques; and he found some helpful hints in Benjamin Britten’s use of a similar ensemble for his opera The Turn of the Screw. In 1982 Schiff fashioned an instrumental suite from Gimpel in the form of a divertimento, which is scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
Over the years since its publication, Singer’s story has been subjected to voluminous literary criticism, analysis, interpretation, deconstruction, and decoding—and even so-called study guides—on numerous levels and from various perspectives and disciplines. Whether because of his faith and capacity for love, his own form of pacifism, his natural urge to believe in goodness, his turning a blind eye rather than taking revenge, his looking the other way, his optimism, his embodiment of potential goodness in the common man (the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination toward good, which Jewish teaching holds that God has placed in each person along with the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination toward evil, that man may choose or be educated to choose between the two), most critics have tended toward the assessment that Gimpel was not, in fact, a fool, and that the inclination toward delusion is natural. One critic, Thomas Hennings, posited the notion that the story was based closely on the biblical Book of Hosea. Others, such as Edward Alexander, have raised the issue of a possible parallel to the inability or refusal of many Jews to face reality and confront the truth during and prior to the Holocaust—a failing that jeopardized the survival of many victims out of an ultimate belief in mankind. If so, Gimpel’s naïveté, real or feigned, might not be so benign as a symbol, and perhaps then he indeed represents a fool.
Whatever the critical approach or method, the issues always seem to frame the same essential question: Was Gimpel a fool? At the very beginning of the story he tells us that he is “Gimpel the fool,” but he follows with a rebuttal. He doesn’t think himself a fool—to the contrary, in fact. Had Singer revealed the answer, he would not have been Singer. But the more probing question might be: Did Singer know?