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The importance of love is a timeless theme—one might say it is the most nourishing substance to a human life—and it is intertwined within Jewish literature like the religion itself. Whether it be the love between a husband and wife, father and son, or simply a Jew and a fool, its importance is visible throughout Jewish literature. The depiction of a “fool” in Jewish literature is another common element that creates an intriguing relationship between characters and faith. The importance of love is a powerful theme in both “Idiot’s First” by Bernard Malamud and “Gimpel the Fool” by I.B. Singer. While both stories showcase the importance of love in similar ways, they also showcase it in distinct ways.
When it comes to fools in Jewish literature, there is no better example than Gimpel in “Gimpel the Fool.” Gimpel is what can be referred to as a “holy fool,” although he may dwell within questionable intellect in the eyes of other, he is the keystone of what it means to be a righteous Jew. The story even begins with Gimpel introducing himself as a fool, despite not thinking he is, in fact, a fool—illustrating the use of self-deprecation and irony. Gimpel’s community members regularly trick him, and he knows it, but Gimpel tolerates it saying, “But I’m the type that bears it and says nothing. What’s one to do? Shoulders are God, and burdens too” (Singer 20). Is this willingness to accept burden and deception valid in classifying Gimpel as a fool? Gimpel makes it clear that he does not see himself as a fool, as he chooses to believe others when they deceive him because he stands to lose nothing by believing them; this righteous behavior is a defining characteristic of Gimpel that alludes to his inexplicit piousness.
Gimpel is deceived into marrying Elka, the town prostitute, and grows to love her despite her many wrongdoings and infidelities. The love Gimpel has for Elka is challenged numerous times like when she gives birth to a child four months after their wedding or when he catches her in bed with another man multiple times. When Gimpel catches her committing adultery the first time, he decides that he will divorce her, but rather than completing the divorce and lose his faith and love for her, he convinces himself that she is not at fault or that he is hallucinating.
Gimpel and Elka go on to live a married life for twenty years until Elka becomes ill and passes away. On her death bed, Elka tries to atone for her infidelities, and Gimpel is astounded at what he hears as if he had not the slightest clue what was going on. Nevertheless, Gimpel continues to love his deceased wife and carries that love with him for the duration of his life. Whether Gimpel is indeed a fool, is debatable, but the fact that the love Gimpel demonstrated for Elka was unrelenting and real, is bolstered by the following when Gimpel sees Elka in a dream long after her death, “She is standing by the washtub, as our first encounter, but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint…” (Singer 23). It is clear that Gimpel’s love for Elka is untainted because he compares her to a saint, when Elka’s actions, in the eyes of other, would discount her from ever achieving such a holy plateau.
Sometime after Elka’s death, the Spirit of Evil comes to visit Gimpel and convinces him to commit a great moral sin by urinating into the dough that the townspeople would eat, as a means on revenge for all times they have deceived Gimpel. Gimpel is then visited by the deceased Elka in a dream, where she warns him of the moral sin he is about to commit and convinces him not to proceed forward; this is important because it is Elka, whom Gimpel loves dearly, that deters him—showing that love is important in his securing his salvation. Alongside Gimpel’s foolishness, his love for Elka indicates that the overall importance of love in “Gimpel the Fool” is symbolized by faith and acceptance
“Idiots First” is saturated with an overall sense of urgency as Mendel rushes to get his son, Isaac, onto a train to California. Mendel is an aging man who is close to death and Isaac seems to be mentally ill, but he is seen as a fool in the eyes of other, characters often insinuating cruel jokes about Isaac. Knowing that he does not have much time left and that Isaac cannot survive without a watchful eye, Mendel sets out to secure Isaac a train ticket to California where Mendel’s Uncle Leo resides. Mendel visits a pawn shop, a wealthy philanthropist, and a poor rabbi in an attempt to collect the necessary funds. While visiting these various individuals, it is ironic how the poor rabbi is more willing to help Mendel than the wealthy philanthropist; this juxtaposition reinforces the importance of love by showing that it is about selflessness. Once Mendel gathers enough money to buy a ticket, they make their way to the train station where they must overcome the final obstacle, death, who is personified as a man named Ginzburg. Mendel physically fights with Ginzburg, and despite being weaker than Ginzburg, Ginzburg lets Mendel and Isaac proceed to the station platform. In the end, after much struggle, Mendel securely leads Isaac onto the train—his final task complete. Only then, because of his love for Isaac, is Mendel ready to face death without any trepidation or apprehension.
Isaac and his foolishness is a definite contender in the importance in the story, but it is Mendel’s love and sacrifice for this fool that indicates the extreme importance that is placed on love. It is clear that Mendel loves Isaac for two reasons. Firstly, Mendel scarifies much and is incessant in his commitment to gather enough money for Isaac’s train ticket. Mendel pawns his watch for significantly less than what he paid for it originally; he even attempts to sell his coat and hat—literally the clothes on his back. To give up his material possessions without a second thought demonstrates the profound love Mendel has for Isaac. Secondly, Mendel refuses to die without gathering up the money for the train ticket; death is personified as chasing him through the streets, but Mendel continues to outrun it. Death even says, “You should have been dead already at midnight. I told you that yesterday” (Malamud 95) as if Mendel has the power to bargain with Death. Evidently, the overall importance of love in “Idiot’s First” is rooted within sacrifice and selflessness.
The importance of love is illustrated in both stories through common elements. For example, both stories illustrate the importance of love through the relationship of a “fool” and a Jew on a two-dimensional level. On the one hand, there is a clear relationship between the fool and the Jew in each story: Gimpel and Elka are husband and wife, and Mendel and Isaac are father and son. On the other hand, underneath that clear, outer relationship, it can be simplified as a relationship between a fool and a Jew. It is also important to note that Gimpel was able to make the conscious decision to be a fool, while Isaac was not. The two dimensions of each relationship are essential in illustrating the importance of love because it transcends the expectations of love and grounds it in a unique and often difficult to understand relationship where love is used as a means to demonstrate salvation and righteousness. Additionally, the use of mysticism is another common element that both authors use to exemplify the importance of love. The Spirit of Evil and Gimpel’s dream visions in “Gimpel the Fool” and the personification of death as a real person in “Idiots First” are elements influenced by mysticism. By using mysticism alongside love, both authors give love a mystical characteristic so that love is shown to be important and powerful beyond the limits of this world. Love is also important in both stories because it offers salvation in both stories, Gimpel’s love for Elka saves him from sinning, and Mendel’s love for Isaac gives him the power to finish his last business so he can rest in tranquility, knowing that there is nothing left for him to do.
While the importance of love is apparent in both stories, the authors use that theme in some noticeably different ways. One difference in the way the authors use the importance of love is in whether the fool is loved by someone else or if the fool loves someone else. In “Gimpel the Fool,” Gimpel loves Elka despite her wrongdoings—the fool loves someone else. In contrast, in “Idiots First,” Mendel loves Isaac—the fool is loved by someone else. This difference is significant because to be loved by a fool requires no struggle; the fool can love someone, but they do not have to love them back. In contrast, to love a fool calls for an explicit willingness and righteousness. Additionally, “Gimpel and the Fool” shows that love is strong even in death, while “Idiots First” shows that love is stronger than death. Despite loving Elka, Gimpel is unable to detain death from reaping its harvest; however, his love is resilient past her death. Mendel was able to figuratively fight off death because of the love he has for Isaac, without that love to channel his will Mendel would have stood no chance. While it can be speculated that Mendel’s love would flourish despite his death, the author leaves that interpretation open to the reader, unlike in “Gimpel the Fool” where it is a central element of the story.
In summary, “Gimpel the Fool” and “Idiots First” both demonstrate the importance of love through common elements such as the relationship between a fool and a Jew, mysticism, and salvation. Meanwhile, both show the importance of love through different elements such as the nature of the fools in both stories and the message tied to the importance of love. Love can be defined, as these stories do, with devotion, faith, acceptance, and sacrifice, but, nevertheless, its importance is paramount in these stories, and the intersecting messages of love relate back to traditional Jewish teachings.
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