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Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Gentleman From Cracow"

I recently read "The Gentleman From Cracow", by Isaac Bashevis Singer (from Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories). In this passage from near the beginning of the story, the desperate town of Frampol is in the grip of famine and destitution when a mysterious and munificent stranger arrives.

From the poorhouse gate the beggars came, crowding about him as he distributed alms - three groszy, six groszy, half-gulden pieces. The stranger was clearly a gift from Heaven, and Frampol was not destined to vanish. The beggars hurried to the baker for bread, and the baker sent to Zamosc for a sack of flour.

"One sack?" the young doctor said. "Why that won't last a single day. I will order a wagonload, and not only flour, but cornmeal also."

"But we have no money," the village elders explained.

"God willing, you will repay me when times are good," and saying this, the stranger produced a purse crammed with golden ducats. Frampol rejoiced as he counted out the coins.

The next day, wagons filled with flour, buckwheat, barley, millet, and beans, drove into Frampol. News of the village's good fortune reached the ears of the peasants, and they came to the Jews, to buy goods, as the Egyptians had once come to Joseph. Being without money, they paid in kind; as a result, there was meat in town. Now the ovens burned once more; the pots were full. Smoke rose from the chimneys, sending the odors of roast chicken and goose, onion and garlic, fresh bread and pastry, into the evening air. The villagers returned to their occupations; shoemakers mended shoes; tailors picked up their rusted shears and irons.

What do you know? It's an Old World version of an economic stimulus package. But the conservatives would love how this story ends - in catastrophe, with the town literally in flames and the stanger revealed to be a devil, and the people escaping earthly ruin and eternal damnation only by the wise and benevolent leadership of a pious rabbi, the only citizen to refrain from the sinful festivities.

February 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink

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