The story begins in a rural area during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, which takes place around December every year. Usually, at that time of the year there would be snow blanketing the roads between the village and the town, but this year it was sunny and there was barely any snow. The peasants complained about the warm weather, knowing that it would result in a poor grain harvest.
Reuven the furrier has been negatively affected by the warm weather, too—not as many people need his fur coats. He needs money for Hanukkah candles, gifts, and food. So he decides to sell the beloved family goat, Zledeh. She was old and the town butcher, Feyvel, was offering eight gulden for her.
Reuven instructed his oldest son, Aaron, to take the goat to town. Aaron's mother, Leah, as well as his two sisters Anna and Miriam, were devastated. Aaron was sad too, but he put on his coat and his earmuffs, tied a rope around Zlateh's neck, and packed bread and cheese for the journey.
The family all said goodbye to Zlateh, who stood patiently. She trusted humans. But when Aaron and Zleteh set out on the road to the town, she was shocked. It was her first time traversing that road, and she looked to Aaron for answers. But after a while she stopped wondering.
As Aaron and Zlateh continued on the unfamiliar road, the weather began to change. A big cloud appeared, and a cold wind blew. Crows flew by, low to the ground. It began to hail and the sky turned black as the hail eventually turned to snow. Aaron had never experienced snow so thick and dense. It covered their path completely and blinded Aaron to his surroundings. At first, Zlateh didn't mind, but as the snow fell harder and piled up faster, she began to turn again to Aaron, looking questioningly at him. Aaron hoped for a passing cart to offer them a lift, but none came.
As the snow continued to fall thickly, Aaron realized that he was walking on soft ground. He and Zlateh had veered off the path onto a field, and he no longer knew which direction they were walking in. As the wind whistled around them, Zlateh gave up walking. She dug her hooves into the ground and would not go any farther. Aaron was afraid that they would freeze to death. His hands and toes were already numb with cold. Zlateh cried plaintively as Aaron prayed to God for both of them.
All of a sudden, Aaron sighted a hill in the distance. He wasn't sure what it was made of, but as he walked towards it, he realized it was a large haystack covered in snow. Suddenly, Aaron realized they were saved. He dug a tunnel into the haystack and made a nest for him and Zlateh. Surrounded by hay, Zlateh began eating contentedly as Aaron made a hole for them to breathe.
Many children's stories teach moral lessons by writing the negative consequences of immoral behavior directly into the narrative. In contrast, "Zlateh the Goat" abstains from such direct teaching. Singer was known for this approach. In general, he did not write with the intent to moralize. "I am not a writer with messages," he told interviewer Sander L. Gilman in 1974; instead, "I am satisfied if I tell a good story."
This does not, however, mean that Singer's work, or this text, is devoid of values. Instead, it presents characters who live a moral way of life, and whose actions are guided by their own strong values. For example, the moral code of the family in this story is strongly apparent. Set in the landscape of Ashkenazi Jewish folk life, Aaron's community is dependent on the weather, and since the winter has been a warm one, Aaron's father, Reuven, has not made enough money from his fur business to be able to provide for his family during the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah.
Thus the premise of the story is this choice faced by Reuven: do without the traditional festivities of Hanukkah, or sell the beloved family goat in exchange for the money he needs. Crucially, this is not a religious calculation: nowhere does the text mention an obligation to God as a reason to celebrate Hanukkah properly. Indeed, Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, and does not impose great religious obligation. Without such an obligation, what forces shape Reuven's decision?
The text indicates that Reuven required "long hesitation" to make the decision, but ultimately decided in favor of the proper celebration of the holiday—perhaps out of obligation and love towards his family. Reuven's wife, daughters, and son, Aaron, also respond in a way that acknowledges the appropriateness of his decision. They are saddened by the proposed sacrifice of their beloved goat, but recognize that proper celebration of the holiday is important for their family. Thus, the text depicts a family that makes difficult choices when necessary in order to prioritize tradition, warmth, and a bountiful home.
The text also contains moral complexity in its imagery and symbolism. For example, the road to the town is given great symbolic weight in the story. First, it separates the village from the presumably wealthier and more urban town, and thus represents the promise of economic benefit, with eight gulden offered by the butcher for Zlateh. At the same time, the road to the town is paved with sorrow, since it leads to the loss of the beloved family goat.
In addition, the snowstorm contains similarly dualistic meaning. At first, for example, it is a sign of danger: both the immediate, physical threat of freezing temperatures and hazardous conditions, as well as the threat of loss induced by having to sell Zlateh to the butcher. Yet it soon turns into a moment of opportunity for closeness and affection between Aaron and Zlateh, as the storm forces them to seek shelter together. Later, as the story continues, the storm saves both Zlateh's life and the family's financial stability. In other words, something to fear becomes something to celebrate.