WHEN THE JFED PLAYERS vetting committee suggested producing Fools by Neil Simon as the Jewish Federation’s Fall production, I was not familiar with it. But when I read it, childhood memories of the Sages of Chelm came back to me.
My earliest experience of these wonderful Jewish Folk Tales was from our long ago family expeditions to a Jewish deli in Anaheim. Often it was our only opportunity to bring the family together, as my father was an obstetrician delivering babies most days. When he had an open Sunday morning, we would journey out for our knishes and lox and bagels. As good as the food was, it was the placemats that we loved the most. They were fun pictoral stories of the origins of Chelm. That’s what we went for! I couldn’t remember the details so I called my sister. She immediately became enthusiastic as we shared how much we enjoyed these placemat stories. They were our introduction to this world of Jewish Cultural humor – the stories of Chelm.
Our question was, how could there be a town solely comprised of fools? The answer was the first story on the placemat:
Chelm, the most famous town in Jewish folklore, came into being when the Lord sent an angel with a sack of foolish souls to distribute across the entire world, and the angel tripped and spilled them all in the same place.
That, we are told, is how we were given a town with sages so wise they captured the moon by shutting its reflection in a barrel of water, so Talmudically adept at outsmarting logic itself that they carried each other on their shoulders to avoid leaving footprints in newly fallen snow.
Chelm is a word synonymous with fools convinced of their own wisdom, in other words, not to let common sense interfere with a really good idea.
(A Serious History of a Comical Town, by Matti Friedman)
I, as so many other Jews who grew up with these stories, found them enchanting. So much so, that one of the projects I did for my Directing M.A. was to write a script based on Chelm stories. It never got to Broadway, but it was fun and cute. And we performed a number of shows at synagogues around the greater metropolitan L.A.-area. And for my teacher, who was not Jewish, this was his introduction to this Jewish Cultural tradition. He loved it!
Many writers have been inspired and influenced by the Chelm stories such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Y.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem. As I was inspired, so was Neil Simon. He had the same idea. In 1981 he wrote Fools. Although it is based in a different town, Kulyenchikov, Ukraine, it belongs to the genre of Chelm stories. This style of story is a part of the Jewish tradition that we learn as children and continues to delight the listener, young and old. It is all about the fools and their antics.
Leon Tolchinsky is ecstatic. He’s landed a terrific teaching job in an idyllic Russian hamlet. When he arrives he finds people sweeping dust from the stoops back into their houses and people milking upside down to get more cream. The town has been cursed with chronic stupidity for 200 years and Leon’s job is to break the curse. No one tells him that if he stays over 24 hours and fails to break the curse, he too becomes stupid. But, he has fallen in love with a girl so stupid that she has only recently learned how to sit down. (Samuel French)
The question is, how can he solve this conundrum?
Come find out at Porticos Art Space, 2033 E Washington Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91104.
Saturday, September 22 – 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 23 – 3:30 p.m.
Thursday, September 27 – 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 29 – 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, September 30 – 3:30 p.m.
A few short Chelmisms to leave a smile on your face and a taste for more!
Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the rabbi.
“What a silly question!” snapped the cleric. “The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it is already broad daylight?”
The melamed (learned man) of Chelm was speaking with his wife.
“If I were Rothschild, I’d be richer than he.”
“How can that be?” asked the wife. “You would both have the same amount of money.”
“True,” he agreed, “but I’d do a little teaching on the side.”
Cantor Judy Sofer is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine and the Jewish Federation’s Cultural Arts Program Coordinator.