‘The Wise Men of Chelm’ reimagined

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During my elementary school days in the 1950s, I attended religious school three days a week at Temple B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When our teacher sensed that we students were running out of steam, he reenergized us by opening the pages of his worn copy of “The Wise Men of Chelm” and reading us an episode in the topsy-turvy lives of the men and women of that Polish shetl

After all these years, one particular Chelm story persists in my memory. The villagers are enchanted by the light of a full harvest moon.  Someone suggests that it would be nice to preserve this moonlight for a dark moonless night during the coming winter.  Someone else comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let us capture the moon’s reflection in the brine of an open pickle barrel, which we can then seal for safe-keeping with an airtight cover.”

When the time comes to enjoy the stored moonlight, on a winter night of deep darkness, they take the cover off the pickle barrel. But, alas, the moon is nowhere to be seen.

In his forthcoming book, “The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul” (Providence: Light Publication, 2019), Mark Binder, author, storyteller and longtime resident of Providence’s East Side, reimagines Jewish life in the village of Chelm.  In contrast to the fools of folklore, Binder’s characters are no more foolish than you or I. As was true in his three previous story collections focusing on the Jewish men and women of Chelm, Binder has created recognizably “ordinary people….”

“In Chelm they lived as anyone does. They worked and ate, learned and laughed. They made mistakes and, of course, they fell in love.”

The feeling throughout “Misadventures” can be best expressed by the Yiddish word heymish – warm, friendly, cozy.  In Chelm, people treat each other as family and friends, even when they are bickering with each other. While at times people boil over with pent-up frustration, they calm down quickly and work hard to repair any hurt they may have caused. 

Chelm is such a small place that everybody needs everybody; of necessity they learn how to smooth over the rough edges. 

While the men and women of Binder’s imagined Chelm live simple lives, they are by no means simpletons.

Since Binder is writing about shtetl life in Eastern Europe, much of his writing, and especially his humor, centers on one of our people’s primary obsessions: food. Consider, for example, this delicious Jewish simile: Mrs. Chaipul’s “grin, which had been wide before, grew as wide as a brisket.”

Twenty pages later we learn that “her split pea soup is so rich and robust, you’d swear it was treif.”

Or listen to Binder’s homage to just one of Mrs. Chaipul’s matzah balls: “It wasn’t so much hard like a rock, but it certainly was dense, like a clay brick before it has set in its mold. Your teeth could dig into it, and it tasted well enough, but it was difficult work, like sawing wood with a nail file.  After two minutes you began to have second thoughts but found that your teeth had sunk in so deeply that they were trapped and there was no choice but to go on .…”

There is much in Binder’s “Misadventures” to make the reader laugh out loud, but there are other moments that reflect the author’s sober and somewhat sad wisdom. While all the stories in his book are appropriate for all ages, his first story, “Why the Bride and Groom are on the Wedding Cake,” speaks primarily to adult concerns; it is in fact a parable of the complexities of married life.                    

During their wedding ceremony, Jacob and Sara insist on reading to each other every word of the “thick packet of paper” containing their marriage vows. They exchange vow after vow for more than an hour: “Their vows included health, wealth, travel, children, parents, gifts, jobs, food, funeral arrangements¸ thank-you notes, taking out the garbage, feeding the animals .…”

After Jacob breaks the glass, the couple stood, permanently paralyzed, under the huppah. The officiating Rabbi Kibbitz explained, “They both made so many vows to each other that they can’t move for fear of breaking their promises.” 

Binder concludes his parable by stating that the figures of a bride and groom that stand atop so many wedding cakes are a symbol of Jacob’s and Sara’s “perfect unbroken marriage.”

“And they are also a reminder to a new husband and wife to be forgiving in the promises they make to each other,” he writes.

Mark Binder’s “The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul” will almost certainly make you laugh – and might even cause you to shed a tear. Ask for it at your local bookstore or order a copy from Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, GooglePlay or iBooks.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.