Commentary Magazine


Three Stories For Children

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The Snow in Chelm1

Chelm was a village of fools, fools young and old. One night someone spied the moon reflected in a barrel of water. The people of Chelm imagined it had fallen in. They sealed the barrel so that the moon would not escape. When the barrel was opened in the morning and the moon wasn't there, the villagers decided it had been stolen. They sent for the police, and when the thief couldn't be found, the fools of Chelm cried and moaned.

Once, on a Chanukah night, the snow fell all evening. It covered the whole of Chelm like a silver tablecloth. The moon shone, the stars twinkled, the snow shimmered like pearls and diamonds.

Of all the fools of Chelm, the most famous were its seven Elders. Because they were the village's oldest and greatest fools, they ruled in Chelm. They had white beards and high foreheads from too much thinking.

That evening the seven Elders were sitting and pondering, wrinkling their foreheads. The city was in need of money, and they did not know where to get it. Suddenly the oldest of them all, Gronam the Great Fool, exclaimed, “The snow is silver!”

“I see pearls in the snow!” another shouted.

“And I see diamonds!” a third called out.

It became clear to the Elders of Chelm that a treasure had fallen from the sky.

But soon they began to worry. The people of Chelm liked to go walking, and they would most certainly trample the treasure. What was to be done? Silly Tudras had an idea.

“Let's send a messenger to knock on all the windows and let the people know that they must remain in their houses until all the silver, all the pearls, and all the diamonds are safely gathered up.”

For a while the Elders were satisfied. They rubbed their hands in approval of the clever idea. But then Dopey Lekisch called out in consternation, “The messenger himself will trample the treasure.”

The Elders realized that Lekisch was right, and again they wrinkled their high foreheads in an effort to solve the problem.

“I've got it!” exclaimed Shmerel the Ox. “Tell us, tell us,” pleaded the Elders.

“The messenger must not go on foot. He must be carried on a table so that his feet will not tread on the precious snow.”

Everybody was delighted with Shmerel the Ox's solution; and the Elders, clapping their hands, admired their own wisdom.

The Elders immediately sent to the kitchen for Gimpel the errand boy and stood him on a table. Now who was going to carry the table? It was lucky that in the kitchen there were Treitle the cook, Berel the potato peeler, Yukel the salad mixer, and Yontel, who was in charge of the community goat. All four were ordered to lift up the table on which Gimpel stood. Each one took hold of a leg. On top stood Gimpel, grasping a wooden hammer with which to tap on the villagers' windows. Off they went.

At each window Gimpel knocked with the hammer and called out, “No one leave your house tonight. A treasure has fallen from the sky and it is forbidden to step on it.”

The people of Chelm obeyed the Elders and remained in their houses all night. Meanwhile the Elders themselves sat up trying to figure out how to make the best use of the treasure once it had been gathered up.

Silly Tudras proposed that they sell it and buy a goose which lays golden eggs. Thus the community would be provided with a steady income.

Dopey Lekisch had another idea. Why not buy eyeglasses that make things look bigger for all the inhabitants of Chelm? Then the houses, the streets, the stores would all look bigger, and of course if Chelm looked bigger, then it would be bigger. It would no longer be a village but a big city.

There were other, equally clever ideas. But while they were weighing their various plans, morning came and the sun rose. The Elders looked out of the window, and, alas, they saw that the snow had been trampled. The heavy boots of the table carriers had destroyed the treasure.

The Elders of Chelm clutched at their white beards and admitted to one another that they had made a mistake. Perhaps, they reasoned, four others should have carried the four men who had carried the table that held Gimpel the errand boy?

After long deliberations the Elders decided that if next Chanukah a treasure would again fall down from the sky, that is exactly what they would do.

Although the villagers remained without a treasure, they were full of hope for the next year and praised their Elders, who they knew could always be counted on to find a way, no matter how difficult the problem.

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The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom

Near the city of Chelm there was a village called East Chelm, where there lived a tenant farmer called Shmelka and his wife Shmelkicha. They had four daughters, all of whom slept in the same broad bed. Their names were Yenta, Pesha, Trina, Yachna.

As a rule the girls got up early in the morning to milk the cows and help their mother with the household chores. But one winter morning they stayed in bed later than usual. When their mother came to see what was keeping them, she found all four struggling and screaming in the bed. Shmelkicha demanded to know what all the commotion was about and why they were pulling each other's hair? The girls replied that in their sleep they had gotten their feet mixed up, and now they didn't know whose feet belonged to whom, and so of course they couldn't get up.

As soon as she learned about her daughters' mixed-up feet, Shmelkicha, who was from Chelm proper, became exceedingly frightened. She remembered that a similar event had taken place in Chelm many years before and, oh, how much trouble there had been. She ran at once to a neighbor and begged her to milk the cows, and she herself set off for Chelm to ask the town's Elder what to do. Before she left, she said to the girls, “You stay in bed and don't budge until I return. Because if once you get up with the wrong feet, it will be very difficult to set things right.”

When Shmelkicha arrived in Chelm and told the Elder about what had happened to her daughters, he clutched his white beard with one hand, placed the other on his forehead and was immediately lost in thought As he pondered he hummed a Chelm melody. After a while he said:

There is no perfect solution for a case of mixed-up feet. But there is something that sometimes helps.

He told Shmelkicha to take a long stick, walk into the girls' room and unexpectedly whack the blanket where their feet were. “It is possible,” explained the wise Elder, “that in surprise and pain each girl will grab at her own feet and jump out of bed.” A similar remedy had once been used in such a case, and it had worked.

Many townspeople were present when the Elder made his pronouncement, and as always they admired his great wisdom. The Elder stated further that in order to prevent such an accident in the future, it would be advisable to slowly marry off the girls. Once each girl was married and had her own house and her own husband, there would be no danger that they would get their feet mixed up again.

Shmelkicha returned to East Chelm, picked up a stick, walked into her daughters' room and whacked the quilt with all her might. The girls were completely taken aback, but before a moment had passed, they were out of bed, screaming in pain and fright, each jumping on her own feet. Shmelka, the father, and a number of neighbors who had followed Shmelkicha into the house and witnessed what had happened, again came to the conclusion that the wisdom of the Elder of Chelm knew no bounds.

Shmelka and Shmelkicha immediately decided to carry out the rest of the Elder's advice and started looking for a husband for their eldest daughter. They soon found a young man of Chelm called Lemel. His father was a coachman, and Lemel himself already owned a horse and wagon. It was clear that Yenta's future husband would be a good provider.

When they brought the couple together to sign the marriage agreement, Yenta began to cry bitterly. Asked why she was crying, she replied, “Lemel is a stranger, and I don't want to marry a stranger.”

“Didn't I marry a stranger?” her mother asked.

“You married Father,” Yenta answered, “and I have to marry a total stranger.” And her face became wet with tears.

The match would have come to nothing, but luckily they had invited the Elder of Chelm to be present. And, after some pondering, he again found the way out. He said to Yenta, “Sign the marriage contract. The moment you sign it, Lemel becomes your fiancé And when you marry you will not be marrying a stranger, you will be marrying your betrothed.”

When Yenta heard these words, she was overjoyed. Lemel kissed the Elder three times on his huge forehead, and the rest of the company praised the wisdom of the Elder of Chelm, which was even greater than that of wise King Solomon.

But now a new problem arose. Neither Lemel nor Yenta had learned to sign their names. Again the Elder came to the rescue:

Let Yenta make three small circles on the paper, and Lemel three dashes. These will serve as their signatures and seal the contract.

Yenta and Lemel did as the Elder ordered, and everybody was gay and happy. Shmelkicha treated all the witnesses to cheese blintzes and borscht and the first plate naturally went to the Elder of Chelm, whose appetite was particularly good that day.

Before Lemel returned to Chelm proper, from where he had driven in his own horse and wagon, Shmelka gave him as a gift a small penknife with a mother-of-pearl handle. It happened to be the first day of Chanukah, and the penknife was both an engagement gift and Chanukah present.

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Since Lemel often came to East Chelm to buy from the peasants the milk, butter, hay, oats, and flax which he sold to the townspeople of Chelm, he soon came to visit Yenta again. Shmelka asked Lemel whether his friends in Chelm had liked his penknife, and Lemel replied that they had never seen it.

“Why not?” Shmelka asked.

“Because I lost it.”

“How did you lose it?”

“I put the penknife into the wagon and it got lost in the hay.”

Shmelka was not a native of Chelm but came from another nearby town, and he said to Lemel, “You don't put a penknife into a wagon full of straw and hay and with cracks and holes in the bottom to boot. A penknife you place in your pocket, and then it does not get lost.”

“Future Father-in-law, you are right,” Lemel answered. “Next time I will know what to do.”

Since the first gift had been lost, Shmelka gave Lemel a jar of freshly fried chicken fat to replace it. Lemel thanked him and returned to Chelm.

Several days later, when business again brought Lemel to East Chelm, Yenta's parents noticed that his coat pocket was torn, and the entire left side of his coat was covered with grease stains.

“What happened to your coat?” Shmelkicha asked.

Lemel replied, “I put the jar of chicken fat in my pocket, but the road is full of holes and ditches and I could not help bumping against the side of the wagon. The jar broke, and it tore my pocket and the fat ran out all over my clothes.”

“Why did you put the jar of chicken fat into your pocket?” Shmelka asked.

“Didn't you tell me to?”

“A penknife you put into your pocket. A jar of chicken fat you wrap in paper and place in the hay so that it will not break.”

Lemel replied, “Next time I will know what to do.”

Since Lemel had had little use out of the first two gifts, Yenta herself gave him a silver gulden, which her father had given her as a Chanukah gift.

When Lemel came to the village again, he was asked how he had spent the money.

“I lost it,” he replied.

“How did you lose it?”

“I wrapped it in paper and placed it in the hay. But when I arrived in Chelm and unloaded my merchandise, the gulden was gone.”

“A gulden is not a jar of chicken fat,” Shmelka informed him. “A gulden you put into your purse.”

“Next time I will know what to do.”

Before Lemel returned to Chelm, Yenta gave her fiancé some newly laid eggs, still warm from the chickens.

On his next visit he was asked how he had enjoyed the eggs, and he replied that they had all been broken.

“How did they break?”

“I put them into my purse, but when I tried to close it, the eggs broke.”

“Nobody puts eggs into a purse,” Shmelka said. “Eggs you put into a basket bedded with straw and covered with a rag so that they will not break.”

“Next time I will know what to do.”

Since Lemel had not been able to enjoy the gifts he had received thus far, Yenta decided to present him with a live duck. When he returned, he was asked how the duck was faring, and he replied that she had died on the way to Chelm.

“How did she die?”

“I placed her in a basket with straw and covered it well with rags, just as you had told me to. When I arrived home, the duck was dead.”

“A duck has to breathe,” Shmelkicha said. “If you cover it with rags, it will suffocate. A duck you put in a cage, with some corn to eat, and then she will arrive safely.”

“Next time I will know what to do.”

Since Lemel had gained neither use nor pleasure from any of his gifts, Yenta decided to give him her goldfish, a pet she had had for several years.

And again on his return, when asked about the goldfish, he replied that it was dead.

“Why is it dead?”

“I placed it in a cage and gave it some corn, but when I arrived it was dead.”

Since Lemel was still without a gift, Yenta decided to give him her canary, which she loved dearly. But Shmelka told her that it seemed pointless to give Lemel any more gifts, because whatever you gave him either died or got lost. Instead Shmelka and Shmelkicha decided to get the advice of the Elder of Chelm.

The Elder listened to the whole story, and as usual clutched his long white beard with one hand and placed the other on his high forehead, and after much pondering, and humming, proclaimed:

The road between East Chelm and Chelm is fraught with all kinds of dangers and that is why such misfortunes occur. The best thing to do is to have a quick marriage. Then Lemel and Yenta will be together, and Lemel will not have to drag his gifts from one place to another, and no misfortunes will befall them.

This advice pleased everyone and the marriage was soon celebrated. All the peasants of the vilage of East Chelm and half of the townpeople of Chelm danced and rejoiced at the wedding. Before the year was out, Yenta gave birth to a baby girl and Lemel went to tell the Elder of Chelm the good tidings that a child had been born to them.

“Is the child a boy?” The Elder asked.

“No.”

“Is it a girl?”

“How did you guess?” Lemel asked in amazement.

And the Elder of Chelm replied, “For the wise men of Chelm there are no secrets.”

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The First Shlemiel

There are many shlemiels in the world, but the very first one came from the city of Chelm. He had a wife, Mrs. Shlemiel, and a child, small Shlemiel, but he could not provide for them. His wife used to get up early in the morning to sell vegetables in the marketplace. Mr. Shlemiel stayed at home and rocked the baby to sleep. He also took care of the rooster who lived in the room with them, feeding him corn and water.

Mrs. Shlemiel knew that her husband was unhandy, lazy, loved to sleep, and in addition had a sweet tooth. It so happened that one night she prepared a pot full of delicious jam. The next day she worried that while she was away at the market, her husband would eat it all up. So before she left, she said to him, “Shlemiel, I'm going to the market and I will be back in the evening. There are three things that I want to tell you. Each one is very important.”

“What are they?” asked Shlemiel.

“First, make sure that the baby does not fall out of its crib.”

“Good. I will take care of the baby.”

“Secondly, don't let the rooster get out of the house.”

“Good. The rooster won't get out of the house.”

“Thirdly, there is a pot full of poison on the shelf. Be careful not to eat it, or you will die,” said Mrs. Shlemiel, pointing to the pot of jam she had placed high up in the cupboard.

She had decided to fool him, because she knew that once he tasted the delicious jam, he would not stop eating until the pot was empty. It was just before Chanukah, and she needed the jam to serve with the holiday pancakes.

As soon as his wife left, Shlemiel began to rock the baby and to sing him a lullaby:

I am a big Shlemiel.
You are a small Shlemiel.
When you grow up,
You will be a big Shlemiel
And I will be an old Shlemiel.
When you have children,
You will be a papa Shlemiel
And I will be a grandpa Shlemiel.

The baby soon fell asleep and Shlemiel dozed too, still rocking the cradle with his foot.

Shlemiel dreamed that he had become the richest man in Chelm. He was so rich that he could eat pancakes with jam not only on Chanukah but every day of the year. He spent all day with the other wealthy men of Chelm playing games with a golden dreidel. Shlemiel knew a trick, and whenever it was his turn to spin the dreidel, it fell on the winning “G.” He grew so famous that nobles from distant countries came to him and said, “Shlemiel, we want you to be our king.”

Shlemiel told them he did not want to be a king. But the nobles fell on their knees before him and insisted until he had to agree. They placed a crown on his head and led him to a golden throne. Mrs. Shlemiel, now a queen, no longer needed to sell vegetables in the market. She sat next to him, and they shared a huge pancake spread with jam between them. He ate from one side and she from the other until their mouths met.

As Shlemiel sat and dreamed his sweet dream the rooster suddenly started crowing. He had a very strong voice. When it came out with a cock-a-doodle-doo, it rang like a bell. Now when a bell rang in Chelm, it usually meant there was a fire. Shlemiel awakened from his dream and jumped up in fright, overturning the crib. The baby fell out and hurt its head. In his confusion, Shlemiel ran to the window and opened it to see where the fire was. The moment he opened the window, the excited rooster flew out and hopped away. Shlemiel called after him:

Rooster, you come back. If Mrs. Shlemiel finds you gone, she will rave and rant and I will never hear the end of it.

But the rooster paid no attention to Shlemiel. It didn't even look back, and soon it had disappeared from sight.

_____________

When Shlemiel realized that there was no fire, he closed the window and went back to the crying baby, who by this time had a big bump on its forehead from the fall. With great effort Shlemiel comforted the baby, righted the crib, and put him back into it. Again he began to rock the crib and sing a song:

In my dream I was a rich Shlemiel
But awake I am a poor Shlemiel.
In my dream I ate pancakes with jam,
Awake I chew bread and onion.
In my dream I was Shlemiel the King
But awake I'm just Shlemiel.

Having finally sung the baby to sleep, Shlemiel began to worry about his troubles. He knew that when his wife returned and found the rooster gone and the baby with a bump on its head, she would be beside herself with anger. Mrs. Shlemiel had a very loud voice, and when she scolded and screamed, poor Shlemiel trembled with fear. Shlemiel could foresee that tonight, when she got home, his wife would be angrier than ever before and would berate him and call him names.

Suddenly Shlemiel said to himself, “What is the sense of such a life? I'd rather be dead.” And he decided to end his life. But how to do it? He then remembered what his wife had told him in the morning about the pot of poison that stood on the shelf. “That's what I will do. I will poison myself. When I'm dead she can revile me as much as she likes. A dead Shlemiel does not hear when he is screamed at.”

Shlemiel was a short man and he could not reach the shelf. He got a stool, climbed up on it, took down the pot, and began to eat.

“Oh, the poison tastes sweet,” he said to himself. He had heard that some poisons have a bitter taste and others are sweet. “But,” he reasoned, “sweet poison is better than bitter,” and proceeded to finish up the jam. It tasted so good, he licked the pot clean.

_____________

After Shlemiel had finished the pot of poison, he lay down on the bed. He was sure that the poison would soon begin to burn his insides and that he would die. But half an hour passed and then an hour, and Shlemiel lay without a single pain in his belly.

“This poison works very slowly,” Shlemiel decided. He was thirsty and wanted a drink of water, but there was no water in the house. In Chelm, water had to be fetched from an outside well, and Shlemiel was too lazy to go and get it. He remembered that his wife was saving a bottle of apple cider for the holidays. Apple cider was expensive, but when a man is about to die, what is the point in saving money? Shlemiel got out the bottle of cider and drank it down to the last drop.

Now Shlemiel began to have an ache in his stomach, and he was sure that the poison had begun to work. Convinced that he was about to die, he said to himself, “It's not really so bad to die. With such poison I wouldn't mind dying every day.” And he dozed off.

He dreamed again that he was a king. He wore three crowns on his head, one on top of the other. Before him stood three golden pots: one filled with pancakes, one with jam, and one with apple cider. Whenever he soiled his beard with eating, a servant wiped it for him with a napkin.

Mrs. Shlemiel, the queen, sat next to him on her separate throne and said, “Of all the kings who ever ruled in Chelm, you are the greatest. The whole of Chelm pays homage to your wisdom. Fortunate is the queen of such a king. Happy is the prince who has you as a father.”

Shlemiel was awakened by the sound of the door creaking open. The room was dark and he heard his wife's screechy voice: “Shlemiel, why didn't you light the lamp?”

“It sounds like my wife, Mrs. Shlemiel,” Shlemiel said to himself. “But how is it possible that I hear her voice? I happen to be dead. Or can it be that the poison hasn't worked yet and I am still alive?” He got up, his legs shaking, and saw his wife lighting the lamp.

Suddenly she began to scream at the top of her lungs: “Just look at the baby! It has a bump on its head. Shlemiel, where is the rooster, and who drank the apple cider? Woe is me! He drank up the cider! He lost the rooster and let the baby get a bump on its head. Shlemiel, what have you done?”

“Don't scream, dear wife. I'm about to die. You will soon be a widow.”

“Die? Widow? What are you talking about? You look healthy as a horse.”

“I've poisoned myself,” Shlemiel replied.

“Poisoned? What do you mean?” asked Mrs. Shlemiel.

“I've eaten your pot full of poison.”

And Shlemiel pointed to the empty pot of jam.

“Poison?” said Mrs. Shlemiel, “That's my pot of jam for Chanukah.”

“But you told me it was poison,” Shlemiel insisted.

“You fool,” she said. “I did that to keep you from eating it before the holiday. Now you've swallowed the whole potful.”

And Mrs. Shlemiel burst out crying.

Shlemiel too began to cry, but not from sorrow. He wept tears of joy that he would remain alive. The wailing of the parents woke the baby and it too began to yowl. When the neighbors heard all the crying, they came running and soon all of Chelm knew the story. The good neighbors took pity on the Shlemiels and brought them a fresh pot of jam and another bottle of apple cider. The rooster, who had gotten cold and hungry from wandering around outside, returned by himself, and the Shlemiels had a happy holiday after all.

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As always in Chelm when an unusual event occurred, the Elders came together to ponder over what had happened. Seven days and seven nights they sat wrinkling their foreheads and tugging at their beards, searching for the true meaning of the incident. At the end the sages all came to the same conclusion: A wife who has a child in the cradle and a rooster to take care of should never lie to her husband and tell him that a pot of jam is a pot of poison, or that a pot of poison is a pot of jam, even if he is lazy, has a sweet tooth, and is a shlemiel in addition.


Footnotes

1 Text copyright © 1966 by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Pictures copyright © by Maurice Sendak.

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