On the edge of the Black Forest, in a part of the world that was sometimes Poland, sometimes Russia, briefly Austria, and maybe Germany, there was a small Jewish village called Chelm.
You may have heard of Chelm. Its neighbors thought the Chelmener were fools….
But they lived as anyone does. They worked and ate, learned and laughed. They made mistakes and, of course, they fell in love.
— From The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul, written (and narrated) by Mark Binder
When I step onstage to tell stories, I often begin with the words, “In the village of Chelm…”
There is a pause, and everyone smiles.
For many Jews, Chelm evokes warm memories of humor and childhood. There are stories of “the wise men” catching the moon in a rain barrel, searching for lost money near the street lamp (because that’s where the light was) and hiring porters to carry them so their footsteps wouldn’t mar the fresh-fallen snow.
While it’s true that there was a real village of Chelm, most of the stories didn’t originate there.Writers like I.B. Singer, Solomon Simon, and David Adler composed excellent insightful and amusing tales. But many Chelm stories are targeted solely for readers between the ages of 4 and 10. And by and large the characters are often flat, and the stereotypes obvious.
For me, Chelm is much more complex and multigenerational, suitable for both children and the adults of today.
In my latest book, The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul the two heroes have known each other for decades, when they finally realize that they could become a couple. They are both widowed; what harm would it do? But under the chupah she tells him that she wants to both work and keep her own name.
Their challenges are reflections of the issues we face today. What is the role of women? What will we do to keep our promises? And how can we get enough exercise?
“Chelm tales,” writes Ruth von Bernuth in her book, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm, “have proved a durable means of highlighting some of a society’s concerns… [and] an effective vehicle for transporting readers to an enchanted Jewish past.’’
Of course Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul will get married, and of course that’s when new problems begin… But, because it’s Chelm, through awkward mistakes, and with laughter they will handle everything.
My village of Chelm is a rich community full of people that you want to get to know, and delicious food that you’d love to eat (if only it weren’t so high in calories and fats).
Whether I’m writing or performing one of my stories, it’s about spending time in a world without cell phones where miscommunication is rife, challenges are real, and communities come together with love and compassion.
I hope you’ll join me on a tour of Chelm.
Mark Binder is an author and Jewish storyteller. He will be presenting Misadventures in Chelm (& Other Stories) at London Jewish Book Week, 6:30pm on Sunday 8th, March 2020 at Kings Place Tickets are available at https://jewishbookweek.com/event/misadventures-in-chelm-and-other-stories/
The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul is available in print, ebook and audiobook.