My Year in Chelm
On the day my grandmother died, I reorganized my bookshelves.
I did not know she had died, so I can’t say that it was a response, but I came home and looked at the rows of books tangled amongst one another, some stacked sideways on top of one another, and I decided to get to work.
It hadn’t been five minutes before I was distracted by something. The top shelf was full of older books, leather-bound and gold-lettered and smelling of dirt. There was poetry that had belonged to my mother as a child, picture books I had no memory of, a couple copies of Dickens that looked as though they had never been opened—the covers stuck to the pages and a cloud of dust billowed into my face when I finally did manage to pry them open—and a small, square book with a painted cover. On it, a group of cartoonishly realized men with thick beards, moustaches and huge noses that resembled the kind of whole pickles they give you at delis marched in a line. Some carried swords, some shields. Some bared their teeth, others looked at their feet. The title was embossed in gold. It read The Fools of Chelm and Their History.
I opened it to the first chapter. The words were faded such that it was nearly impossible to read them. Some appeared not to have even been printed in English at all. Garbage, I thought, and tossed it into the cardboard box that I had Sharpied attic onto.
I left the books and laid on my bed for a minute, doing nothing in particular. Then, my father knocked on my door, and I opened it, and he told me the news, and I hugged him for a minute, longer than I ever usually would, and an hour later we all piled into the car and drove through the night together to Philadelphia, where my grandmother now lay dead somewhere in the dark.
The book was written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it was a book for children. It is not a particularly brilliant book. It consists of little stories you tell your children before they go to bed. They are funny, in a story-you-tell-your-kid-before-they-go-to-bed way. Sometimes they are only a page or two long, sometimes only a couple of lines. For example:
“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?”
On the back cover, there is a biography of Singer. He was born in Poland. He lived to be very, very old. But he is dead now. He smiles in his picture. Of the book, he says the stories are ones his family told him as a child. They are not his. Some achievement.
People say it is strange when they can feel that a loved one is going to die before they do, but I think it is stranger to not have any idea at all, to be lying on your bed thinking of nothing when so many you love are starting to lie down and think of everything all at once.
There was an open casket at the funeral. I did not go in. I waited for it to be shut.
We sat in the front row, and hundreds of old, shuffling Jews came in and greeted us. They told me they loved my grandmother, and therefore loved me. They blended into one another. I smiled at them. They marched on.
A rabbi eulogized. My father eulogized. People cried. My father was one of them. It was over as quickly as it had begun. A funeral procession followed the body across the city to an enormous cemetery where mist hung cold in the air, and we stood around a hole in the ground and lowered in a wooden box. Some achievement.
I am confirmed. I think this is largely ornamental, which here is synonymous with useless. This is the bar mitzvah part two, someone jokes. I roll my eyes. We are given these enormous white robes to wear, which come down to our feet and make us look like the Pope has made a poor attempt at a ghost costume.
The purpose of confirmation, the rabbi explains, is to reaffirm one’s responsibility as an “adult” in the Jewish community. We reaffirm by sitting in chairs through a service, and standing to make a little speech about changing the world or changing ourselves or loving God or loving our family or something like that. It’s tiring.
Afterwards, we are mobbed by hundreds of old, shuffling Jews who loved our speeches and therefore love us. I smile. They march on. There is a reception. There is cheesecake and brownies and rugelach and crackers and strawberries and water and lemonade. The confirmands stand for pictures. It is over as quickly as it began.
Chelm is a city in the East of Poland which is not full of deli-pickle-nosed people. It is full of sixty-thousand regular people. However, in folklore, it is a fictional city of well-meaning fools. In stories, the people of Chelm bumble through their years, not knowing what to do or where to turn. They go to their rabbi for advice. Their rabbi is also an idiot. They receive no advice. Winter comes. Their crops fail. Their cattle and goats die and run away. The Slavs attack. The Russians attack. The men fumble for their swords and have slapstick battles for their lives. Children laugh.
In the 16th century, the rabbi of Chelm is said to have formed a golem, an inanimate object turned animate, to protect the townspeople. He shaped it of clay and said unto it sefer yetzirah, his name for God, and it came awake, and answered to that name. He gave it an ax and sent it to the town square. If a Jew was threatened or offended by someone, the golem would strike them down.
As time went on, the golem grew to have a mind of its own, and became restless in its job, ignoring its duties. The rabbi, fearing that his creation might turn against him, attempted to remove the name from the golem, and turn it back to clay, but when he repeated the words to the beast, it only grew larger, until it towered over all the townspeople, and the rabbi was crushed to death. Then, having destroyed the thing that created it, the golem fell apart and became a pile of rocks.
I think I spend too much of my time worrying whether I am living the way my father hopes I do. He’s not devout, exactly, but he’s attached. He’s lived his whole life tied to the Jewish community. He went to a high school that was over ninety percent Jewish. He got days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Where we live now, I doubt most people could pronounce those words, and this makes me wonder what it does for me.
I remember this one moment, less than a moment, on the night I was confirmed. I was standing outside in the small courtyard in front of the synagogue in the rain. It was dark and cloyingly humid. There, in that place, I had done something important to my parents. I had done something important to my place in the community. To myself, perhaps. But outside the synagogue’s gates, couples walked back and forth on the sidewalk. People shopped in stores, ate dinner in restaurants. None of them had any idea what had just happened so near to them. And I realized then, I think, that I didn’t care about any of this, not the comical white robe they’d dressed me in, not the speech I’d read, not the prayers and songs the congregation had echoed in my ears. When the service had finished, I’d felt suffocated. All these people who had never bothered to know my name before wanted to approach me, wanted to shake my hand. I came outside as quickly as I could, lifting the robe over my head and placing it on the pavement at my feet. The rain was cold and sharp against my face; my suit jacket stuck to my arms. I felt as if I had reached the conclusion of a story without knowing anything of how it ends.
Picture my father’s face, flecked with stubble and laugh lines. Every year, he returns to the synagogue on the anniversary of his bar mitzvah to read from the Torah again. He prides himself on being able to do it better than anyone else in the congregation. Picture my father meeting my mother, raised Episcopalian in upstate New York, innocent and unaware, private school prodigy. The two of them falling in love. Dating for nearly ten years before marrying. Giving birth to twins. Picture my mother learning to pronounce Hebrew words. Her mouth forming the shape of them, falling in love with them. Picture my sister and I becoming bar and bat mitzvah. My father crying. My grandfather crying. So many fathers before them.
This is my station; a bastion to a future generation which I have no interest contributing to, one which my father and grandfather have so long envisioned, worked to preserve and uphold in the way they raised their children. It’s exhausting to me, all this ritualism. Part of me wishes I could cast it all aside, and sometimes I will, going months without visiting synagogue, without the thought of it crossing my mind, but then the strangest kind of guilt will start to grow in my stomach, slowly at first and then pervading my entire boy, my arms and legs, making me weak. It manifests in my father’s face, just how hurt he seems to be made by me sometimes. He looks like an infant with tears welling in his eyes.
There is a prayer that is said every year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It is called Al-Chet. During it, forty-four mistakes are listed. For the mistake we commit before you by speaking ill. For the mistake we commit before you by not thinking. By stealing. By lying. With each, you touch your hand to your heart.
For the mistake I have made by standing alone in the rain. By going against the word of my father. By forgetting how to care.
At the end: for all of these mistakes, Adonai, we ask for your love. And we touch our hands to our chests, and we are made of flesh, not stone.
I wonder how my grandfather spends his days now. If there’s one thing I would hate to be, it’s purposeless. I imagine him going on walks around the square outside of his apartment building, reading the newspaper in his armchair, the tall one which almost reaches the ceiling, going to eat dinner by himself. I talk to him on the phone every few weeks. He says he’s learning to cook. He started slow: eggs, baked chicken, steak, pasta. My grandmother cooked everything for him. He’s like a child. He sets the smoke alarm off one evening trying to grill some vegetables. Sometimes he plans to make himself dinner and realizes that he has forgotten to go get the groceries he needs. He forgets a lot of things now, I think. She did most of his remembering for him.
Chelm stories are funny things. It doesn’t make that much sense that they’re something you’d tell your kids; they’re essentially stories about people being idiots with no particular ends. I wonder what Singer was thinking when he wrote them all down. Was he drunk? He’s a real, bonafide writer, who’s written real, respected work. The Chelm stories seem like a waste of time by comparison. But it’s what he’s most remembered for.
There’s one story that really sticks out in the book. The protagonist, Yoysef Loksh, is walking home one night when he is attacked by three dogs. The book really doesn’t stop there. The dogs tear away his clothes. They sink their teeth into his arms. They walk all over him. Then, like that, they are gone.
Yoysef picks himself up and walks to the rabbi’s home. He knocks on the door, and the clergyman answers.
“Yoysef!” he exclaims. “What happened to you?”
“Well,” he says, in typically simple fashion, “I was walking home and a pack of dogs attacked me.”
The rabbi invites him into his home. He soaks the man’s wounds.
“Has anything strange happened to you recently?” the rabbi asks.
“Well, my mother died recently.”
The rabbi thinks on it for a moment. Then: “You were attacked by gilgulim.”
Gilgulim refers to the soul of a loved one that has been reincarnated into a new body. Yoysef, not the brightest man, nods and accepts this.
How can Singer have written this for a child? How is a parent supposed to explain to their child someone they love being reincarnated? How is a parent supposed to explain someone they love dying in the first place? And his mother, who brought him into life, who fed him, who clothed him, who taught him about the world, who taught him about tradition, who taught him to follow of the word of Torah, sinking her teeth into his flesh, drawing blood. Ripping his shirt and trampling his chest.
My grandmother was so soft-spoken. It took her twice as long as anyone else to tell a story half as complicated. In death, she is foaming at the mouth, eyes bright and angry and terrifying.
December 1944. Chelm in ruins. There is a stone synagogue in the center of town. It is mere rubble. The scrolls of the Torah are thrown in the street in front of it and burnt to scraps.
The Germans arrived in the city in 1939 and renamed it Kulm, a more Germanic title. They rounded the Jews up from their homes, all eighteen thousand that lived in the city. They went to the Jewish cemetery and clubbed the headstones to pebbles. They took drawers of their possessions and tossed them out of windows into the streets. All of them they brought to the center of town and paraded around the marketplace like pigs. They were tied to one another and forced to march fifty kilometers to Hrubieszów. Hundreds were shot before they even got there.
They returned in 1942 and were not prejudiced in their killing. They took Jews, yes, and Poles, Ukrainians, Catholics, Russian Orthodox, every fool they could find, lined them up in front of the synagogue and shot them dead. For those they could not find they fired shots into windows, loosed rounds into the air, into the trees, into the pavement of the streets.December 1944. Fewer than five hundred Jews in Chelm
I wonder what would have happened if the Fools of Chelm woke one morning to find their town was full of Nazis. If Yoysef rubbed sleep from his eyes and sat up and was shot in his bed. If the blood seeped into the sheets and onto the floor. If the rabbi went to his window and looked out and saw lines of army trucks on the streets below. If he tried to make a golem and found he had no clay to sculpt with. If he prayed. If he prayed. If he knew there would be no answer. If the gilgulim had heard them coming and barked to warn the townspeople, if they barked and barked but no one stirred, if they wondered as they watched their loved ones be dragged out into the streets whether they would die and return as dogs, too.
How would Isaac Bashevis Singer write this story? How could it be read to a child? Perhaps Singer sat down at his desk to write the story of this town of fools, this tragic place, and wrote of Holocausts, and Inquisitions, and pogroms, and then said to himself to hell with it and thought it better to tell stories of love. He loved his mother and his father. He loved his town, his people, his nation, and he wrote of fools.
I got the ladder from the laundry room yesterday and climbed up to the attic. I sifted through the boxes until I found the one I was searching for. I took out the small, square book, and I looked at the marching line of men on the cover.
In the front of the line was my father. I could tell because he has brown eyes. Behind him was my grandfather. He is bald. Behind him and behind him. My great-grandfather, who walked from Ukraine to France to bring his family to America. I see myself. I stand somewhere in the middle of history. I wear a suit jacket. It is plastered to my skin by the rain. At times, I stop marching and forget what the point is in continuing. Then I look ahead, as far as I can, and I see my infant son. He is naked and plain. His brain is blank. He knows nothing of the world. Soon, I will speak to him. One of these days, I’ll tell him a story. Then I’ll remember.
ADAM KRASNOFF is a junior creative writer at Charleston County School of the Arts in Charleston, South Carolina. He has received both Gold and Silver Keys from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and recently received an honorable mention in Princeton University’s Leonard L. Milberg ’53 High School Poetry Prize.