One popular humorous tradition from Eastern Europe involves tales of the people of Chełm, a town reputed to be inhabited by fools. The jokes were almost always centered on silly solutions to problems. Some of these solutions display “foolish wisdom” (reaching the correct answer by the wrong train of reasoning), while others are simply wrong.
Chełm tales were told by authors like Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Solomon Simon. A typical Chełm story, and the one with which this musical begins begins, “It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people. He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was of course much heavier. So after a time it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and so all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chełm.”
From the Play
RABBI ITZIK: Excuse me.. Mister? Lady? You there? I have a problem, maybe you could help me? I’m lost. Well, not exactly lost, I know where I am. I’m here. Although I don’t know exactly where HERE is, but I’m already in the middle of it, and as long as I’m not someplace else, I might as well be where I am. Rabbi Sholem once said, “For every man, where he is, at that time it’s the center of the universe and he should make the best of it.” Although, as soon as he said that, Rabbi Leib responded, “Center shmenter; what about God? Is not God the Master of the Universe? So ‘feh’ on your cosmology!” But Rabbi Sholem — oy, was he a fighter! — he came right back with “I said center, you shlemiel, not Master. A center is an apple and a Master is an orange and they could get along fine, so ‘feh’ on your disputation!” And they argued over the question until they wound up with such a headache, the Widow from Kava had to be called in to — but I think I’m a little off the subject which is that somebody happens to be lost. So, if not me, then who?
I’m talking, of course, about my village. All my beautiful friends and neighbors, my pupils, my children — well, not exactly children as in “children” but children as in — maybe you didn’t notice — I happen to be a Rabbi. Rabbi Itzik is my name and I need your help. It could be a mitzvah, God would put a gold star by your name in the Book of Life, and who among us couldn’t use a little gold star once in a while? But who are these people I’m looking for? From my little town which we used to call Chelm. It was a wonderful place, far away over the ocean, where we lived for a long long time… until something happened that separated us. Something — which I think maybe was a little bit my fault — that scattered us throughout the world like feathers in the wind.
(Now, MEMBERS OF THE COMPANY move forward, and begin to take turns speaking RABBI ITZIK’s thoughts.
Throughout this script, the dialogue convention is: CHELMITE lines are addressed towards the audience; they are to be understood as being RABBI ITZIK’s thoughts. They can be assigned as appropriate for the production.
CHELMITES: (proudly, enjoying their community) Although, in a way, we’re not really separated. In a way, we’re connected in our hearts. So that where one of us is… … it’s like all of us are too; … and when one of us tells a story… …it’s like the whole village is telling it together.(MUSIC starts)
CHELMITE: But maybe you heard about Chelm? We had quite a reputation.
GOSSIP A: “Chelm? Oh, yes; that’s where the silliest people in the world live.”
GOSSIP B: “Chelm is where the greatest congregation of fools ever collected in one place!”
GOSSIP C:”The people of Chelm are of one mind … but they don’t know where they put it!”
CHELMITE: But we who lived there, we didn’t believe that. We thought very differently about ourselves.
“We’re the luckiest people in the world.” “Maybe we’re not rich with fancy clothes, but you know something? We never get hurt.” “We always muddle through.” “There’s got to be a reason.” “It’s because we have better than brains. We have faith.” (They sing.)
WHAT’S TO WORRY?/ WHAT’S TO HURRY?/ ALL YOUR FEATHERS IN A FLURRY? / SOMEHOW IT’S TRUE,/ WE ALWAYS GET THROUGH./GOD LOVES THE PEOPLE OF CHELM . . . .
CHELMITE(s):Maybe it would help you to understand …. … how it all got started. In the beginning —
GOD:I made the world and everything in it. Then I thought, “I’ll send out some angels to fill it with people.” So I gave each of My angels two sacks. One sack filled with smart souls, and one sack filled with fools. ‘Go spread them equally around the world.'”,
CHELMITE: Now it so happened that one of the angels —
MOISHE: Moishe was my name —
CHELMITE: — was very new on the job. MOISHE: “I’m so nervous.” (Checking his bags) “Smart souls. Silly souls. Smart souls. Silly souls… ”
(OTHER ACTORS lift MOISHE and help him “fly,” sprinkling out souls.)
CHELMITE: As he flew over the earth, Moishe couldn’t help day-dreaming…
MOISHE: “I’ll do such a fine job, God will be so proud of me, maybe He’ll let me meet some famous people. Like Moses. So, nu, Moses; what do you miss most about Egypt?”
CHELMITE(s): Moishe was so busy talking to Moses that he didn’t notice the mountain coming up… And before he knew it,…
(MOISHE stumbles on a mountain top, spills open one of his bags. HE, and the other actors, react in shock) And all the souls that were in the sack fell in one great pile onto the little town just below!
MOISHE: Oy! What have I done! I tried to sweep them back up, but it was too late.