He had been searching for Chelm since he was a little boy.
For years, he dragged himself through every town and city around the globe trying to locate that place well known in Yiddish folklore. We don’t know what it was about Chelm that so captured his imagination, and that so motivated his search from the time he was 8 years old.
But we do know his papa was reading a story to him about Chelm just one week before that sad and broken father left his family for the last time and disappeared for good.
We also know that Chelm was a mythical Jewish town populated by fools, one of many ways that generations of Jews were still able to make fun of themselves.
How was it that self-mockery became the expression of a harassed and frightened people?
How was it that a population of fools became a fantasy theme for a people so devoted to knowledge and wisdom?
What is Chelm?
It is written that an angel was sent by God to populate the world and that the angel was flying about while carrying two sacks of souls — one a sack full of wise souls and one of the souls of fools. The sack of fools’ souls was caught on a tree’s branch and spilled its contents in one area, thereby creating a town of fools.
Many tales were told of the misadventures of the foolish population of this town, tales that delighted the little boy as his father read to him — before his father disappeared. The boy especially liked the tale of the four Jews who carried about a fifth Jew so that his footsteps wouldn’t mar the pure snow.
His search for Chelm led the boy, now a grown man, to conclude that fools lived in every town he visited. They were found among the rich, among the poor, among the leaders and the led, among the virtuous and the sinners — but especially among the rich, the leaders and those who believed themselves the most virtuous.
After traveling the world in search of Chelm, he found himself in Stockbridge, a lovely small town in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. It was there that he felt he had at last found the original Chelm.
While most of the townsfolk were fine and decent, there were many signs of Chelm. One lovely summer day, sitting on a bench near the town library, he saw busloads of visitors disembark and begin walking about like zombies, seeming dazed, confused and lost. He concluded there must be something in the air of the town that produced such a look of befuddlement.
Then, he learned that a major business of the town was a hospital for confused and befuddled people. He heard that there may have been more doctors for the treatment of psychological ailments per citizen in Stockbridge than in any other town or city in the world. Many on the street were these same doctors, their families and their patients and their families. All milling about.
He learned that the most famous painter of normal American life also moved about on these same streets — as though sanity and insanity were closely related.
Seeing no children in town, he learned that the citizens had voted to remove all the children from the local school in order to improve their education. Certainly, the town must have felt ill-equipped to help children learn.
He learned that the local citizens had watched silently while their barber, grocer, and butcher, their drugstore and their hardware store — all had been removed to far places and that the town was given over to selling trinkets to the befuddled people who poured out of the buses.
Children were now afraid to walk about unaccompanied for fear of strangers. Dogs belonging to the citizens of town could no longer walk freely without leashes. Citizens rarely gathered freely any more, but remained locked in their houses watching screens.
Then, he was told of a circle of graves in a cemetery belonging to a certain prominent family that believed that on judgment day they would rise — only needing to face one another.
He went to witness this formation, and near that circle, he saw his father, dazed, disheveled, quietly weeping.