It’s easy for a writer to get stuck. The delay between posts is not just from the lingering fog of our abysmal societal folly, which was the subject of Part Three. Even before I began, I was sure I knew what I wanted to say in Part Four (of six!), but have not been able to get there.
I wanted to write about the obsession with intelligence in my grandfather’s stories, in such a way as to parse out what was in fact clever and what was foolish of him. I also am fascinated by the legacy of that obsession in our family, but this can be tricky to write about without telling anyone’s stories that don’t belong to me. I also wanted to touch on the least funny of subjects— what we may morally or judiciously laugh at and how.
Then, since I was writing about Chelm and a new book on the subject arrived just as I was doing so, my writing got balled up in a new confusion. In the brand-new and interesting-looking book, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm, Simon’s work is barely touched on. Why does this keep happening? How can I make sense of and deal with the repeated neglect and undervaluing of him— both of his place in the Jewish intellectual world of his time, and of his relevance to ours? Perhaps this cannot be corrected from my perch as his eynikl, his grandson. After all, I freely admit to being biased. To make a long story short, the blog post had too much riding on it, and the horse kept changing directions. I got thrown off.
What would my grandfather say about overthinking something to the point where your thoughts get too big and too convoluted to be of use? He might tell the story of Berl Filozof. Once, Berl sat for three days without speaking, eating or drinking because a thought was trying to peck its way into his brain. His wife grew alarmed and called the rabbi. The rabbi came promptly and told him to stop and tell them what he was thinking about. Berl asked for more time. The rabbi left and on the fourth day came back again. Again, Berl asked for more time. This time the rabbi refused, and interrupted him to save his life.
And what was Berl thinking about? The short version: “If all the men in the world became one giant man; and if all the trees in the world became one giant tree; and if all the lakes in the world became one giant lake; and if all the axes in the world became one giant axe: And if that giant man took up the giant axe and gave a blow to the giant tree, and if the tree—imagine it, the vast thickness of the branches and all the trillions upon trillions of leaves—fell into that enormous lake… how high would the splash be?”
Narishkayt! Nonesense! But, what Berl was really after was to figure out the height of heaven, which, once you really understood the nature of matter and its limits, would necessarily follow. One asks oneself, are the Chelmites thinking wrongly about the right questions, or thinking rightly about the wrong questions? Are our own big bang scientists so different, working for a lifetime to determine what transpired in the first second of the universe’s origin? What is, and what is not worth thinking about for five days? Or, in my case, five years? It’s been three already, and once I turn to my grandfather’s books for adults, five would be fast work indeed. Berl was almost there, but his great thought was lost because he had to get off his bench and eat, and sleep. Let’s hope that physical constraints don’t keep me from that last step that will allow my imaginary tree to bear some actual fruit.
And now, a message from our sponsors: If you know and love a child between about six and about eleven years old, the English version The Wise Men of Helm is still in print, and is still a delight to read three quarters of a century after it was written. It should be on your gift list.
Why is it so good? First, the author took what were basically one liners, or brief joke stories, and elaborated them, spinning them out almost, but not quite, to the breaking point. He then chained these stories together into a coherent narrative and created a cast of characters, each of whom is foolish in a slightly different way. One is arrogant, another stolidly literal-minded. One is caught up in abstraction, one errs out of obstinacy, and one actually knows something but is never heard— he is considered a fool by the fools, and is too insecure to believe in his own understanding.
He had a great eye for detail. The book gives children a real feel for what traditional life was like in the old world, informing indirectly without ever writing down to them or being the least bit pedantic. The stories are hilarious and, occasionally, touching. You can get the books here, or directly from the publisher here.
Because he never wrote down to children, these stories are also fantastic for adult learners of Yiddish who need simple material that is interesting to grown-ups. You can download the Yiddish for free [link to Yiddish book center here] and read it by itself, or side by side with the English. The Yiddish is richly idiomatic and yields a whole other level that English cannot convey. I have again and again seen adults laugh out loud while reading these stories together.
But the stories make fun of stupid people! Yes, they do. Some values change, but Jews’ preoccupation with intelligence endures. On the surface, at least, we are kinder about it now. Open mocking of someone for their mistakes, at least in the extreme case of intellectual disability, is no longer tolerated in civil society. Let’s hope fervently that the current moment (in which a politician who publicly mocked a disabled person was still somehow permitted to rise to power) is an interruption, and not the new status quo.
But even in his own time, Simon’s stories succeeded because he was never mean-spirited. The title character of his book The Wandering Beggar, Shmerl, is a simpleton, but also a good man who is never stripped of his dignity. The Chelmites also possess a delightful optimism – they never reproach themselves, never get snarled in looking back or in recrimination, but always throw themselves into the next problem to be solved, full of hope and sure that their minds are up to the task.
However much we have learned in the meantime, we can all still relate to them. Who wouldn’t want to capture the moon in a barrel? And who has never, like Berl Filozof, become captivated, even immobilized, by his or her own thinking. Watch me grow spellbound by my own mind falling through space like an enormous tree. I know, when it finally hits, it will make an enormous splash.