I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a wonderful place to live, with great public schools, beautiful neighborhoods and cultural institutions of world renown. But it was also a time when this once-great city was on the way to a precipitous downward spiral. The growth of the suburbs corresponded to an emptying out of the downtown, and once bustling city streets were suddenly abandoned at workday’s end. A once-vibrant nightlife dwindled, and standup comics, noticing the sparse crowds, began to ridicule the town. It became “the mistake by the lake,” the object of scorn. Once-proud city neighborhoods fell to the ruin of urban blight, riddled with corruption and crime, potholes and abandoned buildings.

As if to symbolize the whole mess, then-Mayor Ralph Perk, commemorating something by the city’s main artery, the Cuyahoga River,  accidentally set fire both to the river and to his own hair! And to a teenage kid, the once-powerful Cleveland Indians baseball team became so impoverished, so poorly managed, that they lost their best players (including Roger Maris) in foolish trades, so there was constant talk of the team moving elsewhere. Fans remained loyal, despite dreadful teams and hopeless seasons; it was just another instance of stupidity, incompetence and decline. The city became a national joke: “Oh, you’re from CLEVELAND?!” LOL, LOL, LOL. Heck, they even made a nicely sympathetic comedy film about it: “Major League,” which thankfully reframed that narrative.

If we travel back to ancient times, Roman comedies always took place on a city street. The audience understood that if a character exited to one side of the stage, they were headed for the harbor; if they went the other way, it was to the countryside. If you’ve ever seen an episode of the old “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV show, you’ll know what I mean. So-called “city slickers” always figured they could outsmart the unsophisticated farm folk—even though the farm folk often outwitted them!


In Jewish folk tradition, though in fact a center of learning, the Polish town of Chelm became the site for such ridicule; stories of its citizens’ supposed foolishness appear as early as the 1590s! Turns out many different European nationalities had their own versions of such places; to Ashkenazi Jews, Chelm was theirs. Some believe that assimilated German Jews created Chelm in an effort to put down the “embarrassing” behavior of greenhorns, but this just doesn’t make sense, given that Chelm predates the Haskallah by several centuries. No, Chelm functions to allow a people to poke fun at itself, to point to the very earth-bound foibles of arrogance and pride, ignorance and foolishness, offering fictional examples of unwise behaviors, exaggerated to such a degree as to seem impossible—even as we can recognize the very real, fundamental behaviors that are being satirized beneath. Thus the Chelm stories actually teach, instruct people—without getting personal—in what constitutes inanity or poor judgment, without naming names or pointing any fingers. And since most of the stories include those from other towns close to Chelm, those outsiders roll their eyes over the Chelmites’ follies, suggesting that other Jews know better—implying that is certainly the case of the audience or reader.

There isn’t much of a history of Chelm plays in performance. Jews were forbidden from creating art on the grounds it ran foul of the edict against graven images. Eastern European shtetl life DID have one key exception: the figure of the badchen, a Yiddish wedding entertainer, who saw to it that festivities remained festive! Think Danny Kaye—over the top and joyous.  There were also the Purim plays with their reenactments of the Megillah.  Some may point to Yiddish theater as an example, but that form simply did not exist until the middle of the 19th century, brought to America by the 1890s or so. Yiddish theater was an extension of an international movement toward empowering the disenfranchised; for example, around the same time Irish artists, suffering from a couple centuries of pejorative caricatures at the hands of the English, decided to take the portrayal of their peoples into their own hands. They fought to reinstate the Irish language and to create great literature so as to assert a positive, more accurate depiction of their people—and justifying their enfranchisement.

It was much the same with the Jews of Poland. The second half of the 19th century saw a renaissance in language and culture. Yiddish had always been a bastardized language, primarily German with a mixture of Hebrew and other languages used by Jewish peddlers as they sold their wares across Europe. Hebrew was for the sacred, Yiddish for the base, everyday.  But a new generation began to refine Yiddish, to use it when writing novels and poetry and plays, in an effort to wrest control of the portrayal of Jewish peoples away from detractors. Hence a Shalom Aleichem now painted stories of everyday Jewish peoples in everyday life, with ironic wit, thereby capturing life in the shtetls. Later, novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer looked specifically at the Chelm stories as models for his own magical-realist dream-like tales.

Aleichem came to New York City late in life hoping to have a play staged by a prominent Yiddish theater. It was a flop. The audience did not favor stories that echoed old-world realities; they preferred lurid melodramas, with heroes and heroines, dramatic rescues and the like, or dramas that depicted the conflict between old-world immigrant parents and their children, who aspired to become American.

Boston’s own Robert Brustein, then artistic director of the Harvard-based American Repertory Theatre, staged his own take on Chelm, creating a musical out of Singer’s treatment, with music by the Boston-based Yiddish composer/musician Hankus Netsky. Titled “Shlemeil The First,” it featured life-sized cartoon puppets who waltzed about the stage spouting their various “kenahoras” and “oys!” It echoed early-20th-century Russian productions of Jewish life, like the director Vahktangov’s influential production of “The Dybbuk,” later a stalwart of Israel’s national Habima Theatre.  Brustein’s theater was world-recognized for its innovative, cutting-edge artistry, and his script and production satisfied the artsy and the Yiddishkeit. It toured the Northeast; a planned Broadway transfer never materialized. But there have been recent revivals in Chicago and New Jersey.

The Chelm Tales” will premiere every Thursday in February at 8 p.m. on the JArts YouTube channel. Adaptors Jesse Garlick and Dori Robinson approach classic Jewish folktales through a modern lens in “Tales of Chelm,” reimagined by JArts TheaterWorks. Composed of four segments, “Tales of Chelm” utilizes innovate performance techniques, such as puppets, masks and clowning, to tell the stories of the people of Chelm—Eastern European villagers who considered themselves uniquely wise and whose antics have been amusing us since the 16th century. Learn how the town of Chelm came to be, follow along as they attempt the seemingly impossible and discover why Jewish culture has rendered these stories immortal. Zany fun for all ages!

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