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April 2013
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Excerpt from Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf

By Sandor Schuman 2012 All rights reserved.

Illustrated by Kevin Kuhne

Chelm’s Pond

Some people are so confident of their wisdom they are unaware of their foolishness.

 

The legendary Jews of Chelm were reluctant to leave behind their beloved, ancestral home of Chelm, Poland. But they were offered an irresistible land deal in America. The real estate agent raved about the land, assuring them that in this wonderful tract “every acre is two acres, you can till the soil with a teaspoon, and there are not only four seasons, there are five.” To their further astonishment, the broker announced that it included a fifteen-acre body of water named Chelm’s Pond (although he admitted – in an effort to demonstrate his honesty – that it appears on maps with an anglicized spelling, “Helms Pond”). Surely, the move to Chelm’s Pond was bashert.

While some were skeptical of the real estate agent’s claims, they discovered upon their arrival that every word was true! Every acre was two acres because the hills and mountain sides were so steep – if flattened out, they would double the acreage. You could till the soil with a teaspoon because the soil was so shallow. And there were not only four seasons, there were five: summer, fall, winter, spring, and black fly season, the “fifth season.”[2]

Assured that their wisdom had prevailed and that they received what they paid for, the people of Chelm settled in. They built homes, a shul, farmed, traded, married, had children and grandchildren, carried on their traditions, and lived in Chelmudic bliss in this remote, roadless valley, accessible only by hiking miles of unmarked trails, sheltered and unknown to the rest of the world.

How did I come by this knowledge? I was hiking in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains and I got lost. There were no roads or trails, no telephone poles, no cell phone signals. I was in the middle of nowhere. That’s when I stumbled into Chelm’s Pond. The Chelmites welcomed me into their little village and eagerly shared their personal and communal history. Each time I met one of them it was like we were old friends and when we parted they wished me zay gezunt, and it was not said as a mere formality or a social platitude, they really meant it.

While there, I witnessed an extraordinary thing such as no one has ever seen or heard before and some might not have believed even if they did. Was it for real? Well, I wish you could have been there so you could have judged for yourself because, you see, some people said it really happened, but others said it was just another tall tale.

It happened at Adirondack Mendel’s aufruf. No, not his talking dog, Aufruf, his aufruf! Adirondack Mendel was going to marry Bloomie, the ambitious proprietor of The Broiled Beet (serving the finest in Adirondack-Ashkenazick fusion cuisine), and in all of Chelm’s Pond the loveliest, kindest, and sincerest sheyne meydl. It was during his aufruf – when he was called up to the Torah on the Shabbos before the wedding – when the learned, honored, and beloved Rabbi Chayim Shmayim, the oldest and wisest khokhem in Chelm’s Pond, was concluding the musaph service.

What’s that you say, “hock mir nisht kayn chaynik.” You want me I should stop beating around the bush and say what happened? Well I could tell you, but I assure you it wouldn’t make any sense unless you had a thorough understanding of the nature of this remarkable village, the reputations of these individuals in the community, the historical, cultural, philosophical, sociological, and economic context – the gantzeh megillah. Are you ready?

Here is what’s news from Chelm’s Pond, centrally isolated in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, just north of Blue Mountain Lake between Castle Rock and Little Blue Mountain, the steep valley where every acre is two acres, where you can till the soil with a teaspoon, and there are not only four seasons, there are five.


From this behavior, imploring heaven, he earned the Chelmudic distinction, “Rabbi Chayim who looks to shamayim.

Rabbi Chayim Shmayim

 

An understanding of the community could not be achieved without at least a brief introduction to the learned, honored, and beloved Rabbi Chayim Tzvi, the oldest and wisest khokhem in Chelm’s Pond.

Rabbi Chayim Tzvi could be relied on to find a solution to even the most vexing problem. For example, he once received a letter from Frank, an ex-Chelmite, with an offer to donate $10,000 to the shul’s building fund. With the shul in such a sad state of disrepair – people tripped over the buckets that collected drips from the leaky roof, flames licked through the rusted holes of the wood stove, the glare of sunlight through the chimney made you squint, the spongy floorboards made you feel seasick – this was a much needed gift.

Frank and his older brother John were Chelmites of dubious reputations. The brothers spurned Jewish culture and abandoned their Yiddishe names, refused to participate in or support any community or religious events and, while they never hesitated to ask their Chelmite neighbors for favors, could never be relied upon to help others, even when asked. By stroke of good fortune – a mystery of providence – they had many years ago won $1,300 in the New York State Lottery. On hearing the news, Frank yelled “Yahoo!” John took this as a sign and used the winnings to buy 1,000 shares of stock in an upstart Internet company with the ridiculous name Yahoo! They sold the stock four years later at $500 per share and left Chelm’s Pond without sharing a penny of their good fortune with their fellow Chelmites.

No one in Chelm’s Pond heard anything from them until Rabbi Chayim Tzvi received Frank’s letter with the offer of a gift of $10,000. But the offer came with a strict condition. Frank’s elder brother John had died, and Frank wanted the rabbi to speak at the memorial service. His letter insisted, “In the eulogy you must say, ‘He was a mensh.’ No other wording will be acceptable.”

How could Rabbi Chayim Tzvi, an honorable and trustworthy man, say of the older brother John that “he was a mensh?” The brothers, in their own narrow self interests, would turn on a friend, cheat a relative, misdirect an unwitting stranger. And yet, the community could greatly benefit from the repairs the money would buy.

He looked to heaven for inspiration. He didn’t merely gaze toward the sky, his penetrating stare had such intensity that his whole face inclined upwards, his chin pointing towards heaven and skewed to the right in such an extreme posture that you would consider it an unnatural feat of acrobatics, and with such yearning that he would inevitably rise on his right foot, extending his toes to get even that much closer to heaven. And as he stood so outstretched, he would after a few moments lose his balance, and to prevent himself from falling over he crossed his left foot over his right, taking a step in that direction, all the while looking up and to his right, his eyes reaching out to heaven. Every few minutes the pattern would repeat, an awkward image, oblivious to his surroundings, haphazardly hobbling diagonally to his right as he sought heavenly inspiration. From this behavior, imploring heaven, he earned the Chelmudic distinction, “Rabbi Chayim who looks to shamayim.” But most people just called him “Rabbi Chayim Shmayim.”[3]

Rabbi Chayim Shmayim maintained this dynamic pose for three days, during which time the people of Chelm’s Pond never doubted that their learned, honored, and beloved rabbi, the oldest and wisest khokhem in Chelm’s Pond, would achieve the inspiration that would allow him to accept the much-needed gift of $10,000. After three days of beseeching heaven he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamt that he received a box of chocolate candies. He tasted one, but didn’t like it. He sampled a second, but liked it less than the first. The third he liked less than the second, and so on, each candy less to his liking than the previous. Compared to the subsequent candies, the first one was a treat! Suddenly, he woke up, the problem solved.

The day of the memorial service arrived and everyone in Chelm’s Pond attended, eager to hear how the rabbi would accept the $10,000 gift and maintain his integrity while making reference to John with the words, “He was a mensh.”

In his eulogy, delivered in the dilapidated shul to the anxious assembly of Chelmites, Rabbi Chayim Shmayim said, “Never in the history of this community was there ever a person who was less concerned about the well-being of his fellow man.” These words created a mild state of alarm among the Chelmites as they began to question their rabbi’s intent. “Among all the people of Chelm’s Pond,” he continued, “never has there been anyone less truthful, less trusting, or less trustworthy.” The Chelmites’ hopes sank as their anticipated receipt of the surviving brother’s $10,000 gift oozed away like beet borsht spilled on a white cotton tablecloth. “Any of us,” the rabbi’s voice rang out, “is more reliable, more helpful, more decent, more worthy of admiration.”

The despairing Chelmites began to shuffle toward the door, their anticipated gain evaporating like steam from boiled potatoes. “But compared to his brother,” concluded Rabbi Chayim Shmayim in a steady, declarative tone, “he was a mensh!

Such is the indefatigable wisdom of Rabbi Chayim Shmayim, who figures so prominently in the life of Chelm’s Pond. However, lest you think this little story provides a sufficient basis for your understanding of Chelm’s Pond, I must hasten to introduce you to some of the other individuals essential to this tale.

Footnotes


[2] From late May through most of June the Adirondacks are dominated by huge numbers of black flies that feast on humans, their painful bites leaving itchy, red sores. These tiny insects so change the character of the Adirondacks that the locals refer to this time period as “black fly season,” or “the fifth season.”

[3] Repeating a word with the first sound replaced by “shm” is a Yiddish device for making light of or diminishing the idea. Examples of this device adopted in English are “fancy shmancy” and “Joe Shmo.”

 

 

Visit the Website: www.chelmspond.com

Send an email to the author: sschuman@exedes.com

This Too Shall Pass Press
is an imprint of Executive Decision Services LLC.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9886285-1-9 (ebook)

ISBN-10: 0-9886285-1-1 (ebook)

ISBN-13: 978-0-9886285-0-2 (pbk.)

ISBN-10: 0-9886285-0-33 (pbk.)

 


This Too Shall Pass Press
Albany, New York

 

~~~~~~~

from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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