Right Side Up: Adven­tures in Chelm

Eric A. Kim­mel (auth.), Steve Brown (illus.)

  • Review
By – October 7, 2019

There are many dif­fer­ent ways to be fool­ish, and plen­ty of fool­ish Jews, but there is only one Chelm. In Right Side Up: Adven­tures in Chelm, mas­ter Jew­ish sto­ry­teller Eric Kim­mel has per­formed a lit­er­ary feat which the inhab­i­tants of Chelm would appre­ci­ate. He has pre­served the tra­di­tion­al fla­vor of the leg­endary tales, while updat­ing the less-than-bril­liant char­ac­ters and their dilem­mas. The peo­ple of Chelm may not have been able to fig­ure out how to make but­tered bread land right side up, but they knew how to appre­ci­ate the out-of-the-box approach to prob­lems which Kimmel’s char­ac­ters attempt with hilar­i­ous persistence.

As Kim­mel explains in his Author’s Note,” in his lat­est inter­pre­ta­tion of these folk­tales The orig­i­nal Chelm sto­ries reflect­ed their time. So should ours.” This com­mu­ni­ty of kind but con­fused indi­vid­u­als includes a woman may­or and rab­bi, as well as diverse cast­ing in Steve Brown’s appeal­ing pic­tures of a mul­ti­cul­tur­al Chelm. Kim­mel also jokes about cell phones and lap­tops, gen­tly point­ing out that in the old days, peo­ple had no such lux­u­ries of instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion. When Raizel the shulk­lap­per (syn­a­gogue knock­er) called peo­ple to prayer in Chelm, she had to knock loud­ly on their doors. Yet these steps into the mod­ern world are only the begin­ning of Kimmel’s inven­tive­ness in bring­ing Chelm back to life for mid­dle grade readers.

In the book’s twelve chap­ters, the author com­bines accounts of the inno­cent­ly irra­tional with ones sug­gest­ing that the rest of the world’s approach to prob­lem solv­ing may, in fact, be less pro­duc­tive than the Chelm method. A chap­ter about swim­mers in Lake Chelm, who fail to dis­tin­guish whose feet belong to whom, is pure enter­tain­ment; as is the cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing of a young cou­ple par­a­lyzed by the fear that a large rock may roll into a house which they have not yet built.

Oth­er chap­ters explore mate­r­i­al which has as much midrash as mishi­gas. Raizel’s task of awak­en­ing Jews for prayer — before cell phones — at the appoint­ed time becomes chal­leng­ing when it snows. Chelm res­i­dents enjoy the serene beau­ty of win­ter; snow is too beau­ti­ful to dis­turb even with the foot­prints of the shulk­lap­per. Since Raizel’s solu­tion involves knock­ing on doors off-sched­ule, Rab­bi Devo­ra needs to make a deci­sion accord­ing to Jew­ish law: is it accept­able to pray at the wrong” time? Kimmel’s nar­ra­tor advo­cates for an adap­tive and sen­si­tive view of legal codes: Some peo­ple won­dered if this was proper…But that’s how they do it in Chelm.”

The book’s final chap­ter is the most the­o­log­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for young read­ers immersed in a series of com­ic mishaps with hap­py res­o­lu­tions. In Zakkai Goes to Heav­en,” the old­est per­son in the town meets the Angel of Death. Con­vinced that his days on earth are end­ing, the old man search­es for Heav­en, and becomes con­fused at its resem­blance to Chelm. Kim­mel turns a sad por­trait of a flus­tered old man who has lost his eye­glass­es into a com­fort­ing asser­tion about what mat­ters most in life: I don’t need them any­more. God has shown me the way.”

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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