Among the classic places in which Jewish children’s stories are set is Chelm, an imaginary Jewish town in Eastern Europe. It is filled with fools whose adventures have entertained and delighted generations of Jews and non-Jews alike. In her new book, renowned author Jane Yolen tells the tale of Schlemiel, one of the Chelmites, who decides to journey to America to see if he can become a success in the New World.
Yolen first provides some background about Chelm and its population. Then, after recounting a classic version of Chelm’s development, she introduces our Chelmite hero, his observations about his town’s antics, and his determination to make it in New York.
Schlemiel sees the Statue of Liberty holding her colossal book and reasons that a book that size must belong to a nation of wise folks, so he is pleased with his decision to immigrate. In true Chelmian fashion, he successfully blunders his way through Ellis Island and lands on the streets of New York City, where he discovers that the residents are just as foolish — and just as funny — as the folks he’s left behind.
In the afterword, Yolen talks more about Chelm (and about human nature) and defines the word schlemiel as “a bungler or fool who usually falls victim to someone else’s tricks” — although our very own Schlemiel is the wisest of the wise. The world needs more people like him.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.