Schlemiel Comes to America

  • Review
By – August 27, 2023

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.

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