The Sages of Chelm and the Moon

Shlo­mo Abas (auth.), Omer Hoff­mann (illus.)

  • Review
By – September 23, 2019

Israeli author and illus­tra­tor, Abas and Hoff­mann, suc­cess­ful­ly hit just the right note of droll humor in a new pic­ture book retelling of a well-known Chelm tale — set in the fabled East­ern Euro­pean city of wise fools. With warmth, Abas — whose Hebrew short sto­ry col­lec­tions are pop­u­lar with ele­men­tary school aged read­ers — sends naïve Chelmites off to pur­chase a full moon to illu­mi­nate their skies every night. His breezy nar­ra­tive, with a few short sen­tences on each page, evokes sym­pa­thy in read­ers for the Chelmites but also gives space to laugh at their antics. Addi­tion­al­ly, there is no mock­ery in Hoffman’s com­i­cal draw­ings — in night time blues, browns, olive, and orange. Deft lines indi­vid­u­al­ize and add emo­tion to the small fig­ures, as they stum­ble and bump into each oth­er in the dark, earnest­ly bustling about their tasks.

Abas tells a slight­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry with more action than the more well-known ver­sion. In this ver­sion, a del­e­ga­tion of Chelmites who have been trav­el­ing for two weeks to find a moon are tricked by an unscrupu­lous innkeep­er. See­ing how eager they are to buy, the innkeep­er sells them a bar­rel of water shin­ing with the light of a reflect­ed full moon in exchange for all of their mon­ey. Of course, the bar­rel goes dark by the time they unveil it back at home on a moon­less night. No prove­nance is giv­en, but this plot line adapts ele­ments from Solomon Simon’s How the Helmites Bought a Bar­rel of Jus­tice,” where the del­e­ga­tion is swin­dled into bring­ing home a bar­rel of rot­ten fish as the jus­tice they have been seek­ing. It dif­fers from the sim­pler ver­sions first col­lect­ed and record­ed from Yid­dish sources by Solomon Simon and Beat­rice Wein­re­ich. In those, some­one finds the full moon reflect­ed in a bar­rel of water in their own town, and Chelmites quick­ly cov­er the bar­rel to keep it inside. In all vari­ants, the folk of Chelm are at first delight­ed to think they now pos­sess the moon. When it dis­ap­pears with the wan­ing cycle, they are sure some­one has stolen it.

It’s not easy to cap­ture the aha moments” of illog­i­cal log­ic in a Chelm sto­ry with­out squash­ing it with over expla­na­tion. Abas lets the sto­ry speak for itself. The Chelmites feel smug” as they dri­ve back to Chelm bear­ing the moon in the bar­rel. It nev­er occurs to them (and Abas thank­ful­ly doesn’t say) that the moon is nev­er in the bar­rel. At the very end, he lets the Sages muse philo­soph­i­cal­ly, Either way, the moon looks down on them and smiles — just as it does on us all.” With both the more sophis­ti­cat­ed vocab­u­lary (“radi­ant,” impres­sive sum,” del­e­gates”) and com­plex plot, this ver­sion of cap­tur­ing-the moon-in-a-bar­rel sto­ry will have read­ers guffawing.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions