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 has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.