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How the Church Came to Chelm
It was not so very long ago that the Church first came to Chelm—or rather, as Heshel tells the story, that the people of Chelm first came to the Church.
Heshel was young, then. He had not yet married Clever Gretele, his guide and anchor, and was still drifting about, trying to find his place in life. Not to mention his place in eastern Poland’s economy. He had tried work on an assembly line, but he lacked the basic consistency required for the job. Whenever his mind drifted, his hands tried to find a new way to do things: square stacks became pyramids, knots turned into bows, and he never learned to properly distinguish a quarter-turn to the left from one to the right. “This job is simple,” his supervisor told him. “You only need to do one thing exactly as you’ve been shown. Just as it’s been done before.” But that was the trouble: Heshel couldn’t ever seem to master what had been done before. Companies in Chelm were, by necessity, patient about an eccentricity or two. But after the day he somehow got the conveyor belt running backward, he was sacked.
On a recommendation from his friend Isaac Peretz, Heshel tried a job in the newspaper business next. “Your mind needs variation—something new every day,” Isaac said. “A factory is not for you. But now that you know about conditions in factories, perhaps you could write about the fate of the working class.” With Isaac’s help, Heshel got a trial period with the Chelm Every-Other-Daily Gazette.
The fate of the working class, as discussed in the Gazette offices, turned out to revolve around a special weekly bonus insert of coupons. And novelty? Not the asset you might expect in that business. In the rapid succession of positions Heshel took on, he learned that people prefer their every-other-daily dose of the new only with a steady diet of the comfortably old. Subscribers wanted their newspapers to be in the exact same spot at the exact same time every other morning. They look forward to seeing the same old, tired typeface. They wanted each issue, no matter what was happening, to carry the exact same kinds of stories in the same proportions of crisis, tragedy, and scandal—with only grudging allowance for the names and particulars to change. Poor Heshel was no good as a carrier or a printer, awful as a writer, and dangerous in the advertising department (when he forgot to include Aldi deals among the coupons, he caused a full-blown geriatric riot). He was let go as part of a bargain to pacify the mob, his curse for novelty having wrecked another career.
Heshel found the same problem in the restaurant business, at the synagogue, and especially during his single day as an employee of the state. People simply did not tolerate genuine variety in their meals or prayers or taxes. Before long, Heshel found that any variety in the job offers he could find had also worn away. To be precise, no one in town was willing to offer him work.
What was a Heshel like him to do? He loved his town desperately, but at length decided he had no choice but to seek his fortune elsewhere. One morning, Heshel rose early to go out into the world. With no particular destination in mind, he decided he would simply pick a prominent landmark and head in its direction, seeing where it led him. As he looked around for options, he decided to choose his very own lucky star (which, in the daytime, happened to be the sun).
The sun, apparently, had no desire for Heshel to remain in Chelm. It quickly directed him out past the chalk mines, over an eastern border crossing, through a forest, and into a town. Stopping for breakfast at the nearest bakery, Heshel noticed that he had already traveled so far that the people all spoke a different language! It was still Slavic, of course, so Heshel could follow bits and pieces (almost as much, truth be told, as he ever did when his mind wandered). Even the words he knew, though, carried an unmistakable accent of adventure.
Heshel greedily took in the scent of this new and sun-ward country: sweet and buttery, a true land of cheese and honey. The knowledge that he had passed far beyond the limits of his own world filled him with no small portion of pride—and an even larger portion of hunger. But when he saw the printed prices on the menu, Heshel’s heart sank. The numbers were six times higher than he was used to! If he were a roll or pastry and not a body with a stomach, he could clearly make a fortune here. But he was a body with a stomach. And a stomach will make its demands, even in another country.
Heshel and his stomach negotiated briefly.
Without restraint as ruthless as Oskar the Miser’s, a man could go bankrupt in a place like this, he told his stomach.
With the miser’s restraint, a man could starve anywhere, his stomach replied.
Why not eat after finding a job? Heshel suggested to his stomach next.
Why not look for a job after he ate? his stomach countered.
Well, Heshel reasoned, a new journey’s beginning ought to be marked somehow. It wouldn’t show much confidence in the future if he skimped. Not wanting to look afraid, he decided to increase his breakfast budget twelve times beyond what he would spend at home, and promptly ordered two delicious-looking buns with the centers scooped out and eggs cooked inside.
To his great surprise, however, the baker refused to take the small treasury Heshel offered. Explaining that the currency here was not the same, and that zlotys were worth six times as much, he refused to accept most of Heshel’s payment. What good fortune! What great relief! Feeling six times wealthier than he had mere moments before, Heshel thought it only proper to celebrate. He laid the rest of the money he had convinced himself to spend on the counter and pointed at first this roll, then that sweet, until every last zloty was spent.
Paper bag of wonders in hand, Heshel spent the morning wandering the town, taking in its sights and slowly working his way through its tastes. The latter work was athletic, stretching every muscle in his stomach and taking hours to complete. His belly passed from hunger to satisfaction, from satisfaction to stupor, and then slowly pressed its way forward into pain. By mid-day, he’d had his fill of the town and was ready to follow the sun off to another adventure.
But oh, what tragedy. He was standing in the town’s main square, struggling to focus through a haze of digesting breads and cheeses, meats and sweets, when he realized with a sinking filling that he had failed to keep track of his guiding star. Over the course of the morning, focused on the needs of the flesh, he had somehow lost his way—and now it was hanging over him. Right above his head. For everyone, but especially for Heshel, life was disorienting like this sometimes. You’d settle on something, you’d start to count on it even. But as soon as you relaxed and took a thing for granted, it would change and everything went sideways.
Heshel was forced to concede that he was thoroughly lost in more ways than one. He had no job. He was actively suffering from a lack of restraint. And he was literally, geographically lost, with no destination and nothing to guide him forward. His only consolation was that it had happened in a town of complete strangers: it would have been mortifying to be so lost right in the middle of the town square if he’d still been home in Chelm.
Heshel’s embarrassment receded even further when he realized he was not the only one lost here. For perhaps twenty minutes, he watched two young men in dark suits stand awkwardly in the square, repeatedly failing to talk with people who passed by. After some time, Heschel noticed the dark-haired one of the young men noticing him. While the other one persisted in his steady accrual of rejections, the young man gave up on trying to stop people who were already moving and walked over to Heschel instead.
If Heshel followed the locals’ example and fled from the suited men, would he get even more lost? He hesitated—and found himself addressed in the baker’s language. The young man, if Heshel understood correctly, claimed to be Jesus Christ. Or perhaps Jesus’ elderly relative? In any case, he said he had a message about Heshel’s family.
Heshel tried to explain that although he was a Jew and Jesus was now widely known to have been Jewish, the two of them were not closely related. It was a common enough mistake, of course: people were always assuming Jews all knew each other. Unfortunately, the young man didn’t seem to follow Heshel’s Polish as well as the baker had. He insisted that Heshel was, in fact, Jesus’ brother and seemed to suggest that Jesus had wanted him to have a book. For honesty’s sake, Heshel tried again to explain that if he and Jesus looked alike, it was purely coincidence. But the young man could not be dissuaded. Nothing, it seemed, could keep him from telling his story. After glancing up quickly to confirm that the sun was still unhelpfully located, Heshel decided to linger and listen.
The young man’s enthusiasm grew when he realized Heshel was not going to walk away from him. He asked Heshel something about Jesus and Heshel repeated that he had never met Jesus and didn’t know much about him. The man in the suit didn’t seem to be concerned. Or, for that matter, really listening. He talked with more and more excitement instead, saying that Jesus had gone to America and written a book there.
Of course he had, thought Heshel. What a stereotypically Jewish thing to do.
The young man in the suit produced a copy of the book. Heshel explained patiently that he couldn’t read the Cyrillic script, since he was from Poland, but even that did not stop the man, who waved his companion over, asking him to bring a copy of the book in Polish.
The lighter-haired suit-man cheerfully complied, and soon pressed a copy into Heshel’s hands. Though Heshel remained convinced this was a simple case of mistaken identity, he thanked them for the gift and told them to thank Jesus on his behalf next time they saw him. For some reason, this suggestion both amused and delighted them.
But even after handing Heshel the book, the men did not leave. They asked him if he promised to read it. Heshel glanced up again at the sun. Though he had not expected to spend the day reading, it seemed as good a way as any to pass the time. He agreed, sat down on a nearby bench, and began at once as the two young men finally walked away.
The story he discovered inside the pages of Jesus’ American book was shockingly familiar. It was the tale of a family of Jews who offended people, left town, and got very, very lost.
His heart went out for them. They wandered, adrift as strangers in an unwelcoming world: fighting for their lives, endlessly arguing with each other, and longing for a New Jerusalem. Heshel read for hours. A feeling of strength and purpose slowly gathered within him as he did so. It was as if the book were a battery and an electric current was passing from it into him, preparing him for his own life’s journey.
When Heshel next looked up, the sun was right in front of him. He rose, tucked the book away in his pack, and pressed onward in search of his own promised land. The sun led him out past forests, over another border crossing, past another chalk mine, and finally into a city that looked—almost exactly—like Chelm.
The similarities to his old home were astonishing. The streets had the same layout. The houses had the same architecture. The businesses sold the same goods. The thought struck Heshel like a bolt of lightning that this must be a New Chelm, just like the book’s promise of a New Jerusalem.
Another thought came to his mind, and he decided to put it, like a seed of faith, to the test. He rushed through the streets until he reached the place where his apartment would have been in the old Chelm. Hands trembling, he lifted his key to the door, and—miracle of miracles!—the key fit.
It was as the book said. A place had been prepared for him.
As soon as he stepped inside, Heshel took out the book and found the phone number stamped on its inside cover. He called the two suited men, who were titled above the number not by name but simply as missionaries. He told the one who answered how real and true the book was—in his life, at least. True in ways they could hardly comprehend.
The young man’s voice on the phone was ecstatic. He and Heshel talked for hours, haltingly across the barrier of language but bound together by a shared secret deeper than language. The missionary told Heshel strange and marvelous things. There was the story of Joseph Smith, a boy without a place in all the Christian churches, who went into the forest and came out a prophet. There was the story of Jesus, who taught odd and blasphemous things but loved everyone and would die for his friends. The missionary claimed that something had gone deeply wrong in this history of Christianity, and Heshel heartily agreed. But there was a theory, a word that the missionary kept repeating. Heshel didn’t recognize it, but he realized at last it meant that Joseph Smith and the last-days Saints intended to gather up the broken pieces of the modern world and put them somehow back together. This theory was no fairy tale, the missionary insisted. This great repair, or rebuilding, could be done to humanity, even if the process continued after death. To make this point specific, he promised Heshel that his family could be together forever.
Heshel was skeptical, since he’d left them just that morning, but the missionary’s words proved prophetic. Soon after Heshel moved to New Chelm, he found his mother and brothers had joined him. His whole community, it seemed, had followed: he saw Yossel the fisherman out to cast his nets, Feige Cohen haggling with a shopkeeper over the price of groceries. He caught a glimpse of a beautiful girl he swore was Gretele Gottstein. Then he bumped into Menachem Menashe as Menachem barreled down the street with his face buried in a book. Even Lazar the blind beggar had somehow made the journey and was waiting out on the street for the grace of God. By the next Sabbath, Heshel was quite sure that everyone had migrated.
It was true, then. Family was forever; friends were forever. The same relationships he had forged in Chelm existed in New Chelm. And it followed, by the surety of sound logic, that there was hope indeed for wandering Jews as the Book of Mormon claimed. And maybe that was because Jesus, who had been crazy but made up for it by giving people his whole heart and in the end also a broken body, had introduced a great repair in the last days after Christians made a mess of his religion.
Heshel called the missionaries every night for a month. They offered to send other missionaries, Polish-speaking missionaries, to New Chelm (which everyone but Heshel, to save a syllable, called “Chelm” for short), but Heshel was not so sure. The Jews of Chelm had kept their faith for hundreds of generations, thousands of years. They worshiped more or less exactly as they’d been shown, just as it had been done before. What sort of stir would he make if he failed to follow? In Chelm, Heshel had always been scolded and sighed over for his inability to just do what people had done.
In New Chelm, though, who knew? Perhaps here, his restlessness could be a strength. He decided to approach the issue cautiously but steadily. He lent the Book of Mormon to Menachem Menashe, urging him to make a thorough study of it and report back on his experience. He told Aaron Cohen about the priesthood, Yossel Fischer about all the Nephite and Jaredite boats, and Isaac Peretz about the social and spiritual problem of fine-twined linen. He even found the courage to talk to Gretele Gottstein and tell her about his growing belief in the hope of a great repair.
At length, Heshel agreed to accept physical visits from the missionaries. They taught him to pray in Polish as well as Hebrew, convinced him that his lack of money for cigarettes and vodka was a virtue and not a shame, and gave him an awkward talk about how sex is both dangerous and holy. They encouraged Heshel to make promise after promise: that he would take the bus to Lublin each Sunday to attend their services, that he would avoid wine even on holidays, that he would avoid the dangers of sex until he had entered the acknowledged minefield of marriage, that he would care for others and carry their burdens. It was easy enough for Heshel, who wasn’t making any money, to promise to pay tithing. It was harder to have faith when the missionaries encouraged him to try, once again, to find a job—but in New Chelm his new confidence opened new doors. Which was something, even if they consistently proved to be rotating. He bore his testimony that he’d been blessed.
Heshel balked once again at the prospect of actually being baptized—the word held such negative connotations after centuries of Christian coercion—but the missionaries helped him appreciate the act itself, whatever meanings its name had taken on over the years. Heshel gradually got used to the idea. After all, a rose by any other name would be hard to find in a store. The syllables in the name “Elzbieta” might sound nicer than those in the name “Gretele,” but if he had to call one or the other across the street, he knew whose head he’d rather turn. Sometimes you had to make your peace with a name if you wanted a flower or a conversation or a new covenant. If the world had to call it baptism, then he’d be baptized. To be immersed in water was a perfectly reasonable religious act, after all, and the beginning of a journey ought to be marked somehow.
On the 15th of Tishrei, Heshel Yitzhak Kleiner went down under the water and came out as some kind of Saint. In New Chelm, as it turned out, he was leading the way out into the wilderness of a new faith for many of the children of Israel. Leah Kanter, never afraid to make a bold choice, was the next to be baptized. Menachem Menasche read every Polish-language book the missionaries owned and a few more by means of his imperfect but developing English. For some time, he was torn between adopting the religious, philosophical, and historical system called Mormonism and becoming a cog in the elaborate social system sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Finally, the missionaries convinced him he could have both. While Menachem was debating, Mattheusz and Sara Levy started attending, and Fruma Selig with her girls. Then individual members of other old Chelm families joined: Mirele Schwartz, Saul Gronam, old Israel Lewensztajn. Belka Fischer was baptized on her own and Yossel later followed.
Gretele Gottstein attended every baptism. She admitted that a warmth filled her chest each time she came. Once, swept up in that warmth even after the ordinance was done, she kissed Heshel on an impulse as they left—and decided that she liked the feeling of his arms around her on the bus ride back home. It was hard to sort out her feelings about the Restoration, as the missionaries called it in Polish, from her feelings about Heshel, who had introduced her to the idea. But since they were free, she finally decided she would take them both.
Heshel had been thinking about leaving New Chelm to serve a mission, but after Gretele asked how he would feel about assembling the best bits of a broken world into a life with her, the mission president assured Heshel that he was doing more than enough to spread the gospel right where he was. And so it was that the two married and found a little apartment, with Gretele’s various streams of income smoothing over the renewed parade of short-lived jobs Heshel had in place of a career. By many measures, he was still a disaster. But he was happy.
And perhaps God had a purpose in all his missteps. As he shared his new religion with the carousel of people he happened to work with, Heshel watched the little group of Saints in Chelm grow into a branch and the branch, inexplicably, into a ward. And, though he was by no means the most capable or knowledgeable member of the Chelm ward, Heshel took a little pride in having been the first who had enough of Chelm’s famous wisdom to give this strange, sweet new faith a chance.
Once in a while, he still thought about the old Chelm and how different life there had been—back before he started out on his journey, and read the Book of Mormon, and made more promises than he could, quite frankly, keep very good track of. Someday, he mused, when he and Gretele had grown old and wise together, maybe they could put in their papers and serve a mission after all. And perhaps, speaking Polish as well as they did, they would be called to serve in Poland. And then could find the old Chelm, and maybe whoever had stayed in that city would also embrace the gospel.
It would be such a delight to see a Chelm Second Ward organized there.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.