Tales of the Chelm First Ward: Introduction
There’s an old Eastern European Jewish folktale that goes like this:
When God created the world, he put the souls of all the world’s fools into a sack and asked an angel to carefully distribute them. This was an important task. Every village needs its idiot. After all, it’s healthy to have a few people around who are resistant to reason. They keep things interesting when times are good. And when times are bad, they keep things going: if human beings only did what made sense, we’d have called it quits ages ago. So the angel went here; the angel went there. But on a small hill in Poland, the angel tripped. The bag burst open and all the remaining souls fell out. Ah, what a disaster! What a failure of sacred trust! The result was that Chelm, the town at the hill’s base, was left fool-flooded and wit-less. Religious life, town politics, business, and even family quarrels in Chelm have been guided ever since by the unique logic of the world’s most pure and undiluted nonsense.
In Chelm, for example, the town council once solved a holiday sour cream shortage by renaming water “sour cream”—only to discover the next week that the sudden surplus of sour cream was immediately followed by a drought. It was in Chelm that people first discovered that the same fires which heat homes in the winter are what make the summer so hot—and that people’s lack of willingness to keep fires burning through the summer heat is why winter always comes back cold. And those are hardly the town’s only claims to fame: why, long before an American president resolved to send men to the moon, the elders of Chelm captured it in a barrel. Their accomplishment would be every bit as well-known as the Apollo missions if not for a tragic incident about two weeks later, when the moon dissolved in the barrel water (as moons often do).
Now, you probably know some idiots. In a moment of frustration, maybe you’ve even called yourself one. And yes, a certain Chelm-like logic is often at work in corporate committees and government agencies around the world (not to mention in some imposingly hideous towers in downtown Salt Lake City). By now, you might think you’ve seen more or less the whole range of flavors when it comes to human stupidity.
But you would be wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. What you’ve seen is diluted, derivative stuff. Chelm may look different than it did in the golden age of folktales. Most people there now live in long blocks of dour apartment buildings constructed during the communist era. They go to public schools instead of religious yeshivas. They shop at Biedronka and Aldi. But no matter how the world’s economy grows or its technology progresses, the basic human capacity for foolishness remains the same. We have living examples of the kind of reasoning that still prevails in Chelm.
We feel a certain obligation to share a few glimpses with you, the regular readers of Wayfare magazine, in these stories. After all, it doesn’t take a great imagination to predict that some of the town’s population would eventually convert to Mormonism. And in the Chelm First Ward, the most dazzlingly dumbfounding wisdom in our entire faith is daily on display. (Is it more edifying or mortifying? We’ll let you be the jury.)
A brief word of warning: Idiocy is a universal language, but it comes in all kinds of accents. There may be some unfamiliar cultural references in these stories. A term or two might drive you to the internet; even fire-sale pearls have some price. The world we invite you into has feet in two different cultural and historical settings, each with their own specialized allusions and religious terms. The first is the Yiddish world of a bygone Eastern Europe. The second is the early years of the Russel M. Nelson administration in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This latter historical period, spanning from 2018 to 2020, was characterized by a rapid series of adjustments that felt sweeping and significant—right up until everyone abruptly went home and got stir crazy and forgot what things used to feel like.
We wish you the best on this trip down memory lane,
James Arthur Goldberg
Nicole Wilkes Goldberg
READ THE FIRST TALE
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.