Editor’s note: In Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, the (very real) city of Chelm functions as an imaginary town of fools. Many tales from this tradition are entitled “The Wise Men of Chelm.” The following piece continues in that tradition.
Lately, the people of Chelm had been afraid. A number of townspeople, afflicted by poverty and unhappiness, had taken to quarreling, drinking, petty crime, and even street brawls— there had been a particularly bad fight between the Guild of Shoemakers and the Guild of Tanners. There were yet no guns in Chelm, thank God, so the gangs fought with tools— hammer, screwdrivers, rulers, whatever they could get their hands on. There had been serious injuries.
Efraim Shtusser, the chief of police and head of town council, called a meeting with the town wise men— Shmerel the Ox, Silly Tudras, and Dopey Lekisch. “We must do something about all of this bad behavior and violence,” Efraim told the wise men. “Just yesterday my own son, Shmuly Shtusser, was hit in the head with a monkey wrench and had to take to bed for the day.”
All of the wise men agreed that the situation had grown serious indeed. In fact, all of the wise men themselves had taken to drink as a result of the widespread availability of moonshine, and were all badly hungover, so much so that they could barely speak or listen to the discussion properly. “What do you suggest, Shmerel?”, Dopey asked the oldest and wisest of the elders, who was staring at them in a red-eyed stupor.
“The police force of Chelm— Chaimy Stickyfingers and Shepsele Thickwad— must be given what other towns have— guns,” said Shmerele. “With schissers (pistols) at their side, they can stop the spread of crime in Chelm.”
Dopey Lakisch stood up. “That is not enough!”, he said. “Can Chaimy and Shepsel be everywhere at once? Mit eyn tokhes ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes (you can’t dance at two weddings with one tuches). All of the upstanding citizens of Chelm should be given schissers, and when the criminals come they can defend themselves!”
All of the sage elders nodded their heads appreciatively. This was a good idea. They had seen Westerns for themselves on the town’s ramshackle new film projector and were somewhat fond of the idea of strapping a schisser to their side and walking through the middle of town. This seemed even a better idea after they each had a glass of the moonshine Silly Tudras had brought to the meeting. Arrangements were made for guns to be shipped in and sold at market. The people, alarmed that so many other people would have guns, rushed to buy their own to defend themselves, and the number of people owning guns increased quickly. Unfortunately, the death rate quickly rose as well, both from violent confrontations and accidental shootings.
The wise men of Chelm again convened a meeting. “Who is responsible for all of these shootings?”, thundered Shmerel the Ox. Everyone agreed it was largely the criminal element, who had somehow managed to get ahold of many of the guns, but there also had been an increase in shootings in domestic situations, tavern fights, and even, heaven forbid, among children.
At that point, a prominent business man in the community named Kugelhead Trumpetblower, who had asked to be at the meeting, stood up and demanded to replace the current head of town council, Efraim Shtusser so that he could bring real change to Chelm. Trumpetblower had no real experience, but he was very wealthy and argued that his business expertise would serve him well in cleaning up Chelm and stopping what he called “Chelmian carnage,” a phrase no one really understood. “I will get the job done,” said Trumpetblower, “We’re going to get rid of these bad guys, we’re going to get rid of them. I can tell you that for sure. I have really great, really amazing plans. We’re going to make Chelm great again!” All the wise men were very impressed, and they were quick to agree, especially when he handed out steaks and vodka from his very own Inn, though upon examination both the vodka and the steaks left something to be desired.
As head of town council, Trumpetblower lost no time in finding the source of the trouble: people from the nearby town of Lublin, who were known to be stupid, quarrelsome, and drunkards to boot, and had been infiltrating the town and attacking it’s good people, who they were very jealous of on account of the great wisdom in Chelm. The answer lay in building a great wall to keep out the Lubliners, and also in making it easier to buy guns so that the people of Chelm could defend themselves from any that happened to creep in. Trumpetblower had a brick business and would be happy to sell the town his own bricks. “Who better?”, the wise men all agreed. “Trumpetblower knows his bricks, yes he does!”
Silly Tudras reminded them that many of Trumpetblower’s buildings had in fact fallen down. “Yes,” said Dopey Lakisch, “That is why he is such an expert. What would someone whose walls had never fallen down know about the danger of badly built walls?” The wise men all agreed that this made a lot of sense.
The workers of Chelm got started building the wall. In the meantime injuries and deaths from shootings continued to grow, proving the need for the wall. Trumpetblower, who was only half aware of how and why things were benefitting him so much, grew steadily richer.
Finally, the great day came when the wall was finished. Kugelhead Trumpetblower, his wife Melonhead and his daughter Iwantta toured along with his son-in-law, the great Rabbi Reb Cushiony Brainer. The Rebbe Reb Cushiony was in the middle of reciting something that sounded like psalms (his pronunciation seemed a bit off) when Silly Tudras’ wife was heard shouting above the crowd. Everyone turned to hear what she was saying.
“Where is the door?”, she was shouting. “Blockheads of Chelm! Ninnies of Gehinnom, may you lie in the dirt like onions! How will people get in or out?!”
“The wall was not built to let people in or out!”, yelled Shmerel. “It is to stop people from coming in or out!” All of the people murmured in agreement.
Trumpetblower yelled, “ ‘Where’s the door!’ ”, imitating Silly Tudras’ high pitched voice. “ ‘Where’s the door’! There are too many doors in Chelm already! How do you think so many thieves get into people’s houses! How do you think so many people get shot!”
This made a lot of sense to the people of Chelm, and they shushed Silly Tudras’ wife, who was steaming with anger and trying to say something else. It was at that point, however, that the cook at the town tavern began saying something about food imports. One of Trumpetblower’s assistants, named Steeptin Bupkes, jumped up onto the stage and began shouting him down. “The great, venerable Trumpetblower has great and wonderful plans to protect the people of Chelm, and he will not be questioned!”
This seemed to have the desired effect, and the crowd quieted down. A quarrel then broke out on the edge of the crowd, however, and shots were fired. Although eyewitnesses claimed the fight was between a Chelmer who loved Trumpetblower and a tradesman who was wondering how he would sell his goods to the Lubliners, Trumpetblower’s associate Salty Shakran told the crowds that the shooting was done by infiltrating Lubliners, thus proving the need for vigilance. Steeptin Bupkes said he would tell anyone, anywhere, anyplace right to his face that he had seen people from Lublin causing the trouble.
Things continued much the same, though now Trumpetblower regularly toured the wall extolling it’s greatness to everyone, along with his own. With Chelm increasingly isolated from other towns, however, poverty increased. Trumpetblower and his associates had gotten rid of all the laws regulating the town businesses and made it yet easier to buy guns, and as a result poverty, crime and violence daily grew instead of decreasing, as people had hoped. Trumpetblower had also undone the town laws about dumping refuge (“Meddling! The people of Chelm don’t need all these laws!”), and as a result, Chelm grew dirtier and stinkier by the day.
Trumpetblower next had all the resident Lubliners kicked out, which depressed some of the people of Chelm greatly, as some of them were their relatives or provided valuable services like making their famous Lubliner pastries. Trumpetblower blamed everything on Shtusser, the former head of town council and now fired chief of police, for not having built a wall sooner and having let in so many people from Lublin in the first place.
Over time the people of Chelm grew very restless on account of the great wall. All of them missed the pastries of Lublin, the smoked meat of Biala, the fabrics of Warsaw. Many of them had relatives in nearby villages they could no longer see. Finally, some of the people of Chelm began tunneling under the wall to do business or climbing over it on ladders to visit relatives, or just for a change of scene. Some were fleeing the increasing poverty, violence, and undeniable stench of Chelm.
What began as a trickle soon became a flood. Trumpetblower’s associates attempted to stem the tide of Chelmers going under or over the fence, but there were too many to stop, and they soon found the Chelmers defending themselves against the police with the easily available guns they had bought. Eventually, the wall became useless, as folks from Lublin and other townships made use of the tunnels and ladders the Chelmers had built.
The wise men of Chelm decided to meet once more, and this time they did not invite Trumpetblower, who they had come to regard with a mixture of fear and distaste, especially after he had tried to fire the wise men, forcing them to explain that they had never been hired by anyone in the first place.
“The wall no longer keeps anyone out,” Shmerel said to the other wise men. They all thought it was a shame- such a beautiful wall. They all agreed there was no need to tear it down since people had found plenty of ways over and under it, and since it had taken so much work to build, and it was such a great accomplishment for Chelm, that they couldn’t bear to get rid of it now. In the end, they needn’t have worried: Trumpetblower made good on his promise to build it cheaply, and in a few months it fell apart of itself.
Violence was still a problem in Chelm, though with the wall down the economy improved again and there was less crime. Silly Tudras’ wife finally managed to convince him that the guns were part of the problem, not the solution, and the town council voted to once again make them illegal. Trumpetblower objected fiercely, and so they all agreed to let Trumpetblower alone keep a gun so he could feel safe. A couple of weeks later Trumpetblower, who did not know how to use a gun, died in a freak shooting accident when the gun went off unexpectedly in his pocket. The people of Chelm wailed and mourned after the great businessman and builder of the “Great Wall of Chelm,” and had a very big funeral procession, catered by Lubliner bakers.
This story "Making Chelm Great Again" was written by Matthew Gindin.