Books: Not-so-wise men

An exploration of the tradition and whimsy behind the classic tales from Chelm.

December 29, 2016 11:09
3 minute read.

The town of of Chelm. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In “A Shameless Fish,” Isaac Bashevis Singer tells the story of a rabbi in Chelm, Poland, who has been given a fine carp by Mendel the fisherman as a token of gratitude for lifting a curse from him. When the rabbi bends down to inspect the gift, the carp slaps him in the face.

Although the rabbi is unperturbed, Groynem Oks, the lay leader of the Jewish community, insists that the impertinent fish be tried, convicted and punished. After seven days and nights of deliberation, the wise men of Chelm hand down a sentence of death by drowning. When the fish swims away, apparently unscathed, Oks proclaims that justice – a ban of excommunication – has been done: Why else would the fish flee to other waters? Singer adapted his story from a repertoire of well-known and beloved folk tales set in a shtetl of fools.


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