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  YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  THE WISE MEN OF CHELM                                                 

THE WISE MEN OF CHELM1, by Aaron Zeitlin

(Yiddish: Khelmer khachamim)


"The Wise Men of Chelm" is a folk comedy in two parts and thirteen scenes by Aaron Zeitlin. The play opened on 17 October 1933 at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 189 2nd Avenue (at 12th Street) in New York City. It was directed by Maurice Schwartz; settings by Robert Van Rosen and A. Chertov; music by L. Koutzen; the dances arranged by Lillian Shapiro. The 1933-34 season was the fifteenth year of the Yiddish Art Theatre.

About the season A. H. Beilin writes: "In the year 1933 Schwartz astonished with his production of 'The Wise Men of Chelm' by Aaron Zeitlin. The Yiddish press was excited and deeply praised the production. Schwartz's work, both his acting as well as his directing, and truly was a great achievement. The play, however, did not have any success."


photo: Maurice Schwartz, as Yosef Loksh, rabbi of Chelm.

"The stupidity which English folklore ascribes to the inhabitants of the village of Gotham, in Nottinghamshire, England, Jewish folklore ascribes to the inhabitants of the town of Chelm, in the province of Lublin, Poland. The simplicity of the Chelmers and their prodigious feats of folly are celebrated in song and story, wherein the East European Jew gives free rein to his genius for mythmaking and racy, Rabelaisian humor. It is in this ancient Jewish community that our author places the scene of his dramatic extravaganza, in which the attempt of the Angel of Death to abolish mortality among men is baffled by the pudding-head, of Chelm, who of course typify the obtuseness of the whole human race. Aaron Zeitlin, the author of this rollicking, riotous play, is a Hebrew and Yiddish litterateur of Poland. He is the eldest son of the noted Hebrew essayist, Hillel Zeitlin."

photo: Scene from "The Wise Men of Chelm," with Anna Appel, Maurice Schwartz and Julius Adler.

The cast of this Yiddish Art Theatre production included:

Julius Adler, Wolf Goldfaden, Michael Rosenberg, Isaac Rothblum, Eli Mintz, Lazar Freed, Saul Krause, Maurice Schwartz, Anna Appel, Rosetta Bialis, Judith Abarbanel, Isaac Swerdloff, Izidore Casher, Morris Strassberg, Anatole Winogradoff, Reuben Wendorf, Morris Silberkasten, Helen Zelinskaya, B. Morris, S. Pincus and G. Michael.

Brody Minstrels: Wolf Mercur (Zanvel), Issac Swerdloff (Yossel), P. Sherman (Yudel), M. Belavsky (Carl), Robert Harris (Yankel), Yascha Rosenthal (Motye), Michael Gibson (Zalman), Albert Stone (Moyshe), S. Krause (Moyse Mordecai). Temerel, widow of Getzele (Judith Abarbanel), Wedding Bard (Isaac Swerdloff), First Angel (Izidore Casher), Prosecuting Angel (Morris Strassberg), Archangel (A. Winagradoff), A woman (Leah Naomi), A cobbler (M. Rosen), His wife (Liza Varon), A shopkeeper (H. Robert), A woman (Ida Garber), A cook (Clara Deutschman), A washer woman (Mrs. Wendorf), A woman of importance (Nina Herzen), Ritual Barber (Mrs. Goldberg), Old maid (R. Zlatkin).

Hobgoblins: Charlotte Goldstein, Ben Basenko, Helen Appel, Lily Caplan, Valma Saff, Estel Cummins, Elaine Basil, Clara Landay, Harold Miller, Benjamin Fishbein.

Heavenly Judges: S. Eisenberg, B. Trachtenberg, B. Bassin, N. Malkin, S. Zeiden, S. Leon, M. Feuer, S. Cohn. Ballet of Angels: Charlotte Goldstein, Helen Appel, Lily Caplan, Velma Seff, Estelle Cummins, Elaine Barzel, Clara Landay, Harold Miller.

Townspeople: S. Steinfeld, M. Nachman, I. Steinberg, Moses Federman, B. Wortsman, Jacob Fine, Abraham Ginsburg, M. Osherman, P. Weisman, I. Weisman, B. Gendelman, M. Greenblatt, B. Abramowitz, F. Fogel, S. Teichman. Ben Zion Katz, Stage Manager.

So then, here is the synopsis of Zeitlin's "The Wise Men of Chelm". The name of the actor who portrayed the particular role is in parentheses:



Scene One: The lowest floor or level of heaven, where the thousand-eyed Angel of Death (Julius Adler) and Smangloff (Wolf Goldfaden), the Angel of Birth, have their headquarters. Hither the souls of newly deceased persons are brought by the Angel of Death and his helpers, the hobgoblins (Michael Rosenberg Isaac Rothblum and Eli Mintz) and turned over to Smangloff, who casts them into a blazing furnace, where they are purged of their earthly grossness and made ready for reincarnation in those about to be born. The Angel of Death, touched by the suffering and sorrow he causes mankind, and the odium he thereby incurs, sickens of his trade; but Smangloff argues that without deaths there could be no births, since there would be no souls for those who are to be born. One day the Angel of Death brings in a very small catch -- just ten souls -- being those of the famed Brody Minstrels (Wolf Mercur, Issac Swerdloff, P. Sherman, M. Belavsky, Robert Harris, Yascha Rosenthal, Michael Gibson, Albert Stone, S. Krause), who were drowned on the way back from a wedding feast at which they had entertained the guests with songs and merry quips. Among them is the fiddler of the troupe, Getzele (Lazar Freed) of Chelm, still clinging to his fiddle and grieving for his bride of a few months, the young and beautiful Temerel (Judith Abarbanel). He consoles himself with the thought that his twin brother Yossele (Lazar Freed), who is also a fiddler, will marry Temerel, in accordance with the biblical law of the levirate (yibbum), whereby a man is obligated to marry the widow of his brother if the latter dies childless. (cf. Deuteronomy, xxv, 5,6) The Angel of Death is loath to give up these ten, especially Getzele, whom he detains. At his request, Getzele sings for him the song he used to sing to Temerel back in Chelm. Waxing sentimental, the Angel of Death decides to descend to earth, become a man, and marry Temerel, thereby making mankind immortal. 

Scene Two: A street in Chelm. Ten burghers appear and sing of the wonders of their city and the wisdom of its people, especially of their rabbi, Yossel Loksh (Maurice Schwartz). (Losh, literally noodle, is the Yiddish equivalent for puddinghead.)

Scene Three: Rabbi Loksh, feeling he is about to die, is writing his last will and testament for the edification of future generations. Two culprits are brought in, a melamed (elementary Hebrew teacher) (Morris Silberkasten) and his wife (Helen Zelinskaya), caught in the indecent act of rolling downhill together in a wheeling trunk in broad daylight. The teacher explains it was all an accident; he quarreled with his wife because she had refused to bake him some cookies, and in the course of the quarrel they lost their balance and fell into the wheeling trunk, which, as the town is situated on top of a hill, proceeded to roll down. Thereupon the Rabbi decrees that hereafter no teacher may eat cookies, or keep a wheeling trunk, or quarrel with his wife. No sooner is he through with this case than a delegation of three leading citizens arrives to seek his advice in a serious situation: A wagoner, hauling a long log, got stuck in a narrow street, which has been blocked for three days as a result; what to do? The Rabbi sagely advises them to demolish the houses on both sides of the street. The delegation departs, full of admiration for the Rabbi's sagacity. Azriel Deutsch (Julius Adler), who is none other than the Angel of Death disguised as a wealthy merchant from Danzig, is ushered in, followed by everybody in town. The Rabbi would like to converse with the stranger about world affairs, but the Rebbetzin (the Rabbi's wife) (Anna Appel), who irreverently curses her reverend spouse in the juiciest Elizabethan Yiddish, is of a more practical turn of mind. Learning that the newcomer is single as well as rich, she tries to capture him for her ugly and half-witted daughter Grintche (Roseta Bialis); but Azriel remains deaf to this and other matrimonial matches proposed to him. He announces that he is going to settle in Chelm and support the poor of the town. The marriage offers are redoubled, but ignoring them all, he sends for Temerel and tells her about the death of her long missing husband Getzele. Incredulous at first but convinced at last, she declares her intention to die, too. Azriel assures her that from now on nobody is going to die. This arouses universal rejoicing.

Scene Four: In the market place. The jubilant townspeople, led by the Rabbi and Azriel, are marching to the synagogue to offer thanks for their deliverance from the dread Angel of Death. Grintche stops her father and asks him a question in ritual law which shows her to be a chip off the old block. The town beadle (Reuben Wendorf) arrives with Temerel, who has been sent for by Azriel. The latter tells her that Getzele before he died, asked him to marry her, and by way of proof gives her a sign which was known only to Getzele and her. He also assumes the very mien and voice of Getzele and sings her the song her husband used to sing for her alone. Startled and captivated, she consents to marry Azriel. At this point Yekum Purkan (Michael Rosenberg), the chief of the hobgoblins who has been sent to earth to frustrate the plans of the Angel of Death and to force him to return to his duties, arrives, disguised as a man from the neighboring town of Gritza. He reports that the beggars who make their home in the cemetery, and who live on the alms given by mourners, are up in arms because the abolition of death threatens to rob them of their livelihoods; he also doubts the desirability of life everlasting. He is shouted down by the Chelmers, who have no use for the people of Gritza anyhow. The Rabbi tells the people to proceed to the synagogue for the thanksgiving celebration, but Azriel, announcing his betrothal to Temerel, bids them postpone the celebration until after his wedding.  


Scene One: At Azriel's urgent pleas, Yossele, twin brother of Getzele, has come from his home in Odessa to Chelm and submitted to the rite of halitzah which absolves a man from the duty of marrying the widow of his childless brother and leaves her free to marry some one else. But his brother Getzele has repeatedly appeared to him in dreams and urged him to marry Temerel. And so he would like to break his engagement to an Odessa girl and fulfill his brother's wish. Atriel appears to him in a dream and frightens him with threats of arrest for breach of promise. Yekum Purkan then appears to him, makes light of these threats, and exhorts Yossele to marry Temerel, whom he loves, instead of the Odessa girl, whom he doesn't.

Scene Two: Grintche, sitting alone in the courtyard of the synagogue on the eve of Temerel's marriage to Azriel, bewails her sad lot; every girl is getting married except her. Yekum Purkan, who steals in upon her, expresses his sympathy, but backs away when she asks him to marry her. The nuptials or Azriel and Temerel are solemnized in the open air, in the presence of all the townspeople, who, however, do not disperse, but remain for another ceremony known as the Blessing of the New Moon. As however the skies are overcast, a messenger, who once saw the reflection of the moon in an open barrel of wine while fetching it from a neighboring city, is sent forth to fetch another barrel of wine, with instructions to capture and imprison the new moon by clapping on the lid, and to bring it to Chelm, so that the Jews may bless it. The messenger returns, but when he raises the lid, the moon is not there. Thereupon the wily Yekum Purkan produces a brand new moon from his pocket, and invites Azriel to get upon the barrel and hold it up high for the ceremony. Azriel declines, and the Rabbi volunteers for the job. In the middle of the ceremony, the moon flies away and the Rabbi barely escapes being carried off. Yekum Purkan demands reimbursement for the loss of his moon, and by way of compensation he is, at his own suggestion, appointed keeper of the ritual bath, to which women repair monthly for their purifications. Suddenly the lights go out, being extinguished by the inrush of a horde of hobgoblins. The people flee in terror, but Azriel tells Temerel not to be afraid; and, despite every obstacle placed in his way by Yekum Purkan and his minions, he carries her off to the house he has built for her.

Scene Three: Azriel's triumph is short-lived. Every night hobgoblins and imps appear before his house and disturb his and Temerel's rest. Beggars and cripples stage protest demonstrations in front of his house, complaining that, thanks to him, they are doomed to everlasting poverty and suffering. And from his strategic position as keeper of the mikweh, Yekum Purkan inveighs to the women against Azriel, pointing out that ever since he abolished the ancient and honorable institution of dying, no babies have been born in the town, thereby depriving the women of their greatest joy in life. Finally, he incites them to steal away from their connubial beds in the dead of night and to foregather near Azriel's house. They are soon missed, and terrified husbands come running from all sides to find their wives and to implore them to return home. But the women, egged on by Yekum Purkan, refuse to go back unless the natural order of things, under which there are birth and death, is restored. Azriel and Temerel are routed out of bed, and the people demand that he take back the baneful gift of immortality. When he refuses, they threaten to excommunicate him. Disgusted by the incorrigible folly of mankind, he decides to go back to heaven and resume his duties as Angel of Death, leaving humanity to die at will. He accepts Yekum Putkan's offer of a pair of wings, and taking Temerel with him, the three of them fly to heaven. Yossele rushes in, having just returned from Odessa with a paper showing that his fiancée has released him from his engagement to her; but now Temerel is gene.   


Scene Four: Arrived in heaven, Azriel is placed on trial, charged with having deserted his post and acted contrary to the will of God. The spirit of Getzele, summoned as a witness for the prosecution, testifies that he expressly requested the Angel of Death to seek out his brother Yossele and tell him that it was the deceased Getzele's wish that he marry Temerel. The penalty imposed upon the disobedient angel is that he be deprived of Temerel, who is to go back to earth and marry Yossele. Instead of being permitted to return forthwith, Temerel is detained for a while by the judges, who show only too plainly that, like the Angel of Death, they are not above human frailty. After she departs, an Archangel appears and proclaims that the Angel of Death is to be exalted above his self-righteous judges, because he at least dared to ask questions and tried to get at the bottom of things, while they, in their smugness and complacency, remained silent, never reasoning why, never challenging the established order of the universe.

Scene Five: Back in Chelm. Temerel, upon alighting in the marketplace, is surrounded by women, who shower her with questions about heaven. The news of her miraculous return spreads quickly, and soon the whole town turns out to see her. Among those arriving are the Rabbi and Yossele, Temerel tells her brother-in-law that Getzele bade her marry none but him, whereupon Yossele sings to her the song with which Getzele used to regale her. The Rabbi orders a public celebration in honor of the miracles and wonders Chelm has just witnessed. 

1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "The Wise Men of Chelm,"  Introductory notes, 1933. Courtesy of YIVO. 


Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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