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Butter Side Down

An investigation into foolishness, magic, and perception from current LABA Fellow Ari Wolff.

Once upon a time, nestled deep in the meadows and Pine forests of Eastern Poland, lay a little town called Chelm. It was a magical place– the streets were filled with laughter and the houses were painted to match the brilliant wildflowers that grew randomly between the cracks in the sidewalk.

Many of the people who lived there were Jewish and possessed a unique kind of wisdom and insight with the workings of the world.

People outside the town didn’t understand the brilliant logic of the Chelmites and called them names: a pack of fools, a handful of paintbrushes with no brushes, a stack of wickless candles. People even went on to say that the creator had sent a spirit with a bag full of silly people to scatter them across the Earth, but the spirit tripped on a mountain goat and dropped all the silly people in Chelm by accident. But this was nonsense. The Chelmites knew they possessed special gifts and that other people made up these stories because they were jealous or sad.

The Chelmites were particularly talented at asking thought-provoking questions.

Why is the sky blue? What are clouds made out of?

How do bees know how to make honey?

If the earth is round, are the people on the other side falling off?

Why are blueberry muffins the best?

Why do the trees sound like they are whispering to each other at night?

Why does the sun burn its shape into our eyes if we look at it?

The Chelmites had so many important questions about the nature of human reality that they decided to form an Esteemed Counsel of Elders, electing seven of the wisest and most clever women in Chelm to govern the town and explore the answers to such questions. This is one of the tales of their investigation, exploration, and wise findings.

It should be known that although Chelm is a real place in Poland, and though these tales were passed on from grandmother to granddaughter, across city and country lines, across religious and cultural lines, across valleys and lakes, and miles of earth and stone— Chelm is really a state of mind, a way of being, an intense presence and attention to the hilarious mess of being alive.

CAPTURING THE MOON 

(adapted from “Chelm Captures the Moon,” retold by Yael Kliers and “How to Capture the Moon,” retold by Any Friedman and Meredith Johnson)

The wise people of Chelm had a particular love and reverence for the moon that rose over the village each night. They often stood out on their doorsteps, huddled in blankets, drinking lemon tea with honey, gazing at their spectacular moon. They were obsessed. Some nights the moon looked like a fresh cut fingernail, glowing silver in the sky. Other nights, the moon blazed down on them like a giant wheel of cheddar cheese.

The Esteemed Counsel of Elders loved to discuss what the moon looked like:

“Tonight the moon is like a fat croissant!”

“No! The moon is clearly a damaged banana tonight on this fine eve.”

“Really?! I think it is like the yellow smile of an elderly woman.”

Or on nights when the moon was full:

“It’s like a gleaming silver doorknob!”

“A toppingless pizza!”

“The moon is a great melon, watching over us all.”

But one night a month, they noticed, Chelm was moonless. The wise women stood outside their homes shivering.

“The moon is like a dream.”

“The moon is like my husband’s bank account.”

 “It’s like the center of a bagel!”

Finally, one night, one young woman, Sariya, lost her patience. “We adore the moon. We praise it every night, it’s so lovely up there. Why does it do this to us every month? Where does it disappear to?”

As Sariya was asking these questions, a small child had wondered up to the two friends, but they were so engrossed in conversation they didn’t notice.

“That is an excellent question,” said Alya. “We’ve been so good to the moon. Why does it always ghost us?”

“Literally. We can’t see when the moon disappears! I nearly wandered into someone else’s house last month, thinking it was mine because there was no moon to light the path.”

“Come back, MOON!” yelled the small child. Alya and Sariya turned to look at the child and then at each other.

“The moon is bad at listening,” said the child.

“Anyway… We should probably bring this to the Esteemed Counsel of Elders,” said Sariya. “They’ll know what to do.”

The three rushed to Inbar’s house, where the Elders were often found sipping lavender-infused Vodka and discussing the days’ news.

~

Sariya banged on the door.

“Counsel? Um, we have an inquiry of great importance.”

Inbar’s house was filled stacked with brightly-colored objects— baskets, buttons, blankets, mugs, books— all smooshed into cabinets or half-hanging out.

The three young people stood in the doorway, overwhelmed.

“Come in children. Let’s hear it.”

“The moon disappears one night a month and we’re tired of it. The people of Chelm love the moon and we need it.”

The Elders groaned and nodded to each other in agreement.

“The moon is in a time out for being bad at listening!”

“Who is this child?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes, well, regardless, this is an important dilemma that you have raised. And what do you suggest we do about it?”

“That’s why we came to you…” said Alya, under her breath.

“Excuse me?”

“Beautiful button collection!” said Alya.

“Capture the moon!” yelled the child.

“Actually,” started Elba, one of the wise women who had been quietly sipping and enjoying watching the scene unfold, “that is not such a bad idea. If we capture it full, we can let it out, huge and radiant, every night.”

“YES,” said the child.

“But how do you suggest we go about such an endeavor?” asked Elba.

The child shrugged. Alya and Sariya shrugged.

“Very well then. Return in the morning to share your ideas.”

With that, the child and two girls were escorted out of Inbar’s house. They stayed up all night brainstorming and eating potato chips. It wasn’t until 4am that Sariya came up with a brilliant idea.

~

“Ms. Berman has a barrel outside her home that is filled with rain water,” Sariya began to the Elders, unraveling a chart she had scribbled out. “ The moon visits—”

“Why exactly does Ms. Berman have a barrel collecting rain water outside her home?” asked Inbar.

“She sprinkles it on herself when she’s sad so she feels like the weather matches her mood. Anyhow, the moon visits the barrel and—”

“Does that work for her? To get rid of the sadness?”

“I’m not sure? She keeps doing it.”

“Well that doesn’t mean anything. Do get to your point, dear.”

“The moon visits the barrel of water each time it is in the sky. My proposal, demonstrated here in Exhibit C,” Sariya said, pointing to her chart, “is that we wait until the moon is full and as soon as we see it the barrel, we slide something heavy over it and capture the moon!”

“HAHAH!” cackled the child in support. 

The Elders exchanged raised eyebrows, setting down their cups of lemon tea, and eventually nodded in unison.

~

The night of the full moon couldn’t come quickly enough. On that evening, all of the Elders and children gathered around Ms. Berman’s house. Their chit chatting became so loud, even old Ms. Berman came out of her house.

“What are you all doing out here so late?” asked Ms. Berman, sticking her head out a window. “I haven’t seen this many people on the street since Mr. Finklestein’s cat went missing!”

“We are here to capture the moon!” yelled the child.

“In your barrel of water, where it visits each month,” added Sariya.

“Very well then, carry on,” said Ms. Berman slamming the window shut.

The crowd waited until the sun stripped its light from the sky and the moon began to rise over the Piney hills. Finally, as Sariya had promised, it appeared in the barrel.

“Now!” yelled the child. Two of the strongest elders lifted a large flat rock and placed it on top of the barrel. The crowd cheered.

“It is an incredible thing that we have accomplished, ladies,” said Inbar, as if she had done more than just drink that night, “It’s time to celebrate!!!”

The women brought out their instruments and played them while the children danced joyfully. A snow began to fall over Chelm but no one even felt a bit cold.

The next evening, the women gathered around the barrel.

“We should probably let the moon know that we mean no harm,” said Alya, “and we’ve only captured it because we love and need it so!”

When the women removed the rock, they were shocked to discover that the moon had disappeared.

“NOOOOOOOO” shrieked the child.

“I don’t understand,” said Sariya. “It was here just last night.”

“Maybe it’s floated down to the bottom?”

“I’ll find it!” said the child, climbing and splashing into the barrel before anyone could say a word.

The child disappeared into the barrel and a few bubbles emerged.

“NO MOON!” screamed the child, gasping for air and heaving out of the barrel.

“I believe,” Inbar said, breathing in slowly, “the moon has dissolved. By no fault of our own, we did not consider that the moon may be melted by water.”

The group murmured in agreement and disappointment.

“Leave me and my barrel of tears alone!” yelled Ms. Berman.

The child, who had been wrapped in a wool blanket to keep from catching cold, got up suddenly and ran toward a small cottage at the foot of a nearby hill. 

“We can toast to the moon’s great escape at my house” said Inbar. “And to the cleverness of the wise people of Chelm!”

~

“Through adapting stories from the Yiddish folklore, the Fools of Chelm, I am attempting to reimagine the characters in these stories as people I can connect with. The tale remains true in its narrative arc, however the characters have been invented and revised to envision Chelm as a poetry-infused, matriarchal society.” — LABA Fellow Ari Wolff




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