Shlomo has a bunch of hens that give him eggs. But Shlomo is in the mood for milk and cheese. Now, Shlomo lives in Chelm, “that nexus of foolishness” as Kirkus reminds readers in its review of Can Hens Give Milk?, so he applies Chelmian logic: Feed the chickens grass and, like cows, they’ll produce milk.
When no milk is forthcoming, Shlomo’s daughter and the village rabbi get involved, discovering that since the hens have no udders, they are not milk hens. The rabbi offers a swap—one goat for six chickens, which gets Shlomo thinking that chances are good that a goat should lay really big eggs if fed the right diet… Here, author Joan Betty Stuchner talks about Chelm and its unique tradition.
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What is it that you think makes the Chelm stories distinctive from the long, village-of-fools tradition?
I know someone from the real Chelm in Poland. He told me that the stories all began when there were two rival yeshivas, one in Lublin and one in Chelm. They used to tell jokes at one another's expense. Somehow the jokes about Chelm became the legend. So, I think the difference between Chelm and other village-of-fools tales is that often, but not always, there's a spiritual or religious element. On the other hand, the similarity is that each folk tradition keeps the flavor of, and represents, its culture.
Many Chelm stories are so good spirited. Is there some kind of deeply human self-mockery going on in the background here?
Some of the older Chelm stories I've read are not so good spirited, but the folk tradition is not the same as the tradition of stories for children, which is more recent. It's necessary to make the traditional stories friendly to the child reader, while not weakening it or underestimating a child's sense of humor or the absurd. Even very young children have a capacity to appreciate quite sophisticated humor.
I agree with you that at the heart of Chelm stories, as we laugh at the exploits of these foolish people, we also find something familiar. And we don’t stop laughing when we consider how often we act like Chelmites, in the best tradition of poking fun at ourselves. Don't we all have dreams that are as crazy as Shlomo's “What if?”
It is not like these folks are idiots. Aren't they just pursuing a particularly innocent, if twisted, logic to its ludicrous end?
It's true that the Chelmites are not idiots. In fact, they're thinkers. This probably harks back to the yeshiva rivalry. In a yeshiva you would try to use logic to come up with answers to difficult spiritual and philosophical questions. The Chelmites are quite earnest in their pursuit of answers. It's just that they're not always in possession of all the facts. As with any shtetl, Chelm’s rabbi is the one you went to for wisdom, but his brilliance is still relative. Chelmites treat simple problems the way a scholar would treat a great problem. “How can we get milk from our hens?” as opposed to “What is the meaning of life?”
The young girl in the story, Tova, is at a charming remove from her father, applying commonsensical logic to his cockamamie notion. Is she an unusual Chelm character?
Tova is unusual in that her Chelm logic helps to solve the problem. And the rabbi uses non-Chelm logic to solve the problem, even though his pronouncement about the hens makes no sense anywhere but in Chelm. His reasoning is off, but his heart is in the right place, and that works better than brainpower.
You give an unexpected twist to the familiar Chelm tale, no?
The unexpected twist is that the problem is solved, although with Shlomo's final dream we might end up back where we started—on another journey through Chelm logic.
And you've given me an idea. What if I set a well-known fairy tale in Chelm? Hmm...
Can’t leave without mentioning the illustrations. It would have been difficult to beat Joe Weissmann’s artwork.
The flavor of Can Hens Give Milk?’s time and place was wonderfully evoked by Joe's beautiful illustrations. He perfectly blended the details of shtetl life with his quirky and colorful style, giving the world I'd re-created a new energy without sacrificing the Old World.