1. Chelm, a town in eastern Poland, became the butt of Yiddish humor as the home of dimwits who could do nothing right.
2. Isaac Beshevis Singer wrote a number of Chelm Stories.
3. Robert Brustein took one of them and created a “folk musical” called Schlemiel the First, which was performed this year at Theater J.
4. In Schlemiel the First, the lead character, Schlemiel the First, is a young (and dim witted) fellow who is sent by the town elders to visit other communities and tell them how wonderful Chelm is.
5. By theatrical device, his directions get turned around and he winds up back in Chelm, thinking he is elsewhere.
6. He is surprised that the town he is visiting is also called Chelm, looks the same as his own Chelm, and even has a woman who looks like his wife and two children who look like his children. He cannot wait to return to Chelm and tell them about the other Chelm.
7. My cousin (by marriage) Ed’s family originally came from Chelm. To some extent, he says, it seemed appropriate.
8. Last weekend, I met a cousin of my cousin (by marriage) Ed, and we were talking about his (for his, you can read either my cousin (by marriage)’s or his cousin’s) family and how they came from Chelm and how funny that was, and about I.B. Singer and Robert Brustein and all that.
9. To which my cousin (by marriage)’s cousin says to me: “My grandmother didn’t come from that Chelm. She came from another Chelm, a smaller town south of Cracow.”
10. So, I say to myself, you have to be kidding? Who’s right? Was his mother simply trying to hide the shame of it all, or was she telling the truth? Did the Chelm south of Cracow look like the Chelm further north? Could Schlemiel the First have been telling the truth after all?