The Sages of Chelm and the Moon – Shlomo Abas and Omer Hoffmann, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2019
Who would not want to carry home a beautiful full moon, safely secured in a barrel, perfect for nights when the moon is only a crescent or barely visible at all? The Sages of Chelm and the Moon, by Shlomo Abas, with pictures by Omer Hoffmann, retells one of the stories about residents of the legendary town of Jewish folklore, who are not constrained by reality. In a lucid translation by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, children read expectantly about people who believe they can carry reflected light home with them, wondering if they will be bitterly disappointed when they learn they have been tricked by a venal innkeeper. They need not worry; the sages of the title are protected by an innocence which makes them vulnerable to deception, but equally prone to seeing the light in a dark situation.
Omar Hoffmann has created a fully realized town of Chelm, furnished with rustic buildings, small detailed housewares and tools, and smiling residents socializing with one another. From elderly bearded men to young children, each person has a role to play and the tools required to play it. One two-page spread introduces the class of characters: a baker holding a pan with a bird perched atop a loaf of bread, a man with a basket of eggs, a woman brandishing a rake with a puzzled looking mouse looking on. The author explains that these townspeople are “sages” because “they were supposedly very wise and intelligent.” Adults catch the irony, but children are ready to see Chelm’s wisdom in action.
As the story unfolds, young readers may begin to suspect that the sages of Chelm are neither knowledgeable nor, perhaps, even intelligent. Confused by the darkness of moonless nights, they determine to find a solution. After careful consultation, they decide to buy a moon. The picture of their conference is a vision of every ineptly conducted meeting ever attended. One man speaks dramatically, and probably interminably. Others try to get a word in, schmooze with one another, or just look confused. Off to the side, someone tries to catch a chicken about to interrupt the proceedings. They set out at night against a dark blue background, arriving at the finally at the daylight of a town whose innkeeper has the solution to their problem.
When the innkeeper generously accepts the money contributed by the people of Chelm, and packages the moon’s reflection in a barrel of water, children reading the story might experience some sadness, even fear. They can certainly relate to the idea of those with greater knowledge or experience have power over the less informed. When the moon purchasers prepare to unveil their incredible surprise to the rest of the town, a blue sea of lightly sketched figures looks towards a white circle where the exciting surprise will be revealed. Disappointment, anger, and then calm acceptance. Chelm is not a town of embittered victims, or even one of stoic resolve. Instead, they accept life and adapt with joy in “radiant nights when the moon is in sight,” and, when it’s not, they “fumble around in the darkness.” Enjoy reading this book with a child, and talking with her about the traps set by the world and the fleeting nature of light.