If your children love either Isaac Singer or Chelm, look no further than these seven tales. They will treasure the book always, because, as Singer noted in the Foreword to this 1966 volume, "In stories time does not vanish. Neither do men and animals. For the writer and his readers the creatures go on living forever. What happened a long time ago is still present." Singer dedicated the stories to "children who had no chance to grow up because of stupid wars and cruel persecutions" and hoped readers would grow into men and women who "love not only their own children but all good children everywhere." It's hard to imagine otherwise.
The book opens with a tale called "Fool's Paradise," in which Atzel, the son of Kadish grew up with an unheard of disease: He thought himself dead. Lazy by nature, he did nothing at all. His parents tried everything, and finally consulted Dr. Yoetz. After telling his parents to prepare a darkened room to look like paradise, with white satin sheets, the good physician came to examine the young man and pronounced him "dead."
Delighted with this outcome, Atzel regained his appetite and energy, and remained animated until the next day. When exactly the same food was brought to him a winged angel told him, "In paradise, my lord, one always eats the same food." On asking the time of day, he was told "In paradise there is neither day nor night."
Atzel could not meet with anyone, do anything, see his parents or his beloved, whom he was told was mourning him but would meet another young man and marry him instead. "That's how it is with the living." After eight days, Atzel began to see the value of living. He would rather chop wood and carry stones than stay in paradise, and would rather kill himself than stay there forever. At that point, Dr. Yoetz told Atzel he was not dead after all. Upon returning to the land of the living, Atzel married his beloved and became one of the most industrious and productive souls in the region. (Many souls now seeking paradise could benefit from this story.)
Not all Singer's fools lived in paradise. Some lived in Chelm, the village of idiots young and old. When it snowed on Hanukkah once, all of Chelm glittered like a silver tablecloth. The moon shone; the stars twinkled; the snow shimmered like pearls and diamonds. And the Elders of Chelm believed that a treasure had fallen from the sky. Rather than trample it, they planned to send a messenger to all the houses to tell the people to stay indoors until the treasure could be harvested. But how could the messenger tell them without himself destroying their riches? Suffice it to say the Chelmnicks ended no richer than they began, but for the laughter they provided to outsiders peering in through Singer's window.
My favorite story, though, is not funny at all. In Zlateh the Goat, the last and title tale, Rueven instructed his son Aaron to take his pet to the butcher to pay for the struggling family's Hanukkah celebrations. Heartbroken, the boy nevertheless heeded his father and set out, only to be overtaken by a snowstorm. I cannot tell what happened, except to say that the tale warms hearts to the core.
--- Alyssa A. Lappen