Fiction | Chelm, NJ

By | Jul 10, 2023

This story is the second place winner of the 2022 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2022 stories were judged by novelist Allegra Goodman, author of the National Book Award finalist Kaaterskill FallsMoment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Goodman and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Click here to learn how to submit a story to the contest.

One thing you really should know about the town of Chelm, NJ, is that it’s not actually called “Chelm.” The official chartered name of the town is “Chelm Township,” but nobody ever calls it that. After all, what’s a “township,” anyway? Is it a town? Is it a ship? Who ever heard of such a thing? The people of Chelm Township certainly didn’t, so they just call it “Chelm,” even in all their official documents, which makes for a lot of extra paperwork for some poor schmuck in the county office.

Yes, Chelm is in New Jersey, but it’s also right over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, where most of the well-to-do families of Chelm work. Whenever they travel to Manhattan, whether they’re commuting on a bus to Port Authority or driving in, they say they’re going to “the city,” which might seem peculiar, but is in fact an accepted practice, even in supposedly ordinary places like Brooklyn or Queens.

Some say that Chelm, NJ, was founded in the 1930s by refugees fleeing the Polish town of Chelm, a place memorialized in folktales for its foolish residents and the silly things they did. Others say that all those stories are a bunch of bubbe meises, narishkeit, nonsense. And then there are others who say “Who are you? What are you talking about? How did you get in my living room?”

Wherever they came from, one thing is for sure: The residents of Chelm, NJ, are some of the wisest and most pious Jews in the entire world. So pious, in fact, that were you to go to Chelm for shabbos, you wouldn’t be davening in the modest shul building that’s been standing there since the 1960s. Oh no, you’d be davening in someone’s slightly more modest basement.  You see, in the basement of every Jewish household in Chelm, there’s a shul. How did such a thing come to be? I’m glad you asked.

It all started when Kleinman the Investment Banker was throwing a bar mitzvah party for Stevie, his oldest son. Kleinman wanted to impress his fellow Chelmites (“Chelmites,” though a strange name, is what the people of Chelm were calling themselves back then. They’ve gone through many different names over the years. It’s a whole thing.) with his piousness and his wealth, so he hired Murray the Contractor to turn his basement into a shul. For six months, they argued over budgets and timelines and fixtures, but by the time Stevie got up to read from the Torah, Kleinman the Investment Banker’s basement had been transformed into a fully functional shul. There was a bima for Stevie to stand at and read, a mechitza separating the men’s section from the women’s, even an ark for the Torah. Sure, there weren’t rows and rows of seats and there was still an area in the back with a washer/dryer where Kleinman the Investment Banker’s wife did the laundry, but it was a shul.

The night before the bar mitzvah, Kleinman stood at the back of the shul, gazing in wonder at Murray’s work. The town was sure to be impressed. Kleinman felt no small measure of pride that the next day, he would be able to host all of Chelm in his basement, and his home would be filled with the sounds of davening and leining.

Everyone in Chelm was very impressed with Kleinman’s shul. He even convinced Rabbi Leibowitz, who usually led services at the regular shul, to come and lead davening for Stevie’s bar mitzvah. And, he cajoled Lefkowitz the Litigation Attorney, the president of the shul, into letting him borrow the shul’s sefer torah for the day. Kleinman was quite pleased with how it all turned out, and with how jealous all the other Chelmites were of his piety. At the catered luncheon he held in his enormous backyard, that was all anyone could talk about. And, of course, how great Stevie was at leining the parsha. But mostly it was about Kleinman’s shul.

In fact, Schwarzman the Heart Surgeon was so jealous that he decided to one-up Kleinman the Investment Banker by building an even nicer shul in his own basement. Late into the lunch, before benching, he went right to Murray the Contractor to discuss his plans.

“It’s amazing what you’ve done here,” he said to Murray. “This is beautiful work.”

“Thank you, Isaac,” Murray said, because Isaac was Schwarzman the Heart Surgeon’s first name.

“My son Mikey’s bar mitzvah is coming up in just a few months, did you know?”

“I didn’t know that,” Murray said. Murray didn’t pay much attention to the ages of his neighbor’s children. He mostly thought about permitting, lot dimensions and the pros and cons of hiring union versus non-union labor. “Mazel tov.”

“Do you think that you could come by my house and do something like what you did here for me? Build a shul in my basement?”

“Nicht on shabbos gerecht,” Murray said. “I don’t talk business on shabbos. But let me come over tomorrow morning. We’ll have bagels. We’ll talk.”

And that’s what they did. First thing Sunday morning, Schwarzman the Heart Surgeon picked up some bagels from Shloimy the Baker’s shop, set up a spread with lox and cream cheese in his kitchen and welcomed Murray the Contractor into his home. They talked and talked, discussing all the ways they could turn Schwarzman’s basement into the greatest basement shul Chelm had ever seen (which wasn’t particularly hard, since the only other one was in Kleinman the Investment Banker’s house).

They shook hands and the work began. Murray brought his guys in and turned the rec room in Schwarzman’s basement into a shul. He installed a bima to rival Kleinman’s, an aron for the torah, a mechitza with intricate carvings all along the top half, and even a ner talmud—a lamp representing the eternal flame—hanging in front of the aron. And this time, there was no washer/dryer. That was upstairs, on the same floor as the bedrooms. More convenient, really. No schlepping.

When Mikey’s bar mitzvah came around, Schwarzman the Heart Surgeon had the rabbi and the sefer torah in his basement for davening, and all the Chelmites were even more impressed than they were at Kleinman’s house.

“We’re even more impressed than we were at Kleinman’s house,” they said to each other during the luncheon after davening.

“Oh, and Mikey’s leining was very nice, too,” they said, remembering the real reason they were all there.

It was during that lunch that Cohen the Insurance Adjustor decided he wanted a Murray-built shul in his basement for his son’s bar mitzvah. And when Murray was finished with Cohen’s basement, Siegel the Entertainment Lawyer was so impressed he asked Murray to put a shul in his basement. On and on it went. Murray got so busy he had to hire more guys. It got to the point that he’d be driving from house to house every day, checking on the shuls that were being built in the Chelmites’ basements. Each one more impressive and ornate than the last. And each one unveiled with a grand bar mitzvah, complete with rabbi and sefer torah borrowed from the real shul. Sometimes, Chelmites would have the shuls installed even without a bar mitzvah, just to show everyone else how pious they were.

Saakashvili the Real Estate Mogul was the first one to have a menorah installed. Kaminsky the Veterinarian had hand-carved wood pews in his basement shul. Simon the Fast-food Franchisee had one of those digital signs that connects to the Internet and tells you what parsha it is, when to light candles, and when shabbos was ending and it was time to make havdalah.

Unfortunately, not all the families in Chelm had enough money to hire Murray the Contractor. Some had jobs that didn’t pay as well or hand out large year-end bonuses, like Shloimy the Baker and Daniel the Science Teacher. But they were pious too, and wanted everyone to know it. They were at a loss. And not just a monetary one.

“I’m depressed, Shloimy,” Daniel the Science Teacher said as they sat together near the pool in Bernstein the Advertising Executive’s lavish backyard after minyan one shabbos. The pool, by the way, was not part of Bernstein’s basement shul. Bernstein had been thinking about adding one for a while, and figured that if Murray was doing the work anyway, why not throw it in?

“Why is that?” Shloimy asked. “Your students whining about their low grades again?

“No, no. I mean, they are, but it’s not that. All of our neighbors are so frum. They all have such beautiful shuls in their basements and we just have ordinary secular things, like media centers and pool tables. I mean, that’s where I keep my stamp collection! How are we ever going to show the rest of Chelm how frum we are? Sure, I could shout it from the rooftops, but my voice doesn’t carry well and chances are I’d slip and fall.”

“That’s true,” Shloimy said. And it was. Everyone in Chelm knew that Daniel had a very quiet voice, which made his job as a science teacher very challenging. He was also quite clumsy, which had led to more than one fire in his classroom during chemistry demonstrations. But he was exceptional at understanding and talking about science, which is why he taught it. “If only there was some way we could make our basements as beautiful as the basements around them.”

Watching their wealthy neighbors kibitz and schmooze, Daniel and Shloimy felt quite glum. There was no way they could ever afford the sort of renovations that would compare with their neighbors, for whom money was no object. Well, technically, money was also no object for Daniel and Shloimy. It was multiple objects, kept in a bunch of different places, or, most of the time, it was a number on a computer. But you get my meaning.

Rabbi Leibowitz moved among the partiers, asking them for contributions to the shul’s annual Yom Kippur Appeal, which funded most of its expenses.

Shloimy had an idea.

“I have an idea!” he said. “You might not be able to shout from the rooftops, but I can shout from a tabletop.”

Using a chair to steady himself, Shloimy climbed on top of a nearby table.
“Fellow Chelmites!” he shouted.

Everyone stopped talking and looked at Shloimy. He took a step forward, toward the crowd. The table wobbled under his feet, but did not tip over. Bernstein the Advertising Executive’s wife grew quite anxious. She’d paid full price for the glass-top table, something she didn’t do very often.

“I want to congratulate you all on having such wonderful shuls in your basements!” Shloimy bellowed. “You’ve all demonstrated a strong devotion to Judaism and frumkeit.”

The crowd murmured happily. One person, who was a little drunk and not sure what was going on, shouted out: “Mazel tov!”

Shloimy continued.

“But there is one Chelmite who hasn’t been able to show you how pious he is. But this man—gevalt—I can’t tell you how frum he is.”

The crowd looked around, wondering who Shloimy could possibly be talking about.

“He would love to show you!” Shloimy said. “But he doesn’t have the money to build a basement shul of his own. That’s why I’d like to ask you all to chip in just a little bit of cash for the Daniel Appeal. I am collecting money to help Daniel the Science Teacher build a basement shul of his own so that everyone in Chelm knows just how frum he is.”

All the Chelmites turned to look at Daniel, who waved back.

“Thank you,” Daniel said.

But nobody heard, because his voice was so quiet.

Inspired by Shloimy, Daniel tried to climb onto a table, but he didn’t use a chair, he just swung one leg up on a glass table and tried to lift himself. It was a very bizarre and unnatural movement. He pushed again with his back leg, but he shifted he weight so oddly that he stumbled backwards and tumbled into the pool, his arms flailing everywhere. Water splashed all over the dessert tray.

The crowd laughed and laughed. Even Bernstein the Advertising Executive’s wife, who was relieved that no tables were damaged that afternoon—just the dignity of a fellow human being—chuckled at Daniel’s misfortune. Everyone in Chelm knew how clumsy Daniel was, so this was quite amusing. They were so entertained they rushed toward Shloimy the Baker and promised that as soon as shabbos was over, they’d give him the money he needed to pay Murray the Contractor to build a shul in Daniel the Science Teacher’s basement.

The Daniel Appeal was a massive success.

Rabbi Leibowitz, who hadn’t been able to collect any pledges for the Yom Kippur Appeal all day, hung his head in dejection.

As for Daniel, he was still struggling in the pool, so he had no idea what was happening. His suit was ruined, but that was fine, because during the construction, Yankl the CFO, who knew from such things, showed him how to slip a line item into the budget for a brand new one from Syms.

After Daniel the Science Teacher’s shul was completed, it wasn’t long before every Jewish family in Chelm had one in their basement.

They all held appeals. On shabbos afternoon in someone’s backyard, they’d stand up on a table and make a big announcement. They realized quickly that you didn’t get the big donations without some entertainment, so they’d have Daniel the Science Teacher try to do a difficult activity. He’d inevitably fail in a very amusing way, which would bring waves of laughter and donations. For a little while, Daniel the Science Teacher considered taking on a new career as Daniel the Pratfall Comedian, but when he realized it didn’t come with health insurance, he went right back to the classroom.

Before long, there were enough basement shuls for all the Jews in Chelm to go to a different one every week. The families with the lower-paying jobs didn’t have shuls that were as fancy as their richer neighbors, but still—they were shuls.

Once everyone had a shul, the people of Chelm didn’t need appeals to build new shuls anymore, but they had so much fun doing them that they started making up new reasons for appeals.

First, they held one big one to handle the maintenance on everyone’s basements and pay Rabbi Leibowitz a stipend (now that he was going from house to house every week), but that became a regular expense, which turned into an ongoing appeal that everyone paid into once a year. But an ongoing appeal isn’t a lot of fun.

Everyone started to miss having a big kiddush after davening every week, so they had another appeal to pay for catering to make sure they had a lot of food for the whole town. They started finding other things to make appeals for. A team of babysitters to look after the kids during davening. Janitors to clean up after kiddush so they didn’t have to spend all shabbos sweeping. Learned scholars-in-residence to come visit from other communities, spend shabbos in Chelm and give speeches nobody listened to. They’d hold meetings once a month and vote on new things to hold appeals for. It got to the point they stopped going to the regular shul completely. People would spend so much time at the basement shuls every shabbos by the time they got home, they’d say:

“It was nice to see people, but boy did davening take forever. Let’s go somewhere else next week.”

And they would. Week after week, they’d go to a different house, bringing the sefer torah with them, and have shabbos with a different family. During the construction, a bunch of families had yahrzeit boards installed in their basements—the kind with little bulbs that light up when it’s the anniversary of some dearly departed relative’s death. But they didn’t make multiple versions of the little name plaques that go on the boards, so every week, Rabbi Leibowitz would collect all the little gold plaques and screw them on at the next house.

All of this is why, if you go to Chelm for shabbos, don’t go to shul. Ask around, and find out where the minyan is meeting that week. Wherever it is, whether it’s the house of a rich family or a poor one, you’ll find all the people of Chelm davening together, filling whoever’s house it is with the harmonies of the shabbos prayers. And among them, you’ll find Kleinman, who might be a little annoyed that the davening isn’t happening at his house, but who will be proud that he started this tradition that kept all the people of Chelm davening together.

Well, almost all of them. There were enough families that a second rotating minyan was started—a hashkama minyan that met first thing in the morning. And another small group of Chelmites, dissatisfied with the way the rotating minyan was being run, started a breakaway minyan of their own. To make sure they didn’t conflict with the other minyans, they held it in the shul, which they knew would be empty every week.

Anytime anyone visits Chelm, they’re always impressed by how frum and learned everyone in Chelm is and how leibedik the davening is.

Every once in a while, though, maybe at kiddush or in the back of one of the basement shuls during the haftorah, a visitor will ask one of the Chelmites if they’d ever consider moving to another community and joining one of those old-fashioned shuls that meets in the same place every week. When they do, the answer is always the same:

“What are you, crazy? And pay for a membership?”

David Tuchman is the second place winner of the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Since 2012 he’s been working on OMGWTFBIBLE, a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible as a comedy that he’s released as a podcast. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.