Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator-activist.

When COVID Came to Chelm: A Story

Jewish wedding in a Russian shtetl, featuring a Klezmer band. Painting by Isaak Asknaziy, 1893. Source:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or places — especially any place that may or may not have the name “Israel” — is purely coincidental.

Some of you may have heard of the town of Chelm before. Why, some of you may have even been there. For those of you who haven’t heard of Chelm, let me tell you what makes Chelm so special. Anyone who has ever been to Chelm will tell you that it is the most foolish town there is, that each Chelmite is more foolish than the next. The people of Chelm, however, will tell you otherwise. They will tell you that the men and women of Chelm are the wisest of all, wiser than anyone else in the world. But maybe I should tell you a story, and I’ll let you decide for yourselves…

Once there was a terrible plague that began to spread throughout the world. The people of Chelm were frightened that this awful plague would reach their town as well, so they gathered to discuss what should be done. 

One simple and not so wise Chelmite suggested that they close the roads to Chelm from nearby towns where the plague was known to be found. “That’s a terrible idea,” said another, wiser Chelmite. “If we do that, we will certainly upset our friends in those towns!” 

“I have an idea,” said another. “Let’s close all roads to Chelm so that no one will be upset.” 

And that’s precisely what they did. They closed all the roads to Chelm so that no one could come in or out. Except for one problem… What to do with the many traveling Chelmites who were now stuck outside of the town. So what do you think the wise town of Chelm did? They sent wagons to all corners of the earth to bring home all Chelmites wherever they might be found. But then the strangest thing happened when they returned… The plague arrived in the town of Chelm and even the wisest Chelmites were befuddled as to how that could have happened. And now the wise men and women of Chelm had to decide what to do to stop the plague from spreading.

“I know,” said one rather foolish Chelmite, “let’s make everyone stay in their homes and not go outside where they can catch the plague.” 

“Such a foolish idea,” said another Chelmite. “How will people live if they cannot leave their homes?” 

“I know,” replied a very young yet wise child. “Every child who has ever played the game of tag knows that the home is the safest place to be. And the closer you stay to home, the safer you will be.” The wise men and women nodded and listened with great attention as the child continued. “So let’s make a rule that every person must stay within 100 meters of their home at all times. That way, if someone is strolling outside of their home with their friends and they see the plague approaching, they can quickly run home to safety before the plague can catch them.”

And that’s exactly what they did. They made a rule that all Chelmites must stay within 100 meters of their homes at all times. Except, of course, if going to the supermarket, or the drugstore, or visiting a sick friend, or just any friend for that matter. Yet, there was an even wiser and more pious group of Chelmites who knew better than to follow such foolishness. These, of course, were the holiest Chelmites, those who spent their days studying the holy book and not wasting time on such rubbish as modern science and medicine. They knew that the best way to fight the plague was to continue studying and praying as much as possible. And even the most foolish Chelmites knew it was unwise to disturb or interfere with these most pious citizens of Chlem. 

And so it was. Many Chelmites remained in their homes — or near their homes, most of the time — while others continued about their lives, studying and praying. Sadly, however, the plague continued to spread, and many Chelmites became ill. Yet somehow a miracle occurred in the town of Chelm. Or perhaps it was no miracle but the logical result of the genius of Chelm. In either case, the rate of infection began to slow, and the leaders of the town began to discuss easing the restrictions they had imposed on the town. 

But did the wise citizens of Chelm wait for their leaders to decide? Of course not! They were so grateful that the plague had begun to dissipate that they went out to celebrate in great numbers. They filled the bars and restaurants, pubs and cafes, singing and dancing together in joy. They even held weddings, with thousands of Chelmites coming together to celebrate life and good health. 

And then the strangest thing happened. The plague began to spread yet again, this time even faster than before. The people of the town struggled as to what should be done. So they set up a council of only the wisest men of Chelm to address the problem of the plague. They made sure there were few epidemiologists on this council, because as everyone knows, epidemiologists love diseases. After all, they spend all their time studying disease! And we shouldn’t have too many lovers of disease on a council designed to combat a plague! They also made sure there were no women on this council, because why would you be so foolish as to have women in such a forum? And every day, this council put out a new set of rules and regulations, rules and regulations that were constantly changing, and sometimes even self-contradictory. 

Now why would they do a thing like that, you ask? That is, of course, because you are not from the town of Chelm and you do not understand their wisdom. The Chelmites understood very well that a plague is a very clever thing and can easily find its way around rules that are too consistent or easy to follow. But if they changed the rules every day — sometimes multiple times a day — then they knew that they had a chance of outsmarting the disease! 

Many of the rules the council issued involved the wearing of masks, because, as the wise men had heard, this new plague was terrified of masks. The wise citizens of Chelm, however, quickly figured out for themselves the wisest ways of donning masks. Some citizens realized quickly that it is difficult to speak or understand someone when wearing a mask, so they were sure to wear a mask at all times but were most diligent to lower their mask every time they spoke to someone, and certainly whenever shouting. Other Chelmites wore their masks over their mouths so that they could breathe through their noses, but made sure to keep their mouths covered at all — or most — times. The wisest Chelmites, however, wore their masks around their chins. That way they were able to scare away the disease with their masks, yet continue talking, breathing, singing, coughing and sneezing just as normal, healthy people do, in order to truly throw the plague off course. 

Yet, strangely enough, the plague continued to spread throughout the town. “We have no choice,” said the mayor, “but to close down the town again.” The townspeople agreed, yet by now they had grown even wiser, having dealt successfully with the first round of the plague. 

“I agree,” said the treasurer of town to the mayor, “but we must let people go to work. Because if people do not go to work, they will become sick.”

“Quite right,” agreed the wise mayor, “so we will let people go to work.”

“But how can people go to work,” asked the chief schoolmaster, “if their children cannot go to school?” 

“You too are quite right,” said the mayor. “We must let the children go to school.”

And so on and so forth went the conversation, until the wise men of Chelm concocted the most genius mechanism of combatting a plague. And what was that, you ask? Quite simple of course. They announced the biggest and most serious lockdown ever, with great announcements and large signs informing the terrible plague that the town was under complete, total and absolute lockdown and that the plague should stay away and should not spread under any circumstance whatsoever. And meanwhile, the citizens of Chelm continued to go about their lives as normal. This way, the people of Chelm could stay most alive, happy and healthy, while keeping the dreaded plague away. Such a genius and brilliant plan that can only be concocted in such a wise town as Chelm! 

Did it work, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned to find out.

To be continued… 

About the Author
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator and activist. Elliot is a senior educator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social change and co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.
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