I have known Mark Binder – author, story-teller, longtime resident of Providence’s East Side – for decades. During my 33 years as rabbi of Temple Habonim, in Barrington, Binder visited a number of Sunday morning assemblies at our religious school to offer our younger students his updated take on “The Wise Men of Chelm.”
Legend has it that all the inhabitants of that particular Eastern European shtetl were more than a little meshuggeneh; they were certified fools, who actually believed that they could preserve the reflection of a full summer moon in the brine of a sealed pickle barrel and enjoy the unsealed reflection on a cold and dark winter’s night.
In contrast to these legendary fools, Binder has peopled his Chelm with men, women and children who are manifestly eccentric, but otherwise quite normal, even ordinary. As he writes in his 2019 book, “The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul,” “In Chelm they lived as anyone does. They worked and ate, learned and laughed. They made mistakes and, of course, they fell in love.”
Binder’s newly published “Winter Blessings,” which he wrote under the pen name Izzy Abrahmson, is a revision of his earlier “A Hanukkah Present.” Given the original title, it is not surprising that all of the 12 short-short stories, and the far longer “Out of the Woods,” address, in one way or another, this favorite holiday of Jewish children in the United States.
Like Binder’s other family-friendly works, these tales are spiced with humor and yet at the same time explore some delicate issues that continue to perplex Jews living in today’s America.
Like so much of Jewish humor, Binder frequently draws on food as a source of laughs. Indeed, two of the chapters, “The Lethal Latkes” and “The Challah That Ate Chelm,” are comedies about food.
The central irony of “The Lethal Latkes” is that Mrs. Chaipul, Chelm’s caterer, and a generally superb cook, is incapable of making even half-decent latkes. So the obvious problem arises: How do the townsfolk manage to dispose of pile upon pile of inedible Hanukkah potato pancakes without insulting the one and only caterer in Chelm?
“The Challah That Ate Chelm” will remind the old-timers among us of the 1958 movie, “The Blob,” starring a young Steve McQueen.
While “The Blob” in this Grade-B horror tale is a formless, ever-expanding gelatinous monster from outer space, the blob that almost ate Chelm is simply a huge blob of challah dough run amok after being infused with an unimaginably large dose of yeast: “The main street of Chelm was covered with a deep white goop. Villagers were cowering in doorways, or peering out of windows. The ooze was growing, and spreading and getting bigger still! ...
“From his bedroom, Reb Stein … looked out the window and roared, ‘Muddle! The challah has escaped! Do something!’ ”
Though the stories in “Winter Blessings” seem to be set in the Chelm of the 19th century – no electricity, no motor vehicles, no indoor plumbing – Binder addresses issues that challenge Jewish families in the multicultural America of today, especially the challenge of our everexpanding Christmas season.
Binder begins the chapter “A Present? For Chanukah?” with a precocious 5-year-old, Shmeenie, insisting to her father, Jacob, “I want a Christmas present. …
“Where did you hear about Christmas presents?
“In Smyrna … I was playing in the market with a girl named Alexandra, and she told me all about the gifts she was going to get.
“After Jacob explains to his daughter that ‘Jewish people don’t get Christmas presents,’ she responds, ‘All right. I want a Chanukah present.’
“Whereupon her father responds, ‘Chanukah is not a holiday for presents. We Jews give gifts on Purim.’ ”
I am quite sure that Binder knows that such a conversation between a father and daughter is unlikely to have occurred in Chelm, or in any other Eastern European shtetl. But by telling the story of that little girl, Shmeenie, in that faraway place, Chelm, in that distant time, 150 years go, Binder offers comforting perspective to American Jewish families that are struggling to navigate the sometimes troubled waters of every Christmas season here in the U.S., a time when our dual identities as Jews and as Americans are often stretched like a wire.
As a bonus, Binder explores, in differing ways, some deeper meanings of gift-giving – not only on Hanukkah and/or Purim, but throughout the year. He leads his readers to these fundamental questions: What is a good gift? What is a true gift?
Like all of his stories, Binder’s Hanukkah stories are simple, but not simplistic – stories to tell each other, to read to each other after a shared family meal, stories for the very young, for the not so young, for kvelling grandparents. Stories that contain at least a hint of magic.
“Winter Blessings” is available at Stillwater Books, in Pawtucket. If you can’t find it at your favorite bookstore, go to IzzyAbe.com or such online venues as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The audiobook is available at audible.com and from other audiobook websites.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.