There are many shlemiels in the world, but the very first one came from the city of Chelm. He had a wife, Mrs. Shlemiel, and a child, small Shlemiel, but he could not provide for them. His wife used to get up early in the morning to sell vegetables in the marketplace. Mr. Shlemiel stayed at home and rocked the baby to sleep. He also took care of the rooster who lived in the room with them, feeding him corn and water.
Mrs. Shlemiel knew that her husband was unhandy, lazy, loved to sleep, and in addition had a sweet tooth. It so happened that one night she prepared a pot full of delicious jam. The next day she worried that while she was away at the market, her husband would eat it all up. So before she left, she said to him, “Shlemiel, I’m going to the market and I will be back in the evening. There are three things that I want to tell you. Each one is very important.”
“What are they?” asked Shlemiel.
“First, make sure that the baby does not fall out of its crib.”
“Good. I will take care of the baby.”
“Secondly, don’t let the rooster get out of the house.”
“Good. The rooster won’t get out of the house.”
“Thirdly, there is a pot full of poison on the shelf. Be careful not to eat it, or you will die,” said Mrs. Shlemiel, pointing to the pot of jam she had placed high up in the cupboard.
She had decided to fool him, because she knew that once he tasted the delicious jam, he would not stop eating until the pot was empty. It was just before Chanukah, and she needed the jam to serve with the holiday pancakes.
As soon as his wife left, Shlemiel began to rock the baby and to sing him a lullaby:
I am a big Shlemiel.
You are a small Shlemiel.
When you grow up,
You will be a big Shlemiel
And I will be an old Shlemiel.
When you have children,
You will be a papa Shlemiel
And I will be a grandpa Shlemiel.
The baby soon fell asleep and Shlemiel dozed too, still rocking the cradle with his foot.
Shlemiel dreamed that he had become the richest man in Chelm. He was so rich that he could eat pancakes with jam not only on Chanukah but every day of the year. He spent all day with the other wealthy men of Chelm playing games with a golden dreidel. Shlemiel knew a trick, and whenever it was his turn to spin the dreidel, it fell on the winning “G.” He grew so famous that nobles from distant countries came to him and said, “Shlemiel, we want you to be our king.”
Shlemiel told them he did not want to be a king. But the nobles fell on their knees before him and insisted until he had to agree. They placed a crown on his head and led him to a golden throne. Mrs. Shlemiel, now a queen, no longer needed to sell vegetables in the market. She sat next to him, and they shared a huge pancake spread with jam between them. He ate from one side and she from the other until their mouths met.
As Shlemiel sat and dreamed his sweet dream the rooster suddenly started crowing. He had a very strong voice. When it came out with a cock-a-doodle-doo, it rang like a bell. Now when a bell rang in Chelm, it usually meant there was a fire. Shlemiel awakened from his dream and jumped up in fright, overturning the crib. The baby fell out and hurt its head. In his confusion, Shlemiel ran to the window and opened it to see where the fire was. The moment he opened the window, the excited rooster flew out and hopped away. Shlemiel called after him:
Rooster, you come back. If Mrs. Shlemiel finds you gone, she will rave and rant and I will never hear the end of it.
But the rooster paid no attention to Shlemiel. It didn’t even look back, and soon it had disappeared from sight.
When Shlemiel realized that there was no fire, he closed the window and went back to the crying baby, who by this time had a big bump on its forehead from the fall. With great effort Shlemiel comforted the baby, righted the crib, and put him back into it. Again he began to rock the crib and sing a song:
In my dream I was a rich Shlemiel
But awake I am a poor Shlemiel.
In my dream I ate pancakes with jam,
Awake I chew bread and onion.
In my dream I was Shlemiel the King
But awake I’m just Shlemiel.
Having finally sung the baby to sleep, Shlemiel began to worry about his troubles. He knew that when his wife returned and found the rooster gone and the baby with a bump on its head, she would be beside herself with anger. Mrs. Shlemiel had a very loud voice, and when she scolded and screamed, poor Shlemiel trembled with fear. Shlemiel could foresee that tonight, when she got home, his wife would be angrier than ever before and would berate him and call him names.
Suddenly Shlemiel said to himself, “What is the sense of such a life? I’d rather be dead.” And he decided to end his life. But how to do it? He then remembered what his wife had told him in the morning about the pot of poison that stood on the shelf. “That’s what I will do. I will poison myself. When I’m dead she can revile me as much as she likes. A dead Shlemiel does not hear when he is screamed at.”
Shlemiel was a short man and he could not reach the shelf. He got a stool, climbed up on it, took down the pot, and began to eat.
“Oh, the poison tastes sweet,” he said to himself. He had heard that some poisons have a bitter taste and others are sweet. “But,” he reasoned, “sweet poison is better than bitter,” and proceeded to finish up the jam. It tasted so good, he licked the pot clean.
After Shlemiel had finished the pot of poison, he lay down on the bed. He was sure that the poison would soon begin to burn his insides and that he would die. But half an hour passed and then an hour, and Shlemiel lay without a single pain in his belly.
“This poison works very slowly,” Shlemiel decided. He was thirsty and wanted a drink of water, but there was no water in the house. In Chelm, water had to be fetched from an outside well, and Shlemiel was too lazy to go and get it. He remembered that his wife was saving a bottle of apple cider for the holidays. Apple cider was expensive, but when a man is about to die, what is the point in saving money? Shlemiel got out the bottle of cider and drank it down to the last drop.
Now Shlemiel began to have an ache in his stomach, and he was sure that the poison had begun to work. Convinced that he was about to die, he said to himself, “It’s not really so bad to die. With such poison I wouldn’t mind dying every day.” And he dozed off.
He dreamed again that he was a king. He wore three crowns on his head, one on top of the other. Before him stood three golden pots: one filled with pancakes, one with jam, and one with apple cider. Whenever he soiled his beard with eating, a servant wiped it for him with a napkin.
Mrs. Shlemiel, the queen, sat next to him on her separate throne and said, “Of all the kings who ever ruled in Chelm, you are the greatest. The whole of Chelm pays homage to your wisdom. Fortunate is the queen of such a king. Happy is the prince who has you as a father.”
Shlemiel was awakened by the sound of the door creaking open. The room was dark and he heard his wife’s screechy voice: “Shlemiel, why didn’t you light the lamp?”
“It sounds like my wife, Mrs. Shlemiel,” Shlemiel said to himself. “But how is it possible that I hear her voice? I happen to be dead. Or can it be that the poison hasn’t worked yet and I am still alive?” He got up, his legs shaking, and saw his wife lighting the lamp.
Suddenly she began to scream at the top of her lungs: “Just look at the baby! It has a bump on its head. Shlemiel, where is the rooster, and who drank the apple cider? Woe is me! He drank up the cider! He lost the rooster and let the baby get a bump on its head. Shlemiel, what have you done?”
“Don’t scream, dear wife. I’m about to die. You will soon be a widow.”
“Die? Widow? What are you talking about? You look healthy as a horse.”
“I’ve poisoned myself,” Shlemiel replied.
“Poisoned? What do you mean?” asked Mrs. Shlemiel.
“I’ve eaten your pot full of poison.”
And Shlemiel pointed to the empty pot of jam.
“Poison?” said Mrs. Shlemiel, “That’s my pot of jam for Chanukah.”
“But you told me it was poison,” Shlemiel insisted.
“You fool,” she said. “I did that to keep you from eating it before the holiday. Now you’ve swallowed the whole potful.”
And Mrs. Shlemiel burst out crying.
Shlemiel too began to cry, but not from sorrow. He wept tears of joy that he would remain alive. The wailing of the parents woke the baby and it too began to yowl. When the neighbors heard all the crying, they came running and soon all of Chelm knew the story. The good neighbors took pity on the Shlemiels and brought them a fresh pot of jam and another bottle of apple cider. The rooster, who had gotten cold and hungry from wandering around outside, returned by himself, and the Shlemiels had a happy holiday after all.
As always in Chelm when an unusual event occurred, the Elders came together to ponder over what had happened. Seven days and seven nights they sat wrinkling their foreheads and tugging at their beards, searching for the true meaning of the incident. At the end the sages all came to the same conclusion: A wife who has a child in the cradle and a rooster to take care of should never lie to her husband and tell him that a pot of jam is a pot of poison, or that a pot of poison is a pot of jam, even if he is lazy, has a sweet tooth, and is a shlemiel in addition.