Bob Schwartz

Are We the Fools of Chelm?

In the legendary town of Chelm, the men are fools who think they are wise.

Chelm is actually a real town in Poland, a city of around sixty-seven thousand today. Ruth von Bernuth writes in How the Wise Men Got to Chelm:

Chelm has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.

There are many Chelm stories, most famously retold by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had an affinity for these “wise men.” His story The Elders of Chelm & Genendel’s Key begins:

It was known that the village of Chelm was ruled by the head of the community council and the elders, all fools. The name of the head was Gronam Ox. The elders were Dopey Lekisch, Zeinvel Ninny, Treitel Fool, Sender Donkey, Shmendrick Numskull, and Feivel Thickwit. Gronam Ox was the oldest. He had a curly white beard and a high, bulging forehead.

Since Gronam had a large house, the elders usually met there. Every now and then Gronam’s first wife, Genendel, brought them refreshments—tea, cakes, and jam.

Gronam would have been a happy man except for the fact that each time the elders left, Genendel would reproach him for speaking nonsense. In her opinion her highly respected husband was a simpleton.

Once, after such a quarrel, Gronam said to his wife, “What is the sense in nagging me after the elders have gone? In the future, whenever you hear me saying something silly, come into the room and let me know. I will immediately change the subject.”

Genendel thought a moment and suddenly exclaimed, “I have it.”

“Well?”

“When you say something silly, I will come in and hand you the key to our strongbox. Then you’ll know you’ve been talking like a fool.”

“When you say something silly, I will come in and hand you the key to our strongbox. Then you’ll know you’ve been talking like a fool.”

Gronam was so delighted with his wife’s idea that he clapped his hands. “Near me, you too become clever.”

Soon a problem arose requiring Gronam’s wisdom:

A few days later the elders met in Gronam’s house. The subject under discussion was the coming Pentecost, a holiday when a lot of sour cream is needed to eat with blintzes. That year there was a scarcity of sour cream. It had been a dry spring and the cows gave little milk.

The elders pulled at their beards and rubbed their foreheads, signs that their brains were hard at work. But none of them could figure out how to get enough sour cream for the holiday.

Suddenly Gronam pounded on the table with his fist and called out, “I have it!”

“What is it?”

“Let us make a law that water is to be called sour cream and sour cream is to be called water. Since there is plenty of water in the wells of Chelm, each housewife will have a full barrel of sour cream.”

“What a wonderful idea,” cried Sender Donkey.

“A stroke of genius,” shrieked Zeinvel Ninny.

“Only Gronam Ox could think of something so brilliant,” Dopey Lekisch proclaimed.

Treitel Fool, Shmendrick Numskull, and Feivel Thickwit all agreed. Feivel Thickwit, the community scribe, took out pen and parchment and set down the new law. From that day on, water was to be called sour cream and sour cream, water.

Of course:

That Pentecost there was no lack of “sour cream” in Chelm, but some housewives complained that there was a lack of “water.” But this was an entirely new problem, to be solved after the holiday.

Gronam Ox became famous all over the world as the sage who—by passing a law—gave Chelm a whole river and many wells full of sour cream.

Are we fools like the wise men of Chelm? We are if our confidence in our wisdom precludes the possibility of our foolishness. We laugh at the absurdity of proclaiming water to be sour cream and at those who foolishly agree. We need enough humility and doubt to avoid being a laughingstock or worse. We need someone to hand us a key when we have been talking like a fool.

The Whitefish from Brooklyn

The Whitefish from Brooklyn

The whitefish came from Brooklyn
(of course first from the sea)
where it was (dead already)
lost in a fog of hardwood smoke.

Golden skin head tail and especially eyes
I pulled delicious flesh from bones
(bones once essential for it
now objectionable to me).
It may not have gone to heaven
I am there as it sits on the plate.
May its memory be a blessing.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Note: For some reason sensitive about such things, I contemplated whether or how to illustrate this poem. Pescatarians would be okay, but what about vegetarians and vegans? Considered were photos of a live fish or even a Canadian stamp. But the poem itself is about my carefully dissecting a caught and processed fish, so I might as well not post it at all. Which I have, and have pictured the package. Difficult waters to navigate.

Spring (Remember What)

Spring (Remember What)

Vivaldi and the birds of spring
made me forget everything
remember all I didn’t know
and need

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

Ukraine: The first casualty of war can also be realism

It is often said, correctly, that the first casualty of war is truth.

A corollary, understandably, is that the first casualty can also be realism.

Understandably, because war is also a spiritual exercise, fueled by a mix of faith, ideology, desire, courage and hope. Those are not unrelated to realism. But depending on people and circumstances, they operate on a different plane.

Hearing often that Putin’s Ukraine invasion has not so far met his expectations, a realistic question is, in the event, what will he do? So a hopeful and uplifting answer is that the now renowned valor of Ukraine will slow him so much that he stops, and then withdraws. A realistic answer may be that if he is willing to have his people and his country bear the pain, in a head-to-head with Ukraine, even with Western resources added, Russia has an overwhelming advantage.

Hearing that the Russian people will rise up and depose Putin, the heart cautiously swells with that possibility (cautiously, because one never knows when one devil may replace another). Realistically, a tyrant who has spent decades honing his skills as a vicious top dog autocrat, and building an enforcement machine, will not be toppled so quickly.

Hearing that Putin is a war criminal, based on what we have already seen and are likely to yet see, is precise. And realistically beside the point. The label will have no current effect, and if Putin is the desperate and irrational animal some say, it may even make things worse, but in any case no better. The West continues to confuse, sometimes deliberately, rhetoric with action.

Is realism the opposite of hope? Can they coexist? They can and should coexist in appropriate measure. Too much realism can be dispiriting. Too little realism can prevent needed action. For the sake of Ukraine, let’s hope the leaders and talking heads know and respect the difference.

© 2022 Bob Schwartz

“Arms against a sea of troubles”: Hamlet moment for Western leaders and Ukraine

Western leaders and politicians are torn and vacillating about how deeply to intervene in Ukraine.

In his speech to British Parliament this week, Zelensky chose words from Hamlet to describe the desperate existential situation for Ukraine: “To be or not to be.”

The genius of Shakespeare, why he has lasted so long in culture, is his ability to crystalize human experience and history. That phrase is the opening of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquys. Hamlet weighs the ultimate choice between suffering and suicide. It begins:


To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.


Though they don’t often earn it, this is one of the times Western leaders and politicians deserve a little of our sympathy. Whether it is an offer of arms, a no-fly zone, or troops on the ground, the potential consequence of intervention is dire—and politically controversial. The failure to do more has its own consequence, more likely than potential, of Ukraine’s bold resistance falling in the face of vastly superior Russian power. It is existential.

If this play ends well, Russia will eventually be exhausted without the West taking extreme military measures. If it ends badly, without that intervention, Russia will continue its scorched earth terrorism, leaving little of Ukraine that existed just weeks ago. In that case, we, those leaders and politicians, all of us, will replay the decisions made now. Except that this is no play.

Glory to Ukraine.

Grand Illusion: Are the 42 million Ukrainians (non-NATO) less worthy to save than the 1.3 million Estonians (NATO)?

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is an invitation-only membership alliance that includes 30 nations, big and small. It expanded after the fall of the Soviet Union to include many former Soviet states, including Estonia. But not Ukraine.

The NATO mutual defense provision is Article 5: an attack on one is an attack on all. However, Article 5 is often not fully understood. To reach its mutual defense mechanism, which is not automatic, all member nations must agree to invoke it, and then each member nation may decide how much, if at all, they want to be involved.

There is one way of looking at NATO as a solemn solid inviolable bargain. But the conditions attached to Article 5 indicate that it is a little porous and open. Not to disrespect a valuable tool of global freedom, but a little bit of “only if you feel that you can or should.”

All of which brings us to the distinction between letter and spirit. The letter of NATO is pretty clear. If you are in it you get the benefits and responsibilities (such as “tell us if you are willing to fight or not”). The spirit, of course is much bigger. NATO was established in the wake of World War II, to assure a stance of “never again” will we stand down, always again will we stand up, when lives and freedom are threatened.

With absolutely no disrespect to Estonia, it has made a very favorable deal. If even one Russian soldier crossed its border and committed one act of war, Article 5 would be considered (maybe invoked, see above), and the integrity of its territory and the lives of its 1.3 citizens would be protected by the most powerful armies in the world.

For three weeks, the integrity of Ukraine and the freedom of its 42 million people has been under attack, attacks that will not soon end. Yet expert statecraft and realpolitik have been dictating that NATO need not be directly involved, should not be directly involved.

In 1937 Jean Renoir made the film Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), on all best of all time lists, including best anti-war movie. World War I was a fresh memory, the foundation of World War II was being laid. These borders, these nationalities, are all grand illusions that we embrace but only lead us farther away from the primacy of our humanity.

It may be that one small free nation deserves the full force of military might, while another much, much bigger nation, because it sits on the other side of the NATO border, deserves all the non-military help we can muster, including our spiritual support, but is going to be left to fend for itself. That is a grand, and ultimately tragic, illusion.

Sacrificing Ukraine to avoid greater conflict. How does the lamb feel?

The West is sacrificing Ukraine to avoid escalation and broadening conflict. Which is not an unworthy goal.

But if the goal is clear—Western leaders stressing the imminence of World War III—the price, the sacrifice, is not always so boldly and loudly articulated. What I call the Morning After.

We don’t know when the Morning After in Ukraine arrives or exactly what it looks like. The world is uplifted, and Putin appears to be surprised, by the resistance. It is floated that even when the Russians succeed in their occupation, resistance will continue, making it painful for Putin to keep hold of Ukraine, just as the sanctions have made it painful.

Painful as it may be to Russia, it will take and keep hold of Ukraine. It will continue to pursue deadly, frightening and inhumane means to succeed. Maybe Putin will use Ukraine as a bargaining chip, which bargains the West will categorically refuse. Or maybe Putin will just revel in having won a big victory, expanding the Russian footprint by adding (in his view taking back) Europe’s biggest territory. Millions of Ukrainians will be refugees, millions more will be terrified, thousands will be dead and injured, and cities will be devastated and demolished. With Putin as leader and his puppets in place.

Maybe that won’t be the Morning After. Maybe the internal resistance and external sanctions and isolation will convince Putin to withdraw. But don’t bet on it. And if that is roughly the Morning After, what will the conversations be like? Will the Western leaders ruefully agree that it tragically had to be this way so that the worse—the worst—could be avoided? Will Ukrainians feel honored to have been the sacrifice that possibly prevented World War III? How does the lamb feel?

What the useless ban on importing Russian vodka tells us about our love of feckless rhetoric and symbolism


Bloomberg:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shifting vodka sales in the U.S., despite the fact that little Russian-made vodka is actually sold outside of Russia.

Some stores or consumers have been dumping brands with Russian-sounding names. But only around 14% of global vodka volume is produced in Russia, and almost all of that is sold in Russia, according to market-research firm IWSR. Worldwide vodka sales totaled $75.7 billion in 2020, according to GlobalData, another research firm.

“Many vodka brands that trace their origin to Russia are actually no longer produced in Russia, so boycotts of those brands do very little to impact Russian businesses,” said Brandy Rand, chief operating officer of the Americas at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “In 2020, less than 1% of vodka volume in the U.S. was from brands produced in Russia.”


Every little bit of sanction pain counts. Millions here, millions there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money…and discomfort.

Regarding Ukraine, though, we remain caught in a web of rhetoric, symbolism and virtue that makes us feel better, demonstrates spiritual solidarity, but may accomplish little. Not that avoiding and banning Russian vodka is not something, but given how little Russian vodka we actually buy and consume, it is mostly a big “so what.”

In Ukraine, whether it is the symbol of banning vodka or the real effect of not establishing a no-fly zone, we have to be brutally honest about the impact and consequences of our choices. Because Russia will be brutally dishonest about everything.

Ukraine and Different Trains

Viewing the endless reports of trains leaving Ukraine, filled with pieces of divided families maybe never to be made whole, music of Different Trains by Steve Reich came to mind.

Reich was inspired to compose this groundbreaking piece as he remembered the train trips he took as a young child, moving every six months between the homes of his divorced parents in New York and Los Angeles. Other trains then came to his imagination, especially the trains that carried Eastern Europeans Jews by the millions to their death. Different trains.

Art like Reich’s cannot change history, personal or global. Art can change us, or let us realize who we are and might be. And maybe change history after all.

When war is black and white not gray: Why Ukraine weighs heavy on us

For a long time, America has been involved in wars of shades of gray. Not that right and wrong weren’t involved, but that the equities weren’t always so clear. Vietnam was a glaring example: an unachievable outcome, corruption and inhumanity on both sides, lies and lies, and so much death for what? A glaring example, but just one.

Ukraine is not that. A powerful and sinister leader, driven by demons, whatever they are, is determined to roll over an innocent nation and its people. “Justified” by lies so obvious that they match the Master of Lies who once led America. Not the first and only example of brutality in recent years (China has forced citizens into ethnic concentration camps, right now), but one that shakes us differently.

What weighs on us, at least on me, is the absolute impotence of genuinely concerned nations. Sanctions and isolation do indeed inflict pain on Russia, pain which won’t be soon (or ever) relieved, but pain that will not stop the onslaught and slaughter. The tools exist to stop Russia in its tracks, but the realities of military back-and-forth, and the formalities of international law, prevent using them. Plainly, just one direct confrontation between Russia and the West will lead to escalation, and no one—not the smartest statesmen or generals—can know where that leads. In a crude calculation of better the devil you know, better to allow Russia to have Ukraine and work it out later than to take actions that have the potential for another European-wide war, knowing that the last two European-wide wars are grotesquely infamous, and those without nuclear.

And that is the weight we feel.