Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover!
Today, Juli Berwald, the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, on the jellyfish of Chelm.
“Papa, what do you think about my jellyfish book?” I so want to ask my grandfather. He’s been gone for more than a decade, but I imagine him leaning back in his armchair, belly full of gefilte fish and tart apple pie after Shabbos dinner. If I’m lucky my question will lead to a story from his childhood: the Tower of Babble, Sampson and his hair, Aesop, or perhaps, Isaac Bashevis Singer. They are stories he brought with him from a place he had been forced to flee and that no longer exists. I have always loved the way the tales twist and turn unexpectedly, unlike the regimented Disney plotlines that pattern so many American stories.
“What do I think?” he answers in the way of all good Jewish sages. “I mean, jellyfish…”
“I know. Trust me. It sounded a little weird to me when I started too.”
He chuckles in the way he did, with a round belly bobbing up and down, his sometimes-fierce eyes softening behind the thick boxy lenses of his glasses. “I mean, jellyfish aren’t really a subject that too many Jews know too much about.”
“Right,” I answered. “Since they are trayf after all.”
“But there was this one time,” he seems to catch an idea and warm up to it, “that a man brought a bucket to the town of Chelm. You know Chelm, the town where only fools lived. And inside was a creature unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It was nearly as clear as your grandma’s good crystal, but shaped like a yarmulke. It moved with a motion that made everyone who saw it think of their own heart beating in their chest.”
I let his voice, which still held accent of his lost past, envelop me.
“The townspeople said to the man, ‘The rabbi must see this right away.’ Well, the rabbi took one look at the stunning animal and decreed that it would be the mascot of Chelm, a sign of the brilliance of the people who lived there. And he leaned down to bless the creature. But as he did so, you can’t imagine what happened.”
Papa looks over at me conspiratorially. “You know, it was originally a carp, but I made it a jellyfish for you.”
I smile back, nodding.
“Well, the jellyfish stung the rabbi! He jumped back in shock! The people of Chelm were, as you can imagine, outraged. They wanted to punish it. But, how should you punish a jellyfish?”
Papa continues, “One of the fools said, “Put it in jail!” No. no. no. Everyone replied. It already lives alone in a bucket. “Make it pay a fine!” said another. No, no, no, everyone replied. Gold is no salve for a sting. And then, just when the people of Chelm despaired that there would be no proper punishment for the jellyfish, Gronam Ox, the most foolish of the fools, had an idea. “We should drown it!” Yes! The people of Chelm agreed. So, they marched to the edge of the sea, where they submerged the jellyfish beneath the water. And as it sank below the waves, they all felt that justice had been served.”
I know that I will never hear my grandfather tell this tale this way. But as I sink into the sweet memories of his old Jewish stories, I realize that they laid the foundation for me to write a book about jellyfish, our planet, and our place in it. And I can’t help but see echoes of our own folly toward our planet’s health in the silly arguments of the good citizens of Chelm. But rather than bumble and drift along, the jellyfish taught me that we must act with intention to protect this planet we share. And to do so, we all need to grow a spine.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.