Herbert Belkin
Hert Belkin is a historian who lectures and writes on modern Jewish history.

Chelm, the Town of Fools

Chelm, the Town of Fools

During the last half of the nineteenth century, Yiddish literature blossomed in Eastern Europe. A new wave of secularism and humanism was matched by talented Yiddish writers who developed a unique form of story telling. Not for them were stories of kings and kingdoms or wealth or wars. Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer plumbed the depths of interpersonal relationships in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe, using humor as an accent. Pointed, sharp and witty, Jewish humor developed to serve a number of purposes, certainly to amuse, but also as a subtle release of the oppression of shtetl life. This was particularly true for Jewish women who could read and write Yiddish and made a large part of the readership for Yiddish literature. Echoes of shtetl humor were carried with the millions of Jews who left Russia and came to America. The Jewish humor of the shetl was heard again in an Americanized version in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills and the comedic shtick of Jewish comedians like Grouch Marx, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers.

Together with stories of the emotional complexities of shtetl life, Jews use of self-derisive humor poked fun at themselves with the tacit understanding they could do so because they were really smart. This form of self-derisive humor was captured in stories about Chelm, the village of fools. Chelm is best pronounced by a deep clearing of the throat – C-H-E-L-L- M-M – and was founded, as the Jewish fable goes, when God was populating the earth. He assigned two angels to spread wise and foolish souls with the admonition that they be distributed evenly. The angels were careful to do so until the angel carrying the foolish souls stumbled over a mountain and spilled a large number of foolish souls in one place. That place was the village of Chelm.

Stories of Chelm center on how the wise men of the village applied their collective wisdom to profound questions. Here is one of the questions that tested the wisdom of Chelm: On the morning after a snowstorm, the wise men of Chelm were struck by the beauty of the winter scene until the shamus trudged his way to the schul and his footsteps through the snow disturbed the tranquil landscape. Determined that the winter beauty be preserved, the wise men went into consultation for seven days; and, as was their practice, brought in large quantities of food and drink to fortify themselves during their arduous deliberations. At last they had the answer; the shamus would stand on a four-legged table carried by four men so his feet would not disturb the snow.

Anxiously the wise men waited for the next snowstorm and were mystified that, while the shamus’ feet did not touch the ground, those of the four men did and the winter scene was spoiled. After conferring once again, the wise men had the answer – they had chosen the wrong four men.

On another occasion, the wise men of Chelm were confronted with this question, which was more important, the moon or the sun? After the usual seven days of deliberation bolstered by food and drink, the wise men reached agreement. The moon, of course, because it shines when it is dark out. Who needs the sun during the day when it is so bright? When it was time for the wise men of Chelm to come to America, there was no need for a long discussion where to go. For like-minded thinkers like the wise men of Chelm, there was only one place to go – Washington.

About the Author
Historian Herb Belkin writes and lectures on the epic events of the last two hundred years of Jewish history. His field of study covers Zionism, the Jewish Diaspora and the critical struggle for a Jewish homeland. Herb has taught courses on modern Jewish history at Brandeis, Tufts and Salem State University. He is a columnist for the Jewish Advocate and was a speaker for the Israeli Consulate of New England.