The collected tales of the wise men of Chelm constitute the best-known folktale tradition of the Jews of eastern Europe. This tradition includes a sprawling repertoire of stories treating the intellectual limitations of the perennially and proverbially foolish members and, especially, leaders of the old and important Jewish community of Chelm. Located between Lublin and Lviv in what is now eastern Poland, near the border with Ukraine, the midsized town of Chelm (Chełm in Polish, Khelem or Khelm in Yiddish and Hebrew, Kholm in Russian and Ukrainian) had an established Jewish community since the Early Modern period and was predominantly Jewish (and specifically Hasidic) until the Second World War. In the 16th century, Chelm was home to an important yeshiva and to Elijah Baal Shem of Chelm, a golem-creating kabbalist, and in the early 17th century to Samuel Edels, a leading Talmudist. It never recovered its cultural eminence after the devastation it suffered in the Cossack-Polish War (1648–1657). The town was occupied by the German army in 1939, and only a few hundred of its 15,000 Jews survived World War II. Chelm became and remains famous in Jewish literature and culture through its association with folly, but the town does not make its debut in the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence until late in the 19th century. The tales of the wise men of Chelm are based on a mix of early modern German folly literature, Enlightenment satire, and popular narratives from Slavic and other sources. Since the end of the 19th century, Chelm has led a double life—as a real town and as an imaginary place, onto which questions of Jewish identity, community, and history have been projected.
Neither the history of the Jewish community of Chelm nor the literary tradition of the wise men of Chelm has been studied extensively. Wodziński 2008 and Krakowski and Kalish 2007, however, offer a brief description of the town’s history. The Yiddish and Hebrew community memorial books (Bakaltshuk-Felin 1954 and Kanc 1980–1981) were produced by Chelm landsmanshaftn and comprise a kaleidoscope of articles on local history, culture, and memory, with an emphasis on the 20th century and especially the Holocaust. Although most of the contributors are articulate former community members rather than trained historians, each volume provides a number of informative and useful articles on specific aspects of Chelm history and culture. The general narrative tradition of the wise men of Chelm is discussed valuably but briefly in Friedman 1954 and again in Portnoy 2008, but, despite the popularity of the subject, otherwise hardly at all, prior to the analysis in Bernuth 2016 of the connections between the German and Yiddish foolish-town traditions, from late medieval popular novels through Enlightenment literature to 19th-century ethnographic writings and a range of plays, films, and literary texts from the 20th and 21st centuries. Aside from that, Sadan 1954 offers a speculative linguistic discussion of the origins of Chelm’s association with folly, Schwarzbaum 1968 places examples of Chelm stories within the international repertoire of jokelore, and a couple of scholars have examined individual works of Chelm literature (see Shmeruk 1995, cited under Children’s Literature, and Rogovin 2009, cited under Modern Fiction and Poetry). The tales of the wise men of Chelm, however, despite this relative neglect, are often cited as examples of Jewish humor and included in bibliographies (Elswit 2012).
Bakaltshuk-Felin, Melekh, ed. Yizker-bukh Khelm. Johannesburg: Khelmer Landsmanshaft, 1954.
The earliest Chelm memorial volume includes articles on such subjects as political movements and parties, the school system, notable individuals (Moshe Lerer, Yitskhok Shiper), and the tales of the wise men, as well as poems, personal memories, and eyewitness testimony of the Shoah. The quality of the articles is rather uneven.
Bernuth, Ruth von. How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Presents a comprehensive survey of the Chelm literature itself, and its German and Yiddish precursors, from late medieval culture and early modern literature to early-21st-century culture and literature. By placing the collections in historical context, the book shows that foolish Chelm and its earlier incarnations have functioned for over three hundred years as a model, positive as well as negative, enabling Jewish writers not simply to entertain but, with a light touch, to highlight all sorts of societal problems.
Elswit, Sharon B. The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 688 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
Elswit offers an overview of modern stories in English as well as cross-references to many Chelm tales in anthologies and humor and story collections. On Chelm, see especially numbers 414–452.
Friedman, Filip. “Tsu der geshikhte fun di yidn in Khelm.” In Yizker-bukh Khelm. Edited by Melekh Bakaltshuk-Felin, 13–38. Johannesburg: Khelmer Landsmanshaft, 1954.
A brief overview of the history of Chelm, with a substantial summary of the tales of the wise men of Chelm and a bibliography of Chelm literature. Also discusses briefly the connection between precursors in German and Yiddish and the emergence of Chelm literature in the 19th century.
Kanc, Shimon, ed. Sefer ha-zikaron li-kehilat Ḥelem: 40 shanah le-ḥurbanah. Tel Aviv: Irgun yotsʼe Ḥelem be-Yiśraʼel uve-Ar. ha-B., 1980–1981.
In addition to Hebrew translations of selected articles from the earlier Yiddish-language memorial volume (Bakaltshuk-Felin 1954), Kanc offers a range of new articles and literary pieces on the history and culture of the Jewish community of Chelm. A few texts are in Yiddish. The quality of the articles is rather uneven.
Krakowski, Stefan, and Aryeh-Leib Kalish. “Chelm.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 4, Blu–Cof. 2d ed. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 588–589. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.
Presents a brief overview of Chelm’s Jewish history between the 16th and 20th centuries, with some details of religious groups and leaders of the community. Also available online.
Portnoy, Edward. “Wise Men of Chelm.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Vol. 2. Edited by Gershon Hundert, 2027. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
This encyclopedia entry provides a brief overview of the tales of the wise men of Chelm in eastern European culture. Also available online.
Sadan, Dov. “Ḥakhmei Ḥelem.” Yeda Am 2 (1954): 229–232.
The article makes a connection between Chelm and the Hebrew word ḥalom (dream, fantasy) and its Yiddish form, khoylem. It further speculates that the resemblance of the word khoylem to the word goylem (“golem” in Hebrew), an automaton or dummy, as in the Yiddish expression that calls a foolish child khoylem-goylem, is relevant to locating the wise men in Chelm. In addition, it discusses the assonance in the phrase Khelmer khakhomim (wise men of Chelm).
Schwarzbaum, Haim. Studies in Jewish and World Folklore. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1968.
Provides a translation with extensive annotations of Naftoli Gross’s Mayselekh un mesholim. A selection of Chelm stories is connected to the Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index and cross-referenced to a range of international material. On Chelm, see especially pp. 184, 189–194, and 472–473.
Wodziński, Marcin. “Chełm.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Vol. 1. Edited by Gershon Hundert, 309–310. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
Provides a brief overview with further references of Chelm’s Jewish history between the 16th and 20th centuries. Also available online.
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