The serious history of a comical town
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The serious history of a comical town

A scholar unravels the origins of Chelm

The Chelm stories, usually seen as an expression of an authentic Jewish folk tradition, have more complicated origins. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin's 'Khakhme Khelm,' Warsaw 1926.)
The Chelm stories, usually seen as an expression of an authentic Jewish folk tradition, have more complicated origins. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin's 'Khakhme Khelm,' Warsaw 1926.)

How, you may ask, was Chelm created?

The truest answer to that question, they say, is that Chelm, the most famous town in Jewish folklore, came into being when the Lord sent an angel with a sack of foolish souls to distribute across the entire world, and the angel tripped and spilled them all in the same place.

That, we are told, is how we were given a town with sages so wise they captured the moon by shutting its reflection in a barrel of water, so Talmudically adept at outsmarting logic itself that they carried each other on their shoulders to avoid leaving footprints in newly fallen snow.

The factual origins of this mythical town, a researcher is now showing, might be more prosaic but are no less interesting.

The field of Chelm studies is, perhaps unsurprisingly, as pristine as the snow in the Chelm story, largely undisturbed by the footsteps of serious scholars. Professors of literature feel, perhaps, that the word “Chelm” would not add much gravitas to their curriculum vitae.

But one scholar, a literature professor at the University of North Carolina, has embarked nonetheless on an attempt to methodically map the origins of Chelm. In archives in Europe and the US and at Jerusalem’s National Library, Ruth von Bernuth has gone through newspapers and books dating back four centuries in an attempt to trace the origins of the stories. Tales that have come to be seen as products of a pure and authentic Jewish culture, it turns out, have origins less simple than they would seem.

Ruth von Bernuth has gone over old newspapers and printed books to piece together the story behind the stories of Chelm. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin's 'Khakhme Khelm,' Warsaw, 1926.)
Ruth von Bernuth has gone over old newspapers and books to piece together the story behind the stories of Chelm. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin's 'Khakhme Khelm,' Warsaw, 1926.)

Chelm is a real town, a fairly average one, in a part of Poland near the border with Ukraine. Chelm and its 70,000 present-day residents have given the outside world little reason to notice that they exist.

Their physical existence, though, was never the point. For Jews of European descent, Chelm is a word synonymous with fools convinced of their own wisdom, a name that sums up a tendency — one Jews might think of as being particularly Jewish — not to let common sense interfere with a really good idea.

In this Chelm, for example, when the synagogue sexton became too old to walk around knocking on shutters to wake the townspeople for morning prayers, the elders met and solved the problem: The sexton would remain at home and all of the shutters would be brought to him.

Von Bernuth, the daughter of a Protestant theologian, grew up in East Germany. The Communist regime fell the year she finished high school.

She was exposed to Yiddish while working on a German literature dissertation at Oxford, and in 2000, a colleague suggested she look into Chelm. She had never heard of it. Today, Chelm is where she spends nearly all of her time.

The story of the Chelm fables, von Bernuth says, begins in 1597. It begins not, as one might assume, with Jews in Poland, but with Christians in Germany.

That year, an unknown German author published a collection of tales about a fictional town where wise men behaved foolishly. Those stories became famous as the Schildburg tales, named for the fictional village where they were said to have taken place.

Some of these stories will be familiar to those raised on tales of Chelm. In one, for example, the village elders try to shovel sunlight into sacks to illuminate the town hall, which they have built without windows. In another, to combat an infestation of mice they buy a creature they are convinced is a special “mouse-hound” — it is, in fact, a cat — and then, terrified by the animal, rid themselves of it by torching the entire town.

The books, spread across German-speaking lands by peddlers, were reprinted more than 30 times, and they crossed over the cultural lines separating German Christians from the Jews who lived among them. In 1700, the stories were first printed in Yiddish.

At the time, von Bernuth has written, the two languages were so close that some scholars debate whether such works “are best considered translations or transliterations.” Had the stories been read out loud, Germans and Jews would have understood either version.

In the first Yiddish edition and in those that followed, the town was still called Schildburg. The characters were still Christians who ate pork and went to the bathhouse on Saturday.

In the 1800s, von Bernuth has found, the modern-minded Jewish intellectuals known as the maskilim picked up on a later version of the same stories and began telling them in a Jewish context. For them, the foolish village elders, with their pretensions of sagacity, reflected an archaic rabbinic establishment opposed to their own new ways of thinking.

The stories of Chelm, von Bernuth's work shows, show how close Yiddish and German were. (photo credit: Courtesy of Ruth von Bernuth)
The stories of Chelm, von Bernuth has shown, demonstrate how close Yiddish and German culture were. (photo credit: Courtesy)

No one had yet mentioned Chelm, which was still known simply as home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland. Other towns, like Prague, were the butt of jokes among Jews at this time, but not Chelm. It was only in 1887 that the first Yiddish book to explicitly link Chelm with foolishness appeared in the city of Lvov, in Galicia.

That book, Der Khelmer Khokhem, survives in one known copy at the National Library in Jerusalem, where von Bernuth recently arrived with a research grant from the Rothschild family’s Yad Hanadiv foundation. The book includes the classic story of the rabbi who sets out from Chelm to visit a nearby city and is hidden under a blanket by a wagon driver who drives around for a few minutes and then deposits him back in the same place.

The big city, the rabbi is astonished to discover as he walks around, looks just like Chelm. Indeed, the whole world is Chelm.

If all the Chelm stories can be said to have a shared punchline, that, of course, would be it.

The reason Chelm was selected for the starring role is still not entirely clear. Von Bernuth believes that storytellers probably just needed a kind of eastern European Everytown, and Chelm fit.

By the turn of the 20th century, Chelm stories were spreading. They were parables, occasionally bawdy ones, for adults, not entertainment for children. The first large collection was published in 1917, including versions of the original German stories and new additions.

By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1957 had become the literary canon known as Chelm. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin's, 'Khakhme Khelm,' Warsaw, 1926.)
By the turn of the 20th century, what originated with a collection of German stories in 1597 had become the literary canon known as Chelm. (photo credit: Illustration from F. Halperin’s, ‘Khakhme Khelm,’ Warsaw, 1926.)

In the 1920s, the Yiddish writer Menachem Kipnis wrote a series of humorous articles in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt in which he identified himself as a journalist reporting from Chelm. These dispatches were so popular that a mother from the real Chelm is said to have written the paper begging it to stop printing them — she was afraid she would never be able to marry off her daughter.

This anecdote might be just another Chelm story. But von Bernuth did notice that as the stories gained in popularity people stopped referring to themselves in print as “Chelmers.” Chelm was no longer just the name of a town — it was a joke, one that somehow remained funny even after hundreds of Chelm’s real Jews were marched out of the town and shot by German troops in late 1939 and thousands of others were sent to the death camp at Sobibor.

“In addition to the already mentioned Hersh Welczer, whose widow and his orphans later escaped from Chelm to Wolyn,” reads a description of the events of 1939 in a memorial book later published by survivors, “the following popular Chelm Jews were shot during the slaughter: Dr. Oks, the photographer, Rozenblat, the three Lewensztajn brothers — rich iron merchants, Gamulke, a former lieutenant in the Polish military and Itshe Sznicer, owner of the perfumery.

“Their dead bodies were then handed over to their orphaned families by the peasants who knew them,” the account tells us, and the rest were buried together, 50 to a grave.

It became clear long before that war that the world of the Chelm stories was disappearing, and their role changed — they became less a living culture’s joke about itself than a wry love letter to an endangered species.

The stories might have survived when so much else of Yiddish culture was lost because “their absurd, humorous logic gave them a certain life,” said Yechiel Szeintuch, a Yiddish professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Though interest in Yiddish culture is increasing worldwide and new Yiddish departments are opening up in places like Lund, Sweden, Hebrew University shut its own department down in 2008. Szeintuch calls this “a modern-day Chelm story.”)

Over time, Chelm became popularly seen as one of the purest expressions of Jewish folk traditions from Europe. For German scholars before WWII, on the other hand, the Yiddish stories were derided as foreign corruptions of the original Schildburg fables.

In fact, von Bernuth said, the only way to understand Chelm is as the joint creation of different people who lived in the same place and listened to their neighbors’ stories.

“These stories are one of the most interesting examples of how German and Yiddish culture influenced one another,” she said. “It shows how intertwined they were.”

“To tell the story of Chelm, you need to know about German culture and German literature. Otherwise it’s rootless,” she said.

Von Bernuth is used to raised eyebrows from scholars who hear how she spends her time — “Some of them think I’m crazy,” she said.  But there are advantages.

“When I meet people, especially elderly people, and tell them I’m working on Chelm,” she said, “they smile.”

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