In East European Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm (Pol., Chełm; Yid., Khelem) functions as an imaginary city of fools, similar to that of the Greek Abdera, the English Gotham, and the German Schilda, among numerous others. The legendary “town of fools,” often presented ironically as “The Wise Men of . . . ,” is a feature common to most European folklores. Chelm, as was the case with its counterparts in other cultures, spawned hundreds of tales describing outlandish naiveté and stupidity that have been printed in dozens of editions in a variety of languages. Many of these are titled The Wise Men of Chelm. Chelm, located approximately 65 kilometers southeast of Lublin, had a Jewish population from at least the fourteenth century, and was a real town whose residents bore no connection to the stories. If anything, the town was known for Torah scholarship.
There are many similarities between the stories of Khelemer khakhomim (Yiddish for “wise men of Chelm”) and those of other cultures, particularly those found in the Germanic variants. The stories became part of an oral folklore and, once placed within the cultural framework of East European Jewry, were Judaized. The first publication of Chelm-like stories appeared in Yiddish in 1597, and were tales of the town of Schildburg, translated from a German edition. Hence these stories first entered Jewish culture as Schildburger stories, and it is unclear when they became connected to the town of Chelm. During the nineteenth century, a number of other Jewish towns figured as fools’ towns, including Poyzn. Over time, however, Chelm became the central hub of such stories, the first specific publication of which occurred in an 1867 book of humorous anecdotes, allegedly written by Ayzik Meyer Dik. Later, particularly in the early twentieth century, dozens of collections of Khelemer mayses (Chelm stories) were published in Yiddish as well as in English and Hebrew translations.
It is thought that the use of Chelm as a locale for such folk stories began during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, became stabilized, and then remained a constant feature in Jewish folklore. It is unclear why Chelm was the locus for these stories. Some have speculated that it was a result of a rivalry with another town. Others claim that Chelm earned its reputation purely by chance. With no documentary evidence denoting the history of the use of Chelm as a center for Jewish morons, the city’s folkloric status is based solely on conjecture.
Repeated orally and printed frequently in book form, stories of Chelm became a significant popular phenomenon in East European Jewish folklore. A number of Yiddish writers, among them Y. L. Peretz, Leyb Kvitko, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, either used the folkloric themes of the wise men of Chelm as a source for humorous or satiric stories or published their own versions of them. Others, such as Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh and Sholem Aleichem, were influenced by the stories to construct their own fictional towns that included inhabitants with similar characteristics to those of Chelm—Kabtsansk (Poorville) and Glubsk (Idiotville) by the former and Kasrilevke by the latter.
Examples of Chelm stories are:
“Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the rabbi.The melamed of Chelm was speaking with his wife.
“What a silly question!” snapped the cleric. “The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it is already broad daylight?”
“If I were Rothschild, I’d be richer than he.”
“How can that be?” asked the wife. “You would both have the same amount of money.”
“True,” he agreed, “but I’d do a little teaching on the side.”