How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition, by Ruth von Bernuth

How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition, by Ruth von Bernuth

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When God created the world, so it is said, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls with instructions to distribute them equally all over the world - one fool per town. But the angel’s bag broke and all the souls spilled out onto the same spot. They built a settlement where they landed: the town is known as Chelm.

The collected tales of these fools, or ‘wise men’,  of Chelm constitute the best-known folktale tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe. This tradition includes a sprawling repertoire of stories about the alleged intellectual limitations of the members of this old and important Jewish community. The town of Chelm has led a double life - as a real city in eastern Poland and as an imaginary place onto which questions of Jewish identity, community, and history have been projected.

By placing literary Chelm and its ‘foolish’ antecedents in a broader historical context, Von Bernuth shows how it has functioned for over three hundred years as a model of society, somewhere between utopia and dystopia. Imaginary foolish towns enable writers both to entertain and highlight a variety of societal problems, a function that literary Chelm continues to fulfill in Jewish literature to this day.

“A beautifully-written work of meticulous scholarship … Von Bernuth not only traces the origins of the fools of Chelm, but goes further to illuminate what these stories reveal about the intersections of European and Jewish cultures and the shifts in Jewish cultural development over a three hundred year period.” - Anita Norich, University of Michigan