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The Myth of Chelm in Jewish Literature

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Without a doubt, the “Chelm myth” is a product of many generations of anonymous oral inventions found in the deep memory of the people.

The “Chelm myth” in its present form is a result of the long transformation from the people's mouths to the people's ears. The generations and the years roll on their way and like a childish snowball the myth changes its shape and grows larger through rolling. Dozens of motifs, Jewish and non-Jewish, are adapted and made accessible, with the help of variations, so that they pass into the area of humor. Alien themes are localized, stabilized and made Jewish through a more familiar colorization and even through an accessible literary bridge. Over the years, systematic, collective, creative activity occurs, from which will come the expression of a rare “epic of humor” entitled “The Wisdom of Chelm.” We think of the “Chelm myth” as a collective anonymous folk creation which immediately raises the question: why did Chelm happen to have the honor of becoming the object for the humorous folk fantasy?

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And although the question is posed, we must, however, leave it for scholars and folklore specialists. Perhaps, when it is left for them, they will discover the concealed laws of the whimsical muse.

We, for our part, will simply draw the reader's attention at this moment to a mistaken idea, namely, that contrary to what some people believe – that this saintly community, Chelm, is well known primarily because of the “Chelm myth” – in fact, Chelm must have been known enough in the past so that it could become the traditional object of Jewish folk humor.

Even if we accepted the idea that the first folk story about Chelm was created by chance (in other words, was connected to Chelm by chance), we must then recognize that chance would not have succeeded in reinforcing the folk invention if the name Chelm had not been known well enough to the Jews, at least, within the borders of Diaspora Poland

And even if there were not any other historical evidence, in other words, if the city of Chelm did not have any other documentary evidence about the past, the sole

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fact that the Chelm stories exist in Yiddish folklore is evidence that this city was once a definite influence in Jewish life – an influence that made its name known far and wide, an influence that, perhaps, ended as a result of its rivalry with another, larger city within the borders of the Kingdom of Poland. And incidentally: in the rivalry between the other city and the city of Chelm, we must look for the likely origin of the Chelm story.

Naturally it occurs to us to say that there is now not even one kernel of authenticity in the Chelm story and even if there is, it is of meager importance. The Chelm that we have known in the course of the last dozen years, of course, has no connection.

If however we look for the “historical” cause for connecting the Chelm myth with the city of Chelm, it is clear that by this we mean to learn a very interesting and deeply concealed quality of folk invention, in other words, a secret from its laboratory, because we believe that in the outward causality is present a definite resolution.

However, until this quality is revealed, until it is exactly defined, for us it is beyond doubt that Chelm was not created through the folk story. In the past it already had grown in Yiddish life and its name must have had a well known ring if it could be gradually used as a synonym for a Jewish popular look at certain actions in human life.

* * *

The collection of “Chelm Stories” in Jewish folklore tells not only about Chelm, about her experience in Jewish life, but simultaneously tells us about the deep-rootedness of this life in Polish soil. Without this feeling of being rooted in the Polish soil, of the sense of deep roots having been planted, the folk creation could not have woven its grotesque web around a concrete geographical idea, around a city.

It is therefore true that in later times the “Chelm Story” reached places where the name Chelm sounded fictitious. Even to this day someone can be heard saying: “It is just like Chelm” and the one saying it does not have to explain the geographical reality of Chelm. Because of the folk myth, Chelm has become a synonym, for example, like Sodom. The strength of the created folk synonym extends further than the original “reality” that was invented and thanks to its strength remains the creation in folk memories. This is its great worth, which takes it out of the narrow limit of the folklore specialist and makes it the living property of people of culture, of artists and writers. It is however more than certain that when speaking about Chelm humor in Yiddish folk invention, along with its

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actual living significance, there is also in mind its cultural historical worth. We are interested in the fruit as an object that can quench our joy as well as in the tree on which the fruit has grown. When it comes to the Chelm humor-fruit, the folkloric tree is, of course, important for us and particularly the climate in which it ripened and in the course of years matured. Therefore it is important for us to assert that the humorous work arose by being rooted in the land, where all protagonists figure in an actual city.

From the Chelm myth we must make an inference: if every folklore inventor is bound to a well known common theme, is it not all the more so for the creator who bases his work on an actual geographic idea? Most certainly we must therefore have a feeling of an unchanging creation.

Making a city the protagonist in a work that was “written” over the course of generations could only be done when the lives of the people in that city are seen as unchanging over the years. And not only this city, but Yiddish also had to be secure in the land in which the city is found, because, if not, they would never have indulged in the luxury of completely entrusting their humorous creative energy to such a city.

The French could indulge in such luxury with “Tarascon” in France. The Jews in Poland could indulge in such luxury in regard to Chelm.

According to the discourse of Reb Pinkhas Koricer, the Jewish exile was easier in Poland. Jews in Poland lived not only with their own customs and old practices, but also with a sense of home. Only with this sense could the Chelm myth be born.

Here are two anecdotes that characterize the most vivid sense of home of the Jews in Poland. One of them is told this way:

Jews travel on the train. They converse. “What is your city called?” – One of the Jews asks the other.

– My city? Answers the one who is asked – The gentiles call it Medziboz, but the world knows it as Mysliborzyce.

(There is no telling what comes to the minds of the gentiles. But “the world” that is the Jews knows the correct name).

And the second anecdote:

A Jew from a small shtetl comes into an office in a larger city. The clerk rummages in his papers and asks;

– Who does your city follow?

– Earlier it belonged to the followers of the Aleksanderer [Rebbe] – the Jew answers – but now we have expelled them from their shtibl (small prayer house) and the city chiefly follows the Ger [Rebbe].

(That the city belongs to a prince, too, or is part of a voivode (province) does not occur to the Jew. For him, it is clear, that the city belongs to one rebbe or to another).

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The Chelm stories, as in the cited anecdotes, arose in a world of Jewish stability, in a world where the concept of home is concrete and real.

In another story, this reality of home is in our final incident transformed into “a Chelm story,” with the typical moral of Chelm wisdom.

* * *

In the “Chelm stories,” the folk inventiveness shows a distinct tendency to concentrate the subject matter in one geographic area, in one concrete area of Jewish settlement. Such a tendency is generally familiar in the folk story.

There are all kinds of stories in Jewish folk fantasy bound to the “ergetz hinter di Hore-khoyshek” (somewhere behind the legendary mountain of darkness) – stories of wonder that are framed in the geographic novelty of wonderland. While it is clear that actions of fantasy can occur only in a place of fantasy that does not let reality control its every moment, this land on the other side of the Sambation,[1] this place “under the seven mountains” or “under the seven rivers” where every step is imbibed with the miraculous, is also highly suitable. And it once happened that when the nameless teller of folk stories wanted to approach the boundaries of our geographic reality, he just brought with him from “under the legendary mountain of darkness” a piece of its miracle-imbibed atmosphere, a piece of its mystical climate. The “flowers and fauna” in such stories were, of course, familiar, homey, one's own, but the impreciseness of the area of action still remained. Such a story teller never risked using a specific geographic name, unless it appeared to be very far away.

The people had other designations for the extraordinariness of a smaller subject of wonder: “somewhere in Goshen” or “somewhere in Bobryk.” First in the Hasidic story we begin to meet the well-known city or shtetl, concrete places and names that one can see, believe can be touched by the hand. In the newness of Hasidism, the people stopped going up to heaven and began to bring heaven down to earth. Hasidism revolted against the mysticism that lies outside the earthly life and proved that only the earthly life is full of mysticism. Therefore, it is clear that the Hasidic storyteller did not need to carry away his fantasy somewhere to a wonderland. Wonders, according to their world view, can happen in and really do happen here on earth, in one's own small space. They did not need a specific climate, no special atmosphere, no imagined area, no likely conditions that would make them believe. All of these attributes were created only through one magical strength, the strength of rapturous belief.

The Chelm story is in one respect comparable to the Hasidic story. It is, also, in its action not far from our reality. The stage on which it appears is in the

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very middle of our life. Contrary to the Hore-khoyshek story, it wants to lead to belief so it states the concrete place of its occurrence. It buys our trust with the illusion of nearness and, therefore, probability, because without this it would mainly lose its humor.

The Chelm story is a crooked mirror. In order that the comedy of the warped lines properly impact, the reflections must always by found near the objects that become deformed in it. Only in confrontation with reality can the proper comedic effect by summoned.

* * *

A Chelm story can be recognized from a mile away. It contains a definite established nucleus around which moves the comedy and situation.

The comedy of the Chelm story is built upon a kind of principle of humor. It is literally a golden treasure for a certain theory of laughter.

The comedy of Chelm achieves its result automatically as a human effect.

This automatic result is a consequence of not noticing and not comprehending the consequences of an action.

The comedy of the actions of the heroes of the Chelm stories consists in their inventing for themselves a certain fiction and carrying it out, not seeing what follows in the end.

The comic effect becomes clear because the actions of the Chelmers lack the natural logical connection between cause and result.

It is automatically one-dimensional and perfunctory; this is the stumbling point of Chelm's good will.

When Chelm buys an extinguisher in order to fight fires in the city, this is actually a logical wish realized in fiction. This fiction becomes comical only when a second cause and another fiction (the walling in of the extinguisher with a thick brick wall, in order that thieves would not be able to steal it), makes void the first effort. The mechanism, the way the fiction is automatically carried out, not taking into account its effect, brings out laughter among those with normal human judgment.

The Chelm story is an example of good intentions, which in the reality of life, become transformed into their opposite with laughter guarding the person against the routine in life; and with laughter over the Chelmer actions, we guard against the routine that transforms our fiction into the opposite of that which we wanted. In this manner, the folk experience wanted to underline that good will is not enough; this good will must be recognized; that means one must take from the understanding and consider the attendant phenomena of each fiction and bind it with the understanding of the intention.

When Chelm wants the fallen snow to remain fresh and unwalked upon, this is certainly a good wish. (The snow can be thought of as an allegorical indication of

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a definite ethical quality in our life). However, the fathers who are equal to realizing this wish are unnatural and, therefore, comedic. They are unnatural because of the chain of logic among them. The Chelm storyteller asks: Who disturbs the snow? The answer is: The shamas (the synagogue beadle), who is the first to go out into the street, in order to wake the residents for religious services. The answer is logical and correct. However, this logical truth misleads the Chelmer on a detour to illogic. Because if the shamas disturbs the snow, we must find a way that he will not do it. (As for myself, a correct conclusion.). The solution that four people should carry the shamas is in itself again logical. However, it becomes illogical in connection with the first impulse for the first action – the wish that the snow should be entirely undisturbed.

We see, therefore, that the joke about the Chelm heroes admits that they, the heroes, have good will. Their actions in carrying out their will is comic, because the Chelmers act automatically, they look to remove a certain condition through an action that strengthens the earlier condition tenfold.

When the shamas becomes old and cannot go around the shtetl rapping on the shutters looking to summon the Chelmers, how will the shamas be able to carry out his functions without exerting himself? This is not a bit comic and, in fact, logical. However, on the way from inclination to realization, the Chelmers lose the connection to the expression and the reality of life. All of the shutters are brought to the shamas at home in order for him to be able to rap on them and, thereby, not needing to go around the shtetl. The importance of the actual activity is lost. The shtetl both will not hear the rapping and exactly like the extinguisher, the entire effort and energy is wasted because there was no thought given to the link between the two actions and the result.

The same automatic reaction to the action, the same omission of an essential connecting link between the action and the result is seen, too, in the story about the water mill that is built, not near the water, but on a mountain and in many other Chelm stories.

* * *

The same Chelm story is a rich source of material for literary-artistic forms.

In essence, this great humor epic is taken as the great artistic revitalizer of the pop-

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ular, anonymously created works of artistic consciousness and artistic permanence.

The Chelm story contains those allegorical moments that can be applied in connection with general human events and actions that fill our lives.

Until now we have very rarely elected to use the Chelm story material in our literature.

We know the comedy, “Chelmer Khakhomim” (“The Wise Men of Chelm”) of Aaron Zeitlin that was successfully presented on the Yiddish stage, but it is not available in book form.

Gershonson, the young Yiddish writer from Soviet Russia who perished tragically, also wrote a similar comedy. The comedy is found in the work of the popular artists Sh. Dzehigon and Y. Shumakher.

The stories of Chelm were recorded at that time by M. Kipnis. He finished a folkloric work. It is not known if the text will be published in book form.

Shlomoh Simon published a book in New York under the name, “The Heroes of Chelm.” An accurate adaptation of the Chelm stories for children.

The book “Chelmer Khakhomim” by Y.Y. Trunk, artistically fashioned from Chelm story material, is worthy of a separate discourse.

Yiddish writers have used the Chelm story material, carrying it over to their towns and places. (For example: Leib Kwitko in his children's song, “Leml's Present.”) Others again have given the style of Chelm to their things; the stories themselves, however, have no connection with Chelm material. (For example: Y. L. Peretz, Der Chelmer Malamed [“The Chelm Teacher”].) It is certain that other Chelm stories wait for their great genius who will do justice to the Chelmer literary material. And until this happens, it is our duty again and again to record all the nuances, all the variations of the Chelm story, as it travels among Jews all around the world.

It would be a great accomplishment if the Chelm landmanschaftn, which are spread all over the earth, could stimulate and even organize both the renewed collection of the Chelm stories and their artistic revision. The latter is not a restraint on the organization, but an appropriate bonus, for a book of Chelm story material would perhaps stimulate Yiddish writers and artists and even without this, the interest in the theme is great enough. Only a little bit of initiative is required for it to be realized.

Translator's footnote

  1. The legendary, impassable river of rocks, on the other side of which the ten lost Tribes of Israel may be found. Return

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The Chelm Stories Are Not So Foolish
(A sort of historiosophy [philosophy of history] to the Chelm stories)

by Joseph Gotfarsztajn, Paris

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Joseph Gotfarsztajn is a Jew from Lithuania and well known essayist and pedagogue in France. His last book: L'Ecole du Meurtre (The School of Murder) made a great impression in the French literary world; it is a great understanding of the German pedagogical politics that educated a generation for murder.

Gotfarsztajn wrote a thesis for the university about “humor” as he was an expert in the subject. He is the former director of the Jewish Teachers Seminar at the Federation of Jewish Societies in France and the manager of Jewish People's University in Paris.

A difficult question: what kind of wonderful strength is inherent after all in the Jewish people that they were able to resist and preserve themselves for a period of 2,000 years from physical and spiritual conversion, not possessing any characteristic of a national organism while many nations in their own territories were really ground into dust under the wheels of history, as expressed in modern, flowery language. Or in time, took on a completely different body and a completely different soul? After all, how could the persecuted Jewish people, the “sheep scattered among 70 nations,” endure while disregarding the most basic principles of sociology and national psychology.

To explain this remarkable phenomena we have had to look to a verse from the chapter Vaetchanan [“And I pleaded…”] from Deuteronomy: “…Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation.”

However, a time came (also in the ostensibly naïve city of Chelm) when they stopped leaving it to verses from Tanakh [Hebrew bible] and from the Midrash [commentaries] because “modern citations” came into vogue – and the above mentioned question was posed again with fervor and sarcasm, so to say. Understand? And how? The “iron one” [the hard question] – both that already examined and that still hidden to this day – flowing from history demands an answer, a quick one, because our historians and historical philosophers push themselves to the fore. Can they not see? They do not believe in miracles. Moshe Rabbenu [Moses our teacher] is a figure of legend to them. They consider Mosheikh [the redeemer] a utopia and their own existence an anachronism. And here it seems to them that the survival of the Jewish faith hangs by a thread, despite explicit assurances that the Jews were given in ancient times that “the Eternal One of Israel does not lie…” [1 Samuel 15:29], an assurance with which they also were disillusioned. They began to create a new historical scaffolding; this time an “iron” law. However, these structures also did not endure for long. The unique Jewish fate simply laughed at all of the theories.

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To be truthful, I must admit that, although I do believe in miracles from heaven (because I also essentially bear, stubborn Litvak that I am, a Chelemer soul), the mystery of Jewish existence tormented and preyed upon me for many years. True, at the time I was still involved with other problems too, not necessarily purely Jewish problems, as, for example, the knowledge of the theatrical side of humor. I endeavored to learn the mechanism of the comic that is inherent in the joke. This is not something I remember for no reason but because this observation is a precondition to the understanding of the conclusions that I will make in this article.



One day I learned that my good friend, the well-known Jewish historian, Josef Milner, was involved with gathering material for the Chelm Yizkor Book [memorial book]. I was not lazy and I went to Milner. We had a conversation that (because several months have already passed since that day and I cannot remember this dialogue word by word) probably [consisted of] these words:

– I have known for a long time that you were born in Chelm, but I have just learned today that you are an avowed Chelemer; you are a Chelm patriot despite the unwise call to you of the Chelm stories.

– If you are such a great sage already – Milner said to me, too, as a joke – then write an article for me for the Yizkor Book and show the foolishness of the Chelm stories.

– No, dear friend – I protested – I will not show the foolishness in my article, but, the opposite, I will attempt to show with the brightest glow the deep wisdom that is attached to these thoughtful, naïve fables. As the Chelm stories are fables without parables, they are stories of an absurd world that some ingenious dialectic has driven into an impasse and cannot find a way out of it. They are commentaries about the old Jewish way of life in which the pleasure has died; they are an illustration, a sketch of the exiled underground life that the Jewish people led for so long, helping out here with rigorous but unworldly logic and here with spiritual manna. Logic led the city of Chelm – and our entire exile – to the absurd and to our last terrible destruction. However, the spiritual manna in the end had its last remnants brought here where the oranges bloom, where a familiar Jewish folklore sings. The Chelm stories in a certain sense are really a sort of commentary on the Jewish philosophy of history. I mean that they enable us to describe the

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key that unlocks one of the blocked and hidden cells where lies amassed a certain part of Jewish spirituality and of Jewish historical energy.

Jewish spirituality? The energy of Jewish history? What does this have to do with anything? What kind of logical connection could be possible between both phenomena: Jewish humor – Chelm stories, for example – and Jewish history?

I think there is present a certain logical connection between both of these phenomena which has enraged so many logicians, rationalists, historical philosophers and even theologians, mystics and metaphysicians.

And as follows:

Before anything, let us first talk a little about humor in general. Let us record in a few lines the route that a joke takes in the entangled labyrinth of human thought.

There is probably no significant philosopher who in the frame of his own subject has not lingered on the role that humor plays in the spiritual life of this or another civilized community of people. Several names: Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, Moses Mendelssohn, these four great philosophers have given humor an important place in their systems. However, they did not write special studies on the theme. Therefore, such thinkers such as Theodor Fischer, Kuno Fischer, Harold Hedfings, Spenser, [Elohah] Heker, Theodor Lipps and, above all, Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson strongly immersed themselves in the problems of humor, of the comic, of the joke. As for the special Jewish joke, Felix Weltsch researched it not only in length and width, but so to say, in depth.

Because of the lack of space, we will not even be able in this article to list by name all of the faces in which the humor was clad, all of its aspects and genres. I also cannot pause for the controversies that arose between one joke researcher and another, both with regard to the reasons they evoke laughter and with regard to the intent, the “meaning,” the moral of this or that category of jokes. However, here I must absolutely not brush off the dissident opinion.

According to all of them, it appears that humor is a very important ingredient of several truly spiritual, creative activities. In a certain sense, humor is even a means of control against bias in thought; it sometimes goes hand and hand with the creative fantasy; it is a kind of yeast for the dialectic method in ideas. According to Bergson, the joke is a remedy against the mechanization and the automation of human actions and human tasks, a good remedy against all that shows a tendency to become stiff and dulled.

In our present time, when the majority of people have stopped thinking with their own brains and they constantly desire to become either “leaders,” political leaders or minuscule screws

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in a machine “mass,” humor has really become, unfortunately – in some Jewish circles – a very rare article. Therefore, the terror of the various slogans, the demagogic shlogverter [literally “words of beating” – catchphrases] increased everywhere and as their name indicates – they “shlogn” [beat] in the empty void of the minds and they “shlogn” [beat] out every crumb of critical thought, every feeling for responsibility and, as a result, also the drive for freedom. Because with responsibility, freedom is not available.

And truly so: a good joke criticizes; a good joke liberates the thought; a good joke teaches thinking. Therefore, dictatorship and humor are not an equivalent pair; therefore, it should be understood, humor has no raison d'être in the legends where those in power are afraid of criticism, except for the “commonplace” criticism, so called “self-criticism.” For this is pseudo-criticism that teases the appetite but does not satisfy it and is a mockery of itself.

Laughter is – once again according to Bergson – not only a social phenomenon, but also a sort of social corrective. Everything that cannot conform to life is ridiculed, the laziness, the automatic, the rigidity, the pedantry.

Felix Weltsch believes that this definition does not apply to every kind of humor because there is also present a good-natured laughter, a light-hearted one that does not intend to punish and to scold. Just now the play element in Jewish humor is strongly represented. It is enough to remember our illustrious Sholem Aleichem, who dines on Jewish folklore and borrows his stories from Jewish jokes and anecdotes in order to understand the truth of Weltch's observations of the Chelm stories. There is already agreement about the Chelm stories. They actually are nothing more than illustrations, moreover absurd, but we no longer hold on to them.

It is also worthwhile to take note of Sigmund Freud's view of humor. Freud strongly emphasizes in his book, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, the liberating character for the joke. The founder of the psychoanalytic doctrine teaches us that thanks to the joke a person can be freed from a mass internal disruption. For instance, the aggressive joke permits one person to attack another and the other will not take any offense. Still more: one can even joke on one's own account and, at the same time, there is no need to be ashamed of oneself and feel the shame from others.


Many Jewish jokes show this tendency. The Jew laughs about himself; he laughs about his troubles; he laughs partly, as Sholem Aleichem says, through tears, but thus he weighs the merits and demerits of his dark fate and indirectly, of his enemies with good courage, without anger.

Felix Weltch says in his very interesting study that was published in the Yidishn Almanakh [Yiddish Almanac] (of the year 5706 [1946], published in German), the joke is the most important literary medium of an oppressed people. The joke is the weapon of the physically weak and spiritually strong person. In the last

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era of Jewish misfortune – during the gruesome persecutions against Jews in Germany under Hilter's regime – the joke played an enormous role that will be rightly revealed later by future historians. The voice of the tortured, tormented and spit-upon folk could be heard through the whispering, murmuring joke. However these jokes penetrated through all crevices and through all openings of society. No one could stop it. It could not be defeated by any concentration camp.

An important contribution to the acquisition of the joke (spiritual property gained against our will through a river of blood and a sea of tears), which survivors of the concentration camps acquired in the various death camps was gathered by Y[isroel] Kaplan in Munich in 1949 in a published brochure, Dos Folks-Moyl in Natsi-Klem [Voice of the People in the Nazi Vice]. This collection of local dialects in the ghettos and Nazi concentration camps shows that even on the threshold of death the Jewish people were not done with the enjoyment of humor. Who knows how many Jews it saved from despair and from suicide! As one of the extracts from life, Y. Kaplan remarked in his forward that what almost everyone reveled in was the eternal “voice of Jacob.” Sayings, jokes, anecdotes, wishes, various contemplations and inventions – this was the good balm for the concealed hearts and dejected moods.



Voice of Jakob? Then can the Jewish joke also be considered a “voice of Jakob” in the biblical sense, with a biblical origin, so to say? Usually we believe humor came later and was alien to the Israelites, and that the “witticism,” the small laugh, the invention, the aphorisms were a later invention from the Talmud and from the legends.

I do not really know how to thank the French-Jewish writer Emmanuel Berl for opening my eyes through his extremely interesting and instructive article in Revue de la Pensée Juive [Review of Jewish Thought] of January 1951.

In addition to many other truths and values, Emmanuel Berl “uncovered” – no, he accented the smile that “floats” on the faces of our ancestors. The “smile of the 90-year old Sarah when she learns that she will have a child. Rebecca's smile when she took Laban's teraphim.[1] Jakob's triumphal smile after he defeated the angel who wrestled with him. Joseph's smile when he quietly asked that his golden cup be placed in Benjamin's sack.”

This Halakah [Jewish law] is certainly not yet true humor and this surely does not have anything to do with jokes. However, the climate in which humor can arise and thrive was created through these smiles. Later the Torah relates the uproar when God appeared to Elijah the Prophet; we read that this happened not in a storm but actually in “complete silence.” Slowly, calmly, thoughtfully and we find again in the area of calm, good-hearted humor.

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I said “area” just now and I meant to say “sphere” because humor is completely not dependent upon the area in the geographical sense, but it is dependent on the spiritual outlook from which it draws its inspiration. The sphere of Jewish spirituality was first rooted in the idea that every person, even men of perfect saintliness, sin in regard to God, in regard to people and in regard to themselves. A sort of feeling of compassion developed toward people who transgress and at the same time a sense of degree and of nuance.

Both concepts were dictated by King Solomon to be written in the Book of Proverbs and – centuries later – drove us Jews to tell jokes and anecdotes.

In the Jewish joke, it is worthwhile to laugh at simple, arrogant people, ignorant people, idlers, impractical people, loafers, fools, misers, rich men achieving wealth, skinflints, wicked people, foolish heretics, hypocrites, hypocritical Jews, disguised people, magicians of all sorts and more and more ridiculous people who are taken to task. However, as I already have said, a joke can just entertain and play a game without any designated intention and without a moral lesson, but even such a joke also “jabs” and sometimes hits the mark. This is the tragic-comic joke. This is the tragic-comic joke of Charlie Chaplin and the tragic anecdote of Franz Kafka.

It vexes me that I cannot linger here on the tragic comedy of Chaplin's performances, of that genial, Jewish mimic and acrobat[2] who is – in the area of film – a brother of our Menakhem-Mendel, the tragic optimist, a brother also of Mendele's [Mendele Mocher Sforim] Benjamin the Third.

I must briefly explain to the reader how Franz Kafka is pertinent because his fate is closely connected to the fate of the Chelm idlers, although as seen above, they belonged to two different worlds.

Much has already been written (in the German language) about Franz Kafka, who died young. He was considered a classic and a founder of existential modern world literature. It is accepted by the world that Franz Kafka undertook – and also in great measure succeeded – to be the artistic community spokesman of humanity that finds itself at the crossroads of the absurd and the tragic and at the crossroads of madness and ruin.

As the community also the individual! From this, all of Kafka's heroes take the impulse “to leave their own skin,” to become an animal, a dog, a tortoise. The human existence has lost its meaning for them, after the clay Golem [being magically created from clay] like a machine without the ineffable name of God on its forehead fought the slaughter of people, after human relations became so entangled that no one knows any longer what is good and what is bad, after

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some stranger has brought a lawsuit against every individual for nothing and yet again for nothing, after the “great anonymous one” has confounded one thing with another and no one knows any longer what is what.

We know that Kafka was a pessimist who did not see any sense in his own suffering, not in the suffering of everyone else who was just like him, riveted to the heavy “wheelbarrow” that is called life. Ask yourself: how do we compare the eternally optimistic Chelemer “sages” who find an exit from all calamities yet again after a seven-day meeting? But Franz Kafka basically had a hidden pessimism. Just like the naïve ones in Chelm, he also meant that the human could be saved through believing in God's unity (and necessarily also in the unity of the world) despite all the obstacles on the way that leads to God, despite dualism, that is, our idol-worshipping civilization. Marthe Robert cites in her article about “Franz Kafka's Humor” (published in the above-mentioned Review of Jewish Thought) one of his aphorisms which is evidence of this real-Jewish reasoning. “Believing” writes Kafka, “means the release of the indestructible itself, or more correctly: be indestructible, or more correctly: be.”

Felix Weltsch was correct. In his study, “Religious Humor in Franz Kafka” (published in German together with Max Brod's study, “Franz Kafka's Beliefs”) he emphasized the Jewish tone of the poet's shout. Weltsch writes that the humor, Kafka's humor comes from the “superiority that sees the duality in false unity, but without losing sight of unity as the goal.”



In different ways, but with the same intention – and probably also in the same direction – go both the protagonist Kafka and the hero of Chelm toward the indestructible unity of God's world. They go through many metamorphoses, many transformations, but we must hope that the absurd will be vanquished.

No, Mosheikh [the redeemer] is no utopia and the world runs simply according to a certain Godly plan, although we do not see it because life has divided us and we fell – particularly we Jews were divided – between being and not being, between the requirement to remain what we once were and the enticing call from outside that draws us to another world.

The Gemara says that by changing a place of residence and by taking another name one can often change bad luck to good luck. This is what Chelm did! This real Jewish city disguised itself; it put a mask on its face; it disguised itself as a fool, just as Kafka disguised himself as a pessimist. The “smart and sensible” in Chelm – it is hard to determine whose advice this was and why at first glance the entire

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normal city suffered such a fate – began to speak of optimistic foolishness and to search for the secret of its extraordinary existence through a contrary logic whose result was that the rabbi lost his mind, the cat was victorious over an entire community of Jews, all of Chelm disappeared in fire and then the city was rebuilt and the city reached the point where it lacked 10 men for a minyon [prayer group]. Enlightenment, trains and … Chelm.

This “disguising” logic penetrated into all of the Chelm stories. Even the answer to the question that we first posed about how the foolishness of the world was distributed over Chelm is found in this story:

After the six days of creation, the Most High sent out into the world one of his ministering angels and gave him two sacks to take with him. One sack was full of the intelligent and astute and the second with the foolish and naïve souls. The angel flew over Brisk gubernia [county] and, flying slowly, released from both sacks an intelligent soul here and a foolish soul here.

However, when he flew by the high Chelemer mountain, the sack in which the foolish souls lay got caught on the mountaintop and thus the foolish souls fell out all at once through the hole in the sack and they all fell in Chelm.

From then on developed in Chelm, the utter fools who won fame all over the world.

This genre of humor also is present among gentiles. The Germans, for example, also possess their foolish stories. However, a great distance separates their stories of fools from the Chelemer stories. The Schildberger stories simply are clownish routines whose function is to amuse the “simple people.” While the Chelemer stories are according to both their theme and their tone wry examples that tell of a wry and absurd life.

Chelm, one can say, was chosen as a capital city for Jewish thought whose outwitted sage begins to hurt. The short, Jewish joke, as sharp and burning as it may be, is sometimes unable “to scorch” the bitterness that has gathered in the folds of Jewish life.

The Chelm story is a protest against the tragic fate of a people that sank in mud, in poverty, in need, although it needed to carry out a very important mission in the world: saving it from decline and freeing it from the contradictions that gnaw at it and make it a ruin.

The Chelemer stories come to teach us that formal logic will not save us all from ruin, not the stagnation and maintenance of the old and also not so-called progress that does not know where and for what it progresses, so to say. Only that human progress whose purpose is “to repair the world of the kingdom of the Almighty” [knows its purpose].

This is, ultimately, the sense, the meaning of the Chelemer stories that are highly prized as stories of fools, however they are saturated with wisdom.

By all means, read them again – you will see for yourself.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Genesis 31:19 states: “Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the teraphim [household idols] that belonged to her father.” Gotfarsztajn's text translated here states it was “Rebecca.” Emmanuel Berl's French text, quoted by Gotfarsztajn, speaks about Rachel and the teraphim. Berl also gives Sarah's age at 100 (not 90) Return
  2. The widely reported rumors that Charlie Chaplin was Jewish have been refuted many times. Return


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