How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition
By Ruth von Bernuth
New York University Press
Who, growing up, didn’t hear about Chelm, the town of Jewish fools? Who, having heard about it, ever thought that someday it would be the subject of an academic treatise?
Ruth von Bernuth, the author of How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition, is an associate professor of Germanic and Slavic languages and director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina. Her specialty is Germanic languages and Yiddish is a Germanic language.
Of course, the reader knows that in this context, “wise men” actually means “fools.” In Ashkenazi-speak, in Chelm, the chochomim (wise men) are naronim (fools). The book’s jacket illustration is of the best known Chelm story. It shows two Chelmites with a barrel in which they have trapped the moon, so the folks will never again miss out on the blessing of the new moon.
According to von Bernuth, the idea of a town of fools originated in ancient Greece, with the town called Abdera, was developed in the medieval German Laleburg and Schilddburg, was translated to Yiddish, and settled in Chelm with 19th century stories by Ayzik Mayer Dik, the first professional Yiddish writer. From Chelm, the concept has spread wherever there is Jewish civilization. The book begins with a chapter on Manhattan and closes with an epilogue in which Russia and Israel, where there are also Jewish fools, are featured.
Along the way, many cheerful facts turn up about Chelm. Who knew that early in his career, in 1970, Woody Allen started a New Yorker story called “Hassidic Tales” with the words, “A man journeyed to Chelm”? In Ottawa there must be people who know of, or have even seen, an award-winning 1999 National Film Board animated short, “Village of Idiots,” about the adventures of one Shmendrik, who leaves Chelm for Warsaw, and finds only another Chelm. You can see it at http://tinyurl.com/Village-of-Idiots-NFB.
Folly is not only cheerful or comic. It is wisdom’s mirror, as Cervantes and Jonathan Swift knew. Many passages in von Bernuth’s book show how the stories of the wise men of Chelm were used by 18th and 19th century maskilim to satirize “narrow-minded small-town Jewish communities of Eastern Europe: dogmatic community rabbis, irrational Chasidic rebbes and their credulous followers, and even differently enlightened maskilic rivals.”
In America, the book quotes from “Tshiribim,” a Yiddish folksong associated with the Barry Sisters, “Zogt ver zaynen di narishe, ver zaynen di khakhomim (Tell me, who are the foolish and who the wise).”
And, in present-day Israel, there is a blog called “Chelm-on-the-Med,” which has that name “because in so many ways, Israeli public and private life seem modelled after Chelm.”
I do have a concern about the book’s presentation. Von Bernuth begins her narrative in the middle and then goes back and tells the rest of the story. As a history, it would be easier to follow if it began at the beginning and went from there. It may be that an editor suggested starting in New York, with Woody Allen, to get the attention of the American audience. The result, as interesting as the material is, is that the story is sometimes hard to follow, with some confusion and repetition. Some of the chapters read as if they might have begun as learned articles that were then dubbed into the book. For readers who want to do some skipping, one possibility would be to read the first chapter and the epilogue, and then go back to other chapters that look interesting.