One time, the fishermen of Chelm brought their problem to the town council. To understand their problem, you have to know that the favorite fish of Chelmers (people of Chelm call themselves Chelmers, just like people of New York are New Yorkers, people of Dublin are Dubliners, and people of Cincinnati are…OK, back to the story)—was herring: herring in vinegar, herring pickled, herring in wine, herring in sour cream, smoked herring. The craving was greatest when onions were harvested in late summer and early fall. But there was no herring in the Chelm River. The herring had to be brought downriver by barge. Chelm’s fishermen had an idea, but they needed the help of the town council. The fishermen reported that other towns on the river improved their fishing by raising lots of baby fish and releasing them into the river. This, the fishermen said, was called “salting the river.”

Naturally, the town council immediately fell in love with this idea. The mayor even suggested that salting the river might help the local fish become more like herring. The council met for seven days and seven nights, trying to place a Chelm twist on the idea, to improve it as only the wise folk of Chelm can improve every idea. In the end, they dismissed the necessity of raising baby fish from scratch. Too much time. Too much bother. Instead, they sent Chelm’s fishermen upriver to Brisk to buy barrels of pickled herring. When the barrels arrived, the herring was tasted by members of the town council, approved, chopped by volunteers and thrown into the river. That’s right! The Chelm River was salted with thousands upon thousands of bits and pieces of pickled herring. The fishermen of Chelm happily look forward—in a year or so—to raising their nets chock full of herring.


Stories like this called my attention to the wise folk of Chelm. People either ask, how did they get to be so foolish or how did they get to be so wise? The traditional answer is there are wise and foolish people everywhere. Go ahead. Look around. You see what I mean? One time, though, God was concerned that there was too high a concentration of wise folk in some places while other places had too many foolish folk. An angel was assigned to collect foolish souls and bring them to heaven so God could redistribute them more evenly. It was her first assignment…she should be forgiven. She overloaded a sack with foolish souls, threw it across her shoulder and started flying back to heaven. But a sudden downdraft threw her against the branches of a tree at the top of Chelm’s mountain. The bag ripped open and hundreds of foolish souls tumbled into the town of Chelm at the foot of the mountain, taking possession of every last person there. Looking at the Chelmers, the angel suddenly realized she could no longer tell the foolish souls from the wise souls. Even the town folk could not tell. Foolish people looking at one another assumed that the people they were looking at were as wise as they were and so everyone in Chelm was wise and if the rest of the world disagreed, it was only because the folk outside Chelm could hardly aspire to the wisdom of Chelm.

Of course, there was a real city of Chelm where a few Jews lived from medieval times onward. They tell me that the town does not move, but it is sometimes located in Russia, sometimes in Ukraine, sometimes in Poland. Right now it is in Poland, but with Putin on the move, if you blink, you might miss its next location.

In the 16th century, the Jews of Chelm hired a rabbi named Elijah Baal Shem who came close to making them famous. His grandson later claimed that his holy Grandpa Elijah created a golem and brought it to life. This was not the famous golem of Prague—it was the nearly-famous golem of Chelm. Other than that, the Jews of Chelm were just like Jews in many other non-Jewish towns. Most of Chelm’s people were Ukrainian and the name Chelm comes from the Ukrainian word for “plateau” since the town is on a little rise. This is not the Chelm of the Chelm stories.

Even now, scholars are debating where the name Chelm came from our Jewish stories, but while I was sleeping one night after a rigorous day of writing comedy, an angel came and revealed it to me. The name Chelm comes from the Hebrew and Yiddish word for “dream.” Chelm is chalom. Chelm is also a place where everybody knows your name. But Chelm is not the first city in the history of the world to be inhabited entirely by fools.

Cicero, whose name almost nobody remembers these days, said that one ancient Greek village called Abdera was a town full of fools. Of course Cicero was a Roman politician and he could have made the same remark about Rome a hundred years earlier when the Emperor Caligula appointed his horse to be a Roman senator. But by the time Cicero came around to talk about the foolish ancient Greeks of Abdera, Caligula’s horse had been removed from the Roman senate because the other senators objected that it could only vote “neigh.”

Another town of fools popped up around 1200, when King John of England was looking for a place to build his new hunting lodge. He sent out scouts to scour the countryside for a good spot. The people of Gotham did not want the king hunting in their village, so they conspired to behave as imbeciles when the king’s scouts were about. Some Gothamites pretended they were building a wall to keep a bird penned in. Some Gothamites tumbled wheels of cheese downhill in hopes the cheese would deliver itself to the market at Nottingham. Some Gothamites pretended to be trying to drown an eel. When King John heard about the fools of Gotham, he decided to build elsewhere. The wise men of Gotham then boasted that “more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.”

The stories of the wise men of Gotham are just as famous as the stories of the wise folk of Chelm. Talk about lost opportunities: When it came time for choosing a city for Batman and Robin, the inventors of the Joker, the Penguin and Mr. Freeze decided on Gotham because they did not think anyone in Hollywood could pronounce the “ch” in Chelm. But just imagine for a moment Chelm with its own “chaped chrusader.”

So far, we have cities of fools in ancient Greece, Rome and England, but it is not over. In 1516, Sir Thomas More wrote “Utopia,” a book about folks on an island he claimed was in the newly discovered New World. The book was in Latin, but in Greek, the word utopia literally means “nowhere.” In Germany, scholars read “Utopia” and thought Sir Thomas was foolish. An anonymous German gathered a bunch of stories about an imaginary town called Schilda. In “Utopia,” people of good sense, left on their own, solve problems and build a perfect society. In Schilda, people of good sense, left on their own, indulge in group-think and manage to mess up everything. They were a dystopia, a true city of fools.

“Utopia” was popular among scholars, but the Schilda stories, written in German, were wildly popular among all Germans—non-Jews and Jews alike. German Jews heard about the stories and wanted to read them. They could speak and understand German. They could read Hebrew. But few Jews back then could decipher the German alphabet. The obvious answer was to publish the in transliteration, sounding out the German in Hebrew characters. So the first “Chelm” stories were stories of the wise men of Schilda.

Press ahead 200 years and the Schilda stories were still being told and retold, printed and reprinted by Germans and Jews, but the Jewish versions had become more and more Yiddish. As Jewish variations crept into the stories, Jews discarded the town name of Schilda (no Jews lived there) and, by 1867, one version of the stories used the town name of Chelm for the very first time.

You know the rest. You saw it on Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the 20th century, a bunch of Yiddish writers grabbed the Chelm stories and they became the Jewish “Gone with the Wind.” People like Shalom Aleichem and Mocher Seforim and Isaac Bashevis Singer lengthened the stories, took away a lot of the simple humor and added a lot of pathos and bathos to turn out nostalgia for the great days of Jewish Eastern Europe. Altogether, it has to be said, between the pogroms and the Holocaust, there were probably 40 or 50 great days in Eastern Europe to remember and Yiddish literature milked them for all they were worth.

Unfortunately, by this time, all that was left of the classic Chelm canon were a choice few stories that children easily understood. For decades, the same few stories were retold and re-illustrated as children’s books portraying the 40 or 50 good days of Eastern Europe. Increasingly, Chelm’s biting satire and social commentary was blunted.

You know what they say? “Nostalgia is just not what it used to be.” For me, Chelm is humor that Jews share with non-Jews; in fact, humor that Jews learned from non-Jews, before the 19th century. Chelm is either the Jewish version of or the creative spur for the town of “Missitucky” in “Finian’s Rainbow.” Chelm is the slapstick inspiration for the Marx brothers and the three stooges. Chelm is the derivation of the comedy of Burns and Allen and Jack Benny and Phil Silvers. You just need to read these stories as pure humor, slapstick humor and classic tales of the folk. Of course, if you read my book, “The Wise Folk of Chelm,” that’s what you get.

The most repeated Chelm story of all time sums it all up. The rabbi of Chelm was asked, “Which is more important? The sun or the moon?” He replies, “The moon. The sun shines in the day when there is plenty of light and we hardly need it at all. But the moon shines at night when we can’t see much without it.”

Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “The Wise Folk of Chelm.”

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