How the Wise Man Got to Chelm

The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition

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Ruth von Bernuth
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , October
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As foolishness is often received with dismissal from a serious and sober public, so too is scholarship about such foolishness often dismissed in the academy. Yet Ruth von Bernuth works hard in How the Wise Men got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition to make known a historical discourse of folly, and bring it into the academic sphere.

The stories of Chelm have developed an established place in Jewish lore and literature during the past hundred years. Chelm is an imaginary, Eastern European shtetl, or village, in which many of its Jewish inhabitants are constantly running into conundrums. These problems are solved through the ingenuity of the “wise men of Chelm,” men who conjure up what the reader knows to be utterly foolish and self-defeating “solutions.” Somehow, however, the townspeople are always satisfied with the result. These clever and humorous stories, originating in the Middle Ages, remain popular folklore among contemporary Jews. Where did these stories come from, and just how far back does this folk tradition go? How the Wise Men got to Chelm digs into Chelm’s past to find a more than five-hundred-year-old tradition of Chelm literature, situating its origins within a larger German genre of folly literature.

The method employed throughout this book is one of comparison. The reader learns about the development of Chelm stories by first understanding the striking similarities—and fascinating differences—between these stories and their German counterparts, the medieval Lalebuch and Schildbürgerbuch. This was a type of folly literature circulating throughout Germany during the sixteenth century concerning the silly and irrational solutions to problems that the townspeople of Schilda or Lalen concoct. For example, in one very Chelm-like story from the Lalebuch, von Bernuth summarizes the story goes as follows: "[a] further mishap occurs when one of the Lalen is decapitated, or so it appears except that no one can remember whether the man had anything on his shoulders before the apparent accident took place. Subsequently, another of the Lalen becomes so obsessed with trying to teach a cuckoo to cuckoo better that he climbs up a tree and remains there, oblivious to everything else, even when a wolf comes along and eats the horse he left at the foot of the tree" (64).

Von Bernuth is largely able to carry out her project, as she sharply observes, due to the fact that “research on the Schildbürgerbuch began uncommonly early—in the first half of the eighteenth century—thanks to the historian and educator Johann Christian Schöttgen” (66). She tells the reader both tidbits of these text’s hilarious tales, while pointing to larger themes and questions one must consider. For example, she discusses “folly societies” in medieval Europe, both serving to “represent and celebrate … maleness” while also “expos[ing] other men as fools for failing to live by the social norms of the community” (69). Eventually, these stories and texts made there way into the “Yiddish canon,” with a Yiddish Schildbürgerbuch emerging later in the eighteenth century. While appreciating the uniqueness of the still-extant Chelm tradition, von Bernuth also makes clear the literary and social culture in which this literature emerged.

In a sense then, von Bernuth does something beyond teaching her readers about Chelm: she leads by example in showing how one can research anything; that nothing is too foolish for analysis. In so doing, von Bernuth discovers and exposes a world of material and a five-hundred-year-old folk tradition that no other writer has adequately addressed. She does so in a convincing and enjoyable way. This book is therefore highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Slutsky is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth von Bernuth is Associate Professor in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures and Director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



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