Sunday, November 16, 2008

History - The Serious Side of Chelm

Jewish History No One Knows (But Should Know)
From articles written for the Yated Neeman (USA)

by Avraham Broide
(Jerusalem based translator and journalist.
phone: 02-5856133; email:

The Chelm people laugh at was a parallel universe of a real Chelm where Jews lived, learned, prayed, kvetched and died much the same as Jews everywhere else.

You want to know the truth? Chelm was really a perfectly normal town, practically indistinguishable from hundreds of similar shtetls peppered over Poland and Russia. So how did that vibrant little community become buried beneath a mountain of jokes? The Chelm Memorial Book published after World War II devotes some pages analyzing this weighty question.

According one opinion, the Chelm humor tradition, like so much Jewish humor, was rooted in tragedy.

The story began with an Easter Church procession in 1580 that degenerated into an anti-Semitic riot. Ruffians attacked the Jews in the middle of their Passover prayers and a number of them barricaded themselves with shutters on the shul's roof. Afterwards, people joked that the Chelm Jews had installed shutters on their roofs instead of in their windows and, for better or worse, the town's reputation was sealed.

According to another theory, people picked on Chelm because in Slavic cholem means a fool.

Most likely, however, people picked on Chelm for the same reason other nations picked on particular towns as the butt of their jokes. The ancient Greeks picked on Abdera, the Syrians picked on Sidon, the English picked on the village of Gotham, the Dutch picked on Compen, the Arabs picked on Chevron, and Germany picked on number of towns including Shilburg. In fact, the 1597 publication of a Yiddish book titled, “Shilberg, a Short History,” provided much of the raw material later utilized for Chelm jokes.

For a while, Chelm jokes were an oral tradition. They first appeared in print after a small booklet printed in Vilna in 1867 included a chapter titled “the Wisdom and Witticism of a Certain Town Ch.,” and from then on Chelm jokes were fruitful and multiplied.

In the fullness of time, the real Chelm morphed into a full-fledged parallel universe.

Chelm was once a regular town, it was said, until one day when the angel that dishes out men's souls winged over the place hauling a sack of foolish souls on his back. Now, as everyone knows, Chelm lies adjacent to a sharp peaked mountain. This ripped open the sack, the souls plunged downwards, and ever since the town was never quite the same.

Despite their intellectual shortcomings, the Chelm Jews were of a different stamp than run-of-the-mill fools. Their idiocy stemmed not from lack of intelligence but from their insistence on being over clever, a trait known in Yiddish as being an uber chacham.

For example, the town's charity box was hung high beneath the shul's ceiling as a precaution against theft. When people complained that they could not reach there to drop in their donations, the town's wise men hit on the solution of propping up a ladder beneath to enable people to climb there. Chelmites always knew how to leap between the horns of dilemma.

When the town sexton complained that he was getting too old to make his early morning rounds rapping on people's shutters to wake them for prayers, the city elders collected the populace's shutters and piled them up in his house. Now he could rap them without having to stir outdoors. In his earlier years, when he complained that his shoes got filthy trudging through the town's muddy alleyways in execution of his duties, the town had appointed four strapping youngsters to carry him around the streets on a door.

The real Chelm was a different place altogether where perfectly regular Jews lived, learned, prayed, kvetched and died much the same as Jews in other towns.

Jews first arrived in this small Polish town that lies 40 miles south-east of Lublin in about 1300, in order to wheel and deal with traders passing through on international trading routes between the Black and Baltic seas. Come to think of it, Chelm wasn't such a miserable place after all. By the middle of the 16th Century it boasted a population of 371 at a time when even the capital of Cracow only had 1,800 Jews. It also had its own yeshiva and a cadre of prominent rabbis and sages.

By the outbreak of World War II, Chelm had a population of about 15,000 Jews, including refugees. Most of them perished. Although the Chelm district lies right on the Eastern border of Poland next to Russia, and was the first Polish district liberated from the Nazis in 5704/1944, by then it was too late; most of Chelm's Jews had perished in the nearby Sobidor Extermination Camp and those who struggled back were greeted with hatred.

But the legacy of Chelm humor lives on, helping to soften the hard bumps of life's road.

1 comment :

  1. I have a cousin from Chelm. If she's representative, then the stories ARE true!


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