During the 18th and 19th centuries the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe developed as a world apart. Religious, social and political forces kept Jews isolated in their communities except for the weekly market day that brought them into contact with their Russian neighbors. It was in this insular world that Jews made use of a tool that was their eternal birthright – words. The religious binding force of the shtetl was Torah study, the constant effort to understand the full meaning of the word of God. But under the growing influence of Haskalah, Jewish enlightenment, words also found their way into the secular realm of Yiddish literature where all the emotional complexities of shtetl life were explored in the deft writings of Jewish authors like Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
One branch of this blooming Yiddish literature was the development of a distinctly Jewish humor.
Pointed, sharp and witty, Jewish humor developed to serve a number of purposes; certainly to amuse, but also as a subtle release of the oppression of shtetl life. Echoes of shtetl humor were carried with the millions of Jews who left Russia and came to America. The Jewish humor of the shtetl was heard again in an Americanized version in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills and the comedic shtick of Jewish comedians like Groucho Marx, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Joan Rivers.
One form of shtetl humor was the sly, self-deprecating stories of Chelm (“Chelm” is best pronounced by clearing your throat), known as the village of fools. Stories of how foolish Jews could be carried by the subtext that we are smart enough to make fun of ourselves. The self-deprecating Chelm stories were the quintessential inside Jewish joke. Jews would read them, smile and reclaim their fellowship with other Jews. Even the legend of how Chelm was founded shows insight into the elements of religion, mysticism and fantasy that went into the Jewish comedy of the time. Here, then, is how the village of Chelm was founded.
When God was populating the earth, he sent two angels with sacks carrying Jewish souls. One sack was filled with the souls of wise people, the other the souls of foolish people. God’s instruction was to distribute the wise and foolish souls evenly so there would be an even mix of the two. Unfortunately, one day the angel carrying foolish souls stumbled and a large number of foolish souls spilled out of her sack. The place where this excess of foolish souls fell was called Chelm. When the stumbling angel reported her mistake to God, He told her not to worry, it would be fun to watch what happens to this collection of impudent souls. Here is such a story of the Jews of Chelm:
On the morning after a snowstorm, the wise men of Chelm were admiring the undisturbed beauty of the snowscape when the synagogue caretaker, the shammus, trudged through the snow to open the synagogue and proceeded to mess up the winter scene. The elders of Chelm decided something had to be done to preserve the beauty of fresh snow and they spent the proverbial three days and three nights considering the problem until they came up with a solution. To keep the shammus from trampling through the snow they would have him sit on top of a table carried by four men. Thus elevated, the shammus’s feet would never disturb the snow.
Quite satisfied with their solution, the wise men of Chelm waited impatiently for the next snowstorm.
Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on modern Jewish history, especially the people and events that led to a Jewish homeland. Herb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.