How the Wise Men Got to Chelm

The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition

336 pages

2 figures, 13 halftones, 1 map

October, 2016

ISBN: 9781479828449



Add to Cart Available: 9/16/2016

Also available in


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.

All books by Ruth von Bernuth

How the Wise Men Got to Chelm is the first in-depth study of Chelm literature and its relationship to its literary precursors.  
When God created the world, so it is said, he sent out an angel with a bag of foolish souls with instructions to distribute them equally all over the world—one fool per town. But the angel’s bag broke and all the souls spilled out onto the same spot. They built a settlement where they landed: the town is known as Chelm. 

The collected tales of these fools, or “wise men,” of Chelm constitute the best-known folktale tradition of the Jews of eastern Europe. This tradition includes a sprawling repertoire of stories about the alleged intellectual limitations of the members of this old and important Jewish community. Chelm did not make its debut in the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence until late in the nineteenth century. Since then, however, the town has led a double life—as a real city in eastern Poland and as an imaginary place onto which questions of Jewish identity, community, and history have been projected. 

By placing literary Chelm and its “foolish” antecedents in a broader historical context, it shows how they have functioned for over three hundred years as models of society, somewhere between utopia and dystopia. These imaginary foolish towns have enabled writers both to entertain and highlight a variety of societal problems, a function that literary Chelm continues to fulfill in Jewish literature to this day.


  • "Using the example of 'foolish' culture, von Bernuth shows that Jews shared the assumptions, themes and expressions of the general German culture, while lending that culture a Jewish inflection. Yet, social barriers persisted. Von Bernuth illuminates this paradoxical combination of cultural partnership and social alienation, showcasing the relationship between minority and majority groups. Her book is a milestone in both literary history and cultural studies." 

    —Moshe Rosman, author of How Jewish Is Jewish History?

  • "This book is deeply learned, immensely sympathetic, and refreshingly free of cultural anxiety or chauvinism, Ruth von Bernuth squarely sets this famous genre within a milieu that is at once thoroughly Germanic and distinctively Jewish, and she carefully traces the continuities and transitions from early modern to twentieth-century expressions. Very wise indeed, this is a model analysis of the creative workings of not only Jewish but other diasporas as well."

    —Jonathan Boyarin, Diann G. and Thomas Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Cornell University

  • “One can only wonder what the Wise Men of Chelm would have said about a book like this. It has all the scholarship one could ask for but also an ability to home in on basic questions. It offers a sense of perspectiveand a sense of humor. It breaks the canonsit is fun to read and is a mine of information. It transforms a collection of stories that are usually dismissed as light reading for children into a powerful tool for understanding how different cultures learn from each otherand also maintain their identities. The author shares her knowledge generouslybut never forgets the basic humanity of the figures about whom she writes. The Men of Chelm would probably say: Start reading and see if you can stop!

    —Shaul Stampfer, Sandrow Professor of Soviet and East European Jewish History, Hebrew University

  • "A beautifully-written work of meticulous scholarship. How the Wise Men Got to Chelm is the first book in any language to fully explore the humor and the seriousness in one of the most enduring and beloved legends of popular Jewish culture. Von Bernuth not only traces the origins of the fools of Chelm, but goes further to illuminate what these stories reveal about the intersections of European and Jewish cultures and the shifts in Jewish cultural development over a three hundred year period."

    —Anita Norich, Tikva Frymer-Kensky Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan

  • "Bernuth...provides a detailed and comprehensive examination of the evolution of some of the best-known Yiddish folk stories--those revolving around the comically foolish men of the town of Chelm--that places those tales in historical and cultural context."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "von Bernuth succeeds admirably in showing how the mythic locale allowed for the expression of various Jewish fantasies and anxieties over the past century and a half, and indeed continues to do so today."

    Times Higher Education

  • "[Von Bernuth] provides a comprehensive survey of all the collections of Chelm stories and their predecessors published since 1700, shows how the tales explored Jewish identity, community and history, and delivers a few punch lines."

    The Jerusalem Post

  • "How the Wise Men Got to Chelm shows how these stories have changed over time to include debates about the efficacy of Zionism or communism, or to discuss the apparent silliness of Hasidic traditions."

    Times Literary Supplement