Chelm Stories & Motke Habad

Where the lovable fools of Jewish humor came from--and what they mean.


Reprinted with permission from
The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction
(Southern Illinois University Press).


Perhaps Jewish “humor” began when somebody wondered if maybe, just for once, God could choose someone else! Or, perhaps, Jewish humor was never really humor in the ordinary sense of the word; rather, it was a weapon in the uphill battle for survival. With no land or army of its own–with none of the rights normally given to citizens–staying alive as a people was a decidedly open question.

Nathan Ausebel claims that “as identifiable types, schlemihls and schlimazls must have sprung into being with the first drastic economic discrimina­tions against Jews by the Byzantine emperors, beginning with Justinian (530-56).”

Powerless by any conventional standards, Jews became masters in the arts of self-mockery. However, rather than merely turning the sharp edges of their humor against the oppressor, they tended to turn it inward, to establish their own humanity by comic extensions of universal follies. In Wit and Its Relation to the Uncon­scious, Freud makes the following observation:

“The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may ex­plain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes… have grown up on the soil of the Jewish popular life. They are sto­ries created by Jews and directed against Jewish characterist­ics…. I do not know whether there are many other in­stances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

Stories of Chelm

It is from these roots that the schlemiel gradually be­came a stock figure of Jewish anecdote. In some stories, he seems to be a citizen of Chelm [a mythical village populated, according to Jewish folklore, by fools] and, like each of its citizens, a misrepresenter of reality. For example, the medieval story of Shemuliel is often retold as if it hap­pened in Chelm–with the schlemiel getting the sort of “explanation” he deserves.

A young scholar of Chelm, innocent in the ways of earthly matters, was stunned one morning when his wife gave birth. Pellmell he ran to the rabbi.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.

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