Through many years of Jewish folklore, the ancient town of Chelm has borne the brunt of buffoonery. There is even considerable mythology about how the folklore of Chelm came to be in the first place.
From the YIVO encyclopedia entry we learn that the use of Chelm as a locale for folk stories began sometime around the mid-1800s and remained a constant feature in Jewish folklore. It is unclear why Chelm was the locus for these stories, with some speculating that it was a result of a rivalry with another town and others claiming that Chelm earned its reputation purely by chance. With no documentary evidence denoting the history of the use of Chelm as a center for Jewish morons, the city’s folkloric status is based solely on conjecture.
Some social critics see Chelm jokes as a way to mitigate the power of those in authority, even as it applies to Rabbinic Law.
But more often, Chelm jokes were held by Rabbis themselves paradoxically to be capable of imparting true wisdom. Take for example this parable in Chelm involving two farmers who were cousins, used to impart an important lesson in objectivity versus subjectivity based on perspective.
There is some irony, therefore, that the town of Chelm which sits on the border between the Ukraine and Poland is now playing a very serious role as a refugee site for embattled Ukranians fleeing the invasion from Russia. Some have suggested that Chelm is serving as a pivot point for Ukranians and Poles to unite in solidarity as they did in World War II. Presumably this solidarity will serve to protect the lives of refugees, in contrast to the way in which Jews were led to slaughter in last century’s Poland.
A centerpiece of our imagination in childhood, Chelm has re-emerged in a very telling way as no laughing matter.