Are We the Fools of Chelm?

by Bob Schwartz

In the legendary town of Chelm, the men are fools who think they are wise.

Chelm is actually a real town in Poland, a city of around sixty-seven thousand today. Ruth von Bernuth writes in How the Wise Men Got to Chelm:

Chelm has played the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence since the end of the nineteenth century. The tales of its so-called wise men, a sprawling repertoire of stories about the intellectual limitations of the perennially foolish residents of this venerable Jewish town, have come to constitute the best-known folktale tradition of eastern European Jewry.

There are many Chelm stories, most famously retold by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had an affinity for these “wise men.” His story The Elders of Chelm & Genendel’s Key begins:

It was known that the village of Chelm was ruled by the head of the community council and the elders, all fools. The name of the head was Gronam Ox. The elders were Dopey Lekisch, Zeinvel Ninny, Treitel Fool, Sender Donkey, Shmendrick Numskull, and Feivel Thickwit. Gronam Ox was the oldest. He had a curly white beard and a high, bulging forehead.

Since Gronam had a large house, the elders usually met there. Every now and then Gronam’s first wife, Genendel, brought them refreshments—tea, cakes, and jam.

Gronam would have been a happy man except for the fact that each time the elders left, Genendel would reproach him for speaking nonsense. In her opinion her highly respected husband was a simpleton.

Once, after such a quarrel, Gronam said to his wife, “What is the sense in nagging me after the elders have gone? In the future, whenever you hear me saying something silly, come into the room and let me know. I will immediately change the subject.”

Genendel thought a moment and suddenly exclaimed, “I have it.”


“When you say something silly, I will come in and hand you the key to our strongbox. Then you’ll know you’ve been talking like a fool.”

“When you say something silly, I will come in and hand you the key to our strongbox. Then you’ll know you’ve been talking like a fool.”

Gronam was so delighted with his wife’s idea that he clapped his hands. “Near me, you too become clever.”

Soon a problem arose requiring Gronam’s wisdom:

A few days later the elders met in Gronam’s house. The subject under discussion was the coming Pentecost, a holiday when a lot of sour cream is needed to eat with blintzes. That year there was a scarcity of sour cream. It had been a dry spring and the cows gave little milk.

The elders pulled at their beards and rubbed their foreheads, signs that their brains were hard at work. But none of them could figure out how to get enough sour cream for the holiday.

Suddenly Gronam pounded on the table with his fist and called out, “I have it!”

“What is it?”

“Let us make a law that water is to be called sour cream and sour cream is to be called water. Since there is plenty of water in the wells of Chelm, each housewife will have a full barrel of sour cream.”

“What a wonderful idea,” cried Sender Donkey.

“A stroke of genius,” shrieked Zeinvel Ninny.

“Only Gronam Ox could think of something so brilliant,” Dopey Lekisch proclaimed.

Treitel Fool, Shmendrick Numskull, and Feivel Thickwit all agreed. Feivel Thickwit, the community scribe, took out pen and parchment and set down the new law. From that day on, water was to be called sour cream and sour cream, water.

Of course:

That Pentecost there was no lack of “sour cream” in Chelm, but some housewives complained that there was a lack of “water.” But this was an entirely new problem, to be solved after the holiday.

Gronam Ox became famous all over the world as the sage who—by passing a law—gave Chelm a whole river and many wells full of sour cream.

Are we fools like the wise men of Chelm? We are if our confidence in our wisdom precludes the possibility of our foolishness. We laugh at the absurdity of proclaiming water to be sour cream and at those who foolishly agree. We need enough humility and doubt to avoid being a laughingstock or worse. We need someone to hand us a key when we have been talking like a fool.