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The Topography of Folly and the Invention of Chelm

The collected tales of the wise men of Chelm constitute the best-known folktale tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe. This tradition includes a rich repertoire of stories treating the intellectual limitations of the perennially and proverbially foolish members—and leaders—of the old and important Jewish community of Chelm. The town does not make its debut in the role of the foolish shtetl par excellence until late in the nineteenth century. But since then, it has led a double life—as a real city and as an imaginary place onto which questions of Jewish identity, community, and history have been projected. My talk will explore the earliest collections of Chelm stories and places their appearance in the context of rising European nationalism and the Jewish response to it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Ruth von Bernuth is assistant 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. Her research interests are in literature and culture of the late medieval-early modern period with a special interest in German and Yiddish literature. She published articles on disability history, folly literature, and Old Yiddish literature. Her recent book Wunder, Spott und Prophetie: Natürliche Narrheit in den Historien von Claus Narren (Niemeyer 2009), focuses on ideas of natural folly in early modern German literature. She is currently completing a book manuscript on “How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tale Tradition.”
Lunch will be served.



Wednesday, February 19, 2014. 12:00 PM


Pigott Hall (Bldg. 260), Room 252


The Department of German Studies




Free and open to the public