“There’s a whole vein of Jewish humor which refers to the Polish town of Chelm [which is] full of fools, who consistently do unwise things. So, for instance, at one point, they decide they need to build a new synagogue. In order to do so, they need to go into the mountains and get large rocks. Several men go up and carry these rocks down. When they get to the bottom, one of the townspeople (it may have been the rabbi) is all, “Why didn’t you just roll them down?” They all think this is a fantastic suggestion, so they take the rocks back up the mountain, and roll them down.”
Leslee was born and raised in a Jewish community in Kansas and currently lives in Illinois. She shared this folklore and remarked (re: the jokes about Chelm), “The town actually exists, though the folklore doesn’t really relate to the actual town.”
Her observation is a very prescient one, because the Chelm jokes are classic examples of blason populaire, folklore designed to perpetuate group stereotypes (often negative) and establish identity in opposition. The idea that one define who one is by defining who one is not. In this case, the idea is “At least we’re not those fools in Chelm.”
The choice of Chelm is interesting, and although there is not a definitive answer as to why Chelm is the town of choice, it is worth noting that it is a place that has had a thriving Jewish community since at least the 14th century, although historically, there was longstanding tension between Jews and gentiles, including a massacre in the 17th century and a violent takeover by the Nazis in 1940. Today, the Jewish community makes up approximately 51% of the population of Chelm. It would seem (although there is clearly no historical basis for the choice) that the decision to base the “fools of [X]” jokes in Chelm was one made affectionately and in good (forgive the pun) humor.
More information on the history of Chelm itself can be found here.
Annotation: More funny stories of Chelm can be found in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Asubel (New York: Crown Publishers, 1948).