In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Fair
All of Vaysechvoos was bustling with excitement. The people could hardly believe the news. From the rabbi’s door to the farthest sheep meadows the word traveled. Their own very little shtetl of Vaysechvoos had been chosen to host the annual fair! Why, it was the greatest honor ever bestowed on the humble village and its citizenry.
Up until now, Vaysechvoos had been the recipient of nothing but an amused sort of sympathy from the neighboring villages. When a student was chosen to go study with the esteemed Rabbi Avraham in Vilna, you could be sure he didn’t come from Vaysechvoos. When a long forgotten, distant relative died and left a considerable fortune to his poor shtetl relatives, it was impossible to conceive of that family being residents of Vaysechvoos. And when an unusually abundant harvest of crops came which would assure a populace of a more bearable winter, the town so blessed would never be Vaysechvoos.
So no one could quite understand why this time should be any different. But it was true. Artisans and townspeople from all the towns for miles around would be coming to Vaysechvoos to display their wares. The displays this year were to follow the theme of praising the Almighty, and each crafted entry was to be examined by a panel of pious judges.
To guard against favoritism there would be two judges from each of the four nearby shtetls–two from Vaysechvoos, two from Cholmecz, two from Zhitomir and two from Berditchev. At the end of the fair, just before sundown, the judges were to meet and cast their votes for the entry which best expressed the theme. Still, everyone was afraid that each judge would vote for the item entered from his own town and there would be no clear winner.
So the organizing committee came up with a plan. The entries would not show the names of their owners or towns but would be marked by a special code known to only one person. The person selected was Pinhas the Mute, a resident of Vaysechvoos who had been unable to speak from birth. He seemed the ideal choice. No one could pressure him to disclose the code, because he wouldn’t be able to tell them. Pinhas would have it all written down and hidden in a very special place.
He was a trustworthy worker, this Pinhas. He had done hard labor since he was eight and had acquired a reputation for being reliable and dependable, a silent rock of strength. On the day of the fair he was to come to the judging area at a certain time late in the afternoon, after the final decision had been made, and publicly identify the person whose name was associated with the code attached to the winning entry.
But right now there was work to be done. The people of Vaysechvoos could think of nothing but the fair and devoted their energies to preparing their finest work for display. There was a proliferation of Mogen Davids on tapestry and leather bindings for the holy books. Children ran wild and husbands came home to cold Shabbat meals as the women of Vaysechvoos transferred their energies to working on their special fair projects. The unspoken question was, whose craftsmanship would show the most honor and reverence for the Almighty?
The nimble fingers of Berish the Tailor worked busily on a prayer shawl.
The strong arms of Feivel the Carpenter hammered steadily away on his own chosen project–carving a new shulchon for the shul.
Leah the Rabbi’s Daughter was fashioning a special tablecloth to be used for Shabbat meals.
Blind Shlomo the Sign Painter was covering a new canvas with his mind’s-eye view of the upcoming fair.
Zeidel the Tanner concentrated his efforts on intricately designing new bindings made of the finest of leathers for the rabbi’s holy books.
Yetta the Potter (yes, Yetta the female Potter) painstakingly painted a brilliantly colored design on a beautiful clay pitcher she had shaped and glazed.
Menachem the Philanthropist-Farmer had a wife who made and embroidered the cover for the Torah scroll. It was the finest velvet and silk. Hannah, wife of Shimmon the Shammes, fashioned an extravagantly decorated tapestry–a panorama of what Jerusalem looked like during the second temple. This was for the study room in the synagogue.
Yossel the Butcher was preparing to bake an egg bread in the shape of a Torah.
And Karpl the Fiddler secluded himself behind one of Menachem’s barns where he could keep company with two cows, three ducks and a rooster while composing a cheerful tune of praise to the Giver of Gifts for all he had bestowed on the humble little shtetl of Vaysechvoos.
Others of the townspeople busied themselves with group preparations for the big event: building a platform for the judges’ presentation; widening the dirt streets as much as possible to make room for the merchant booths; painting the shul. Zvi the Innkeeper looked forward with great enthusiasm to the increased business which the fair would surely bring him, and Reuven the Peddler stocked up on every item he could, to ensure a good inventory for the throng of potential customers.
Finally the long-awaited day arrived. Hundreds of people seemed to stretch the streets of Vaysechvoos until it looked as if the little shtetl would burst. Hannah exclaimed, There must be a thousand people in Vaysechvoos today!” as she methodically directed the visitors to the synagogue entrance (which just happened to hold her tapestry).
The eight appointed judges, two from each shtetl, spent the day walking up and down the lines of tables, stopping at each display and stroking their beards, murmuring to themselves and nodding thoughtfully.
By the time the sun had gently lowered itself toward the horizon, the crowd had hemmed in the judges’ platform. The visitors noisily argued back and forth, comparing opinions of who would be the winner, as the citizens of Vaysechvoos hurried home and changed into their best clothing for the final presentation.
Berish was strutting about in a brand new suit he had made just for this occasion, thinking how handsome he would look as he stepped forward to claim the prize. Yetta had put on her finest dress and felt sure she’d won. Not to be outdone, Leah had arrayed herself in a shawl made from the fringed material out of which she had cut the tablecloth which, of course, would be the winning entry, she told her smiling father. And so it went, on down the line.
Finally it was time to announce the winner. The judges gathered on the platform, each whispering his decision to the chairman of the fair before sitting down at the rear of the platform. As the chairman stepped forward, the chattering of the townspeople quieted and a hush settled over Vaysechvoos.
“My kind friends,” said the chairman, “thank you all for coming and for waiting so patiently for the judges to make their decision. We all agree that there were many fine entries in this, the very first fair to be held in our little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. I’m sure that our Lord must be pleased at the many lovely ways which the townspeople of our shtetls found to honor him.” The chairman paused, cleared his throat, stoked his beard and continued.
“As you know, two judges from each of the villages were chosen to make up the panel. And as you know, a special code was used to mark the entries so that the judges would not know who had made what. It is now a special joy for me to tell you that all eight judges selected the very same entry as being unique, that which best and most creatively expresses the theme of showing honor and praise for the Almighty.”
A ripple of excitement stirred the crowd; the people leaned forward in anticipation. “Ah, but first,” said the chairman, raising his arms and beckoning, “we need Pinhas the Mute to come forward with the code so that we may award the prize to its rightful owner.” No one stepped forward. “Has anyone seen Pinhas?” the chairman asked, in irritation rising in his voice. “Why is Pinhas not here?”
The fair committee members gathered at the foot of the platform and spoke among themselves. Finally one of the committee members from Cholmecz stepped forward. “Sir,” he said, “we were told that Pinhas works at hard labor from early in the morning, and that he would very likely use a day like today to get some much needed rest. We were also told that he is a sound sleeper. I made it my responsibility to get him here on time, and I can’t understand what could be wrong. Why, this morning I went to his home with an invention to wake him. It’s called an alarm clock, which I set for the proper time and left by his bed.”
At this the people of Vaysechvoos started to laugh hysterically. “An alarm clock he used!” Yetta shrieked through her laughter, wiping tears away.
The young committee member turned bright red and murmured indignantly, “This is funny?”
It was the chairman who finally composed himself enough to answer. “He is not only mute, our Pinhas. He is deaf! I’m sure the alarm clock did no good in waking him up!”
The Sage of Vaysechvoos stepped forward, motioning for silence. “I’m sure we can continue without Pinhas. The people gathered here are trustworthy.” He held up the winning entry, a beautifully embroidered cloth for covering the Shabbat bread, and asked, “Who claims this as their own?” It was so delicately made, people gasped and murmured their assent with the judges’ decision as they waited for the skilled woman who had made it to come forward and be recognized.
Yet no one responded.
“Does no one take credit?” asked the sage.
There was silence.
“Either the maker of this treasure is of extreme humility…or they’re not too bright,” the sage chided gently.
Murmuring filled the crowd again as the judges gathered once more. And once again, the sage listened quietly before speaking. “We have decided that, since we have encountered no one of humility among the entrants here today, the winner must not be present.”
The crowd voiced disappointment, but the sage continued. “The only person of all the district villages who is not here today is Pinhas. He may not have a good sense of time, but he does have a sense of beauty.”
And so it was. The sage was right. Pinhas the Mute, upon awaking, found himself surrounded by well-wishers, some of them awe-stricken. some jealous, some delighted, but all of them puzzled that something of such great beauty could have come from such an unlikely “artist.” And from Vaysechvoos yet!
But as the plan of the Most High would have it, Pinhas’ embroidery skill gained such a reputation that he was recruited to work for one of the finest shops in Kiev. And when people asked him where he first got his start, he couldn’t even tell them “Vaysechvoos” because of his inability to speak. Ah, poor Vaysechvoos…destined to be forever unknown for anything.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.