Even though the shtetl of Vaysechvoos was little, it was not without a reputation. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the little shtetl had garnered quite the lack of a reputation.
It wasn’t that people had never heard of Vaysechvoos. In fact, it was Vaysechvoos’ ordinariness for which it was most well known. Ah, Vaysechvoos,” people from other villages would say, “isn’t that the place that has never really amounted to much?” Or, “Shame, he probably would have made something of himself if he’d had a better yichus, but let’s face it, has anything extraordinary ever come from Vaysechvoos?”
Now, by and large, this “non-reputation” of Vaysechvoos didn’t bother most of the shtetl’s residents. As long as the czar let them be and life remained relatively peaceful, most people were content.
But then there was Hershel, the shtetl’s tailor, who came from one of the oldest families in Vaysechvoos. He had grown tired of his beloved home being known for nothing. “Surely,” he thought, “somebody at some point must have done something of renown, something of distinction.” And so he began to do some research, poring over records kept by the various self-appointed village historians over the years. Of course, when we say “historians” you have to realize that we’re talking about people like Natan, the village butcher, or Lazar, the village cobbler. Between grinding meat and stitching leather soles, their records were somewhat incomplete. And though Hershel hated to admit it, the records were pretty…well, boring. His eyes grew as heavy as his mother’s matzo balls as he read through the accounts.
As much as he searched, scoured and studied, he could not find one remarkable thing that anyone in Vaysechvoos had ever done. “What kind of legacy will we leave,” he wondered. “Years from now, will anyone know we even existed?”
And then he found it. As he looked up the records of people who had been born in the shtetl (since the time when somebody decided that it might be a good idea to record such things) his eyes fell upon a name: Lazar Levken. “Could it be?” Hershel wondered. “Was it THE Lazar Levken, the famous poet?” It must be, for how many Lazar Levkens were there in the world? Hershel immediately forgot his weariness, as he jumped up and let out a geshrei.
The next day he posted a sign at the entrance to the dirt road that led into Vaysechvoos. There was already a sign that read, simply: “Vaysechvoos.” With a little effort, Hershel changed the sign to read, “Welcome to Vaysechvoos, original home of the renowned Lazar Levken.”
Everyone was buzzing about this great revelation. Some could scarcely believe it, especially those in the neighboring towns. “Is it possible that such a master could have really come from Vaysechvoos?”
And then things started happening rather rapidly. With a bit of research and a lot of speculation, Hershel felt that he could pinpoint almost exactly where Lazar Levken was born. So he made another impressive sign. People began to travel to Vaysechvoos just to visit the spot. Hershel put together a “Guide to the Significant Lazar Levken Sites in Vaysechvoos.” Granted, there weren’t very many such sites, but the local merchants were happy to sell these guides. All in all the townspeople had much to rejoice over; they had never seen so much hustle and bustle in the shtetl. Travelers en route to other destinations worked Vaysechvoos into their plans. There was even talk of constructing a boarding house for all these visitors to stay in, not to mention naming the main road that ran through Vaysechvoos, “Lazar Levken Road.” Yes, to the townspeople, the future seemed brighter than they could ever remember it seeming before.
But such good mazel is often temporary. One day, as Hershel was touching up the sign at the entrance to the shtetl, he heard the rapid approach of a horse behind him. He turned around and saw a messenger boy, who rather haughtily thrust out a piece of paper to Hershel. “Please deliver this to Hershel, your town historian,” the boy said with an air of what Hershel described as “the most official of business.” Then the boy turned and rode away quicker than he’d come.
Hershel looked at the stamp on the folded piece of paper and grew excited. “Kiev!” he exclaimed, “Now why would someone in the great city of Kiev be writing me, unless…” He eagerly unfolded the piece of paper, thinking that surely someone in Kiev had heard about Vaysechvoos’ recent discovery. Perhaps they were writing to congratulate the shtetl, or to tell them they were finally going to be put on the map. Hershel’s eyes grew big as he glimpsed at the signature at the bottom of the note: “Lazar Levken”!
The letter contained only a few lines in very fine handwriting. Hershel began to read them aloud to himself: “My dear sir, I’m sorry to inform you, but I have never stepped foot in Vaysechvoos. Sincerely, Lazar Levken.”
Hershel let the note drop to the ground. In disbelief and dejection he wandered to the spot he had been so sure (or almost sure) was Lazar’s birthplace. A tear came to his eye, but he wiped it away quickly. He looked up and saw the Sage of Vaysechvoos watching him. “What’s wrong, Hershel?”
“It’s not true, Teacher. The records were wrong. Lazar Levken wasn’t born here after all. I’m a fool.”
The Sage thought for a moment, then rested a hand on Hershel’s shoulder. “Not at all, my dear Hershel. You wanted to make a name for Vaysechvoos. And that’s understandable. But with a great name often comes great responsibility, or even great grief. Why, just look at Rome or Babylon—those great empires that were toppled. Perhaps we’ve been spared some misery after all.
“And besides, Hershel, you can’t force greatness upon a place. Only the Almighty determines this. And sometimes he chooses the least of places to be the greatest, or the most humble surroundings to bring forth splendor. That’s just the way he works.”
Hershel trusted the great Sage’s words, yet he could not resist returning to the shtetl entrance and retrieving the letter from Lazar Levken that had fallen to the ground. He tucked it in his pocket for safekeeping. It was probably the most famous letter anyone in the shtetl ever received.