(a Yiddish folktale)
Mordecai was mayor of Chelm, a cheerful, friendly, contented fellow. He loved being mayor of the village. He liked leading meetings in the village square. He liked celebrations. He especially liked to cut ribbons to open buildings — the new school, the synagogue, the market. Everyone in Chelm knew the mayor, and Mordecai liked that. Every morning when he walked outside, dozens of people greeted him — they waved hello and called his name and stopped to gossip. When he walked to the bakery, everyone he passed called his name, and Mordecai beamed with pride and joy.
But Mordecai had been mayor for a long, long time, and Chelm was growing larger. As time passed, more and more people in the village did not exactly recognize the mayor. He was growing older, and he had begun to resemble some of the other elders of Chelm. After all, like Solomon and Zev, Mordecai’s beard had grown long and gray. Like Levi and Ehud, Mordecai’s eyebrows had become thick and bushy. And Mordecai was tall and skinny, but so were Chaim and Selig and a dozen other of the older Chelmites.
One summer morning the mayor was walking to the bakery when a woman he did not recognize stopped to greet him. “How good to see you!” she sang, and Mordecai smiled in return. The woman gushed. “You’re looking fine today, as always!”
“Why thank you!” he said, relishing the compliment.
“I hope you’ll come for Sabbath supper soon,” she said, clasping his hands in hers.
“Of course, I’d love to,” Mordecai answered; secretly he hoped that he would soon remember who this woman was.
Then she smiled and said, “I’ll send the invitation to your wife,” and she waved farewell and walked on.
Mordecai stood there, shaking his head. You see, Mordecai had no wife. He realized the woman had mistaken him for someone else altogether. She must have thought he was Zev or Selig, Solomon or Levi or Ehud. Each of those men had a wife.
This upset him terribly. Even the scents wafting out of the bakery — fresh Friday challah baking — could not cheer him. He skipped the bakery and headed straight for the synagogue. There the rabbi welcomed him. “What is it, Mordecai?”
“I am the mayor,” he said resolutely. “Everyone should recognize me!”
“That is true,” the rabbi said.
“Some people don’t!” Mordecai cried.
The rabbi wished everyone in Chelm to be happy, and if the mayor was unhappy, who knew how far the misery would spread? He would have to do something, so he said, “You must be recognized. I will speak to the wise men.”
The rabbi gathered the wise men of Chelm and explained the problem to them.
For hours the men sat around, talking and thinking until at last they came up with a marvelous idea: They would have a pair of gold shoes made for the mayor. No one else in Chelm wore gold shoes.
“Everyone in Chelm will know he is important! Everyone will recognize him!”
So the wise men sent for the goldsmith and the cobbler and instructed them to make a fine pair of gold shoes. Naturally the two men did just that. Everyone was eager to please the mayor.
When Mordecai put on those shoes, he was once again a happy man. He set off for the bakery.
Alas, the night before it had rained hard, and the streets were filled with mud. After Mordecai had walked a short way, his gold shoes were covered with mud.
“Hello, Zev!” called a woman from across the road.
“Fine day, isn’t it, Selig?” said another at the door of the bakery.
The mayor was distraught. Once again he went to the rabbi.
Again the wise men sat down and put their heads together. “We must protect those gold shoes,” they decided. So they called the cobbler and instructed him to make a cover of leather for the gold shoes, and so the cobbler did.
In his new shoes covered in leather, the mayor walked outside, but nobody could see the gold shoes, and when somebody called, “Solomon, how are you today?” the mayor nearly burst into tears.
Again he sought help from the rabbi.
This time the wise men thought for only a moment. “We’ll cut holes in the leather. The gold will shine through, and everyone will recognize the mayor!”
So the cobbler cut holes in the leather, but when the mayor saw what they had done, he exploded. “If I wear these leather stockings with holes, I’ll look like a beggar, not a mayor! What kind of wise men are you, turning your mayor into a beggar!”
Saddened by the turn of events, that night the wise men gathered and talked through the night. Just as the sun was beginning to rise, one of the wise men realized just what to do. He told the others, and they ran to tell the mayor.
“We have the solution!” they cried in unison. “You’ll wear normal shoes upon your feet and gold shoes on your hands! Everyone will know who you are!”
The mayor of Chelm was pleased with this idea. He put those golden shoes upon his hands, and although they felt awkward and he could no longer shake anyone’s hand, everyone recognized him whenever he walked through the streets. Everyone waved hello and called his name, and once again peace came to the village of Chelm — thanks to the wise men.