Near the city of Chelm there was a village called East Chelm, where there lived a tenant farmer called Shmelka and his wife Shmelkicha. They had four daughters, all of whom slept in the same broad bed. Their names were Yenta, Pesha, Trina, Yachna.
As a rule the girls got up early in the morning to milk the cows and help their mother with the household chores. But one winter morning they stayed in bed later than usual. When their mother came to see what was keeping them, she found all four struggling and screaming in the bed. Shmelkicha demanded to know what all the commotion was about and why they were pulling each other’s hair? The girls replied that in their sleep they had gotten their feet mixed up, and now they didn’t know whose feet belonged to whom, and so of course they couldn’t get up.
As soon as she learned about her daughters’ mixed-up feet, Shmelkicha, who was from Chelm proper, became exceedingly frightened. She remembered that a similar event had taken place in Chelm many years before and, oh, how much trouble there had been. She ran at once to a neighbor and begged her to milk the cows, and she herself set off for Chelm to ask the town’s Elder what to do. Before she left, she said to the girls, “You stay in bed and don’t budge until I return. Because if once you get up with the wrong feet, it will be very difficult to set things right.”
When Shmelkicha arrived in Chelm and told the Elder about what had happened to her daughters, he clutched his white beard with one hand, placed the other on his forehead and was immediately lost in thought As he pondered he hummed a Chelm melody. After a while he said:
There is no perfect solution for a case of mixed-up feet. But there is something that sometimes helps.
He told Shmelkicha to take a long stick, walk into the girls’ room and unexpectedly whack the blanket where their feet were. “It is possible,” explained the wise Elder, “that in surprise and pain each girl will grab at her own feet and jump out of bed.” A similar remedy had once been used in such a case, and it had worked.
Many townspeople were present when the Elder made his pronouncement, and as always they admired his great wisdom. The Elder stated further that in order to prevent such an accident in the future, it would be advisable to slowly marry off the girls. Once each girl was married and had her own house and her own husband, there would be no danger that they would get their feet mixed up again.
Shmelkicha returned to East Chelm, picked up a stick, walked into her daughters’ room and whacked the quilt with all her might. The girls were completely taken aback, but before a moment had passed, they were out of bed, screaming in pain and fright, each jumping on her own feet. Shmelka, the father, and a number of neighbors who had followed Shmelkicha into the house and witnessed what had happened, again came to the conclusion that the wisdom of the Elder of Chelm knew no bounds.
Shmelka and Shmelkicha immediately decided to carry out the rest of the Elder’s advice and started looking for a husband for their eldest daughter. They soon found a young man of Chelm called Lemel. His father was a coachman, and Lemel himself already owned a horse and wagon. It was clear that Yenta’s future husband would be a good provider.
When they brought the couple together to sign the marriage agreement, Yenta began to cry bitterly. Asked why she was crying, she replied, “Lemel is a stranger, and I don’t want to marry a stranger.”
“Didn’t I marry a stranger?” her mother asked.
“You married Father,” Yenta answered, “and I have to marry a total stranger.” And her face became wet with tears.
The match would have come to nothing, but luckily they had invited the Elder of Chelm to be present. And, after some pondering, he again found the way out. He said to Yenta, “Sign the marriage contract. The moment you sign it, Lemel becomes your fiancé And when you marry you will not be marrying a stranger, you will be marrying your betrothed.”
When Yenta heard these words, she was overjoyed. Lemel kissed the Elder three times on his huge forehead, and the rest of the company praised the wisdom of the Elder of Chelm, which was even greater than that of wise King Solomon.
But now a new problem arose. Neither Lemel nor Yenta had learned to sign their names. Again the Elder came to the rescue:
Let Yenta make three small circles on the paper, and Lemel three dashes. These will serve as their signatures and seal the contract.
Yenta and Lemel did as the Elder ordered, and everybody was gay and happy. Shmelkicha treated all the witnesses to cheese blintzes and borscht and the first plate naturally went to the Elder of Chelm, whose appetite was particularly good that day.
Before Lemel returned to Chelm proper, from where he had driven in his own horse and wagon, Shmelka gave him as a gift a small penknife with a mother-of-pearl handle. It happened to be the first day of Chanukah, and the penknife was both an engagement gift and Chanukah present.
Since Lemel often came to East Chelm to buy from the peasants the milk, butter, hay, oats, and flax which he sold to the townspeople of Chelm, he soon came to visit Yenta again. Shmelka asked Lemel whether his friends in Chelm had liked his penknife, and Lemel replied that they had never seen it.
“Why not?” Shmelka asked.
“Because I lost it.”
“How did you lose it?”
“I put the penknife into the wagon and it got lost in the hay.”
Shmelka was not a native of Chelm but came from another nearby town, and he said to Lemel, “You don’t put a penknife into a wagon full of straw and hay and with cracks and holes in the bottom to boot. A penknife you place in your pocket, and then it does not get lost.”
“Future Father-in-law, you are right,” Lemel answered. “Next time I will know what to do.”
Since the first gift had been lost, Shmelka gave Lemel a jar of freshly fried chicken fat to replace it. Lemel thanked him and returned to Chelm.
Several days later, when business again brought Lemel to East Chelm, Yenta’s parents noticed that his coat pocket was torn, and the entire left side of his coat was covered with grease stains.
“What happened to your coat?” Shmelkicha asked.
Lemel replied, “I put the jar of chicken fat in my pocket, but the road is full of holes and ditches and I could not help bumping against the side of the wagon. The jar broke, and it tore my pocket and the fat ran out all over my clothes.”
“Why did you put the jar of chicken fat into your pocket?” Shmelka asked.
“Didn’t you tell me to?”
“A penknife you put into your pocket. A jar of chicken fat you wrap in paper and place in the hay so that it will not break.”
Lemel replied, “Next time I will know what to do.”
Since Lemel had had little use out of the first two gifts, Yenta herself gave him a silver gulden, which her father had given her as a Chanukah gift.
When Lemel came to the village again, he was asked how he had spent the money.
“I lost it,” he replied.
“How did you lose it?”
“I wrapped it in paper and placed it in the hay. But when I arrived in Chelm and unloaded my merchandise, the gulden was gone.”
“A gulden is not a jar of chicken fat,” Shmelka informed him. “A gulden you put into your purse.”
“Next time I will know what to do.”
Before Lemel returned to Chelm, Yenta gave her fiancé some newly laid eggs, still warm from the chickens.
On his next visit he was asked how he had enjoyed the eggs, and he replied that they had all been broken.
“How did they break?”
“I put them into my purse, but when I tried to close it, the eggs broke.”
“Nobody puts eggs into a purse,” Shmelka said. “Eggs you put into a basket bedded with straw and covered with a rag so that they will not break.”
“Next time I will know what to do.”
Since Lemel had not been able to enjoy the gifts he had received thus far, Yenta decided to present him with a live duck. When he returned, he was asked how the duck was faring, and he replied that she had died on the way to Chelm.
“How did she die?”
“I placed her in a basket with straw and covered it well with rags, just as you had told me to. When I arrived home, the duck was dead.”
“A duck has to breathe,” Shmelkicha said. “If you cover it with rags, it will suffocate. A duck you put in a cage, with some corn to eat, and then she will arrive safely.”
“Next time I will know what to do.”
Since Lemel had gained neither use nor pleasure from any of his gifts, Yenta decided to give him her goldfish, a pet she had had for several years.
And again on his return, when asked about the goldfish, he replied that it was dead.
“Why is it dead?”
“I placed it in a cage and gave it some corn, but when I arrived it was dead.”
Since Lemel was still without a gift, Yenta decided to give him her canary, which she loved dearly. But Shmelka told her that it seemed pointless to give Lemel any more gifts, because whatever you gave him either died or got lost. Instead Shmelka and Shmelkicha decided to get the advice of the Elder of Chelm.
The Elder listened to the whole story, and as usual clutched his long white beard with one hand and placed the other on his high forehead, and after much pondering, and humming, proclaimed:
The road between East Chelm and Chelm is fraught with all kinds of dangers and that is why such misfortunes occur. The best thing to do is to have a quick marriage. Then Lemel and Yenta will be together, and Lemel will not have to drag his gifts from one place to another, and no misfortunes will befall them.
This advice pleased everyone and the marriage was soon celebrated. All the peasants of the vilage of East Chelm and half of the townpeople of Chelm danced and rejoiced at the wedding. Before the year was out, Yenta gave birth to a baby girl and Lemel went to tell the Elder of Chelm the good tidings that a child had been born to them.
“Is the child a boy?” The Elder asked.
“Is it a girl?”
“How did you guess?” Lemel asked in amazement.
And the Elder of Chelm replied, “For the wise men of Chelm there are no secrets.”