Translated and edited by Joachim Neugroschel


Stempeniu. That was a sort of nickname he inherited from his father. His dad, may he rest in peace, was a musician, he was known as Beryl the Bassist or Beryl of Stempeni, a village in the area of Mazepevke. He played the bass and he was also a good wedding Jester, a fine rhymester, a crafty prankster, he disguised himself as a beggar at all weddings, twisted his eyes, danced like a bear, mimicked a woman in labor yelling "Oh God, oh God, I swear on a stack of Bibles it'll never happen again! . . ." Or else he let out a stream of water in the middle of a room so that all the men rolled up their coattails and the women lifted their skirts. Or else he hung some sort of rubbish on the mother-in-law's apron, and he played further tricks and hoaxes galore.
They had been musicians for generations. Beryl the Bassist or Beryl of Stempeni, as we know, played the bass. Beryl's father, Shmulik the Trumpeter, had played the trumpet. His grandfather, Faivish the Cymbalist, had played the cymbals, and his great-grandfather, Ephraim the Violist .... In short, Stempeniu came from a long line of musicians, and he wasn't the least bit ashamed (unlike many Jewish craftsmen, who, just between you and me, are ashamed of what they are). And no wonder: The name he made for himself in Mazepevke, the renown he acquired throughout the world - those were no mean accomplishments. Now there was a musician for you!
It was an honor for Jews everywhere to hear Nissi Belzer sing, Godik the Wedding jester recite, and Stempeniu play. Which goes to show that Stempeniu was no run-of-the-mill fiddler, no garden-variety performer, and there must have been solid reasons for the fame he enjoyed among the great. Jews love music and have an ear for song-which even our enemies cannot deny .... Though you may counter that Jews don't get that many chances to listen to music - what reasons do we have for celebrating? How often can we just start playing or dancing at the drop of a hat? But, say what you like, we are still mayvens, experts on singing, playing, and everything else. Why, if a cantor should come to town, we all go running for tickets, and having musicians at a wedding is a downright obligation for us, we would give a bag of borsht just to hear the band playing as the happy couple begin to sip the golden broth-not a merry ditty, of course, a merry one comes later. The company sits about in great respect, the musicians play a doleful tune, a mournful, plaintive dirge. The fiddle weeps, and the rest of the band accompanies it very sorrowfully. The audience is seized with melancholy, and everyone feels grief, a pleasant grief, but still a grief. "Each guest becomes wistful, lowers his head, and, rubbing his finger on his plate or kneading balls from the fresh challah, he drifts off in his own thoughts, his own sad thoughts, for each guest must have his own worries, and trouble is one thing a Jew doesn't go borrowing. And so, the gloomy playing and the dismal thinking fuse into one, and every moan of the violin touches the hearts of the wedding guests and finds an echo there. Any heart, especially a Jewish heart is a fiddle: You squeeze the strings and you draw forth all kinds of songs, mostly sad and gloomy songs .... All you need is the right musician, a master violinist, the kind of master that Stempeniu was.
Oh, what a master he was! He would grab the violin and apply the bow, just one stroke, nothing more, and the violin had already begun to speak. And how do you think it spoke? Why, with words, with a tongue, like a living human being - if you'll forgive my mentioning them in the same breath. It spoke, pleaded, crooned tearfully, in a Jewish mode, with a force, a scream from the depths of the heart, the soul. Stempeniu would lean his head to one side, the long, black shock of hair flowing across his wide shoulders, his eyes, his black, burning eyes, peering upward, and his lovely radiant face would suddenly turn as pale as death. Another minute - and no more Stempeniu! All you could see was a hand flying up and down, up and down, and you could hear all kinds of sounds, and all sorts of singing came pouring out, dark, melancholy, cutting to the quick, piercing the soul, shattering the mind. The audience was fainting, languishing, perishing in every limb. Hearts filled up, they overflowed, and tears came to all eyes. Jews sighed, Jews moaned, Jews wept. And Stempeniu? Who cared about Stempeniu? Not even Stempeniu knew where he was. He did what he had to do, he fiddled, and that was that! And when he stopped playing, he threw down the violin and put his hand to his heart. And his eyes burnt like Sabbath candles, and his beautiful face shone in ecstasy. The listeners awoke as though from sleep, a sad but sweet sleep, and they gave voice to their enthusiasm, all of them at once. They oohed, they aahed, they mmmmed, they lauded, they were beside themselves, they couldn't stop praising him.
"Ooh, Stempeniu! Ah, Stempeniu!"
And the women? What can I tell you about the women? I doubt very much whether they shed as many tears on the Day of Atonement as they did for Stempeniu's music. You mustn't even weep as much for the Destruction of the Temple as the women wept during Stempeniu's playing.
"If only God will let me have Stempeniu for my youngest daughter's wedding! Oh, Lord, oh Lord!"
And thus the women made their wishes, wiped their red, swollen eyes, blew what was left in their noses, and, while they made their wishes, their strings of pearls and gold earrings, and rings, and brooches, and necklaces, and all the other Jewish baubles twinkled and glittered and sparkled.
And then there were the girls, the young ladies. They were shackled to the earth, like mannequins, gaping at Stempeniu and his violin, not stirring a limb, not batting an eyelash, but somewhere, inside their corsets, hearts were fluttering, and concealed sighs kept escaping . . . .

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