Translated and edited by Joachim Neugroschel


There, with her in-laws, a new world began for Rachel. Everyone liked her instantly, the daughter-in-law, and the only daughter-in-law, and a lovely, intelligent daughter-in-law. And they doted on her, indulged her, they wouldn't allow a speck of dust on her chair. And the most doting of all was Dvosse-Malke, who was delirious at her good fortune and ready to lay down her life for Rachel. It was always "Rachel dear!" and "Rachel dear!" whenever there was a fat piece of meat, a juicy bone, a tasty morsel - always "Rachel dear!" No sooner would Rachel open her eyes in the morning than-aha!-the pitcher of chicory stood on the table. And Dvosse-Malke, who was actually a very busy person, a market woman - Dvosse-Malke would scurry about, making sure her daughter-in-law got everything the moment she needed it.
"Oh, please don't go to all this trouble, mother-in-law."
"No trouble at all. Drink, Rachel dear! Eat, Rachel dear!"
Another time, the mother-in-law came dashing home from the market up in arms, she burst into the kitchen, yelling at the hired help, cursing and scolding violently as though someone were murdering her.
"What's wrong, mother-in-law?" asked Rachel.
"I thought you were awake ages ago - and the milk is still standing there, boiling and boiling! Dammit, may the maid boil and steam! And I have to run around like a chicken without a head! The store's mobbed, God preserve us! And he, my dear husband, just stands there with his hands behind his back like some in-law at a wedding! I begged him to take home these two fresh bagels! In case you're hungry - eat them, Rachel darling, they're good bagels, I always get my bagels from Leytsikhe, I refuse to get them anywhere else, not for a king's ransom - May God help her, the poor thing, what a horrible time that drunkard of a husband gives her! How can such a monster exist on God's earth?!- I just don't understand it .... He's just an embarrassment to the father, may he rest in peace .... Yes, now what was I saying? Oh, I'm in such a dither! Wait, here she comes, our great beauty-the maid! Where've you been all day?!"
And out came a new series of screams and curses about Rachel's milk, about Rachel's chicory, about Rachel's breakfast in other words, the whole house whirled around Rachel. Even the father-in-law, who was always preoccupied with himself and his business dealings, constantly looked in on her, asked after her.
All this wooing and worship were actually very unpleasant for Rachel and made her uncomfortable. And to tell the truth, Rachel wasn't as fond of them as they were fond of her.
When we say "they," we mean her father-in-law and mother-in-law, of course. We're not including Moyshe-Mendel, the chief personage, for the relationship between the young people couldn't actually be called good or bad. They never talked very much with one another, and they really couldn't talk: A young man like Moyshe-Mendel can't just sit down at home, right smack in the middle of the day, and talk to his wife. And in the evening, if they did happen to be alone in a room, it never lasted for more than a minute. Either Isaak-Naphtali dropped in to see how they were, or else Dvosse-Malke brought in a pitcher, or a cup, or a glass, or a bowl.
"Just try it, Rachel dear, for curiosity's sake, and have a taste of these preserves."
"Goodness, mother-in-law. I've tasted these preserves a hundred times already!"
"C'mon, child, what are you talking about! You've never even laid eyes on these preserves!"
And Rachel had yet another taste of the preserves, which were already coming out of her ears.
"Gracious me, Rachel darling, you're just wasting away. How can you eat so little! I just don't see what keeps you alive! Goodness gracious me! If anyone from Skvirre sees you, they'll curse the dickens out of me! 'A fine mother-in-law! May she rot!' That's what they'll say! 'A fine way to feed a daughter-in-law! Hanging's too good for such a mother-in-law!' Please, just eat something for my sake!"
"Please don't, mother-in-law. I've had enough, really, I've had quite enough."
"Please, just as a favor to me, daughter. You can do a favor for your mother-in-law once in a while. Pretend I'm your mother! just take a teensy bit, and don't be so mean to me!"
And Rachel choked down a teensy bit more, and she had more than enough, she was fed up with this life of hers, even though she knew they were loyal to her, completely devoted, and if she had wanted the blue of the sky, they would get it for her. Could there be any excuse? If Rachel had a wish, it had to come true!
However, a human being's not an ox, not a goose, content just to be well-fed. A human being can't get much pleasure from having people run after him all the time, everywhere, worshiping the very ground he treads on, always at his heels, eyeing his every last morsel, every last sip, standing over him when he sits down, sitting over him when he sleeps - in a word, clutching his entire life in their hands and not leaving anything up to him ....
That was Rachel's dismal situation at the time this story takes place. Rachel didn't even have someone she could complain to. Her parents thought she was happy, and their letters to her were always full of pride, joy, and blessings to God for all He had done for them. And her letters to them were also filled with "blessings and success," with "joy and pleasure," with "Blessed Be His Name," and with "knock on wood," and they always ended with "happiness and joy," and "joyous hearts, amen selah!"
Deep in her heart, she bore a grudge against Moyshe-Mendel because he kept far away from her and acted kind of superior to her, not like her equal, as is the custom of a young Jewish man, a gem! He can't go down to his wife's level, it doesn't seem right to him, it's unpleasant .... But in his heart of hearts, Moyshe-Mendel didn't dislike her, on the contrary, he was devoted to her, very devoted, quite naively so, in fact. Once, Rachel was quite ill and spent a few days in bed. Moyshe-Mendel never left her side, he moaned, he worried, he exhausted his strength.
"The poor thing!" he said to his mother, and there were tears in his eyes. "We've got to call the doctor or the healer. I can't stand this, she's burning up! The poor thing!"
By the third day, Rachel got better. Moyshe-Mendel never left her side, and, sitting there, by her pillow, he now had a chance to talk a bit with his dear, lovely Rachel. To tell the truth, both of them wanted to talk. Moyshe-Mendel sat very close to her, so close that her lovely face, wrapped in a white cloth, was almost in his hands .... Rachel raised her blue eyes to Moyshe-Mendel and waited for him to say something. Moyshe-Mendel looked down. But when she turned her head towards the window, he looked at her, and when she looked at him, he turned his head towards the window. And so they kept glancing at each other for a long while without speaking. This was the first time after a whole year of marriage that the couple had a chance to talk in private, but they couldn't quite arrange it, they didn't know how to start. Rachel, being the woman, had the right to wait until he spoke, and Moyshe-Mendel, being a fine young man, waited until she spoke - and meanwhile, both kept silent, exchanging glances.
"What is it, Moyshe-Mendel?"
"What do you mean what is it?"
"Why are you staring?"
"Who's staring?"
"You're staring."
"I'm staring?"
"Well, who is staring?"
Rachel turned to the wall, and Moyshe-Mendel began chewing on his beard, gazing at Rachel for a long, long time, and sighing, until she turned her head and caught him gazing and sighing.
"What is it, Moyshe-Mendel?"
"What do you mean what is it?"
"Why are you sighing?"
"Who's sighing?"
"You're sighing."
"I'm sighing?"
"Well, who is sighing?"
And again they fell silent. Moyshe-Mendel moved even closer, cleared his throat, and tried to begin:
"Listen, Rachel, about what you said?"
The door burst open and in ran Dvosse-Malke with a clamor:
"For goodness' sake! Didn't I know the turkeys would smash my china?! He got a yen for turkeys - just like that! All at once! . . . How're you feeling, Rachel? You know what? I think you've got a fever. I can tell. Didn't I warn you not to stand outdoors without a scarf! Don't ever stand outdoors without a scarf? I sent for Kussiel the healer again. Isaak-Naphtali went himself."
"Why bother, mother-in-law? It'll pass, I'm getting over it. I'm going through a transition now."
"With you, everything's a transition. A fine transition! Come, come, child, just listen to yourself! I'll have to sit down here for a while . . . ."
And Dvosse-Malke pushed a chair over to the bed and sat down.
"You know what, Momma?" Moyshe-Mendel suddenly exclaimed. "Why don't you go to the store? I'll sit with her."
And his eyes met Rachel's eyes, and he could read in them: "Oh, Moyshe-Mendel, you've hit the nail on the head!"
"Are you kidding?!" replied Dvosse-Malke and moved closer to the bed. "Go to the store?! What's the big loss? Those huge amounts I take in?! My worst enemies can have them! With all my heart! Listen, Moyshe-Mendel, why don't you go to my bedroom and take a nap on your Papa's bed! You haven't slept all night, you know!"
And that was how they lived, the happy but shackled couple, they had room and board, but never a moment to themselves, they were always under the wings of the good parents, the devoted parents-in-law. And neither the husband nor the wife grumbled, neither complained to the other. Moyshe-Mendel just kept on: He would look into a holy book, do a bit in his father's business, he had his buddies with whom he sometimes had a good time in the synagogue or the market. In a word, Moyshe-Mendel just kept living.
But Rachel didn't live at all. She ate and drank, she tasted her mother-in-law's preserves twenty times a day, never did a lick of work, never got together with other people, since Isaak-Naphtali's. daughter-in-law can't associate with "just anyone," and "just anyone" is not going to associate with Isaak-Naphtali's daughter-in-law, for just anyone" considers himself much finer, wealthier, and more genteel than Isaak-Naphtali, and Isaak-Naphtali considers himself wealthier and more genteel than all the householders in Mazepevke - and so time stretched on for Rachel, as in a prison: eating again, sleeping again, a cup of coffee again, a dear mother-in-law with preserves again, and so on and so on, a whole long year.

Back to library

Back to
Back to Shtetl