STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
AND ONCE AGAIN RACHEL
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,
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
"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,
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
"What is it, Moyshe-Mendel?"
"What do you mean what is it?"
"Why are you 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?"
"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
"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.