STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
RACHEL SINGS SONGS
That was our Rachel's situation when we saw her
at the wedding of Haym ben-Tsion's daughter, at the veiling lunch, standing
outside by the door, gazing at the Mazepevke marketplace with its stores,
market women, the wagon with the lumbering oxen and the peasant boy with
the broad hat.
That was our lovely Rachel's situation at the
time she first heard that entrancing music of Stempeniu's.
Rachel loved listening to music - oh, how she
loved it! It had always given her so much pleasure! Whenever she heard
someone singing or playing a new song, she instantly took it over and sang
it in her lovely, mellow voice. Her parents would beam with
joy and say: "She's got a man's head. What bad
luck that she was born a woman, otherwise - she would have set the world
on fire . . . ."
Her parents apparently did understand that there
was some kind of ability in their daughter, something that nowadays we
call "talent." But in those days, Rachel's parents assumed that her ability
to take over and sing a tune was in her head because she had a man's head.
Among us Jews, the head plays the most important role, more than all the
two hundred forty-eight parts put together. A head, a fine little head!
That's the crowning glory for us! But, be that as it may, Rachel sang like
a free bird until fifteen or sixteen. Wherever she heard a cantorial piece,
or a Hassidic chant, or a musician's melody, anything whatsoever, Rachel
would sing it again in her own pure voice, which was a delight to hear
.... But the moment she became engaged, her mother told her:
"Enough, daughter, no more twittering! You'll
be living with your in-laws, and just imagine what kind of impression you'll
make if you suddenly start chirping away! It's not respectable!"
Rachel, of course, understood that it wasn't
proper, so she obeyed, and stopped singing .... But she didn't really stop
altogether, for sometimes a crooning would burst from her of its own accord,
out of habit, apparently, and how could she help it if the singing went
on by itself? . . . When you see where the water's coming from, you can
block it, but if you don't see, if you don't know - then what can you do?
. . . However, not only when she was engaged, but even after the wedding,
she would sometimes forget herself, forget what she was, and she would
burst out singing as in the past, let herself go as she used to do when
she was a girl. She would forget that her mother-in-law was in the room,
listening to every word she sang:
Oh there, oh right there,
"Oh, goodness me! Oh, what am I doing?" Rachel cried
out and pulled herself together upon catching sight of her mother-in-law.
In that very spot,
Two doves are standing, a pair!
Cooing a lot, and kissing a lot,
And how could they care?
Cooing a lot, and kissing a lot . . . .
"Now, now, it doesn't matter!" her mother-in-law
calmed her down, pretending not to notice, sniffing and peering into a
jar of preserves. "You know, Rachel, I'm worried the gooseberries won't
turn out. I had the same rotten luck a year ago: eight quarts of preserves
went bad on me...."
And needless to say, Rachel would never have
sung in Moyshe-Mendel's presence for anything in the world: it would have
been very silly and awfully unpleasant - opening her mouth right in front
of her husband and singing.... Perhaps Moyshe-Mendel wouldn't have minded,
he might have been very interested. He had heard her crooning a few times
and he knew that she had an angel's voice. But how would he have looked
to himself if he suddenly sat down in his own home - and listened to his
wife singing songs? A fine thing for a respectable young man! If he happened
to hear her by chance - then okay.... And it did happen, but very seldom.
At such times, Moyshe-Mendel would stop, all ears, and then cough as though
he were only just arriving, and enter the room as though nothing had happened....
Rachel spent an entire year like that, all alone,
among good and loyal people, who were utterly devoted to her; and you can't
say that her life was good, and you can't say that her life was bad. She
felt alien with her relatives, solitary in her family, deserted among good,
loyal people. Sitting morosely over her work, some piece of embroidery,
Rachel would hum to herself out of habit, and all at once her heart would
ache, and she would yearn for the place where she had spent her childhood.
Dvosse-Malke often liked to tiptoe in and eavesdrop
on her singing daughter-in-law.
The golden birds,
Over all the seas,
You golden birds,
To my mother dear!
The golden birds,
Over all the rivers,
You golden birds,
To my father dear . . . .
"What's wrong, Rachel, are you homesick?"
"Oh, no, mother-in-law .... I'm just humming,"
answered Rachel, smiling and wiping her tears.