STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
FROM THE PRINCESS BACK TO THE PRINCE
Now let's leave the princess, as we do in Jewish fairy-tales, and go
back to the prince. We'll turn away from Rachel and talk about Stempeniu.
Granted, Stempeniu's letter, which is recorded above word for word,
was not all that skillful. But what can you do? Stempeniu was certainly
a hero, a handsome guy, a fine scoundrel, but he wasn't a writer. Go fight
city hall! His father, Beryl the Bassist, may he rest in peace, saw that
Stempeniu wanted to play music and refused to go to school for love or
money, so Beryl decided to teach him his own trade. He had him try out
all the instruments until the boy remained with the violin, and Beryl the
Bassist, who had other musical children besides Stempeniu,
actually said that Stempeniu had a streak of his grandfather, Shmulik
the Trumpeter, who had personally known Paganini. Thus, by the age of twelve,
Stempeniu could already man an instrument and play an entire wedding. That
was why Beryl the Bassist loved him more than his other children, who went
about in rags and tatters, or simply naked and barefoot. And even though
Beryl was a martinet and used to pull Stempeniu's ear, or beat him, whip
him, thrash him, break every bone in his body, the boy was nevertheless
his favorite, his jewel, a gold mine for his old age. Beryl showed his
son off to everyone, proudly saying, half in musicians' lingo: "Just look,
you bastards, my junior fiddler's gonna make bread for me in my old age.
You can bet your bottom ruble."
However, Beryl the Bassist was not fated to have his beloved son with
him in his old age. At fifteen, Stempeniu took off with three rubles in
his pocket and an old broken fiddle under his arm, and he wandered through
the world. He roamed and rambled everywhere, through so many towns and
cities, with so many different bands. Stempeniu couldn't hold out anywhere
for more than six months. He always had to keep moving; on and on: from
Mazepevke to Stepevke, from Stepevke to Korets, from Korets to Balte, from
Balte to Old Constantine, and from there to Berditchev, and on and on,
until he hit Odessa. And from Odessa, he headed back - roving from shtetl
to shtetl, where he could easily play, make a name for himself, enjoy his
reputation. And that's what happened. Any place Stempeniu came to, the
people had already heard of him. The Jews had found out that a man named
Stempeniu was vagabonding through the world, a man whose music was the
end of the world. Which explains the stir caused by Stempeniu when he and
his group reached that town. For of course, Stempeniu had his own group
by the time he was eighteen, and they wandered about, playing only at certain
weddings, rich ones. And so, in the course of time, Stempeniu beat all
the other bands, for instance the Kanatop Musicians, who were quite renowned,
the Smillers, the Vinitsers, the Sharagraders, and so many other famous
groups that the world had been listening to.
Naturally Stempeniu didn't win any friends by taking all the plums
from the other musicians, who cursed him roundly and wished him the worst.
To his face, they patted him on the back; but in their hearts, they hated
his guts. Every musician knew deep down that the moment Stempeniu picked
up the fiddle, all the other musicians might as well go to bed.
Musicians, you must know, have always loved to exaggerate. They tell
an endless wealth of fairy-tales, wondrous stories, legends. Dreadful exaggerations
were heard everywhere about Stempeniu, and it was said that his violin
came from Paganini himself. When people heard that Stempeniu would be coming
with his band, the local musicians would naturally curse their hearts out
at him, only to be outdone by their wives, whose curses would have curled
the devil's hair.
"All year long, we go hungry, we starve, we borrow, we pawn, we eat
our shoeleather, and what happens? The rich man has a wedding, and along
comes a demon, the worst devil in the world, Stempeniu, and grabs the food
from our mouths. May he rot in hell! . . ."
However, Stempeniu never had any real enemies. He was a good pal. When
the wedding was over, he would get together with the local musicians and
treat them to a lavish supper, the liquor flowed freely, they had a wild
time, everybody got some money, and before Stempeniu left, he handed out
presents to all the children. In a word, he was decent and respectable.
"You know," the musicians' wives said to one another afterwards. "You
know, there's nothing more precious than a Jewish soul."
But most of all, Stempeniu found favor in the blue or black eyes of
the musicians' daughters, the girls he got engaged to everywhere. And when
he swore to a musician's daughter that he was madly in love with her, you
could have believed him. For the time being, he really was in love with
her (musicians usually have beautiful daughters). But the instant Stempeniu
left town, his great love was gone with the wind and the smoke. And coming
to the next town, he promptly fell in love again with a local musician's
daughter, he swore again that he was madly in love with her, that he worshiped
the ground she walked on, that he couldn't live without her, he gave her
presents when he said good-bye, drove away - and went through the same
thing in the next town ....
We can't say that most of these affairs turned out all right for the
fiancees . . . . True, many of his beloveds quickly forgot all about Stempeniu
and married some other musician. But a few of them, very stubborn girls,
put so much faith in that scoundrel, really believing he would come back,
if not today then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then the day after - until
they finally began languishing and perishing. While Stempeniu was in some
darkened room, kissing a musician's daughter, any number of his brides
were lying somewhere else face down, weeping over their rotten luck, their
beloved had forgotten them, he had deserted them, never giving them a second
These were the unhappy brides that Stempeniu left in nearly every town
that he passed through with his band. But you can't win them all. Sometimes
your luck doesn't hold out, and it's your turn to weep and wail. Stempeniu's
luck ran out on him when he least expected it. He had to get married, though
that was the last thing in the world he wanted to do!