STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
SAMSON PUTS HIS HEAD IN DELILAH'S LAP
Freydel put down her foot and got her way: She married Stempeniu according
to the law of Moses and Israel, and once she got her hands on him, she
really took him in hand. She got a little help from her Mama, who was finally
seeing the proud and joyful day when she became a mother-in-law, and Stempeniu
had a taste of hell and he was not disappointed. The newlyweds moved to
Mazepevke, and Stempeniu settled down there with his band, a resident,
in one place.
"It's over, Stempeniu, no more wandering around! Your traveling days
are done, Stempeniu, done!" said Freydel to her husband, who was all hers
now, and she did whatever she wanted to with him - or else!
After the wedding, another life began for Stempeniu, a brand-new life.
He had been a spirited bachelor, but no sooner was he married and in Freydel's
hands than he lost all his strength, all his courage, all his brilliance.
At home, Stempeniu had no say whatsoever.
"Just remember, your business is the band and weddings. What do you
need money for, silly?" That's what Freydel would say, taking every last
kopek he ever earned.
Freydel was the picture of avarice. She had grown up in a very poor
family and had almost never set eyes on a kopek. As a girl, she hardly
ever got a ribbon or a comb, and then only with bitter tears. She went
barefoot till the age of fifteen, acted as nanny to the younger children,
and got more than her share of slaps from her mother as well as her father,
Shaike the Fiddler, who was a drinking man. She ate next to nothing, she
dressed to match her bare feet and it was only on Purim that a few kopeks
came her way, for delivering Purim presents to other people's homes. She
would stash those kopeks deep in her bosom, so that her Mama wouldn't trick
her out of them, and she slept with her hoard until Passover, when she
bought herself a ribbon or a comb. And that was Freydel's life until she
reached eighteen, when she suddenly grew into a tall, a lovely, a healthy
girl - ready for marriage! When Freydel got engaged to Stempeniu, she herself
didn't realize how lucky she was. Only her mother, who did realize it,
argued away at her, setting her straight: She ought to know that her. fiancé
was making a mint, but that he was a rather frivolous sort, and he spent
money like it grew on trees, she shouldn't let him get away with murder,
she had to keep him under her thumb, the way her mama did with her papa,
Shaike the Fiddler ....
When Freydel married Stempeniu, she didn't forget her mother's advice;
little by little, and cleverly, she taught her husband the meaning of the
word "wife," she explained that a husband can have no secrets from his
wife, a wife is not an outsider, she's not a mistress, no, she's his flesh
and blood, she is him and he is her. In a word, he had to know, he had
to feel that he had a wife ....
When Freydel began running her own household and kept seeing new rubles
that Stempeniu earned so often, she pounced
on them like a starving man spotting food. But she didn't enjoy the
money. Freydel was worried that they might be penniless from one day to
the next, her husband might not earn money later on, God forbid. So she
made herself a little pouch and began saving kopek after kopek.
"What are you hidin'?" asked Stempeniu, noticing her movements.
"Curiosity killed the cat. Don't get any gray hairs over it, Stempeniu!"
Freydel answered with a smile, and kept doing what she had to, skimping,
scrimping, scanting at the market, the store, the butcher's, serving just
barely enough for lunch, often not eating or drinking enough, scraping
together ruble after ruble. Gradually, when she had gotten together a tidy
little sum, she started lending money on security and charging interest.
The first time, it just happened, it was an accident, a neighbor had asked
to borrow some money, and Freydel did her the favor. Why not? And then,
when she saw that the money was growing, and that one ruble became two
in the course of time, she began doing business with her small capital,
until she simply became a "usurer" with all the trimmings and all the stuffings
of this profession, which a lot of our rich people indulge in (this is
just between you and me) and don't really dislike at all ....
How peculiar! Where did Freydel get her lust for hoarding money? Not
from her papa, Shaike the Fiddler, nor? could she have seen the like among
any of the renowned musicians. Where will you find anyone comparable to
musicians, who never turn over a kopek and who spend money like water.
,Jewish musicians - especially in those days - were like Gypsies, a special
tribe, with a special jargon, and with special ways of their own. They
always had a good time, it was always Purim for them, life was merry, lively,
they fiddled, frolicked, fooled around, worked, carried on, played wild
pranks, talked about cheery things .... When they came home to their wives,
they joked, gobbled up beans and dumplings or else tightened their belts,
but they were always romping, dancing, frisking, going to bed hungry, borrowing
money the next day, pawning their pillows, redeeming them and then pawning
them all over again. The daughters of musicians were usually joyous and
frivolous creatures themselves, there were no veils on their hair or their
lives .... In a word, the musicians lived in paradise, with all the virtues
and faults of paradise .... And in such an eden, who would ever dream of
worrying about tomorrow?
Naturally, Freydel's papa was no tearful sort. Shaike the Fiddler was
as poor as a synagogue mouse, but a jolly and jovial mouse, and whenever
he earned a ruble he caroused it away in the twinkling of an eye, as they
say. And Freydel's mama liked to live well, that is to say, eat well. They
hardly had a shirt to their names, but as long as there was a pillow to
be pawned they always ate. "All our good luck goes straight to our bellies
.... How does the old proverb go? 'It's better to deal with the baker than
the doctor.' Eat, drink and be merry!" That's what she'd say, Freydel's
mama, who was a spendthrift even for a musician's wife.
So how did Freydel get to be the way she was? Where did she get her
stinginess? Perhaps it came from want, from always being penniless in her
parents' home. Or maybe it was natural with her. Maybe a stingy soul had
gone astray into the musician's family and been reincarnated as Freydel.
Whatever it was, Freydel made weird grimaces, sweated, and frothed
even if she only talked about money.
All the musicians' wives were jealous of her. "What luck!" they said
But there was one way in which God neglected Freydel: He gave her no
children. And who knows, perhaps that too was why she was utterly devoted,
body and soul, to money - because the finest pleasure, the joy of children,
was denied her. Generally, we see that the wives whom God has not blessed
with children are nasty women, they lack the goodness, the softness of
their sex. Such women can love only themselves.
And that's the sort of woman Freydel was. But it can't be said that
she hated Stempeniu. Why should she? A handsome man, a paragon, a rare
violinist - one in a million, and - this was the nitty-gritty - a good
provider, a gold mine!
"My Stempeniu," Freydel boasted to her friends, "my Stempeniu - when
he plays a note on the strings, out comes a ruble, two notes and it's two
rubles, three notes - and it's three rubles. You understand?"
As far as rubles went, Stempeniu was the very opposite: money meant
nothing to him. He'd play at a wedding, stuff his pockets with cash, and
- before you knew it, not a kopek was left. If he had something, he gave,
he shared, he lent. If he had nothing, he borrowed. In this way, Stempeniu
was an artist. All he cared about was the band - present something new,
perform an operatic piece, contract for a wedding, do the wedding, playing
as God commanded, so that Jews licked their fingers - it was no mere scraping.
There were two things that Stempeniu loved more than anything in the
world: himself and the violin. He was busy with himself all the time: bedecking
and bedizening himself, curling his hair - in a word, making himself a
"bachelor," as Freydel so cuttingly put it, and he would then forget all
about the violin.
But when he picked up his violin, he forgot all about himself and the
rest of the world. If ever he was overcome with melancholy, he would take
his violin, chain the door, and then play his own fantasies for three or
four hours at a time, he fiddled anything that drifted into his mind. Now
he would pour himself out in a lament, so dolefully, so dismally, and softer
and softer. And then he would suddenly lose his temper and play louder
and louder, until all at once, something like a sigh. tore from the depths
of his heart, and the blaze went down - a bit, and his anger died out,
and soft melodies, dear, sweet songs, growing sadder and sadder, came pouring
out endlessly, and then he would become a little cheerier, livelier ....
Of course, that didn't happen often, the mood didn't sweep him up all the
time, but once he was lost in his violin, there was no possibility of yanking
him away. Stempeniu's imagination seethed and settled like a source - the
more, the fresher.
A person with feeling, with a soul, could not possibly have heard enough
of this free music, which cannot be committed to paper. It sounded like
an entreaty to the Lord of the Universe from a bitter heart, a prayer to
God for mercy, for compassion, the sort of prayer that has to be, that
must be accepted up there, at God's Throne .... It is said that the Rebbe
of Rizhin had his own orchestra, which played while he intoned the praises
of Him Who Lives Eternally. That was truly a thought from a great man,
an idea from a lofty poetic soul.
"Oh that bitch, Fat Kaile, may she drop dead, the dirty slob. She's
paid me the interest for last week, and for this week she says she can't
pay me till after Sabbath!"
That was the type of conversation with which Freydel welcomed Stempeniu
when he came out of his room after playing, he was still ablaze, his black
eyes were shining. That was the fire in his eyes that was so attractive.
The fire would flare seldom, and when his eyes met Freydel's, the fire
When Stempeniu came home after playing a wedding, Freydel would greet
him with a smile, fawning on him like a kitten:
"What do you need money for, Stempeniu?" Freydel would say, shaking
out all his pockets. "What good is it? What don't you have? You've got
everything you need, you're not hungry, God forbid, and you don't go naked,
and when you need a couple of kopeks, don't I give them to you? Why don't
you let me have the money? It'll be safe with me. Just give it to me, give
it to me!"
And Stempeniu stood there like a child being punished, and Freydel
twisted him around her little finger, he was like putty in her hands. Ah!
What's happened to you, Stempeniu? How can such a nobody like Freydel dance
on your head, and you let her lead you around by the nose, like Samson
putting his head into his beloved Delilah's lap? . . . Ugh! Stempeniu,
what a shame, what a terrible shame!