STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
ALL IS NOT LOST
Poor, poor Stempeniu! . . .
But it's not quite what you think. You don't have to feel all that
sorry for our hero. He may not have had much say in his home and he certainly
didn't wear the pants there. But to make up for it, he had his world, a
world of his own, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Freydel. In his
world, Stempeniu was a king, and, as we shall see, he was very happy there.
First of all, he spent half the day rehearsing, that is to say, playing
the new numbers over and over again with the band; they would kid around,
listen to the jester's quips, and laugh at
Mekhtshi the Drummer, whom the jester liked to tease. Then they would
tell one another stories about some wedding or other. For every Jewish
wedding has its story. At one wedding, the bridegroom dug in his heels,
and, come hell or high water, he refused to go to the wedding canopy until
they paid out the dowry ruble by ruble, right then and there. At another
place, the bride wept so much that she fainted dead away and they could
barely revive her - and all the while the jester kept cracking jokes. At
a third wedding, a fine thing happened: After the dinner, when it was time
to dance - And the musicians burst out laughing, like cannonfire.
"What are you guys carrying on about? Just get a load of their tomfoolery!"
Freydel shouted from her room.
"Don't let it bother you!" Stempeniu replied arrogantly. "Haven't I
told you a hundred times to keep your nose out of our business!"
And at that moment, Stempeniu felt like the master of the house, a
true sultan in his home.
The rest of the time Stempeniu spent dressing, grooming, caring for
his clothes, polishing his boots to make them shine like mirrors, combing
his hair so stylishly, curling his lovely, black curls, smoothing his white
dickey, and then he picked up his cane, a cane with a small knob, a fig
carved out of ivory, and he donned a broad, black cap with a shiny vizor
pulled down to the eyes. Tilting his head so that the curls were spread
on his shoulders, Stempeniu went and took a walk through the town. He had
his friends here, whom he would meet, and strolling past the shops, he
greeted the young wives, the shopkeepers. The women flushed, they remembered
they had been girls once and they had known Stempeniu back then .... Those
were the days .... And now? Who thought about it now? . . .
But still, you can find such young wives nowadays, and especially girls
who stand talking to Stempeniu for a long time at the door, talking, chatting
about this and that, laughing ....
Naturally, such things can't just happen like that, a neighbor sees
them and she goes and tells another, a third one, the rumor begins, and
when Jewish tongues wag about you, you'll never hear the end of it.
"What's all this gossip about, Stempeniu? Have you done it again?"
"Done what again, Freydel?"
"Done what again?! . . . How can you ask! Everyone's gossiping about
you. We're the talk of the town."
"I don't know what you want from me, Freydel."
"What I want from you? I want you to change your old habits .... It's
about time! Wherever there's a young wife or girl in town, you have to
get to know her and stop to talk to her for three whole hours - you just
can't get your fill!"
"Oh? Are you possibly referring to the fact that I was talking to Esther?"
"Oh, of course, Esther, what could be wrong with talking to Esther?!
What is she anyway, a holy saint or something?!"
"I was speaking to her about a business matter."
"You and your business matters .... I know you, Stempeniu!"
"Well, you oughtta know about it. Her father wants to have the wedding
in Yehupets, that's a crazy whim of his. Well, I ran into Esther, so I
discussed the matter with her. Wouldn't it be a drag if I let a wedding
like that slip away from me?"
"How did he ever hit upon Yehupets, the lunatic!" asked Freydel, and
her green eyes lit up with the fire that always flashed in them whenever
she sniffed money ....
"How can you ask questions about a lunatic?" replied Stempeniu, escaping
the matter unscathed.
And that's how matters were taken care of, that matter and all matters.
Stempeniu had a sharp mind and he knew how to get around Freydel.
Out of town, when Stempeniu went traveling with his band, he was, of
course, even more successful. There he had, as the saying goes, "a kosher
pot and a kosher spoon" - he could do whatever he wanted to, and when Stempeniu
came to some shtetl to play a wedding, he just didn't feel like leaving
it anymore. There he had "matters" upon "matters," cheerful ones and dismal
ones without end. In short, that was a special world for Stempeniu, his
very own world, which Freydel was not allowed to enter for anything in
the world, even though she very much wanted to. She actually tried to bribe
Mekhtshi the Drummer, but it didn't work. Here, in his world, Stempeniu
was a new man, totally different from the Stempeniu in Freydel's house.