STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
A FIRE IS KINDLED
In the town of Mazepevke, there is a monastery, which, they say, was
built by Mazepa. A high, white stone wall surrounds the monastery on all
four sides and occupies three-quarters of the town. On one side of the
wall, there are shops in niches, and on the other side, deep cellars, where,
they say, the highwaymen hid all their weapons, and where apples and all
kinds of goods are now stored. The third side of the wall is overgrown
with brambles and guarded by tall poplars and other trees, beyond the wall,
in the big Monastery Garden. The fourth side of the wall is bare and smooth,
crumbling in many spots and losing clay and bricks, so that for many years
it's been in need of repair. Facing it there are houses and cabins, yards
and patches, both Jewish and Christian, and the narrow street running between
the bare wall of the monastery and the houses is called Monastery Street.
There, on Monastery Street, in a corner where the trees begin, our
lovers had their first rendezvous: Rachel and Stempeniu.
Readers, who are used to "highly interesting" modern romances, have
suffered enough from this novel, which has had no tearful scenes, no assignations.
No one has shot himself, no one has poisoned himself, we have met no counts
or marquis. We keep seeing only ordinary people, musicians and everyday
Jewish women. These readers must be looking forward to Saturday night,
they are waiting for a piquant and titillating scene on Monastery Street....
But I have to say in advance that their expectations are useless. There
won't be any piquant and titillating scenes because our Rachel hasn't come
here for any sinful purpose, God forbid, she hasn't come here like a debauched
woman hurrying to kiss her lover in the darkness, heaven forfend! Rachel
only wanted to ask him how he, Stempeniu the Musician, had the nerve, the
chutzbah, to write a letter to her, Isaak-Naphtali's daughter-in-law, Moyshe-Mendel's
wife, and such a letter to boot!...
"I have to give him a piece of my mind!" she thought to herself. "I
have to make it clear to him once and for all! What's the old saying? 'It's
better to let off steam right away....' "
This thought did not come to her suddenly. Rachel had had a whole week's
time and even more, all day Saturday, to think it over and, oh me, oh my,
what things she had thought in that one day! What a terrible struggle she
had had with her temptation.... No, the word "temptation" isn't proper
here at all. How did she, a Jewish wife, who had never read novels and
never known about romances, except for the story that her friend Haia-Etel
had told her (may she rest in peace), the story we talked about earlier
- how did Rachel come to feel temptation, love? Nonsense! If she were still
unmarried, it would be different. She'd be - how can we put it? - a free
bird, her hair still uncovered, an independent person. But she was a young
wife, and an extremely pious wife at that, and of an excellent family!
She was enraged at herself, a blazing fire, and she could find no rest.
First she lay down on her bed, but then she felt all stirred up like a
feverish invalid, who feels sick at heart and bored to death - he only
wants to dash out into the world.... Rachel got up and went over to the
Rene, the Yiddish Bible version for women. She opened up in the middle
of Genesis and - how odd! Her eyes fixed on the verses: "And Dinah the
daughter of Leah which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters
of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite... saw her, he
took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. And his soul clave unto Dinah.
Now the Bkhai writes: 'Shechem talked her into it....
Rachel gazed at her Tsene Rene, which her mother-in-law had
given her when she was still engaged, and little by little she began forgetting
that she was sitting with the Bible, and her thoughts wafted over to him,
to Stempeniu, to Monastery Street, under the trees, where he had promised
to wait for her .... And no sooner did Stempeniu enter her thoughts than
she felt drawn to him, like a magnet, and she didn't understand what was
"I only want to ask him what he wants from me and why he's bothering
And now Rachel remembered her friend Haia-Etel, may she rest in peace,
and the way she had suffered because of her Benjamin.... But Haia-Etel
was related to Benjamin and she was only a girl, while she, Rachel, was
a married woman, a "matron" (oh dear, what a harsh word for a Jewish woman).
And he - who was he? A musician! What business did he have with her? Who
did he think he was anyway writing letters to her! That no-account fiddler!
That brazen good-for-nothing!
"Come hell or high water," she decided. "Come hell or high water,.
I have to tell him. Why should I be afraid of him? I'll meet him, I'll
go there, it won't matter - nobody'll see me. I'll just dash over for a
minute, it's not far, it's just across the way...."
And Rachel looked through the open window into Monastery Street and
saw the trees, the high poplars, standing proudly, and she heard the birds
singing so beautifully from the garden. And her thoughts wafted over to
the place where she would see him and talk to him privately, within an
hour or even less. And she felt her heart pounding and struggling and (the
truth, we have to tell the truth!) the minutes were long for her - she
could hardly wait, if only it were night. Her father-in-law and her husband
would come back from synagogue and perform the ceremony closing the Sabbath,
her mother-in-law would change her clothes and start carrying on about
the samovar and the borsht for the final Sabbath meal - and that's when
Rachel would slip into her shawl and walk slowly, towards the door, step
outside, just as if she were going for a stroll - who would take a second
look at her? Until she came there, where.... Oh, her body trembled, her
cheeks burned, and her heart - oh, her heart! It practically leaped out
of her body, and she felt more and more drawn to that place and that was
all she could think about. She saw nothing before her eyes, only the trees
of Monastery Garden, only Stempeniu with his blazing eyes. She heard nothing,
only the lovely singing of the birds in the garden, and that godlike playing
of - Stempeniu. At this point, Rachel - was totally absorbed in one thought
to get there, to Stempeniu, be there, with Stempeniu, and nothing in the
world could have held her back....