STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
THE FIRE BURNS AND THEN GOES OUT
And as for Sternpeniu, no sooner was it night than he sent his band
out to the zmires, the traditional pre-wedding party, where the
girls get together with the bride and dance. Then he took the violin under
his arm so that Freydel would think he was going to the wedding. But once
he left the house, he handed the instrument to Mekhtshi and then he sped
to Monastery Street, and he paced up and down in the shade of the trees,
stopping every minute to see if Rachel was coming, beautiful Rachel. He
never doubted for an instant that she would come. His heart told him she
would. He had seen it in her eyes when they had met that day, the day she
was trying on the coral necklace.
And Stempeniu was not mistaken. Scarcely had fifteen minutes gone by
when he caught sight of a woman across the street, floating towards him
with a white shawl on her head. She was walking quickly, glancing around
on all sides. The white shawl was pulled down almost over her eyes, and
her hands were trembling, her teeth chattering, her heart pounding - her
entire body shaking. She took a hard look, she halted, she spotted Stempeniu
and moved towards him, saying:
"How dare you, sir - let me ask you - "
"Don't use the polite form with me, Rachel, use the familiar form,"
replied Stempeniu, taking hold of both her hands and staring deep into
her eyes. In his eyes, Rachel saw the same glow as in the stars that were
gazing down from the dark-blue sky of that beautiful summer night.... All
the Jews in Mazepevke were concluding the Sabbath, chanting the praises
of the prophet Elijah, as was customary, sighing and brooding, worrying
about work and business, wishing they could have the luck of the pious
man who had met Elijah and greeted him and been greeted by him. The women
of Mazepevke removed the veils from their heads, took off their Sabbath
garments, their jewelry, and set about their everyday work. In a word,
Mazepevke was busy ushering out the dear and holy Sabbath - and it never
occurred to anyone that at this very moment, Rachel, the daughter-in-law
of Dvosse-Malke, was standing with Stempeniu the Musician on Monastery
Street, and that the two of them were talking about things that were anything
Only the blue heavens, the bright stars, which were peering down with
their brilliance, only the high poplars in the monastery, only the nocturnal
birds in the huge garden, calling to one another in their language - only
they could hear and see what was happening; only they knew that on this
lovely, magical night, under the monastery trees, in the Christian street
Rachel was standing right next to Stempeniu, in such a different state
that she completely forgot who she was and what she was. Here, amid the
lovely splendors of nature, Rachel felt as she had never felt in her life.
The fear, which had stalked her all the way here, suddenly left her, and
she felt as if she'd grown wings and were as free as a bird and could fly,
fly.... Stempeniu moved closer to her and placed his hands on her shoulders.
Rachel shuddered. She wanted to step away but, instead, she looked at Stempeniu,
and tears rolled down from her radiant blue eyes.
"Why are you crying, Rachel?" asked Stempeniu, wiping her tears away
with his hands.
"Ah, Stempeniu, I feel so good here, next to... you..." (she shifted
to the familiar form) "next to you, Stempeniu! Why am I... ? Why can't
"Mine? Is that what you want to say? You are mine, Rachel, you are
"What do you mean I'm yours, Stempeniu? How can that be?"
"You're mine, my beloved, do you understand, because I'm yours forever,
for all time, until the dark grave, I'm yours till death, my darling, my
"Benjamin said the same thing, he swore - and then in the end...."
"Who's Benjamin?" asked Stempeniu, amazed, peering into Rachel's eyes
the way you look at a child when it says something utterly silly. "Who
are you talking about, my darling?"
"Benjamin, Haia-Etel's cousin. My friend Haia-Etel was an orphan and
she had a cousin named Benjamin, and when they were very young, they swore
they would get married, he promised her, he swore an oath on his holy word
of honor - and in the end, oh, it was so ugly for her, poor Haia-Etel,
she died a long time ago, God rest her soul, may she forgive me.... But
she was crazy about Benjamin, she worshiped the ground he walked on. She
told me so herself.... I can see her now, I can see her by the window,
with me singing songs to her, and she's crying and she keeps saying: 'Oh,
don't believe them, you mustn't believe what men tell you!...' "
Rachel told about her friend Haia-Etel the orphan, and Stempeniu kissed
Rachel's hands, caressed her, looked into her eyes - and Rachel kept talking
about Haia-Etel and how she passed away, how she went out like a candle,
out of love for her dear Benjamin ....
Haia-Etel had been dead for several years, but Rachel remembered her
well. She often dreamt about her. Now she felt as if Haia-Etel were standing
on the other side of the wall, wearing a shroud and gazing over at Rachel
and beckoning to her, pointing at Stempeniu and shaking her head as though
to say: "What are you doing?..."
"What's the use, Rachel my darling, what's the use of talking and remembering
such things, especially at night? Just look at me with your bright, lovely
eyes, oh the way they shine and glow like two beautiful diamo - "
Stempeniu hadn't even uttered the last word when Rachel wrested herself
loose from his hands with such force that Stempeniu was terrified of her.
"For God's sake, Rachel, what's wrong?"
He tried to take hold of her again, but she wouldn't let him. She trembled
and whispered: "Do you see her? She's over there! She's standing there!...
She's looking at us, at us......
"Who's standing there? Who's looking at us? What are you talking about,
Rachel? My darling, come to me, take my hand...."
"Oh! Leave me alone, Stempeniu, leave me alone." She was using the
polite form again. "Can't you see, something white is standing there? Oh,
it's her, it's Haia-Etel! Haia-Etel!... Oh, leave me alone, leave me alone!...
How dare you, how dare you!... Good night to you! Good night!...."
And Rachel vanished in the shade of the trees. Stempeniu saw only the
ends of the white shawl fluttering in the wind, looking like two white
pinions. That is how a good angel flees, that is how a good dream disappears....
Oh, you Jewish woman, you showed your virtue there and all your purity.
Oh, Jewish wife! You showed all your fidelity there, all your devotion!
Upon coming home, Rachel wanted to tell everyone, shout to everyone,
where she had been and whom she had met. But she found the entire household
sitting around a table with several guests, in front of a huge samovar,
and they were all engrossed in talking shop, as Jews usually do, gathering
somewhere on Saturday night when the Sabbath is over. After resting for
twenty-four hours, you chat a little about business, about the next day's
fair, and about various political matters.
"I'm not going to have a booth at the fair," said a fat little man
with a dry-goods store. "The fairs can go to hell! I'm fed up with them!
Troubles and headaches - that's all you can get out of a fair!"
"Why do you say that?" exclaimed Dvosse-Malke, her hands folded on
her chest. "I don't understand why you're so down on fairs, Yudel. Just
last week, Lord preserve us, you made a bundle - may it happen to all Jews.
Why, you were raking in money all day long!"
"All you talk about is raking in money!" cried Isaak-Naphtali, not
looking at his wife as he worked the beads on an abacus.
"And I wouldn't want a worse fair than last Sunday," cried Moyshe-Mendel,
checking the accounts. "How can you deny it? I don't understand."
"That's the point," said Yudel, "you just don't want to believe anyone
else. When you see ten peasants crowding in and practically carrying away
my booth, you call that 'raking in money' and you start resenting it."
"You know what, Yudel?" exclaimed a cross-eyed young man. "Why don't
we forget about the county fair. Tomorrow is another day, and we'll have
our fill of it then. Let's talk about something else."
And they began talking about important matters: citrons for the Feast
of Tabernacles, synagogue problems, and of course war. Everyone talked,
everyone smoked, the samovar boiled and steamed and the house was filled
with fumes. The oven was hot: borsht and goose breasts were cooking for
the last Sabbath meal.
"Where've you been, Rachel?" Dvosse-Malke asked her daughter-in-law.
"Right there... on Monastery Street."
"What's it like outside? Nice weather? God preserve the weather for
all fairs.... What's wrong, dear, you're so pale, do you have a headache?
Maybe you should lie down a bit."
At these words, everyone turned around and looked at Rachel's wan face,
and it was unanimously decided that she was groggy from the samovar's fumes.
Rachel went to her room to lie down, and now the company began talking
about fumes and how fumes were no laughing matter, they might seem like
nothing, why, they were only smoke - but they could kill a person just
like that. And one man related that once, in his grandfather's home - may
he rest in peace - the entire household was practically wiped out by fumes.
And someone else told a lovely story about how his uncle's entire family
was practically poisoned by a kind of fish known as a "sea eel," and they
were just barely saved from death. Another man told a very lovely story
about a demon, a poltergeist, a wandering ghost, and so on and on... until
they began talking about death.
"Whatever people talk about, in the end they talk about death!" someone
" 'Elijah the Prophet' - we ought to have a look - 'Elijah of Tishbi'
- what's my wife doing?- 'Elijah of Gilead.'. . ." Moyshe-Mendel suddenly
murmured, while singing the "Elijahs" of the Sabbath night. He got up from
the table and went to look in on Rachel.