STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
Now, the bride, with loosened hair, was seated
in the center of the room, and the girls and women formed a circle around
her, and with God's help, Stempeniu began to play.
Ah, how hard it is for my pen to describe what
Stempeniu did! This was no scraping, no mere playing. It was like a religious
service, a divine labor, with a lofty feeling, a noble spirit! Stempeniu
stood opposite the bride and played a sermon on his violin, a long, lovely
sermon, a poignant sermon about the bride's free and happy life until now,
about her maidenhood, and about the dark, bitter life in store for her,
later, later. Gone was her girlhood! Her head was covered, her long, beautiful
hair was out of sight, forever and ever .... No more joy! Farewell, youth.
Now you're a married woman! . . . How bleak and cheerless - may God forgive
me! . . .
That was what came from Stempeniu's fiddle. All
the wives understood the wordless sermon, all the wives felt it. They felt
it and wept for it with bitter tears.
"How long did I sit like that?" a young
wife thought, swallowing her tears. "How long did I sit like that,
with loose, undone braids, and I thought that angels were playing with
me, that I was the happiest girl in the world. And now, ah, now! . . ."
"Oh, God," prayed an old woman, the mother of
grown daughters. "Oh God, bring my poor daughter her intended, very, very
soon, and with better luck than I had, and with a better life than I have
with my husband - may God forgive me! . . ."
Such were the thoughts of the wives, and Stempeniu
did his job. He played for all he was worth, and the violin spoke. Stempeniu
drew forth a doleful melody, and the band backed him up. The people grew
still, the noise vanished, the turmoil was gone. Everyone, everyone wanted
to hear Stempeniu. The men fell to brooding, the women held their tongues,
boys and girls climbed up on benches and tables - everyone wanted to hear
"Quiet, everyone. Hush! Shush!"
And Stempeniu melted and flowed like wax on the
fiddle: 'that was all that could be heard. A hand flew up and down: That
was all that could be seen. And they could hear all kinds of sounds, and
it struck every heart, it pierced every soul, it cut to the quick. The
audience was dying, its strength was waning, its flesh was perishing. The
hearts filled and overflowed, and tears came to their eyes. Jews sighed,
Jews moaned, Jews wept ....
And Stempeniu? Who cared about Stempeniu? No
one even saw him, no one could see Stempeniu, no one could see a fiddle.
They only heard sweet sounds, divine singing, which filled the entire room
.... And beautiful Rachel, who had never heard Stempeniu play before, Rachel,
who had known that there was such a person as Stempeniu, but had never
heard such playing before, Rachel stood and listened to the magical singing,
to the rare sounds - and she couldn't understand what was happening to
her. Something pulled at her heart, something caressed her soul, but what
it was - she couldn't understand. She raised her eyes towards where the
sweet sounds were pouring from, and she saw two wonderful black eyes, burning
eyes, looking straight at her and piercing her like spears, like sharp
spears. The wonderful black burning eyes stared at her and beckoned to
her and spoke with her. Rachel wanted to drop her eyes again - and couldn't.
"So that's Stempeniu?"
Such were Rachel's thoughts when the veiling
ceremony was over and the relatives began to think about leading the bride
to the canopy.
"Where are the candles?" asked the groom's family.
"The candles? Where are they?" answered the bride's
And the same old hubbub resumed. Everyone ran
and no one knew where. They jostled, they shoved, they trod on corns, they
tore dresses, they sweated, they cursed the waiters and the beadles, who
in turn cursed the families, and the in-laws argued with one another -
it was, God be praised, a lively affair!
In the stampede away from the canopy, Stempeniu
left the band, re-emerged among the women, right there, next to Isaak-Naphtali's
daughter-in-law, beautiful Rachel. He murmured a few words, smiling, and
tossing his lovely black curls. Rachel blushed, lowered her eyes to the
ground, and replied to only every tenth word. It wasn't proper talking
to a musician, and in front of all those people to boot! . . .