STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
STEMPENIU'S FIRST MEETING WITH RACHEL
People tell so many different stories about Stempeniu.
They say he hobnobbed with wizards and with all the demons, and if he wanted
to take a bride away from a groom, he knew a special sort of incantation,
all he had to do was give her a look, the right kind of look - and the
girl was done for, Lord preserve us! A lot of mothers knew about it, and
they kept a sharp eye on their unmarried daughters. When the girls talked
to Stempeniu, there was always an older sister at their side, an aunt,
a sister-in-law, or some married woman .... True, that was no compliment
for our hero, but so what? What did that have to do with the price of eggs?
It was no skin off Stempeniu's - nose, heaven forbid. Everyone knew that
Stempeniu was a fine scoundrel. So what of it? No one was about to marry
their daughter off to him, by God, and Stempeniu remained Stempeniu.
Blessed are you, Jewish wives, who have husbands,
and blessed are the men who've given you such a precious gift - freedom.
And pity the poor girls who are chained and shackled, guarded and protected
until they're led to the wedding canopy - and only then do the girls become
women, unshackled, free, happy wives ....
Rachel, being a married woman, had no reason
to run away from Stempeniu when he walked towards her with his fiddle under
his arm and a smile upon his lips. Why was she afraid? Who should she hide
from? Her father-in-law Isaak-Naphtali was absorbed in the wedding: He
was strolling about with his hands behind his back, watching over the waiters,
to make sure they stepped lively. And her mother-in-law Dvosse-Malke was
so preoccupied, that if someone had taken the veil from her head, she wouldn't
have noticed. Running by, Dvosse-Malke did stop to see what Stempeniu was
doing with her daughter-in-law. But she quickly thought to herself: "Who
cares? It's nothing. Their business. Forget it!" And she hurried tin to
order the waitresses to step lively. Isaak-Naphtali and Dvosse-Malke were
excellent commanders. The servants dashed about like lunatics, the in-laws
on both sides made a tumult as is customary, the guests had washed their
hands and were beginning to stake out places on the long benches flanking
the long tables, where fresh rolls had already been put out, a whole string
of them. All at once, an uproar: There was no water left in the kneading
"Where are we gonna get water?" asked the groom's
"Water? Where are we gonna get it?" answered
the bride's family.
"Water!" screamed Dvosse-Malke, slightly hoarse.
"Water! Water!" Isaak-Naphtali seconded her screams,
pulled up his coattails, and imagined he was doing something.
This new panic gave Stempeniu a chance to talk
a bit more with Rachel, who was grave and somewhat reflective. Her lovely
blue eyes gazed far, far into the distance, not at Stempeniu, and her ears
heard him talking for a long, long time.
And talking was something Stempeniu could really
do. He had
the gift of the gab - that rascal! His words
spun round and round a person, like the words of a demon, and he stared
into the eyes .... The eyes? What am I saying? The heart. Deep, deep into
Stempeniu talked, and Rachel listened, and the
noise of the wedding company was so overwhelming that no one could hear
this conversation except for the last few words.
"So that's your Moyshe-Mendel?" Stempeniu asked
her, glancing at a young man who was holding the lapel of a Jewish coat
and arguing away at that lapel with body and soul, with might and main.
"That's him," replied Rachel, stepping aside
as if offended.
Rachel, her feelings bruised, didn't even look
towards the corner where the musicians were sitting. Stempeniu hung around
her for a long time, but it didn't help. One can actually say that she
got tired of him, sick and tired - of that Stempeniu with his arrogant
eyes and his ways . . . . "Ugh! It's shameful, scandalous for a Jewish
woman to be anywhere near him . . . ."
Such were Rachel's thoughts as she walked back
to the bride, ready to forget that there was such a person as Stempeniu.
But . . . wait! What was that sudden commotion? Stempeniu was playing a
sorrowful melody again, and the group was backing him up. Gone was the
clamor, gone the uproar! Men fell to brooding, women held their tongues,
boys and girls clambered up on the benches and tables - everyone wanted
to hear Stempeniu.
Isaak-Naphtali leaned his head to one side, listening
with a knowledgeable air. Dvosse-Malke, bound up in a silk cloth and holding
a plate in her hand, stood transfixed where she was, and even the waiters
with tucked-up coattails and the waitresses with turned-up skirts likewise
remained where they were, spellbound, in the middle of the room. And Stempeniu's
violin melted into such a plaintive, poignant melody that the entire company
held its breath, dying, simply dying . . . lifeless people! . . . Hearts
filled, overflowed, tears came to the eyes. Jews sighed, Jews moaned, Jews
wept. And Stempeniu? . : . Who cared about Stempeniu? No one saw him, no
one saw any Stempeniu, no one saw any fiddle. They heard the sweet tones,
the divine chant that filled the room.... And beautiful Rachel, who had
never heard Stempeniu play before, stood and listened to the magical singing,
to the rare sounds - and couldn't understand what was happening. Something
pulled at her heart, something caressed her, but what it was - she didn't
understand. She looked up to where the wondrous melodies were coming from,
and her eyes met two wonderful black burning eyes gazing straight at her,
piercing her through like two spears .... Rachel lowered her head and saw
the wonderful black burning eyes, Rachel looked every which way - and kept
seeing those wonderful black burning eyes ....