STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
THE VEILING LUNCH
The next morning, Hiene, the beadle's wife, came
to tell Dvosse-Malke that the mother-in-law, the bridegroom, the bride,
and all the in-laws were inviting them to the veiling lunch, the ceremonial
meal at which the bride dons the sheytel, the marriage wig. Rachel
had already put on her sheytel and she was all dressed up in the latest
fashion (by Dovid Mekhanik, the ladies' tailor): a sky-blue frock with
white lace trimming and very broad sleeves, which were being worn in Mazepevke,
always a few years behind in the fashions. On her head, a blue silk openwork
kerchief, revealing the entire wig and the braids .... But false braids.
Rachel had put away her own blond hair long, long ago, concealed it forever,
for all time! A few strings of pearls around her neck, on her white, lovely
throat, a large golden necklace, a brooch, bracelets, rings, eardrops -
all the Jewish jewelry, all the Jewish wealth.
Rachel, all decked out, in her room, where Moyshe-Mendel
was still lying in the same position as last night, with his jutting adam's
apple and his gaping mouth, and snoring endlessly.
"Oh, what a difference there is between the two
Moyshe-Mendels, I mean, between Moyshe-Mendel, the man I was engaged to,
and Moyshe-Mendel, the man I'm married to. That Moyshe-Mendel was
so charming, his eyes glowed like candles, his voice was as sweet as honey,
his gestures were all so pleasant, so dear! And this Moyshe-Mendel? He's
so long and skinny and round-shouldered and he's got a red beard sprouting.
Where did he get that goat's beard?"
And, willy-nilly, she kept picturing that scoundrel
who hadn't let her sleep all night long - what an awful thing! "It's my
own fault," thought Rachel, "it's all my own fault. Imagine running into
a calamity like Stempeniu! What sort of woman stops and talks to a musician?
It's disgraceful. And what would people say if they saw me talking to him?
It's lucky there was such a commotion. And what would Moyshe-Mendel have
said? . . ."
And with a smile, Rachel walked over to Moyshe-Mendel's
bed and leaned over him and spoke his name. Moyshe-Mendel opened his gray
eyes and stared for a long time and couldn't fathom what he saw before
"Moyshe-Mendel!" said Rachel, bending over him
fully. "Moyshe-Mendel! Don't you recognize me?! Goodness, the way you're
looking at me! Don't you care for me like this?"
"Lemme alone, I wanna sleep!" And with these
words, Moyshe-Mendel turned to the wall and burst into a ferocious snore.
"The mother-in-law and the happy couple and all
the kith and kin would like you to come to the veiling meal!"
It was Hiene, the beadle's wife, calling out
as she stuck her head in the door. But when she saw Rachel standing over
her husband's head, she swiftly withdrew.
Rachel met the bride before she even donned her
wig. The two friends hugged and kissed, and instantly launched into an
ardent conversation, the way two young wives always do.
The company was gathering little by little, and
the waiters and waitresses were covering the tables with all sorts of goodies:
with cakes and preserves, with gingerbread, and almond bagels, and every
kind of strudel. Yesterday's beadles and yesterday's paupers were already
here. The father-in-law, Haym ben-Tsion, had washed his hair and donned
a velvet cap, and the mother-in-law had already shouted herself hoarse,
but she still kept managing and ordering, sending one person here, another
there, and screaming with her last ounce of strength:
"You're driving me to my grave, God help me!
You put a platter of cake and preserves where you ought to put a bottle
of vodka and glasses! Oh, veyz mir! Oh, my heart, my heart! What's
the use of all my sacrifices! What's the use of having a wedding! You spend
a fortune, and in the end - what's the use! Not even the musicians are
here! There's no way out but suicide!"
"Quiet! Silence!" yelled Haym ben-Tsion, the
father-in-law. "Why are you making such a racket? You're not helping matters
any! She does nothing and she shrieks! What are you shrieking for anyway?
Haven't you ever married off a child before? Is this the first time? Just
look at her, she's rattling! The whole town's invited, and all the relatives,
and she just runs around and screeches! What's wrong with you anyway!"
"Who's screeching, you lunatic! Who's screeching?"
"I should know who's screeching? Why don't you
"I'm not screeching! You're screeching."
"I'm screeching? Bullshit! It's the other way
"You're screeching now, Haym ben-Tsion! What's
come over you?"
"A grand good morning to the happy father-in-law
and the mother-in-law, to the groom and the bride to all the kith and all
the kin on both sides, and to all the dear friends. Now play a vivat
for all you're worth!"
With this vociferous proclamation from Haykel
the jester, the musicians took up their instruments, and the wedding became
a wedding again! The guests wiped their hands on their coattails, pushed
up their sleeves, and after washing, they sat down at the table for the
veiling lunch. And now Stempeniu took his violin and repeated all of yesterday's
tricks with a few extras thrown in, plus two or three new pieces, while
the audience gaped awestruck, in sheer ecstasy. All eyes were glued on
him, on Stempeniu, only Rachel wouldn't look toward that corner - but still
she saw him, but still she felt him watching her. . . It was only
when Stempeniu put down his violin and the company was in an uproar - it
was only then that Rachel raised her blue eyes and saw . . . Stempeniu.
"What do you think of him?" the bride asked her
after not saying a word the whole time.
"Who?" said Rachel innocently.
"Stempeniu! Isn't he a miracle-worker?"
Rachel didn't answer. She felt the blood rushing
to her face. The bride noticed and asked:
"Are you hot, Rachel? Tell me, are you hot?"
"Yes, hot. Awfully hot. I'm going to step out
for a minute to cool off," Rachel answered.
She left the table and at every step she encountered
a servant, who gave her the right of way with great respect - not for her,
but for her silken attire. Still, she couldn't get to the door that quickly.
First of all, she would have to walk past the musicians, who were feasting
their eyes on her, telling one another in their jargon: "Dig the groovy
chick! Yummy-scrumptious! . . ."
And when her eyes met Stempeniu's, her heart
began pounding, such as she had never felt it pound before. She blushed
more furiously and she felt a dreadful heat in her face, like a person
next to a burning house. On top of all her troubles, whom should she run
into but the father-in-law, Haym ben-Tsion, almost by the door, and now
a new turmoil started. Haym ben-Tsion was a pious man and he was terrified
of women. The encounter was sudden. Haym ben-Tsion ought really to have
backed away as is customary. But, the devil take it, he stepped to the
right, and since Rachel was moving to the right, they nearly collided,
missing each other by a gnat's eyelash. Haym ben-Tsion had an idea: He
jumped to the left. Unfortunately, Rachel had the same idea and also swerved
to the left. Haym ben-Tsion realized he had to step to the right quickly,
but by the time he shifted, Rachel was standing face to face with him,
almost as if to spite him - and God knows how long they would have kept
dancing like that, if, to their good fortune, the hoarse mother-in-law
hadn't come lumbering over to argue with her husband in their normal way.
Rachel used the opportunity to slip outside and cool off from the dreadful