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Sweet Voices of Seduction: An Excerpt From ‘Wandering Stars’

To read an essay about “Wandering Stars” by Dara Horn, click here.

After the meal, and after Sholom-Meyer’s little speech, and after the cantor’s wife had cleared the table and the cantor said grace, the director felt it was time to get to the matter for which they had come. First he lifted his top hat, revealing a large bald pate, smoothed his fringe of pomaded hair, and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he began speaking. By nature he was a man of few words, but once he got going, it was hard for him to stop himself. His tongue would carry him off God knew where, so that he often ended up saying things he didn’t intend. Sholom-Meyer, his right-hand man, knowing his weakness, would try to take over, but the director would persist in speaking in his own style.

“You must understand, dear cantor,” Shchupak began, “that this is the way it is. Listen, I myself was once a cantor’s chorister. Actually I carried the slop pot. I mean I sang. I had a true soprano voice and caught more than a few slaps — I helped out on the pulpit. Then I went out on my own, sang at weddings, circumcisions, and pidyon habens chanting a kol m’koydesh that I had actually composed by myself. You should see this book full of my songs with my portrait on the cover. My kol m’koydesh goes like this, just listen.”

He began to warble:

Kol m’koydesh [Tzipkele my wife],
Sh’vii [may the devil take you],
K’rui lo [this very night!]

Albert Shchupak was into his role. He was preparing to sing kol m’koydesh in another key when Sholom-Meyer signaled him with a kick under the table that the sooner he stopped the better. Then Sholom-Meyer began explaining in plain words to the cantor exactly why they had come.

Even before they decided to go to Bessarabia, they had heard of Yisroyeli the cantor’s reputation. Since music was their livelihood as well — actually their livelihood came from the theater, but music and theater went together like brother and sister, or man and wife — wouldn’t it be fitting for the cantor to chant something for them?

“Something special in Yiddish, something spicy!” added Albert Shchupak, wagging his fingers and smiling with his pursed lips, making his already grossly wrinkled face even more wrinkled.

Yisroyeli understood immediately what was expected of him. At first he held back, allowing himself to be coaxed, protesting, “What are you saying! That’s not so! The world loves to exaggerate!” But he was already preparing himself to perform. (When have you ever heard of a cantor or any artist turning anyone down when he is strongly urged to perform?) He rose from the table, wiped his lips, cleared his throat, ran through a few scales, and asked almost in passing, “What would you like me to chant?”

Without waiting for an answer, he began to chant a passage from the High Holidays service, warbling the high notes and dropping to the low octaves, up and down, with trills and tremolos.

The guests exchanged glances, blinked their eyes, and licked their lips, as after a delicious meal or a good glass of wine. That served only to egg the cantor on, as if they had paid him the highest compliment. The poor cantor’s head was turned. They must now be shown what he could really do! And he sang another and yet another chant, and then he was preparing to sing one of his own compositions, when Sholom-Meyer took him by the elbow.

“No offense, my dear cantor,” he said, “you sing so sweetly that every cantor in the world and his choristers are not worth your little finger. Believe me, if we didn’t have to worry about the theater and auditions, with actors and their nuisances and problems, we wouldn’t step out of your house till after shemini-atzeres prayers.

We would never tire of sitting here with you listening to your chants, may God grant me luck and prosperity. But the problem is making a living! No time, you understand, tomorrow we put on a brand-new play: Kuni Leml. Now would it be possible for you to honor us with a little treat before we go?”

The cantor was confused. “What kind of little treat would you like?”

That little treat!”

And Sholom-Meyer Murovchik pointed to the cantor’s daughter, who all the while had not taken her eyes off him. Poor Reizel almost fainted. The cantor and his wife perked up their ears. The director was about to launch into one of his orations, but Sholom-Meyer signaled him with a kick under the table and then explained what he meant.

“We want your daughter to sing something for us. They say she has a good voice and sings, I tell you. An opera singer would die to sing like that.”

“How do you know my daughter sings?” The cantor’s wife could no longer restrain herself. Poor Reizel held her breath — she was terrified that he would tell how he had chatted with her by her window yesterday, and she had not even mentioned it! She would surely get it from her mother!

Sholom-Meyer’s shrewd eyes discerned that Reizel had turned all colors and quickly changed course. “That’s easy to answer. How does everyone know that your husband, may he live till a hundred and twenty, has a one in a million voice and coloratura style? For fifteen years we’ve traveled around the world with a Yiddish-German theater, and we never knew that a town called Holeneshti existed. Nevertheless, here we are! What a find! Yisroyeli the Holeneshter! The whole world resounds with his name! What do you think about that, my dear woman?”

The “dear woman” had nothing to say about it. That her husband’s name resounded throughout the whole world was no surprise to her. But that her daughter would suddenly be asked, right then and there, to sing in front of two men, total strangers — you can say what you want, but according to her woman’s sixth sense, this made no sense at all!

“Just like that? A girl suddenly starts singing without preparing, right out of the blue? A girl is not a boy. A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. What an idea!”

‘A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl” was not the way Yisroyeli the cantor saw it. He took the request at face value. True, his wife might have a point, but still and all, once in a great while, out of respect for such honored guests, what harm would it do if Reizel were to sing something together with her father? Besides, he wanted to sing some more. A cantor, when he starts singing, it’s like rain — once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

Yisroyeli looked at his wife with a pleading expression, as if to say, Why should it trouble you if the child sings something? Leah understood her husband’s look. Once the urge to sing had taken hold, there was no fighting it! She responded with a look of her own, which he immediately understood to mean, You really want to? Well, if you like, that’s fine with me, why not?

Yisroyeli was delighted. He coughed, cleared his throat, and said to his daughter, “If someone requests a song, you cannot be rude and refuse them. The question is, what shall we sing for them? Why don’t we sing ‘Reboynu shel oylem’? All right? Let’s do that. You sing the melody, and I’ll sing the harmony in a lower key. So, Reizel, start: la- la- la- la!”

Reizel, relieved and grateful that yesterday’s incident had passed unmentioned, was glad to sing, especially since from childhood she had loved to sing. She would have sung for days without tiring if her mother had not forbidden it. Whenever Reizel started to sing, Leah would scold her, “Be quiet, Reizel, I’ve told you again and again! Do you think you’re a little girl? You’re a young lady, kayn eyn horeh, don’t you know.”

“A young lady?” Reizel would laugh, and Leah would laugh with her, but she would allow her to sing only occasionally with her father, and even then as long as no one else heard them.

Reizel stood next to Yisroyeli, her hands folded behind her, her eyes raised to the ceiling. With a smooth, sweet, pure, silvery voice like a violin, she drew out a plaintive, authentic Yiddish melody. She sang it as a prayer in which could be heard lamentation, grief, pleading, tears:

Reboynu shel oylem!

Almighty Master of the Universe!
I come before thee with
A beggar’s prayers.
Dear God, the truth of exile
Is told in tears.
How long, how long, dear God,
The awful fears
Of being beaten, driven
And no one cares.
When, oh when, dear God, wilt thou
Be He Who Hears?
When, oh when, dear God, wilt thou
Answer our prayers?

Both guests sat spellbound. When Reizel finished, they stared at each other, mouths gaping, disappointed that the music had ended so soon. They had no words. Sholom-Meyer cried out in his hoarse voice, “Bravo! Bravo! Bis!” But he soon realized that his cries could be taken as mockery. Too sad was the melody, too holy were the words. Too sweet was this young lyrical voice, sweet as a violin, and too beautiful and too heavenly was this young singer who was, in truth, still a child.

What about Albert Shchupak, the director of the Yiddish-German theater?

It was difficult to know what was going on in the soul of this Jew. He removed a strongly perfumed silk handkerchief from a trouser pocket and wiped the tears that stood in his small red, browless eyes.

His shriveled Jewish heart still lived, it appeared — warm blood still coursed through it and a pulse still beat. His eyes could still show compassion, which had apparently not yet entirely died. He could still shed tears for Jewish woes, for an exiled people, and a few simple, heartrending words, sung in a melody so plaintive that it could move a stone to tears, had moved him.

Or perhaps what produced this stunning reaction was this divinely beautiful, dark-complexioned girl with dimples in her cheeks and lovely, black gypsy-eyes. Her sugar-sweet voice tender as a violin poured from her soul directly to his heart and, like balm, soothed every limb. Who could say? Who could ever know?

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. from WANDERING STARS by Sholem Aleichem; translated by Aliza Shevrin, Copyright © Aliza Shevrin, 2009

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