Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars

Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories - An Anthology


By Sandra Bark

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This book is certain to appeal to the millions of Jewish women interested in Jewish literature and the writings of Cynthia Ozick, Francine Prose, and Grace Paley. Beautifully packaged, it is an ideal Mother’s Day or Bat-Mitzvah gift.

This volume contains translations of Yiddish stories from eminent scholars–including an Isaac Bashevis Singer story that has never before been published in English–and well-known tales that Jewish readers everywhere love.

As bestsellers such as Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander have demonstrated, there is a strong interest in Jewish stories.

Yiddish culture and music have seen a resurgence in recent years. NPR’s All Things Considered aired a series of highly acclaimed documentaries about the Yiddish Radio Project and Klezmer musicians regularly play at top alternative venues.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by Warner Books, Inc.

Introduction copyright 2003 by Francine Prose.

All rights reserved.

Permission to reprint Yiddish Theater Posters from the Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations:(1) The Jewish Heart, starring Madame Clara Young, Kessler's Thalia Theatre, December 29, 1908 (2) The Masked Woman, or Emma Weiss, starring Madame Manya Wilensky, Thalia Theatre, January 26, 1905 (3) Hamlet, starring Madame Bertha Kalish, Thalia Theatre, January 30, c. 1890 (4) Repertoire, Thalia Theatre, June 1892.

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ISBN: 978-0-446-51036-3


This anthology would not have been possible without the support and contributions of a number of people. I will always be thankful to my sister, Mimi Bark, and my dear friends Alexis Kanfer, Sarah Masters, and Sharon Glassman for their patience and encouragement. I am indebted to Les Pockell for being the best thesis adviser ever, to Amy Einhorn for being my mentor on this and many other projects, and to Penina Sacks for her keen eye for literature and punctuation. Much thanks also goes to Brigid Pearson for coordinating this lovely cover; to Keri Friedman, for making sure people would hear about this book; to Christofer DuBois, for graciously sifting through heaps of contracts; to Faith Jones and Michael Terry at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library for pulling out dusty archives for me to sift through; to Joseph Sherman, Sheva Zucker, Sarah Swartz, Kathryn Hellerstein, Ellen Cassedy, and Dr. Ellen Kellman, for their sound advice and suggestions; and to all the contributors, for their wonderful translations.


Dvora Baron

Translated by Naomi Seidman with Chana Kronfeld

My grandmother bore my grandfather ten gifts—ten children, but, alas, not a single son. They say that every time a girl was born, he would lift his thoughtful-pious eyes to heaven and sigh deeply:

It seems, Father, that you don't consider me worthy of a son, a son who could say kaddish for me when I pass on. . . .

And at nightfall, he would sit down listlessly at the table, open the big Talmud, and sadly, very softly and sadly, sing to himself. Somewhere in a far-off corner between the wall and the partition, my grandmother would sit and listen to the Talmud chant and cry in silence.

Later, after my grandmother had died and my grandfather took me in, a tiny orphan, to feed, I would often hear this very same mournful chant.

Late, very late at night, when a thick, mute, darkness would press up against our little window from outside, my grandfather would light the lamp and sit down at his Talmud. All is quiet now, and melancholy. Only occasionally, from some distant field, comes a soft Hoo, hoo, hoo.

That was the wind, chasing its tail somewhere out there in the darkness, stumbling over naked fields, and sobbing softly.

And inside the house, mute, terror-black shadows would wrap my grandfather in dark shrouds, veiling his clouded-gray face, his high forehead, his deep-set, sad eyes:

Ay, ay, Father, ay, ay, sweet Father.

And it was hard to know, at times like these, whether he was thinking about himself, about his lonesome life, and crying, dry-eyed, or whether he was really absorbed in the words he was chanting.

Ay, ay, Father dear...


And running through the shadows with my tremulous steps, I would sneak onto his knee.

"I want to listen to you learn."

And my little body would be set loose between his cold, thin hands, which stroked and hugged me, clutching me close, close to his heart:

"Ach, Rivele, Rivele—if only you were a boy . . ." And a strange look would come over his face and his eyes would become dejected and thoughtful.

What a beard he had, my grandfather, white all over.

I remember the Sabbath days, the winter Sabbaths in my grandfather's house. Outside—a disheveled, lumbering sky over the congealed, dead earth. It's quiet and dismal. Every now and then a flock of black crows flies by, hurls a few curses into the air, and then disappears, and again it's quiet.

But now the winter sky is turning darker, a heavy, angry dusk creeps slowly and icily through the little window, enveloping in black the damp walls, the low ceiling, the table with its white tablecloth, even Grandfather's white beard.


And soon I hear Grandfather rise from his place, scrape together the challah crumbs from the late afternoon Sabbath meal, wrap a thick scarf around his neck, and leave.

With wide-open eyes and beating heart I stay where I am, enveloped in shadow. I listen: everything around is silent. Only from farther away, from the top of the hill, can a monotonous ringing be heard.

Clang-clang-clang! . . . clang-clang-clang!

The church bells are proclaiming that our holy Sabbath is passing away, and now it's their holy day, the uphill folk's.


Slowly. Every peal distinct. And the wind rocks, rocks and sways:

"Ay-ay-ay... ay-ay-ay..."

That was exactly how my mother howled the night her two sons died on her.

But now a powerful ray of light suddenly pierces the little window, covers the table, scatters into many golden threads, and stabs my eyes: the old solid-walled synagogue, which towers over the hovels around its courtyard like a giant among midgets, watches me with seven fiery eyes—its lit windows. There, in the study hall, they're praying the evening service. The winter hats sway, the men spit out the closing prayer, wish each other "a good week."

Grandfather comes in, lights two thin candles, pours himself a little glass of havdalah wine, and looks toward the door. Soon an ugly little kid walks in—he's the one who's going to be drinking that wine. He gives me a look with his small, devious eyes, waits for my grandfather to look away, and then sticks out his tongue. If it weren't for Grandfather, I'm sure that loathsome boy with his grubby paws would just stick his fist under my nose: "Here, take this."

I feel the blood rising to my head: You rotten snot-nose!

"Zeyde," I say, "Zeyde, I'll drink the wine today."

He shakes his head.

"Child, child—the havdalah wine? You forget, you're a girl. . . . "

Child, child... These words ring so bare, so strange. Two deep, deep creases spread across his high, pale brow, his milk-clouded eyes open wider and wider. Now all I can see are two gaping holes; they look off toward the corner between the window and partition.

"Beyla, Beyla, what did you do? You couldn't have borne me a kaddish, Beyla, huh...?"

And he stretches out a palsied hand, his right hand, the fingers long, pale, the nails sharp and cold.

"Beyla, oh, Beyla."

And he bursts into tears. I can see his eyebrows trembling now, the tears rolling down.

"Zeyde . . ." I lift my head.

Pacified-saddened now, he sits over the open Talmud, swaying and chanting softly.

He is learning—my soul fills to the brim with happiness. Suddenly, I remember that somewhere in one of the shacks at the very bottom of the hill lives an old Jewish woman, an ancient one. For five kopecks a week she'll teach anyone who asks how to read Hebrew.

"Five kopecks a week," I say to myself, and I feel a warm flow seep slowly into my heart and gently, silently, caress it. . . .

So one beautiful summer Sabbath I go over to Grandfather with tremendous steps and raise my two eyes—full of quiet, holy joy—to his.

"Want to test me, Zeyde?"

Grandfather lifts his head from the Talmud and brushes his brow with his hand. I see an eyelid tremble as he looks at me:


"Zeyde," I blurt out, and feel as if my heart were about to burst in my chest. "Zeyde, test me."

He goes to the bookshelf, takes out a prayer book, opens it, and sets it before me. I lower my eyes and look into it.

Yisgadal veyiskadash shemey raba . . . the kaddish. A sweet shudder runs through my entire body. I push the prayer book away with both hands, raise my head, and piously close my eyes.

"Yisgadal veyiskadash shemey raba."

And the words flow from my lips, they pour out of me into the air so mildly, so sadly...I feel my face flush, break out in a heavy sweat, my heart beats and beats, and I keep reciting. . . .

And suddenly, Grandfather snatches me in both arms, lifts me up on high, to the ceiling, and rising and soaring himself, he carries the two of us floating through the house, rocking me and tossing me into the air and adorning me with psalms of praise:

"Holy Sabbath, holy Sabbath, holy Sabbath."

Purplish red are his lips, his high forehead—pure white. His long beard flies in all directions, quivering, and among the strands—two large teardrops shimmer and tremble now like a pair of diamonds.

Just a few days later I'm sitting on a big rock outside the synagogue wall with my head bowed—a congealed sorrow in my heart, two warm tears in my eyes. Over there, in our little house, a single memorial candle is burning. I can't forget that for a minute. Somewhere on the dirt floor a bundle of trampled straw has been strewn; scraps of white linen—remnants of Grandfather's shroud; on the door—a lock, a black, round lock... But what do I care? If only I had a black dress, an entirely black dress, I would look more like a boy, a lot more— this, it turns out, is the thought that's spinning in my brain.

Around me women are gathering, wagging their heads. "So what do you suppose will happen to the orphan girl now?"

One of them even strokes my hair. "Would you like a little bun, maybe?"

A band of schoolboys shows up, looking at me with fascinated pity, and I announce to them very earnestly: "I'm not afraid of you."

I jump up from my place and follow them.

"Where are you going?" they ask.

"I'm going to the study hall," I say, and at once feel both my knees start shaking. "I'm going to say kaddish."

"She's going to say kaddish," they snort, and an acrid, stuffy whiff of boy-sweat sears my nostrils. There are men all around me, blocking my way to the lectern, pushing me back—out—out to the entry hall. But from above, from the Holy Ark, two thoughtful-pious eyes look down at me:

"Child, child...," so lonesome, so beseeching. "Child, child...," and only I see the light of the memorial candle by the lectern overflow into a burning ocean, engulfing me on all sides. My breath catches and sticks in my throat.

And when I open my eyes I find myself lying with my head against the hard rock in the synagogue yard and around me, like an angry stepmother, the dark, quiet night. There, on the door to our little house, hangs a round black lock. I haven't forgotten that, and a great fear grips my soul. I lower my face to the damp earth and burst into tears, first softly with dry eyes, and then louder and louder.

Somewhere high up under the synagogue eaves a bird awakens, flutters its wings, and listens with dread.

DVORA BARON was born in a small town in Lithuania in 1887. Her father was a rabbi, and unlike most of his contemporaries, not only was he interested in educating his daughter in typical women's subjects, but he allowed her to attend the classes he taught the boys of the town (she sat behind a partition in the synagogue). She arrived on the literary scene in 1902, writing mostly in Hebrew—an instant marvel because she was female and was only fourteen years old, which was unheard of among Eastern European Hebrew writers at that time. She immigrated to Palestine in 1910. The first modern Hebrew woman writer, her stories focus on the shtetl and women's experiences in Jewish Eastern Europe. She died in 1956 in her apartment in Tel Aviv, having spent the previous thirty-three years as a shut-in and the last twenty years of her life completely bedridden. The stories reprinted in this collection are from her earlier Yiddish works.


Rachel H. Korn

Translated by Seymour Levitan

It was a fairly long sack made of pink-striped linen, the kind of material that we called gradl and used for quilt covers and pillowcases. It was probably made out of a bit left over from my mother's trousseau. In it there was a "treasure"— various-colored balls of silk and cotton for knitting and stitching, pieces of violet canvas with started patterns of flowers and birds in cross-stitch, patterns that were never finished. Besides these, there were pieces of silk, velvet, brocade, and plain cotton print and percale, all left from my momma's trousseau and returned by the honest seamstresses in case it was necessary to fix a rip, sew on a patch, or widen a dress at the waist. As I remember, these remainders were never used because all these brocaded silk dresses intended for wear in the city hung in the wardrobe and were only removed to be aired out once a year just before Pesach. The dresses with the long trains would have been a fine sight in the mud of Fidilske.

And then it became our custom—when we had clothes made for us, any pieces of material left over went into the secret depths of the sack with pink stripes. My greatest dream was to get the most colorful pieces of silk and velvet from those secret depths and sew dresses for my dolls out of them. But I didn't dare touch the sack, which was at the very bottom of the big chest in the bedroom all the way over under the window. Very deep under the shimmering "treasure" lay a bundle of letters from my mother's first betrothed. While she was searching for the right ball of thread, they would rustle under her fingers like dry November leaves.

All week I waited impatiently for Sunday afternoon. On Sunday afternoon, the hired farmhands slept in their fresh linen shirts—in the wintertime on the wide ovens and in summertime under the trees on the warm grass. Both summer and winter, the servants would be down in the village at their parents' houses and the cowherds would be busy with the cattle.

The cats that were always at my mother's side mewed and pleaded in the gathering quiet. Like a big dark spider, the clock on the wall spun the minutes and hours. The house was emptied of its weekday stir. This was the time when my mother would bend over the chest and take out the striped sack. She would begin to sew a pattern on canvas or mend a pillowcase, but in a little while her hands dropped and her glance wandered over the treetops to a place in the distance hidden from me. And my momma began to unwind the strands of her life, as if the smell of mildewed silk coming from the little sack had opened a secret door that she would never have opened on her own, afraid that it might lead her too far away from her home and children.

Ordinarily my mother didn't talk much. She was more inclined to listen to others. I never heard her complain about anything. And so the Jewish women of the village would come up to our farm on Shabbes to unburden themselves by talking to her. Most often it was a cousin of my father's whom we children had to call "Aunt Chaye." She never stopped finding fault with her husband, Chaim. He'd been cursed by his own father, who wished Korach's fate on him, and he was stuck with the name "Korach" for the rest of his life. Auntie Chaye would lean her whole body against my mother's shoulder and whisper endlessly in her ear, because everything was a secret to Chaye. My mother would nod her head from time to time to indicate that she was taking it in, though I'm sure that hardly half of Chaye's grinding on and on penetrated.

It was only on Sunday afternoon that my mother gave up her silence. To this day, I'm not sure if she was speaking to me or to herself. Years later, as I began to understand what she told me, it occurred to me that my mother wanted her daughter not just to take in the details of her life, but to draw her own conclusions as well.

On those Sunday afternoons, in the shadow of my mother's quiet words, I was suddenly a grown-up sharing her youth. Till then I had been busy mainly with games, cats, dogs, birds, trees, and dolls—I had no friends on our isolated farm. We were far from the village, and this was my childhood world. In contrast to the village children, who very early had to take on their parents' worries and concerns about making a living, I knew nothing about work or money. In our house we never spoke about money. Money was an incidental thing. We were never jealous of people who were better off, but when my parents heard of an injustice, of someone being cheated or swindled, they were outraged for a long while after. It pained them exactly as if they'd been cheated themselves.

This was the world of my childhood, guarded by my watchful parents. Until my father's early death left me an orphan at ten and a half.

On those Sunday afternoons, I learned that both of my zeydes were dead by the time I was born. My zeyde Leyzer Fast I know well from what my mother told me about him. He was tall, broad shouldered, with a thick blond beard that kept his smile warm. He was good-natured and ready to help. With his broad shoulders and warm smile, he would hide the crimes of his six children from Bubbe Rivka's stern eyes that darted about quick as mice. My mother truly idolized her father, and apparently my zeyde was especially close to her, the youngest of his three daughters.

He conducted business on a large scale. During the week, he went off into the forests he'd bought from the surrounding landowners, while my grandmother ran the farm and a tavern. Like her eyes, her hands never rested. Short, thin, with a dark complexion, she was everywhere. She ordered her sons around, her daughters, her staff. From their earliest youth, her children were expected to work. She hired the best religious and secular tutors for them, but the minute the tutor got up to go, Bubbe Rivka dispersed the group—one to the barn to do the milking, another to the granary, a third to the tavern. For her daughters, the "regime" was even stricter. "A girl only needs to learn how to read her prayers and sign her name." My mother, quiet and sensitive, couldn't stand her eternal bustling and dominating. My mother wanted to sit in a corner with a book and mull over the fate of the people she encountered in stories she read. When her mother sent her to the barn to keep an eye on the threshers, she would hide a book under her shawl and drink in the pages while the threshing tools beat the kernels of grain from the dry sheaves.

My bubbe was hot tempered and could blow up over the tiniest trifle. If something displeased her, she "rewarded" you for it then and there, whether or not the house was full of strangers. And then, later, calm, even smiling, as if nothing had happened, she'd go off to her work, leaving the children feeling as if they'd been beaten, shamed by their mother's unconcerned way. My mother, who took after her quiet, dreamy father, would rather have been slapped in private than humiliated in the presence of strangers. She'd wait all week for Friday, the day her father came home, and cling to his chest while her tears wet his thick broad beard.

My mother was tall and quite slender, with thin arms and legs and blond hair down to her knees. The heavy weight of her braids made her head ache, so she'd often let them hang down over her shoulders. Her little brother, Itsye, would wait for this. He would chase her all over the place and grab on to the long, heavy braids like reins.

My mother got sick when she was sixteen. There was a smallpox epidemic. The windows were curtained to shield her eyes from the light, and she pleaded to have her hands tied down to keep her from tearing at the blisters in her sleep. She knew very well that you could have the signs of the sickness all over your face for the rest of your life. When she got up and looked in the mirror for the first time, she fainted. It looked as if someone had rubbed a grater all over her pretty young face. . . . "And yet he fell in love with me. I don't know what he liked about me. He was so tall and handsome, with the kind of blue eyes you hardly ever see."

He really was as handsome as my mother said. His picture on the first page of our red satin photo album bore witness to it. "I also loved him very much, even though we weren't officially engaged, only promised to each other," my mother would add quietly with an embarrassed smile, as if she were defensive about being in love with her fiancé. My mother didn't know, or out of modesty wouldn't say, why Shmuel Rubenfeld loved her so, even though her face was no longer as fresh and sweet as it had been before her sickness. But I know why—no doubt because Shmuel Rubenfeld recognized her innate refinement and delicacy. And then, too, her graceful figure, her proud walk, her warm brown eyes, and those blond braids hadn't changed after her sickness.

The date was set for the wedding. The gown and trousseau were ready. Shmuel Rubenfeld was waiting for the day when he could bring his young wife to his small estate, Zalesia, which he'd inherited when he was orphaned at a young age. From his inheritance he had to provide a dowry and wedding for his youngest sister. Since it wasn't respectable for a young girl to live in a bachelor's house without appropriate supervision, Shmuel Rubenfeld kept her safe at his older, married sister's house in Pshemishl. In the meantime, the young landowner of Zalesia had the buggy fitted up or the horse saddled so that he could ride to Matskyevitsh to see his fiancée. Since it wouldn't look proper either to her household or to the neighbors for him to visit more than once or at most twice a week, he would send a letter by the hired hands every day. These were written so that the lines began with the letters of my mother's name read from top to bottom: Chania. My mother's name was Chana. She was called Chantsha at home. But her fiancé called her Chania. These letters from him were in the little pink-striped sack at the bottom of the chest.

Suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, her fiancé's sister, the young girl who was staying with her older sister in the city, converted and married a blacksmith. They said that she did it to spite her sister, the wealthy, educated wife of the sawmill owner, because she didn't treat her well. When she would complain to her brother, he would plead with her, "Hold out just a bit longer. I'll be married in three weeks and you'll like living with my Chania."

One evening he came riding up, pale, upset. He found my mother on the porch and didn't make any attempt to come into the house. "You probably know what happened."

"Yes, I do."

"Your family will do everything they can to break our engagement. According to religious law, they can't do it without your consent. I want to know one thing—aside from what's happened, do you want to be my wife?"

"Yes, Shmuel."

"Can I be sure of you—you won't let them persuade you?"

"You can be sure of me."

"Then no one can tear you away from me, Chania—whatever happens, you'll be mine."

My zeyde Leyzer was dead by then. Just after my mother's sickness he suddenly collapsed, and in less than three days Leyzer Fast, always healthy, strong as an oak, left this world, his family, his fields and forests. When he went, my mother lost her support in life, her protector, the person who understood her so well, on whose chest she could cry her troubles away. If my zeyde had lived, he would have intervened for the sake of his daughter's happiness. My mother was sure of that.

The two older sons, Pinchas and Hersh, and the two younger daughters, Esther and Beyltshe, married while their father was still alive. The two youngest, who remained with my bubbe Rivka, were now the responsibility of her eldest sonin-law, Esther's husband, Reb Mordchele Engel, a man of few words and measured movements, with a long face, a dark complexion, almost as dark as his mother-in-law's, and a high, scholarly forehead. He knew his own worth and how to carry himself: he wanted everyone to feel he had been worth the large dowry that he received, but he also wanted them to know that he wasn't just Leyzer Matskyevitsh's son-in-law, he was Mordechai Engel. And the family went along with it. Whenever there was a business problem or an important family matter, they always asked his advice. Mordchele's word, no matter how quietly spoken, was law—and not just for his wife, who tried to read his slightest wish from his looks; even his mother-in-law brushed the dust from under his feet. This short, slight woman was the one who made the decisions when her tall, broad-shouldered husband was alive, but to her eldest son-in-law she was as submissive as if her husband's death had robbed her of all her drive, all her bustling energy.

This same Mordchele Engel, who'd come from Reyshe and spoke Polish like a true "landowner," quickly acquired a reputation throughout the region as a very clever, sedate young man, to whom one came for advice on all important matters. It didn't suit him to have the brother of a convert in the family, and he determined to use any means he could, even misrepresentation if necessary, to dissolve the match.

Without my mother knowing it, Shmuel Rubenfeld was called to the rabbi in Pshemishl. What happened there my mother never knew. Apparently the eldest brother-in-law used all his diplomatic strategies to convince her fiancé that it was all occurring with my mother's approval. And Shmuel Rubenfeld couldn't even for a moment suspect that this fine, refined man was lying. He probably thought that my mother had allowed herself to be persuaded by her family and had broken her word regardless of the fact that she'd promised him she would never agree to give up the match. When the daily visits and letters from her fiancé stopped, my mother realized that something bad had happened behind her back. She was ashamed to ask what and maybe even afraid to discover the truth. Once when she accidentally opened a dresser drawer, she saw her engagement agreement on the very bottom under all the documents and papers. These things were never discussed in our house. Shmuel Rubenfeld's name was never mentioned. "What I went through then only God in heaven knows. And what were either of us guilty of? We were going to be married three weeks later." My mother ended her story and sat quiet, deep in her own thoughts.

Yes, in three more weeks she would have been Chania Rubenfeld. Everything had been prepared.

Reb Mordchele and Bubbe Rivka began to look for a suitable match for my mother... "because the clothes made to order for the wedding might go out of style and they'd have had to order a new trousseau if they waited," my mother repeated bitterly a number of times. "No one thought of me. Only that the clothes might go out of style. It wasn't long before I was engaged to your father."


On Sale
Sep 3, 2007
Page Count
368 pages

Sandra Bark

About the Author

Sandra Bark is an editor at Warner Books.

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