Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
The Hunchback's Wedding, 1996
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in.
"The tailor known as the American tailor, der amerikaner shnayder, did strictly custom work. He was considered the best in town. Why was he called the American tailor? He went to the United States by himself and hoped to be able to bring his family once he established himself. However, he had a daughter, a hunchback, who was terribly disfigured. After a few years, he realized that to bring his family to the United States, he would have to leave his handicapped daughter behind, so he decided to come back to Apt. Rumor had it that in order to save himself the return fare, he did something to get himself deported. He brought back beautiful catalogues from America with all the latest fashions--tall men in three button suits and statuesque ladies in suits and coats--and opened up a tailoring establishment that catered to the custom trade.
Even though his daughter was from a very nice family, it was difficult to match her up with somebody. He could not marry her off. One day the family noticed that the daughter's stomach was getting bigger, her breasts were swelling, but she remained thin. After repeated questioning, she admitted she was pregnant. The father of the child was unwilling to marry her. They were desperate. It would be terrible for the child to be a mamzer, a bastard, for the rest of its life. After all, the child was innocent. In Jewish tradition, to be an illegitimate child is a very serious thing. It would be excluded from the Jewish community, even though it is not at fault.
They decided to take the matter to court. As a rule, Jews did not avail themselves of municipal courts in civil matters. Instead, they convened a bezdin (Jewish court), consisting of the rabbi and two or three prominent citizens. The bezdin had no physical power, but it did have moral authority. The court and the family implored the gentleman that did the dastardly deed to marry her. But he still adamantly refused.
Her time was fast approaching. The father implored the man one last time, 'Is it not enough that God punished the poor girl with such a deformity? Did you have to bring such shame on her?' The father promised the man a dwelling, new garments, a job in his tailor shop for life, and he enumerated his daughter's virtues. She was a good cook, an efficient housekeeper, and she would make him a very fine home. The man finally relented and agreed to marry her.
You can see the bride and groom standing under the wedding canopy. The women more or less kept to one side and the men to the other side. There was one top hat in the town. It was called a tsilinder. Every groom who wanted to look elegant borrowed that hat. The red chair in the corner is my grandmother's. My grandfather bought a two-seater sofa and this chair from a nobleman's estate at an auction sale. It was not in the best condition. The springs were popping out. The whole town borrowed it for the bride to sit for the kale badekns, the veiling of the bride. Before the festivities started, all the guests would assemble and the badkhn, the master of ceremonies, would announce all the gifts. 'The family of the bride a pair of silver candlesticks. The family of the groom a Hanukkah lamp. The grandmother of the bride a featherbed. The sister of the bride a feather pillow.' Other household items were usually assembled for the bride in her trousseau. After the publishing of the presents, refreshments were served. The favorite drink was lakritsh, licorice root boiled in water and sweetened with sugar. I never liked it and I still don't.
The band struck up the music and the dancing started. At the ceremony they played traditional wedding music. For the dancing, they played the latest tangos, waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and sometimes kolomaykes. The red carpet in the corner was not just for ornament. As the saying goes, 'Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.' If you wanted to dance, you had to throw money down. That was a little extra for the musicians. The room looks large because all the furniture was taken out for the wedding. Ordinarily, there would be two beds, a table, a couple of benches, and maybe a couple of stools in a corner, and a few pieces of wood. The little place under the stove was for a little goat, a kid, a lamb, even among the Jews in Apt. The clock was the most precious possession, the center of attraction in the house. Wallpaper was also precious. It was sold by the metre. My grandmother stocked remnants. They would put a piece of wallpaper on the wall behind the clock. After the ceremony, the bride and groom generally retired to an adjoining room. This was the first time they were left alone together.
The wedding you see here was no ordinary wedding. This one took place on a Friday. Usually, weddings were not held on Fridays because once the Sabbath starts, you cannot play musical instruments. Since the bride was so close to giving birth, the ceremony could not be delayed. The bride barely managed to say 'I do,' before she was rushed from the canopy to an adjoining room to deliver a baby boy. We had a cousin, his name was Khayim Burekh. He was a badkhn, a jester, a merrymaker, who used to officiate at weddings. He would sing and regale the guests with somewhat off-color jokes. He would tell the bride how difficult a time she was going to have. She'll suffer labor pains. She'll be away from her mother. Life is a struggle. When my mother saw Khayim Burekh rushing home, she asked him, 'Khayim Burekh, where are you going? Is the wedding already over?' He answered, 'I have to go home and change my clothes and come back for the zukher.' The zukher was a little party traditionally made to celebrate the birth of a male on the first Friday after the confinement. They served boiled nahit (chick peas) and bobes (lima beans) and candies, cookies, and eretz-yisruel niselekh or Land of Israel nuts, as peanuts were called. Mostly women attended. It was held in the woman's home.
The young couple lived happily until the war. They were expelled from Apt in 1942, together with all the other Jews, never to return. Only her brother survived. He lives in New York today."
Mayer tells the story of a woman who was a hunchback and the tailor who married her. Listen to it.
To see and hear Mayer tell this story in Yiddish, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page.