“Aunt Taibele” - a short story by Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn, translated from The Yiddish by Miranda Cooper - first published 1965, translated 2020
You may read “Aunt Taibele” here
Born 1905 in Novvoradomsk, Poland
Immigrated 1904 to Montreal, with her parents
Passes on in 1975 in Montreal
Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn was a long time preformer in the Montreal Yiddish Theater. Second to New York City, Montreal had a large number of Yiddish immigrants. While merging with much success into Canadian society, they cherished their heritage.
In addition to acting, Hamer-Jacklyn was a very frequent contributor of short stories to Yiddish language periodicals.
On January 9 2019 I posted upon two Short Stories by Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn included in The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers / edited by Frieda Johles
Today’s story ends with a pandemic taking a high toll. It seemed very appropriate somehow to post on this now. The story also reflects the closeness though hardly drama free families of the shtetls of Eastern Europe and Russia.
“Aunt Taibele” is both funny and very sad, a combation not uncommon in Yiddish literature. The story is set in Nowo-Radomsk,Poland.
Here is the opening description of Aunt Taibele:
“Aunt Taibele was coming to Nowo-Radomsk from Gwoźnica. She was really more of a distant relative, but the whole family called her “aunt.”
In our house, there was always talk of “Aunt Taibele.” Grandma used to travel to Gwoźnica often to visit her and her husband and see to it that the young couple always had food on the table. She told us that Moyshe Haim, Taibele’s husband, complained that his wife was a public nuisance, a wicked woman, a shrew. And Taibele said that her husband was a glutton and a drunkard—he had to have a snack before he went to daven, and what’s more, he was a big bon vivant. Grandma always sided with Aunt Taibele.”
Aunt Taibele is divorced with one child.”Whereever she went she was angry and sullen, full of grievances against the world and her ex-husband”.She soon moves out on her own and establishes a business making and selling soap.
“She only stayed with us for two weeks, during which time she found herself an apartment and started a soap business. Once a week on market day, she would set up a little stand for her homemade soap and sell it to ladies. During the rest of the week she courted customers in well-to-do houses and sold them fragrant, exotic soaps. She never borrowed from anyone but also hated to pay out of her own pocket. This business was her source of income. Her only goal in life was to take pity on people, help the sick, collect charity for the destitute. She applied cupping glasses to her patients and leeches under their ears, helped ward off the evil eye, and anointed the ill with salve and ointment that she had made herself from various medicinal herbs. Aunt Taibele never missed a funeral. She would weep and accompany the corpse to the cemetery. With secret joy, she listened to the difficulties of sad souls and consoled them. And soon all of Nowo-Radomsk called her “Aunt Taibele”.
Soon people in the community begin looking for a new husband for her. But she rejects perfectly decent men. She has one close friend, a widower with a sick son. Somehow this woman’s misery draws her to her. Once the widow marries a grocer with a secure income Taibele draws away.
Then one fine day Taibele marries again, to a grave-digger.
“Aunt Taibele married the gravedigger, who was an energetic man, but unclean and unkempt, with a neglected house. The whole shtetl speculated that the couple wouldn’t even last as long as the time between the Fast of Esther and Purim.
But it soon became clear that this was a match made in heaven. The marriage imbued Aunt Taibele with new life. A red flush spread across her cheeks. Her ever-sour face shone. She replaced all her household items, threw away the old beds, bought new ones. She shined her bronze candlesticks, hung new curtains, scoured, polished, and bleached the two rooms. Suddenly she became a real lady of the house, and saw to it that her husband was clean and well put together. She cooked and baked. She also worked together with her husband at the cemetery, accompanying each new corpse, never leaving the grave until the last shovelful of earth had fallen.”
Then a plague began to spread in the area. There was a Custom at the time to hold what were called “Plague Wedding” were staged in an effort to ward of the plague. Here is Miranda Cooper’s explanation of this:
“plague weddings, known as mageyfe khasenes or shvartse khasenes. This superstitious ritual involved marrying people on the margins of society to one another in an effort to ward off the plague. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been increased interest in this ritual, still little-known in many Jewish communities”.
“Then a plague broke out in Nowo-Radomsk. The rabbi ordered that the black khupe be erected over the cemetery. The whole town, under the leadership of Aunt Taibele, got involved. An orphan girl was found and married to Berele, the town fool. Aunt Taibele stood in for the orphan’s mother for the wedding. She and another community matriarch went to the stores for meat, fish, challah, wine, and liquor, and they set about cooking.
Almost the whole town gathered at the cemetery. Aunt Taibele and her husband accompanied the orphan bride to the khupe. Aunt Taibele, dressed in her silk dress, distributed food among the poor and announced the wedding presents, gathering them all in a large box. She even found an apartment for the young couple. When the plague began to subside, she felt that it was thanks in large part to her and her husband.”
The story ends happily.
Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn (1905–1975) Born in Novoradomsk, Poland, Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn immigrated to Canada in 1914. Captivated by the Yiddish theatre in Toronto, she began her career as an actress and singer at sixteen. Retaining her love of Yiddish as well as her dramatic connection with the theatre, her short stories serialized in the Canadian Yiddish daily Der Keneder Adler, as well as in major literary journals, depict a wide range of subjects spanning shtetl life, Holocaust narratives, and women’s search for creative expression in America. Her collection of short stories, including Lebens un gestalten ( Lives and Portraits) and Shtamen un tsveygn ( Stumps and Branches), published in the 1940s and 1950s, were received with critical acclaim. From The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers / edited by Frieda Johles Forman
Miranda Cooper is a New York–based writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations from Yiddish have been published in Jewish Currents and Pakn Treger, and her literary and cultural criticism has been published by Kirkus Reviews, Jewish Currents, Tablet, JTA, In geveb, Alma, the Jewish Book Council, and the Yiddish Book Center. She currently serves as an editor of In geveb and was a 2019 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow.
This is my fourth story by Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn. I hope a collection of her stories will be published soon.