Di shkhite

[The Slaughter]


Act I. In the house of Zisl Kroynes, a rabbi. Shmuel Yosl, his nephew, is studying the Talmudic laws of shkhite (kosher butchering), but with great difficulty, while Zisl’s wife, Kroyne, mends a pair of Shmuel Yosl’s pants. Zisl enters and announces that he has found a husband for his 17-year-old daughter Esterke: Tsalel Rappaport, a wealthy wood merchant. When they break the news to Esterke, Zisl and Kroyne delineate all the virtues of such a marriage--the groom’s learning, stature, and wealth, as well as the importance of respecting one’s parents’ wishes--and play down the significance of Tsalel’s age (he is a 50-year-old widower with two children by his first of two wives). Esterke says she agrees to the match, though she is clearly unhappy about it.

The family is then visited by Elkonoh, Tsalel’s foreman, who arranges for Tsalel to come right away and sign the marriage contract. Esterke is momentarily left alone with Shmuel Yosl after learning the news; he has tears in his eyes, and she wants to tell him something, but suppresses it.

When Tsalel arrives with various witnesses, he shows off his learning by quoting a variety of Talmudic sayings appropriate to the occasion--thus further endearing himself to Zisl. He asks Esterke herself whether she agrees to marry him, but though she assents once again, as the contract is signed she begins laughing and crying simultaneously. Tsalel, put off by her behavior, turns to Elkonoh and says angrily, “In my house, she won’t do such crazy things!”

Act II. In the comfortably furnished home of Tsalel Rappoport. His daughter, Sheyne Henye, in her twenties, is learning a difficult etude on the piano, while her 15-year-old brother, Bentshik, continually interrupts her. Their fighting gets Esterke’s attention, but when she tries to mediate, they drop their quarrel with each other and turn on her, mocking her humble origins and ultimately driving her to tears. Tsalel enters at this point, and sends his children out. She doesn’t report their cruelty, but Tsalel chides her for letting them walk all over her. And while he’s at it, he urges her to greet him more warmly and less formally.

When Esterke intercedes on Bentshik’s behalf when Tsalel is about to beat him for smoking, Bentshik starts to change his mind about her. But his behavior toward his father upsets her, and she worries about the future of the child she is carrying (news that Tsalel doesn’t give her the chance to relate): “Who knows, maybe my child will also be an orphan . . . All of Reb Tsalel’s wives end up dying.” She asks permission to visit her parents, but Tsalel refuses. When Sheyne Henye plays a piece on the piano, her insolence toward her stepmother melts when Esterke reminds her, “Though you are Tsalel Rappaport’s daughter, you’re still a lonely orphan and have no one to whom to cry out your bitter heart.” Then Esterke starts crying too.

Elkonoh arrives with news of a catastrophe: one of Tsalel’s boats sank and thirteen people drowned. Tsalel reacts callously: “That was their destiny: ‘who by fire and who by water.’” He comes up with a plan to compensate the survivors, and goes off to prepare to ride to the governor. Meanwhile, Zisl and Kroyne arrive, anxious about Esterke’s well-being, but she assures them that Tsalel is treating her well. Tsalel is so insulted that he is about to throw Zisl out by force, but Esterke intervenes and announces that she is pregnant. All differences are put aside as everyone shares a drink and Esterke gets the giggles.

Act III. Same room as in Act I. Shmuel Yosl still studying, as Zisl agonizes over his daughter, whom he and Kroyne haven’t seen in months--and the baby, never. Kroyne returns from trying to visit, but she wasn’t allowed in the house. Esterke herself soon arrives with the baby, however--she slipped away while Tsalel was out, and says she is not going back; his cruelty to her has led her to seek a divorce. “If I stay there,” she says, “I feel as if my sick heart will be torn apart and I will die. Do you want me to die? Mama, I haven’t lived yet.” Elkonoh comes to take her back, and is soon followed by Tsalel himself, who bullies everyone and commands that she return. She is backed up by Shmuel Yosl, who has become a ritual slaughterer at last, and cites Jewish law to back her appeal for a divorce. Her parents are appalled by her resolution to leave Tsalel, however, and are afraid of what he might do and what the neighbors might say. Finally, Zisl falls at Esterke’s feet and begs her to return to her husband, and after many tears, she relents. As Tsalel impatiently waits for her as the act winds down, she laments, “Better if I had never been born.”

Act IV. A large room at Reb Tsalel’s. Reb Zisl and Kroyne are there taking care of Esterke, who has since given birth to a stillborn child. They are worried about her declining health and precarious emotional state. Bentshik, Sheyne Henye, and Louisa are also concerned. Shmuel Yosl soon arrives from the shtetl, carrying his bundle of slaughtering knives. He is now not only a slaughterer, but a cantor as well, and his community insists that he get married. He has no great desire to do so, but has come home to find a wife. Esterke thinks she brought her troubles on herself: “You think I’m saintly because I’m quiet. I sin against God every minute. Every wife is is duty bound to love her husband … and I cannot … Once one marries, one must think only of one’s husband and … he never enters my thoughts ... so isn’t that a terrible sin?” Tsalel and Elkone soon arrive, back from drinks with important local officials. Tsalel chases everyone else out and locks the door so Esterke can’t leave. She she pulls out one of Shmuel Yosl’s knives, chases Tsalel around the room, and kills him. Afterwards, she declares, “It’s a kosher slaughter! Ha ha! Ha-kol shoykhtin; all may slaughter ... all may slaughter.” The others, responding to Tsalel’s cries for help, break down the door. They all cry, with Kroyne concluding, “My child! My poor child!”