Di tsvey Kuni-Leml

[The Two Kuni-Lemls]


Act I. The home of Reb Pinkhesl, a prosperous, slow-talking Hasidic merchant. The room is filled with Hasidim who are singing joyfully as they partake of the melave malke feast that concludes the Sabbath. They guests leave, wishing a speedy marriage for Pinkhesl’s 17-year-old daughter, Khayele. However, he fears that his wife Rivke has so spoiled their daughter with her worldly ideas (including hiring a tutor to teach her German) that Khayele will never accept a pious husband. Enter Rivke, who fights with him over a match for their daughter, gets the last word every time by finishing his sentences for him, and goes. Enter Kalmen Matchmaker, a fast-talking 40-year-old, who says he’s found a mate for Khayele: Kuni-Leml: blind in one eye, lame in one foot, and with a severe stutter, but from a prominent family. Pinkhes is convinced, but worries about winning over his wife and daughter. Kalmen goes to invite Kuni-Leml to town. Enter Rivke and Khayele (known as Carolina to her more worldly friends). The parents go off to argue some more, and Carolina sings of her desire to be free of the stifling Hasidic environment: “They say the air is fresh, but not for me.”

Scene change: a garden, where university students celebrate and sing ("Now We Will Rest"), having just completed their exams. One of them, Max (Carolina’s aforementioned tutor), worries that he will never win over Pinkhes so he can be with his beloved Carolina. Carolina heard offstage singing hers and Max’s rendezvous song (“Cuckoo”); the students leave Max alone with her. She overheard the conversation between her father and Kalmen, and tells Max about it. Kuni-Leml turns out to be the stepson of Max’s uncle Shloymenyu, who is more of a freethinker than he appears. Max tells her that he will disguise himself as Kuni-Leml, visit Kalmen, and then go to her house. She goes. Max swears his comrades to loyalty, and they sing a refrain of “Now We Will Rest.”

Act II. Kalmen’s modest house. His homely daughter Libe sings of her desire for a man. Her father enters, and she chastises him for finding mates for everyone but her. He says he’ll do that when he has more money. Enter Max, disguised as Kuni-Leml. Alone with Libe, he courts her, and she agrees to run away with him. He tells her his name is Shmerl, and teaches her a song that will be ‘theirs’ (it is, in fact, the “Cuckoo” song). He goes, leaving her ecstatic.

Scene change: a street in Krakow, near Reb Shloymenyu’s house and a small synagogue, on Hoshanah Rabbah, a celebration at the end of the autumn harvest festival of Sukkot. A debate is in full swing over who should be elected gabay (warden) of the synagogue; the crowd enters the synagogue to draw lots. Shloymenyu reads aloud the letter from Kalmen proposing a match with Khayele. When Kuni-Leml enters, Shloymenyu tells him about the proposed match, and Kuni-Leml tries to convince his stepfather that he has no physical disabilities. While this fails, Shloymenyu still approves the match. The crowd returns, happily announcing that Shloymenyu is still gabay. They sing as they carry him to synagogue.

Act III. Pinkhesl’s house, where he and Rivke await guests. Carolina arrives and, per Max’s plan, concedes to all her father’s wishes. Enter Kuni-Leml who Carolina thinks is Max in disguise, and who is put off by her Germanized name. But Pinkhesl pacifies him, and takes Rivke out with him. Carolina’s assertiveness intimidates Kuni-Leml, and when she finally tries to embrace him, he cries in distress, and runs out. She vows to repay Max for his trick. Pinkhesl and Rivke return, and even he agrees that if Carolina rejects Kuni-Leml, there will be no questions asked. But she says she really likes him, making her parents doubt her sanity. Pinkhesl ultimately concludes that Kuni-Leml must be a holy man to have made Carolina react so strongly. The parents leave, and Max enters, disguised as Kuni-Leml. Carolina greets him coldly, and he finally figures out, to their amusement, that she tried to kiss the real Kuni-Leml. He writes a letter for her to bring to his friends, and as they embrace, Kuni-Leml enters, and screams. Carolina leaves, and Max proceeds to convince Kuni-Leml that Max is the real Kuni-Leml, and that Kuni-Leml is a swindler who already promised to marry Libe. Kuni-Leml exits, very confused. Max looks forward to his next trick: confirming Pinkhesl’s belief that Kuni-Leml, as embodied by Max, is a saintly figure. When Pinkhesl returns, Max is up on the table talking to spirits. He convinces Pinkhesl of his powers, and makes him swear to let Max marry Carolina. He summons his dead ancestors--actually his university friends in shrouds--who witness the pact and congratulate the couple. As they dance, the stage is lit with electric fire, and the curtain falls slowly.

Act IV. Around the table at Pinkhesl’s house sit Max (still disguised as Kuni-Leml), Carolina, Pinkhesl, Rivke, a cantor writing the marriage contract, and relatives. The guests sing and go to an adjoining room to eat, leaving Pinkhesl alone. Enter Kuni-Leml, who grows even more confused about his identity after he talks to Pinkhesl. Kalmen adds to the confusion, and Carolina enters, giving Kuni-Leml the cold shoulder. She leaves. Enter Libe, who won’t leave Kuni-Leml alone. As she is about to rip off his beard, Shloymenyu arrives, and clears up most of the recent events. Carolina returns with Max, who admits that he tricked everyone, except when he said that Libe would find a mate, to which end he pledges part of the dowry, as long as she marries Kuni-Leml.

Scene change: Pinkhesl’s garden. Students reprise the “living dead” bit in costume, then in their student clothes. Hasidim dance onto the stage; the students drive them out. The Hasidim return and appeal to Pinkhesl, who declares, “I’m saying goodbye to you for good. Suddenly I see that they’re the wise ones. Go in good health!” The guests dance, and fireworks and electric lights illuminate the stage as the curtain falls.