The following stories were given to me by Hilda Meltzer several years ago. I was fascinated by the stories of life in the old country. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. Hilda is the daughter of Ita Laya Chazanov and Solomon Balinky. Ita Laya's parents were Sarah and Isaac Chazanov.
Three Balinky sisters: Hilda, Bella and Eve. Daughters of Elizabeth (Ita Laya) (Chasanov) and Solomon Balinky
A Tale of the Old Country II
An Ailment of the Soul
Once upon a time in far off Byelorussia, there lived a young man who suddenly and mysteriously fell ill. No one knew the nature of his ailment. From a merry, curious boy, he became a melancholy twenty-year old. He lost many pounds and became very thin. His skin lost its fine glow. "He looks green and yellow," his mother said. She and his father and many sisters and brothers were very worried.
They whispered about him. Why should he be so sad? He used to be such a happy boy. He loved to sing in his sweet tenor voice. He learned to fiddle. He loved to laugh. He wrote poetry and funny stories. He even knew how to make his own living. After all, he's been apprenticed to a watchmaker and did very well. Now he could even strike out on his own. Happily for him, he loved his work. So why was he so sad?
The family consulted with many wise men and women. All shook their heads. They did not know why he was pining away. One day, a matchmaker appeared at the door. He was known to the family and welcomed. They put some charcoal under the samovar and waited for the water to boil.The young man's mother set out glasses for tea and little cubes of sugar to sweeten it. The matchmaker heard the story of the unhappy young man. He watched the youth as he worked out of doors listlessly brushing the horse that drew the family's cart.
"I see your son has changed from the lively boy I saw the last time I was here to a sad and sallow young man. I think I know what is wrong. He needs someone to love. Someone to love him. Someone who will take care of him and bear him children. He needs a wife!"
"Of course, of course," said the father and mother. "We want our beloved boy to be happy, to have someone to care for him and to give us wonderful grandchildren. But in this small place, there is no one suitable."
"I think I can help," said the matchmaker "In a little town, not too many versts away, there lives a beautiful girl, just the right age, and from an honest and pious family. If you wish, but only if you wish, I will speak to her father. But only if you wish." The matchmaker was careful. He did not want the father and mother to think he was too interested in the rubles he might receive.
And so it was arranged. Not long afterward, when the winter snow and springtime muds were gone, the young man harnessed the family's horse to the cart and rode all day and all night to the young lady's house. The journey was more versts than the matchmaker had said. But the young man felt so joyous and so fearful and so eager all at the same time, he had no need for sleep.
Just as dawn was breaking and the long, dark night was coming to an end, as dew began to glisten and drip, he came out of woods into a clearing where the young girl's house stood. It was on the edge of a small town. The young man felt the dawn's rosy, golden light as he left the gloomy forest and saw before him what could only be a vision--a beautiful young girl, with long dark hair, drawing water from a well.
"Oh," he thought, "If only she is the one. She is not only beautiful but industrious also. Up at dawn and already drawing water."
He felt his heart beat faster. His face flushed. He watched the light on her hair--the movements of her delicate arms, the perfection of her features and figure.
"If only she will have me," he thought. He left the wagon and approached her. "Shalom," he said softly, lowering his head and looking down at her radiance, "I am Schneir Zalman Balinky."
The girl raised her shoulders slightly, moved her head forward and shyly looked up at him.
"Shalom," she answered. "I am Ita Laya Chazanoff"........This is how my parents met.
A Tale of the Old Country III
Schneir Zalman and Ita Laya in Love
"May I carry your pail?" Schneir Zalman asked of Ita Laya.
With the pail in his hand and his eyes on Ita Laya, he entered her much in-need-of repairs little house. Mama Chazanov immediately put more water in the samovar and offered the young man a glass of
tea and bread with her plum jam. But of course, more food would arrive soon. The Chazanov liked the shy, well spoken young man. Their eyes met over Zalman’s head. “Hmm, could be” they signaled each
other. This was a good boy. He was already helping Ita Laya with the pail of water. His boots were polished and he wore his Sabbath clothes even though it was not Saturday. He was showing respect for
them. Sarah Chazanov, Ita Laya’s mother, fed him good meals and pretended her daughter had done most of the cooking.
Staying as long as he could without seeming rude, Zalman said his goodbyes to the older Chazanovs. They did not follow when Ita Laya accompanied Zalman to his horse and wagon.
Stroking his horse while gazing at Ita Laya, he whispered, "Shaineh maidel," pretty girl.
Raising her shoulders and curling up a bit, Ita Laya blurted, "Zeeseh neshomeh" sweet breath.
Zalman also gasped. Encouraged, he said. "Id like to write to you three times a week. May I? If I said I's write every day and one letter got lost, maybe you'd worry? Better three times a week. But only if you wish." Ita Laya blushed and nodded. She’d been very quiet during the whole visit. But this didn’t trouble Schneir Zalman. Modesty in a woman was a virtue. Anyhow, all he wanted was to look at her loveliness. Shalom.” He said. “Please write me, too.” “Shalom,” she said. “I will.”
Schneir Zalman climbed on to his wagon, flicked the reins, but never stopped staring over his shoulder. He smiled, stared, stared and smiled and slowly started on his seventy five versts, about thirty five miles, back to his home. Instead of the recent heaviness of his heart, it soared with wondrous joy. Instead of his glum silence, he heard himself sing. Instead of a dulled mind, it now buzzed with anticipations, doubts, questions. He felt suffused with an ethereal light –a warmth and radiance within, like a sunflower which forever turns its face to the sun.
Over and over he kept repeating, “Zeeseh Neshomeh. Ita Laya said that to me.” Zalman breathed in the scents of his beloved woods – the forest floor with its moldering leaves, pungent mushrooms, spicy evergreens. He heard the heart-swelling songs of birds, noted the dappled light and shadows on the underbrush, and watched the shafts of light beaming through the canopy of trees.
This I’ve loved all my life, he thought. Always my senses responded to the fragrance and sounds of my forest. But never so sharply, never so fervently. I will write poems. I will try with words to give back this joy, this wonder. So this is love? Everything becomes more stirring – sharper and clearer. Beauty is everywhere but without love its full glory is not felt. “Thank you, dear God,” he prayed silently.
Ach, Zalman wondered, will I be able to eat or sleep from all this elation? Can there be anything better? Sometimes, at my prayers, I feel this surge of ecstasy. But, God forgive me, love is even better. Though, if you, most Holy One, created us to love, then it cannot be such a sin. And even in the Bible there is written The Songs of Solomon. I will write my beloved my own songs. I will call them, The Songs of Zalman. He laughed so loud he surprised even himself. The horse picked up her ears.
“Laika,” he said, “Do you think I’m crazy? Meshugueh? I do.”
Then quietly he began reciting from the King Solomon’s Song of Songs. He imagined himself the lover and Ita Laya, his love, the Shulamite. Zalman quoted,
Open, my sister, my friend,
My dove, my perfect one!
My hair is wet, drenched,
With the dew of night.
And the Shulamite in response,
My love reached in for the latch
And my heart
Turning red, he thought, no more, Zalman. No more of the Song of Solomon. Such words may be in the Bible and may be sanctioned for kings, for in those times and for such powerful ones such thoughts were permitted, but not in our time and not for common folk such as we. Now-a-days for us, modesty is holy. Such thoughts between Ita Laya and me passt nit, are not fitting. Better to savor her vision and her words than to think as a Biblical king. Yes, much more fitting.
Then Zalman noticed a little toad hopping to the side and ahead of the cart. It was making progress very slowly. Again and again, it hurled itself as much as a hand span into the air and landed a fingernail ahead. Again, a hand span aloft, and a finger nail ahead. Zalman laughed and thought, that’s me. I’m more afloat than on the ground. To his horse he shouted, “Laika, it’s up to you to keep me on the earthly path. You’re the only one here who isn’t Meshugueh,” crazy.
Laika’s old head, with its long, yellowish mane, continued to nod up and down as though in agreement. And yet again Zalman thought, Ita Laya said Zeeseh Neshomeh, to me.
”Zeeseh Neshomeh, Zeeseh Neshomeh,” Zalman shouted to the dark shadows cast by the stand of birch trees through which he was passing. What do I care that night is coming? I’m a fire fly. I’m the rising red moon. My whole life has changed. Again, he resolved, I will write. I will rouse the world with my words. Ach, vus tut zach mit mir, what is happening to me? It can only be what I have so long longed for, “Ich bin far lippt. I am in love.”
”Ich bin far lippt, I’m in love.” Ita Laya said to herself trembling.
She watched Zalman’s wagon until it blended into the shadows of the woods, quivering each time he looked back. She fretted, carrying on a dispute in her mind. Vus tut zach mit mir? What's doing with me? How could I have been so bold? How could I say Zeeseh neshomeh? What will he think of me? No, no maybe it's good. for if he likes me, he'll also know I like him. No, no, maybe he'll think I lack modesty. Ita Laya, better watch yourself. Shame. No, no. I couldn't help myself. Her heart jumped. Shaineh maidel, he said that to me.
Ach,what are these strange prickly feelings all over me? Is this truly love, this joy, this fear? How can I not love this romantic dear boy? And he's a writer and poet, too. He's a girl's cholom, dream, come to life. I always hoped a handsome stranger would appear in our shtetl, sit beside me, kiss me and with his horse take me away to a wonderful life.
I've already said "no" to many boys, Ita Laya thought. Don't people stop and look at me on the street, I'm so pretty? But I would never say "no" to sweet Zalman. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. Before his visit, I told Papa I didn't want to get married. "I'm too young," I said. "I want to go to school." But now that I've seen him, I could give up my dreams. Zalman is one in a million. I will love him forever.
As Ita Laya walked on the short path to the house, she felt her mind bubbling, tsemmes - a sweet and sour stew of hope and worry, worry and hope.
Am I sure he loves me? But he wants to write three times a week and he wants me to write to him. And he said, Shaineh maidel! But maybe he didn't mean it. Maybe he'll change his mind. Yes, maybe he'll start loving me, but then he'll find out what I'm really like. I sleep late. He thinks I'm industrious because he saw me up early at the well. But I was up only because Moma was sick. Also, Moma pretended I made the food. I can't cook. Everyone says Papa and Moma spoil me. But for Zalman I'll learn everything. Ach. I'm going meshugueh.
On entering the house, her parents stared and smiled. They said nothing but their eyes asked a question. At last, Papa Chazanov exploded, "Nu," well?
Ita Laya blushed, covered her cheeks with her hands, burst into tears, ran from the room quickly and threw herself, face down onto the bed.
"What's doing with her? Papa Chazanov groused. "Is she meshugueh?"
"Don't worry yourself, Isaac." Sarah smoothed. "Ita Laya is not meshugueh, Ita Laya ist far lippt."
More Stories to Come Shortly