Fradel Shtok (b. 1890 Skala, Galicia — d. 1952 Hollywood, California) remains a shadowy figure within modernist Yiddish literature. Though acclaimed for her poetic works, including one of the first Yiddish language sonnets, and her association with authors of the Die Yunge group.
Her only collection of Yiddish language prose, געזאַמעלטע ערצעהלונגגען (Collected Stories), was published in 1919 and predominantly contains stories of Eastern European Jewish life, specifically narratives surrounding coming-of-age.
The following work is a stage adaptation of the second short story in this volume, an odd-one-out for its exploration of American-Jewish life, entitled אַ טאַנץ (“A Dance”). “A Dance” is a snapshot of a New York garment worker’s life, focused through the celebratory, disruptive space of a wedding. Here, in this reprieve from the cycle of labour, within the accelerating rhythms of the dance, in the intimacy of the crowd, Shtok explores the underlying throb of everyday life through the extraordinary.
The wedding acts as a “social condenser,” drawing green immigrants into confluence with those who have become Americanized. There are reunions between old friends and an examination of the shifting and discarded social relationships that change in the process of emigration.
This stage adaptation of “A Dance” expands the dynamics at play through spatializing character interaction. Characters circulate through the dense crowd, negotiating their movements. Character inner life takes physical form through externalization, landing upon the physicality of the stage on its own terms.
A Dance by Fradel Shtok
Translation and stage adaptation by Josh Silver
It is 1919 , A large hall is set for a wedding, a chuppah of thin wooden polls holds up the tallit. A dance tune begins to play, starting with the fiddle.
Groups of two, three and four talk with each other. Some hold small glasses of schnapps. Others dance along to the band’s music. They are all dressed to the nines (and beyond, fitting firmly into the tens, elevens, and even twelves amazingly enough). Dark frock coats mill about three-piece suits and tuxedos. The odd Kaftan makes an appearance shimmering under the lights among flowing flouncing taffeta dresses. The bride and groom greet guests while others continue to dance. Soon dancers circulate around the chuppah in a circle. The rest of the band begins to play. Still seated on their wooden chairs, the sound of the fiddle is accompanied by a snare and base drum, a clarinet, an out-of-tune upright piano, and a tuba.
MEKS and MEYERL stand alone. MEYERL is MEKS’ shadow. MEKS grins broadly at all those who pass. Their hair is freshly cut and slicked back. Both wear the same new checkered three-piece suits, and shiny black shoes that click loudly at each step. They are at the height of fashion. At 28, their toil is inscribed in the deep wrinkles on their foreheads, dark circles around their eyes, and grey hairs about their temples. Tonight, however, they look great!
Suddenly, from across the room, MEKS notices his old friend MOYSHELE from back home. He wears a brown suit, a bowler hat, and sports a small moustache. MOYSHELE sees him as well. They both push through the crowd and meet in front of the chuppah. MEYERL follows and listens intently but stands behind the two speakers.
MEKS: Moyshele! Mazal tov! [vigorously shakes his hand]
MOYSHELE: Meyerl! Zei gezint nor oif simchus!
MEYERL looks over at MOYSHELE and smiles slightly.
MEKS: Amen! [beat] Nu! It’s not “Meyerl” anymore! Here, they call me Meks!
MOYSHELE: Ha! Meks! Meks, Meks, Meks. [beat] It’s been a while, Meks! What you do these days, Meks?
MEKS: What else does one do in America? I’m in coats of course.
MEKS: So, so.
MOYSHELE: [squinting] Just the same, Meksele, you don’t look so good. What’s wrong? Your wife giving you a hard time?
MEKS only smiles foolishly in response. MOYSHELE sees someone behind MEKS and points to him discreetly. He wears a very tall, worn-out top hat and a slightly threadbare jacket; however, on his finger is an enormous diamond ring.
MOYSHELE: Say, do you know who that is?
MEKS: Of course I do! What kind of question is that? It’s Oyzer from back home.
MOYSHELE: Yeah, right… [leaning in, in a lower voice] Did you hear he got into real estate?
MEKS: Real estate? Really? [MEKS clicks his tongue] Now that’s a business.
MOYSHELE: You better believe it. He had it all then— [petering off]
MEKS: Pffffftttttt, you see what happens? One minute you’re—
MEKS: —and then the next it’s all goes—
MOYSHELE: —That’s right.
MEKS: Poor fella. Let me go over.
Moyshele gestures as if to say, “sure Meks…” and turns, losing himself in the crowd. Meks turns and goes over to Oyzer who stands alone, away from the dancers. MEYERL follows in tow.
MEKS: Hello, Reb Oyzer! Do you remember me, sir?
OYZER: [speaking past MEKS towards MEYERL who stands slightly behind] Sure I do, what kind of question is that? You’re Meyerl, Borekh’s son. How are you, Landsman?
MEKS gives him a submissive smile and relaxes his shoulders, thankful that such a rich (or once rich) man recognizes him. MEYERL remains stony-faced.
OYZER: So, what’s new, Meyerl? You working?
MEKS: What choice does a regular fellow have? You can’t live off interest, you have to work.
OYZER looks at MEYERL suspiciously as if to gauge whether or not he was being insulted.
MEYERL’S expression hasn’t changed, while MEKS looks worried and vulnerable.
MEKS: [worried] You know… once a beggar, always a beggar… [he breaks out into nervous laughter]
OYZER looks at MEYERL with an even more penetrating gaze, more offended than before. His eyes widen before he turns away. MEYERL moves to the other side of OYZER, they are once again, face to face.
MEKS: [wavering] You hear, Reb Oyzer?
OYZER still looks away, now trying to turn his head away from MEYERL who moves in response.
MEKS: [pointing at the diamond ring on Oyzer’s finger] There, [beat] I’ll reckon that little stone is worth more than most of us earn in an entire year! [he begins to nervously laugh, again]
OYZER turns his head over to MEKS with a slightly forced smile. MEYERL remains in place.
The freylekhs music starts up. The two sets of in-laws join into a circle and start dancing around the chuppah. MEKS and MEYERL are pulled into the circle by someone. MEKS is dragged along while MEYERL dances to a steady beat, still wearing a blank expression. MEKS starts off a bit sluggish, but as the music increases in speed an tempo, his energy and elation rises. Suddenly, the dam breaks and MEKS breaks into the centre of the circle in a flurry of movement. Everything outside of the circle is dark. MEKS dances under the chuppah.
GUEST: Oy! Make way!
The circle opens up, the guests clap along to the music.
MEKS goes wild, slamming his feet against the wooden floor, thrusting his feet to the side in time with the music, to the rakhto-riram, rakhto rakhto-riram, spinning!
MEYERL: [shouting from the sidelines of the semi-circle] Meyerl… stop! You’ll kill yourself with all this dancing…think of your family.
MEKS: [angrily dancing up towards MEYERL] No! Don’t bother your head with all that!
MEKS’ sides burn with his exertion; his face is pale. He’s sweating intensely. The crowd gasps with excitement. MEKS goes up and down and back up again and around and around to the beat, the rakhto-riram.
In light of the music, the crowd seems visibly younger as they dance in place. An old man with a crooked smile snaps his arthritic fingers while his hat cocks askew jauntily on his head.
MEYERL: [again from the side lines, this time imploring, screaming to the music, singing along, visibly in pain] Meyerle! Enough is enough already! No…. No more….. Ri-Ram! Ri-Ram! Dance… dance and be happy… A relative’s wedding… Such close family… Ri-Ram! Ri-ram! Act like it! Ri-Ram! Ri-ram! A hundred and fifty dollars, a bank book… Rakhto ri-ram!… A candy store! Yes!… Quit your job! Rakhto, rakhto ri-ram!
The music accelerates, faster and faster, reaching its apogee.
Then, it stops.
The crowd applauds one another. MEKS collapses on a bench breathing heavily. MEYERL softly sits down beside him and places his hand on MEKS’ back. The bride and groom are ushered through the melee under the chuppah. Everyone except the in-laws, some family, and the bride, and groom leave.
In the same hall, now we are at the end of the festivities. It is late and moonlight mingles with the light from the interior. The band packs up their instruments. The in-laws stand together muttering about business. The bride, unveiled, stands with her husband talking to some family who are paying their respects before leaving. MEKS smiles sadly, waving to people he knows as they leave, maybe shaking someone’s hand. MEYERL is with him, hands in pockets, smiling but only slightly. He already wears his overcoat and fedora.
MEKS [to himself, sighing] Oy, I wish I was already home and warm. MEKS goes over to the coat rack and gets his black overcoat and large fedora which he dons, angling it slightly over the rheumatic side of his face. He strides over to the bride and groom who are now with their parents. MEYERL follows, placing himself behind but between the people speaking, presiding over the discussion. He shakes their hands. Goodnight, goodnight… and Mazal Tov again to the newlyweds.
MOTHER: [with a sighing lilt] Thank you so much for coming Meks. But nu, where’s your wife?
MEKS: [mumbling] She has a toothache…
MOTHER: [still mumbling] She really should have used a compress.
MEKS: [still mumbling, he raises his hands in resignation.] We already tried and it didn’t help… just two weeks ago she had the baby… pfffffff. Meks shrugs.
MOTHER: Yes, I guess you’re right about that.
MEKS holds out his hand to say goodbye which MOTHER takes. MEKS leans into kiss
MOTHER on the cheek but she is not ready for it and neglects to move her face towards him. By the time she realizes and begins to move her face to receive his kiss, MEKS has already withdrawn his face awkwardly. They both laugh awkwardly then MEKS waves and leaves with MEYERL
Outside a tenement building in The Lower East Side of New York. Moonlight mingles with the light from street lamps. MEK and MEYERL walk side-by-side slowly toward the concrete stairs and oak doorway. MEKS walks hunched and with his hands in his pockets. They are moving against the wind, but it does not bother MEYERL.
MEKS: …but then it must have been planned, she must have already known we would embrace and kiss each other on the cheek and say, “Mazal Tov to the newlyweds!” and such…. But how did they know? How did we pull our heads this way and that way and miss—
MEYERL: Oh you fool, what don’t you understand? That was before the meal—
MEKS: Oy! What possessed me to wish Moyshele the Carpenter’s son “mazal tov?” Can’t you accept he’s a beggar?
MEYERL: It’s enough for him. Back home he would have been a porter.
MEKS: Pffffff. But here he’s got a steady job in vests. [beat] Then, to top it off, there’s Oyzer from back home. Wasn’t he pleased to have lost everything?
MEYERL: A get rich quick scheme. That’s real estate for you [Beat. They stop and MEYERL points over at MEKS] well, well, you, you are an upstanding man, have a steady job and a family.
They continue. As MEKS gets closer to the stairs of his tenement, we can hear the band playing the same song from the wedding, only now off-stage.
MEKS: [under his breath] Oy. I feel sick.
MEYERL: [starts to dance around MEKS as they walk] Hmmm, a candy store? Can you get a candy store for a hundred and fifty dollars? RAKHTO RI-RAM
As the song gets louder it torments MEKS. MEYERL dances more and more vigorously around him. RAKHTO RI-RAM RAKHTO RI-RAM. They climb to the top of the stairs. MEKS fishes in his pockets for the keys.
MEKS: [muttering] What kind of relative is that? As if I needed this wedding, where will I find a hundred and fifty dollars?
MEYERL: Rakhto ri-ram!
MEKS: It’s the slack season, no more credit at the grocery store.
MEYERL: Rakhto ri-ram!
MEKS: A fifty-dollar tab. Rent’s due tomorrow. Pay back Izikl’s eighty dollars. A beggar.
MEYERL: Rakhto ri-ram!
MEKS finds the key and unlocks the door. He enters closing it behind him. MEYERL is left outside dancing.
MEKS: [in the dark from afar] Less than a beggar…
The music ends with a bang!
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Picture of Fradel Schtok from Antologye: Finf Hundert Yor Idishe Poeziye, edited by Morris Bassin (New York: Literarisher Farlag, 1917).
Josh Silver is a Toronto-based writer, translator, designer, researcher, and indexer. His work explores spatialized writing in constraint. Between side-projects, he works in architecture, digital archaeology, and architectural publishing.