[AUDIENCE CLAPPING] [MUSIC PLAYING]
SASHA MARGOLIS: Ladies and gentlemen, the Tale of Monish.
Which begins, not with a 'once upon a time'.
With a very small, philosophical question.
What is life? What is life? Life is a river. Life is a river rolling along. And us?
Tell me I'm wrong. We eat, go in circles, upstream, downstream, make more little fishies.
Life is but a dream. You can catch a nice current, catch a sunray. Life is a pleasure, 'till one fine day. You see something wigglin', you go take a look, put your fish lips around it-- oh, god! It's a hook!
There's a fisherman up there, I'm sorry to say. Patient as anything, fishing all day with a pole in his hand, with his foot in a sack full of wriggling fishies that won't get thrown back. His bait? Our desires, whatever they may be. Who is the fisherman? Listen to me.
You've heard of him, trust me. He's got names galore. The angel of death, Ashmedai, and there's more. Samael, Hamael-- in other words, Satan!
That's who's standing there patiently waitin', baitin' his hook with lust, money, whatever works. When the line jerks, that's one of us jerks. One minute we're swimming, everything's swell. The next, we're the fish at a fish fry in hell.
You think you'll escape him? No one is that good. A hundred I won't's always end in 'I could'. The wrong time, the wrong place, the right choice of temptation, and you're done. Going down, the train's left the station.
I do know of one guy.
I said guy. Not that old. Just a youth. Such a youth. With a heart made of gold. And that mind, to his parents, his whole shtetl, a glory. Now, sit back. Have a listen to Monish's story.
Our story takes place in a Polish town. Where? Just hop aboard, and I'll take you straight there.
Now we're here, just like that. See the church's tall spire? No building in town can be built any higher. There, the synagogue. Short by comparison. Those Poles don't want any Jews embarrassing their Savior with too much altitude.
"Know your place now, don't be rude." They say. "Oh, we'll get along, all right. Do business by day, and then at night, you run along to your Jewish quarter. That's how we will keep the order."
Confined to a ghetto? What could be worse? You would think. But in that ghetto's a whole universe. A world, which though it may be unseen, is huge. Without limits. Not sure what I mean?
Let's dismount from our wagon. Get up on our feet. Follow me, quiet now. This is the street. Narrow and twisting, low wood houses, square windows, rickety, crooked. They'll collapse if the wind blows too hard. In every yard a few chickens, a goat.
Now, take note. Don't let them nibble your programs or your shoes as you peek through the windows. Peek in at these Jews all bent over their books. Can you hear the hum rising all round? As the sun dips below the horizon, that hum is the music of the world to come. Their prayer is their trumpet. Their groan is their drum.
There's a chill in the air, but late, late they are still in prayer.
In the Study House, the midnight oil is burning. Hear them inside reasoning? Learning?
Heads bent low, thoughts rising high. Their minds are towers. Their souls defy their squalid husks. Their spirits dine not on food, but on words. Drink not of wine, nor rests upon down. And where rests their gaze? Not on the here and now, but on the end of days.
Pursuing [INAUDIBLE], hidden designs in letters, numbers. Talmudic lines, midrashic exegeses, mystic lights and other Kabbalistic visions, all done to repair a broken world for King David's heir.
In other words, their fondest desire is to pray so much they bring the messiah.
Yes, indeed. Without a doubt, the Jews of this town are truly devout. And none the more so than Monish's [INAUDIBLE]. Devout, his mama. Pious, his papa. A family of scholars, but this kid'll surpass all the rest of them. He's in a whole other class.
Now, let me admonish you. Don't be astonished by all the things that I'll tell you that Monish'll do. At the age of 2, if you looked into that cute baby face, he'd open his mouth and say the whole [INAUDIBLE].
At 3, this was something to see, that little doll could recite from the Talmud.
At 4, though he wasn't any taller than my knee, he was already a full fledged scholar.
By now, years later, the kid's an encyclopedia. His understanding shoots like a meteor from on high to the most profound. The most famous brain for miles around. But his smarts aren't all that set him apart. So much heart beats inside that slender chest. You needed something? He's already guessed. His mother. It's cold. She's forgotten her wrap. Like a thunderclap he's off to get it.
"Thanks dear," she says.
He says, "Forget it."
Now they're at market. One stall, then another. Who's that limping? An old grandmother. What does he ask? "Can I carry your basket?" He helps her home. Then passing a pasture, he spies a kid goat with big, wet eyes. He stays to watch, and no surprise becomes attached.
Just one week later, the farmer's preparing for his seder. Monish just happens to walk right past the slaughterhouse, and he starts to cry. But his tears can't quench the holy sparks that everyone can sense around him. Marks of a righteous man. A Tzadik. He's turned his shtetl, just a dot on the map, into almost holy ground. High and low, the kid's renowned. Scholars come from near and far, raise up their voices, the kid's a star!
Wait a minute, that shtetl? Are we still in it?
A ha ha. That's a cha-cha-cha. Have they got cha-cha-chas in the shtetl? In Poland, or not. I mean, it's positively hot. You remember old Samael, the guy with the sack of fishes in hell? Well according to that plaque, that master of malace lives right here in a palace along with Lilith, his bride. Let's take a peek inside.
Sam and Lily's bedroom's the scene, wife and hubby enacting their morning routine-- Sam in his dressing robe, with a cigar to boot, and his chin bathed in shave cream. The big galute. A razor stroke here. Now a swift pirouette from his wife as she tries to arrange her toilette while avoiding Sam's elbow as she fights for the mirror. Less cigar smoke would certainly make the view clearer. As he shaves and she primps, you can see their hips swing. On the hi-fi, a record, a cha-cha-cha is playing.
Of a sudden, the doorbell rings. Lil in her underthings answers it. It's one of Sammy's chief underlings, employed in the Department of Infernal Affairs, in the Bureau of Fishing Licenses, and also nightmares. "Boss," squeaks the demon. "Boss, and you, Mrs. Boss, oi, you're not gonna believe this meshugas. My news is the gravest, so please listen well if you're fond of the setup we've got here in hell.
There's a shtetl the size of a mouse. But a titan lives there. Just a kid, but his power will frighten yous. A head full of learning, a heart pure as snow. If he's allowed to mature, the Messiah will show up for sure. And we'll all be ruined, kaput. Which is why, to begin with, I made sure to put our best agents there to play go fish for his soul.
It shouldn't have been difficult. The town was a hole, its inhabitants poor. They go hungry all day. With no business to do, they just sit there and pray. Three agents I sent with the usual temptations, the kind of that have worked upon heroes and nations. But these folk won't crack no matter how you provoke them. Those three licenses I issued, I had to revoke them. If you don't do something yourself, then we're through. Oh my lord, please, all hell is depending on you."
Upon hearing these words, Satan turns diabolical. His hair stands on end right down to the last follicle. His eyes turn blood red. His blood boils. Devil sweat rises up like a foul cloud of sin and regret. He opens his mouth. "Oh, my god. Now we're doomed. I mean, the devil we're doomed. Guess I shouldn't have assumed while we was dancing rumbas the numbers of evil deeds would proceed apace. I'm going down in disgrace."
"What an overreaction," laughs Lilith. "Don't have a cardiac. So he's a hard fish to catch and a hard nut to crack. What is he? 15? 16? Look at me. You know what I mean? Don't you worry. Things are getting fateful for that little titan in a hurry. Just be grateful, Sam, when I come back with him stuck on a spit and all ready to roast. The kid's in the bag. The messiah is-- [GIGGLES] --toast."
And with that, no more words. She vanishes into the wind.
"Gevalt. Do you hear what I hear? A shofar? Does it mean the Messiah is near?" says Monish's neighbor, one Mendel, to Fegel, his wife, as she nibbles on her morning bagel. "Oh, now I see something rolling into our shtetl. A big carriage. And inside, someone. I bet it'll be somebody special to make all this racket. The carriage is stopping. They're [INAUDIBLE] Gold? Silver? Diamonds. And cash too, a lot. Whoever it is is a real big shot.
The driver is blonde. From beyond these parts. Behind him, the carriage door. Huh? A dainty shoe? Skirt? Well-shaped leg. And she's blonde too. But young, pretty. I don't know he brought her. I get it. The girl's his daughter. Not my idea of the messiah. I don't know why a girl like that would want to come here. But look, a real beauty."
And while Mendel stares, I'll tell you because it's my duty, the girl's name is Lily. Oh, poor Monish. Will he or won't he?
As for her father, why is he here? To do a little business. That much is clear, with his gold and his silver, and all his beauteous gems. The Jews, who were once so studious and devout, go out of their skulls, and their skull caps. The merchant devilishly taps into their lowest drives. Commerce thrives. Everyone's busy wheeling and dealing. Before long, the whole shtetl is feeling like a different place. Everyone's been affected. They're all rich. So what if the shul's neglected? Life is a party. There's a wedding a day.
The klezmer's so tired, they can hardly still play.
Everyone's dancing-- a ring dance, a hora. They're turning the shtetl into Sodom and Gomorrah.
Everyone's dancing. But not Monish. Not him. What's he care about a wedding? It's study he loves. You won't see him forgetting his duties, not even when Lily walks by and does all that she can to catch Monish's eye. Every day for a year, she goes past. Her blond hair shines like gold in the sun. But he-- he's unaware. All the other guys, and some gals too, in the town have been hooked. But not Monish. No, Monish won't drown in the depths of her eyes. He's immune to her spell. Till one day, Lily says, "You know what? I'm going to hell."
To hell, yea, to hell it hastens. A stage coach of quicksilver. Horses of thunder. The reproach awaiting her is terrifying. A tempest. A torrent of terrible words, of oaths truly abhorrent, all made fouler with odors of sulfur and pitch. Let's face it. The devil's a son of a bitch when he's angry or frightened. And his collar just tightened. "My whole lost soul gravy train's derailing. Alack. Lil, I never thought I'd see you come back without him stuck on that spit, you know, ready to roast. The kid ain't in the bag, and I'm the one that's toast."
Sam falls silent. Lilith speaks. "I just came for a costume, not the kind made of clothes. What I need is a posthumous opus from one of our musical inmates. My duty has not made the kid and me sin mates. His eye can't be breached. Ah. But what if the ear? What I need is a costume that Monish will hear. That's how I'll seduce him. His ear will induce him. I slip in, and his fate slips from glorious to gruesome.
So who have we got roasting that can give me a tune? I need something [INAUDIBLE], and I need it real soon." "Hmm. Who do we have toasting?" Sam asks of his posse. There's that Jewish Italian gent, Salamone Rossi," says one art-loving demon. "Lovely music, baroque. He's in boiling oil now having a soak." "Well, then get him," says Sam. And the demon does, toot sweet, the old Italian complete with his lute. Hear him play.
"Are you kidding?" Lil interrupts. "Do you think we're in Venice? It's much too refined. Could you please tell me, when is the dinner of peacock and hummingbird's tongue? And besides, that song is meant to be plucked. Plucked, not sung! What else have you got?" Upsets another dead soul, fresh from frying in a mixture of brother and oil. Sam's trying to cut down on his fat intake. His LDL's high. But anyway, this new dead soul takes a try on his bass.
Lil utters an oath. "The devil take you," she quotes. "Me sing that low? I'm a soprano, or at least a mezzo. Next-o." Up comes in accordionist, in his eye a hot poker, and proceeds to launch into a vigorous polka."
"I don't know," cries Lil, "why I put up with this hassle! [INAUDIBLE]. It's like [INAUDIBLE] Are you telling me this is the best that we've got? that in hell there's not one tune you'd call sizzling hot?" "Pardon," says the art-loving demon, "if I raise a question, but what about these nice fresh souls from Buenos Aires?" "I was," says Sam-- "I was about to try grilling a mock a la plancha, but one could be musical, so if you want, you're welcome to ask him." Which Lil does.
"Por favor, I need some hot music, a real sultry score. Have you got what I need? Do you think that it's possible? I'll reward you with something real cold, say a popsicle?" "Make it sorbet, ma'am. And we prefer mango. For five of us, yes? We are in a band. We play tango."
The tall church spires. The narrow alleys. The town looks the same as always. Only something's different. The tilt of the trees with their branches cocked to listen. The bees just hovering over the clover, not landing. In the market, the honey seller's handing a comb to a man who's got his money in his mitts, but they've both gone funny, frozen, with arms extended, like God and Moses on that ceiling.
It's odd. But you know what's distracting the. You know the score. If only Monish did. Then he'd ignore, if he could, that song that's crawled in his ear like a serpent and slithered down only a mere 10 inches or so, but straight to his heart, spreading into venom like a poison dart.
But what sweet poison that foreign number that Monish hears even in his slumber. On his way to shul, there by her gate he lingers long, with longing. Late he arrives. The worshippers turn to stare. He's missed the [INAUDIBLE] the final prayer. At the study house, the elders blink, confused. Where's that brilliance to which they're used? He ought to speak. But he sings instead. Her melodies push the words from his head, though it doesn't sound the same on his lips, not sultry. It's tinged with sadness.
It drips with mourning. Rips his mother's soul in two when he comes home. His doleful song. "What's wrong?" she asks. "My [INAUDIBLE] My treasure. Tell me now, what wind put out the light that was in your eyes?
All the songs you sing are so sad," she cries. "It used to be when you would sing, your voice would ring like a bell, would bring a laugh to my heart, instead of these tears." She breaks off, but he hears in her voice all her fears and replies, "I don't know, Mom. It's not that I want to sing anything. The sounds are like birds taking wing from their nests. They land and start singing inside of me. I open my mouth, and the song sings itself. You see?"
That night, while the rest of his family sleeps, under cover of darkness, our boy Monish creeps through the door to the street. Steps lit by a full moon, walking quiet on tip toe, he sneaks off till soon the far edge of town is in sight, where-- this is frightening, but-- a castle looms there 'neath jagged lightning.
That's where Monish is walking as if on egg shells, step by step, with his nose white on his lapels. And why does he go there? I'll give you one guess. For a forbidden rendezvous, at midnight no less. But who's that beside you, dear Monish? Is that a good angel there by your right ear, on his lips a wise whisper, on his lashes a tear? The angel beseeches, pleads for your own good, saying over and over, "Should, should, should, should, should.
You should stop, should go back. You should not meet that girly. You should go back to bed, for the night is still early. You should fear the law of God. Think of all that He's done for you. Sure, one night of kissing that blonde would be fun for you, but is it worth losing all that you;d lose, 310 worlds God made for Jews who look after His [INAUDIBLE] and stay true to his Torah? Don't give that all up just because you might score a piece of [INAUDIBLE]."
"It's time you were a passionate," says a voice from the left, less angelic, more Russian. For Monish has two angels, evil and good. And the evil don't know the meaning of "should." "Listen up, kid," he says. "Listen good. God's a softy. While this killjoy here is filling your head with such lofty ideas about how to behave, time's a-wasting. Think of the pleasures that you could be tasting. And tomorrow, you just say to God, oh, I'm sorry.
Trust me. You have no idea just how far He will bend over backwards to cut you some slack. Kind David, after he had that Uriah whacked, he slept with Bathsheba, his wife. What did God do? He said, Dave, have I got a place of paradise for you. Take it from me, kid. The sin's no big deal. Have your fun, and then all you do is act like you're real contrite. Do some fasting, wear a sackcloth, and cry. Now go, get your jollies, and stop asking why." Monish stands there, confused, feeling hot, feeling cold, wondering whether it's better to be good or be bold.
And now, our lad must make his choice, torn as he is twixt love and duty. But soft. Is that not Lily's voice? He looks straight up, sees all her beauty framed in a window high above. Inside he rushes. Where's his love? His poor good angel gently weeps. He doesn't hear him. Ahead he leaps, springs up the stairs three at a time, all thought of prayer and duty gone.
Now sheer desire draws him on, till, four flights up, stops short his climb and stumbles forward in a daze, her face before his fevered gaze. Their fingers touch. Their hands embrace. His burning lips brush by her cheek. An artless smile lights her face. He wants to kiss her, but he's meek. She pulls him forward. His heart hammers. "Lily, I-- I love," he stammers. "Monish," she cries full of passion.
Then, they're quiet, in a fashion, making only wordless sounds. Upon the cool stone floor they lie. From Lily comes and ardent cry. She draws him near. His heart pounds till she says, "Stop. I'm afraid. For they all say that passions fade. In time, a boy will change his mind and tire of the girl he's taken. So promise me that you'll be kind, that all those stories are mistaken. Promise me that you'll be true."
"I do," he says. "I swear to you I'll never love another, never. I'll love only you forever." "Swear it on your teacher's name." I do. And on your father's?" "Yes." "And on your mother's." "Yes, I guess." "But still I worry, all the same. Swear by the Torah's holy curtain just so I can be quite certain." "I swear," he shouts, his hands like claws that scratch her garments, rake her skin.
"But swear on something more, because I'd so hate to be taken in." "All right," he says, "I swear to you on the Messiah, His shofar too." I'm almost ready then, my dear, put my faith in you, so near. If only there was something higher." He gulps. And with a solemn nod, he swears upon the name of God.
A crack of lightning. Walls of fire. A trap door opens. With a yell, young Monish tumbles straight to hell!"
(SINGING) Ha-ha-ha. Hee-hee-hee. Here in hell, it's a big party. Demons dancing. The devil's drinking. A thousand champagne glasses clinking. On the bandstand, crowded in, playing the can-can in unison, 10 demon bands and showgirls with them, kicking their cloven hoofs in rhythm. Down into this scene Monish drops.
The dancers freeze. The music stops. He lands at Satan's goat-like feet. Says Satan, "Ah, at last we meet. You had me worried, I'll admit. But with my Lily handling it, though you're a real goody-goody, I said he couldn't resist her, could he? And no, you couldn't. Upon my life, don't bet against the devil's wife."
Ah. Is that then our story's moral, good audience? We mean no moral, nor to tread upon your patience. But aren't there other interpretations? Don't take the bait that's on a hook. Don't give fair maids a second look. Don't be so smart that Satan sees. Don't fall in love with Lilith please. And speaking of hell's radiant queen, she now joins this infernal scene, behold, bedecked in Spanish lace. A modest look upon her face.
"Oh, Sam," she says, "You're good to me, but credit for my victory belongs to that mysterious power without which our sweet world would sour. On heaven and Earth, and even in hell, it makes stones weep and makes hearts swell." "Aha," says Sam. "You're trying to say it's that old power of music cliche."
"Please," comes a soft voice from below. "There's just one thing I'd like to know now that I'm here eternally. Could you just play that song for me? That wicked tango? Just once more? With all the suffering that's in store for me, I know it's coming soon. I'd love to hear just one last tune."
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Big Galute Klezmer Ensemble performs 'A Tale of Monish' inspired by I.L. Peretz' classic poem and brought to life in music and dance. Choreography by Colby Thomas, SUNY Oneonta, and music arrangement by Sanford Margolis, professor emeritus at Oberlin College.