Aunt Taibele

By Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn, translated by Miranda Cooper

Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn (1905–1975) was born in Nowo-Radomsk (today Radomsko), Poland, where she was raised in a Hasidic family. Her family immigrated to Toronto in 1914, after which she moved to New York City, where she pursued a career as a Yiddish actress and as a writer. Beginning in 1934, she had stories printed in numerous Yiddish newspapers and periodicals, publishing three collections before her death in 1975. “Aunt Taibele” comes from Shtot un shtetl (City and Town, 1965). 

The influence of her experience in the theater is apparent in the dramatic and sometimes predictable quality of many of her stories, which are set in both Europe and North America and are concerned primarily with the lives of Jewish women: their friendships, families, and romances. Such stories, even contemporary examples, are often disparaged as “chick lit” or the slightly less pejorative but no less limiting “women’s fiction.” But Hamer-Jacklyn’s work is radical for its time: it is feminist simply in its implicit assertion of the literary value of women’s domestic and emotional lives, especially considering that much of post-1945 American Yiddish literature was concerned more explicitly with larger cultural, religious, and sociopolitical questions that Hamer-Jacklyn mostly explores only obliquely.   

I was drawn to the strange, almost Gothic aesthetics of “Aunt Taibele,” in which the protagonist’s aunt moves to Nowo-Radomsk and quickly becomes enmeshed in the lives—and deaths—of its residents. The story involves a problematic yet fascinating Jewish folk tradition: plague weddings, known as mageyfe khasenes or shvartse khasenes. This superstitious ritual involved marrying people on the margins of society to one another in an effort to ward off the plague. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been increased interest in this ritual, still little-known in many Jewish communities; “Aunt Taibele” feels eerily appropriate for this moment.

Miranda Cooper

Aunt Taibele was coming to Nowo-Radomsk from Gwoźnica. She was really more of a distant relative, but the whole family called her “aunt.”

In our house, there was always talk of “Aunt Taibele.” Grandma used to travel to Gwoźnica often to visit her and her husband and see to it that the young couple always had food on the table. She told us that Moyshe Haim, Taibele’s husband, complained that his wife was a public nuisance, a wicked woman, a shrew. And Taibele said that her husband was a glutton and a drunkard—he had to have a snack before he went to daven, and what’s more, he was a big bon vivant. Grandma always sided with Aunt Taibele. 

They had no children. Ten years after they got married, her husband divorced her. An embittered divorcée, she came to stay with us, her family. 

I remember her perfectly: tall and thin, with a sickly, pallid face and a long nose. But her eyes were beautiful, dark. During the week she wore a brunette sheitel; on Shabbos and holidays, she donned a hat with feathers and colorful beads. She looked a lot older than her thirty-four years. She seldom laughed. Wherever she went she was angry and sullen, full of grievances against the world and her ex-husband. 

She only stayed with us for two weeks, during which time she found herself an apartment and started a soap business. Once a week on market day, she would set up a little stand for her homemade soap and sell it to ladies. During the rest of the week she courted customers in well-to-do houses and sold them fragrant, exotic soaps. She never borrowed from anyone but also hated to pay out of her own pocket. This business was her source of income. Her only goal in life was to take pity on people, help the sick, collect charity for the destitute. She applied cupping glasses to her patients and leeches under their ears, helped ward off the evil eye, and anointed the ill with salve and ointment that she had made herself from various medicinal herbs. Aunt Taibele never missed a funeral. She would weep and accompany the corpse to the cemetery. With secret joy, she listened to the difficulties of sad souls and consoled them. And soon all of Nowo-Radomsk called her “Aunt Taibele.” 

When Rosh Chodesh Elul arrived, she was constantly at the cemetery, going from grave to grave. Whenever she got word that a new gravestone had been erected, she’d abandon her business entirely and go straight to that holy place.  

She hated going to celebrations as much as she loved going to funerals. For her, going to a wedding or a bris was a punishment. At parties she would sit hidden in a corner and watch the happy family members with a sour expression; it got on her nerves to see young people merrymaking and beaming with joy, and she would sneak quietly out of the hall. 

In the first year of her stay in our shtetl, people tried to arrange matches for her, but she would hear none of it. She found fault with even the finest men. So the family gave up all hope that Aunt Taibele would get married again. She got to know everyone, but was close with no one. She had just one friend: Chana-Leah, a tearful older woman, a widow with a sick son. The other woman’s sorrow held Aunt Taibele captive. She cared for the sick son with great compassion and attentiveness and helped them with whatever she could. 

Suddenly fortune smiled upon Chana-Leah. She married a nice older man, a widower, who had his own grocery store. It was a secure livelihood; Chana-Leah and her son became prosperous. Aunt Taibele no longer needed to have pity on them, and this cooled the friendship. How strange; she no longer wanted to see her only friend, or even hear her name. She said that the other woman was a braggart. 

After her falling out with Chana-Leah, Aunt Taibele’s cemetery social calendar became even busier. She told us about going over to the home of the gravedigger’s wife, who was bedridden and very sick. She applied cupping glasses, had her drink a homemade remedy, cooked meals for her and her husband. But the sick woman did not get better. After ten months of illness, she died. Aunt Taibele wept bitterly at her death, threw herself on her grave, and cried out for forgiveness. 

Exactly a year later, Aunt Taibele married the gravedigger, who was an energetic man, but unclean and unkempt, with a neglected house. The whole shtetl speculated that the couple wouldn’t even last as long as the time between the Fast of Esther and Purim. 

But it soon became clear that this was a match made in heaven. The marriage imbued Aunt Taibele with new life. A red flush spread across her cheeks. Her ever-sour face shone. She replaced all her household items, threw away the old beds, bought new ones. She shined her bronze candlesticks, hung new curtains, scoured, polished, and bleached the two rooms. Suddenly she became a real lady of the house, and saw to it that her husband was clean and well put together. She cooked and baked. She also worked together with her husband at the cemetery, accompanying each new corpse, never leaving the grave until the last shovelful of earth had fallen. 

Her greatest joy was to linger around the gravestones on verdant summer days. She trimmed the wild grasses with a pair of shears and tended the graves of the righteous men with great care. Within a year she knew the location of almost every grave and could help anyone who got lost find the right spot. 

Then a plague broke out in Nowo-Radomsk. The rabbi ordered that the black khupe be erected over the cemetery. The whole town, under the leadership of Aunt Taibele, got involved. An orphan girl was found and married to Berele, the town fool. Aunt Taibele stood in for the orphan’s mother for the wedding. She and another community matriarch went to the stores for meat, fish, challah, wine, and liquor, and they set about cooking.  

Almost the whole town gathered at the cemetery. Aunt Taibele and her husband accompanied the orphan bride to the khupe. Aunt Taibele, dressed in her silk dress, distributed food among the poor and announced the wedding presents, gathering them all in a large box. She even found an apartment for the young couple. When the plague began to subside, she felt that it was thanks in large part to her and her husband. 

In winter, when a thick snow fell and long icicles formed on the roof, she liked to open her white curtains and look out the window at the graves. She could sit that way for hours, counting how many corpses had accumulated since summertime. 

 And so Aunt Taibele lived out her years happily with her husband in their kingdom—the cemetery. 

Miranda Cooper is a New York-based writer, editor, and literary translator. Her translations from Yiddish have been published in Jewish Currents and Pakn Treger, and her literary and cultural criticism has been published by several outlets, including the Los Angeles Review, Jewish Currents, JTA, Alma, and Jewish Book Council. She is currently an assistant editor of In geveb and a fiction reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and was named an Emerging Critic by the National Book Critics Circle in 2019. She was a 2017–2018 Yiddish Book Center Fellow and a 2019 Translation Fellow.