Die Shtok Shpil

By Eliakum Zunser, 1873
Transcribed and translated by Sheldon Benjamin

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Transcriber’s note:  Eliakum Zunser (1836-1913) (known popularly as Lyokumkhe Badkhan) was arguably the greatest badkhan (wedding jester) who ever lived.  Although his life was full of tragedy (orphaned, apprenticed to a man who sold him into Nicholas’ army from which he narrowly escaped, one child devoured by a wolf, 4 children died of cholera, and his wife died young) he somehow grew into the most popular Yiddish poet and entertainer of his time.  He was known throughout Eastern Europe even though there were no Yiddish newspapers, recordings, or media.  People would set his poems to other melodies and use his melodies for other poems.  It is said that at his 50th birthday banquet he delivered an address in rhyme that lasted over an hour.  A Zionist youth group he started in Minsk , Eliakum’s Circle, would entertain themselves occasionally by shouting out random topics with Zunser composing poetry spontaneously as he heard the words shouted.  When he would entertain at a wedding people would crowd the doorways and windows hoping to hear his songs and poetry.

Zunser’s Footnote: Di shpil fun shtok vert geshpilt oyf azoy an of’n.  Es vert avekgeshtelt in mitn shtub shtuln: eyn shtul mit dem parentsch rekhts, der tsveyter—links.  Etlikher zetst zikh oyf a shtul.  Tsum bayshpil, tsen shtuln—zitsn tsen mentshn.  An eltster mentsh geyt mid dem shtok arum di shtuln.  Bay vemn er klapt on mit dem shtok, yener shteyt oyf un geyt im nokh biz aleh 10 mentshn geyn nokh im.  Plutzlung zetst er zikh oyf a shtul, muzn zikh aleh zetsn oyf shtuln; un vayl er farnemt oykh a shtul, derum muz er eyner blaybn on a shtul.  Den vert yener strafirt un muz geyn mitn shtok.

The staff (stick) game was often played this way.  They would put chairs in the middle of the room: one chair with the rails (chair back) to the right, the second to the left.  Each person sits on a chair.  At the beginning, 10 chairs—with 10 people on them.  An older person walks with the staff around the chairs.  When he taps the staff on the ground in front of someone, that person stands up and follows him, and so on until all 10 people are following him.  Suddenly the leader sits down on a chair, and all the others must sit down, too; and because the leader also takes a chair, someone will be left without a chair.  The one left out is penalized and must now walk with the stick.

Transcriber’s note:  Zunser implies that this game was well known before he wrote his song which is more or less a tongue-in-cheek ode to the staff game that begins with a description of how its players feel as they play it and, in Zunser’s classic style, it then compares the game to an aspect of life, in this case in which some do well and some go hungry (e.g. “The chairs are the days of the world, with the staff marches time.  Luck and misfortune, poverty and wealth dance along beside.)  And, as he often does, Zunser gives some advice, too (e.g. don’t get too proud when times are good, don’t cry “vey” when times are bad.  From luck to misfortune isn’t too far, just a turn of the chair.)  Zunser published the music for the song.  I learned the song from my bubbe, Sarah Benjamin (1890-1981), who learned it as a young woman in Belarus .

Ver nokh di shpil batrakht,
Di shtuln mit dem shtok,
Vi eyner geyt zikh gants bazakh
(azoy iz shoyn der khok),
Plutzlung zits er oyf a shtul,
Zayn shtok blaybt shoyn shteyn,
Di shtuln vern mit mentshn ful,
Gor eyner blaybt aleyn…

Der eyner nebekh velkher blaybt—
Di shandeh iz zeyer groys:
Der fun im katovess traybt,
Der tsveyter lakht im oys…
Erklert mir nokh di zind fun im,
Zayn blot vos metzapt!
Vos hot er far a shold in dem,
Az mehot zayn ort fakhapt?

  Es vert di shtub mit koylos ful,
Tsu zen is dos geshmak,
Vi tsvey zetsn-zikh oyf eyn shtul —
Vi tsvey ketz in eyn zak…
Kuk zikh ayn fun zey dem sof,
Batrakht oyf zikh aleyn:
Vi beyde nebekh batsoln strof,
Un beyde blaybn shteyn…

Di zelbe zakh bay undz oykh treft,
A rakhmones, gleybt nor mikh,
Vi tsvey fal’n on oyf eyn gesheft,
Yeder tsit tsu zikh.
Eyner vil dem tsveytn drikn,
Yenem makhn noyt;
Brider, hert zikh oykh tsu flik’n—
Zet, ir blaybt on broyt!

  Di shpil fun shtok iz akurat
Vi di mentshn oyf der velt—
Ver es ken khapn, zayn a khvat,
Yenem kumt dos gelt…
Ken er nor nit loyfn shnel,
Vil nor erlikh geyn,
Farloyft der tsveyter oyf zayn shtel,
Er nebekh blaybt shoyn shteyn…

Di shtuln iz di teg fun der velt,
Mit dem shtok geyt di tsayt;
Glik un umglik, dales un gelt
Tantsn zikh bay der zayt…
Haynt iz der mit fraydeh ful,
Do nebekh— mit geveyn;
Morgn— zitstu oyf zayn shtul,
Yener blaybt shoyn shteyn…

Fun groyse palatsn kumt men op,
Fun kelern shtaygt men oyf;
Dem traybt di tsayt fun shtul arop,
Dem tsveytn zetst zi aruf.
Shtoltsir nisht bay der guter tsayt,
Bay der shlekhter—shray nisht “vey!”
Fun glik tsum umglik iz nisht vayt,
Nor mit dem shtul a drey…

  Nor fregt bay G-t keyn kashes nit,
Far vos hot yener tsores fil;
Er firt zayn veltl klug, genit,
Azoy geyt tsu di shpil…
Eyner muz shoyn oysn blaybn,
Azoy muz es geyn;
Nor fun yenem katoves traybn—
Pui, dos iz nit sheyn!

Napolean’s nomen klingt vi a glok—
Bay aleh kayzorim ful;
Fil mol di tsayt hot geshrayn “shtok!”
Khapt er rak zayn shtul…
Prayzn kumt plutzlung tsu geyn,
“Shtok!” shrayt zi oys,
Napolean blaybt in biyush (humiliated) shteyn—
Di velt lakht im oys…

Di nature geyt arum di yor’n,
Di vekslung halt zi ikh hant,
Der zelber shtok, vos iz haynt a kor’n,
In morgn a helfand.
Yetst iz er a mentsh—do vert er erd,
Un derfun—a boym in feld,
Fun di frukhtn vert an aks, a ferd,Un— vider a mentsh a held…