Moe Birnbaum, the Fiddler

Moe Birnbaum, the Fiddler

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Moe Birnbaum, the Fiddler

Grandchildren restore our zest for life and our faith in humanity.

Source Unknown

Moe Birnbaum hadn’t made his living as a fiddle player, but no one doubted that he was good enough. Instead, for thirty-eight relentless years he had supported his family with a furniture store. He sold what in the trade they called “borax goods,” furniture that was cheap and schlock. It was always peddled on credit, and the clientele was not high-class.

In his free time, Moe’s fingers danced his gift. His bow cut vibrant arcs with such grace and, now retired, every day Moe made the condo caverns sing. His fiddle knew no sense of time. Moe could be heard playing at all hours, sometimes too early in the morning. Then, a shoe would be thumped on Moe’s ceiling, whacked by the old couple who lived above the Birnbaums. And so Moe would wait a dutiful half hour, fingering, and with great restraint he’d keep from stroking the strings.

When he started up again, some of us applauded behind our closed doors, then danced our way to the All-Bran boxes, poured our prune juices, and tapped our feet waiting for the kettle to whistle. We remembered all the fiddle-playing weddings we had known, and all the catering halls where we had done the hora and downed all that chopped liver smeared on Ritz Crackers.

Moe Birnbaum was definitely the music maker in his family. Esther, his wife, had her charms, but sadly, music was not among them. Stuffed cabbages she could do, but Esther’s strings involved beans. Yet she had encouraged their two kids get into violins. While Moe was at the furniture store, it was Esther who monitored the practicing. She knew it was their inheritance.

The kids are grown now. They come to Florida to visit the old folks two times a year: Hanukkah and Passover. Moe and Esther help with the airfares.

The fiddling music during those twice-a-year visits rocks the humid Florida nights. It goes long, and it runs late. Everyone was always invited to come hear the generations play. Even the old couple upstairs would sit on their balcony and listen, the glazed look of lost memories on their faces.

The Birnbaums couldn’t roll up the rugs, not the wall-to-wall built-in condo carpeting, beige and pilled, but they danced anyhow. People brought potluck canapes. It got competitive, and there were always plates full of lox and smoked whitefish scattered among the chopped herring and the Rye Krisps.

Moe and Esther were blessed with four grandchildren, and as could be predicted, they didn’t play trombones. Instead, every year, as the children grew, another grandchild would have learned on the passed-down miniature Suzuki fiddle, built for tiny fingers, and they’d join the more experienced Birnbaum violins, fitting right in. Moe would cry openly, making no effort to pretend he didn’t feel this inordinate pride in his blooming reality; his brood could fiddle.

The unkind years brought arthritis, and it nibbled at Moe’s fingers. Esther, too, found it harder to stuff cabbages. But Moe kept playing, moving from quick-fingered dance tunes, to slower, romantic dinner music. We noticed the difference, but we were dancing slower ourselves and welcomed Moe’s changes.

One grim day, Moe had a stroke, two weeks before Hanukkah. His bowing arm lay curled and hopeless at his waist, supported by a sling. People who called on them looked above it, pretending not to see it. Moe couldn’t speak, but his eyes showed where the pain really was. The music was over for Moe. His fiddle sat in the corner of the living room. Esther dusted it every time she thought of it.

In the days after the stroke, their kids were on the phone constantly, wanting to rush right down, but Esther said, “Come when you were going to come. I won’t let him die before you get here. It will be better and cheaper. You already have your tickets. Keep it that way. Just bring your fiddles.”

Sitting up in their bed, Moe overheard her. He turned his head into the pillow and cried, tears dropping on his sling. The late afternoon sunlight painted mauve shadows on the ceiling.

The two weeks dragged, but then they finally arrived— his two kids, their tender spouses, complete with the four grandchildren and six violins. Months ago, Esther had arranged for them to stay in the empty condos of two friends who had gone up North to see their own children. It was one of the folk rituals of condo life.

Esther fed everyone at the groaning table. With all of its extensions, it filled the living room. Moe sat in the wheelchair at the head, silent, but his eyes were bright. There was chicken from two Crock-Pots, buckwheat groats, steaming plates of vegetables, baskets of breads and enough salad to feed the rest of the condominium. She finished them off with her famous apple compote.

Esther had a job for everyone. When the dishes were cleared and the leftovers put away, only then did she give the okay, declaring that the kitchen was cleaned to her high standards. It was then that they opened the violin cases and all six of them began playing a song, one written just for Moe. It was filled with musical jokes and lots of family history. Soundlessly, Moe laughed. His eyes flooded with tears, and so they played it all over again.

For the second song, they had planned an amazing thing. The oldest granddaughter, in her first year in high school, ceremoniously opened Moe’s own violin case and tucked Moe’s fiddle under her chin. Very tenderly she raised his good arm and cradled his fingers on to the strings. Then standing behind him, she whispered in his ear, and with a sense of triumph she started bowing for her grandfather.

Moe’s fingers found the Russian lullaby he had played for her when she was a baby and later fiddled for each of the new grandchildren as they came along during those years when Esther and Moe had baby-sat while the baby’s parents were out on one of those too-rare married dates.

Moe didn’t miss a note. The granddaughter bowed with Moe’s flair. Everyone sang the Russian words. And once again Moe Birnbaum’s fiddle echoed up out of the courtyard canyons at Spoon Lakes Condominium.

Sidney B. Simon

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners