illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Chapter 7 Summary

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Hannah has always been a good storyteller, and she mesmerizes her new friends by recounting the tales behind all the movies and books she can think of. As they walk through the woods with the wedding party, Rachel, Esther, Shifre, and Yente jostle each other to be next to Hannah as she tells them about Yentl, Conan the Barbarian, Fiddler on the Roof, and Little Women. In New Rochelle, Hannah had never been very popular, but here, as Chaya, she is suddenly “the most popular girl on the block.” Enjoying her newfound status, she is not about to spoil things by trying to convince her friends that she is someone else.

Hannah is recounting the story of Hansel and Gretel when her attention is redirected by the high, wailing sound of a clarinet. Yente, who loves music, exclaims, “The klezmer. . . . We are almost there!” The villagers begin to travel faster in excited anticipation, and soon the sound of a violin can be heard as well. At a bend in the forest path, the klezmer band, which includes an accordion, comes into view. Shmuel, Yitzchak, and the other men come forward, dancing with abandon. The women, watching from the sidelines, begin to sing. Although Hannah does not know the words, she finds herself singing—“the words stumbling out as if her mouth remembered what her mind did not.” Rachel suddenly cries out that Fayge’s people have even brought a badchan, a tall, skinny man whose job it is “to make up rhymes, sing songs . . . [and] tell fortunes.” The girls speculate that Fayge’s father must be very rich to have been able to hire a badchan, and they wonder why a girl with such a privileged background would marry someone like Shmuel, who is neither wealthy nor learned. Rachel has heard that Fayge, who is spoiled and always gets what she wants, simply “saw Shmuel and fell in love.” Hannah is surprised to learn that in the village, where the people follow the old traditions, a woman expects to marry a man picked out for her by her parents and a marriage broker; it is almost scandalous to imagine that a woman might marry for love.

Hannah observes the badchan as he moves from group to group, leaving the people laughing uproariously. When he gets to Hannah, he sings with uncanny insightfulness:

Pretty girl, with faraway eyes,
Why do you look with such surprise?
How did you get to be so wise,
Old girl in young-girl disguise.

The badchan then tells Hannah that Chaya, which means life, is “a strong name for a strange time.” Hannah is intrigued by the badchan. As she watches him, she is suddenly reminded of a court jester and laughs out loud.

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