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Life Lessons with Judy Simon
Torah Tidbits Audio
Before making Aliyah to Israel, Tzvi Fishman was a Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbi Kook, Eretz Yisrael, Art of T'shuva, War and Peace, and Torat Eretz Yisrael.
Kislev 18, 5772, 12/14/2011
If Yehudah the Maccabee were alive today, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision the top headline story:
RENEGADE “TAG MACHIR” LEADER HUNTED DOWN AND ARRESTED!
With the festive lighting of the Hanukah lights, the complete story of Hanukah is often overlooked. Most people remember the bravery of Yehuda the Maccabee, and the miracle of the small cruse of oil, but that’s about it. So, let’s take an abridged glance at the “Book of the Maccabees” to see how the saga began, and how it differs from our situation today.
With the Greek conquest of Eretz Yisrael, the Jews were forced to abandon the Torah and adopt the immoral ways of the foreigners. To win the acceptance and approval of their rulers, many Jews consented to worship idols and bring sacrifices to foreign gods, to leave their sons uncircumcised, and to defile themselves with every kind of licentiousness and perversion. These Hellenist Jews even joined forces with the enemy to hunt out and oppress Jews who kept faithful to the Torah. The "Book of the Maccabees" states:
“They put to death the women who circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them. Nevertheless, many in Israel were firmly resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They preferred to die rather than be defiled by food or break the holy Covenant, and they were killed. Great was the wrath that came upon Israel.”
Appalled by the wholesale desecration of G-d, the attack on the Torah, and with the desecration of Jerusalem and the Temple, the holy Kohen, Mattityahu, moved his family to Modin. Greek officers came to Modin to force the Jews to renounce Hashem and sacrifice to foreign gods on their altars. Because of his position of influence and leadership, Mattityahu was chosen by the Greeks to lead the way in defying G-d and his Torah. When a Jew came forward to heed the command, Mattityahu slew him, along with the Greek officer, and pulled down the altar.
“Thus he showed his zeal for the Torah, as Pinchus had done toward Zimri. Then Mattityahu shouted out in a loud voice throughout the town, saying, ‘Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah and who would safeguard the Brit, follow me.’”
Mattityahu and his sons fled to the mountains, followed by all those who remained true to the Torah.
“They mustered an army and slew the (Jewish Hellenist) evildoers in their anger and the sinners in their wrath, while the rest fled to the gentiles to save themselves. Mattityahu and his comrades went about and tore down the altars, and circumcised by force as many of the children as they found in the borders of Israel, They pursued the contemptuous and the work prospered in their hands. Thus, they rescued the Torah from the hand of the heathen and their kings, and gave no occasion for triumph to the (Hellenist) sinner.”
“When the days drew near for Mattityahu to die, he said to his sons, ‘Now arrogance and reproach have become strong. This is a time of destruction and anger. My children, be zealous for the Torah, and give your lives in behalf of the Testament of our fathers…. Of the words of a sinful man be not afraid, because his glory shall become dung and worms. Today he may be exalted, but tomorrow he will nowhere be found, because he has returned to his dust, and memory of him will have perished. As for you, my children, be strong and courageous in behalf of the Torah, for through it you will be glorified.”
“Then Yehuda, his son, who was called Maccabee, arose in his stead, and all his brothers helped him. As well as all those who were followers of his father, and gladly they fought Israel’s war. Yehuda spread his people’s glory far and wide. He donned a breastplate like a giant and girded on his weapons of war. He organized battles, protecting his camp with his sword. He was like a lion in his deeds, like a lion’s whelp roaring for its prey. He sought out and pursued those who transgressed the Torah, and annihilated those who oppressed his people. Transgressors of the Torah cowered for fear of him. All workers of iniquity were thrown into confusion, and deliverance was accomplished by his hand. He went about among the cities of Yehuda, and from it he utterly destroyed the evildoers. Thus he turned away wrath from Israel. To the ends of the earth he was renowned, and he brought together those who were ready to perish” (From the Book of Maccabees).
Hanukah, my friends, is a lot more than eating jelly donuts and lighting candles. Hanukah celebrates the exalted holiness, bravery, and devotion to Torah, and to the Land of Israel, of Mattityahu and his sons, the most revered and renowned Jewish heroes of all time. Hanukah celebrates our nation’s victory over enemies from within and without.
Of course, times are different now. The Hellenists of today are not like the Hellenists of yore, who were at war with the Torah’s commandments, collaborating with the Greeks to uproot Shabbat, milah, the holidays, and Talmud Torah. Today's Hellenists are not total traitors to the Nation, wanting to be uncircumcized Greeks. They are Jews, however distorted, foreign, ugly, and mistaken their thinking may be. And, unlike the days of the Maccabees, when the Greeks ruled over Eretz Yisrael, and guerilla warfare was called for, today, thank G-d, Jewish sovereignty has once again been established over large portions of the Land of Israel. That means just as the uprooting of Jewish settlements is immoral and unlawful, violence against fellow Jews is immoral and unlawful as well.
We pray that the same spirit of fearless devotion of the Maccabees to Torah, to our G-d, and to our Land, will rise up amongst all of our People, and that the miracles that happened to our Forefathers, in those days, at this time, happen to us today, first and foremost, the miracle of clear Jewish thinking, epitomized by the Maccabees, shattering the darkness that surrounds us and revealing our Divine eternal light!
Kislev 16, 5772, 12/12/2011
Lavan means white in Hebrew. Lavan, the father of Rachel and Leah, was anything but white. A corrupt and evil liar, he called himself Lavan to whitewash the utter blackness of his morals.
Similarly, in America, they call the President’s home the White House, but it’s really the Black House, especially now.
A few days ago, President Obama held an early Hanukah celebration for the media and for a group of Jews he rounded up from the street. Yankee doodle dandy! I don’t know if he lit the candles with a bracha or without a bracha, it doesn’t really matter. Briefly, he spoke about the lessons of the Hanukah story, of the victory of right over might, and the cleansing of the Temple. Now if he was really an honest leader, he would have said something like this: “Jiminy Cricket and kick my butt, but that Jewish Temple was there 3000 years ago, and after the Greeks and the Romans, the Moslems came and occupied the Land of the Jews and built their mosque right square on top of the site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and if that place isn’t Jewish I don’t know what is. So, today, just as we are celebrated the Hanukah holiday that commemorates the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, so too America is 100 percent in favor of Israel kicking the Arab squatters out of their Holy Jewish Land.”
Tevye in the Promised Land
"GET THEE FORTH TO THE LAND"
Because of her treatment, or in spite of it, Tzeitl seemed to improve. She sat up in bed, color returned to her cheeks, and her fever subsided. But Tevye still worried about the rattling cough deep in her chest. The doctor said he could offer no more assistance. Fresh air and the approaching summer sun were the best things for her now. He didn't know if a voyage to the Land of Israel would harm her. In fact, the ocean breeze might do her good. And Palestine's mild, Mediterranean climate was certainly a healthier environment than Russia's drastically changing seasons, he said.
When ten days passed and no word arrived from Odessa, they decided to continue their journey, as it says, "You have dwelt long enough in this mountain, turn away and take up your journey." Tevye chided himself with having trusted Ben Zion with a large chunk of his savings. Fortunately, Hillel and Shmuelik had agreed to journey on with the Zionists to make sure that the money didn't get lost. Tzeitl was still too weak to walk on her own, so her sisters helped her into the wagon. Nachman sat alongside Tevye, and the giant, Alexander Goliath, walked behind on the road, as if to make sure that the children didn't fall out on the way.
"What about Hevedke?" asked Hava.
"What about him?" Tevye said.
"Aren't we going to wait for him to come back from the market?"
"Why should we? It is a blessing to be rid of him."
"How can you say that after all he did for Tzeitl?" Ruchela asked.
"He isn't a part of this enterprise," Tevye said. "My horse has done a great deal for me too, but I am going to part from him in Odessa. As Solomon says, There is a time to find, and a time to lose."
"I think he has proven himself," Tzeitl said. "I think you should give him a chance."
Tevye was happy to see his daughter's spirit returning, but his answer was no.
"Tell him, Nachman," Ruchela said. "Tell my stubborn old Father that a gentile can convert."
Nachman didn't want to enter the family quarrel. "Halachically," he said, "Jewish law makes it possible, but it isn't a simple matter. Besides a brit milah, and immersion in a ritual mikvah, a long period of learning is required."
"How long?" Hava asked.
"At least a year," the young rabbi said. "And during that time, the prospective convert certainly isn't allowed to be in the company of a Jewish woman with whom he has been intimate in the past."
Hava blushed and fell silent.
"There!" Tevye said. "The rabbi has decided. You heard it from his mouth yourselves."
"I'll wait a year," Hava said. "I'll wait ten years."
"Agreed," Tevye answered. "After ten years, I will reconsider my decision. In the meantime, it's final, and I don't want to hear anymore."
"I don't blame Hava for loving Hevedke," Bat Sheva said. "Jewish men are awful."
They were the first words she had spoken for days. When word hadn't arrived from Ben Zion, she had fallen into a lovesick depression. He had seduced her, betrayed her, and made her feel like a fool. All of his promises had been nothing but lies. He had wounded her heart, tarnished her purity, and worse than all, damaged her feminine pride. Though she had only succumbed to two kisses, she felt compromised beyond all repair.
The days turned beautiful, as if God had answered Tevye's prayers for good weather. The sun melted all of the snow on the ground, and the Russian landscape seemed to sparkle with the promise of renewal which comes with the spring. Tzeitl's spirits were characteristically cheerful. She seemed to feel better each day, but her cough clung to her like a shroud. Each time Tevye heard it, he felt a dagger pierce through his heart. Then, when they were only a half day's journey from Odessa, a different kind of danger appeared on their path. Two highwaymen on horseback galloped out of the woods in front of the wagon and ordered them to halt. They both brandished rifles and their faces were covered with masks.
"Hand over your money and no one needs to get hurt," one of them said.
"Have pity," Tevye pleaded. "It's all the money we have."
"If we had pity, we would be priests, not robbers. Now get down from the wagon and hand over your rubles."
Tevye had no choice. He didn't have a gun, and even if he had, he didn't know how to use one. Slowly, he stepped down from the wagon. His daughters huddled together, shielding the children. Just then, the protecting angel whom Tevye had prayed for appeared. As Tevye opened the wooden chest containing their valuables, he heard a loud roar like the sound of a bear. It was Goliath. With a terrifying bellow, he charged at one of the highwaymen. The startled bandit swung around in his saddle and fired his weapon. Miraculously, the shot missed its mark. The giant rammed into the horse and its rider, toppling them both to the ground. Before the other highwayman could steady his own horse and fire, Goliath grabbed his leg and dragged him out of the saddle. A wild shot went off in the air. The robber's head hit the ground with a thud. His partner scrambled for his gun which had fallen to the road, but Goliath leaped over and crunched a foot on his hand, cracking his bones. Yelping in pain, he scurried off into the forest. Goliath picked up the rifles and broke them in half, as if they were twigs. Tevye grabbed the reins of the riderless horses.
"It looks like we have two new horses," he grinned.
Goliath hurried back to the wagon. "Are you all right, Tzeitl?" he asked.
"And the children?"
Breathless, Tzeitl nodded again. Tevye checked through the pockets of the unconscious robber sprawled on the ground. He found close to two hundred rubles.
"Booty from the battle," he said, holding the money in the air. "As the Good Book says....."
When Tevye couldn't think of a verse, Nachman came to his aid.
"`Thou has smitten all of my enemies on the cheek; Thou has broken the teeth of the wicked,'" he quoted a Psalm by heart.
To Tevye, it was a sign that their mazel was changing. At the first farm they came to, he was able to sell the two horses at a respectable price. When they arrived, exhausted but cheerful in Odessa, they headed straight for the port. Odessa was the biggest city Tevye's daughters had ever seen. The stores, the boulevards, the carriages, and the smartly dressed women looked like they were part of a dream. Yet the wonder which made everyone stand up in the wagon was the sight of a motorized carriage that rode along the street without being pulled by a horse! Nachman said it was a miracle. Tevye called it an automobile. He had seen them before in his travels. For the moment, he was more concerned with the soldiers who stood idle at every corner, as if waiting for some menacing order. Though the wagon load of Jews looked out of place in the bustling city, no one ordered them to stop. Nevertheless, the milkman from Anatevka was reluctant to ask directions. He relied on his instincts and his sense of smell to lead them to the port. Though they may not have found the shortest route, before long the odor of fish and seawater filled everyone's nostrils.
To the simple milkman's family, the giant steamships and freighters which towered over their wagon as they road along the dock were symbols of the great new world which lay waiting over the ocean. Even a man as worldly as Tevye had never seen anything close to their size. The yachts belonging to the aristocrats in Boiberik were like tiny rowboats compared to these motorized whales. Workers, cargo men, porters, and passengers scurried over the dock, but Ben Zion, Naftali, Peter, and their friends were nowhere to be found. Tevye and Nachman ventured into a few shipping offices to inquire about boats leaving for Palestine, but they only received discouraging shakes of the head. There were ships taking vodka to France, potatoes to Hong Kong, coal to Spain, and lumber to Portugal, but none seemed to be taking Jewish pilgrims to Palestine.
With fallen spirits, Tevye and Nachman returned to the wagon. To their surprise, a little pitseleh of a man with a beard and a cap was standing by Goliath, barely reaching up to his waist.
"I understand you are looking for a boat to the Holy Land," he said to them in Yiddish.
"Du bist a Yid?" Tevye asked. "You're a Jew?"
"Through the kindness of God," he answered. "Ever since I was born, or more officially, eight days later, when my father brought me into the Covenant of Abraham and gave me the name Eliahu."
"Can you help us?" Tevye asked.
"To the extent that God allows," their new acquaintance answered. "Isn't it a mitzvah to help a fellow Jew? Of course it is. But it is also a mitzvah that a man support his family, and since my work is helping Jews, I will have to be paid a small, modest fee for my services."
"Of course," Tevye answered. "Never let it be said that Tevye, the milkman, failed to reimburse a man for his labor."
"In advance," the man said.
Tevye nodded. He turned his back, reached in his pocket, and peeled a small note from his stack. He handed the money to diminutive Jew, who glanced at it and made a small face. Tevye gave him another.
Satisfied, Eliahu led Tevye to the same shipping office where he had taken Ben Zion two weeks before. The Zionists had been lucky to arrive in Odessa the very day a boat was setting sail for Palestine. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, they had boarded at once. Bat Sheva turned red when she heard the report. She could picture the scoundrel, Ben Zion, laughing with his friends on the boat as he told them how he had seduced the milkman's innocent daughter. Tevye was no less enraged, thinking of the money he had given the thieving gonif to purchase tickets for his family. Hadn't his friend, the sandal maker, warned him back at the crossroads about the Zionist scoundrels? "Fortunate is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked." Of course the heretic had run off with the money. But then again, Tevye reasoned, to be fair, if they had not encountered Ben Zion, they would never have reached Odessa at all. How could Tevye complain? He was now only a boat ride away from his Hodel.
The miniature Jew, Eliahu, brought them to the shipping office and introduced them to an agent. Then he took their leave, giving them an address in the Jewish ghetto where they could find lodging and food. Swatting a fly away from the crackers and tea on his desk, the agent leafed through a thick heavy ledger and said he had a boat leaving for Constantinople in another fourteen days. From there, they could buy passage to Italy, which, he said, was only a short boat ride to Palestine. Or, if they preferred, he could sell them one ticket for all three sections of the journey, which would cost them considerably less in the end. The only problem was that the freighter leaving Odessa was already sold out, and the next scheduled departure was six weeks away.
"Six weeks away?" Tevye exclaimed.
"That's the situation," the shipping agent curtly replied.
"Isn't there something you can do?" Tevye asked.
"The boat is overcrowded already," the Russian replied.
"I am willing to pay a higher price," Tevye offered.
"I'm sorry, but we have company rules."
"I have to get to Palestine. I have a sick daughter."
"I understand," the man said.
Tevye waited as the agent opened a file and glanced through some papers, shaking his head. "I'll be taking a big risk," he declared.
Tevye pulled out his cache of newly found rubles. The agent stared at the money.
"It will cost you double the normal fare," he said. "But in light of your sick daughter, I can try to arrange it."
Tevye might have been a simple milkman from the country, but he had enough business experience to know when someone was playing him for a fool. But what could he do? He didn't have a steamship of his own to sail the seven seas. So if he had to pay a little extra money, what else was new? Being a Jew was a blessing which came with a price.
The agent wrote up an agreement of sale for the tickets. Then, as if suddenly remembering, he handed Tevye an envelope which Ben Zion had left in the office. The envelope, addressed to "Reb Tevye from Anatevka," looked as if it had already been opened. The letter inside was written in Ben Zion's floundering Yiddish, apparently to prevent the shipping clerk from understanding its contents. "My dear and respected Reb Tevye," it read. "Upon arriving in Odessa, we have been informed that a ship is sailing for Turkey today. Since the zealous are careful to perform the mitzvot as quickly as possible, we are boarding and continuing on our way. We will meet you in kibbutz Shoshana, in the land of our future. In the meantime, I am enclosing your money in this envelope. I have a feeling that it will be safer in the care of the shipping company than in the hands of the little Jew who brought us here. L'Hitraot. Ben Zion."
Then, scribbled at the bottom of the page was a brief explanation, "I am writing in my childhood Yiddish because I don't trust the shipping clerk either."
Except for the letter, the envelope was empty. Tevye looked up at the bookish shipping agent who had returned to his work and his papers. A feeling of shame swept over Tevye for having judged the young Zionist in too hasty a fashion, thinking he had run off with his money. But he felt even worse knowing that the money had ended up in the pocket of the clean-shaven Laban before him.
"Excuse me," Tevye said. "There was supposed to be money along with this letter, but the envelope is empty."
The agent looked up with an innocent glance.
"Maybe your friend forget to put the money inside. I seem to remember that he was in a big hurry."
"No," Tevye answered. "He writes that he put it inside with the letter."
The shipping agent shrugged.
"Somebody stole my money," Tevye said.
"I'm afraid I can't help you. Since I received the letter, it has been right here, locked up in my drawer. And I am the only one with a key."
"That sort of limits the possibilities," Tevye said.
"I resent the implication," the clerk answered. He stood up with a look of great indignation. "If you would like to cancel your contract, I will be happy to oblige. I certainly won't stand here and be insulted by a Jew. If you have a complaint, go tell the police."
"Don't you worry, I will," Tevye threatened.
He strode out of the office. Wouldn't you know it? A policeman was walking alongside the dock, eyeing the women in the wagon. Tevye decided to approach him. He was so enraged, he didn't seem to notice that Hevedke was standing near the wagon talking to Hava.
Seeing Tevye and Nachman stride over to the policeman, Goliath walked over to find out what was the matter.
"A good day to you, officer, and to all upholders of the law" Tevye said. "I have reason to believe that the shipping agent in that office has stolen a considerable sum of money from me."
"Who are you?" the policeman asked, staring at the thickly bearded Jew.
"Tevye, the milkman, from Anatevka."
"It's a long way from Anatevka for a milkman," the policeman said. “What brings you to Odessa?"
"We are on our way to Palestine."
"Have a good voyage. When Russia is free of all you stinking parasites, it will be a better country."
"What did you say?" another voice asked. It was Goliath. He towered beside Tevye.
"Look what we have here," the policeman said, staring up at the giant. "A whole mountain of filth."
Nachman's "No!" came too late. Goliath reached out and grabbed the policeman by his collar. With one hand, he lifted him off his feet into the air. With three giant strides, Goliath reached the edge of the dock. Grunting, he hurled the startled policeman through the air, down into the water below.
"Gevalt," Tevye moaned, leading the race back to the wagon. When all of the Jews were aboard, he whipped the reins of the horse and the wagon sped off. Hevedke held his hand in the air and hollered out, "Wait!" but Tevye urged his steed onward as if he were in the midst of a chariot race. As the wagon thundered down the cobblestones of the dock, the women held fast to their mother's galloping coffin. Porters rushed out of their way. Passersby cursed them. Though no one was chasing them, Tevye didn't relax until they reached the neighborhood of the Jews at the outskirts of the city. “Refuge,” Tevye thought. Store signs were written in Yiddish. Shops sold pickles in barrels, dried fruit, chickens, and fish. Rolls of fabric stood in the doorway of one store, dresses in the window of another. If there was a problem of anti-Semitism in Russia, you wouldn't have known it from the busy life of the Odessa ghetto.
Tevye found the address which Eliahu had given him. He lived in a small basement apartment, cramped with relatives and children. Like a king entertaining royal guests, the diminutive Jew sat them around a table and ordered his wife to bring rugelach cakes and tea. When Tevye told him what had happened at the dock, an aghast expression spread over his face.
"Your friend did what with the policeman?" he asked incredulously. Tevye, Nachman, and the oversized Alexander Goliath all started laughing. Their host failed to see anything humorous.
“Something like this can bring a pogrom on all of the Jews of Odessa," he said.
"What should we do?" Tevye asked.
"You'll have to set off on your voyage tonight."
"But how? Our ship doesn't leave for two weeks."
"You can't go back to the dock. The police will be waiting for you,"Eliahu warned them. "There are small boats for hire that can be secured for a price. The crossing is dangerous, but others have made it. With God's help, I can arrange for one of the captains to sail tonight."
"In a sailboat?" Nachman asked.
"That's your only other choice. Unless you want to walk across Russia and Turkey, and that can take a year."
"How dangerous is dangerous?" Tevye asked.
"I haven't made the crossing myself," the little Jew confided. "But there are Russians who do it for a living, and even a gentile doesn't want to get killed. But I'd be lying if I told you that there haven't been shipwrecks and drownings. The Black Sea isn't a duck pond. It's as big as an ocean and the winds can be treacherous."
"God will answer our prayers for a safe journey," Nachman said with his unflinching faith.
"What about the money I paid to that thief at the dock?" Tevye asked.
The Jew held up his hands. "Kaporas," he said. "It is lost. May it be considered an atonement for your sins."
The little Jew was right, Tevye decided. Why cry over spilled milk? Right now, the important thing was escaping from Odessa without going to prison. And besides, in the turn of events, there was one big consolation which Tevye didn't dare mention. By sneaking off on a boat in the middle of the night, they would be rid of the tenacious Hevedke forever!
The Jews got down to business. The voyage would cost them three hundred rubles. It was almost half of the money that Tevye had left. And there were still two more sea journeys to follow. Which meant that they would be landing in the Holy Land with an empty purse and a prayer. As if sensing his thoughts, Goliath offered to pay the cost of the passage for everyone.
"It’s my fault that we have fallen into this mess," he declared.
"You meant well," Tevye retorted. "Besides, you upheld the honor of the people of God, and no man should be penalized for that."
Finally, when it was agreed that each man would put up his own share of the fare, their host hurried off to arrange for a boat. In the meantime, Nachman wandered off to find an evening prayer minyan where he could say the mourner's Kaddish for his father. Having spent the greater part of his life voyaging through Talmudic texts in the study hall of the yeshiva, it was his father's dying blessing which gave Nachman the confidence to set out on such a hazardous voyage. As the Talmud states, a man who undertakes to do a good deed will be Divinely protected from the dangers of travel. And could there be a greater deed than going to live in the Land of Israel, a precept which was equal in weight to all of the commandments in the Torah? Especially when it had been his father's last wish that Nachman pray at the sacred Wall in Jerusalem, at the site where their ancient Temple had stood. Surely, in the merit of his father, the Almighty would protect them on the way.
In a matter of hours, the Constantinople-bound Jews rendezvoused with Eliahu under the cover of nightfall. Sneaking out of the city like fugitives, Tevye's daughters were frightened with the great rush and mystery. The boat was waiting for them at a dock at the edge of the forest. From the bow to the stern, the vessel was several wagons long, but it was tiny compared with the great freighters they had seen at the port. Eliahu introduced the captain as Leo. He wore what looked like an admiral's jacket and cap, but Tevye eyed him with doubts. The captain's breath reeked of cheap liquor. Not that Tevye blamed him for drinking. The roar of the waves, and the blackness of the sea in the distance invited the thought of a strong vodka or two, but it wasn't something that inspired confidence at the start of a voyage. Especially since Tevye had never learned how to swim. And neither, of course, had his daughters.
The seaman greeted his passengers gruffly and shouted commands to his crew of three sailors, who helped carry their belongings aboard. It was Hava who voiced everyone's worries.
"This is crazy!" she said.
No one expressed disagreement, yet no one could offer an alternative plan. As the captain and crew hurried to get the ship ready, Tevye and Goliath slid Golda's coffin out of the wagon and carried it toward the boat. Suddenly, with an arm upraised, the captain told them to stop. Crossing himself, he said that corpses were bad luck on a voyage. He wasn't about to set sail with an evil omen on board.
"An evil omen?" Tevye said, offended to hear his wife spoken about in such a crude manner.
"It’s enough of a curse that I'm carrying Jews."
The ungrateful dog, Tevye thought. But before he could get into an argument, Nachman stepped between them and persuaded the captain to set aside his religious objections for another twenty-five rubles.
Tevye was impressed. The lad wasn't only a scholar. Like Jacob, he knew how to get along in the world. Satisfied, the superstitious sailor put the money in his pocket and went on with the work of hoisting the sails. Then, when everything was ready, it was Hava who balked. Like a borscht which has been left boiling too long on the fire, her emotions spilled out from the pot.
"I am not leaving Russia without Hevedke," she declared.
"We made an agreement," her father said. "Let this be his test."
"But how will he find us? And he doesn't have any money. How will he get to Palestine?"
"That's his problem, not ours," Tevye answered.
Hava glared at her Father.
"Don't worry," Tzeitl told her. "He'll find his way to Israel. And this will be proof to everyone that he really is serious about being a Jew."
Soothed by her sister's assurance, Hava let Tzeitl take her hand and lead her across the small wooden plank leading on to the ship.
Then came the most difficult part of the journey for Tevye. After all of their belongings were fastened on board in a compartment under the deck, he walked with heavy footsteps back onto shore to say a tearful good-bye to his horse.
To Tevye, departing from his wagon wasn't the end of the world. A wagon was merely wood planks. Selling it to Eliahu was like any transaction. It was true that in the darkness of the forest, at this late hour by the sea, there were no other bidders to insure a good price, but the wagon had seen its best days, and anything at all which the milkman received was like extra money in his pocket. His horse, however, was a part of the family, a part of his history, like a brother and companion in life. Tevye couldn't bring himself to sell him. He told Eliahu to look after him and to find him a kind owner, who wouldn't work him too hard. Inhaling a last whiff of the horse's musky aroma, Tevye stroked the animal's mane and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Take care my good friend," he said softly. "May the Almighty Who created us both, bless you and keep you. If there is a Heaven for workhorses and mules, if you get there before me, put in a good word for Tevye."
Soon their boat was sailing away from the dock. Eliahu disappeared into the blackness. As the crew busied with the sails, the voyagers sat close together in an apprehensive huddle. As it turned out, their trepidations proved groundless. All week long, the Lord heard their prayers and kept the ocean winds calm. The captain said he had never seen anything like it. Tevye didn't have to look far to discover the cause. Nachman sat all day on the bow, studying a tractate of Talmud. Obviously, the Almighty didn't want to interrupt the scholar's learning with the splash of a wave, so the sea remained as tranquil as milk in a bucket. And yet, over their heads a breeze billowed their sails and sped them on their journey.
Though Tevye was by no means a scholar, he enjoyed having a hevruta on board with whom he could argue the fine points of the law. While his mind worked at a much slower pace than Nachman's, Tevye relished their Mishnaic exchanges. For the milkman, the time on the boat was like a vacation. When had he been able to sit all day in the sun and study the Torah? For as long as he could remember, his work day had started at four in the morning, before the rooster's first crow, and finished late at night, after the children had fallen asleep. As it says in the Bible, "By the sweat of thy brow, thou shall eat bread." So if Tevye had ever envied Baron Rothschild and his yachts, now he could tell everyone that he had been out yachting too.
Because of the clear skies and the gently rocking sea, the captain and his crew had little to do. They spent most of the day playing cards and drinking liquor. There were drunken arguments, and an occasional fight, plus a steady stream of bawdy songs and jokes that made the women blush. Goliath sat protectively near Tevye's daughters and whittled stick-figure dolls to pass the time. If the crewmen entertained any non-kosher thoughts, the sight of the giant guarding the ladies was a convincing deterrent.
The gently rolling waves had a soothing effect on Hava also. The lullaby of the sea and the steady wind in the masts calmed her restless spirits and restored her belief that everything would work out in the end. To pass the time, she read the book of Psalms. The songs and prayers of King David lifted her out of her worries and transported her to a world where goodness and justice would triumph. For her, the boat ride was exactly what the Psalmist had penned, "He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul."
Only the downcast Bat Sheva remained obsessed with stormy ruminations. Tevye's youngest daughter tried to push Ben Zion out of her mind by organizing meals for the crew, but her thoughts were possessed with schemes of revenge. Like rolling waves, her passions swayed back and forth. Chopping potatoes, she would dream of cutting off the hands that had held her; while peeling onions, she would cry at the thought that the gallant Zionist already had found some other woman to wed.
To make a long story short, everyone but Bat Sheva was in jubilant spirits when they reached Constantinople. Stepping onto dry land, Nachman said a blessing of thanks for God's faithful providence, and everyone answered Amen! The dock of the port was bustling with action. Turks garbed in an assortment of caftans, turbans, and robes, scurried in every direction. Porters carried enormous loads on their backs: piles of silk, carpets, bananas, and ivory – bounty from all over the world. A red flag decorated with a yellow crescent moon flew over the roof of a limestone building which was guarded by red-turbanned policemen. Sweet, exotic smells filled the air. The new arrivals from Anatevka gazed around in a daze. Dressed in their winter clothing, the Jews looked out of place in the bright Mediterranean setting. Tevye and Goliath stood holding Golda's coffin, not knowing in which direction to turn.
Just then, a small apparition, dressed like an Arab, rushed up to greet them in Yiddish. With his black moustache and beard, he could have been Eliahu's double. It was as if the little Jew from Odessa had sped ahead to Constantinople to continue his work assisting fellow landsmen as they arrived in the strange, foreign port. Excitedly, he led them to a shipping office filled with flies, a broken overhead fan, and the stench of Turkish tobacco. For a small fee, he helped them book passage to Italy, where they would switch boats for the last leg of their journey.
Once again, after waiting ten days in Constantinople, the Lord blessed their trip. This time, their ship was a ship! The travelers even had cabins, and though the airless quarters made their stomachs rise up in their throats during the long nights of unending swells, come morning, the fresh air on deck brought color back to their cheeks. For the children, the ocean voyage was an exciting adventure, but their poor mother couldn't bear the suffocating nights. She coughed and she coughed, as if gasping for breath, so Tevye slept up on deck with Tzeitl. With his daughter bundled in blankets in his arms, Tevye stared up at the stars and beseeched the Creator of heaven and earth to heal his ailing, firstborn girl.
Disembarking from the ship in Trieste, Tevye half-expected to meet an Italian version of Eliahu. Instead, he was greeted by an even bigger surprise. The tall, blond figure of Hevedke was waiting for them on the dock! Seeing him, Tevye almost dropped Golda's coffin. Hava waved and called out his name. Her whole face was a radiant smile. She looked at her father and grinned.
"An agreement is an agreement," she triumphantly said.
"He still has to study the Torah," Tevye answered, clinging to the hope that time would extinguish the stubborn flame in their hearts.
But the bonds which had already formed were not to be broken so easily. Hava was in love with Hevedke, and her faith in him made her certain that he would overcome every obstacle which her father placed in his path. If he had to study the Torah to complete his trial, Hevedke was no stranger to books. It was his keen, open mind that had attracted Hava to him in the first place. Back in Anatevka, his discourses on Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky had captured her heart. On their walks through the country, he filled her head with a new vision of the world, where all men were equal to share in God's blessing. It was a world without boundaries and prejudices, based on brotherhood and universal love, far more inspiring than the ghetto of Anatevka with its superstitious mistrust of anything and anyone new. At least, it had seemed that way to Hava when she ran away from her family to marry her poet and to embrace his modern, enlightened world. But the pogroms and expulsions had shattered her dream, teaching her and Hevedke alike that behind the beautiful speeches of Tolstoy lay a festering darkness which sought to wipe out the true light of God in the world.
The first chance she had, when her father went off to arrange passage to Palestine, Hava rushed off with Hevedke, filled with a burning desire to be alone with the man she had sworn not to see. He reached out for her hand and whisked her down an alley to the back of a warehouse. They stood there, holding hands, without saying a word. For Hava, just being near him again was enough.
"Oh my valiant, faithful Hevedke," she said.
"Did your father see you run off?" he asked.
"No," she replied, wanting him to kiss her.
"He will kill me if he finds us together."
"It's all right," she assured him.
"When he finds you gone, he will surely come looking."
"Stop worrying," she told him. "Kiss me before I drop dead."
"I can't. I made a promise to your father, and I intend to keep it."
At first, Hava was offended. She was dumbfounded by his words. She gazed at the light of honesty which shone in his eyes and realized that was the reason she loved him. His soul was pure and inspired by a passion for truth.
"I want to do everything I must in order to truly make you my wife," he avowed.
"I am willing to wait if I have to," she promised.
"Oh, Hava, I love you," he said. "More than the oceans and more than the seas. Nothing can come between us."
She stared in his eyes. "I worry about you," she said.
"I'm fine," he assured her. "Your God is looking after me now. You see, He brought me here even before you arrived."
"How?" she asked.
"I boarded the same freighter that you were scheduled to take."
"What happened to the policeman?"
"He got wet, that's all. And his pride was insulted. But the Jews of Odessa fared a lot worse. The day after you left, there was a terrible pogrom. People were killed. The little Jew who helped you was arrested."
"How awful," Hava said.
“We will have a better life in Palestine," Hevedke promised. "And once we set up a house of our own, we will work to bring all the Jews in Russia home to the Promised Land."
Hava smiled with happiness.
"You had better hurry back," he said. "I don't want to give your father a chance to renege on his end of the bargain."
Hava longed for a parting kiss, but Hevedke held her away and made her settle with a smile.
"Can't you kiss me just once?" she asked him.
"Your father may not be watching, but God is," he said. "I have to be true to Him, too."
Reluctantly, he took a few steps backwards, smiled goodbye, and ran off down the alley.
Two weeks later, Tevye and his family boarded an overcrowded steamship heading for Jaffa. Along with the throng of Jews who had gathered from all over Russia, religious Jews and secular Zionists, Litvaks and Galitzianers, there were a family of Jews from France, German merchants on the way to Damascus and Cairo, Christians on their way to Jerusalem, Spanish Moslems journeying to Mecca, Turkish businessmen, and Hevedke. As the ship set sail, the Jews burst into a chorus of spirited songs, but a day out of port, the weather changed for the worse. Towering black clouds darkened the sky. As if stirred by some heavenly turmoil, the sea rose threateningly over the bow of the ship, splashing angry waves on board. The Jews had to huddle on deck under a tarpaulin, which they pulled over their heads to shelter them from the fierce, driving rain. Almost everyone grew seasick. Children cried at the crashing of thunder. Again and again, the bow rose in the air and plummeted into the depths of the ocean as if the steamship were sinking. Water splashed over the railing, soaking the Jews and their clothing. A chill shook Tzeitl's body. Tevye and Goliath hurried her down below to warm her in the blast of the boiler.
The ocean's fury lasted all through the night. The sun didn't appear throughout the next day. Without any sign of letup or mercy, the hurricane raged unabated. Even the crew became nauseous and sick. Everyone prayed.
"Why doesn't God stop it?" Ruchela asked in despair.
"We are getting closer to Israel," Nachman explained. "Stepping foot in the Holy Land is the greatest blessing in the world. The reward only falls on the bravest, on those who are willing to sacrifice everything to reach the palace of the King."
"Is it God's will that we all die in the midst of the ocean?" Bat Sheva asked.
"No. He wants us to pray for His help."
"Then what's taking so long?" the girl asked. "We've been praying day and night."
"If God doesn't answer at first, it doesn't mean He isn't listening. He simply wants us to pray harder, with all of our hearts."
Nachman's faith was an inspiration to everyone. He closed his eyes and bobbed back and forth in deep prayer. With his heart directed to Heaven, he shut out the howl of the wind and the splash of the sea. His lips opened in a softly sung prayer, the prayer of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
“May Your kindness prevail
Over Your wrath,
May Your kindness prevail
Over Your wrath.
Have mercy on Your children,
Have mercy on Your children."
Over and over, Nachman sang the refrain until he stood on his feet in a trance, pouring out his heart to the thundering clouds. Little Moishe stood up and joined him. His young, high-pitched wail pierced everyone's heart. Soon, it was impossible to tell if the ship was swaying from the waves of the storm, or from the turbulent prayers of the Jews.
The next morning, one of the merchants was discovered dead in his cabin. Two crew members wrapped him in a sheet and threw him overboard, as if they were offering a sacrifice to a vengeful god. A few hours later another corpse was found. Rumors spread quickly that a plague had broken out aboard ship. Before long, the captain and four crew members stood in front of Tevye.
"Get your coffin and dump it overboard," the captain ordered.
Tevye was stunned. His coffin. Golda. Overboard?
"I protest," he mumbled when he found words to speak.
"I am not asking you. I am ordering you," the captain repeated. "If you don't, my men will. That coffin is endangering everyone on the ship."
"My Golda? Endangering the ship? It's preposterous," Tevye replied.
“The plague is coming from somewhere," the captain answered. "And I am certain it's from that coffin. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this storm has been inflicted upon us because I am carrying a stinking dead Jew on my ship."
Hearing his wife cursed, Tevye shuddered. With a growl, he lunged at the captain. A crew member held out a club and pushed him away. Tevye's feet slipped out from under him, and he crashed down on the deck. Goliath started forward, but three drawn pistols stopped him in his tracks.
"It is only another day to Palestine," Tevye pleaded, raising himself to his knees.
"The coffin goes overboard now," the captain said.
"Please," Tevye begged, grabbing onto the captain's leg. "I beg of you, please."
"Either you do it now," the captain threatened, "or my men will do it for you."
Tevye felt the barrel of a pistol press into his back. He let go of his grip on the captain, not because he was afraid for his own life, but because of his daughters. What would they do if he gave the captain a reason to shoot him? How would they survive all alone? The uncircumcised scoundrels would throw Golda into the ocean whether he helped them or not, so what was the use of resisting?
With his head bowed in anguish and submission, he slowly made his way to the cargo deck of the ship.
"Oy Golda, Oy Golda," he moaned. "Is this to be your reward? To be thrown to the fish? To have your bones scattered to the ends of the seas? Without any dry earth to warm you, or a flower to grow over your head? Is this to be your reward for being Tevye's wife for twenty-eight years and for raising his seven daughters?"
Goliath helped him carry the coffin onto the deck. The pistols were still pointed their way. Passengers cursed Tevye as he made his way to the rail. Several tattered umbrellas hit Tevye on the head. Jews crowded around to protect him and keep the crazed, superstitious heathens at bay. His daughters stood at his side, eyes filled with tears. A Hasid with a long beard pushed forward.
"Say Kaddish," he said.
Tevye closed his eyes. He would rather have jumped into the ocean himself than obey the captain's orders.
"Don't cry," he heard Golda say. "Be strong for the children."
Catching a sob in his throat, Tevye choked out the words of the mourner’s prayer. "Yisgadal v'yiskadash shemay rabboh... May His Great Name be sanctified and magnified forever."
The Jews on deck responded, "Amen."
"Good-bye my love, Golda, good-bye," Tevye whispered. He balanced the coffin on the rail of the ship and then gave it a push. A chill seized his body upon the sound of the splash. He felt he was going to faint. A hand kept him from falling.
"Be strong, my husband, be strong," he heard his wife call.
The storm winds howled. A wave towered up over the coffin and snatched it away. A bolt of lighting lit up the sky. The coffin vanished from view. Long after it was gone, Golda's voice echoed over the ocean.
"Be strong, my Tevye, be strong!"
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Kislev 14, 5772, 12/10/2011
Tevye in the Promised Land
A WAGON OF WORRIES
Overnight, it became clear to the Jews of Branosk that there was no future for them in their village shtetl. Who could predict when the Czar's soldiers would return to continue their wanton destruction? Nonetheless, with the optimism which eternally beats in the hearts of the Jews, there were villagers who wanted to stay and rebuild their razed homes. Others decided to pack up their belongings and seek their fortunes elsewhere, some to western Russia where the pogroms had not as yet reached, others to Germany and Poland. Only a handful of Nachman's companions volunteered to join the Zionists on their journey to Eretz Yisrael.
One had the nickname Goliath. A woodcutter by trade, he towered several heads above Tevye. His real name was Alexander, and while he certainly wasn't a scholar, he was fiercely devoted to Nachman. He even called the young Torah prodigy his rabbi. Another friend, Shmuelik, was like a brother to Nachman. They had grown up together, studied Gemara together, and dreamed of going to the Land of Israel together. When they were just children in heder, Shmuelik would collect sticks in the forest, hand them out to his companions like rifles, and lead them on make-believe attacks, as if they were Maccabee soldiers fighting for the freedom and honor of Israel. Always keeping an eye out for husbands, Tevye reasoned that Shmuelik might prove to be the right man for Bat Sheva, who with every passing day was becoming more enamored with the gallant Ben Zion and his bombastic speeches.
Their other new traveling companion was Hillel, an accordion player by trade. He was older than the others, with streaks of gray hair in his short scraggly beard. He walked with a limp, as if from the weight of his accordion which he lugged with him wherever he went. "Be happy today," was his motto, "Because tomorrow you could be food for the worms." It was a philosophy which Tevye shared. Hillel was a man he could talk to. Though he didn't have a lucrative profession, Tevye thought that the musician might be a match for his Tzeitl. After all, with two children, she wasn't exactly a new cow in the market.
But a greater mitzvah than marriage lay before them at the moment – the mitzvah of burying the dead. Tevye took a shovel from his wagon and helped in the work of digging graves for the corpses. His daughters helped with the wounded. Ruchel volunteered to assist Nachman's mother and sisters in the kitchen of Nachman's house, where with his brothers and sisters, he had to sit shiva, the traditional week of Jewish mourning. People came to offer their condolences all through the day and the evening, and Ruchel kept busy baking cakes for the guests. Though she rarely exchanged a word with Nachman, a deep bond was building between them. She felt that they communicated even without speaking, and he felt it too. When the elders of the community urged him to stay on and inherit his father's position, the young scholar was uncertain where his greater obligation lay, as a guardian of the Torah in the exile, or as a builder of the Promised Land. Ruchel vowed to stand by him whatever he decided, even if it meant saying good-bye to her family. The dutiful son had qualms about leaving his mother, but his older brother and sisters promised to watch over her. After several days, he arrived at an answer.
"Our future is in the Land of Israel," he said.
To pass the time while Nachman was observing the week of mourning, Tevye and the Zionists pitched in with the work of repair. One afternoon, as Ben Zion and Peter were out strolling through the woods to get away from the pious shtetl, they came across Hevedke, who had kept out of sight in the forest ever since the night the Cossacks had raided the village.
"Well, look what we have here," Peter whispered to his friend.
"Hiding out in the woods like a spy," Ben Zion answered.
"You think he's like all the rest of the anti-Semites?" Peter asked.
"I don't know, but for Tevye's sake, let's teach him a lesson."
Ben Zion raised his hand in salutation and called out with a smile. "Hey, Hevedke! Over here!"
The Russian waved in a good-natured greeting. He was happy to see them. He hadn't spoken to a soul in two days. He was running low on food, and he was beginning to feel profoundly unhappy walking around in endless circles to fight off the boredom and chill.
Smiling, Ben Zion walked up to him and reached out to shake his hand. Only he didn't let go. He twisted Hevedke's arm behind his back and held on to him tightly as Peter punched him hard in the stomach. When the Russian doubled over in pain, Ben Zion released him and added a shove of his own. Hevedke stumbled, but he didn't fall down.
"Let's see you fight!" Ben Zion shouted.
The poet refused to raise up his fists.
"Fight!" Peter yelled, hitting him again. Hevedke collapsed to his knees.
"Make sure we never see you again," Ben Zion told him, leaving him on his knees in the forest, as if he were praying in church.
When the week of mourning was ended, Nachman packed his father's Chumash and Siddur into his sack along with a few other books, kissed his blind mother good-bye, and joined Tevye's family and the Zionists as they set off down the road.
"Don't you worry about me," his mother told him, as if reading his thoughts. "The Lord will be gracious. In His kindness, He has stricken me with blindness to spare me from seeing the horrors which are befalling our people, and in His kindness, He will send the Mashiach to bring all of us back to Eretz Yisrael."
"May it be soon," Nachman said. He kissed his mother one last time on the forehead and ran tearfully off to catch up with the others.
The voyage took almost three months. After having hurled fire and rain in their path, the Almighty dispatched a late winter snowstorm which covered their boots up to their knees and made traveling treacherous and slow. With heads lowered to escape the biting wind, the group trudged eastward toward the port of Odessa. For miles on end, blinded by the snow, they could barely make out the road. Only the instincts of the horse kept them on course. During the height of the blizzard, the wagon had to be pushed, and finally, as the wheels became buried in drifts, it refused to budge at all.
A feeling of despair fell over their endeavor. Hillel tried to cheer them up with a tune on his accordion, but his fingers were too frozen to manipulate the keys. Then, as if to dash their hopes completely, a group of Zionists coming from another evacuated region told them that a roadblock of soldiers a mile up the road was preventing Jews from entering the province which led to the port of Odessa. When the leader of their group had tried to break through the roadblock, the soldiers had shot him dead on the spot. His comrades were carrying his body to a proper Jewish cemetery and postponing their journey until more favorable conditions prevailed.
"What are we going to do now, Tata?" Bat Sheva asked.
"Haven't our Rabbis told us that three things are obtained through suffering?" he philosophically answered.
"I suppose they did," Bat Sheva responded. "They had something to say about everything."
"What three things?" Hava inquired.
"Tell them, Nachman," Tevye called, wanting to show off the wisdom of his learned groom, his daughter Hodel’s chassan.
"The Torah, the World to Come, and the Land of Israel," the scholar responded. "They are the most precious things a man can attain, and to achieve them, he has to be willing to suffer."
"In what tractate of Talmud can the teaching be found?" Tevye asked.
"The tractate Berachot."
"On what page?"
Nachman blushed. He wasn't a braggart, and it embarrassed him to be put on display. "Page five," he responded.
“What's the use of memorizing a lot of ancient history?" Ben Zion asked. "If you want to read a truly important book, you should read ‘The Jewish State,’ by Theodor Herzl. He was a prophet who spoke to the Jews of today."
"The Lord has many messengers," Nachman answered. "In our time, God chose Herzl to bring the message of Zion to our exiled people. But it wasn't Herzl who invented the Zionist movement. It comes from our holy Torah and the Jews who have been following its call for thousands of years."
"But how can we continue?" Bat Sheva asked. "The road is blocked by soldiers."
"We'll go through the woods and over the mountain," Ben Zion answered. "Though my version of Jewish history differs from the young rabbi's, our destination is admittedly the same."
All eyes turned to the snow-covered mountains which loomed up on both sides of the road. "What about the wagon?" Tzeitl asked.
"The girl has a point," Tevye said. "We can't take the wagon over the mountain."
"Hevedke can drive the wagon," Hava said. "There is no reason for the soldiers to stop him."
Everyone stared at Tevye, who sat in the wagon perplexed. Hevedke, as usual, was trailing behind them. Every few miles, he would appear like an apparition out of the snow. If Tevye gave in, it would be a victory for the Russian and arouse Hava's hopes. But if he said no, they would either have to turn back, or abandon the wagon out on the road. What would become of his Golda? He couldn't shlep her coffin over the mountain. Nor could he bury her in the snow. He turned to stare back along the tracks of the wagon. Down the road, a snowman stood rigid in the winter landscape. Tevye had to give the Galagani some credit. For a gentile, he was as stubborn as a Jew.
With a grumble, Tevye lay down the reins and climbed off the wagon.
"You go talk to him," he said to Ben Zion. "But I want everyone to know - it's only for the success of the journey."
"This is insane," Naftali argued. "We can't be climbing mountains in this weather. I say we find shelter and wait for the storm to subside."
"He Who formed the mountains and causes the winds to blow will give us the strength to succeed on our journey," Shmuelik said.
"If you people are on such good terms with Him, why doesn't He make the mountain disappear altogether and save us the effort?" Peter asked.
"According to the effort is the reward," Shmuelik answered.
Like Nachson ben Amminadav, the first Jew to brave the mighty waters of the Red Sea when the children of Israel stood frightfully on its banks pursued by the chariots of Egypt, the faith-filled youth from the village of Branosk started out up the snowbound ascent. It was agreed that Hevedke would meet the group on the other side of the mountain. Wrapping the children in blankets, they set out on the arduous trek. The climb took most of the day. When the children tired, the men took turns carrying them up the rugged incline. Tevye's beard turned white with snow. Several times, they had to pause and wait up for Tzeitl. Her feet were frozen, her legs felt like stones, her teeth chattered, and sneezes racked her thin body. By sunset, she was so weak Tevye had to lift her and carry her in his arms. He staggered forward beneath his precious load. Her eyes were feverish, and through her heavy clothing, Tevye could feel her body shivering with each raspy breath. Several times, she inquired after the children, then fell into a deep sleep in his arms. Gradually, the winds and snow stopped. At nightfall, they reached the summit. Clouds drifted apart over their heads, revealing patches of stars. Ben Zion wanted to camp for the evening and make the descent at dawn, when they would have a better idea of their bearings. But Tevye kept walking. He wanted to get Tzeitl to a lower altitude, where it would be warmer, and even try to meet up with the wagon that night. The girl needed a doctor. With a prayer on his lips, he hoisted his bundle over his shoulder. His legs carried him forward down the slope of the mountain. Shmuelik walked at his side. Nachman followed with Ruchel. Soon, everyone fell into line. After an hour, Tevye's muscles were depleted of strength. With a groan, he sank to his knees in the snow. Gently, Goliath reached down and lifted Tzeitl into his arms. Nachman and Shmuelik helped Tevye to his feet, and the weary hikers continued on down the mountain.
When they reached the road, the wagon was nowhere in sight. Tevye gazed up to Heaven. A man was not supposed to rely on miracles, but the gates of prayer were always open to pleas from he heart.
"My dear and gracious King, have You brought us this far just to turn us into pillars of ice in this tundra?" he called. "Save us. If not for the sake of this miserable wretch of a milkman, then for the sake of his saintly wife, Golda."
Tevye took his unconscious daughter from the arms of the giant, and once again the group started off in the darkness. Then, to everyone's joy, around the first bend in the road, Tevye's prayer was answered. Hevedke sat waiting in the wagon.
With shouts of triumph, the hikers ran forward. Tevye quickly lifted Tzeitl into the back of the wagon. The rest of his daughters climbed aboard. Goliath sat up front beside Hevedke who continued to drive. The others were to meet them in the next town along the road. The Russian whipped the reins and urged the horse onward into the night. Everyone's thoughts were on finding a doctor for Tzeitl. Within a short time, the houses of a village appeared in the distance. Hevedke pounded on the first door they came to. The doorpost, Tevye noticed, lacked a mezuzah. The Russian peasant who answered pointed the way to the house of the local doctor. Tevye asked him if there was a Jewish doctor in town. The man shook his head, no. There weren't any Jews in the village at all.
Once again, at the doctor's, Hevedke did all of the talking. He said that his sister was sick. Reluctantly, the sleepy, night-gowned physician invited him into his house. Soon the small salon was crowded with Tevye's snow-covered family. Like a guard, Goliath waited outside with the wagon.
Tevye set Tzeitl gently down on a bed in the doctor's examining room.The physician quickly dressed, put on his eyeglasses and glanced from the dark, bearded Jew to the tall, blond Hevedke.
"I have to charge more for night visits," he said.
Hevedke nodded, reached his hand in his pocket, and showed the doctor some rubles. Hava stood watching as the doctor examined her sister. Little Hannie cried for her mommy until Bat Sheva rocked her to sleep. Hevedke spoke to the doctor's wife in the kitchen and convinced her to warm up a large samovar of tea. After a short while, the doctor reappeared. Tevye's worries proved accurate. The girl had pneumonia and the doctor had given her some medicine which would bring down her fever. Hava was toweling her down. The patient would have to stay in bed for a few days and drink lots of hot tea. Tevye knew the rest of the story. What would be, would be. Tevye had known of people who had recovered from pneumonia, and others who had died, God forbid. Like Tzeitl's poor husband, Motel, who had coughed himself into the grave.
Tevye prayed and followed the doctor's orders. In the meantime, their journey was postponed. The Zionists arrived and went straight to the town inn to rest. Hevedke rented a room for Tzeitl and her family in the house of an old widow. Every day, he escorted Nachman and Ruchel to the market to buy fresh vegetables for soup. For the sake of his sick daughter, Tevye relied on the poet's help, but he was careful to keep him a safe distance from Hava. Since there was no kosher meat in the town, Tevye bought a chicken and slaughtered it himself. If the doctor's medicine couldn't cure his daughter, certainly some chicken soup would.
It was agreed that Ben Zion would continue on to Odessa, another three days away, to arrange for ocean passage to Palestine. Tevye handed him a sizable share of the money he had received from the sale of his house, so that Ben Zion could buy them tickets. Before their departure, the Zionists returned to the inn for one last, hearty non-kosher repast.
Goliath said he was staying behind to travel with Tevye. Though the giant wouldn't admit it, he had fallen in love with Tzeitl. Carrying the sick woman in his arms through the snow had stirred his big heart. Though he had barely exchanged a word with her, he felt like her guardian angel, duty bound to protect her. He played with her children and took them on rides through the woods on his back. At night, instead of sleeping in the warm corner which Shmuelik, Hillel, and Nachman had found in a barn, he slept on the porch of the old widow's house, just to be closer to Tzeitl.
Although in principle Ben Zion shunned alcohol as the brew which kept the Russian peasantry content in their servitude and squalor, before setting out on the next leg of their journey, he allowed himself several glasses of wine during lunch. His head was happily spinning when his comrades led him out of the inn. Bat Sheva stood across the road, waiting to wish him good-bye. Catching a glimpse of her, he told his friends that he would rendezvous with them at the outskirts of town. Then with a wink, he walked off toward the girl.
"I came to say farewell and to wish you good luck," she said.
"Don't tell me farewell," he said. "Tell me L'Hitraot. It's Hebrew for `Until we see each other again.'"
"Do you really want to see me again?" she asked.
"What kind of question is that?" he answered. "Listen. I have something to tell you. But wait, we can't talk here on the street. Come with me now."
Quickly, he led her away from the houses and into the woods. When they were out of sight of the village, he took her hand and pushed her against the trunk of a tree. He looked into her eyes with a gaze so bold that it made her gasp for breath.
"I have a confession to make," he told her.
Bat Sheva stood paralyzed, waiting for him to continue.
"I have the feeling that... I am falling in love with you."
"I feel the same way," Bat Sheva answered.
"Our beliefs are so different," he said.
"They are not so different as you think," she replied, blushing under his gaze.
"If you mean that, then show me. Let me give you a kiss."
Bat Sheva trembled. A kiss was sacred. A kiss was a gesture of love. Just being alone with a man was forbidden. Her heart pounded so loudly, she felt certain that the whole village would hear. Before she could say no, Ben Zion bent his head down and he kissed her. When their lips touched, she tasted the pungent sweetness of wine.
"You've been drinking," she accused, pushing him away.
"Since when is drinking a sin?" he retorted, grabbing her and kissing her again.
"Do you really love me?" she asked.
"Yes, yes, I love you madly," he vowed.
"Will you marry me?" she asked
"Yes, yes," he promised. "I will marry you a thousand times over."
"You swear?" she asked.
“On the Holy Bible," he told her.
"Oh, Ben Zion, I'm so happy," she said.
"Well I'm not," a deep, husky voice interrupted. It was the voice of her Father.
"Tata!" she cried.
Tevye seemed to tower above them, clutching a stick in his hand. When Ben Zion looked up, all he saw was a shadow standing in front of the sun. The stick slammed into his back. Whack! Whack! Whack! Crying out, the Zionist raised his hands to block the blows to his head. Bat Sheva cried out and wept.
"I'll kill you!" Tevye bellowed. "I'll kill you if I ever catch you with my daughter again!"
Tevye landed a kick to Ben Zion's butt, and the Rasputin ran off like a thief. When Tevye turned to his daughter, his eyes were ablaze.
"Is the Almighty blind that He doesn't see what goes on in the forest?" he shouted. "Your dead mother is shamed!"
Red in the face, the girl couldn't look at her father.
Tevye growled. The Zionists be damned. Maybe he was making a dreadful mistake in following them so blindly. A cloud of worry filled his head. What would become of his daughters?
Kislev 12, 5772, 12/8/2011
The goal of Jewish History is that the exiled Jews abandon the foreign lands of their wanderings and return to Eretz Yisrael to build a State dedicated to G-d and Torah, a gradually developing process that our Sages compare to the dawning of a new day, whose light appears little by little and grows ever stronger as it rises over the mountains (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:1).
Tevye in the Promised Land
A HUSBAND FOR RUCHEL
The next morning, Hevedke was waiting out on the road when Tevye and his Zionist entourage took up their journey. The two men stared at one another in silence.
"He has more guts than I thought," Tevye brooded, giving the reins of the wagon a whip.
Hava was hoping that her father would give Hevedke a chance to prove his sincerity, but there was no sign of conciliation in her father's angry expression. Hava herself was confused. Her heart was torn between a man she still loved, and the realization that the bond between them could never be sanctified as long as he belonged to the tormentors of her people. It wasn't enough that Hevedke was ashamed of the evil decrees of the Czar. Unless he tore up all ties to his religion and his past, he would always remain one of them. Even if he were to fast a hundred days to prove his love for Hava, that would not be enough. Hava knew that he loved her. He had to prove he loved God by taking on the yoke of her people. Though Hava felt compassion and pity for Hevedke, she didn't plead with her father to accept him into the fold. If she had listened to her parents in the first place, the whole painful situation would never have occurred. Now she wanted to make amends for the breach she had rent in the family. She wanted to be faithful to her father. She wanted to show her mother in Heaven that she was sorry for the pain she had caused. So sitting beside her father as their wagon drove down the road, Hava fought off her desire to gaze at the man she had lived with only a short time before. She stared forward at the future as if Hevedke did not exist, as if they had never crossed paths, trusting that one way or the other, God would restore peace to her torn, aching heart.
That evening they reached the Jewish shtetl of Branosk. The ultra-religious community was smaller than the Jewish community of Anatevka, but the sights, sounds, and smells were the same. The same wooden porches, tiled roofs, and shutters. The same sagging, weathered barns which stood erect by a miracle. The same aroma of horses, chickens, and soups. The same beards and black skullcaps on the men, and kerchiefs and shawls on the women. Even the fiery red sunset had been stolen from Anatevka and pasted over the Branosk forest.
The villagers rushed out of their houses when they heard that pioneers on the way to the Promised Land had arrived in the shtetl. Children and teenagers crowded around Tevye's wagon. They all wore the caps and long curling peyes sidelocks which distinguished the Branosk community. Apparently, they had seen other Zionists, but the sight of Tevye, a bearded, God fearing Jew among them, was a novelty to be sure. Ben Zion jumped up on a porch and tried to deliver a spirited harangue, inviting the townspeople to throw off the yoke of the Russians and join them in rebuilding the ancient Jewish homeland, but he only drew heckles and a rotten tomato. Tevye and his daughters attracted a far larger crowd.
Where was he going, they wanted to know? To Eretz Yisrael, he answered, the Land of Israel. With the heretics, they asked? Tevye said that by accident they were traveling together, for safety along the way. But, Tevye assured them, his family was headed for a settlement more religious than the city of Vilna – in God's Chosen Land. What could be better than that? For hadn't they heard? The great Baron Rothschild, may he live several lifetimes, was building "frum," God fearing communities throughout the Holy Land. Everyone who came got a villa and acres of orchards bursting with olives, pomegranates, fig trees, and dates.
People bombarded Tevye with questions. He answered with authority, as if he truly knew, as if he were the Baron's agent, auctioning off parcels of land. When a question came his way for which he did not have an answer, he responded with a verse or two of Torah. One thing was clear – the expulsion which had hit Anatevka was sure to reach Branosk. Surely they had heard that the Czar's Cossacks had been thundering throughout Russia, slaughtering thousands of Jews. Now was the time to flee for their lives. Now was the time to stop praying for God to take them to Zion, and let their feet do the talking instead.
"APIKORSUS!" roared the Rabbi when he heard Tevye's words. "Heresy! Slander! Blasphemy and falsehood!" he cried. "Throw the Zionist sinner out of this holy house!"
Before the milkman knew it, he was lifted off his feet and whisked out of the synagogue, where he had been taken to join in the afternoon prayer. Tevye heard the minchah service begin as he tumbled down the stairs: "Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house," the worshippers declared. Outside, Tevye sat on the ground and brushed off the dust. What had he said to so anger the Rabbi? What had he done wrong? Against whom had he sinned?
When Tevye walked back to his wagon, Ruchel was missing. Tzeitl reported that a young man from the village had unharnessed Tevye's horse and taken it to the barn for a feeding. Apparently, he had taken Ruchel with him. Tevye's eyebrows rose in surprise. Of all of his daughters, Ruchel most resembled his Golda. Not only in looks, but in her practicality and down-to-earth wisdom. The girl's heart was firmly attached to the ground, not adrift in the clouds. Unlike his other daughters, Ruchel followed her head and not her emotions. If she went off with a strange man to a barn, it wasn't just to feed Tevye's old horse some oats.
In truth, the moment Nachman had appeared at the wagon and offered to feed their road-weary nag, Ruchel had seen something special. The youth spoke with his head slightly angled, looking modestly toward the ground, so he wouldn't gaze at the women. His tone was quiet, almost timid, and he blushed when Ruchel addressed him. And while his features weren't classically handsome, his eyes were the most beautiful blue that Ruchel had ever seen in her life.
"The horse gets a little nervous with strangers," Ruchel had said. "I had better come with you."
Tzeitl and Hava had stared at each other without saying a word. For one thing, in all of God's creation, there didn't exist a more docile animal than their father's faithful horse, and even more wondrous, they had never seen their sister converse with a member of the masculine sex.
The young man was clearly embarrassed to enter the barn alone with the girl. Sensing his discomfort, Ruchel kept a distance, standing in the open barn door. Without speaking, he filled up a trough with oats and started to rub down the horse with a brush.
"My name is Ruchel," she said. The bashful young man continued caring for the animal without glancing up at the girl.
"What's your name?" Ruchel asked.
"Nachman," he answered.
"Aren't you going to daven with the others in the shul?"
"I have already prayed in the yeshiva," he answered.
"We are journeying to Palestine," she said.
"Yes. I heard. I would very much like to go to the Holy Land too."
"Why don't you?" the girl asked.
The shy scholar didn't answer. "With God's help," he said softly.
"God helps those who help themselves," she retorted. "When we are sick, God forbid, we pray for God to heal us, but we also go to the doctor. We pray for God to provide us with food, but we go out and work for a living. It isn't enough to pray for God to take us back home to our own Land, we have to make the effort ourselves."
The youth looked up in surprise upon hearing her passionate words.
"You sound like one of the Zionists," he said.
"What's wrong with the Zionists? I like them."
Nachman didn't answer. Suddenly, his blue eyes sparkled like the heavens, as if he could see the borders of the Promised Land beyond the walls of the barn.
"Did you know that all of our prayers first travel to Jerusalem before they go up to Heaven?" he asked. "And that everyone who takes four steps in the Holy Land is guaranteed life in the World to Come."
"Then why don't you go and live there yourself?"
Embarrassed by the pointed question, the young man blushed and lowered his head. "My father won't let me," he said.
"Aren't you old enough to do what you want?"
Before Nachman could try to explain, a dark silhouette appeared in the door of the barn. It was Tevye. He stared at his daughter and nodded for her to go back to the wagon. Then with long, purposeful steps, he strode into the barn. He nodded at the young lad and patted his horse on the rump.
"I am grateful for your kindness," Tevye said.
"May your coming be a blessing," the pious youth said.
"May our going also be a blessing," Tevye answered. "I have been a Jew all of my life, but until today, I have never had a rabbi throw me out of a synagogue dedicated to the worship of God."
The young man blushed. He hung his head toward the ground. "My father probably mistook you for a Zionist."
"Your father!" Tevye said in surprise. The boy didn't answer. He bent down to lift the empty bucket of oats and replace it with a bucket of water. A rabbi's son, Tevye thought. A Torah scholar, no doubt. And a e mench to boot, who went out of his way to perform acts of kindness toward strangers. Tevye approved. It was a suitable match for his Ruchela. If the lad cared for his daughter half as much as he had cared for Tevye's horse, then the girl had found an excellent husband.
"Since when is loving the Land of Israel a sin?" Tevye asked.
"It isn't a sin if you love Torah too," the boy answered. "My father isn't against Zion. He is against those who throw off the yoke of the Torah and go there. He is afraid of their influence on the minds of our youth."
Just then, Ben Zion appeared in the entrance.
"Greetings fellow comrades," the flamboyant Zionist exclaimed.
"Greetings," Tevye said. "Were your ears just burning? We were just now speaking of you."
"In a complimentary fashion, I trust. Though there are those who say that it is better to have bad things spoken about you, than to have nothing said about you at all. I understand we have been invited to leave this holy conclave of Branosk," the capless adventurer quipped.
"We have a journey to continue," Tevye said.
"Then we should start out before dark," Ben Zion suggested.
"Tell the others I'm coming," Tevye answered.
Sensing that he was interrupting the discussion in the barn, Ben Zion dramatically bowed and departed. Tevye slipped the reins of his horse over the animal's head.
"You are invited to join us," he told the Rabbi's son. "I am a widower with unmarried daughters, and the companionship of a Torah scholar like you will help shorten the journey. As our Rabbis teach, when two men discuss matters of Torah, the Divine Presence is with them."
The youth did not answer.
"In addition, the Baron Rothschild has extended an open invitation to all Jews to join his religious yishuvim-settlements in the Holy Land, and as his representative on this journey, I hereby extend his kind offer to you."
"I thank you," the lad said. "I will think about it. But now I have to go home."
"We will be camped down the road," Tevye said.
"May your camp be guarded by angels, just as they guarded our forefather Jacob as he journeyed back to the Land of his fathers."
Tevye's horse snorted as if to answer "Amen." The men parted ways, and Tevye returned to the wagon. As he hitched up the horse, he glanced up at Ruchel who was anxiously waiting to learn what had transpired between them.
"I invited your new friend to join us," Tevye said.
"And?" Ruchel asked.
"As our Rabbis say, `Many are the thoughts in a man's heart, but it is the counsel of the Lord which will stand.'"
"What does that mean?" Bat Sheva asked.
"It means I left my crystal ball back in Anatevka. In the meantime, like in the story of Abraham and Lot, we are parting ways with our brethren in this village."
With his rump still hurting from his fall down the synagogue stairs, Tevye flicked the reins of the wagon and the pioneers once again took up their journey.
"If the hospitality in this village is an example of religious behavior, I'm glad I'm a heretic," Ben Zion said.
"They believe they are doing the right thing," Tevye sorrowfully answered.
"So does the Czar," Naftali quipped.
"That's awful," Tzeitl exclaimed. "How can you dare compare them?”
"What's the difference?" Peter answered. "A Russian boot in the rear, or a Jewish boot in the rear, it hurts the same, eh, Tevye?"
The milkman didn't answer. He gazed forward into the darkening evening. Only Ruchel stared back down the road hoping that Nachman would come running after their wagon. But no one appeared. They turned a bend, leaving the shtetl behind. A ditch in the road jolted the wagon and Ruchel's dreams of a husband. She sighed and faced forward, but then, out of a corner of her eye, she saw a figure materialize out of the shadows of the forest. A beat of excitement rushed through her heart, but for naught. The tall, upright figure wasn't Nachman, but the indefatigable Hevedke.
"Don't worry," Hava said, sensing her sister's thoughts. "Your turn under the marriage chuppah will come."
When Tevye spotted the Russian poet, he growled.
"It is a sin to murder," he said, glancing up to the treetops, "So why must You send this devil to tempt me?"
Before long, they came to a clearing by the side of the road and agreed to make camp for the night. The men gathered wood while the women arranged a frugal meal, and once again two fires were lit, one for the Zionists, and one for Tevye and his family, a modest distance away. Everyone huddled around the warming blazes to ward off the evening chill, but the Almighty had other plans for the night. A burst of lightening flashed in the sky. Thunder rumbled in the treetops. Rain poured down from the heavens like brimstone. Within moments, the campfires were quenched. Tevye gathered his brood under the wagon, while their companions scattered for the shelter of trees. The rain pounded on the canvas stretched over Golda's coffin. A bolt of lightening lit up the forest. A tree cracked in half and toppled to the ground with a crash. Little Moishe and Hannie started to cry.
"Fear not my treasures," their grandfather said. "Hasn't the Almighty promised not to destroy the world again with a flood? And things could be worse. We could be standing outside in the rain like our companions."
"Or like Hevedke," Hava added.
"A torrent should wash him away," Tevye said.
"Why do you want him to drown, Zaida?" Moishe asked. "He's married to Hava."
"He is married to Hava like my horse is married to a fish," Tevye answered.
"How can a horse marry a fish?" the young child asked.
"It can't," Tevye answered. "Horses marry horses, and fish marry fish."
Just then, someone came running toward the clearing.
"Shalom, shalom," he called out.
It was Nachman. He was carrying a bulging handbag in one hand and a suitcase in the other. He bent down under the wagon, said a hasty hello, and left his belongings with Ruchel.
"Take care of my books," he said and hurried off toward the trees where Ben Zion was waiting to greet him.
"Welcome, welcome, son of Israel!" the speechmaker exclaimed. "I trust you have come to enlist in our lofty mission."
"With the help of the Almighty," Nachman responded.
"Whether He helps or He doesn't, it's all the same to us. Just let Him not interfere."
Tevye crawled out from under his wagon. He threw the cover off of their chest of belongings and held up a bottle of vodka. "To Zion!" he shouted.
Like the meshugennehs they were, the crazy Zionists joined hands and started to dance in the rain. "Zion, Zion, Zion," they sang in the black Russian woods. Ben Zion dragged Nachman into their whirl. With a healthy slug of vodka warming his belly, Tevye joined them. He grasped Nachman's hand, and with the joyous simcha of a wedding, they swirled round and round in the mud. Ben Zion held the bottle of vodka to the young rabbi's lips. The bottle changed hands until it was finished. The ground spun. Trees and clouds swirled around and around as they danced.
"With your permission," Nachman said to Tevye. "I would like to marry your daughter."
"Permission granted," Tevye agreed.
With a cheer, the dancing continued. The women were all giggles under the wagon. Everyone congratulated Ruchel and showered her with mazal tovs and kisses. Discreetly, they joined in with the traditional wedding song, "Let soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the call of the groom, and the song of the bride...."
"Thank the good Lord," Tevye said when he finally crawled back under the wagon. His rain-drenched clothing clung to his flesh. "Tonight, a miracle has transpired. The son of a rabbi wants to marry Tevye's daughter."
Ruchel kissed him. "I am so happy, Tata."
Suddenly, Tevye raised himself up with a jerk and whacked his head on the planks of the wagon. "I forgot to tell your mother," he said. Quickly, he scrambled back outside in the downpour. He bent over the coffin and whispered the good news to his wife, Golda.
"Our Ruchela has found herself the son of a rabbi," he whispered. "You can rest in peace, my Golda. Our luck is finally changing."
But then again, a man can never be sure. As the Talmud advices, a man should keep good fortune a secret lest the evil eye glance his way. Suddenly, galloping horses thundered by in the night, a stone throw away from the Jews. Tevye recognized the sword-wielding figures of Cossacks. His family sat frozen, holding their breaths until the rumbling cavalcade passed. The darkness of the forest had saved them.
Within minutes, Tevye was asleep, snuggled between his daughters. Nachman fell asleep in the arms of the Zionists. Only Ruchel remained awake with her thoughts of a wedding in Israel, and of the gown she would soon need to sew.
The first time that she heard their horse sneeze, she thought it was from the rain and the chill. The animal neighed restlessly. Its ears straightened, and it started to beat the ground with its hooves. Then a smell of smoke filled Ruchel's nostrils, causing her to sneeze also. Yells came from the forest. It was Hevedke.
"Fire!" he shouted. "Fire! Branosk is burnt to the ground!"
"Tata," Ruchel called, shaking her father. "Tata."
Tevye woke up and scrambled to his feet. Quickly, he ran to the road. In the distance, he could see clouds of smoke. The rain had ceased, and a towering fire reached up to the treetops. Ben Zion and his comrades ran past him. Tevye hurried back to the campsite, threw the reins on his horse, and swung onto its back. Nachman ran over and Tevye extended a hand, lifting him up alongside him. They rode off, galloping back down the road. Within minutes, they were back in the village. Pillars of fire blazed all around them. Houses were burnt to the ground. People in their nightgowns lay slaughtered in the street. Others ran in helter-skelter confusion, trying to douse out flames with buckets of water. Crying children searched for their parents. Nachman jumped down from the horse and ran toward his house. Tevye bent down by a man who was pierced through with a saber.
"Cossacks," the Jew whispered and died.
Down the main road of the shtetl, the barn where Tevye had met Nachman caved in and collapsed. A man staggered out of the burning synagogue, clutching a Sefer Torah. Lungs choking with smoke, he handed the sacred scroll to Tevye. Hevedke appeared by his side. The fire's reflection flashed over his face. He tried to speak, but couldn't find words. Ben Zion ran up alongside them.
"They didn't want to come with us to Palestine," he said, and he ran off to help with the wounded.
Tevye shuddered and embraced the Torah scroll in his arms. By a twist of fortune, his family had escaped the massacre. If they had spent the night in the village, they too would have been victims. And if the rain hadn't extinguished their campfire, the Czar's soldiers would have set upon them. Why had the Almighty protected them, Tevye wondered? Because they were headed for the Promised Land?
Clutching the holy Torah, he headed for the house that Nachman had entered. He climbed the porch stairs and pushed open the door. Dozens of books were scattered on the floor. Bookcases had been toppled. A menorah lay shattered. Tevye set the Torah down on a table. Nachman appeared in the door of the bedroom, his face as white as the kittel worn by the cantor on Yom Kippor.
"Blessed art Thou our Lord, King of the universe, the true Judge," the young man whispered.
Tevye stepped to the door of the bedroom and peered inside. The boy's father lay sprawled on the floor, his white beard reddened with blood.
"Fear not, my son," a woman's voice said.
It was only then that Tevye noticed the old woman standing in a corner. She clutched a shawl tightly around her thin figure and gazed across the room with an open-eyed stare. Tevye could tell she was blind.
"Before your father died, he gave you his blessing," she said. Her eyes seemed to shine as if she were gazing at an apparition which they could not see. "And he asked that you pray for his soul at the holy Wall in Jerusalem."
Nachman stared at his mother in silence. One of his brothers ran in the house.
"Your father died with the Shema on his lips," the old woman said. "The house filled with light, and an angel escorted his soul up to Heaven. The prophet Elijah was waiting with a chariot of fire. Your father glanced down at me and said not to worry. Then, with a serene smile, he disappeared into a gateway of light. May his memory be for a blessing."
Kislev 11, 5772, 12/7/2011
I can’t help but comment on a news item that appeared two days ago on INN. In an effort to attract Israelis who were jack-in-the-boxed out of the Land of Israel, and who have descended to live out their days in America, the Government of Israel began a media campaign to lure them back home. In the ads, a grandfather in Israel speaks to his Americanized grandchild on the telephone and asks if she knows what holiday is coming. “Christmas,” she answers. The message is clear. If you raise your children in a gentile county like America, there’s a good chance that they will come to enjoy Xmas like all the Xtians around them. It sounds like an effective campaign, but apparently many American Jews were offended, including the head of a supposedly large Jewish organization, who insisted that the ad campaign, even though intended for Israelis, offended the sensibilities of his Jewish constituents. As to be expected, Bibi caved in to the pressure and canceled the ad campaign. Of course, we know why the anti-assimilation commercial caused a stir. Many American Jews have non-Jewish spouses, who grew up celebrating Xmas, and want to pass on the festivities to their children. So, in the absurd world of the exile, getting down on Xmas offends many Jews, even though the holiday celebrates the birth of the founder of a religion which strove to destroy Judaism and wipe out the Jewish People.
And now, back to Tevye.
Tevye in the Promised Land
"THOU SHALL NOT MURDER"
The Zionists were happy to have Tevye and his family join them. Feeling no pain from the vodka, Tevye invited their young leader to sit alongside him in the wagon. In a feeling of brotherhood, he even offered him a drink. Ben Zion refused. Alcohol, he said, was a drug which the wealthy class used to keep the peasants content in their religious stupor. He and his friends were drunk with the spirit of freedom, so who needed vodka? But if their distinguished traveling companion needed a drink, then by all means, he should imbibe – it was a day of emancipation, a time of independence, a cause for celebration.
“Emancipation from what?" Tevye asked.
"From the yoke of the Czar."
"Amen," Tevye said, taking another hearty drink.
Tzeitl reached out to take the bottle away from her father.
"Honor thy father," Tevye warned, holding the vodka out of her reach. "Didn't the angels inquire of Abraham, `Where is your wife?' A woman's place is out of sight, a queen in her palace, not with the men in the front seat of the wagon."
"We believe that women should be liberated too," Ben Zion said.
"You believe in a lot of foolish nonsense," Tevye answered. "But you have an excuse – you're still a young whelp."
"Wasn't Elazar ben Azariah even younger than I am when he was chosen to head the Sanhedrin?"
"Oh, I see I have the privilege of sharing my seat with a scholar of Torah. I truly am honored," Tevye said.
"Just because I go with my head uncovered, don't think that I haven't learned. My father sent me to heder, and I was quite a good student until I discovered that the world had entered new times."
"Hasn't King Solomon taught us that there is nothing new under the sun?" Tevye asked.
"I can quote Scripture too, but don't you see that it's all an old-fashioned fable which doesn't apply anymore?"
Tevye pulled on the reins until his horse came to a halt. "There will be no words of heresy in this wagon. While it may lack a roof, this is, for the time being, our humble abode, and Tevye, the son of Schneur Zalman, will not tolerate blasphemy in the presence of his family. So if you cannot control your speech, please step down from my wagon."
Ben Zion smiled. "No problem, old man," he said. "While I am unable to agree with your beliefs, I respect both you and your beautiful daughters. Besides, evening is approaching, and you probably would like to pray to your God. In the meantime, my comrades and I will look for a suitable camp site."
"My beautiful daughters," Tevye mumbled when the insolent scoundrel climbed down from the wagon. He would have felt safer if he were traveling with thieves. This free-thinking Herzl was cut from the very same cloth as his son-in-law Perchik. Why, Tevye wondered, had he turned a deaf ear to the Rabbi?
They camped in the woods by the roadside. Tevye unhitched his horse and fed him a bucket of oats. Then he spread out blankets and mats for his daughters under the wagon. The father intended to keep guard under the stars, where he could keep an eye on the Zionists. The family enjoyed a modest meal of black bread and potatoes which Tevye baked in the campfire. A swig of vodka helped to wash down the food. While they ate, Tevye's eye kept wandering to the flickering light of a campfire on the other side of the road.
He's following us like a dog," Tevye said.
"Please, Tata," Hava appealed. "Don't talk about Hevedke like that."
"I see the devil still has you under his spell."
"I'm not under a spell. If I were, I wouldn't be here. But Hevedke is a good man. It isn't his fault that he was born one of them."
Tevye took a big bite out of his potato. Grumbling, he tilted his head back and poured some more vodka into his belly.
She's right, he thought. It wasn't the youth's fault that he had been created that way, just as it wasn't Tevye's fault that he had been born a Jew. But just as Tevye had to suffer his fate, then let this Galagan suffer his fate too. How long was he planning on following them? Till he drove Tevye out of his mind?
"If our father, Abraham, were here," Ben Zion said pointedly from his seat by the campfire, "I bet he would invite a fellow traveler over to join in his meal."
"He is not one of us," Tevye answered.
"That never stopped Abraham," Ben Zion responded. "Didn't he bring everyone he met under the roof of his tent to spread the knowledge of God? After all, are not all men created in God's image?"
"There are men, and there are men who look like men, but behave like wild beasts."
"Oh, Tata," Tzeitl said. "You know there are lots of exceptions."
"Like our wonderful Russian friends who threw us out of our village."
"Which one of your daughters is he in love with?" Ben Zion asked.
Tevye stood up. "What business is it of yours?" he demanded.
It was Naftali, the singer, who answered. "He just wants to know which of your roses are still up for grabs."
His comrades all laughed. Tevye growled. One of the group, a mamzer named Peter, jumped to his feet and said he was going to invite Hevedke to join them. With a laugh, he started to walk toward the road, but Tevye grabbed him. With a powerful grasp, he spun him around and shoved him into the fire. The Zionist landed on the burning branches with a yelp. Quickly, his comrades pulled him out of the flames.
Tevye stood glaring.
"That's the last time anyone mentions either that uncircumcised Philistine or my daughters! Is that understood?"
Even the usually garrulous Ben Zion was silent. Tevye walked back to his wagon. It was a pity, he thought, that the brunt of his anger had to fall on a Jew. How much better it would have been if he had pulled the Russian Police Commissioner off of his horse and broken his bones instead. Or if he were to set Hevedke on fire and wish him a final good riddance.
His daughters didn't dare open their mouths when their father returned to their side. Tevye sat down and leaned back against a wheel of the wagon. He was tired from the vodka and from the strains of the day. The fire across the road had waned in brightness, but the silhouette of the Russian poet could still be seen against the trees of the forest. Tevye's eyes closed in the darkness. Exhaustion swept through his body. Before long, he was snoring. Ben Zion called over in a discreet, polite voice, asking him to be quiet, but the milkman didn't hear. Hodel gave her father a nudge, but he was deep in some other world, dreaming of a carriage pulled by a team of white horses.
Tevye only awoke after everyone else had fallen asleep. His daughters were huddled in blankets under the wagon. The Zionists dozed in the warmth of the campfire's embers. When Tevye was certain that everyone was sleeping, he quietly stood up, opened the chest in the wagon, and pulled out his slaughterer's knife. Careful not to step on branches or twigs, he walked across the road toward the wisps of smoke rising amongst the pine trees. Hevedke was sleeping. His features were serene and innocently youthful. A small smile, like a baby's, was curled on his lips. A stubble of blondish red hair covered his cheeks, as if he were growing a beard. And a hand-sewn yarmulka had fallen off his head to the ground. Bending down to lift it, Tevye recognized Hava's skilled stitch in the traditional Jewish skullcap.
When Tevye let out a roar, Hevedke jerked upright, still half asleep. Tevye grasped him around his chest and lay the blade of the knife gently on his throat.
"This is a slaughterer's knife," he said. "Its blade is kept extra sharp in order to kill the animal quickly so it won't have to suffer needless pain."
"Thou shall not murder," Hevedke whispered in terror.
"That's as much as you know," Tevye said. "It is also written that if a thief enters your house to kidnap your daughter, then you are allowed to kill him."
Tevye scraped the steel of the knife along his prisoner's neck.
“I want to be a Jew," the young Russian vowed in a hush.
"And I want to be Baron Rothschild with a carriage pulled by four fancy zebras," the milkman responded.
"Give me a chance," Hevedke pleaded.
"Just like the chance which your Czar has given to us. The chance to flee and never return. My daughter is finished with you and never wants to see you again. Tomorrow, when I look back down the road, I don't want to see you following us. Is that understood?"
"Yes," Hevedke whispered as the blade pressed into his skin.
Tevye let the youth go. The Russian fell to his side and gasped. The milkman stood up in satisfaction and started to walk back toward the road. But now it was Hevedke's turn. His voice pierced Tevye's back as if he were holding a knife of his own.
"Wherever thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God."
"Oy vay," Tevye thought. Another Bible scholar! It was maddening enough that the Zionist, Ben Zion, could spout verses like water. Now this blond-headed Gorky was quoting the Book of Ruth. Soon Tevye's horse would be talking!
"I love Hava," Hevedke said. "And I always will. Where she diest, I will die, and there I will be buried."
"Gevalt," Tevye thought. "Do I have a problem."
Without turning, he walked back to the road. Stars sparkled high over the trees. What future did the constellations hold in store for him? After all, he reasoned, trying to see the good side, a gentile could convert. It said so in the Torah. Wasn't Ruth, the Moabite, the great grandmother of King David? And if you want to talk about converts, Rabbi Akiva, the son of a convert, became the greatest Torah scholar in history. On the other hand, being in love with a pretty Jewish girl did not make someone a Jew. There were rules when it came to converting, like with everything else. If Hevedke Galagan really wanted to enter the Covenant of Abraham, he would have to pass the test. And the first proof of a Jew was suffering. He would have to prove himself beyond any shadow of a doubt before Tevye would let him speak to his daughter.