Tevye in the Promised Land
Tzvi FishmanBefore making Aliyah to Israel, Tzvi Fishman was a Hollywood screenwriter....
As I related in my interview on INN’s wonderful and inspiring “Tamar Yonah Show,” when I was a youth in America, very far away from Judaism, I saw the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which struck a deep Jewish chord of my soul, just as it did to millions.
Though it was years later that I became a baal t’shuva, when the Almighty bestowed upon me the unsurpassable blessings of returning me to Torah and to the Land of Israel, I fondly remembered Tevye, as if he were calling out to me from the pain and darkness of exile, and I decided to use the talents the Almighty had given me to bring the beloved milkman from Anatevka to the Holy Land. So I wrote “Tevye in the Promised Land,” a sweeping, 600 page, historical family saga, set during the years just preceding World War One, at the time of the second aliyah of Jews from Russia. Through trial after trial, Tevye clings to his unquenchable faith and becomes a pioneer builder of the Land. The novel was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture, and is truly an inspiring and Torah-filled novel for the whole family. Many people have told me that their copies at home have become rumpled and coverless from having been read again and again by their kids.
The stories of Sholom Aleichem stand as masterpieces of Yiddish literature. Like a gifted artist, he painted his characters with a rich palette of colors. His Tevye lives on in the imagination, defying all duplication. Therefore, before beginning, the reader will have to excuse the present writer’s inadequacies and make do with the miniature Tevye which he has fashioned. However, if even a small part of this saga survives in the memory, then we are certain that Sholom Aleichem himself would be pleased and would forgive the liberties which the writer has taken with the lives he has created. Different times and different challenges bring out different qualities in people. Just as the Jewish People have undergone a transformation in the last hundred years, so too has Tevye. From being oppressed and downtrodden wanderers, without a permanent home of their own, the Jewish People, and Tevye with them, have struggled to achieve a new hope, stature, and independence in the Promised Land.
We are happy to begin serializing Part One of the novel, covering Tevye’s unforgettable journey to the Promised Land. If you enjoy it, please share it with your friends. And thank you for taking the time from your busy schedules to read it.
TEVYE IN THE PROMISED LAND
Nemerov, the district Police Commissioner, reared his horse in the air.
"Three days," he warned. "The Jews of Anatevka have three days to clear out of the area."
Tevye spat in disgust at the ground. "Three days," he brooded. Three days were all the authorities were giving the Jews to sell their belongings and evacuate the village they loved.
It didn't matter that the Jews had lived in Anatevka long before the Russians. The Police Commissioner didn't care that Tevye's great-grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, had cleared the forest by the lake and built the first house in the region. It didn't matter to the Czar and his soldiers that for as long as anyone could remember, the Jews had dutifully paid the taxes which had laden the Czar's table with food, while the pantries of the Jews remained bare. Nor did it matter to them that the Jews had cleaned out the stables of the Russian landowners, chopped their wood, sewed their garments, and delivered their milk. It didn't matter that a Jew would bow in respect when a Russian passed by, just to keep peace. Nor did it matter to them that the decent folk of Anatevka had no other place to call home. They were Jews, and that was that. The Czar, may he and his loved ones be cursed, had made his decision in the interests of the motherland. His order was final. The Jews had three days to get out. The butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers of Anatevka had been declared enemies of the state.
The usually goodhearted milkman spat in anger as the Police Commissioner and his soldiers rode out of the village. Then he looked up at the heavens and prayed.
"My Father and King, Whose ways are perfect and just, and Who does only good to His people – even if we can't understand Your kindness in throwing us out of our homes – after the Jews of Anatevka have journeyed to some faraway land, may the Czar and his Cossacks be swallowed up into the earth."
Not that all Russians were as wicked as the Czar and his soldiers. After all, the same God had created all people, Jews and Russians alike. Loving God meant loving all of His creation. But sometimes, it wasn't so easy. When someone kicks you out of your home, and treats you like dirt, it's hard for a man to be grateful.
Where would they go? Tevye didn't know. To Broditchov, in a distant part of Russia, where the pogroms had not yet struck? To America? To Poland? To the Land of Israel? To England? Or France? Tevye didn't have time to think up a plan. He would simply go along with everyone else in his village, wherever the Almighty led them. After all, had Abraham known his destination when God told him to leave his birthplace for some faraway land? As the Torah says, "And Abraham believed!" He trusted in God. Without complaining, he packed up his belongings and went.
Tevye's head kept spinning like it did when he drank too much vodka on Purim. There were so many things to arrange. How do you pack a lifetime into three days? Maybe he should have pulled the Police Commissioner off of his horse and given him a good thrashing. Maybe he should have rallied the Jews to rebellion. But what would that have accomplished? Reports of pogroms had reached them from all over Russia. Burnings, lootings, evacuations, the slaughter of innocent women and children. Just because they were Jews. How could they rebel? Did the Jews have an army? Did they have weapons with which they could fight? Was Tevye Judah the Maccabee, that he could rally people to follow him? What kind of resistance could the lowly Jews muster?
Tevye trudged back to his tiny castle, the home he had built long ago with more youthful hands. Was a house merely pieces of wood that a man could so easily sell it? What about all of the years, the memories, the joys, and the sorrows? True, Tevye thought, he could have survived just as well without all of the sorrows, but that was the life of a Jew. There were good times and bad. A house could be sold, but what about all of the memories engraved in the planks of the walls? Well, he supposed he could take his memories with him.
His daughters, Tzeitl, Bat Sheva, and Ruchel, stared at him as he sank into his chair. They had witnessed the degrading spectacle from the doorway of the house. They had watched the Commissioner rear his horse and almost knock their father down when Tevye had grabbed the stallion's reins in an effort to plead for his people.
"Where will we go?" Tzeitl asked.
"Where the Almighty leads us," Tevye answered.
"What will we do when we get there?" Bat Sheva, the youngest, inquired.
"What the Almighty decrees."
"Who will buy our house?" Tzeitl continued. Her two small children, Moishe and Hannie, ran over to hug her. They gazed up at their grandfather with big, searching eyes.
Tevye didn't have an answer.
"Is it true, Tata," Ruchel said. "Do we really have to leave Anatevka?"
Their questions were giving him a headache.
"Am I the Almighty?" he asked, slamming a hand on the table. "Do I decide what will be in the world? Do I stand in the place of the Creator that I know His secret plans?"
Tevye stood up from his chair. In painful situations, a father had to appear confident. When the ship was sinking, the captain had to keep firm command. In times of crisis, children needed the example of a father's unwavering faith.
"Enough pointless chatter," he said. "Haven't our Sages warned us that a man who talks at length with women brings calamity down on his head? The Almighty will provide for us, just as he has for the last four-thousand years. Pack up what you need for a journey. The rest I will sell in the city. In the meantime, your father has important business which he needs to transact."
In the barn, Tevye saddled his horse. He didn't have the heart to tell the creature the news. They had been companions through rainstorms and blizzards, through famine and blight. Together, they had shared life's burdens for thousands of miles. The old mare had been as faithful to him as his wife.
"Oy Golda," Tevye said, sighing at her memory. "May your soul rest in peace."
Finally, he understood why God, in His kindness, had taken Golda away from him while she was still in the prime of her life. To spare her the humiliation of being chased out of her house by the soldiers of the Czar.
In his crestfallen state, the journey into Yehupetz seemed to take longer than usual. Tevye's horse must have thought it strange to travel such a long distance in silence, but Tevye was not in the mood for conversation. His thoughts were so jumbled, his usual erudition escaped him. A lone verse of King David's Psalms echoed in his thoughts: "Some with chariots, and some with horses, but we in the name of the Lord our God call out." There was some consolation in that. Even if the authorities took away his house, his wagon, and even his horse, Tevye would still have his God.
Luckily, the milkman's mazel was with him. The tax collector agreed to buy Tevye's house. Out of all the Russians Tevye knew, the tax collector, Karamozky, was the man he most trusted. Like clockwork, every three months, on the first day of the week, the punctual civil servant would arrive in Anatevka. After paying his village taxes, Tevye would invite him for a drink in his house. The tax collector seemed to enjoy Tevye's discourses on the Bible, and Tevye cherished nothing more than drinking with someone who was willing to listen. Golda was less enthused.
"It's not your wisdom he likes," she said. "It's your vodka."
Like the experienced salesman he was, Tevye set forth the advantages of buying the house as if it were a splendid estate. The tax collector himself could testify to its sturdy construction. Hadn't he sat there himself, a guest of the family, year after year, through winter snowstorms and the summer's scorching sun? Tevye even advised Karamozky to buy six or seven houses in Anatevka. That way he would become a principle investor in the village, like a baron with properties all over town. Finally, Tevye begged him.
"If not for me, your devoted milkman, then for my daughters."
What was left of his daughters, Tevye mused. On the road back to Anatevka, waves of pent-up sorrow poured out of Tevye's heart. The milkman, had been known for his beautiful daughters. Seven more radiant creations could not be found. Their graces were praised all over the Pale. "Vanity of vanity, says Tevye, all is vanity." What did their beauty bring except endless trouble? Did not the wise Solomon teach, "Grace is deceptive, and beauty is vain – a woman who fears the Lord is the one to be praised?" It would have been better if his daughters had all looked like him, with his big shnoz of a nose, and not like his beautiful Golda. Not that Tevye was complaining. After all, who is a man to complain? Doesn't everything he have belong to his Maker? As it says, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord takes away."
What could a father do? He had tried to raise his seven daughters in the traditions of his people. Like the four legs which hold up a table, there were four pillars to every good Jewish home. The honor due the father and mother; the honor due the Sabbath; the honor of Torah; and the honor of God.
But modern times had crept in, and newfangled notions, like termites, had begun to eat away the foundations of the past. First, Tzeitl wanted to pick her own husband. The match her father had arranged with Lazar Wolf, the butcher, wasn't to her fancy! She was in love with the poor tailor, Motel! In love! What did his daughter know about love? Living with a woman for twenty-five years – that was love. When you worked all day like a slave, and came home smelling like your horse, and your wife opened her arms to you and clung to you in the night, even though you didn't know if there would be food to feed another child – that was love. Not the beating of the heart that comes from a walk through the woods.
"But I love him!" Tzeitl had pleaded, with tears in her eyes.
What was Tevye to do? Was his heart made out of stone? Besides, Motel was a good boy. A bumbling shlemiel of the highest order, that was for sure, but he could read from a prayerbook, and it was certain from the way he looked at Tzeitl that he would burn their candles down to the wick, sewing garments all through the night to provide a decent life for Tevye's daughter.
But as the saying goes – when the milk begins to go sour, it soon begins to stink. His second daughter, Hodel, was even more of a beauty. Her features were stately, like the portrait of a queen hanging on an aristocrat's wall. Her flight from the nest had been Tevye's own fault. He himself had brought the free-thinking Perchik into their home to teach her to read. While the father was in the barn, milking his cows, the young revolutionist was in the house, milking his daughter's dreams.
"A new Russia! A classless society! A worker's state! Equality for all!" the young communist preached.
Tevye got headaches listening to his speeches, but to Hodel, he was a prince on a gleaming white steed. And his stock only went up with the girl when he was arrested. The memory haunted Tevye even now – the picture of Hodel standing at the railroad station, waiting for the train which would take her away to her Perchik in exile on the other side of the Pale. What a long wagon-ride home it had been for Tevye, not knowing if he would ever see his beautiful daughter again!
But at least Perchik had been a Jew. Tevye and Golda could thank God for that. A Jew with his head screwed on backwards, but a circumcised member of Abraham's faith. Their third daughter, Hava, hadn't been so lucky. In Tevye's mind, she was dead. His third daughter had ceased to exist. When she ran off with the poet, Hevedke Galagan, that was the end. Here the line had to be drawn. Hodel's sister's marriage to the heretic Perchik was a tragedy which had to be mourned, but there was always the chance that the Almighty would hear Tevye's prayers and open the misguided youth's heart to the Torah. But that a heathen poet should marry his daughter? To allow such a breach would mark the doom of his people. It was a rejection of Tevye's whole life, of everything he had ever believed. A gentile was a gentile, and a Jew was a Jew. The two shall not come together in marriage. When a priest informed Tevye of the secret elopement, Tevye ripped his shirt in anguish, the sign of mourning, as if his daughter were dead. He tore her memory out of his heart. The name, Hava, was never, ever, to be mentioned in his house!
You would think that a milkman had been punished enough for his sins. But the Almighty was only beginning. Oy, Shprintza, Shprintza, my pretty little bird, thought Tevye, as his horse automatically stopped by the lake. Tevye recalled the scene as if it were yesterday. The crowd of people. The running. The screams. With a voice of doom in his heart, Tevye had jumped down from his wagon. The crowd made way as he bent down by the girl's body. Shprintza, drowned! Heartbroken over the suitor whom Tevye had brought to the house. The wealthy Aaronchik had stolen the tender girl's heart, and then disappeared like a thief, may both he and his mother be drowned!
The shock proved too much for Golda. A more valorous woman never existed, but after Shprintza died, a part of Golda went with her. The light in Golda's eyes seemed to flicker and fade. Tevye brought her flowers and a new dress from the best boutique in Yehupetz, but nothing could lessen her pain.
"Why did you squander our money?" she asked. "Couldn't I have sewn a dress just as pretty?"
That was his Golda. That was why he loved her. Tevye spoke soothing words, sang happy songs, and even romanced her with a dance around the table, but nothing could bring her out of her mourning. One tragedy after another proved too much for her heart. Hodel had left home to follow her Communist into exile. Hava had run away with a sweet-talking Chekhov. And now Shprintza had drowned. The strong Golda simply shattered like crystal. Late one evening, Tevye came home from work and found his wife sprawled dead on the floor.
Why had King David composed his Psalms if not to help mortal man find strength in trying times like these? As the Rabbis teach, God's ways are not our ways. Who is a milkman to understand the mysteries of heaven and earth? With every tragedy, the sun still rises in the morning, the rooster crows, the Jew has his prayers, the cows must be milked. In short, life must go on.
And where was Baylke, the most beautiful rose of Tevye's bouquet? Already in America, with her good-for-nothing Pedhotzer. Who could have foretold it? Before her wedding, Baylke was certain she had found the key to the Garden of Eden on earth. And so, to be truthful, had Tevye. Wasn't Pedhotzer fantastically wealthy? A builder of houses, bridges, and roads. His house was a castle. His yard an estate. He had two silver carriages, with a team of Arabian horses for each. People said there was a servant in every room in his mansion. Even his ashtrays were gold. Tevye knew. He saw them himself, on the day Pedhotzer summoned him to appear at his home.
The extraordinary invitation came several months after the wedding. Tevye had not seen his little girl since the happy, regal affair. Finally, a messenger arrived with a call from her king. Pedhotzer wanted to see him. Finally, Tevye thought, his fortune was changing. His daughter had not forgotten her poor, aging father. Surely she had secured him a job of prestige and authority, with a servant, a driver, elegant new clothes, and summer vacations at Boiberik Lake with all of the other rich Jews from the city.
"Tevye," he said. "I know I can talk straightforwardly with you, because I know you are an honest man. You know I am wealthy, and I intend to give your daughter all of the treasures on earth. I have been informed from very private sources that the great Baron Edmond de Rothschild is interested in doing business with me. In fact, I expect him to come for a visit to our house very soon."
Tevye was anxiously waiting to hear the fantastic job offer.
"Tell me," his new son-in-law continued, "how do you think the Baron would react if he heard that my wife's father is a milkman?"
He said the word milkman as if it were something disgusting. Baylke stood by his side, looking like royalty in a dress the likes of which Tevye's poor Golda had never even seen in her dreams.
"That is why I think it would be better for everyone if you were to take a long trip to Eretz Yisrael. I'll pay all of your travel expenses, of course, and even help get you started in a business if you decide you want to stay there."
Tevye felt as if a demon had snuck up behind him and stuck a knife in his back. Pedhotzer wanted to send him away to the Land of Israel! And Baylke, his warmhearted Baylke, stood silently at her rich husband's side, staring at her father with a gaze as cold as a winter day. What had happened to her? What had transformed his sweet, loving princess into such a statue-like queen?
As Tevye's friend, Sholom Aleichem, would say, to make a long story short, money is not always a blessing. Carrying his wounded pride as nobly as he could, Tevye made his way to the door of the mansion. As things turned out, that was the closest he had gotten to Jerusalem. The winds of revolution in Russia changed the future for everyone. Suddenly, Pedhotzer's government contracts were canceled. His fortunes plunged. His building empire collapsed. Baron Rothschild found a different partner. Almost overnight, Pedhotzer was penniless. Baylke had to sell her silk dresses and furs to help buy them passage to America. Her husband was humiliated, just as he had humiliated Tevye. Measure for measure, the wise Rabbis teach. The doings of man do not go unnoticed. An Eye sees, and a Hand records. Not that Tevye felt any great satisfaction. True, his insult had been repaid, but at the expense of his daughter. Who knew if he would ever see his Baylke again?
At least Tevye still had his babies, Bat Sheva and Ruchel, to comfort him in his solitude. Both were as pretty as their sisters. They had not yet found husbands, though their turn under the wedding canopy had come. No doubt they had postponed their own happiness to look after their poor, widowed father. Not that Tevye needed any special attention. After all, he was a man, not a horse. But that was the nature of his daughters. They were kindhearted, just like their mother had been.
Not only were Bat Sheva and Ruchel still with him, but Tzeitl, the eldest, had returned to Tevye's house after her poor tailor of a husband dropped dead. Motel was taken from the world by the croup, his reward for mending clothes night and day in his damp basement workroom, in order to buy a decent piece of meat to honor the Sabbath.
Tevye laughed. Joke of all jokes. All of a sudden, with Motel's untimely departure, grandfather Tevye, the "Zaida" became Tevye the "Tata" the substitute father for Tzeitl's two little demons, Moishe and Hannie. Just when the old stud had been whipped and broken, when his legs barely could walk, and his heart could no longer pull the load of the wagon, when his horse had a nail in its shoe, just when he longed to be put out to pasture, Tevye became a father for Tzeitl's two wild little kinderlach!
"Not so fast, Tevye," God seemed to be saying. "You think I have no more surprises in store? You think your mission on earth is completed? No, no, my precious Tevye – your adventure is only beginning!"
After all, wasn't Rabbi Akiva forty years old when he started learning Torah? And wasn't Moses eighty years old when God first spoke to him in the wilderness? And wasn't Abraham 100 years old when Sarah gave birth to Isaac? For the Jews, the people of miracles, life was always just beginning. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? Tevye was not even allowed to feel sorry for himself, which was the only real luxury a poor man had. The Almighty had many more tricks up His sleeve!
He was at home, making last preparations for their departure from Anatevka when Tzeitl told him she had a surprise.
"A surprise," he asked? "What kind of surprise?"
"Please, Tata," she said, "Give her a chance."
Give who a chance, Tevye wondered? Tzeitl opened the door to the bedroom and who was standing there? A dybbuk? A ghost? No. It was Tevye's dead daughter, Hava! His beloved Hava who had run off with the Russian poet, Hevedke.
"Tata," she cried. "Tata!"
Before Tevye could react, his daughter rushed forward and threw herself in his lap. "Tata, forgive me," she tearfully pleaded. "Forgive me!"
"Who am I to forgive?" Tevye answered. "Do I sit on God's throne? Is a milkman in charge up in Heaven? It is written in the Torah, `A daughter of the children of Israel shall not take a husband from among the foreign nations.' I didn't make the rules. Why do you come weeping to me now?"
But in the very next moment he thought, "Is it not also written in our prayers, `Lord, Lord, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity and error...?'"
Tevye stared down at his naive, errant daughter as she sobbed at his feet.
"Tevye," he asked himself. "In all fairness, are you not commanded to imitate the ways of your Creator? Just as He forgives, aren't you commanded to forgive also?"
Yet another voice asked:
"But what about Golda? What about my Golda who died of a broken heart? Can her death be forgiven? Oh, Golda, who deserved to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the sacred cave in Hevron next to Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Oh, Golda, the saint of a woman who suffered with her poor husband, the incompetent shlimazl of a milkman, for so many years – would she herself forgive this weeping, penitent daughter?
"She wants to come back, Tevye," he heard Golda say, as if she were standing with them in the house. "She's ashamed she didn't listen to us. She's ashamed of what the Russians are doing to the Jews. She's a good girl, Tevye. She just was confused."
Tevye glanced down at his daughter. The way she said "Tata" shattered Tevye's doubts. Her tears on his hands melted his long frozen heart.
"Hava," he answered. A sob shook his body. Not just any ordinary sob, but a sob of a lifetime, a sob of generations, not just the pain of Tevye the milkman, but the anguish of Jewish fathers and Anatevkas all over the world.
"Hava, my daughter," he said.
"Father," she answered, her cheeks shining with tears. Tzeitl was weeping along with little Moishe and Hannie. Bat Sheva and Ruchel were crying too. Even Tevye's horse was moved by the reunion. Hearing their sobs, he stuck his head in the window to see what new misfortune had befallen his master. The whole house was in tears. Only Golda was smiling. For a moment, Tevye saw her, standing like an angel in the kitchen, gazing happily upon her brood.
"Golda," he mumbled.
"Enough crying, my husband," she scolded. "Act like a man!"
True, Tevye thought. There was work to be done. Packing, selling, deciding what treasures to take. But all of that tumult could wait for the morrow. Now was the time for a hearty L'Chaim! A wandering daughter had found her way home! This was no private simcha. This was the joy of the community! The victory of tradition! The homecoming of everyone's child, reaffirming the ancient covenant between God and the Jews.
Tevye stood up, grabbed a bottle of vodka, and strode out to the porch.
"My Hava's come home!" he shouted. "My Hava's come home!"
His daughters tried to stop him, but their father's happiness was not to be bottled. He strode down the main street of the village, yelling out the good news. People came out of their houses to bless him with mazal tovs and congratulatory kisses. Tevye's joy was infectious. The news spread through the village like the smell of hot soup. As the Purim verse says, "The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy!" Soon, Jews were dancing with joy in the street. A fiddler stood on a porch, head tilted over his fiddle, filling Anatevka with music. For the moment, Tevye and his friends forgot the Czar's decree. A daughter had returned to the fold. Even in an hour of danger, there was reason to give thanks. The God of Israel was with them!