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Poised at the Crossroads of Life

By Tzvi Fishman
12/5/2011, 8:12 AM

I received an angry email from the Diaspora, written by a person who had been hurt by my recent essay, “Stamp-Size Judaism.” The writer and his family struggle by on a very modest income, and while they would like to make aliyah, they find it beyond their means. I sent them my sincere apologies, noting that many times in past blogs, I have made it clear that someone who cannot make aliyah because of some real and justifiable duress, does not have the obligation that applies to others who do have the capability (even if it should demand sacrifice and effort), especially young people who are starting out on their life journeys. Accordingly, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to other readers in the Diaspora whom I may have offended, who also are straddled with difficult circumstances, and who simply do not have the wherewithal to undertake the mitzvah of living in Israel.

For Tevye also, standing at the crossroads of his life, the decision wasn’t easy. The Holy Land was a great unknown, the journey was dangerous, while America seemed like a far more likely and profitable adventure. But, to use the words of a noted poet, “Two paths diverged in a snowy wood. I took the path less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

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Chapter Three

OFF TO THE PROMISED LAND

 Tevye saw him when they reached the outskirts of the village. At first he wasn't sure, but when he saw Hava keep turning her head, his suspicions proved true. It was Hevedke Galagan, the Russian who had stolen his daughter, the gentile she was supposed to have left – he was following the procession of Jews as they made their way down the bumpy dirt road.

"What's this?" he said, tugging on the reins of his horse. The wagon stopped. Tevye turned a fierce eye on his daughter.

“What?" Hava asked.

"Don't what me," Tevye roared. He started to stand up in the wagon. His hand rose threateningly up in the air.

"I swear, Tata," she said. "I've left him, I have. I told him I can't be his wife. But he wants to come with us. He's ashamed of his people. I told him no, it can't be, but he wants to be a Jew."

"A Jew!" Tevye roared. "A Jew! Is our life such a picnic that he wants to be a Jew!?" Tevye stared up to Heaven. "I ask you, good Lord. Isn't exile enough of a punishment? Or is Tevye to suffer this disgrace as well?"

"It doesn't have to be a disgrace," Tzeitl said.

"Silence!" Tevye shouted. "The answer is no!" He sat down in his seat and whipped the reins of the horse.

The procession moved on through the dust. Wagons rattled under their loads. Golda's coffin bounced over the rocks in the road. Glancing over his shoulder, Tevye could still see the tall Hevedke, following at the end of the long march of Jews. His fleece of blond hair shone in the sun under his brown student's cap.

"No, I don't want to know what is written," Tevye brooded to himself, fighting to keep control of his thoughts. No, no, no. Hevedke could walk. He could crawl. He could die from hunger and thirst before Tevye would let him into his wagon.

Tevye, the guardian of tradition, refused to look at his daughter. He refuse to speak. For miles, they road in silence. Yet as they turned every bend, he could still see the lone figure of Hevedke Galagan walking determinedly after the Jews.

Suddenly, the procession came to a halt. Tevye's horse snorted. "What's the matter?" Moishe asked. "Why have we stopped?"

"Are we there already?" Hannie questioned.

"I'll go and see what the problem is," Tevye said, getting down from the wagon. He trudged off toward the head of the line. The caravan had stopped at a crossroads. One road led north to a stretch of Russian wasteland where pogroms had not yet erupted. Another road led to Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and America beyond. And the third path led to Odessa and Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem.

Naturally, a lively debate was in progress. Everyone had an opinion on which direction to take. All of a sudden, Jews who had never ventured beyond the boundaries of Anatevka became experts in international travel. Yitzik, the woodcutter, advised journeying on to Broditchov, a distant part of Russia, where at least people spoke the same language. Leb, the ritual slaughterer, argued that Jews speak the same language wherever they live. Tzvi Hirsh, the tanner, had an uncle in America who wrote that all the Jews had houses as big as hotels and rode in fancy carriages just like the gentiles. But Shammai, the scribe, warned that ocean travel after the winter rains was a dangerous affair.

"Is that so?" Tzvi Hirsh retorted. "And since when did you become a Columbus? How many times has our village scribe sailed around the world?"

"Here's Tevye," Shammai said. "You can ask him."

Everyone turned to the milkman. Tevye looked up at the sign at the crossroad and gazed down each path, as if he could see the future at the end of the road.

"What do you say, Tevye? Which way should we go?"

Before the milkman could answer, Elijah, the town herald said, "The Midrash teaches that every road leads to Jerusalem."

"Well, the Midrash must have been wrong," the tanner responded. "Only one of these roads leads to Jerusalem."

"The meaning is that wherever a Jew wanders, sooner or later he is going to get beaten over the head until he ends up back in Jerusalem," Elijah explained.

"I have an idea," Tevye said. "Let's ask the Rabbi."

That was a suggestion that everyone agreed to. It was always wise to ask the Rabbi. It was even wiser to listen to him, but nowadays, less and less people did. Still, everyone agreed it was proper to ask, so the crowd walked back to the elderly sage, who was sitting in his wagon alongside his married son.

"Rabbi, where should we go?" Yitzik, the tanner, inquired.

The Rabbi squinted his eyes and peered down the road. "Where the Almighty takes us," he said.

"Yes, of course, but in which direction?"

"In which direction?" the Rabbi asked.

"Yes, there is a crossroad, and we have to decide which direction to take."

The Rabbi nodded his head. "Go in the direction... which will take us as far away from the Czar as possible, may his name be erased from the earth."

Just then, a loud burst of singing turned everyone's head. A group of twelve beardless Jews, knapsacks on their backs, were marching down the road, singing a spirited Zionist song, "Zion, Zion, Zion, won't you ask how your exiled people are faring?" A few wore small caps on their heads after the manner of students and peasants, but the majority had no head covering at all.

The Jews from Anatevka stared at the Zionist contingent in wonder. They marched down the road like soldiers on parade, their arms swaying in time with their steps. There was a feeling of boldness and zest in their singing, and brazenness in their upright gaits, as if there weren't a King in the heavens to whom every head had to bend.

"Shalom," their leader called, holding up his hand.

He was handsome with a rapier-thin moustache that made him look like a swashbuckling pirate. The group came to a halt behind him.

"Greetings, fellow Jews," he continued in Russian. "Permit me to introduce myself. Though I was born to the family Poprinchkov, my name today is Ben Zion, and my companions and I are off to reclaim our ancient homeland. Where, may we ask, are our comrades heading?"

"Fellow Jews, yes. Comrades, that's a topic for a debate," Hershel, the sandal maker, answered.

"Are we not comrades in having been uprooted from our once beloved Russia?"

"That only makes us brothers in our shared misfortune, not in our beliefs," Elijah called back.

"I see that we have come upon the guardians of tradition. By all means come with us. Join us on our journey. You are welcome to share in the modest provisions we have. Come with us to Zion, the land of our past, and the land of our future – to live as free Jews in our own Jewish land."

"Jews go to the Land of Israel to die," the woodcutter said.

"Not anymore," the spirited youth responded. "Look at us for example. We are going to the Land of Israel to live!"

Tevye noticed that his daughters had joined the crowd, with other curious women. The milkman frowned. Wasn't curiosity the very trait that had led Jacob's daughter, Dina, to disaster? As the Torah says, she went out to see the daughters of the land. By the time her father, Jacob, realized she was missing, an uncircumcised heathen had raped her.

"Naftali," Ben Zion called. "Sing us the song you composed."

A thin, moustachioed minstrel stepped aside from the group. His first notes wavered, and his voice seemed to crack, but then he found his range and sang out the words from deep within his heart. Everyone stood in silence and listened, spellbound by the gentle, haunting tune. Even the little children stopped playing to hear the beautiful song.

 

“As long as in the inner heart,

The soul of a Jew beats,

Forward

To the ends of the east,

The eye gazes toward Zion.

Our hope has not been abandoned,

The hope of two-thousand years.

To be a free people in our Land,

The Land of Zion

And Yerushalayim."

 

All of Tevye's daughters had tears in their eyes when he finished the anthem. Even their father, who never cried in public, had to wipe a bit of moistness away. The Jews of Anatevka were speechless. The words and the melody had struck a deep-seated chord in them all. Almost in unison, they turned to the Rabbi. His eyes, weary from a lifetime of candlelight study, were also filled with a nostalgic sparkle.

"Why don't we join them?" Shammai asked.

"Where are their skullcaps?" the Rabbi responded.

"God looks on what's in the heart, not what's on the outside," their leader, Ben Zion said.

"Has God spoken to you that you know what He judges important?" the white-bearded scholar retorted.

"God doesn't have to speak to us in words for us to understand His message. How many times must the Russians chase us out of our villages until we realize that we don't belong in their land? Haven't we been exiled enough? God wants us to have our own country."

"God wants us to live by the Torah," the Rabbi said.

"We have a new Torah," one of the other Zionists called out. "The Torah of freedom, and the will in our hearts to work the soil of our own Jewish land."

Tevye looked from the young heretics with their uncovered heads to the old, wizened face of the Rabbi.

"We will return to our land when the Mashiach takes us there," he said, pronouncing his final decision. As if to emphasize his resolve, the Rabbi took the reins out of the hands of his son and gave their horse a flick. The wagon jerked forward. The tanner yelled out "Mashiach!" Others echoed his cry. Soon, the Jews of Anatevka were singing a song of their own, a lively Hasidic ballad filled with longing for the Mashiach, the Jewish messiah and king:

      

"Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, la, la, la, la, la.

Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, la, la, la, la, la.

Even though his coming may be delayed,

We will wait for him every day

With the hope that he will come, la, la, la, la, la."

      

The tanner, the woodcutter, the scribe, and the slaughterer all returned to their families and wagons, and the procession once again moved onward, on the road to other lands and other foreign rulers. Only Tevye stood in his place, dust on his shoes, deep in ponderous thought.

"What about you, old man?" Ben Zion asked him. "Do you have the courage to stand tall and be a proud Jew in our own Promised Land?"

There was something in the words of the young Zionist pioneer that tugged at Tevye's heart. True, his daughter, Baylke, was in America, and everyone knew that even an incompetent shlimazl of a milkman could become a millionaire in New York overnight, but how long would it be before persecutions began even there? At least in the Land of Israel, a Jew could feel like a Jew! After all, three times a day in his prayers, a Jew faced Jerusalem, not New York.

The words of the Rabbi echoed in Tevye's mind as if in rebuttal. "Where are their skullcaps?" he had pointedly inquired, meaning that everyone enjoyed a nice Zionist song, but where was their tradition; where was their love and reverence for God? Hadn't Tevye suffered enough from free-thinkers when Perchik had stolen away his daughter? Perchik too was brimming with slogans and highfalutin ideals, and where had it led but to prison? Who knew if Tevye would ever see his wonderful Hodel again? Did he want to take the same chance with another one of his daughters? Tevye wasn't blind. He had seen the look in their eyes when the cocky, young "Herzl" had exchanged passionate words with the Rabbi.

Tevye stared after the Zionists as they marched in formation along the road to Odessa. There was a confidence, a pride, a spirit, and a purpose to their movements that Tevye recalled from his youth. They held their backs straight, actualizing the prayer which a Jew said everyday of his life, beseeching the Almighty “to shatter the yoke of foreign rulers and return us upright to our Land.” It was happening in front of Tevye's eyes! The Zionists marched upright, their heads held high, envisioning a more hopeful future. What a different picture from the Jews of Anatevka who trudged along on their journey, bent over from the burdens of exile, dragging their tired feet in the dust, heads bowed like cattle, not knowing what lay ahead, where they were going, nor what they would do when they got there.

Tevye reached down for his tzitzit. The thin strings hanging down from his ritual undergarment were like lifelines, reminding the dreamer in him that he was a simple milkman, and not a young pioneer. "Thou shall not wander after pulling of your heart, nor after the sight of your eyes," the commandment instructed. His daughters were staring at him. Tzeitl, Hava, Ruchel, and Bat Sheva. Little Moishe and Hannie gazed up at their grandfather too, as if to say, "Nu? What are we waiting here for?"

Tevye glanced up to the Heavens. "What now?" he asked. "How can Your servant, Tevye, please his Master and King? Haven't our Sages taught us that even a man with good eyesight is blind before his future. You are my shepherd. Send me a sign. Tell us, dear Lord, which way should we go?"

Hershel, the sandal maker, drove by in his wagon.

"Waiting for Mashiach?" he asked.

"May his coming be soon," Tevye said. "And what about you? Where are you off to?"

"I have a distant cousin in London. They say there are more than a million people there. That's two million feet for my shoes. I am going to be a multi-millionaire. What about you?"

"I am a millionaire already. Look at my daughters. Can a man be wealthier than that?"

"That's what they say: `Tevye is known for his beautiful daughters,' but they also say, `Happy is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked' – meaning the Zionists."

"Wasn't God a Zionist?" Tevye asked. "Didn't He tell Abraham and Moses to go and dwell in Israel?"

"God is God, and Abraham and Moses are Abraham and Moses. What do Hershel, the sandal maker, and Tevye, the milkman, have to do with them?"

"What about your Shendel and my Golda?" Tevye asked. "Are you going to bring her to London when you could bring her to the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael?"

"My Shendel, may her soul rest in peace, always talked about going to London to visit her cousin. Now she will have her chance."

"My Golda, may her memory be for a blessing, wouldn't have know where London was even if you had shown it to her on a map. Such a pure soul never existed. She lived only for her poor beast of a husband and her seven daughters. Doesn't a woman like this deserve to be buried in the Tomb of our Forefathers? In the Cave of Hevron? Or on the way to Efrata, in Bet-Lechem, beside our mother, Rachel?"

"Think of your daughters, Tevye. Who will they find there to marry? The Zionists? The blasphemers of our holy Torah? It can only come to no good."

Tevye nodded his head. His friend, Reb Hershel was right. All his life he had struggled to build a protective wall around his daughters, so that the evil of modern times would not lead them astray. And now, in a weak moment, he was thinking of following the Zionists on their journey, like a shepherd who abandons his lambs to packs of roving wolves. The sandal maker's warning was filled with common sense. Tevye had to think of his children. It would be better to take them to their sister, Baylke, in New York. Hadn't she written that she wanted them to come to America to help her pick the gold off the streets? And if it meant stomaching her good-for-nothing husband, so be it. Tevye was ready to swallow his pride for the sake of his family. In America, he could get a matchmaker to find kosher husbands for Bat Sheva and Ruchel, and two kosher suitors for Tzeitl and Hava too.

"Onward, Reb Hershel," Tevye said. "You lead the way, and we shall follow."

As Tevye mounted the wagon, he could see the poet, Galagan in the distance, waiting to see which direction their wagon would take. Behind him, a lone figure came running along the road, waving a hand in the air and shouting something which was lost in the wind. When his family was secure in the wagon, Tevye urged on his horse. With a tug, the four-legged creature inched the heavy load forward. The wagon squeaked. Grudgingly, the wheels started to roll. "What was the hurry?" the horse seemed to say. Though he wasn't a Jew, the beast had been listening to Tevye's soliloquies for years, and he had learned the difference between the Sabbath and an ordinary day of the week. With an animal's sense, he knew it would be a long journey. So he took his time catching up to the wagons ahead of them.

It wasn't long before Tevye heard someone calling his name. He glanced around to see Borsky, the Russian mailman, running after the wagon, out of breath, a letter held aloft in his hand. Once again, Tevye pulled on the reins. The mailman collapsed by the seat of the wagon. He handed Tevye the letter. Compassionately, Tzeitl handed him some water to drink.

"This letter arrived just after you left," he said between pants. "I figured it was the decent thing to do, to bring it to you, after you've been delivering our milk for so many years."

"My appreciation," Tevye said. He handed the letter to Hava, his reader of books.

"It's from Hodel!" she exclaimed. "From Palestine!"

"From Palestine?" Tevye mumbled, unable to believe what he heard.

Quickly, she opened the envelope. Her lips silently read through the letter. Impatiently, Tevye grabbed it and held it up to his eyes to see for himself. It was truly from Hodel. He recognized her handwriting. Unable to decipher her swirls, he handed the letter back to his daughter. Her eyes raced over the feminine script.

"Well?" Tzeitl asked. "What does it say?"

"Perchik was let out of prison on the condition that he leave Russia and never return. They've been in Eretz Yisrael since the beginning of the winter. Perchik is busy working the land and organizing a worker's committee which he says will be the beginning of the new Jewish State."

"Skip all of his crazy meshugenneh slogans," her father impatiently said.

"We are living in a new settlement called Shoshana with another thirty families,” she read. “We have heard of the pogroms in Russia and want you to come. The Land of Israel is beautiful, and the skies are like out of a dream. And there are several religious settlements for you, father, that the Baron Rothschild has built."

"Religious settlements?" Tevye inquired.

"That's what she writes," Hava answered.

"Is that all?" Tevye asked.

"No. There's one other thing," Hava said with a smile. "Hodel is pregnant."

A big grin lit Tevye's face. "Mazal tov!" he said. "Baruch Hashem, thank the good Lord."

"Mazal tov," the Russian mailman said. The two men shook hands. They had been good friends for years until the Czar and the dark clouds of history had declared the Jews traitors.

"Tzeitl, get me the vodka from out of the crate," Tevye commanded.

A pregnant daughter was reason to celebrate. A grandchild meant that Tevye would survive on in the generations to come. But that wasn't all. A grandchild born in the Promised Land was something much greater. It was a fulfillment of prophecy. It was the hope of new life not only for Tevye's family, but for the Jewish people as a whole. How many Jewish fathers in the last thousand years could boast of an achievement like that?

Tzeitl dutifully opened the chest and handed a bottle to her father. Tevye pulled out the cork. With a hearty "L'Chaim! To life!" he took a deep slug. Then he handed the bottle to the mailman.

"You have brought us this happiness," Tevye said. "May the Almighty reward you with healthy children of your own."

The mailman drank a "L'Chaim" and handed the bottle back to the Jew.

"Are we going to Palestine?" Bat Sheva asked. "I want to see Hodel."

"So do I," Ruchel said.

"We all do," Tzeitl agreed.

Everyone waited for an answer from Tevye. He looked to his right, and he looked to his left, as if judging his options. What was more important? Money, or the promise of milk and honey? On one side of the world, there was Hodel. Only a Jacob, who had lost his son Joseph, could know how much Tevye had missed her. Since the day she had left Anatevka, not an evening had passed without her memory flashing before him as he fell off to sleep. Then again, on the other side of the ocean were Baylke, and the gold of America's streets. But the thought of her husband, Pedhotzer, turned Tevye's stomach. True, Hodel's heretic was no bargain either – the young revolutionary could make a listener dizzy with his mishegoss notions about saving the world. But though his head was stuffed with goose feathers, he had a good heart. A few children of his own would teach him that before a man can save the world, he has to be sure that there is bread on the table at home. And finally, Tevye knew that if he wanted to keep the chain of tradition and Torah intact in his family, he himself would have to be on hand in the Land of Israel to teach his grandchild the beauty of the "Shema Yisrael" prayer.

"Tata," Tzeitl said. "You asked for a sign from the Almighty. Isn't Hodel's letter enough, or do you want a burning bush too?"

The girl had a point. Tevye took another drink and wiped his mouth with his hand. If Golda were present, she would have pointed toward Zion. To see her Hodel again, she would have given the world. But had Tevye forgotten? Golda was with them, in the coffin in the back of the wagon. Could he give his wife a more precious gift than to bury her in the Holy Land? And if it demanded strenuous labor to rebuild their ancient land, when was Tevye ever afraid of hard work? With the help of God, he had some productive years left, and when his time came to retire, he would sit in the shade of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and spend his days learning the holy books. Hodel had written that there were religious Jews in the land. The Rabbi, may he live a long, healthy life, must have had the wrong information. And if the Baron Rothschild were financing the Zionist endeavor, no doubt Tevye could move his family into one of the villas that the billionaire surely had built for the new pioneers.

Tevye held up the bottle. "To the Land of Israel!" he proclaimed. His daughters and grandchildren cheered. The mailman, Borsky, smiled. Even Tevye's horse felt the excitement when it heard about their new destination. It didn't have to wait for Tevye's command. With an enthusiasm it hadn't shown for years, the beast swung the wagon around in a half circle and galloped off after the parade of pioneers.

"My Nachson!" Tevye called to the steed as the wagon thundered toward Zion. "As the Lord led the Jews through the wilderness, may He lead Tevye and his children to Israel!"

Up ahead, the poet Hevedke Galagan stood in the path of the gallopping horse and wagon. He stared at Tevye, and Tevye stared back at him. Fired by the vodka and joy of his decision, the thought flashed across Tevye's mind, "What a good chance to teach him a lesson!" What a fitting last memory of Russia on their way to the Holy Land – to trample the devil himself under the wheels of the wagon!

"Yaahaaa!" Tevye shouted, whipping the reins of the horse. Hava cried out. The blond-headed Hevedke stood frozen, as if his long legs were stuck in his boots. "Yaahaaa!" Tevye yelled.

"Father!" Hava screamed.

Tevye's eyes were aflame with revenge. At the very last minute, the youth showed enough sense to leap out of the way of destruction. The wagon sped by. Tzeitl clutched onto her children. Golda's coffin bounced in the air as if it were bursting with life.

"Am Yisrael Chai!" Tevye shouted at the sight of Hevedke sprawled in the dust. "The nation of Israel lives on!"

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