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?