Remember Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”? Did you know that his granddaughter, Hannie, married Avraham Stern, head of the Lechi underground? And that Tevye assassinated the British cop who murdered Stern? And that, disguised as an aging milkman, Tevye helped blow up British Military Headquarters in the King David Hotel? For your holiday reading pleasure, here is a chapter from the Tzvi Fishman novel, “Arise and Shine!” volume 2 of the “Tevye in the Promised Land” trilogy.
Several months had transpired since the losing encounter with Hannie. Now, come Pesach Night, Tevye donned the white kittel he had brought from Anatevka, and prepared to commence the traditional Seder. As usual, there was a feeling of joy and anticipation in the air. The long wooden table was laden with wine bottles and matzah. In front of Tevye was the silver Seder plate which had belonged to his parents. While most of Jerusalem had entered the age of electricity, thanks to the two power stations that the Mandate Government had allowed Pincus Rutenberg to build along the Yarkon and Jordan Rivers, and the new electric plant at Naharayim, there were still neighborhoods in the Old City, like Tevye’s, where oil lamps and candles lit up the homes. Joining Tevye and Carmel at the Seder table were their children, Tzvi, Boaz, and Naomi; Hodel and her children, Ben Zion and Ruth; and Tevye’s grandchildren, Hannie and Moishe. Tevye’s daughter, Hava, was celebrating the holiday in Hevron with her husband, Hevedke, and their son, Akiva. After Moishe and Hannie left Olat HaSharchar for Jerusalem, Ruchel and Nachman had decided to move with their three children to the mountain-side city of Safed, famous for the great Kabbalists who had lived there, so that Nachman could devote more time to his Torah studies. Baylke had written from New York that she wanted very badly to visit the family in Palestine, but her son, George, was too young for such a long journey, and her husband, Pedhotzer, was involved in a promising business venture with “two wonderful Jewish fellows, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.”
“George?” Tevye wondered. “What kind of name was that for a Jewish grandson?”
King George had been King of England when the British ousted the Turkish regime from Palestine, and David Lloyd George had been England’s Prime Minister, a friend to the Jews during the first years of the Mandate. Streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were named after them – but a son? As for Siegel and Lansky, Tevye had never heard of them. The two names together sounded like a law firm to him.
Another person, whom Moishe had invited, graced the table, a young Rabbi, also called Moshe, whose round, clean-shaven face shone brightly in anticipation, like the evening’s full moon. Rabbi Moshe Segal was almost ten years older than Moishe. When Tevye had introduced his grandson to Rabbi Kook, the esteemed Chief Rabbi had asked Moshe Segal to learn with the youth, as his first Jerusalem havruta study partner. Already in Russia, the young Segal, a passionate lover of Torah, had become an outstanding student at the famous Mir Yeshiva. Arriving in the Promised Land to escape the increasing persecutions, Segal shed the somber garb of the exile, as if making a loud and clear statement that the galut, at least for him, had come to an end. He could be seen walking on streets of Jerusalem, his head held high, a proud look on his face, dressed in the open-collared blouse of a kibbutznik, khaki pants, and sandals, with a worker’s cap on his head, tilted to one side atop curls of wavy blond hair.
Last, but not least, the memory of Hillel, who had been murdered by Arabs during the Pesach holiday almost a decade before, hovered over the gathering in Tevye’s home, and, of course, the soul of Golda was present in the room, as on every joyous family occasion. Tevye flipped through the first few pages of the Haggadah, reminding himself of the order of Kadash, Rachatz, Karpas, Yachatz, Magid, which, as the master of the Seder, he conducted like an orchestra leader, year after year. With a worried expression, Hannie’s eyes darted to Moishe and Carmel, but her grandfather didn’t notice. In a deep, melodious voice, he sang out the Festival Kiddush and emotionally recited the Shechyanu blessing, thanking the L-rd for having let them all reach this year’s Seder night.
Leaning to his left side like a noble in the kingly courts of old, Tevye downed the strong sweet wine in one continuous gulp. Wasn’t this the Festival of Freedom? When the others had finished their glasses, hands were washed without a blessing, and everyone dipped a small piece of potato into salt water and ate the “karpas” after reciting the appropriate blessing. Next, Tevye divided the middle of the three round matzahs before him into two pieces, and set the bigger portion under the pillow on an empty chair beside him, playfully warning the children not to steal the “afikomen” before the end of the meal. All the while, Hannie exchanged nervous glances with Carmel, as if they shared some secret, but again, Tevye was too preoccupied with the rituals of the Seder to notice.
Holding up the matzah, he began the story of the Seder, reading from the Haggadah which he had brought with him from Anatevka. “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and partake in the Passover Seder.”
Just then, there was a knock on the door. Surprised, Tevye glanced up, thinking that it was either Elijah the Prophet or one of the neighbors. As he looked up, he saw Hannie blush like a little girl. Her round, pink cheeks turned crimson. She glanced nervously at his wife, then looked down at her plate.
“Who can it be?” Tevye asked, standing.
“I forgot to tell you,” his wife replied. “Hannie invited a friend from the university to join us. He doesn’t have any family in Israel.”
“A friend from the university?” Tevye muttered.
Again the insistent knock.
“By all means,” Tevye said with a confused but gracious grin. “Let her come in and join us.”
Little Boaz hurried to open the door. Moishe stood up from the table. His glance darted toward his sister who kept staring at her plate.
“Baruch haba! Baruch haba!” Tevye repeated as the door opened. “Thank the good L-rd for sending us a guest!”
Lo and behold, Hannie's friend wasn’t a girl – he was a boy! Tevye wouldn’t have been more surprised if the Czar of Russian had entered the room. A young, handsome man about twenty stepped into the house. He wore a Fedora hat and a tailor-fitted, grey suit with a tie. Tevye noted that his shoes were brightly polished. He looked around at the family with a happy and shy smile, his eyes sensitive and as deep as the night. For a moment, Hannie glanced up, and when her eyes met the eyes of their guest, her cheeks turned almost as red as the beets which Carmel had used in making the chrain - horseradish.
“Oy vey,” Tevye thought to himself. He may have been only a simple milkman, but he hadn’t been born yesterday. For an instant, he glanced at his wife, raising his eyebrows questioningly, as if to ask what was going on behind his back.
“Welcome, welcome,” he repeated, spreading his arms wide in a greeting, as if he were reuniting with a long lost friend. For a second, he shot a confused and angry glance at his granddaughter, but he didn’t want to embarrass their guest, so, like a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, he pretended that everything was as wonderful as could be. “Please, come in, have a seat, join us. Please, come in.”
The young man bowed slightly, like a seasoned actor on stage, and stepped into the room.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had trouble finding your home and no one was on the street whom I could ask.”
His Hebrew was excellent, albeit with the ring of a Russian accent.
“You’re right on time,” Tevye corrected. “We’ve hardly begun. Tzvi,” he said to his son, “Please pour our guest a glass of wine so he can say Kiddush.”
Quickly, to make room for the newcomer, Tevye lifted the pillow and the “afikomen” off the chair beside him. One by one, he introduced the young man to the family. When it came to Hannie’s turn, the guest lowered his head in a gentlemanly bow, as if he had never met her.
“And what is your name?” Tevye asked him.
“Avraham,” he replied.
“Avraham. That certainly is a fine name. If this were the first night of Succos, when our Forefather, Avraham Avinu, is the honored ushpizin, you wouldn’t be more welcome than you are this evening in our humble abode. Avraham what?” Tevye inquired.
“Very nice. In Yiddish, Stern means star. From Russia?” Tevye inquired, speaking in Russian.
“No. From the city of Sulwalki in Poland,” Stern responded in Russian as well. “But to escape the Germans, we moved to the Ural Mountains for several years, and then to St. Petersburg.”
“The wandering Jew,” Tevye said. “Like all of us.”
Though the dapper-looking lad and Hannie didn’t look at one another, the air between them crackled with lightning.
“You studied in yeshiva in St. Petersburg?” Tevye continued with his investigation, studying the the striking figure of the guest whose very presence commanded attention.
“No. I lived with an uncle who wasn’t religious.”
“Ahh,” Tevye nodded. “You’re a baal tshuva! Wonderful. As the Sages teach, ‘Even the most righteous Jew cannot stand in the exalted place of a Jew who returns to his roots like the baal tshuva.”
“Maybe we should continue with the Seder,” Moishe suggested, “We have to finish eating the afikomen by midnight.”
“Yes, of course,” Tevye agreed. Looking around for the piece of matzah which he had hidden from the children, he discovered it was gone!
“What’s this?!” he exclaimed in exaggerated surprise. “Who stole the afikomen?”
Boaz giggled. “I took it! I took it!” he happily said, eager to receive a prize. Everyone laughed at the traditional game.
His grandfather pretended to be angry. “I won’t continue with the Seder till the afikomen is returned!”
Quickly, the boy held up the treasure. With a wide grin, he hurried to hand it to his Zaide. “A prize for Boaz,” Tevye declared, taking the matzah from his hand. “And for all of the children, after the Seder.”
Hannie held her breath. How would Avraham manage the Kiddush? He himself wasn’t worried. He already had found time to glance over the page in the Haggadah. An exceptionally fast reader, he looked at the instructions, and was ready. While his parents were not religious, they had always made Kiddush on Sabbath Eve, and every year, they held a rudimentary Seder on Pesach, so he grasped the cup with confidence. Plus, in high school in Poland, and in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem, he had acted in several plays and still hadn’t abandoned his dream of a theater career. Poised, as if onstage, he raised up the cup and sang out the blessing in a beautiful tenor voice, smiling at Hannie in the middle to let her know that everything was under control. Tevye was impressed by the performance.
“Don’t forget to lean to your left when you drink the cup,” Moishe said, coaching his sister’s suitor.
Tevye continued on with the Seder, reading from the Haggadah. “This year we are here; next year in the Land of Israel. This year, we are slaves; next year we will be a free People.”
“Excuse me, Reb Zalman,” their other guest, Moshe Segal, interrupted, respectfully calling the master of the house by his family name, which hardly anyone knew. Even on the door of the house, a small sign read TEVYE, THE MILKMAN. “We may be in the Land of Israel, but we certainly aren’t free. The only way we will be free is if we are the rulers here and not the British.”
“Gevalt,” Tevye thought. On Pesach Night, a man was supposed to recline in his chair, in order to awaken the feeling of freedom which the Jews in Egypt experienced when the Almighty saved them from their backbreaking toil and bondage. But now, hearing the seditious words of the unexpected guest, Tevye felt his spine stiffen. He automatically straightened up in his chair.
“And who will defend us from the Arabs, if not the British?” Hodel’s son, Ben Zion, asked.
“Jews are not weaklings,” the young Torah scholar responded assertively. “Our tragic impotency over the past two-thousand years resulted from our always being a helpless minority in other people’s countries. But in our own Land, we can defend ourselves, just like we did in the past, in the days of Yehoshua ben Nun, David HaMelech, and Yehuda HaMaccabee.”
“In any event, the British don’t lift a finger to defend us against Yishmael, so who needs them here?” Tzvi added.
In truth, ever since Hillel’s murder, Tevye had lost his respect for the British, but he wouldn’t proclaim it out loud. As they say, “Birds carry whatever they hear to the winds,” or something to that effect.
Around the table, everyone sat in attentive silence. Even the children didn’t squirm in their chairs. Avraham Stern gazed at Moshe Segal and Tzvi with an interested expression. But, at this point, if he had an opinion, he kept it to himself. The young Rabbi Segal was quite a powerful personality, Stern noted, never having met a Rabbi whose veins flowed with hot blood and not cold borscht. Indeed, Tevye himself had considered Moshe Segal as a possible match for his granddaughter, Hannie, but Moishe frowned upon the idea, saying that his sister was too open-minded and too concerned with worldly matters.
“If the British weren’t here,” Ben Zion asked, sounding like Perchik Aronov, his father, “who would provide us with gasoline and electricity, build highways, and promote our interests with the other nations of the world?”
“We Jews can build our country ourselves,” Segal replied.
“All fifty-thousand of us?” Tevye asked.
“We will undertake a great campaign to bring all the Jews of the world back to the Land of Israel, from Russia, and Poland, and Germany, and the United States,” Mr. Stern answered. “With our own Hebrew army, we will oust the British from our Land.”
“A young Zeev Jabotinsky,” Tevye remarked, not able to know that in another ten years this same Avraham Stern would lead a group of fearless Jews in an underground war against the British.
“Do you remember, Moishe, what we learned in the tractate Shabbat about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the Romans?” Moshe Segal asked. “He said that everything which the Romans built here in Israel, the highways, the bridges, and the bathhouses, they built for themselves, for their own self-interest. The highways to conquer the country, the bridges to collect taxes, and the bathhouses for their perverted pleasures. It’s the same with the British today.”
Perchik’s son, Ben Zion, spoke up once again. Like his opinionated father, and like Hannie, he had a mind of his own. It was the scourge of the generation, Tevye thought to himself. In modern times, every little pisher was an expert and maven about everything under the sun.
“My father says that in the future, the Jewish work force and labor unions in Palestine will be strong enough for us to govern the country on our own. He is working with Ben Gurion day and night to make that dream into a reality.”
Moshe Segal harbored reservations. “Until the secular Zionists adopt a more positive attitude toward the Torah, Mr. Ben Gurion’s dream of a socialist utopia will never arrive. It is clearly written in the Torah that if the Jews in the Land of Israel follow the commandments, then there will be peace and prosperity. But when we stray after the ways and customs of the Gentiles, like our errant brothers are doing, then Hashem sends harsh enemies against us, until we cry out to Him for salvation.”
Ben Zion wasn’t about to surrender his views. “The fact is that the secular Zionists are the pioneers who are leading the way in the Nation’s rebuilding – not the ultra-religious who shuckle and daven all day.”
Tevye sighed at how much the boy sounded just like his father. Perchik Aronov could make a person crazy with his political pontifications and speeches. As the saying went, “On all his talk, you could build a church.”
“The children are getting hungry, and the hour is late,” Carmel reminded her husband.
“Quite right,” Tevye agreed. “As they say, the words of Torah are always hot, but food gets cold in a hurry. Therefore, my dear scholars, statesmen, and budding revolutionaries, we shall proceed with the Haggadah and continue this discussion during the meal.”
Hannie was kvelling with inner joy – Avraham was behaving so wonderfully, and everyone seemed impressed with his presence, even her Zaide. But while Tevye outwardly seemed to be enjoying the Seder, just as he did every year, glowing with naches as his youngest boy, Boaz, recited the four questions of the “fir kashes,” he harbored an inner unrest. He didn’t at all like the furtive glances between his granddaughter and their surprise guest. During the Haggadah’s recounting about Rabbi Akiva’s all-night Seder in Bnei Brak, he glanced at his wife with a look that said, “How long have you know about this?”
“Can I interrupt to ask a question,” the smartly-dressed youth said, raising at hand as if he were in a classroom at school.
“By all means,” Tevye replied, even though his belly was beginning to murmur with hunger.
“Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were among the leading scholars of the time, isn’t that correct.”
“Correct,” Tevye nodded.
“Then why did they need their students to tell them that the time had come to recite the morning Shema? Surely, they knew this themselves.”
“Maybe they celebrated the Seder in a cave without any windows, so they couldn’t see the dawn,” Ben Zion proposed.
“Maybe they were so engrossed in recounted the Exodus story that they forgot the time,” Hodel suggested.
“Maybe they didn’t have a clock,” little Naomi guessed.
“Maybe they had a clock, but because it was Yom Tov, they couldn’t wind it up when it stopped working during the night,” Tzvi offered, venturing a comic Talmudic svora of his own.
“Do you have an answer?” Tevye asked Moshe Segal.
“Perhaps,” the young Rabbi replied. “I also think, like Ben Zion, that the Rabbis were spending the night in a cave. It is widely known that Rabbi Akiva was one of the leaders of the Bar Kochva Revolt against Rome. No doubt, they had to hide underground in caves to escape being caught observing the Holiday of Freedom by the soldiers of the occupying Roman legions.”
“That is indeed a most interesting hypothesis,” Avraham Stern concurred. To everyone’s surprise, he impulsively stood up from the table, paced up and down, then stopped, raising his hand as if he were balancing an idea on the tip of his outstretched finger. “Perhaps, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues represented the old school of warfare, which was one standing army versus another standing army. Their students arrived, telling them that the time had arrived to recite the morning Shema, meaning, in the military code of the time, that the moment had come to enter a new phase of warfare, not army versus army, but an underground guerilla war of total self-sacrifice and the willingness for martyrdom, in order to liberate the Israelite Nation from the oppression of Rome.”
Hearing such a bold and novel interpretation, everyone sat in captivated silence.
“In this scenario,” Stern concluded, “the morning Shema represents the dawn of Israel’s Redemption. Meaning the time of revolt had arrived.”
“A brilliant analysis!” Segal responded, leaping to his feet. “May you dedicate your genius to the study of Torah!”
Hannie glanced around to see if people heard the pounding of her heart. All of the eyes in the room were focused on Avraham Stern, especially Tevye’s. The dramatic guest breathed deeply, as if he had exorcized a dybbuk from his soul. His deep, grey-blue eyes shone with an almost unworldly glow, a look which often graced the face of Rabbi Kook. Then Hannie’s boyfriend sat back down in his chair, straightening his hat on his head.
Hannie felt like applauding, but kept silent, her hands tightly clenched in her lap. Though she could be iron-willed when she knew what she wanted, she was gentle by nature. She felt embarrassed to be the center of attention. Avraham was sensitive too, like she was, but he enjoyed being on stage. From their very first meeting, he had mesmerized her. There was a magnetism to his personality, some sort of inborn charisma as unpredictable as fire, an inner restlessness which was like a bomb ready to explode. Yet he could also be introspective and uncommunicable, hiding in some dark cave of his own, where no one could reach him, where some deep melancholy shadowed his being, making his eyes stare forward with a faraway look that made Hannie shudder, as if he were staring the Angel of Death in the face. His eyes could be as warm as summer, or as cold as a Russian snow. Though he frightened her at times like these, she had made up her mind that she wanted to spend her life at his side. Like her decision to learn at the University, nothing would stand in her way.
Even Tevye was impressed by their guest. If his granddaughter had set her fancy on the dapper lad as a potential match, it might not be such a bad choice. Then again, he reflected, as the Yiddish expression goes, “Empty barrels make the most noise.”
But Avraham wasn’t finished with his performance. Albeit, none of it was planned. When they reached, “V’he sh’amda l’avotanu v’lanu,” everyone sang the traditional melody together:
“This is what has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one enemy alone has risen to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us, and the Holy One Blessed Be He, saves us from their hand.”
Spontaneously, after the refrain was finished, the impulsive youth sprang to his feet once again, his face flushed with emotions. “That isn’t true! G-d doesn’t save us from their hand,” he declared.
Everyone stiffened. Tevye looked startled. Hannie was aghast. Historical analysis and military theories were one thing, but to deny the words of the Sages who had composed the Haggadah? That was absolute heresy!
“Let me recite a poem for you,” he said, speaking so fast no one dared interrupt him. “A poem written by Haim Nachman Bialik in reaction to the Kishinev pogrom. After claiming that the Jews had murdered a Christian girl and boy and used the blood to make matzot, the goyim massacred 50 innocent Jews, and G-d didn’t save them.”
As he stepped away from the table, a terrible agitation spread over his face.
“Five hundred Jews were wounded and seven hundred houses were looted and destroyed. Bialik was sent there to interview survivors and write a report. While his long poem, ‘City of Destruction,’ is more widely known, a poem called ‘On the Slaughter’ screams out with the question - how could G-d have let this travesty happen?”
Hannie felt like running into her bedroom in embarrassment, but since everyone was sitting with rapt attention, she stayed at the table. Even her grandfather didn’t utter a peep. He himself had met Bialik on several occasions at the home of Rabbi Kook, who greatly respected the poet’s writings.
As Avraham spoke, his eyes glowed like burning embers, as if he saw the slaughter.
“O, Heavens pray for mercy for me!
If there be a G-d within your bound,
Whose path I have not found
Then I beg you: pray for me!
My own heart is dead. Dry of prayer is my tongue.
My strength is shattered. All hope is gone.
How long? How long? How long?”
As the words left his lips, his back, body, arms, hands, mouth, all contorted, not like an actor who had practiced a part, but like a tortured victim roped to a stake.
“Executioner! Here's a neck. Come and shecht it!
All the world is my butchering block.
We are few and unprotected.
Our blood's fair game. Crack a skull. Crack.
Spray the blood of babes and old men on your clothing,
That it never be washed away.”
Hannie kept her head lowered. How could he do this to her? How could he act this way in front of her family? Why had she invited him? In her eyes, he was a genius, but in the eyes of her family, he must have looked like a madman. He transformed the tragic account from a poem into a drama, and it was no longer a drama, but a tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes.
“If Justice there be, let it now come round.
But if I am blotted from under the sky
Ere it come, let Justice die,
And its throne for all time be cast down,
And Heaven rot with eternal wrong.
Then, ye wicked, go forth in this your brute force.
Bathe in the blood you spilt and live long.
Let blood pierce the abyss,
Let it pierce the deep of all Creation,
And eat away in the darkness and devastation
This earth's whole rotting foundation!”
Avraham Stern collapsed in his chair, emotionally drained, like someone who had witnessed the carnage.
As if she had just seen a stage play, Naomi clapped. Copying her, Ruth clapped. Then Tzvi and Ben Zion applauded. Carmel and Hodel applauded along with them. Begrudgingly, Tevye clapped his two large hands together, and finally Hannie applauded as well. Avraham waved a hand back and forth in protest, as if to say, no, no, it wasn’t an audition.
“True to your name, a star performance,” Tevye said, remembering that “stern” in Yiddish meant “star.”
“Bialik has another longer poem called ‘City of Destruction’ in which he decries the pathetic weakness of the Jews who did nothing to defend themselves against the murderers. I read it at the Gymnasia graduation. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes, yes,” little Naomi said.
“You’re funny,” Ruth added.
“Some other time,” Tevye replied. “We have to finish the Haggadah before the lamps burn out.”
“I just wanted to say that the Haggadah is mistaken,” Stern concluded, “G-d doesn’t save us in every generation from those who rise against us. In Kishinev, did He save the Jews from the hand of their murderers?”
“A rule of the Gemara,” Moishe observed, “is that we don’t learn a general rule from a detail. You see for yourself that we are still here, even though the nations of the world have tried again and again to destroy us. And just as miraculous, Hashem is bringing us back to Zion, as He promised long ago. Though we have enemies, just as the L-rd delivered us from bondage in Egypt, he will deliver us from bondage today.”
“Savlanut, dear Avraham,” Moshe Segal declared. “Rabbi Kook teaches that we have to look at history as a whole, not piece by piece. Salvation needn’t come about all at once. Instead of outward miracles, Hashem can bring Salvation to pass in a slow natural way, like we are experiencing it today through World Wars, international declarations and treaties, and the hard work of restoring our Land. We have to have trust and patience.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Stern said. “But I can’t afford to be patient. When I look toward the future, instead of Salvation, I see the Angel of Death at my door.”