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July 30, 2015 / 14 Av, 5775
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Possibly the Greatest Jewish Novel Ever Written

Tevye

Surely, a Turkish passerby would have thought the Jews were crazy. What normal man became so ecstatic about baking such poor-looking bread? No outsider could ever understand the great secret of their joy. The joy of doing God’s will. The joy in knowing that the words which they were singing were sure to come true.

Shimon wanted the pioneer chalutzim to keep working during the intermediary days of the seven-day holiday. He maintained the commandment of settling the Land of Israel took pecedence the prohibition of working on Chol HaMoed, the intermediary days of the holiday, if the work was vital to the success of the yishuv. Of course, this ruling brought groans from the settlers, who were tired of the swamps, the ditch digging, and the planting of eucalyptus trees. Pesach was Pesach. In Russia, they hadn’t worked during the seven-day holiday. Why should they here? Nachman was prepared to side with Shimon, reasoning that the work of draining the swamps could save lives, and this justified working on the festival.

“Going into the swamps is what kills people,” Tevye argued, “not staying out of them.”

While his point was well-taken, it wasn’t completely correct. Dozens of settlers had fallen victim to yellow fever and malaria without actually descending into the swamps. Since the Morasha settlers had arrived, the swamps had claimed two further victims among the “Lovers of Zion.” A father and son who were working in the fields near the marshes at the other side of the settlement had come down with the fever and died. The disease-carrying mosquitoes could fly wherever they wished, making the whole vicinity a hazard. But since the overwhelming majority of settlers were in favor of rest, a vacation from work was declared. The mosquitoes could wait. Passover was the festival of freedom, and people were happy for a chance to forget about the dangerous labor of draining the swamps.

On the third day of the holiday, Hillel suggested that they go to the beach for a swim. Nachman frowned at the idea. Swimming wasn’t exactly in the spirit of the exaltedly holy holiday, and the Rabbis had warned against treating the sanctity of the festival lightly. But his explanation was met with boos, and an outing was organized. Since there weren’t enough horses to go around, Tevye rode on a mule. He had given his own horse and wagon to Bat Sheva and Ariel as a wedding present. Moishe and Hannei rode in a mule-driven cart with Elisha’s younger children. Taking along matzot, fruits, water, and bottles of vodka and wine, the picnickers headed off to the ocean a short distance away. Relaxing on the beach was, in Tevye’s words, a life-giving “machiah.” Sitting on the shore with his butt in the sand and his feet in the cool frothing waves, the swamp-drainer felt new life seep through his body. The sky was clear blue with puffs of white clouds. A refreshing breeze blew in from the ocean. The water shone with a purity, as if it flowed out of the Garden of Eden. This, Tevye thought, was freedom. He lifted a bottle of vodka to his lips and took a generous swallow. He was accustomed every morning after praying to down a shot glass of vodka with quinine before heading off to work in the swamps, but the holiday was the cause for a little extra celebration. Munsho passed Tevye a bottle of wine, and the pioneer milkman made a healthy “L’Chaim!” Before long, his head was dizzy from the sunshine and spirits. Hilled played his accordion. The children splashed in the waves. One last time, Tevye made sure that Ariel was watching them, then he laid back in the sand and drifted off to sleep. A wave washed over him, splashing his face. Startled, he sat up and looked around in a daze. The children were frolicking happily in the water under Ariel’s watchful care. Satisfied that he could steal a few winks, Tevye trudged up the beach and lay down against the gentle curve of a dune. Soo he was fast asleep.

When he woke up, the sun was setting. It stared at him like a huge red, hungover eye, then sank slowly into the ocean with a radiant glow. He held his hand to his head and winced. A clanging in his brain rang from ear to ear like a blacksmith’s anvil. He recalled Ariel trying to wake him, and answering that he would follow right along. But apparently he had fallen back to sleep. Gazing around, Tevye noted that the beach was deserted. His mule stood tied to the trunk of a palm tree. Tevye braced a hand on the sand to get up, but an overwhelming weakness swept over him as if he had been hit by a gigantic wave. His limbs refused to obey him. Helplessly, he swooned backward onto the sand. With a sigh, he stared up at the darkening heavens, wondering what the Master of the Universe had in store for him now. Then he closed his cumbersome eyelids. In a moment, the sound of his snoring echoed over the shore. The mule clapped a hoof in the sand and brayed, as if to remind its master that nightfall was fast approaching.

About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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Tzvi Fishman, author of the Jewish Press blog Felafel on Rye and author of more than a dozen books.
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