For readers who think I’m exaggerating when I claim that “Tevye in the Promised Land” is unquestionably one of the greatest Jewish novels ever written, here’s an excerpt from this week’s Jewish Press serialization.
When the daughter of the Muktar from a neighboring village becomes bedridden with hepatitis, the Arab chieftain sends an emergency delegation to bring Tevye to heal her. In order to promote peace between the Arabs and the Jews, Tevye goes to the village and tries a proven, old-fashion remedy on the Muktar’s beautiful daughter….
From Chapter 25:
Before letting the Jews start on their way, the Muktar begged Tevye to pray for his daughter.
“Allah answers the prayers of the Jews,” he said.
What choice did Tevye have? The Arabs were their neighbors. The Muktar, in a way, was his friend. There was nothing in the Bible which forbade a Jew from praying for the health of a gentile. On the contrary, Abraham prayed for the Philistine king, Avimelech, and the king and his wife were healed. And the liturgy of Rosh HaShana, one of the holiest days of the year, was filled with prayers for all of mankind. So Tevye prayed, “May the Almighty heal the Muktar‘s daughter.”
Ten days later, the Abdul Abdulla showed up once again in Morasha. This time his daughter was with him. Like a princess, she rode in a wagon, swathed in a shawl and a veil which covered her cheeks. Flowers, the color of a sunset, were braided into her hair like a crown. Tevye was working in his garden when the Muktar rushed up and embraced him. His daughter had miraculously recovered. His friend Tevye had saved her from death. The very same day that Tevye had come to their village, the sick girl had stood on her feet. The next day, her color had returned to her face.
“See for yourself,” the happy Muktar said, pointing at his daughter.
With the veil hiding the lower half of her face, it was hard to tell how she was feeling. But the look of deep gratitude in her black, flashing eyes told Tevye that she had recovered.
The Muktar barked at his daughter, obviously commanding her to lower the veil for the doctor. When her fingers pushed the silk strands away, Tevye understood why Abdulla was so passionately concerned about his eldest daughter. She was, by all standards, a beauty.
“I can never repay you enough,” the chief said. “But to show you my gratitude, I want to give you my daughter in marriage. She will convert to your religion. She will learn to speak Hebrew. I promise you, she will be an obedient wife.”
Tevye was dumbfounded. For one of the few times in his life, he couldn’t find words.
The Arab held out his hand for his daughter to come down from the wagon. A slender golden leg appeared from the folds of her sari-like gown as she stepped down to the ground. Flustered, Tevye glanced away at his garden.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” the Muktar asked, proudly displaying the girl, as if she were a horse in the market.
Gracefully, like a snake in the grass, the girl moved forward in her long flowing dress. She was young, yes, but a woman all the same. Long black hair cascaded over her shoulders. Embarrassed, Tevye couldn’t find words.
“Please,” Abdulla said. “Take her. She’s yours.”
With the Muktar grabbing his arm, it was impossible for Tevye not to gaze at the girl. But even if a flood of raging waters were to smash the dam inside him, he would never, never give in. Some things were unthinkable. Some things could never be condoned. How could he ever face God? And how could he ever look at his daughters? What would become of all he had taught them if he himself were to be conquered by the wild beating in his heart? No, he would rather spend his life in the barn with the horses and cows than take some strange Delilah for a wife.
“Save me, dear Golda, save me,” he thought, clinging to her memory with all of his might.
“I will give you a rich dowry with land and with horses when you take her,” the Arab chief promised. “The marriage will be like a peace treaty between our two peoples.”
Tevye shook his head. No, no, it never could be. But he couldn’t find the right words to answer.
“Isn’t it written in your Bible that a man should not live alone? Allah heard your prayers and brought my girl back to life. Now she is yours forever.”
Tevye shook his head. He glanced at the girl, and her eyes flashed a look of unabashed gratitude, so bold and direct that Tevye felt as if a bomb had gone off in his head. He looked down at the ground, but even the mere sight of her sandaled foot made him shudder.
“Golda, save me,” he prayed…