Latest update: April 11th, 2013
When the festival of Pesach arrived, all work on the new settlement came to a halt in order to get ready for the Passover holiday. Tents had to be searched for chametz, and matzot had to be baked. As Tevye confided to Guttmacher, at least one thing about their new life in Olat HaShachar was easier than it had been in Russia.
“What’s that?” the undertaker asked.
“Searching for chametz.”
Guttmacher laughed. It was true. Their tents hardly had any furniture. Within minutes, all pieces of leaven and bread crumbs could be swept from the house. There were no sofas to move, no cabinets and dressers to clean, nor kitchens to scrub. But just the same, since the Master of the Universe had commanded them to remove all traces of leaven from the house during the seven day Passover holiday, they searched diligently just as Jews had been doing since the exodus from Egypt three-thousand years before. Tevye got down on his knees with a candle and feather to peer under the folds of the tent for crumbs. And sure enough, his love for the mitzvah was quickly rewarded. He didn’t find any traces of cake or bread, but he did find two curly-tailed scorpions whose sting was known to be deadly.
When it came to baking the matzot, the industrious scene could have passed for Anatevka. A special oven for baking the thin unleavened bread was made out of brick. Water from a nearby well had been stored overnight so that it would be cool at the time of the kneading, to be sure that the flour wouldn’t leaven. When the baking began, the men pounded the flour paste on top of tables and kneaded it without stopping until each batch of dough was ready. Once the flour and water were mixed, and the dough was flattened and slid into the oven, if more than eighteen minutes had passed, it had to be burned or fed to the animals before the holiday in fear that it had already leavened. Nachman was given the honor of separating the priest’s due, or challah, a mitzvah which was done only in Eretz Yisrael. Tevye, who was in charge of the kneading, made sure his workers kept shouting out, “L’sham matzah mitzvah-for the sake of the commandment of matzah.” By the middle of the frantic baking, everyone was sweating. The workers burst out in a spontaneous song.
“Just as God gathered us out from Egypt, he will gather us from the four corners of the earth!”
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.
When Tevye woke up it was already nighttime. He had no way of knowing the hour. Clouds had gathered over the coastline, blocking the moon’s light. The sand dunes looked foreboding, like giants curled up in sleep. The black, tempestuous ocean roared with a steady growl. At least, Tevye’s weakness had left him. Once again, his mucles responded to his commands. He had mixed too much vodka and wine, that was all.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he said to the mule, untying its rope from the tree.
Unlike Bilaam’s ass, the mule didn’t answer. But that didn’t stop Tevye from talking. On the contrary, a companion who quietly listened was a man’s truest friend. And in the unfamiliar darkness, talking to the dumb creature made Tevye feel less alone.
Not that he was afraid to journey at night. Hadn’t he ridden his horse through the black forests of Russian on his way home from peddling his cheeses? But then, he had known the paths in the forest like the prayers in his faded and page-torn siddur. The road home to Olat HaShachar was a much greater mystery. In fact, in the darkness, Tevye didn’t know the way back home at all.
“Don’t worry,” he assured the mule as he mounted onto its back. “All we have to do is head east away from the ocean. In no time at all we’ll be home. You can put your trust in old Tevye.”
The creature moved off in a mule’s slow, steady pace. When it reached the summit of the sand dune bordering the beach, Tevye stopped for a look around, but in the darkness, he couldn’t see any paths or tracks in the sand.
“Surely at the top of the next sand dune, we’ll find our way,” he said, more to assure himself than the mule.
In his heart, he felt a faint twinge of worry. It was true that the settlement was only a kilometer or two away, but somewhere up ahead lay the swamp.
The mule made its way down the sand dune and obediently climbed the next hill. The roar of the ocean receded in the distance. At least that was a sign that they were on the right course. Once again, at the summit, Tevye paused for a look, but the landscape seemed even blacker. The moon, which was always full on the first day of the Passover holiday, was shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds.
“It looks like it is going to rain,” Tevye noted.
The mule did not seem to care. Patiently, it waited for a kick in the side and started off down the sandy descent. When they reached level ground, the beast decided to halt on its own. Tevye clicked his tongue several times and flicked at the rope, but the creature stood frozen. In the stillness, Tevye got a whiff of the swamp. Inhaling its musty, stagnant stench, he squinted into the darkness ahead of’ them, but he couldn’t make out a thing.
“Good boy,” he said. “You’re not as dumb as you seem. Now let’s see if we can find the path to the colony. You know where it is. Lead the way.”
Tevye held the rope loosely and gave the animal a kick. He knew there was a trail because they had traveled over it that morning. It was the path the settlers would take when they met the supply boats from Jaffa. The mule had often made the short journey to pick up shipments of lumber and food. Surely, if Tevye was light on the reins, the creature would find the way home by itself.
At the top of the next sand dune, the mule once again jerked to a stop. Tevye gave it a kick, but it stood firm like a rock. Peering forward, Tevye discovered the reason. They were poised at the edge of a cliff! One additional step forward and they would have plunged into the chasm below. Earthquakes along the coast had left fissures and craters, and the caverns were treacherously deep.
“Woooo,” Tevye said.
The milkman gave a cautious tug on the rope. Obediently, the mule responded. It took a few careful steps backward, then turned around on the spot and retraced its path down the slope. When they once again reached the edge of the swamp, Tevye guided the beast to the right. Surely, the road lay in that direction.
A minute had not transpired when the mule halted abruptly again. Its body shivered below Tevye as if it, like Bilaam’s ass, had seen the Angel of Death standing before it, grasping an upraised sword. The mule reared up its head and brayed. Tevye sat frozen. The smell of the swamp filled his nostrils. Frogs croaked. To his right, a shadowy creature leaped through the darkness and splashed noisily into the water. An alligator, Tevye thought, not sure if there were alligators in this part of the world. Or a bobcat. Or more probably, a wild, man-eating boar.
“Oy vay,” Tevye thought. Either he would fall off a cliff, drown in the swamp, or be eaten by some wild creature. He heard a voice in his head remind him of a famous quote from the Talmud: “It isn’t the bite of the snake which kills, but a man’s very own sin.” Tevye trembled. Why had he gone to the beach and gotten drunk like an ignorant peasant? Why had he treated the sanctity of the Festival so lightly? Surely, he was being punished for that. If he had stayed in his tent, studying Torah, he never would have gotten lost in the swamp. Why hadn’t he listened to Nachman?
In a situation like this, what could a Jew do but pray?
“Though I walk through a valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me,” he recited, recalling the Psalm of Kind David by heart.
Insistently, Tevye gave the mule a kick. It stepped forward uncertainly, as if treading on treacherous ground. With a mind of its own, it refused to continue.
“Don’t be such a stubborn ass!” Tevye shouted, kicking its abdomen again. He flicked at the rein, urging it forward. The recalcitrant creature advanced a few short paces until it lurched forward. Its forelegs sank in the swamp. Tevye felt water splash into his shoes. With a growl, another invisible animal dived into the reeds up ahead.
“Eeeoooh!” Tevye yelled in alarm.
“Eeeaaah!” brayed the mule.
Fiercely, with all of his strength, Tevye jerked the reins to the left. The mule staggered forward and stopped.
“Yaaahh!” Tevye shouted, commanding the mule to respond.
“Yaaahh! Tevye screamed, booting the mule in its belly.
“Yaaahh!” Tevye bellowed, tugging the reins.
But the mule would not budge.
Angered, Tevye batted the mule on the head.
“Habyta, you jackass!” Tevye yelled out in Hebrew, urging the animal home. “Habyta!”
With a bellow, the frightened creature stumbled unsteadily forward. Once again its forelegs sank into the mud, this time up to its knees. The animal froze, its head slanting down toward the swamp, its rump in the air, as if it were a stallion trying to throw off a rider. Tevye grasped at the mule’s neck, bracing himself with all of his might so that he didn’t tumble forward into the water.
“CARMEL!” Tevye screamed. “ELISHA! NACHMAN! SOMEBODY SAVE ME!”
His shouts were answered by silence and the ominous buzz of mosquitoes.
“CARMEL!” he yelled, calling out for his wife. “ELISHA! NACHMAN! COME HELP!”
Certainly, someone was near. Certainly, his calls would be heard. The colony was only a short distance away, and certainly when Tevye was late in returning, a search party had already been sent out to find him.
But what if his shouts were heard by Arabs, not Jews? What if his yelling brought Bedouins? It wouldn’t be the first time that an Arab killed a Jew for his mule.
Tevye shut up. The buzzing of the mosquitoes grew louder. When one landed on his face, he gave it a slap, but the movement upset his already precarious balance. His legs squeezed the mule tightly as they both tilted dangerously towards the water.
“Oh Golda,” he whispered. “Don’t be angry with me. Get me out of this mess and I’ll leave my new wife.’
Again, a wild boar splashed into the swamp. Alarmed, Tevye tugged at the reins, pulling the mule backward. The animal made a great effort and staggered to unglue himself from the muck. But this time, his hind legs sank into the swamp. With a shudder, it stood rigid, unable or unwilling to budge.
“SOMEBODY HELP ME!” Tevye screamed.
His cry echoed over the swamp. Tevye looked up at the sky. The thick wall of clouds was beginning to scatter. The moon peeked through the umbrage as if to see who was causing all of the commotion below. For the first time, Tevye could see the reeds and bulrushes around him. In front of them was swamp. Behind them was swamp. All around them were bulrushes and reeds. Beneath him, Tevye felt the mule sink down another inch into the mud.
“Gevalt,” he mumbled. “It’s quicksand.”
The mule turned its head to look back at Tevye, as if to say, “Shmuck, why did you make me go forward?”
Tevye frowned. His legs dangled in the warm, musty water. Once again, he felt the heavy animal sink into the soupy floor of the swamp. He cried out again in the night, but the echo of his cry was swallowed up by the darkness. No one could hear him. And one wrong movement could topple him off the back of the mule to a lonely and ignominious finish. Until the whole swamp was drained, nobody would ever find him.
Tevye sat frozen, like a statue of some general on a horse. Terrified, he allowed himself just the slightest of movements, a lift of an eye up to Heaven.
“Dear God,” he began, “If You get me out of this mess, I promise to give up drinking. Have mercy, my King, have mercy. Is a man to blame for a small taste of vodka? Is getting a little shikor, a reason to drown a man in a swamp? Perhaps if I were a priest who served in the Temple, but I am only a poor milkman with less brains than this mule.”
Dark clouds once again covered the moon, as if sealing up the window to Heaven.
“If You are angry at me, please let me know why, and I will be glad to repent,” Tevye passionately pleaded. “If it is because I complain now and then, from now on I will keep my mouth tightly sealed. If it is because my mind wanders now and again in the middle of my prayers, I promise to pray like King David. If it is because I spoke loshon hora against Golda’s cousin, Menachen Mendel, if I ever see the thief again, I’ll get down on my knees and kiss his shoes.”
The wall of clouds remained impervious to Tevye’s entreaties. Mosquitoes landed on his face. Afraid to lift his hands from the nape of the mule, he let them bite him at will. A deep, sorrowful bellow sounded from the beast. Once again, it sunk another inch into the quicksand.
“Did I ever miss saying Shema Yisrael?” Tevye asked, in growing desperation. “Did I ever lift a finger on Shabbos? Did another man’s ruble ever find its way into my pocket in an unlawlul way?”
Tormented by the bites of mosquitoes, Tevye bent over to squash them against the neck of the mule. Once again, the shift of weight caused the animal’s front legs to sink deeper into the abyss.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” Tevye whispered, continuing on with the Psalm. If his own merit wasn’t sufficient to bring forth a miracle, out of God’s love for King David, surely the All-Merciful would answer his prayer. “I shall not want. He makest me to lie down in green pastures. He leadest me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.”
Tevye paused. Where was it written that drowning in quicksand was restoring the soul? But this wasn’t the time to begin arguing with God.
“I am a worthless old milkman, I know,” he continued. “But I have little Moishe and Hannei to care for, and an unborn child on the way. Why punish them? Why leave them without a father? Does leading a man in righteousness mean leading him into a swamp? ‘Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ So, if You are listening, please send me Your rod and Your staff.”
In the distance, Tevye could vaguely hear the roar of the sea. A great weariness overcame him. The mosquitoes were stinging him with a fury, but if he leaped off the mule, where would he be? Who would ever find him? Thinking back on his life, and on his long list of sorrows, he realized how truly precious life was! What a wondrous gift! How good it was to live, even in a hot, airless tent with scorpions and spiders! Why hadn’t he been grateful for every single moment of his time in the Holy Land?
“Please God,” he prayed. “Please let me live. For the sake of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. For the sake of Moses and Aaron. For the sake of Joshua and Samuel. For the sake of Kings David and Solomon. For the sake of all of the Prophets and all the great Rabbis. For the sake of Your mercy and kindness. For the sake of Jerusalem and Your Holy Land. Get me out of this swamp and I will drain it myself empty handed. I’ll plow up the wilderness and plant field after field with seeds. Just give me another chance to be a better man than I’ve been.”
When the mule sank down to its neck, Tevye broke out in a sweat. His own legs were completely covered with water. If he got off the mule, he would drown. If he tried to walk, he would be trapped in the mud. Only by staying put where he was on the animal’s back could he hope to keep his own head above water. Maybe the mule would stop sinking. Maybe morning would come. Maybe someone would see them.
Seconds crept by like minutes. Minutes like hours. An hour passed as slowly as a lifetime of days. Tevye kept praying. He kept clinging to hope. He reminded himself of the teaching of the Sages – even if a sword rested on the nape of a man’s neck, it was forbidden to cave in to despair. Millimeter after millimeter, the mule sank into the quicksand. Water reached Tevye’s waist. With tears in his eyes, the words of King David’s Psalms poured out from his soul. They were the only lifeline that could save him.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made the heaven and the earth. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night….The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Tevye prayed for what seemed like hours. When the body of the mule disappeared, and only its neck stuck out from the swamp, it turned to stare mournfully at Tevye. Its large, frightened eyes looked at its rider imploringly, as if to say, “Why don’t you get off of my back?”
“What can I do, my good friend?” Tevye replied. “If I climb off your back, I’ll end up like you.”
The head of the mule began to sink in the water.
“I know, it doesn’t seem fair,” Tevye lamented. “After all, you have four legs, and I only have two. If saving a life was decided on the basis of that, I should be the one to sacrifice my meager existence for you.”
Soon only the creature’s eyes and ears could be seen over the shroud of black water
“You should know,’’ Tevye said in words meant to comfort the both of them, “that dying in the Holy Land is a great privilege. Everyone buried in its soil goes straight up to heaven. All of his sins are forgiven, just as if he brought a sacrifice on the sacred Temple altar. So be happy, my friend. You go down, not in disgrace, but in triumph.”
The animal’s head disappeared underwater. As if in concern for its master, the mule met its fate without panic, without even a shudder. A great love for the creature welled up in Tevye’s heart.
“Forgive me, my friend,” he said in farewell.
Slowly, the animal’s ears vanished from view. A few bubbles broke the surface of the swamp, and then a deathly silence seized the night. The silence of buzzing mosquitoes.
Miraculously, the mule didn’t topple over into the swamp. Embalmed in the quicksand, it stood rigidly upright, as if still protecting its rider. Tevye continued to squeeze the animal’s ribs with his legs. Swamp water reached up to his chest. Its stench made him gasp for a breath of fresh air. But he was afraid to inhale too deeply, in fear of losing his tenuous balance. Centimeter by centimeter, he felt himself sinking into his grave. Minutes passed. Before long, only his head stuck out of the water. Trembling, his hands clutched onto the ears of the invisible mule in the damp tomb below him.
“HELP ME!!!” Tevye screamed at the top of his lungs. His cry echoed over the swamp.
“HELP MEEEEEE!” he heard himself call.
His body teetered over the water. So precarious was his perch on the mummified mule, if another mosquito were to have landed on his ear, it would have toppled him over into the merciless abyss.
“Please God,” he beseeched with all of his heart. “HEEEEEELLLP MEEEEE!!!!”
“TEVYE!” he heard a voice call.
Behind him, not far away, he saw two swinging lanterns.
It was Carmel!
“I’M HERE!” he called. “IN THE SWAMP!”
“Keep talking!” a man yelled. It was Munsho. “That way we can see where you are.”
“HURRY!” the drowning man hollered. “I’m sinking in quicksand!”
“Hurry!” he heard his wife urge.
“I don’t see him,” Munsho answered.
“There he is!” Ariel shouted, pointing at the head sticking out of the water, a dozen meters away.
“I see him!” Munsho called.
“Grab the rope!” Ariel yelled.
Swamp water wet Tevye’s beard. He wanted to turn his head to see his rescuers behind him, but he was afraid to budge. How could he grab a rope? If he raised his hands from the ears of the mule, he was finished.
“Grab the rope, Tevye!” Carmel called as the loop of a lasso landed on the surface of the water a desperate lunge away.
As the taste of the swamp water splashed over his lips, the drowning man realized that he had no other choice but to make a dive for the slender strip of twine.
“Now, Tevye, now!” Ariel shouted.
Tevye lunged. His hands snatched at the rope, but he felt only water. Floundering wildly, he tried vainly to swim. His legs kicked and paddled below him. One foot landed on the back of the mule, and he used the brief footing to push himself up from the deep. His mouth filled with the stench of the swamp. Choking, he started to sink in the water, but his ineffectual strokes were enough to keep him afloat until Ariel could reach him. Quickly, the robust young man threw the loop over Tevye’s shoulder. Clutching the rope with one hand, and his father-in-law with the other, he held Tevye’s head out of the swamp.
“Hayaaaa!” Munsho hollered, whacking his horse on the rump. The blacksmith had tied the end of the rope to the saddle. The strong, muscular Jew tugged along with the beast. Together, they managed to pull Tevye and Ariel out of the quicksand.
“Tevye, Tevye,” Carmel cried as her hero lay sprawled on dry land.
Tevye choked, spitting out the eggs of a few thousand mosquitoes. An hour later, he was safe and secure back at home. Bundled in a blanket and wearing dry clothes, he sipped at a hot cup of tea. Ariel, Munsho, Guttmacher, Elisha, Hillel, Nachman, his daughters, and Carmel stood gathered around him. How good and pleasant it was to be alive, Tevye thought. How good it was to sit with one’s family and friends. How good it was to have a God who answered when you called out to Him from the depths of your heart. How cozy his tent seemed. How blessed he was with such a brave and caring wife.
“To life!” Hillel said, holding up a bottle of vodka.
“To the mule!” Munsho added.
“Which one?” Elisha asked.
“To the mule who is no longer with us.”
Everyone smiled. True to his vow to give up hard liquor, Tevye raised up his cup of warm tea.
“To the mule,” he answered. “May his memory be for a blessing!”
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.
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