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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Three: A New Kind of Jew


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All of Tevye’s life, it seemed like he was always saying good-bye. Back in the old country, what now seemed like lifetimes ago, his Hodel had left him for Perchik. Then Hava had run off with her gentile, and Shprintza had drowned. Then the heart and soul of his being, his devoted wife, Golda, had departed for a more eternal world. His beautiful Baylke had left for America. Then the family had been chased out of Anatevka to set off like gypsies without country or home. When Tzeitl had died, a candle in his soul had been extinguished, but the need to take care of her children had made him stand strong. True, he had the joy of being united with Ruchel, but Tevye wasn’t convinced that his troubles were over. So, with one eye on his daily chores, and one eye raised toward the sky, Tevye waited for the next blow to fall. And so it was, when the time came to leave Zichron Yaacov for the new settlement site, Tevye had to say good-bye once again – this time to Hava who was staying on as a nurse in the hospital’s malaria clinic. She had made up her mind. None of his arguments had an effect.

“May the Lord protect you and keep you,” he said, laying his hands on her head and blessing her with the prayer which Jewish fathers had blessed their children for thousands of years. He hugged her and gave her a kiss, then once again climbed up into his wagon, just as he had been doing all of his life.

Fifteen pioneer families plus children were journeying off to establish the new Morasha community. Ruchel and Nachman. Hillel, Shmuelik, and Goliath. A near minyan of nine Hasidic families from Lubavitch. A family of Yemenite Jews. Tevye. And Reb Guttmacher, the undertaker, who repeated his motto to whomever he met, “I’ve dug enough holes for the dead. Now I want to dig holes for the living.”

“To life!” Tevye agreed as their caravan left the Zichron road to venture east across the flatlands which led to the mountainous spine of the country. “L’Chaim!”

“L’Chaim!” the Hasidim exclaimed. Instantly a bottle of vodka was afloat in the air, passing from hand to hand until all of the pioneers had made a toast on the success of their enterprise. Not wanting to be left out, Elisha, the dark-skinned Yemenite, took a swig of the harsh-tasting brew. Choking, he spit the vodka out on the ground.

Tevye laughed. “We’ll make a Jew out of you yet,” he said.

The others joined in with his good-natured laughter. Hillel gave the small, exotic-looking Jew a whack on the back.

“You’ll get used to it, don’t worry,” he said.

“You can keep it,” the Yemenite responded. “I have something better.”

He reached out a hand and one of his grown sons handed him a bottle.

“What is it?” Hillel asked.

“Arak.”

“What’s Arak?” the Russian Jew asked.

The Yemenite passed him the homemade brandy, distilled from the fruit of the etrog and herbs. Hillel raised it to his nose and inhaled a deep scent of licorice.

“If it tastes as good as it smells, I’ll buy a few bottles,” he said.

Throwing his head back, he took a big gulp. Suddenly, it was his turn to choke. Beneath the liquor’s sweetness was the kick of a mule. Hillel bent over coughing. Now it was Elisha’s turn to slap Hillel on the back. Soon both bottles were being passed through the air. Urged on by the Hasids, everyone, including the Yemenite, began singing a lively Baruch Haba welcome to Mashiach.

Baruch Haba, Baruch Haba,

      Melech HaMashiach.

      Baruch Haba, Baruch Haba,

      Melech HaMashiach.

      Ay yay yay, Melech HaMashiach,

      Ay yay yay, Baruch Haba,

      Ay yay yay, Melech HaMashiach,

      Ay yay yay, Baruch Haba.”

When the long-gowned, long-sidelocked, prayer-shawl enswathed Yemenite had first arrived in Zichron Yaacov, the Russian Jews had found it difficult to believe that this golden-skinned apparition could be a Jew. The first time Tevye saw him, he mistook him for an Arab. But an Arab with tzitzit and peyes? The sight was a puzzle. When Elisha joined them in prayer, this seemed even stranger. Everyone knew that only a Jew could be included in an official prayer minyan of ten. Still more bewildering, the Yemenite spoke Hebrew more fluently than all of them. True, the melodious wailing which ushered from his lips was a Hebrew which Tevye had never heard, but it was the language of his forefathers nonetheless.

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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