Latest update: January 15th, 2013
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.
“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,
Baruch Haba, Baruch Haba,
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.
“You are really a Jew?” Tevye asked in surprise.
The man nodded yes. He looked at Tevye from head to foot. “Are you?”
“Am I a Jew?” Tevye bellowed.
“You don’t look like a Jew,” the Yemenite said.
Tevye’s back stiffened. “My mother and father were Jews, and their mother and father were Jews, and their mother and father before them, all of the way back to Abraham,” Tevye declared.
“So were mine,” the man answered, standing in a pose of defiance, but smiling at Tevye with his eyes. “All of the way back to Abraham. We must be related.”
“Nonsense,” Tevye said. “Your skin is as brown as clay.”
“Did you think that Abraham wore a shtreimel hat and spoke Yiddish?”
“Of course not. But he certainly wasn’t black.”
“There is a tradition which teaches that when God gave the Torah on Sinai amidst thunder and fire, the people who loved God the most ran forward to get as close as they could, and their skin was burned by the flames. These were the Yemenite Jews. Others, frightened by the fire and thunder, ran away to the edge of the camp. These became Ashkenazic Jews. In punishment, when the exile came, God sent these Jews far away from His Land to the cold northern countries of Russia and Europe. The Jews whose skin was darkened because they rushed to be close to the mountain, were exiled close by, in neighboring lands, in reward. Like my people, the Yemenite Jews.”
“A boobeh-miseh fairytale of a story if I ever heard one!” Tevye declared.
The exotic-looking Jew smiled a warm happy smile. His eyes, black as coal, seemed to glow. Graciously, he invited Tevye to join him in his quarters for a drink. That’s how their friendship began. Surprisingly, he led Tevye to one of the settlement’s chicken coops. Upon their arrival at Zichron Yaacov, the Yemenite family had been assigned to live with the chickens. With a wife and eleven children, the arrangement made for cramped living, but the happy-eyed Jew hadn’t complained. The coop had a roof, and the family wasn’t bothered at all by the smell of the fowls. During the day, the chickens didn’t stop squawking, but having been blessed with their own brood of children, Elisha and his wife were no strangers to noise. Fortunately, during the night, in harmony with the Almighty’s plan for Creation, the chickens slept peacefully until the first signs of morning – when it was time to get up to go to work in the fields.
Though Elisha was the same age as Tevye, he looked twenty years younger. So did his wife. If not for the white kerchief she wore swirled on her head, Tevye would have mistaken her for one of his daughters. Her color was more golden red than her husband’s, and she had the same dark glowing eyes. As if times had never changed, she wore the tribal robe which Yemenite women had been wearing for ages. For the length of Tevye’s visit in their chicken coop of a home, she never uttered a word. Most of the time, she stayed out of view behind the curtains which they used as a room divider at the far end of the coop. Occasionally, she would appear to see if their plate of grapes needed refilling, or else she would send one of her strikingly beautiful daughters. Like Tevye’s wife, Golda, she served generous portions, but whereas Golda was quick to add her opinion to every discussion, Elisha’s wife let her husband do all of the talking.
Their eldest children were a little older than Tevye’s, while their youngest was still crawling on the floor. All had the same gem-like Yemenite eyes. The hue of their skin was the color of rich golden earth. The boys had side locks down to their shoulders, and the long black hair of the girls hung down their backs like the manes of Arabian stallions.
Over a glass of Arak, and the happy, thankful smile which never left his face, Elisha told Tevye his life story. Like every other place on the globe where the wandering Jews had settled, there had been good times and there had been bad times in Yemen. For several generations, Jews had been left to live in peace, but like in Russia, things eventually had taken a turn for the worse. The Yemenite Jews were third-class citizens, hounded by Moslem terror, victims of beatings and theft. Their complaints to the ruling Turks fell on deaf ears. The only work they could find was invariably outside of the city, and highwaymen made the roadways a peril. All of his life, Elisha had heard magical stories about Eretz Yisrael, about the gigantic oranges and figs which a man could barely lift with two hands, and about the Yemenites who had become wealthy farmers and businessmen there. When Moslems began killing Jews, instead of merely praying in the direction of Zion three times a day, Elisha had decided to embark on the long and hazardous journey.
Before continuing his narrative, Elisha once again filled Tevye’s glass to the brim, as if to fortify him for the saga he was about to relate. Tevye listened intently. Chickens scurried around them and occasionally flew onto the table, but the two men ignored them. With a broom, one of Elisha’s children kept sweeping them away from the “salon.”
With eighty fellow villagers, Elisha’s family had set forth with all of their meager belongings. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and parents accompanied them for miles before waving tearful good-byes. Children and grandparents who had trouble walking, rode on the few camels they had. Everyone else traveled on foot. After three days, they reached the great desert and began a punishing trek. Their mornings would begin an hour before sunrise, when they would set off in cool of the dawn. Hours later, when the sun rose over their heads in the sky, they would seek rest from its pitiless heat, crowding together in whatever shade they could find. Scorched by the sun and desert wind, the men had to strip off their undergarments. The desert water was bitter, barely quenching their thirst. For meals, the women baked malawach, a thin, wafer-like pancake of bread. All through the day, flies clung to their faces, no matter how much they were swatted away. In the late afternoon, when the sun’s fury lessened, they once again set forth over the endless landscape of dunes. In the evening, they would walk until they came upon a village, where they would buy whatever staples they lacked. More often than not, hostile tribesmen sought to rob them, but four of the Jews had guns, and one blast from a rifle was enough to scare marauders away.
One night, they were surrounded by a company of Moslem soldiers. When the soldiers attacked, the Jews pulled out their swords. Elisha’s oldest son, Ariel, opened fire with his rifle. Immediately, the soldiers panicked and fled. But the victory was short-lasting. In the next village they came to, more soldiers were waiting. The Jews were arrested as traitors and held under guard for a week until the decision arrived from the capital to release them. Elisha called it a miracle.
“Thank the good Lord,” Tevye said, pushing his empty glass forward.
“Amen,” Elisha responded. “In the merit of our righteous forefathers who remained faithful to our holy Torah for thousands of years in the face of oppression and danger, God saves us again and again.”
“To our forefathers,” Tevye said, holding up his replenished glass. The two men toasted and Elisha continued his tale.
Weeks later, after having marched on foot over two-thousand kilometers, the Yemenites reached the coast. Some fainted at the sight of the water. A grandfather collapsed in the water and drowned. To escape the sun and the heat, they gathered sticks and cloth and made primitive shelters on the beach. They were told that the steamer traveling to Palestine passed by once in six months. They could wait or take sailboats to Aden, but Jews were forbidden to enter Aden with arms. So they sold their rifles and swords, even their slaughtering knives. For weeks they ate fruit and fish. Then, while waiting for the boat to arrive, a company of soldiers on horseback appeared on the seashore and charged at them while they were unarmed. The only defense they had were the weapons of their forefathers – the blasts of their shofars and their prayers. Elisha stood with his long, curving ram’s horn and sent three militant blasts through the air. “Tekiah! Tekiah! Tekiah!” Other shofars sounded around him. Thinking that the Jews were calling evil spirits, the soldiers turned and retreated. The Moslems, Elisha explained, were superstitious people, and they feared that the Jews could bring down thunderbolts from Heaven.
In the meantime, a sailor came running with the news that a boat was waiting out in the harbor. Walking in water up to their chests, they reached the small rowboats which ferried passengers out to the ship. With a cheer, the Jews climbed on board.
Tevye raised his empty glass once again with a broad, cheerful smile. But this time, Elisha did not extend the bottle. His eyes squinted with seriousness as he went on with his story. Their joy, he said, was short-lived as storm clouds rushed toward them and enveloped the ship in turbulent waters. Crowded together, with rain pouring down on their heads, and a howling wind piercing their bones, the terrified Jews roped themselves together so that the waves crashing down over the boat would not wash them away. They begged the Almighty to save them. A week passed without a glimpse of the sun. When Elisha’s pregnant wife went into labor, the other women sat in a circle around her, screening the men from the birth. Not a peep passed her lips as her eleventh child was born. But before Elisha’s friends could wish him a mazal tov, a mast snapped like a twig, and a sail flew away over the ocean. Waves splashed on board. Planks shattered and seawater poured through the breaches. Three children were washed overboard. No one could save them. Working heroically, the crew managed to anchor the ship close to the shore, where hasty repairs were made. Elisha paused in his story to bend down to the floor and pick up the toddler who was crawling under the table. Fittingly, he had named the boy, Yonah, after the prophet who had been saved from a stormy and turbulent sea.
Tevye was breathless. His own journey to Israel had been no simple hike, but Elisha’s tale was astounding. Once again, the Yemenite filled up their glasses and took up his adventure, spinning his tale with the deftness of Tevye’s acquaintance, the famous writer, Sholom Aleichem. Continuing in the morning, the boat reached Aden by noon, but the Moslems refused to let them disembark. When night came, Elisha’s eldest son, Ariel, snuck down the ladder and swam into shore. In the morning, he made his way to the market and found a rich Jew who was able to arrange permission for the Yemenites to land. On the dock, they were detained by police and herded into an empty warehouse. After waiting two weeks, they boarded a French boat which was loaded with lumber and heading for Eretz Yisrael. Nine days later, they finally reached Jaffa. Their prayers and dreams had come true. Falling on their hands and their knees, they kissed the holy soil.
But that was only the beginning of their journey, Elisha said with a smile. He poured Tevye another drink of the aromatic liquor. In Jaffa, the Yemenite said, it had been impossible to find decent work. Unlike the success stories which they had heard, the Jews immigrating from Yemen were paid the lowest wages. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, Yemenites, who managed to find work in the fields, were terrorized by Arab laborers who felt threatened by the meager pay the “black” Jews received. The Yemenites could all recite the Torah by heart, but their spoken Hebrew was basic, preventing them from working in their trades. Furthermore, the Ashkenazic pronunciation which dominated the new Jewish pioneer communities didn’t sound to them like Hebrew at all. To survive, Elisha found himself learning Yiddish from his boss at the Rothschild warehouse where he worked at “sabalut,” lugging barrels of wine to the port. Elisha insisted that he wasn’t complaining. He was merely relating the conditions which his family had met upon reaching the Promised Land. Abraham, he said, had journeyed to the Land of Israel when there were no Jews at all in the country. A famine awaited him instead. Even though God had promised that the country would be an eternal gift to him and his children, he had to beg the people of Hebron to sell him a burial site for his wife. The wells which he and his son Isaac had dug were filled in again and again by the Philistines. The trials of the Patriarchs had been endless, he said, so who was he to complain?
After several glasses of the powerful liquor, Tevye had come to love the happy little Jew who lived in a chicken coop of a house. But not complain? That was asking too much of a man. After all, complaining was a part of being Jewish. How could a Jew not complain? How else, in his miserable existence, was he to find any pleasure? Other luxuries cost money, while complaining was free. Not that Tevye ever doubted the goodness of the Master of the World, chas v’sholem. To Tevye, complaining was no worse than snoring. But he let Elisha finish telling his story and conquered his urge to debate.
It was Baron Rothschild who had tried to integrate the poor immigrants from Yemen into the settlement colonies. They proved to be excellent workers, far surpassing the Russians. Exceedingly humble, and accustomed to the Mediterranean heat, the Yemenites were willing to do all of the menial work which the Ashkenazic Jews disdained. Rather than hiring Arab workers, the Baron felt that he could bolster the cause of Jewish labor by employing the lower paid Yemenites. But a caste system developed, and when the Yemenite Jews at Zichron were segregated into their own tent village on the outskirts of the moshav, Elisha decided to volunteer to become a founding member of Morasha. There, he believed, a fairer, more utopian community could be established with equal rights for every Jew, no matter the shade of his skin.
Elisha smiled, concluding his saga. The bottle of Arak stood empty on the table.
“Carmel,” he called.
The curtain behind him rustled and one of his pretty, golden-skinned daughters appeared. She kept her eyes lowered modestly toward the ground as Elisha held out his hand, motioning her to come forward. Barefooted, she stepped gracefully next to her father and let him embrace her around her waist.
“We need some more refreshments for our guest,” the master of the chicken coop said.
The girl reached down for the empty plate of fruit and the bottle, but when she turned to leave, her father continued to hold her.
“This is my oldest daughter, Carmel,” he said, introducing the young woman to Tevye. “Carmel, this is our new neighbor, Tevye.”
Tevye didn’t know whether the dizziness he felt in his head came from the liquor, or from the glow in her eyes when she glanced at him with her dark, exotic expression.
“Truthfully,” Elisha said, “in deciding to join the Morasha group, my main concern was my daughters. We Yemenites have kept our community pure for thousands of years, and all of you are from Russia. Who are my daughters going to marry?”
Tevye glanced away from the young woman in order to gain his composure.
“With God’s help,” Elisha said, “the colony will grow, and more Yemenites will follow. That’s what we are hoping. Isn’t that right, my sweet daughter?”
With a blush, the young women slipped away from her father. Her long skirt rustled and she hurried back behind the curtain.
“You too have daughters?” Elisha said.
“Yes,” Tevye answered.
Could it be he was drunk on only half a bottle of liquor? True, he wasn’t used to the licorice-tasting Arak, but it surely was no stronger than good Russian vodka. Behind the curtain, he heard an exchange of whispers that he couldn’t make out. When the curtain was drawn back again, instead of the girl, Elisha’s wife reappeared, carrying a plate of cakes and another bottle of Arak.
The Yemenite smiled as he uncorked the new bottle.
“In the manner of you Russian Jews, let’s make a toast. May God help us find good husbands for our daughters.”
“Could it be?” Tevye wondered as Elisha filled up his glass. “No, no, it couldn’t. It was absurd. It was ridiculous. Dark eyes or not, the girl was the age of his daughter!”
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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