“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.