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July 8, 2015 / 21 Tammuz, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Three: A New Kind of Jew


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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.

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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