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.