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November 24, 2014 / 2 Kislev, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter 12: Hodel

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

It was impossible to tell which thought gave Tevye more happiness. The thought of stepping foot in Jerusalem, or the thought of seeing his Hodel again. True, Hodel was his own flesh and blood. She was like a little piece of his Golda. Hadn’t he listened to his wife’s painful groans through eight excruciating hours of childbirth? Hadn’t he cradled the girl in his arms when nightmares disturbed her sleep? With pride and with great fatherly joy, he had watched her grow from a tot into a woman. And how empty and heartbroken he had felt when she rode off on a train to follow her Perchik into exile. But Jerusalem – Jerusalem was more than a child. Jerusalem was more than a man’s family. Jerusalem was a dream. It was more than a dream. Who ever thought that the dream of Jerusalem could ever come true?

How could it be, you ask? How could it be that a city which Tevye had never seen could occupy such a powerful place in his heart? For a Jew, the answer was simple. For two-thousand years, three times a day, Jews prayed to return to their city. After every meal, after every piece of bread, and every piece of cake, they prayed for Jerusalem’s welfare. No matter where a Jew lived, the city of Jerusalem was to be the center of his life. It was the place where the Pascal lamb was to be eaten on the Passover holiday, and where first fruits were brought on Shavuos. There, by the pool of Shiloach, joyous water celebrations were held on Sukkos. It was the site of the ancient Temple, the Beis HaMikdash, may it soon be rebuilt. It was the place where the Sanhedrin declared the new months, and where the High Priest atoned for the nation on Yom Kippur. There, the miracle of Hanukah had occurred when the Maccabees had won their great victory over the Greeks. For Jews all over the world, each day started with the hope – perhaps this was the day that God would rescue them from their exile in foreign lands and bring them back to Jerusalem.

But the dream of his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before them, and all of his grandfathers all the way back to Abraham wasn’t to come true for the moment. They only had use of the JCA wagon for a week, so the ascent up the mountains leading to Jerusalem would have to be postponed so that they could make the three-day journey up north to the kibbutz where Hodel was living.

With tears in her eyes, Ruchel kissed her sister Tzeitl goodbye. Tzeitl seemed so frail and so thin, Ruchel feared that she might never see her big sister again, God forbid. For weeks now, Tzeitl hardly touched any food, and the weight she lost had hollowed her cheeks. Her cough clung to her like a menacing shadow, and her always hopeful smile seemed more to comfort others, so as not to cause her family anguish. The sisters hugged without looking too deeply into each other’s eyes. Ruchel kissed Hava, Bat Sheva, and gave the children big squeezes. Then she turned toward her father. The time had come to return to Rishon so that Nachman could assume his new position as melamed, teaching in the Talmud Torah. Tevye wore a big happy grin. If he had done one good thing in his life, it was bringing Ruchel to the chuppah to marry Nachman. Not that the match had been so much his doing, but it showed that he had succeeded in educating his daughter along the right path. Married to Nachman, she would always live a life of tradition. So even if they were setting off on their own for Rishon LeZion, away from the rest of the family, Tevye felt happy and confident that he was entrusting his girl to a God-fearing man who loved her with all of his heart.

“Remember, Abba,” she called from the wagon, using the Hebrew expression for father. “Tell Hodel and Perchik that we are expecting them to come visit us soon.”

Though Shmuelik and Hillel wanted to accompany their childhood friend, Nachman, he advised them to wait until he could arrange permission for them to join the already established yishuv. Though he was skeptical about his chances of persuading Dupont, he felt the resourceful Aharon might be able to help. In the meantime, they agreed to travel with Tevye. The decision required no forceful persuasion – both of them nurtured a secret attraction for Bat Sheva, Tevye’s fiery, plum-cheeked daughter. Though she hardly glanced at them, each had high hopes.

Tevye was nobody’s fool. Being as good a judge of men as he was of horses and cows, (except in the case of the crook Menachem Mendel, his wife’s fast-talking, second cousin, who persuaded him to squander his life’s savings in worthless stocks) he realized that both men were on the lookout for wives. In Tevye’s mind, Shmuelik was just the right man to tame his youngest daughter. True, the scholar was quiet, and Bat Sheva liked spice and adventure, but Tevye was hoping that the lesson she had received from Ben Zion would teach her that a sincere, God-fearing husband was better than a swaggering Machiavelli she never could trust.

As for Tzeitl’s future, her father could only sigh. Goliath was ready to make her his wife, and sweet-natured Tzeitl probably would have consented, if not out of love, then for the sake of her children. But in her present condition, there was no sense in pursuing the match. Tevye wanted to hospitalize her in Jaffa, where she could rest and recover from the hardships of their journey, but she stubbornly refused. She even defied her father’s wishes on the doorstep of the hospital where Tevye had deviously brought her.

“I am ordering you,” he commanded.

“No,” she protested.

“Remember, I am your father,” he said.

“I don’t need a hospital,” she answered. “I want to see Hodel, that’s all.”

“What you want isn’t important,” he said. “What your father wants is what counts. Since Motel, the poor creature, went to his Maker, you have returned to my care, and I am commanding you to do what I say.”

“I am going to the kibbutz to see Hodel, and that’s final,” Tzeitl argued. “The last thing I need is to be cooped up in a hospital with other sick people.”

There was something to be said for her argument. After all, more people died in hospitals than lived. But, still, in her condition, she was too weak to travel. To convince her, Tevye resorted to a verse from the Torah.

“Isn’t it written in the Ten Commandments, `Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long in the Land which I gave to your forefathers’? Here we are in the Land, and I am commanding you to obey my wishes, whether you want to or not.”

“Oh, Abba,” Tzeitl said. “Haven’t you learned by now that your eldest daughter has a mind of her own.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “When I arranged for you to marry Anatevka’s wealthiest man, the butcher Lazar Wolf, and you fell in love with your tailor. Who ever heard of a girl falling in love before her wedding?”

“You can’t set the clock backward. Young people have changed.”

“Well, if you won’t listen to me, then for the sake of your children, please let the doctors try to help you.”

“All right,” she agreed. “To please you. But only after I see my sister Hodel.”

She stared at him defiantly. Tevye remembered that look, when her eyes turned to ice. There was no use in arguing. When Tzeitl made up her mind that was that. Hell could freeze over before she would give in. A battle would only weaken her strength. So, with a shrug, Tevye turned away from the hospital.

With the last rubles he had, Tevye purchased a horse and a wagon, and the wanderers headed north along the Damascus road to join their Hodel in Shoshana.

Once again, Tevye was amazed at the desolation they encountered as they traveled along the coastal plain, then ascended the range of hills that made up the backbone of the country. Boulders covered the landscapes. The topsoil was nothing but rock. Hardly a shrub could be seen. Here and there, an olive tree grew like a reminder of the country’s once glorious past. “Some metsia,” Tevye thought. A land filled with rocks wasn’t such a big bargain. But at least it was theirs. Occasionally, a lone bedouin rode by on a donkey, carrying produce to the Jerusalem market. Now and then, a few Turkish soldiers would salute them as they galloped by on their horses, but otherwise, the countryside was deserted, with hardly a town or a village to welcome them on their way. Miles and miles of hillsides and valleys lay barren, having staunchly resisted cultivation for two-thousand years, turning away foreign conqueror after conqueror, as if waiting for the Land’s true children to come home.

To help shorten their journey, Hillel sat in the rear of the wagon, playing his accordion and singing. Hadn’t musicians accompanied the Jews when Ezra led them back to the Holy Land to build the Second Temple? And didn’t the Psalm promise, “When the Lord will return the exiles to Zion, our mouths will be filled with glad song?” Hillel had a merry, soothing voice, and the children loved to listen. You might have thought he was a minstrel trying to win Bat Sheva’s heart, the way he kept smiling at her, hoping for a look of approval. But his intentions were the furthest thing from her mind, possessed as it was with thoughts of Ben Zion and the approaching moment when she would see him again.

Tevye’s spirits remained boisterous, not only with the prospect of soon seeing Hodel, but with the wise transaction he had made for the horse. Like a learned and experienced veterinarian, he had given the animal a careful examination, checking its teeth for decay, its legs for spastic twitches, and its feces for worms. The Jew who had sold it to Tevye was a carpenter. Unable to make a decent living, he was leaving the country to seek better luck in America. He said he was disillusioned with the Jewish Colony Association and with the Baron’s dictatorial clerks. They were the reason he had moved to Jerusalem. In the city, he couldn’t compete with the cheap Arab labor, so, to feed his family, he was forced to move on. Instead of fixing tables and chairs in Palestine, he would build mansions for the Jews in America. Tevye didn’t try to dissuade him. At the price he was asking, the horse was a steal. And, thank God, the beast passed the test in the field. It pulled the wagon with ease and didn’t seem to tire in the unrelenting sun. And to Tevye’s great pleasure, the animal responded to its new master’s cues as if they had been partners for years.

To entertain the children when Hillel wasn’t singing, Tevye pointed out the sites of famous Biblical battles and stories, as if he really knew the locations where they had occurred. On the hill over there, King Saul was born, he declared with great authority. And over there, by the very same olive tree, the prophet Samuel would receive pilgrims seeking the word of the Lord. Here, of course, in Gilgal, Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still. And here, on what was definitely Mount Tabor, the valiant Deborah had led an inspired Israeli army on a rout of Sisera’s forces. Shmuelik knew the Biblical stories with a great deal more textual accuracy, but since he wasn’t familiar with the geography of the Holy Land, he abstained from correcting Tevye and embarrassing him in front of his family.

Reaching the city of Shechem, which Jacob had captured with his bow and his sword, the travelers stopped to pray at the tomb of the saintly Joseph. Then, journeying over the mountains, they reached the Jordan Valley, north of the desert plains north of Jericho, where the Children of Israel had come into the Land of Israel after their forty years of wilderness wandering. The road wasn’t so much of a road as a trail of old wagon tracks. Sand-covered mountains rose up around them. Goliath suggested they rest during the fierce noon hours, but there was hardly a shade tree that could provide them with shelter all along the desolate way. To the east, an oasis of green date palms, cypress trees, and willows lined the serpentine path of the Jordan River, but the steep sand dunes and treacherous chasms in the valley prevented the wagon from reaching its banks.

To help pass the time, Shmuelik opened the Book of Books and read aloud, as if he were teaching children in heder.

The words of the Torah and the stark ancient landscape had a magical, inspiring effect. Tevye had traveled through many of the forests and mountains of Russia, but he had never experienced anything spiritual in the air. But here, in the Holy Land, everything was steeped with Biblical wonder. Tevye didn’t even complain about sleeping outdoors on a burlap sack which he spread out over the rocky, back-breaking earth. Had Jacob complained when he had slept on a pillow of rocks and dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder which reached up to Heaven? Imagine what would Moses have given to be in Tevye’s place! Moses, the faithful shepherd of the Children of Israel, who devoted his whole life to leading the Jews, had only one wish for himself – to enter the Promised Land, a blessing that was ultimately denied him. Lying on his back, staring up at the twinkling heavens, Tevye understood why Moses was so heartbroken after his entreaties failed. Even a simple milkman could feel the spirit of God in the Land. A canopy of constellations glimmered like gold dust in every corner of the sky, a witness to the promise which God had made to Abraham to make his offspring as illustrious as the stars in the heavens.

Finally, after a sweltering, week-long journey, a shimmering blue hallucination materialized out of the haze in the distance. They had reached Lake Kinneret, also called the Sea of Galilee, shining in the sun like a jewel. With a cheer, Tevye urged the horse forward. Goliath ran to keep pace with the wagon. Further north along the winding hillside road was the holy city of Tiberias, where they would spend the Sabbath. Fully dressed, everyone rushed to jump in the lake to cool off in its sparkling fresh waters. Tevye knelt on his hands and knees alongside his horse and lapped up the fresh, life-giving liquid. Then, like a king in a royal bath, he rolled over on his back in the shallows and let the gentle waves of the lake massage his weary bones.

Refreshed, the pioneers continued toward the city of Tiberias, burial site of the great Jewish sages, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yochanan, the Rambam, the Ramchal, and Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. But a blockade on the road prevented them from reaching the ancient lakeside city. Turkish soldiers ordered the wagon to halt. Shmuelik, who knew Aramaic and Hebrew, and who had picked up rudiments of the Arabic language and Turkish during his month in Jaffa, acted as interpreter. Apparently a plague of cholera had broken out in the city, and dozens of people had died.

“Among the Jews?” Shmuelik asked.

“Why shouldn’t the Jews be stricken along with everyone else?” the soldier answered. “We all drink the same water. People drop dead every day.”

Tevye spit up a few drops of the mouthfuls of water he had swallowed in the lake. The news of the plague dampened everyone spirits. Perhaps invisible bacteria were already invading their blood. One of the red-caftanned Turks asked what business they had in Tiberias. When Shmuelik told him where they were headed, the soldier said that the village of Shoshana was only a two hour ascent up the mountain. Tevye wanted to know if the kibbutz had also been hit by the plague, God forbid. The soldier shrugged. He hadn’t heard anything. He acted like he really didn’t care. Obediently, Tevye swung the wagon around in the road. Hoping they had found the right trail, the group set off into the mountains.

There were wagon-wheel tracks along the primitive path, some drying horse dung, and signs that a sheep herd had recently passed. Suddenly, up ahead of the wagon, an Arab tent topped by a red Turkish flag was stationed at a bend in the road. Two nasty-looking Arabs clutching rifles stepped out onto the trail, blocking the path of the wagon. Tevye tugged on the reins. Goliath protectively walked forward alongside Tevye’s horse. The taller of the two Arabs barked out angry orders. At first, Shmuelik didn’t understand what he wanted. Frustrated, the Arab began yelling. Goliath stood tensely, waiting to pounce. Finally, the Arab shouted the word, “Tobacco.” Shmuelik told him they didn’t have any. Angrily, the Arab shouted the word tobacco again. Ominously, he raised the rifle which he held cradled in his arms. Once again, Shmuelik began to explain, but Hillel interrupted before he could finish.

“I have some tobacco,” he said.

He opened his traveling bag and fished out a pouch of tobacco. “They told me it makes a good bribe with the Arabs,” he explained to the others in Yiddish. “Under Turkish law, tobacco is outlawed. This must be some kind of checking station. You can be sure our two friends are going to keep the booty for themselves.”

He flipped the pouch to the Arab, who snatched it from the air with a smile. Grinning, the unsavory couple returned to the shade of their tent. When the roadway was clear, Tevye whipped the reins of the wagon and hurried the wagon on down the trail.

“I wonder what they would have done to us if we didn’t have any tobacco to give them,” Bat Sheva said.

“They probably would have cut off our hands,” Hillel answered.

The girl looked at him seriously. “Maybe we should invest in a rifle,” she said.

Tevye laughed. The idea was amusing. “Who ever heard of a Jew with a rifle?” he asked.

“Why not?” Hava said. “This isn’t Russia. Certainly in our own Land, a Jew has the right to bear arms.”

“Spoken like a true Zionist,” her father said.

“Well, at least now we know the best crop to grow when we have our own farms,” Hillel said.

“What’s that?” Moishe asked.

“Tobacco.”

Hillel strapped his accordion over his shoulders and began to bang out a tune. In what seemed a short time, they came to an open valley and a patchwork of neatly plowed fields tended by industrious farmers. A worker walked along, scattering seeds from a bag slung over his back. Another carried a sheave toward a wagon already overflowing with a mountain of hay.

Seeing them, Shmuelik stood up in the wagon and sang out the words of the Psalm which they all knew by heart, a prayer of longing for the Land of Israel recited at the end of every Sabbath meal.

“Those who sow in tears

Will reap with joyous song.

Though he walks along weeping,

Carrying his bag of seed,

He will return with joyous song,

Carrying his sheaves.”

Hillel accompanied him on his accordion. Hearing the melody, the worker closest to the wagon looked up. It was Perchik, Hodel’s husband, the Russian revolutionary turned Zionist farmer. Tevye stood up in the wagon. How incredibly happy he was to see the young dreamer. Perchik too felt a shiver of joy as he recognized the bearded face from the past. He cast off the bag of seeds from his shoulder and came running toward the wagon to greet them.

“Tevye!” he yelled in heartfelt surprise. “Hodel come quickly! Your father and sisters are here!”

Tevye leaped off the wagon. The two men embraced. Long ago, the first time Tevye had delivered milk to the summer house where Perchik was vacationing with his parents, the milkman had been attracted to the lad’s cheerful eloquence. Tevye had liked him, the way he naturally liked people, and that had caused all of the tzuris and pain. Tevye had treated the youth like the son he had always longed for, inviting him into his house to tutor his daughters. Instead of teaching, the dreamer lectured for hours on end about all of the world’s wonders. He carried on as if he were a professor of philosophy, history, and international affairs. And what upside-down chatter! Everything with Perchik was reversed from the normal way of the world. Money, he claimed, was the root of all evil. To his way of thinking, Tevye should be thrilled to be poor! The peasant worker, Perchik insisted, was the “cream of the milk,” while Tevye knew from firsthand experience that a working man was no better than dung. The university student glorified physical labor, but all he did was talk. Then, for weeks on end, he would suddenly disappear on some secret revolutionary mission. And to repay Tevye for his hospitality, this self-proclaimed champion of universal justice stole the poor milkman’s daughter away like a thief who breaks into a house on Rosh HaShana while the family is praying in shul.

For a moment, Tevye remembered the day he had said good-bye to Hodel at the railway station, and the heartache which her free-thinking husband had caused. But that was then, and this was now. Every man made mistakes. And every man could change for the better. Didn’t it say in the Torah, “Thou shall not hold a grudge in your heart?” It was time, Tevye realized, to put the past behind them and opt for a new beginning. So Tevye kissed his smiling son-in-law and made room in his heart to welcome him into the family.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hodel come running. Her sisters ran to greet her. Who would have recognized her, so suntanned and as pregnant and round as a cow! Who ever heard of a woman working in a field in her condition? But then again, who ever heard of Jewish farmers? In Russia, a Jew wasn’t allowed to own farmland at all.

“Tzeitl, Hava, Bat Sheva!” she called.

Ecstatic, Hodel hugged one after the other. Finally, she pulled herself free and turned to her father.

Abba,” she sobbed, using the Hebrew expression for father. Happily, she fell into his outstretched arms. “How much I have missed you. How I’ve missed you all.”

A sob shook Tevye’s body as he embraced the little girl he had held in his arms, bathed, and taught how to milk a cow.

“Ah, Golda,” he thought. “Ah, Golda. If only you could be here now.”

But when he looked at Hodel, his heart was relieved. She was a picture of his wife in her youth, with the same sparkling smile and eyes. In a way, Tevye’s wife, Golda, was with them.

“I can’t believe it!” Hodel said. “Finally, finally, you’ve come!”

“Thanks to God,” Tevye said.

“And the Czar,” Bat Sheva added.

“May his name and memory be cursed,” Hillel said.

“Where is Ruchel?” Hodel asked.

“Married!” Hava answered. “To a handsome young talmid chacham.”

Hodel giggled in happiness. “Tell me, tell me. I want to hear every- thing!”

“They are living in Rishon LeZion, and they insist you come visit as soon as you can,” Tzeitl said.

“And Baylke?” Hodel asked.

“Off to America with her bankrupted millionaire,” Tevye answered.

“It’s disgusting,” Perchik said. “Here we are struggling to rebuild our homeland, and there are Jews living the life of capitalist kings in New York.”

Moishe and Hannie shyly came forward and embraced Hodel’s skirt. She bent down and gave them a hug. “How big they have grown,” she marveled.

“How big you have grown,” Tevye joked.

Everyone chuckled. “Can you believe it, Reb Tevye?” Perchik asked, giving his father-in-law a slap on the back. “Soon you will have a grandchild born in Eretz Yisrael!”

Tevye smiled. Loudly, he said the words of the Shehecheyanu prayer, thanking God for having kept him alive to experience this great reunion with his daughter. Other kibbutz workers began to gather around them. The deeply suntanned men were dressed in white blouses, dark pants, and boots. Some were bareheaded and others wore caps. The women wore white kerchiefs, simple, hand-knitted dresses and aprons. Others let their tresses hang down freely in the sun.

Hugging her sisters again, Hodel noticed Tzeitl’s pale smile.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Are you weak from the journey?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” Tzeitl said.

“Let me get you some water to drink.”

“I’m a little tired, that’s all,” Tzeitl insisted.

“We had better hurry,” Shmuelik said to Tevye. “Soon it will be Shabbos.”

Tevye glanced at the sky. The sun was beginning to set in the west.

Shabbos?” Perchik asked. “Who worries about the Sabbath? One day is the same as the rest when you are a worker rebuilding the Land.”

Tevye eyed his loudmouthed son-in-law. “Here he goes with his heretical babble,” he thought. But before he could think of a fitting response, a loud greeting sounded behind them.

Shalom aleichem!” the hearty voice shouted.

Everyone turned. Bat Sheva’s poor heart nearly jumped out of her body. It was Ben Zion. When she saw him, she felt she was going to faint. The sun sparkled around him, blinding her eyes. He sat straight and tall on a horse, clutching a rifle in his hand. Swathed in an Arab kefiah, and wearing two belts of bullets crisscrossed over his chest, he looked like a picture-book hero.

“Greetings, greetings, my friends!” he exclaimed, swinging down from his steed. He slapped Shmuelik and Hillel hard on their backs. For a moment, he gave Bat Sheva a gaze so unholy and brazen, she nearly collapsed. Then he offered his free hand to Tevye.

Shalom aleichem,” he said.

Aleichem shalom,” Tevye solemnly answered without extending a hand in return.

Ben Zion grinned, undaunted by Tevye’s unenthusiastic reception.

“No doubt the journey has exhausted our visitors,” he announced to the crowd. “And knowing my honored friend, Tevye, I am sure he would like to get ready for the approaching Sabbath day. So why don’t we all call it a day in the fields to prepare the kind of homecoming celebration that Hodel’s family rightly deserves!”

His proposal was answered with a common assent from the workers.

“Let me take your accordion,” Ben Zion said to Hillel.

Good-naturedly, Hillel swung the cumbersome instrument off his back and handed it to Ben Zion.

“Take this instead,” Ben Zion told him, handing him his rifle.

“What do I need this for?” Hillel asked, bewildered. “I’m a musician.”

“You were a musician,” Ben Zion answered. “Now you’re a full-fledged shomer, with the duty of guarding the collective like everyone else.”

“But I don’t know how to use a rifle,” Hillel protested, knowing that shomer in Hebrew meant guard.

The field workers laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Ben Zion assured him. “You’ll learn. And if you prove to be a good watchman, then God willing, your son will have the chance to grow up to be a musician without any need for a gun. That’s the sacrifice this generation has to make in building our new State.”

Unable to overcome her emotions, Bat Sheva swooned and fell in a faint to the ground. The women rushed to her aid. Hodel slapped her face. A hand held out a gourd of water. Ben Zion stepped forward and bent down to lift her.

“Let’s get her into the wagon,” he said.

Tevye stretched out his hand, halting the rogue’s valiant gesture. They stared into each other’s eyes, like two roosters ready for a fight. The women lifted Bat Sheva and carried her off to the wagon. The sun continued to set in the west. It was time to get ready for Shabbos.

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." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press


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