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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter 15: Guardian of Israel

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

As a sign of his grief over Tzeitl, Tevye tore his shirt and sat on a low stool in Hodel’s house in the traditional custom of mourners. He maintained a stalwart expression to disguise the hole he felt in his heart. His strength came from Golda. She appeared to him in a dream and told him not to worry.

“Don’t be so sad, my husband. Our Tzeitl is fine. She is back with her Motel, and she visits me all the time.”

When Bat Sheva blamed God for being unfair, Tevye reprimanded her for her bitterness. Who was man to complain, he asked her?  God was in Heaven, and they were on earth. A mortal had to accept the Almighty’s decrees in humility and believe that all of His doings were just.

The traditional period of shiva allowed a mourner to express his grief in the comforting presence of family and friends. All during the week, the pioneers of the kibbutz arrived at Hodel’s house to share their condolences with the family. Though none of the members of the kibbutz were religious, the men agreed to make up a prayer minyan so that Tevye could say the mourner’s Kaddish. Since they did not have prayerbooks for everyone, Shmuelik wrote out handwritten copies of the prayers. He also convinced the community that they should all have mezuzahs on their houses. It was decided that Ben Zion’s friend, Peter, would accompany Shmuelik to Tiberias, where he would buy kosher parchment. The quarantine in the city had ended, and Shmuelik was happy to find a thriving religious community in the ancient lakeside enclave. Throughout the rest of the week, the young scholar sat hunched over a table, quill in hand, carefully forming the letters of the Shema Yisrael prayer on the small clafs of parchment which he rolled up into the wooden mezuzah cases that Goliath whittled while watching the children. Though the kibbutzniks had made a religion of denying religion, they all willingly nailed the mezuzahs to their doorways as an expression of their Jewishness, in the same way that they all circumcised and bar-mitzvahed their sons.

Bolstered by his faith that man’s brief existence in this world was but a doorway to an eternal World to Come, and that Tzeitl was truly happy in Heaven, Tevye was able to enjoy the long and often heated discussions which filled Hodel’s house throughout the week. After all, as much as a Jew liked a good sour pickle, he savored a juicy debate. Most often, Perchik or Ben Zion represented the Zionist platform, while Tevye defended the sacred path of the Torah. The striking, white-bearded Gordon also had plenty to say. The philosopher and writer was the oldest member of the kibbutz, and the younger people, including Perchik and Ben Zion, showed him a great deal of respect. In a play on the life of Moses, Gordon would have been chosen to play the lead role. His high, balding forehead glowed red from his work in the sun, his eyes shone with intelligence, and his long, untrimmed beard gave him a prophet’s charisma. But, without a yarmulkah to cover his head, he looked more like a Jewish Tolstoy than the lawgiver of the Jews.

Surprisingly, the kibbutz women were as outspoken in their opinions as the men. In Tevye’s eyes, this breach of modesty was shocking. Ever since the time of Abraham and Sarah, the place of a Jewish woman was in the inner sanctums of the home. In the home itself, a woman could express her opinions from morning to night, but in public, when strange men were present, speaking out like a man was strictly taboo. The young, long-braided girl, Sonia, whom Ben Zion had danced with, was particularly loose with her tongue. Her free-thinking outbursts caused Shmuelik to redden with embarrassment and seek pretenses to withdraw from the room. The girl’s chutzpah particularly annoyed Bat Sheva. Tevye’s daughter would argue with her fiercely, even when she agreed with the things that Sonia was saying. Ben Zion greatly enjoyed their jousts, knowing they were meant to win his attention. Recalling Tevye’s warning in the snow-covered forest on the road to Odessa, the Zionist kept a respectable distance away from the milkman’s daughter, but now and again, he cast her passionate glances which made her believe he still cared.

For Perchik, the gatherings in his house were opportunities to expound his philosophies. Not that Tevye wanted to hear, but having to sit out the seven days of shiva in his son-in-law’s domain, he was Perchik’s captive. Perchik felt equally trapped by his father-in-law’s presence, and, like the collegian fencer he was, he used the discussions to score as many barbs as he could in Tevye’s ancient armor.

Since his arrival in Shoshana, Tevye had decided to bury the wounds of the past. And certainly now, in the wake of Tzeitl’s death, family quarrels were forbidden. Furthermore, Tevye was a guest in Perchik’s house. And finally, though Tevye and Perchik were as far apart as the sun and the moon, they had one thing in common. Hodel.

Nu, Reb Tevye,” Perchik inquired as he returned home from work toward the end of a discussion between Tevye and group of visiting kibbutzniks. “Becoming a Zionist?”

“Isn’t God Himself a Zionist?” Tevye answered.

“I suppose that He is, but for all of your prayers about returning to Zion, I don’t see many devout religious Jews flocking to join us.”

Tevye nodded his head. It was an argument for which he had no rebuttal. Now that he had seen the stark beauty of Eretz Yisrael, and felt its holiness saturate all of his being, Tevye could only wonder himself why all of his exiled brothers delayed coming home. Already, like a man crazily in love with a woman, he couldn’t think of being anywhere else.

“On behalf of the kibbutz, I would like to extend a permanent welcome,” Ben Zion magnanimously said. “We want you to know that you have a place with us here in Shoshana if you would like to join our community.”

Perchik flashed his loud-mouthed compatriot an unenthusiastic expression. Having Hodel’s father in Shoshana would finish his marriage completely.

“That’s right,” he said cynically. “Shave off your beard, throw away your tzitzit, and become a part of the Palestine of today.”

“You don’t have to shave off your beard,” Gordon said. “But your fringes and skullcap are relics of the past. Today, a Jew has to make himself over completely. Jewish self-fulfillment will only come through physical labor and contact with the soil. The kibbutznik, not the rabbi, will be the future image of a Jew.”

Tevye grumbled a response. He had grown weary of the orations on the Jew of the future and the ideal society which the new pioneers were building in Palestine. The name Palestine had been coined by the Romans two thousand years before. Conquering the country, the Romans renamed the Eretz Yisrael of the Bible after the Philistines who had dwelt in the land. Similarly, to erase all signs of the land’s Jewish history, they renamed the city of Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina, after the Roman emperor. A parade of conquerors followed, spoiling the land and drenching its borders in blood. They ruled over the country from afar, making its Jewish citizens pay tribute to foreign treasuries. Though Jerusalem was forced to house idols and wear the garb of an adulterous culture, the Jews remained true to their Heavenly city. No other nation made her its capitol. Coliseums, churches, and mosques were built over the remnants of the Jewish Temple, but through all the waves of oppression, Jews stubbornly clung to the one remaining Wall. Throughout the centuries, Jews continued to dwell on their sacred soil, though the majority of the nation had been exiled and scattered to the four corners of the globe. Conquerors raised their banners over the ramparts of the city, blasted their trumpets for a passing fortnight or two, then disappeared from the stage of world history. The mighty kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all turned to rubble and ruin. Only the Jews lived on, maintaining an unbroken presence in the Land, in defiance of the nations who sought to sever the Jewish people’s bond to their eternally cherished home.

While Ben Zion was an adamant champion of the Jews’ exclusive right to their homeland, Perchik was less extreme in his views. A universalist by nature, he believed that other people could live in the Land as well. He agreed that the rule of the Turks had to cease one day, but the Arabs, for instance, could stay. They were a small and scattered community, comprised of Bedouin tribes who had never ruled over the country, and who had no nationalistic ambitions. They called themselves “Southern Syrians.” To Perchik’s way of thinking, they added a Mediterranean charm to the region. In his literary moods, he spoke of them as “sons of the desert.”

From both a military and Zionist point of view, Ben Zion rejected Perchik’s conception completely. If the Jewish people were to rebuild their nation in Israel, Jewish sovereignty, and Jewish sovereignty alone, would have to be imposed throughout all off its borders. If a foreigner wanted to live in Israel, he would first have to sign a document recognizing that Eretz Yisrael was the Land of the Jews.

“Our friend, Don Quixote, proposes to do battle with all of our neighbors,” Perchik quipped.

“When all of the Jews in the world return to populate our borders, we will have the strength to overcome all of our enemies,” Ben Zion declared.

“Why fight when we can live side-by-side with our cousins in peace?” Perchik rebutted.

“Your cousins don’t want peace. They want the whole land. To their way of thinking, it’s theirs.”

“All the people who have been living here have a justified claim. Whatever parcels of land we can buy and reclaim, we shall. As for the rest, agreements can be made, respecting each other’s rights.”

“The Turks and the Arabs are scoundrels from birth,” Ben Zion insisted. “Their agreements are not worth the paper on which they are written.”

“That remains to be seen,” Perchik argued. “Besides, who made you such an expert on this part of the world?”

“I’ve dealt with them enough. Their whole culture is founded on falsehood and theft.”

“That is a racist remark,” Perchik exclaimed.

It was difficult for Tevye to remain silent in such a fervent debate. He made a noise in his throat, as if to attract their attention.

“By all means,” Ben Zion said. “Let’s hear from our learned friend, Tevye.”

“A learned man, I am not,” Tevye responded. “But it is written in the Torah that the children of Ishmael are highwaymen and scoundrels who live by the sword.”

“There, you have it – straight from the Bible,” Ben Zion said, as if to prove his point.

“Since when do you believe in the Bible?” Perchik asked.

“The question seems to be a straightforward matter of law,” Tevye continued, remembering the parable of the rabbi at Ruchel’s wedding. “If a man owns a house and thieves come and force him to move, and then other thieves come along and chase out the first robbers, and then more robbers follow, one after the other, each one taking the house from the next – when the original owner returns, it is still his house, is it not? The others simply stole it from him, one after the other, but they cannot legally claim it is theirs.”

Ben Zion nodded. In this instance the laws of the Torah were in accord with his way of thinking.

“The Arabs believe in squatter’s rights,” Perchik said.

“The Bible is our deed to this Land,” Tevye argued. “It is recorded there time and again that God gave this Land to the Jews.”

“That’s what you say,” the girl, Sonia, injected.

Tevye looked over at her in surprise. Quarrels were known to occur in the best of families, but for a strange girl to publicly challenge the words of a man twice her age, that was unheard of.

“It is not what I say, but what the Bible teaches,” Tevye answered patiently.

“Who says that the Bible is right?” the girl challenged. “If you ask me, it is all a big fairytale.”

Tevye felt it improper to enter into a religious debate with the bad-mannered creature, but her impudence had to be put in its place.

“No doubt your father, and his father before him, and his father before him, and all of your ancestors for over four-thousand years were fools until you came along with your superior wisdom,” Tevye said mockingly.

The girl blushed. Ben Zion laughed.

“I suppose you believe that Jonah was eaten by a whale!” the girl quipped.

“Of course,” Tevye answered.

“And that Bilaam’s ass opened his mouth and talked?”

“Yes,” Tevye said. “Is that so surprising? You yourself are a living example that a dumb, brainless creature can speak.”

Ben Zion slapped his hands on his knees and roared with laughter. Flustered, the girl stood up and glared at him.

“You’ll be sorry,” she warned.

That only made Ben Zion laugh even more. Red in the face, the girl hurried out of the house.

“Good for you, Reb Tevye,” Ben Zion said.

Bat Sheva felt like giving her father a kiss. She sat as sweetly and modestly as possible, a well-behaved contrast to the outspoken girl.

“I agree with Sonia,” Perchik said. “You can’t use the Bible as a deed.”

“Why can’t you?” Ben Zion asked. “The book is the chronicle of our history. With or without God, you can’t claim that the Jews didn’t live here before the Arabs and Turks.”

“The heathens chased us out of the country, did they not?” Hillel remarked. “We should do the same thing to them.”

“We are supposed to be more enlightened than the other nations,” Perchik answered. “Because we were uprooted is no reason for us to uproot others.”

“Nobody is being uprooted,” Ben Zion protested. “All of the land which the Jews are reclaiming in Palestine is being purchased for large sums of money. There is no uprooting in that.”

The argument wasn’t mere philosophical speculation alone. The day after Tevye’s family had concluded the week of mourning, the clamorous ringing of the dining-hall bell brought all of the workers hurrying back from the fields. Ben Zion’s friend, Peter, and another kibbutznik named Ari had taken a wagon to one of the settlement’s wells to fill barrels with water. While they were working, six Arabs on horseback appeared and ordered the Jews to vacate the site. The well, they claimed, was theirs. Peter had protested. He himself had dug out the well. But the Arabs still insisted that the well belonged to them. The entire region, they claimed, was a part of their pasture land. Their tribe had lived in the area for decades, they said, wandering from place to place, and all of the land and the underground springs were their ancestral inheritance.

When Peter refused to flee in face of their threats, an Arab had fired a rifle and wounded the kibbutznik in the shoulder. The shot, Ari said, seemed to have startled the Arabs as much as the Jews. As Peter lay bleeding on the ground, the Arabs galloped off in a panic.

Everyone in the kibbutz gathered outside of the dining hall. While Ari was recounting the story, comrades lifted Peter out of the wagon and carried him into a house. His shirt was stained crimson, and he was unconscious from the blood he had lost. Fortunately, the bullet had passed through his shoulder without causing more damage. By evening, he was back on his feet, but the incident caused outrage throughout the kibbutz, and the Jewish settlers were calling for a speedy reprisal.

Perchik, the pacifist, made a plea for restraint and negotiation, but Ben Zion took the lead in rounding up a troop to strike back at once.

“You know how to ride a horse,” he said to Tevye. “You come with us.”

A mount was brought over to Tevye and reins were placed in his hand. True, Tevye knew how to ride a horse, but he couldn’t remember the last time he had sat in a saddle. When he and his horse had been young, he had enjoyed a good gallop, but once he was married and had to make a living to take care of his family, he had exchanged his saddle for a wagon. After thousands of journeys between Anatevka and Yehupetz, the horse had forgotten how to gallop completely. Occasionally, in a snowstorm, or when the horse hurt its leg and was too weak to haul the wagon itself, Tevye would pull the horse and the wagon together. As the Good Book said, “There is a time for everything under the Heavens – a time to be a man, and a time to be a horse.”

Ben Zion quickly ran to a hut and emerged with a few extra rifles. He handed one to the milkman.

“What is this for?” Tevye asked.

“To shoot with,” Ben Zion answered.

“I don’t know how. In Anatevka, where I come from, the Czar did not make it a habit to hand out rifles to Jews.”

“You are no longer in Anatevka, Reb Tevye,” Ben Zion responded. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you. Rifles are really quite simple contraptions.”

“But I am going to be a grandfather soon.”

“Wasn’t Moses ninety years old when he went to war against Midian?” the Zionist asked.

“I suppose that he was,” Tevye answered.

“And Joshua was seventy when he led the Jews into battle against the seven Canaanite nations.”

“Joshua wasn’t a broken-down milkman like me.”

“Isn’t it written, `In a place where there are no men, be a man?’”

When did you become such a Biblical scholar?” Tevye asked.

“I studied in heder, remember?”

“Why did you stop?”

“The rebbe would tweak my ear when I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Is a pinch in the ear a reason to abandon the Torah? Our forefathers had more mettle than that.”

“I’ll show you what mettle we have,” Ben Zion answered. He called to his friends to mount up. Then he swung a bullet belt over Tevye’s shoulder, and with a smile, helped him into his saddle. Bat Sheva and Hava watched from the doorway of Hodel’s house as their father rode off with the rifled shomrim.

“I don’t believe it,” Hava said. “It’s Tata!”

After a few nervous moments, Tevye brought his steed to a gallop alongside the others. He remembered, of course, how to ride, but the jolts to his spine were painfully new. With each bounce in the air, he felt another disc slide out of place. Nevertheless, Tevye found himself enjoying the ride. Blood rushed through his veins. The wind swirled around him. The hooves of the horses thundered over the earth. If Ben Zion had yelled out a war cry, Tevye would have yelled out too. In the adventure, he forgot about his mourning for Tzeitl. Suddenly, for the first time in ages, he felt like a young man with his whole life just beginning anew.

Like soldiers of fortune, the Jews rode along hillsides and streaked across valleys. The horses were just beginning to work up a sweat when they reached the well at the southern border of the kibbutz. The area around it was completely deserted. Sitting tall in his saddle, Ben Zion scanned all of the hillsides.

“It may be an ambush,” he said.

Everyone gazed over the mountainous terrain. Rifles were pointed in every direction. Tevye mimicked the others, not knowing if his rifle was loaded. Ben Zion slid gracefully down from his horse and told Tevye to follow. With far less elegance, Tevye let his boots plunge back down to the earth.

“You load a rifle like this,” Ben Zion said, taking Tevye’s rifle and sliding a bullet into its chamber. “To shoot, you cock the hammer, aim with one eye, and fire.”

Ben Zion pulled the trigger. The rifle roared. The bullet splintered the trunk of a tree a short distance away. “You try,” he said, handing the rifle to Tevye.

Tevye took the rifle, slid a bullet into the chamber, cocked the hammer, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. His shoulder jerked with the explosion. The crackle of the rifle echoed in his ears like the bark of an angry dog. This time, the tree stood unscathed.

“You shut both of your eyes,” Ben Zion said. “Try again.”

Once again, Tevye took aim. Slowly he squeezed the trigger. This time, he was braced for the recoil. To his surprise, a chunk of bark flew off of the tree.

Mazal tov!” Ben Zion said. “You stay here and guard the well, while we scout the area.”

“Alone?” Tevye asked.

“You have the rifle. If the Arabs come back, fire a shot in the air to alert us. We will be within earshot.”

“What if they shoot at me?” Tevye asked.

“Shoot back. Most Arabs are cowards. Usually, at the sound of gunfire, they flee.”

Tevye did not feel reassured. With his mazal, if there were only one brave Arab in the world, he would be the one who returned to the well.

Ben Zion swung up to his saddle. “Yalla!” he called. He spurred his horse, and everyone rode off, leaving Tevye alone. Clutching his rifle, the milkman scanned the surrounding hills.

Vayzmeer,” he mumbled aloud. The Yiddish expression of worry sounded strangely foreign in the Biblical hills of the Galilee. Tevye realized that to become a real part of the Land, he would have to learn everyday conversation in Hebrew. Once again, Tevye made sure the rifle was loaded. His eyes roamed over the countryside for signs of the enemy.

“I raise my eyes unto the hills, he said, reciting the comforting Psalm. “From where shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord Who made heaven and earth. The Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The “Guardian of Israel,” Tevye thought. Shomer Yisrael. That’s where the expression shomer came from. Like the Almighty Himself, Tevye had become a shomer, a guardian of the Jewish people. No doubt, the Master of the World, the Riboyno Shel Olam, could aim His bullets with far greater accuracy than the milkman from Anatevka, but with practice, Tevye felt he could learn. In the meantime, he kept his ears open, his eyes on the hills, and his finger tight on the trigger.

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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