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November 26, 2014 / 4 Kislev, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Eighteen: Peace in the Middle East

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

The emergency bell clanged throughout the valley of the Shoshana kibbutz. Workers who were building the first stone edifice on the settlement put down their chisels and masonry tools. Field hands set aside their scythes and their sickles and started back toward the compound of mud and wood dwellings. Within minutes, all of the settlers sat crowded together on the benches in the dining hall. With great indignation, Ben Zion related how the Arabs had ambushed them at the well and stolen his horse and two rifles. He demanded that a small force be organized immediately and set off in retaliation.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” someone asked.

“We were outnumbered, and I did not want to endanger the girl,” he answered, leaving out the embarrassing details of how the Arabs had snuck up and surprised them.

“You know the rule that a shomer is forbidden to go out on guard duty alone. Why did you break it?”

“I was teaching the girl how to shoot.”

“I wish he would teach me how to shoot,” a plain-looking girl quipped loudly enough for her neighbors to hear. Other girls giggled. Ben Zion’s friends broke out in laughter. Since it was Gordon’s turn to preside at the general meeting, the gavel was in his hand. He gave it a bang on the table, and the ruckus subsided. Sonia, standing in a corner of the hall, flashed a look of accusation at the faithless Don Juan. Ben Zion smiled. Rogue that he was, he cherished all of the attention.

“No one wants a war,” Perchik said. “Let the Arabs have the well. We can always dig another.”

Immediately, another clamor broke out in the crowd. Shouts of protest or agreement came from all corners of the hall. Once again, the fierce-looking Gordon wielded his gavel.

“Water can’t be found everywhere,” a kibbutznik asserted. “Without our wells, what will we do in the event of a drought?”

“What about the stolen horse and the rifles?” another man asked. “Do we give them away too?”

The uproar resumed. This time it took a full minute of gavel banging to restore a semblance of order.

“I volunteer to lead a contingent from the kibbutz to enter into negotiation with the Arabs,” Perchik announced. “If nothing can be accomplished in a peaceful manner, then we can think about fighting.”

“If we don’t respond with a show of force, they will only take advantage of us in the future,” Ben Zion warned.

Once again, a vote was taken. This time, Ben Zion’s followers were one vote shy of a deadlock. Peter had gone to Tiberias to have a doctor examine an infection in his wounded shoulder.

“That’s not fair,” Ben Zion protested. “Peter is not here to vote.”

“You know the rules of the voting,” Gordon responded. “A voter has to be present.”

Ben Zion cast a frustrated look over the crowd.

“One minute,” a voice called from the doorway. “You didn’t count me. I vote with Ben Zion.”

It was Bat Sheva.

“She doesn’t belong to the kibbutz,” Sonia called.

“I want to join,” Bat Sheva responded.

Tevye stood up from his seat on a bench in the back of the room and glared at his daughter. She stared defiantly back at him. Ben Zion’s frown immediately turned to a grin.

“The vote is even,” he said.

“No it isn’t!” Tevye bellowed. “I too want to join the kibbutz. And I vote with Perchik!”

It was no easy decision for Perchik. On the one hand, Tevye’s vote assured a majority for his non-violent faction, averting the danger of military encounter. On the other hand, if Tevye were actually to reside in Shoshana, that would be the end of Perchik’s happy home life with Hodel. But, then again, if Ben Zion’s forces won out, Perchik’s influence on the kibbutz would be seriously weakened. For Tevye also, siding with his socialist son-in-law was no easy matter, but he was willing to do it to bring about Ben Zion’s defeat.

“We have the majority,” Perchik claimed, accepting Tevye’s vote.

“The decision is final,” Gordon announced. “We negotiate with our neighbors.”

Another commotion erupted. Everyone had something to say, either about the Arabs, or about the way the kibbutz had accepted new members without a community vote. Bat Sheva glared at her father and strode out of the hall. Tevye started after her, but Perchik walked over and gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.

“I don’t know if your decision to join our kibbutz is genuine, but thank you for standing behind me.”

“I didn’t do it for your sake,” Tevye said.

“Then for the cause of peace.”

“Not for peace either.”

“Well, whatever your reason was, you saved the kibbutz a lot of needless bloodshed. Come with us when we go to meet with the Arabs. You are a businessman. You know how to negotiate. I respect your experience.”

“A milkman is not really a businessman,” Tevye said modestly, not unaffected by his son-in-law’s flattery. “Still, I did have my share of dealings with a wide range of clients who were willing to pay a few extra kopeks for my top line of cheeses.”

“The tastiest in the region, I remember,” Perchik agreed.

Tevye also remembered how the young, university student would gobble down the delicacies which Golda set before him as he prattled on and on about his crazy farblondzhet ideas.

“Even back then when you invited me into your home to teach your daughters to read, I recognized your worldliness and wisdom,” Perchik said.

That was a joke, Tevye thought with a grumble, recalling that black, tragic day. What Tisha B’Av was for the Jewish people as a whole – the day marking the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction – the day that Tevye had taken a fancy to Perchik marked the crumbling of the protective wall which Tevye had erected around his family. If Tevye were really so wise, he never would have opened his door to the loquacious Shabbtai Tzvi.

Outside, the dining room, Bat Sheva was nowhere in sight. Neither was Ben Zion. But Tevye did not have the time to set off on a search. Already, Perchik was organizing a negotiating team to meet with the Arabs. Once again, Tevye found himself mounting a horse. Even as they rode out of the gate of the kibbutz, he looked back for a glimpse of his daughter.

True to Tevye’s fears, she was in the barn with Ben Zion. He had found her there sitting alone with the milk cows.

“Thank you for trying to help me,” he said.

“I don’t know why I did it,” she answered. “You are really not worth it.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“Well, it’s true.  The way I was raised, if a man likes a woman, he asks her to marry him without a thousand test kisses. That is the honorable way to behave.”

Ben Zion walked around to the other side of a cow, as if to keep it between them.

“This isn’t Anatevka,” he said.

“Are people so different here?”

“In a way, I suppose they are, yes. We no longer live according to the rules of the past.”

“What rules do you live by?” she asked.

“I don’t live by rules. I do what my feelings tell me.”

“I see. And what do your feelings say about me?”

Ben Zion patted the cow. “I like you very much. But I am not certain that I am ready for marriage.”

“Well until you decide, there will be no more kisses, at least not with me.”

Turning her back to him, Bat Sheva strode out of the barn. Ben Zion smiled as he watched her march out of the door.

“That was interesting,” he mused. The girl had more spunk than he realized. For the first since he had met her, he began to give her some serious thought.

“What do you say, cow?” he asked the beast in the stall. “Should I marry the milkman’s daughter?”

Bat Sheva strode away from the barn, secretly hoping to hear Ben Zion call her. She wondered if she really believed in what she was doing, or whether it was the influence of her sister, Hodel, to whom she had gone for advice. After all, Hodel had been in a similar dilemma with Perchik, when she had had to choose between her feelings of love and the ties of the past. Though Perchik and Ben Zion had different political views, they were fish from the very same pond. After Bat Sheva had poured out her heart, her older sister warned her not to succumb to passionate promises and even more passionate stares. After their discussion, Bat Sheva resolved to cling to her honor. But immediately upon leaving the barn, she had second thoughts.

“You idiot,” she thought to herself. “Now you have gone and spoiled everything. Now Sonia will have him all to herself. Now he will think you are just a boring, old-fashioned girl from the shtetl.”

Nonetheless, Bat Sheva had made up her mind. She wasn’t going to let him turn her into some little dreidel that he could swirl with his finger. She was a person, not a plaything, and she wanted to be treated that way.

The peace delegation spotted the Arab encampment from the top of a ridge a half-hour ride away from Shoshana. A dozen black Bedouin tents were scattered in the valley below. Instead of rising to a point like regular tents, the nomadic dwellings were spread over large rectangular areas. Each tent housed extended families, from grandparents, to uncles, distant cousins, and in-laws, as well as an assortment of animals. Herds of sheep grazed over the hillsides. Shepherds in white kefiahs and black headbands lounged in the shade of sycamore trees, letting their dogs chase after stray sheep. In the fields, women squatted over rows of vegetable plantings. Camels rested lazily in the sun on their haunches, munching on patches of weeds. Seeing the Jews approaching, a watchman fired a rifle shot in the air. Arabs hurried out from the shade of their tents to see who was coming. Abramson, Bronsky, Karmelisky, Mendelevitch, and Tevye swung their rifles into a readied posture in front of their chests.

“Not so fast,” Perchik said. “We have come to make peace, not to fight.”

“I just want to be ready,” Abramson said. “Just in case.”

As if out of thin air, five riders on horseback came forward to meet them. Four wore the striped gowns and cloaks of tribal soldiers. They were armed with long barreled rifles, and they brandished an assortment of polished daggers and swords in their belts. Their leader sat on a stunning white stallion. He was dressed in the regal headset and robes of a sheik.

Perchik called out, “Shalom.”

The sheik responded in Arabic. While Perchik had picked up the rudiments of the language, he felt more comfortable conversing in either Hebrew or Turkish, the official language of Palestine. Tevye sat poised in the saddle, trying to decipher whatever words he could. The sheik did all of the talking for the Arabs. Later, Perchik explained to Tevye what had transpired.

The sheik claimed that the Jews had illegally settled on their ancestral homeland. When Perchik showed him their deed of purchase, the tribe leader stared at it with a stony expression. The Turks, the Arab maintained, had no right to the land, and no right to sell it. Perchik answered that the nations of the world recognized the four-hundred-year rule of the Turks over the region, and that the Shoshana colony’s deed to the land would be considered valid in any international court. The sheik wasn’t persuaded. The land of the kibbutz, and all of its wells and springs, belonged to his tribe, he maintained.

Within minutes, the Jews were surrounded by fierce-looking tribesmen, dozens of women and children, and the elders of the village. Tevye did not have to count to see that their peace entourage was seriously outnumbered. Sweating from the ride in the sun, he longed for a drink, but he did not want to remove his hand from his weapon. Contrary to tales of Arab hospitality, no one invited them into a tent to relax in the shade and moisten their lips with a little date liquor.

After an intensive discussion, an agreement was reached. The Arabs could keep the disputed well at the edge of the kibbutz. The Jews would fence in the area described in the deed, and the tribe was free to graze their herds everywhere else. As a gesture of goodwill, the Jews would pay the sheik compensative damages, a onetime payment of 500 pounds. In return, the Arabs would sign a document attesting that the settlers of Shoshana were the sole and rightful owners of the acreage. The sheik also promised to return Ben Zion’s horse and his rifle.

“There were two rifles,” Tevye reminded Perchik in Russian.

“It is best not to embarrass him,” Perchik answered.

“Embarrass him?” Tevye said in wonder. “You’ve given him the well. You’ve promised him 500 pounds. The only thing you haven’t yet surrendered is the harvest.”

“Would you prefer war?”

“Five-hundred pounds is more than the kibbutz treasury has in reserve,” Bronsky remarked.

“We can borrow from Kibbutz Degania,” Perchik said.

“I feel this is something we should vote on,” Mendelevitch advised.

“A vote was already taken,” Perchik reminded him, “And we won the right to negotiate a settlement.”

“I advise that we take a vote between us right now.”

Perchik hesitated. Bronsky and Mendelevitch were the treasurers of the kibbutz. It was largely due to their tight-fisted policy that the commune was holding its own. If peace had a price, they could be expected to vote against it, even if the alternative meant bloodshed. Karmelisky was a close friend of Perchik, a vote he could trust. That meant that once again, the issue would be decided by Tevye. Hands went up for and against the agreement.

“Well, Tevye, your vote decides,” Perchik said. “What do you say?”

On the one hand, Tevye thought, an Ishmaelite couldn’t be trusted. It was a lesson Abraham had learned long ago. Ever since then, history had proven it again and again, wherever Jews had lived under Moslem rulers. On the other hand, the Jews were still a minority in Palestine and had to survive as peacefully as they could until more reinforcements arrived. Then again, only a fool would agree to pay twice for the same piece of land. On the other hand, if Perchik returned to the kibbutz with a signed agreement, it would be a blow to Ben Zion. To Tevye, that was the most important factor of all. Thus, once again, Tevye sided with Hodel’s husband.

Victorious, Perchik swung his leg over the back of his horse and slid down to the ground. Smiling, he walked up to the sheik and held out his hand. Ceremoniously, the chieftain lowered himself from his mount and accepted the hand of the Jew.

“On behalf of our kibbutz, I invite you to an evening of song and cultural exchange in Shoshana,” Perchik said.

“Perhaps,” the sheik answered.

“There is a lot we can learn from each other,” Perchik continued.

“Perhaps,” the Arab responded.

“Your people have a knowlege of farming, and we have new scientific advancements. Hopefully one day, all fences can come down, and we can live side by side in peaceful co-existence, an example to the world.”

“A wonderful dream,” the Arab said, with no trace of a smile.

To Tevye, the chief did not seem overly enthused, but as Tevye had to admit, only a fool could become excited over Perchik’s crazy meshugenneh ideas.

Pleased with their agreement and with the peace he had made, Perchik returned to his horse.

“Maybe we should get something in writing before we leave,” Bronsky suggested.

“There isn’t a need to force things. These Arabs stand by their word,” Perchik assured.

“The Torah says otherwise,” Tevye advised.

“Your Bible stories are fantasies,” Perchik said. “In these modern times, our task is to reach the heavens without leaving the earth of reality. All men are basically good, Jews and gentiles alike. You just have to treat everyone fairly, and you will be treated fairly in return. No people or religion is better than any other. We are all equal in the eyes of the Creator, and one day we will be a united community of nations without racial hatreds, class inequality, and worker exploitation. How fortunate we are to be the pioneers in this great dream of harnessing the winged horse of utopia with the wagon of pragmatic action and thought.”

Perchik’s speech was a lot of double-talk to Tevye, but he didn’t bother to argue. He knew that debating with his son-in-law was a hopeless affair.

When they arrived back at Shoshana, a Galilee sunset was bathing the kibbutz in a warm golden glow. The stillness of the late afternoon was only interrupted by the sound of Goliath splitting logs, but the whacks of his axe did not spoil the serenity in the air. On the contrary, the sounds of the wood chopping seemed a natural part of the pastoral setting. Before entering the straw-roofed, adobe house where his family was living, Tevye prayed the afternoon prayer in the yard, facing south toward Jerusalem. The tumult of the day melted away, leaving him alone with his Maker. It was a time of reflection, reminding a man that although he was commanded to labor and toil, the success of his endeavors depended on God. When he opened his eyes at the end of the prayer, little Moishe and Hannie stood at his feet.

“Can we go for a ride on your horse?” the little girl asked.

Bat Sheva appeared in the doorway. Tevye stared at her without saying a word. He had not yet decided how to deal with his youngest daughter. She was like a prancing young colt who longed to escape its corral. To tame the streak of wildness in her, a gentle, yet firm grip on her reins was needed.

His grandchildren were waiting for an answer.

“That is a very good idea,” Tevye said.

He lifted the two kinderlach onto the animal’s back, then climbed up beside them.

“Hold on tightly,” he said.

Bat Sheva disappeared from the doorway and Hava appeared in her place.

“Be careful, Abba,” she called.

“Don’t worry,” Tevye answered. “I used to take you and your sisters for rides.”

He clicked his tongue and gave a slight tug on the reins. The horse started off on a slow, easy walk. Goliath appeared with an axe on his shoulder and waved with a melancholy expression. Ever since Tzeitl had died, the happy-go-lucky giant had acted like a different person. He spent most of his days alone, chopping wood. Soon, towering stacks of firewood sprang up alongside the barn. He rarely ate in the dining hall with the settlers, and while he could not be called skinny, his face became almost gaunt. With Tevye at work in the fields every day, the two men barely found time to speak. This coming Shabbos, Tevye decided, he would find time to have a heart-to-heart talk with the woodcutter.

Guiding the horse up the hillside, Tevye was glad to have some free time with Tzeitl’s children. His long hours in the field kept him away from the house, and by the time he returned home from the evening lesson in Hebrew, Moishe and Hannie were already asleep. When the horse reached the peak of the hill, Tevye set the children down on the ground. In the stillness of the late afternoon, with the day’s problems behind him, he paused to remember the true splendor of the Land, the beautiful azure skies, the tranquility of the hillsides, the feeling of rest and eternity which saturated the Biblical landscapes. With joy in their eyes, the children watched the fiery orb of the sun slip below the distant horizon. As the sun sank out of sight, the sky turned an artist’s palette of colors.

Saba,” the girl asked, using the Hebrew word for grandfather. “Where does the sun go when it sets?” the girl asked.

“To sleep,” Tevye answered.

“No, really,” Hannie said.

“It keeps on traveling through the sky to shine on different places in the world. Right now, it is shining on your Aunt Baylke in America.”

Thinking of her, Tevye plucked a few blades of grass out of the ground. He would put them in an envelope with the letter he was intending to write to his daughter, so that she could see with her very own eyes that the Promised Land was real.

“Why don’t the boys in Shoshana have peyes like I do?” nine-year-old Moishe asked.

Tevye was taken aback by the question. While he was chagrined by the sacrilegious lifestyle he had found on the kibbutz, his main concern was the harmful influence it was sure to have on Bat Sheva. Now he realized that his grandchildren were being confounded too. If the boy was asking about side-locks, he probably had a dozen other questions and doubts in his head.

“They are not as religious as we are,” the grandfather answered.

“They are not religious at all,” Hannie corrected. “That’s what Shmuelik said when he left.”

“They will all be religious one day,” Tevye said. “They just haven’t learned.”

“Why not?” Moishe asked.

“Because their father and mother did not teach them the Torah.”

“Why not?” the boy asked again.

“Because no one taught them either.”

“They want to live like the gentiles,” Hannie said.

No doubt, Tevye thought, she had heard that from Shmuelik also.

“Are all gentiles bad?” Moishe asked.

“No, certainly not. Not all gentiles are bad,” Tevye answered. “There are many good gentiles too. The tax collector in Anatevka was a good, honest man, and the blacksmith would remove stones and nails from the hooves of my horse without charging me money. The good Lord has created all of the world’s people, and we are commanded to love them all – except for our enemies, of course.”

“Everyone is our enemy,” Moishe said. “Nobody likes the Jews.”

“Sometimes it seems that way,” their grandfather agreed.

“Are the Arabs gentiles?” Hannie asked.

“Yes,” Tevye answered, realizing that the only non-Jews the children had known were the Caucasian, granite-faced Russians.

“Wasn’t Abraham their father too?”

“Yes,” Tevye answered.

The children stared at him, waiting for their grandfather to explain. Tevye remembered that he had a great responsibility which he had been ignoring. Work was not the only task in life. A man had the sacred duty to teach his children the Torah, as it said in the Shema, “You shall teach these words diligently to your children. Now that both Tzeitl and Motel were gone, Tevye had inherited the obligation of passing on the traditions of Sinai to his grandchildren. They gazed up at him with eyes as big as setting suns. Now more than ever, they needed a father. They needed answers to their questions and guidance.

Tevye asked them if they wanted to hear a story. Gladly, the children agreed.

“You know,” their grandfather began, “when Abraham was a boy, even younger than you are, he looked into the sky and saw that the sun ruled in the heavens. So he decided to worship the sun. Then, when nighttime came, he saw the sun go down and the moon come up, and he said, ‘Surely, I was wrong. The moon rules the heavens.’ So he decided to worship the moon. Then, when the moon disappeared in the morning, he realized that even the moon had a master. So he said, ‘I will worship the God who rules over both the sun and the moon.’”

The children stared at Tevye with spellbound looks on their faces. How thrilling it was to be outdoors all alone with their grandfather on the high, windy hill. Being close to him, listening to his deep, familiar voice, watching his eyes glow, snuggling into his powerful arms, and inhaling his warm earthy smell, were incredible pleasures for them.

“Little Abraham started to tell everyone he met about the one and only God who ruled over the world. At that time, people believed there were many gods, each one possessing a different power. In fact, Abraham’s own father, Terach, was a maker of idols. He had a store where he sold all kinds of wood and stone statues. One day, he put little Abraham in charge of the store when he went out on an errand. As soon as his father was gone, Abraham took a hammer and began smashing all of the idols. Before long all of them lay in pieces on the floor, except for the biggest statue which Abraham left standing. The clever boy placed the hammer in its hand. When his father returned, he stared in horror at all of the broken idols.

“What have you done to my idols?” Terach angrily shouted.

“It wasn’t me,” Abraham answered. “The big idol broke them all with his hammer.”

“That idol can’t do anything,” his father yelled back. “It is just a lifeless chunk of stone.”

“Then why do you worship it?” Abraham asked. His father was tongue-tied. He didn’t have an answer.

“There is only one true God,” Abraham said. `These silly stone and wooden statues don’t have any power at all.”

“We know that story,” Hannie said when her grandfather had finished.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tevye asked.

“We wanted to hear it again.”

Tevye nodded his head and grinned at his two little treasures. Night had descended and stars sparkled all across the celestial vault.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Moishe said.

“What question was that?” Tevye asked.

“If Abraham was the father of the Arabs, why aren’t they Jews like we are?”

“Well,” Tevye began, “to make a long story short, Abraham was married to Sarah, and they were married for a very long time without having children. So one day, Sarah told him to marry her handmaid, Hagar, who was the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. They had a child named Ishmael. He grew up to be a wild child, a robber and highwayman. When Abraham was a hundred years old, he finally had a son with Sarah. They named the boy Isaac. The descendants of Ishmael are the Arabs, and the descendants of Isaac are the Jews.”

“Tell us another story about Abraham,” Hannie demanded.

With a groan, Tevye stood up and stretched his tired back. “When you are both in bed,” he said. “Now we have to go home.”

As they rode silently back to the kibbutz on the horse, Hannie suddenly asked her grandfather a question.

“Why did God take our Ema away?”

Tevye had taken enough Hebrew classes to know that Ema meant mother.

“So that she could be with Abba,” her brother answered.

“Will God  take us to Heaven too?” the girl asked.

“One day, but not for a very long time,” Tevye answered.

“I want to be with Ema and Abba,” Hannie said.

Tevye hugged her and gave her a kiss. “One day we all will be back together,” he comforted. “But right now, God wants us down here on earth. We have to settle this Land, just like Abraham did, so that when you two grow up, your children will have a country of their own.”

Back in their small cottage, Tevye listened as his grandchildren recited the words of the bedtime Shema, the time-honored affirmation of faith, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Then he kissed them goodnight, blew out the candle, and sat quietly in the darkness with them until they had fallen asleep.

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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