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September 2, 2014 / 7 Elul, 5774
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Five: A Husband For Ruchel

Tevye in the Promised Land

The next morning, Hevedke was waiting out on the road when Tevye and his Zionist entourage took up their journey. The two men stared at one another in silence.

“He has more guts than I thought,” Tevye brooded, giving the reins of the wagon a whip.

Hava was hoping that her father would give Hevedke a chance to prove his sincerity, but there was no sign of conciliation in her father’s angry expression. Hava herself was confused. Her heart was torn between a man she still loved, and the realization that the bond between them could never be sanctified as long as he belonged to the tormentors of her people. It wasn’t enough that Hevedke was ashamed of the evil decrees of the Czar. Unless he tore up all ties to his religion and his past, he would always remain one of them. Even if he were to fast a hundred days to prove his love for Hava, that would not be enough. Hava knew that he loved her. He had to prove he loved God by taking on the yoke of her people. Though Hava felt compassion and pity for Hevedke, she didn’t plead with her father to accept him into the fold. If she had listened to her parents in the first place, the whole painful situation would never have occurred. Now she wanted to make amends for the breach she had rent in the family. She wanted to be faithful to her father. She wanted to show her mother in Heaven that she was sorry for the pain she had caused. So sitting beside her father as their wagon drove down the road, Hava fought off her desire to gaze at the man she had lived with only a short time before. She stared forward at the future as if Hevedke did not exist, as if they had never crossed paths, trusting that one way or the other, God would restore peace to her torn, aching heart.

That evening they reached the Jewish shtetl of Branosk. The ultra-religious community was smaller than the Jewish community of Anatevka, but the sights, sounds, and smells were the same. The same wooden porches, tiled roofs, and shutters. The same sagging, weathered barns which stood erect by a miracle. The same aroma of horses, chickens, and soups. The same beards and black skullcaps on the men, and kerchiefs and shawls on the women. Even the fiery red sunset had been stolen from Anatevka and pasted over the Branosk forest.

The villagers rushed out of their houses when they heard that pioneers on the way to the Promised Land had arrived in the shtetl. Children and teenagers crowded around Tevye’s wagon. They all wore the caps and long curling peyes sidelocks which distinguished the Branosk community. Apparently, they had seen other Zionists, but the sight of Tevye, a bearded, God fearing Jew among them, was a novelty to be sure. Ben Zion jumped up on a porch and tried to deliver a spirited harangue, inviting the townspeople to throw off the yoke of the Russians and join them in rebuilding the ancient Jewish homeland, but he only drew heckles and a rotten tomato. Tevye and his daughters attracted a far larger crowd.

Where was he going, they wanted to know? To Eretz Yisrael, he answered, the Land of Israel. With the heretics, they asked? Tevye said that by accident they were traveling together, for safety along the way. But, Tevye assured them, his family was headed for a settlement more religious than the city of Vilna – in God’s Chosen Land. What could be better than that? For hadn’t they heard? The great Baron Rothschild, may he live several lifetimes, was building “frum,” God fearing communities throughout the Holy Land. Everyone who came got a villa and acres of orchards bursting with olives, pomegranates, fig trees, and dates.

People bombarded Tevye with questions. He answered with authority, as if he truly knew, as if he were the Baron’s agent, auctioning off parcels of land. When a question came his way for which he did not have an answer, he responded with a verse or two of Torah. One thing was clear – the expulsion which had hit Anatevka was sure to reach Branosk. Surely they had heard that the Czar’s Cossacks had been thundering throughout Russia, slaughtering thousands of Jews. Now was the time to flee for their lives. Now was the time to stop praying for God to take them to Zion, and let their feet do the talking instead.

APIKORSUS!” roared the Rabbi when he heard Tevye’s words. “Heresy! Slander! Blasphemy and falsehood!” he cried. “Throw the Zionist sinner out of this holy house!”

Before the milkman knew it, he was lifted off his feet and whisked out of the synagogue, where he had been taken to join in the afternoon prayer. Tevye heard the minchah service begin as he tumbled down the stairs: “Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house,” the worshippers declared. Outside, Tevye sat on the ground and brushed off the dust. What had he said to so anger the Rabbi? What had he done wrong? Against whom had he sinned?

When Tevye walked back to his wagon, Ruchel was missing. Tzeitl reported that a young man from the village had unharnessed Tevye’s horse and taken it to the barn for a feeding. Apparently, he had taken Ruchel with him. Tevye’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Of all of his daughters, Ruchel most resembled his Golda. Not only in looks, but in her practicality and down-to-earth wisdom. The girl’s heart was firmly attached to the ground, not adrift in the clouds. Unlike his other daughters, Ruchel followed her head and not her emotions. If she went off with a strange man to a barn, it wasn’t just to feed Tevye’s old horse some oats.

In truth, the moment Nachman had appeared at the wagon and offered to feed their road-weary nag, Ruchel had seen something special. The youth spoke with his head slightly angled, looking modestly toward the ground, so he wouldn’t gaze at the women. His tone was quiet, almost timid, and he blushed when Ruchel addressed him. And while his features weren’t classically handsome, his eyes were the most beautiful blue that Ruchel had ever seen in her life.

“The horse gets a little nervous with strangers,” Ruchel had said. “I had better come with you.”

Tzeitl and Hava had stared at each other without saying a word. For one thing, in all of God’s creation, there didn’t exist a more docile animal than their father’s faithful horse, and even more wondrous, they had never seen their sister converse with a member of the masculine sex.

The young man was clearly embarrassed to enter the barn alone with the girl. Sensing his discomfort, Ruchel kept a distance, standing in the open barn door. Without speaking, he filled up a trough with oats and started to rub down the horse with a brush.

“My name is Ruchel,” she said. The bashful young man continued caring for the animal without glancing up at the girl.

“What’s your name?” Ruchel asked.

“Nachman,” he answered.

“Aren’t you going to daven with the others in the shul?”

“I have already prayed in the yeshiva,” he answered.

“We are journeying to Palestine,” she said.

“Yes. I heard. I would very much like to go to the Holy Land too.”

“Why don’t you?” the girl asked.

The shy scholar didn’t answer. “With God’s help,” he said softly.

“God helps those who help themselves,” she retorted. “When we are sick, God forbid, we pray for God to heal us, but we also go to the doctor. We pray for God to provide us with food, but we go out and work for a living. It isn’t enough to pray for God to take us back home to our own Land, we have to make the effort ourselves.”

The youth looked up in surprise upon hearing her passionate words.

“You sound like one of the Zionists,” he said.

“What’s wrong with the Zionists? I like them.”

Nachman didn’t answer. Suddenly, his blue eyes sparkled like the heavens, as if he could see the borders of the Promised Land beyond the walls of the barn.

“Did you know that all of our prayers first travel to Jerusalem before they go up to Heaven?” he asked. “And that everyone who takes four steps in the Holy Land is guaranteed life in the World to Come.”

“Then why don’t you go and live there yourself?”

Embarrassed by the pointed question, the young man blushed and lowered his head. “My father won’t let me,” he said.

“Aren’t you old enough to do what you want?”

Before Nachman could try to explain, a dark silhouette appeared in the door of the barn. It was Tevye. He stared at his daughter and nodded for her to go back to the wagon. Then with long, purposeful steps, he strode into the barn. He nodded at the young lad and patted his horse on the rump.

“I am grateful for your kindness,” Tevye said.

“May your coming be a blessing,” the pious youth said.

“May our going also be a blessing,” Tevye answered. “I have been a Jew all of my life, but until today, I have never had a rabbi throw me out of a synagogue dedicated to the worship of God.”

The young man blushed. He hung his head toward the ground. “My father probably mistook you for a Zionist.”

“Your father!” Tevye said in surprise. The boy didn’t answer. He bent down to lift the empty bucket of oats and replace it with a bucket of water. A rabbi’s son, Tevye thought. A Torah scholar, no doubt. And a mensch to boot, who went out of his way to perform acts of kindness toward strangers. Tevye approved. It was a suitable match for his Ruchela. If the lad cared for his daughter half as much as he had cared for Tevye’s horse, then the girl had found an excellent husband.

“Since when is loving the Land of Israel a sin?” Tevye asked.

“It isn’t a sin if you love Torah too,” the boy answered. “My father isn’t against Zion. He is against those who throw off the yoke of the Torah and go there. He is afraid of their influence on the minds of our youth.”

Just then, Ben Zion appeared in the entrance.

“Greetings fellow comrades,” the flamboyant Zionist exclaimed.

“Greetings,” Tevye said. “Were your ears just burning? We were just now speaking of you.”

“In a complimentary fashion, I trust. Though there are those who say that it is better to have bad things spoken about you, than to have nothing said about you at all. I understand we have been invited to leave this holy conclave of Branosk,” the capless adventurer quipped.

“We have a journey to continue,” Tevye said.

“Then we should start out before dark,” Ben Zion suggested.

“Tell the others I’m coming,” Tevye answered.

Sensing that he was interrupting the discussion in the barn, Ben Zion dramatically bowed and departed. Tevye slipped the reins of his horse over the animal’s head.

“You are invited to join us,” he told the Rabbi’s son. “I am a widower with unmarried daughters, and the companionship of a Torah scholar like you will help shorten the journey. As our Rabbis teach, when two men discuss matters of Torah, the Divine Presence is with them.”

The youth did not answer.

“In addition, the Baron Rothschild has extended an open invitation to all Jews to join his religious yishuvim-settlements in the Holy Land, and as his representative on this journey, I hereby extend his kind offer to you.”

“I thank you,” the lad said. “I will think about it. But now I have to go home.”

“We will be camped down the road,” Tevye said.

“May your camp be guarded by angels, just as they guarded our forefather Jacob as he journeyed back to the Land of his fathers.”

Tevye’s horse snorted as if to answer “Amen.” The men parted ways, and Tevye returned to the wagon. As he hitched up the horse, he glanced up at Ruchel who was anxiously waiting to learn what had transpired between them.

“I invited your new friend to join us,” Tevye said.

“And?” Ruchel asked.

“As our Rabbis say, `Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the counsel of the Lord which will stand.’”

“What does that mean?” Bat Sheva asked.

“It means I left my crystal ball back in Anatevka. In the meantime, like in the story of Abraham and Lot, we are parting ways with our brethren in this village.”

With his rump still hurting from his fall down the synagogue stairs, Tevye flicked the reins of the wagon and the pioneers once again took up their journey.

“If the hospitality in this village is an example of religious behavior, I’m glad I’m a heretic,” Ben Zion said.

“They believe they are doing the right thing,” Tevye sorrowfully answered.

“So does the Czar,” Naftali quipped.

“That’s awful,” Tzeitl exclaimed. “How can you dare compare them?”

“What’s the difference?” Peter answered. “A Russian boot in the rear, or a Jewish boot in the rear, it hurts the same, eh, Tevye?”

The milkman didn’t answer. He gazed forward into the darkening evening. Only Ruchel stared back down the road hoping that Nachman would come running after their wagon. But no one appeared. They turned a bend, leaving the shtetl behind. A ditch in the road jolted the wagon and Ruchel’s dreams of a husband. She sighed and faced forward, but then, out of a corner of her eye, she saw a figure materialize out of the shadows of the forest. A beat of excitement rushed through her heart, but for naught. The tall, upright figure wasn’t Nachman, but the indefatigable Hevedke.

“Don’t worry,” Hava said, sensing her sister’s thoughts. “Your turn under the marriage chuppah will come.”

When Tevye spotted the Russian poet, he growled.

“It is a sin to murder,” he said, glancing up to the treetops, “So why must You send this devil to tempt me?”

Before long, they came to a clearing by the side of the road and agreed to make camp for the night. The men gathered wood while the women arranged a frugal meal, and once again two fires were lit, one for the Zionists, and one for Tevye and his family, a modest distance away. Everyone huddled around the warming blazes to ward off the evening chill, but the Almighty had other plans for the night. A burst of lightening flashed in the sky. Thunder rumbled in the treetops. Rain poured down from the heavens like brimstone. Within moments, the campfires were quenched. Tevye gathered his brood under the wagon, while their companions scattered for the shelter of trees. The rain pounded on the canvas stretched over Golda’s coffin. A bolt of lightening lit up the forest. A tree cracked in half and toppled to the ground with a crash. Little Moishe and Hannie started to cry.

“Fear not my treasures,” their grandfather said. “Hasn’t the Almighty promised not to destroy the world again with a flood? And things could be worse. We could be standing outside in the rain like our companions.”

“Or like Hevedke,” Hava added.

“A torrent should wash him away,” Tevye said.

“Why do you want him to drown, Zaida?” Moishe asked. “He’s married to Hava.”

“He is married to Hava like my horse is married to a fish,” Tevye answered.

“How can a horse marry a fish?” the young child asked.

“It can’t,” Tevye answered. “Horses marry horses, and fish marry fish.”

Just then, someone came running toward the clearing.

Shalom, shalom,” he called out.

It was Nachman. He was carrying a bulging handbag in one hand and a suitcase in the other. He bent down under the wagon, said a hasty hello, and left his belongings with Ruchel.

“Take care of my books,” he said and hurried off toward the trees where Ben Zion was waiting to greet him.

“Welcome, welcome, son of Israel!” the speechmaker exclaimed. “I trust you have come to enlist in our lofty mission.”

“With the help of the Almighty,” Nachman responded.

“Whether He helps or He doesn’t, it’s all the same to us. Just let Him not interfere.”

Tevye crawled out from under his wagon. He threw the cover off of their chest of belongings and held up a bottle of vodka. “To Zion!” he shouted.

Like the meshugennehs they were, the crazy Zionists joined hands and started to dance in the rain. “Zion, Zion, Zion,” they sang in the black Russian woods. Ben Zion dragged Nachman into their whirl. With a healthy slug of vodka warming his belly, Tevye joined them. He grasped Nachman’s hand, and with the joyous simcha of a wedding, they swirled round and round in the mud. Ben Zion held the bottle of vodka to the young rabbi’s lips. The bottle changed hands until it was finished. The ground spun. Trees and clouds swirled around and around as they danced.

“With your permission,” Nachman said to Tevye. “I would like to marry your daughter.”

“Permission granted,” Tevye agreed.

With a cheer, the dancing continued. The women were all giggles under the wagon. Everyone congratulated Ruchel and showered her with mazal tovs and kisses. Discreetly, they joined in with the traditional wedding song, “Let soon be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the call of the groom, and the song of the bride….”

“Thank the good Lord,” Tevye said when he finally crawled back under the wagon. His rain-drenched clothing clung to his flesh. “Tonight, a miracle has transpired. The son of a rabbi wants to marry Tevye’s daughter.”

Ruchel kissed him. “I am so happy, Tata.”

Suddenly, Tevye raised himself up with a jerk and whacked his head on the planks of the wagon. “I forgot to tell your mother,” he said. Quickly, he scrambled back outside in the downpour. He bent over the coffin and whispered the good news to his wife, Golda.

“Our Ruchela has found herself the son of a rabbi,” he whispered. “You can rest in peace, my Golda. Our luck is finally changing.”

But then again, a man can never be sure. As the Talmud advices, a man should keep good fortune a secret lest the evil eye glance his way. Suddenly, galloping horses thundered by in the night, a stone throw away from the Jews. Tevye recognized the sword-wielding figures of Cossacks. His family sat frozen, holding their breaths until the rumbling cavalcade passed. The darkness of the forest had saved them.

Within minutes, Tevye was asleep, snuggled between his daughters. Nachman fell asleep in the arms of the Zionists. Only Ruchel remained awake with her thoughts of a wedding in Israel, and of the gown she would soon need to sew.

The first time that she heard their horse sneeze, she thought it was from the rain and the chill. The animal neighed restlessly. Its ears straightened, and it started to beat the ground with its hooves. Then a smell of smoke filled Ruchel’s nostrils, causing her to sneeze also. Yells came from the forest. It was Hevedke.

“Fire!” he shouted. “Fire! Branosk is burnt to the ground!”

Tata,” Ruchel called, shaking her father. “Tata.”

Tevye woke up and scrambled to his feet. Quickly, he ran to the road. In the distance, he could see clouds of smoke. The rain had ceased, and a towering fire reached up to the treetops. Ben Zion and his comrades ran past him. Tevye hurried back to the campsite, threw the reins on his horse, and swung onto its back. Nachman ran over and Tevye extended a hand, lifting him up alongside him. They rode off, galloping back down the road. Within minutes, they were back in the village. Pillars of fire blazed all around them. Houses were burnt to the ground. People in their nightgowns lay slaughtered in the street. Others ran in helter-skelter confusion, trying to douse out flames with buckets of water. Crying children searched for their parents. Nachman jumped down from the horse and ran toward his house. Tevye bent down by a man who was pierced through with a saber.

“Cossacks,” the Jew whispered and died.

Down the main road of the shtetl, the barn where Tevye had met Nachman caved in and collapsed. A man staggered out of the burning synagogue, clutching a Sefer Torah. Lungs choking with smoke, he handed the sacred scroll to Tevye. Hevedke appeared by his side. The fire’s reflection flashed over his face. He tried to speak, but couldn’t find words. Ben Zion ran up alongside them.

“They didn’t want to come with us to Palestine,” he said, and he ran off to help with the wounded.

Tevye shuddered and embraced the Torah scroll in his arms. By a twist of fortune, his family had escaped the massacre. If they had spent the night in the village, they too would have been victims. And if the rain hadn’t extinguished their campfire, the Czar’s soldiers would have set upon them. Why had the Almighty protected them, Tevye wondered? Because they were headed for the Promised Land?

Clutching the holy Torah, he headed for the house that Nachman had entered. He climbed the porch stairs and pushed open the door. Dozens of books were scattered on the floor. Bookcases had been toppled. A menorah lay shattered. Tevye set the Torah down on a table. Nachman appeared in the door of the bedroom, his face as white as the kittel worn by the cantor on Yom Kippur.

“Blessed art Thou our Lord, King of the universe, the true Judge,” the young man whispered.

Tevye stepped to the door of the bedroom and peered inside. The boy’s father lay sprawled on the floor, his white beard reddened with blood.

“Fear not, my son,” a woman’s voice said.

It was only then that Tevye noticed the old woman standing in a corner. She clutched a shawl tightly around her thin figure and gazed across the room with an open-eyed stare. Tevye could tell she was blind.

“Before your father died, he gave you his blessing,” she said. Her eyes seemed to shine as if she were gazing at an apparition which they could not see. “And he asked that you pray for his soul at the holy Wall in Jerusalem.”

Nachman stared at his mother in silence. One of his brothers ran in the house.

“Your father died with the Shema on his lips,” the old woman said. “The house filled with light, and an angel escorted his soul up to Heaven. The prophet Elijah was waiting with a chariot of fire. Your father glanced down at me and said not to worry. Then, with a serene smile, he disappeared into a gateway of light. May his memory be for a blessing.”

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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3 Responses to “Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Five: A Husband For Ruchel”

  1. Reuven Kossover says:

    Sounds like the stories my father told me of life in Poland during the Great War.

  2. Amira Mele says:

    (continuation): and NOT ENOUGH WORDS I CAN EXPRESS A "LOGIC" ANSWER to this. I FEEL STRONG FOR YOU JONATHAN and I hope for you to receive the energy and strength for ever that you need to have! I SUPPORT you fully,
    Amira Mele
    Carson City, NV
    LOVE and PEACE
    שלום ואהבה!!! ,
    אמירה מילי
    קארסון סיטי, נוואדה

  3. Devorah Barak Cohen says:

    Are you really in Carson City Nevada???? When caN WE get together????

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