“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.