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October 22, 2014 / 28 Tishri, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Four: ‘Thou Shall Not Murder’


Tevye in the Promised Land

The Zionists were happy to have Tevye and his family join them. Feeling no pain from the vodka, Tevye invited their young leader to sit alongside him in the wagon. In a feeling of brotherhood, he even offered him a drink. Ben Zion refused. Alcohol, he said, was a drug which the wealthy class used to keep the peasants content in their religious stupor. He and his friends were drunk with the spirit of freedom, so who needed vodka? But if their distinguished traveling companion needed a drink, then by all means, he should imbibe – it was a day of emancipation, a time of independence, a cause for celebration.

“Emancipation from what?” Tevye asked.

“From the yoke of the Czar.”

“Amen,” Tevye said, taking another hearty drink.

Tzeitl reached out to take the bottle away from her father.

“Honor thy father,” Tevye warned, holding the vodka out of her reach. “Didn’t the angels inquire of Abraham, `Where is your wife?’ A woman’s place is out of sight, a queen in her palace, not with the men in the front seat of the wagon.”

“We believe that women should be liberated too,” Ben Zion said.

“You believe in a lot of foolish nonsense,” Tevye answered. “But you have an excuse – you’re still a young whelp.”

“Wasn’t Elazar ben Azariah even younger than I am when he was chosen to head the Sanhedrin?”

“Oh, I see I have the privilege of sharing my seat with a scholar of Torah. I truly am honored,” Tevye said.

“Just because I go with my head uncovered, don’t think that I haven’t learned. My father sent me to heder, and I was quite a good student until I discovered that the world had entered new times.”

“Hasn’t King Solomon taught us that there is nothing new under the sun?” Tevye asked.

“I can quote Scripture too, but don’t you see that it’s all an old-fashioned fable which doesn’t apply anymore?”

Tevye pulled on the reins until his horse came to a halt. “There will be no words of heresy in this wagon. While it may lack a roof, this is, for the time being, our humble abode, and Tevye, the son of Schneur Zalman, will not tolerate blasphemy in the presence of his family. So if you cannot control your speech, please step down from my wagon.”

Ben Zion smiled. “No problem, old man,” he said. “While I am unable to agree with your beliefs, I respect both you and your beautiful daughters. Besides, evening is approaching, and you probably would like to pray to your God. In the meantime, my comrades and I will look for a suitable camp site.”

“My beautiful daughters,” Tevye mumbled when the insolent scoundrel climbed down from the wagon. He would have felt safer if he were traveling with thieves. This free-thinking Herzl was cut from the very same cloth as his son-in-law Perchik. Why, Tevye wondered, had he turned a deaf ear to the Rabbi?

They camped in the woods by the roadside. Tevye unhitched his horse and fed him a bucket of oats. Then he spread out blankets and mats for his daughters under the wagon. The father intended to keep guard under the stars, where he could keep an eye on the Zionists. The family enjoyed a modest meal of black bread and potatoes which Tevye baked in the campfire. A swig of vodka helped to wash down the food. While they ate, Tevye’s eye kept wandering to the flickering light of a campfire on the other side of the road.

“He’s following us like a dog,” Tevye said.

“Please, Tata,” Hava appealed. “Don’t talk about Hevedke like that.”

“I see the devil still has you under his spell.”

“I’m not under a spell. If I were, I wouldn’t be here. But Hevedke is a good man. It isn’t his fault that he was born one of them.”

Tevye took a big bite out of his potato. Grumbling, he tilted his head back and poured some more vodka into his belly.

She’s right, he thought. It wasn’t the youth’s fault that he had been created that way, just as it wasn’t Tevye’s fault that he had been born a Jew. But just as Tevye had to suffer his fate, then let this Galagan suffer his fate too. How long was he planning on following them? Till he drove Tevye out of his mind?

“If our father, Abraham, were here,” Ben Zion said pointedly from his seat by the campfire, “I bet he would invite a fellow traveler over to join in his meal.”

“He is not one of us,” Tevye answered.

“That never stopped Abraham,” Ben Zion responded. “Didn’t he bring everyone he met under the roof of his tent to spread the knowledge of God? After all, are not all men created in God’s image?”

“There are men, and there are men who look like men, but behave like wild beasts.”

“Oh, Tata,” Tzeitl said. “You know there are lots of exceptions.”

“Like our wonderful Russian friends who threw us out of our village.”

“Which one of your daughters is he in love with?” Ben Zion asked.

Tevye stood up. “What business is it of yours?” he demanded.

It was Naftali, the singer, who answered. “He just wants to know which of your roses are still up for grabs.”

His comrades all laughed. Tevye growled. One of the group, a mamzer named Peter, jumped to his feet and said he was going to invite Hevedke to join them. With a laugh, he started to walk toward the road, but Tevye grabbed him. With a powerful grasp, he spun him around and shoved him into the fire. The Zionist landed on the burning branches with a yelp. Quickly, his comrades pulled him out of the flames.

Tevye stood glaring.

“That’s the last time anyone mentions either that uncircumcised Philistine or my daughters! Is that understood?”

Even the usually garrulous Ben Zion was silent. Tevye walked back to his wagon. It was a pity, he thought, that the brunt of his anger had to fall on a Jew. How much better it would have been if he had pulled the Russian Police Commissioner off of his horse and broken his bones instead. Or if he were to set Hevedke on fire and wish him a final good riddance.

His daughters didn’t dare open their mouths when their father returned to their side. Tevye sat down and leaned back against a wheel of the wagon. He was tired from the vodka and from the strains of the day. The fire across the road had waned in brightness, but the silhouette of the Russian poet could still be seen against the trees of the forest. Tevye’s eyes closed in the darkness. Exhaustion swept through his body. Before long, he was snoring. Ben Zion called over in a discreet, polite voice, asking him to be quiet, but the milkman didn’t hear. Hodel gave her father a nudge, but he was deep in some other world, dreaming of a carriage pulled by a team of white horses.

Tevye only awoke after everyone else had fallen asleep. His daughters were huddled in blankets under the wagon. The Zionists dozed in the warmth of the campfire’s embers. When Tevye was certain that everyone was sleeping, he quietly stood up, opened the chest in the wagon, and pulled out his slaughterer’s knife. Careful not to step on branches or twigs, he walked across the road toward the wisps of smoke rising amongst the pine trees. Hevedke was sleeping. His features were serene and innocently youthful. A small smile, like a baby’s, was curled on his lips. A stubble of blondish red hair covered his cheeks, as if he were growing a beard. And a hand-sewn yarmulka had fallen off his head to the ground. Bending down to lift it, Tevye recognized Hava’s skilled stitch in the traditional Jewish skullcap.

When Tevye let out a roar, Hevedke jerked upright, still half asleep. Tevye grasped him around his chest and lay the blade of the knife gently on his throat.

“This is a slaughterer’s knife,” he said. “Its blade is kept extra sharp in order to kill the animal quickly so it won’t have to suffer needless pain.”

“Thou shall not murder,” Hevedke whispered in terror.

“That’s as much as you know,” Tevye said. “It is also written that if a thief enters your house to kidnap your daughter, then you are allowed to kill him.”

Tevye scraped the steel of the knife along his prisoner’s neck.

“I want to be a Jew,” the young Russian vowed in a hush.

“And I want to be Baron Rothschild with a carriage pulled by four fancy zebras,” the milkman responded.

“Give me a chance,” Hevedke pleaded.

“Just like the chance which your Czar has given to us. The chance to flee and never return. My daughter is finished with you and never wants to see you again. Tomorrow, when I look back down the road, I don’t want to see you following us. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Hevedke whispered as the blade pressed into his skin.

Tevye let the youth go. The Russian fell to his side and gasped. The milkman stood up in satisfaction and started to walk back toward the road. But now it was Hevedke’s turn. His voice pierced Tevye’s back as if he were holding a knife of his own.

“Wherever thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.”

“Oy vay,” Tevye thought. Another Bible scholar! It was maddening enough that the Zionist, Ben Zion, could spout verses like water. Now this blond-headed Gorky was quoting the Book of Ruth. Soon Tevye’s horse would be talking!

“I love Hava,” Hevedke said. “And I always will. Where she diest, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

“Gevalt,” Tevye thought. “Do I have a problem.”

Without turning, he walked back to the road. Stars sparkled high over the trees. What future did the constellations hold in store for him? After all, he reasoned, trying to see the good side, a gentile could convert. It said so in the Torah. Wasn’t Ruth, the Moabite, the great grandmother of King David? And if you want to talk about converts, Rabbi Akiva, the son of a convert, became the greatest Torah scholar in history. On the other hand, being in love with a pretty Jewish girl did not make someone a Jew. There were rules when it came to converting, like with everything else. If Hevedke Galagan really wanted to enter the Covenant of Abraham, he would have to pass the test. And the first proof of a Jew was suffering. He would have to prove himself beyond any shadow of a doubt before Tevye would let him speak to his daughter.

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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