“Didn’t I tell you that everything God does works out for the best?” Tevye said to Nachman as everyone gathered excitedly around the coffin on the beach. “If the Turks had let us disembark in Jaffa, I would never have seen my Golda wash up on shore.”
It didn’t matter that, in fact, Nachman had been the one who had reminded a crestfallen Tevye that God’s loving, invisible hand never stops guiding life’s twists and turns. If Tevye, in a moment of despair, had forgotten this teaching of the Talmud, God would certainly forgive him. Now, with Golda once again at his side, Tevye’s faith was stronger than ever.
But Tevye’s reunion with Golda was not the only miracle which had transpired. Since stepping foot in the Land of Israel, Tevye had imperceptibly changed. He couldn’t say why. He couldn’t explain the sensation, but somehow, his mind, his soul, and his heart underwent a rejuvenation, as if the clock of his life had turned backwards, making him feel twenty years younger. Yes, he felt more confident now that his beloved Golda was back at his side. Yes, he felt comforted that the Almighty had returned her to him. But even more than these blessings, the realization that he had reached the Land of Israel overwhelmed all of his thoughts. The prayers, the prophecies, the dreams, the yearnings of two-thousand years, all had come true. Wasn’t it written in the Book of Psalms, “When God will return the exiles of Zion, we will be like those who dream. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song?”
Tevye the milkman, the son of Reb Schneur Zalman, was in Israel! He was in the Land which God had promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It was the Land of Joshua and the prophet Samuel. The Land of King David and his son, Solomon, the wisest of men. It was the home of the Jerusalem Temple, of the Maccabees, and Rabbi Akiva. While Tevye’s faith in the Biblical stories which his father had taught him had always been steadfast, now he was standing on the very soil where Jewish history had unfolded in all of its glory and pain. Suddenly, the ancient stories had a down-to-earth setting. Suddenly, the Land of Israel was real, not just a faraway dream. It was like hearing about a famous person, and then suddenly meeting him, like when Tevye had met the great writer, Sholom Aleichem. What a thrill!
Nachman experienced the same indescribable sensation. Feeling the secret power of the Land surge into his body, he burst into song. Everyone had the same feeling. Everyone sang. They were in the Land of Israel! They were home!
Their singing gave way to exhaustion. It was time to learn their next lesson. Life in the Land of Israel, like its sand dunes, had its ups and its downs. Everyone was astounded at the landscape as they started the trek north back toward Jaffa. Dunes and desert stretched around them as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they had to make a long detour around a foul-smelling swamp. The land was barren and desolate, as if still suffering from the Divine curse which had fallen upon the soil since the Jews had been exiled from their home. Gone were the lush gardens, the fruit trees, the fertile green valleys, and overflowing rivers of Biblical days. If there had once been milk and honey in the Land, the ferocious sun had long ago turned them to sand. Miles passed without the sight of a single tree or bush. Beside their motley-looking caravan, there was no sign of human life. Eyes searched the horizon for Jaffa, but all they could see was an ocean of heat waves rising off a desert wilderness.
Before long, their enthusiasm started to wane. It was as if they had returned three-thousand years through history to their ancestors’ wanderings through Sinai. Their footsteps became heavier. The fierce sun beat down on their heads. More and more frequently, the men had to set down Golda’s coffin and rest. Tzeitl fainted. Once again, Tevye had to carry her in his arms. Within an hour, their supply of fresh water was finished. Children cried. Grown-ups collapsed in the sand. Complaints could be heard in every corner of the camp.
“Why did we come on this journey? We could have died just as easily in Russia.”
“At least there we had water.”
“The Spies that Moses sent to scout out the Land were right,” another voice moaned in despair. “This is a land that devours its settlers.”
Tevye began to feel gloomy. Was this to be their destiny after months on the road – to drop dead from thirst on the promised shores of Zion? To be roasted alive by the sun? To be swallowed up by a wasteland still angry for the sins of the past?
“Rachmonus,” Tevye begged, looking up at the sky. “Is it too much to ask for some mercy? After all, is this any way for a Father to act towards children who have come home seeking shelter? Are we to perish on Your doorstep without food or drink?”
Once again, as if God merely wanted to hear Tevye’s prayer, salvation was wrought from the depths of despair. Just when the heat overcame the new immigrants, and the strongest among them collapsed in exhaustion at the peak of a sandy incline, their eyes were feasted to an oasis of greenery and life. Spread out in the valley before them were shade trees and orchards, fields of barley and corn, and a sparkling blue pond. Houses were clustered along the road running through the center of the colony. But the thing that made Tevye believe he was dreaming was the sight of the settlers who rushed forward to greet them. They were all bearded Jews like himself, with yarmulkahs on their heads, tzitzit dangling out of their breaches, and farmers’ tools in their hands. Their faces were the color of gold, and their handshakes were like the grip of a blacksmith. Could these really be Jews, Tevye thought?
The moshav was called Rishon LeZion, one of the first Jewish colonies which the Baron Rothschild had established in the Land. When the news spread that immigrants had arrived from the old country, work in the village stopped. Settlers flocked to greet them, each one dressed in a different style, depending on where he had come from in Russia. Others wore articles of clothing they had picked up on their journeys. Some men sported vests and brown derbies, others Russian military shirts with high collars, while others wore khaki jackets and the broad-rimmed hats of hunters, as if they had just returned from an African safari. Field workers strode forward in boots. They wore caps on their heads and dirt-stained aprons over their clothes. Young boys out from heder and Talmud Torah schoolswore caps like their fathers, jackets and knee-length knickers. Many went barefoot. Women wearing aprons and bonnets brought food and drink in abundance, as if the new arrivals were kings. Everyone had questions. Everyone spoke out at once. Where were the newcomers from? Had they heard what had happened in this place and that? Did they have letters? Did they want to join the Rishon community? Were they under contract to the Baron, or free to strike out on their own? When they reached the colony, someone named Aharon stood on the steps of a porch and waved his cap, inviting them to stop all of the chatter and kibbetzing and come into the mess hall to get something substantial to eat.
Tevye was more concerned with finding a doctor for Tzeitl. She was taken into a house and fed sips of water until she opened her eyes and smiled. Only when the doctor told him not to worry did Tevye think to quench his own thirst. Along with the fresh fruits spread out on the meeting-hall table, there were bottles and bottles of wine brewed from the grapes of the Land of Israel, from the vines of Rishon LeZion! The sweet, pungent beverage made the heads of the newcomers spin and made their hearts burst with song. It made Tevye’s tired feet dance and his parched lips forget the punishing sun. “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to sit together!” everyone sang in an outburst of spontaneous simcha. The Jews of Rishon were equally jubilant upon the arrival of a new group of pioneers. As the name of the colony implied, these first settlers of Zion were encouraged by the reinforcements. More Jews meant more workers and more helpers in their dream of rebuilding the Land. But in the ecstasy of their dancing, in their closed eyes, clasped hands, and fervent expressions, there was something much more. The whirling circle of men seemed to spin around and around with a spiritual force beyond the strength of their legs. There was a messianic fervor to their singing, and the feeling that the Mashiach was just around the bend.
Even Hevedke felt an exaltation he had never known in his life. Until then, his desire to become a part of Hava’s people had stemmed from his love for her. But now, seeing God’s promise to the Jews materializing before his eyes, to bring His people home, he was moved by an overwhelming love for the God of the Children of Israel. Dramatically, he stood up on a chair, and, like the poet he was, he read aloud from his wet, sandy Bible. Hearing the baritone, Russian translation, the Yiddish-speaking Jews stopped dancing and stared up in wonder at the blond, blue-eyed orator.
“I will take you from the nations,” Hevedke read with a flourish, “and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own Land, and you shall dwell in the Land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”
Everyone cheered. Goliath lifted Hevedke on his shoulders and swung him around in the middle of the dancing. Tevye danced and drank “L’Chaims” until his eyes wearied with sleep. But as his head fell onto his plate in exhaustion, he suddenly bolted up from the table. How could he think of resting when his Golda was outside in her coffin? How could he think of his own peace and comfort when Golda had not found her final rest? Wasn’t burying the dead the most pressing mitzvah of all? Without further delay, he rushed out of the hall. Now that they were in the Land of Israel, it didn’t matter where she was buried. As the Sages taught, burial in the Holy Land atoned for sins, just like the altar in the Holy Temple.
“Not that my angel of a wife needs atonement,” Tevye said to his new friend, Aharon, who led the way to a treeless plot at the colony’s border. Tevye was surprised to see rows upon rows of gravestones in the cemetery of the young village, which Aharon called a yishuv. So many deaths in the short years of its history could be seen as an ominous sign. But philosophical speculation could wait. The time had arrived to put Golda to rest in the sacred ground of Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land. With the farmers of Rishon sharing in the work, a grave was dug out in no time.
When they were finished, Tevye got down on his knees. “Rest in peace, dear Golda,” he whispered, gently patting down the soil covering her final abode. “You don’t have to worry any more, my princess. Though, of course, I know that you will. What other pleasure does a Jewish woman have? Please forgive me for having disturbed your sweet sleep, and for shlepping you all over the world, but, you see, it has all turned out for the best. Put in a good word for our daughters, that they may find husbands who will honor them like queens, and give regards to my father and mother. With God’s help, your Tevye will take care of the rest.”
The funeral assembly made its way back to the colony along a path bordered by tall eucalyptus trees. The sweet smells of the Rishon winery hung in the air. Vegetables of all sizes, colors, and shapes filled the gardens beside every house. When they arrived at the mess hall, everyone wanted to continue the party, but a short, clean-shaven man stood on the steps of the porch blocking their way. He wore a Fedora hat and a tailored suit incongruous to the hot, rustic locale. As if to accentuate his aristocratic image, he gripped a riding crop in leather-gloved hands.
“The party is over,” he shouted. He spoke in a rudimentary Yiddish, but his accent was unmistakably French. “Everyone is to return to their work. The Baron isn’t subsidizing this enterprise to have you squander his wine and engage in extravagant parties in the middle of the afternoon. There are rules to this colony, and it is my job to enforce them. As for the newcomers, let it be known that Rishon LeZion is not interested in absorbing any new workers. The Jewish Colonization Association has several young settlements to the north which are accepting new candidates. Inquiries can be made at company headquarters in Zichron Yaacov. Under the authority invested in me as Manager of this yishuv, I hereby order all new arrivals to immediately evacuate the colony confines.”
Shouts of protest rang out from the crowd.
“Who is he?” Tevye asked Aharon.
“Dupont – the ‘Yaka’ manager. The watchdog of the Baron.”
“What is Yaka?” Nachman inquired.
“It’s the Hebrew abbreviation for the Jewish Colonization Association,” Aharon answered.
“Is he a Jew?” Tevye asked.
“He claims he is. But a lot of the Company managers aren’t.”
Dupont started to walk down the porch stairs, but a horde of new immigrants rushed forward, surrounding him, cursing him, even reaching out to bat him on the head. Not accustomed to such uncivilized treatment, the miniature baron quickly retreated to the safety of the porch. Not being indentured to anyone, the new arrivals had nothing to lose. They were all exhausted from the long journey, thankful to be alive, and here this little knocker of a Frenchman was ordering them to get lost!
“One minute, one minute,” he called. “You don’t seem to under-stand.”
A few of the newcomers followed him threateningly up the stairs.
“Who put you in charge?” an angry Hasid yelled.
“He deserves to be lashed and hung from a tree,” another asserted.
The mob cheered and pushed toward the porch. Aharon shoved his way through the crowd to come to Dupont’s rescue.
“These newcomers are liable to act on their threats,” he warned the little Napoleon. “They don’t understand the rules of the Company. Let them stay here for the night, and tomorrow I will make the necessary arrangements to help them on their way.”
Dupont’s confidence seemed shaken. He squared his hat on his head. The uprising was a threat to his rule. But any objections he had were quelled by the jeers of the crowd and the formidable figure of Goliath who strode up the porch steps looking like a walking eucalyptus. Four company workers arrived on the scene carrying rifles. They halted as Aharon raised up his hand.
“Very well,” Dupont conceded. “You speak with them. But they can only stay here one evening.”
Aharon nodded. He turned to the crowd.
“The manager has asked me to explain that everyone is welcome to stay for the night, and that tomorrow, arrangements will be made for everyone’s placement at another Company colony.”
The crowd of Jews applauded. Aharon hurried Dupont into the mess hall, and led him to the rear door, where a getaway carriage was waiting to meet him.
“Put them all in the barn for the night and make sure they are back on their way in the morning,” the colony manager ordered.
“Yes, sir,” Aharon answered.
“What chutzpah!” Tevye said after the carriage had sped away. “Does he think this is Russia?”
“Even in the Holy Land, it isn’t always easy being a Jew,” Aharon answered.
“Why do you let him pretend he’s the Czar? You outnumber them ten to one.”
Aharon nodded. “That is true, but we need them to survive. Turning sand dunes and swamps into farmland takes time. The Baron sends us a lot of assistance. In return, he has his rules, his managers, and his J.C.A. company policy. As they say, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
“I don’t understand,” Tevye said.
“I’ll explain it to you later,” Aharon assured him. “But first I want to get everyone settled.”
Aharon returned to the indignant new immigrants, and after a brief explanation, herded them off to the barn where everyone was to bed down with the horses and cows. Many of the Jews had a list of complaints, but most of the travelers were so tired, they soon fell fast asleep. For modesty’s sake, because of the women, the devoutly religious slept outside under the stars. Once things were organized, Aharon invited the more vocal Jews to his house for a cup of black Turkish coffee and a lengthy discussion. Tevye went with them. Nachman and Ruchel decided to seek out the local rabbi to inform him of their decision to marry. Goliath and Hevedke bedded down near the barn door to watch over the children, and Hava and Bat Sheva sat by Tzeitl’s side in the infirmary where she was fitfully sleeping.
Aharon lived in a tiny, cramped cottage whose yard was planted with tomatoes plants, melons, and a strange looking gourd he called dlatt. A vine laden with grapes hung from the veranda at the entrance to the house. Inside, the men crowded around a table and savored the rich, aromatic coffee which Aharon’s wife served them. An evening sea breeze blew through the open shutters. Patiently, for more than an hour, Aharon explained the intricacies of the Jewish Colonization Association. Behind him, on a small wooden shelf, was a small blue metal box of the Jewish National Fund, filled with Megidas, Napoleons, and whatever other small coins the family could spare to help purchase land in the country.
The benefactor of the ambitious Jewish resettlement project was the famous Baron Edmond Rothschild. The fabulously wealthy Rothschilds of Europe were banking and railroad magnates, backers of governments and wars. Edmond was the maverick of the family, whose philanthropic scheme to build a Jewish economic enterprise in Palestine siphoned off millions and millions of dollars each year from the family fortune. Because of the costly investment, he was careful to oversee the development of the colonies through a rigid system of management and monetary control. Being a private person himself, his style of land acquisition was patient and pragmatic, avoiding the aggressive imperialistic policy fostered by other Zionist leaders. He preferred to gradually establish a foundation of settlements which would one day be self-supporting. Accordingly, he maintained cordial relations with the ruling Turkish authorities, who were wary of mass Jewish immigration to Palestine. While the Baron had not founded Rishon LeZion, he had bailed the swamp-infested colony out of the grips of malaria and bankruptcy, and kept it afloat with the monies he channeled into its coffers through the Yaka organization each year.
Aharon told them that while many of the Jewish settlers had gripes against the Baron, he himself respected “The Benefactor” greatly. The colonies, he declared, could not survive without the Company’s assistance. Furthermore, while the Baron was not strictly religious himself, he insisted that every JCA settlement have a synagogue, heder for grade-school children, mikvah for ritual immersion, slaughterer-shochet to supply kosher meat, and rabbi. On the negative side, Aharon confessed, the life of the colonies was controlled by the “Pakidut HaBaron,” the managers whom the Company appointed to oversee the development of each settlement. The managers, gentiles among them, tended to be small-minded bureaucrats, more interested in their positions of authority and financial reward than in the idealistic goal of resettling the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland. Basically, Aharon explained, the pioneer settlers were indentured farmers, at the mercy of the tyrannical managers, and beholden to the JCA for their salaries and badly-needed loans. Although the Baron lived in a palace himself, he was against bourgeois standards of living, insisting that his workers live in Arab-style huts, or large barn-like dorms. Settlers were told what crops to grow and where. There were long lines to receive animal fodder, and their meager ten-francs per-month salary could be withheld at the first sign of rebellion against the JCA management. The settlers could be evicted at any time, and even their personal life was restricted. There had even been cases where managers had forbidden workers to marry or to invite guests to their homes. Once, when Aharon took the initiative to write the Baron a letter complaining against the Company’s frugal policy toward the settlers, the Baron personally wrote back, saying that Aharon should more productively dirty his hands in the fields, and send his wife and children to work, instead of complaining.
Aharon showed his guests the letter.
“We were better off in Russia,” one of his listeners said.
“A lot of pioneers end up going back,” Aharon admitted.
“Why don’t you tell the Company managers to go to hell?” another new immigrant asked.
“We would all die of starvation,” Aharon answered. “The price of land is so high, we could never afford it ourselves.”
His listeners sat in glum silence.
“We’ll manage,” Tevye said. “The Almighty will help. Anything is better than being a slave to the Czar.”
Aharon told them not to despair. In the morning, he would take down all of their names and travel to Jaffa with their documents to bribe a Turkish official into issuing immigrant permits to the group. That way, they would be free to travel throughout the country without fear of arrest and possible deportation.
Outside the house, Nachman was waiting. He wanted to see Tevye alone.
“We have good news, Reb Tevye,” he said. “Ruchel and I have decided to get married tomorrow. We have been to the Rabbi, and he agrees that it is halachically possible. Ruchel spoke with his wife, and all of the proper ritual arrangements can be made. With your permission, of course.”
Happily, Tevye embraced the young man. “My permission is granted, my son. But what about the Company manager?”
“The Rabbi said he would talk to him. He thinks Dupont can be persuaded, because the wedding will provide revenue to the colony, since we will be paying for the food. He said he would also talk to him about letting us live in Rishon LeZion. The Talmud Torah needs a new teacher, and he wants me to take the job.”
“Mazal tov, mazal tov,” Tevye said. “The kindness of God never ceases.”
And so it was. In the morning, Aharon collected documents and bribe money from the new pioneers, or chalutzim, as they were called in Hebrew. When he had finished making a list, Tevye took him aside and gave him money to buy a wedding ring for Ruchel. Dupont, in a gesture of public relations to soften the bad feelings he had created the day before, gave his permission to hold the wedding celebration in Rishon. As if he had arranged the marriage himself, he returned to the porch of the dining room to magnanimously announce that the wedding would be held after nightfall in the courtyard of the colony. While Tevye tried to love every man, Jew and gentile alike, and to judge all of God’s children in a favorable light, he didn’t always succeed. The pompous Dupont was a perfect example. Tevye knew it was wrong, but he felt an urge to wipe the insincere grin off the manager’s face. But being a peace-loving man, and for the sake of his daughter, Tevye smiled and thanked Mr. Dupont for his kindness.
The women of the community worked in their kitchens all day to prepare a proper feast. A chuppah wedding canopy was erected by tying a prayer shawl to four poles. The Rabbi’s wife found Ruchel a white gown that fit her exactly. Nachman borrowed a shiny white kittel robe, and Tevye’s eyes moistened as he escorted his new son-in-law to the marriage canopy to wed his beaming daughter. The wedding guests, dressed in their most elegant Sabbath bowlers and bonnets, held up lanterns to light the way.
“Every wedding is special,” the Rabbi declared before pronouncing the nuptial blessings. “But this wedding is even more distinctive because it is the joining of two lives in the Land of Israel after a long, two-thousand-year exile.”
All of the wedding guests were silent as they listened to the words of the Rabbi. A glow shone in all of their eyes. Even Dupont felt a shiver of destiny in the cool evening breeze. Bat Sheva, Hava, and Tzeitl stood beside Ruchel, the bride, the beautiful kallah, overjoyed with their sister’s happiness, and filled with dreams of their own. Little Hannie and Moishe sat perched on Goliath’s broad shoulders, watching the wedding over the heads of the crowd. The big-hearted giant shed tears of joy as he watched the beaming countenance of his dearest friend, Nachman.
“Two-thousand years ago, the Romans invaded the Land of Israel, destroyed Jerusalem, and expelled the Jews from the land. To what is this like? To robbers who come and throw a man out of his house. The injustice can only be righted when the rightful owner returns to live in his home once again. So too with the return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael.
“Nachman and Ruchel, the happiness of this occasion is not only your own private joy,” the Rabbi continued. “It is the happiness of all of the Jewish people all over the world. You are pioneers, leading the way for the rest of the nation, preparing the foundation for the great waves of aliyah-immigration which will follow. Our Sages tell us that every new home in the Land of Israel, and every new family, is a new stone in the building of Jerusalem. For two-thousand years at Jewish weddings all over the world, men and women have been saying the words of King David’s psalm, ‘If I forget you O Jerusalem,’ to remind them that their own private joy cannot be complete until our ancient city is rebuilt. This great love for our land and for Jerusalem is our secret. This is our strength. May the Lord bless you and keep you, may He shine His countenance upon you and grant you peace.”
The Rabbi recited the wedding blessings, and Nachman and Ruchel became man and wife. Raising his foot with a smile, Nachman shattered the traditional glass. A clarinet started to play. Tevye gazed teary-eyed at his family under the wedding chuppah. Could it be, he asked himself? Were his eyes truly seeing what they saw? Standing beside his Ruchela was the living apparition of Golda, crying a mother’s proud tears! Yes, yes, it was Golda. How could it be otherwise? There was no way she was going to miss this great joyous simcha. She had returned from her rest in Gan Eden to be with her loved ones on this special glorious day.
“Golda!” Tevye whispered in surprise.
The white-gowned apparition looked at Tevye with a mother’s satisfied glance.
“Mazal tov, my husband, mazal tov,” she said. “Finally, you have done something right.”
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." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.