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?”