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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Nineteen: A Trail of Tomatoes

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

The indefatigable woodchopper, Goliath, provided the posts and slats for the fence which the settlers began erecting around the kibbutz. Ben Zion adamantly opposed the idea, claiming a fence would turn the settlement into a ghetto and curtail any further expansion.

“If the fence is intended to keep our enemies out, I have a better way,” Ben Zion declared, holding up his rifle. “And if the fence is intended to keep us inside its borders, we left the ghettos of Europe and Russia behind us. Fences are for frightened people. If we want to build a proud and brave nation, we have to start acting like one.”

While even the philosopher, Gordon, said that Ben Zion was right, Perchik insisted on honoring the agreement, arguing that they could purchase additional land when their economic situation improved. To keep Shoshana’s end of the bargain, he arranged for a loan from the older, more established Degania kibbutz on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Several days later, the goodwill money was paid to the Arabs.

As it turned out, peace was achieved on another front as well. Miraculously, Tevye did not have to go to war with Bat Sheva. She apologized on her own. She confessed that she loved Ben Zion, but she was not going to run after him like a chicken without a head. Until he was ready to marry her, she did not want to see him again.

“Hodel is right,” she said. “Ben Zion is so in love with himself, he doesn’t have room in his heart for anyone else.”

So that’s what caused the turnaround, Tevye thought. Thank the good Lord. Bat Sheva had been speaking with her sister. That was a smart thing to do. As King Solomon said, “Wisdom comes from increased advice.” The girl had some intelligence and sechel after all. What a pity that Hodel herself had not confided in someone before running off with her own egotistical shpritzer.

“He will never have any respect for me if I don’t first have respect for myself,” Bat Sheva said.

Tevye was pleased to hear his little girl speak with such common sense. If he had uttered the very same words, Bat Sheva would have protested and bolted angrily from the house. In retrospect, Tevye realized that he should have been more patient with his other daughters. With a little more tolerance and trust on his part, they might have been less rebellious.

It seemed that any day now Hodel would have to give birth. Her belly was so swollen, when she walked, she waddled back and forth like a duck. If she sat down in a chair, she needed help getting up. With a feeling of great expectation, Tevye drove his wagon out to the fields for another morning’s work. Who could tell? Perhaps his Hodel would give birth to a boy. A year ago in Anatevka, who would have dreamed of celebrating a brit milah in the very Land where the covenant of circumcision between God and the Jewish people had been forged?

The day’s chore was to harvest the tomatoes which had been planted in a rocky field at an edge of the settlement. Because there was no private ownership on the kibbutz, Tevye’s wagon had been appropriated to serve the needs of the community. He had reluctantly agreed, with the stipulation that he be the only driver. And he made it clear to the appropriations committee that if he were to leave the kibbutz, the wagon would depart with him.

As usual, the kibbutzniks riding in his wagon sang happy songs about Zion and about the glory of working the Land. Spirits were especially high in expectation of the harvest ahead. What greater joy for a farmer than gathering the fruits of his labor? Imagine everyone’s shock upon reaching the field of tomatoes and finding every vine bare! The tomatoes had already been picked! Not a vegetable remained on a stalk. The shattered fence and fresh wagon tracks leading north toward the Arab camp were clues any blind man could read. During the night, while the Jews of Shoshana were sleeping, the Arabs had come and harvested the entire crop.

After rounding up a troop of armed shomrim, the Jews started off in pursuit. Ben Zion rode at the head of the cavalry. Ironically, his soldiers looked as much like Arabs as the Arabs did themselves. If Tevye had been in the middle of a battle, he wouldn’t have known in which direction to shoot. The shomrim had adopted the white blouses, kefiah headdress and head band to show that the Jews were an indigenous part of the Land, and not out-of-place looking Russians. Until the shomer groups had been organized, the Arabs had nicknamed the unarmed pioneers “Sons of Death,” because their kibbutzim were so vulnerable to attack. More than a few Jewish land surveyors had been found murdered in the hills, and Bedouin highwaymen made traveling a risky affair. At first, to protect themselves, the Zionists had hired Arabs to guard their isolated enclaves, but when pillage and theft became an almost nightly occurrence, the new Jewish immigrants realized that they would have to defend their settlements by themselves.

As if to make the chase after the tomato thieves easier, the culprits had left a trail of discarded, insect-eaten tomatoes which a child could have followed. Driving his wagon over the primitive terrain, Tevye winced every time its wheels hit a bump. Surprisingly, the thieves had not taken their booty to their camp. At a crossroad, the trail of bruised tomatoes continued westward toward the sea. Ben Zion reasoned that the Arabs were taking the harvest straight to the port city of Acco, where the fresh vegetables would command a higher price. At his urging, the Jews kept in hot pursuit. Before long, they caught up with their harvest. Two wagons piled high with tomatoes, and accompanied by a half dozen Arab women on foot, rumbled slowly along the road. Apparently, the women had done the looting while the armed drivers had stood guard. Ben Zion fired a shot in the air, and the kidnapped tomatoes came to a halt. Clearly outnumbered by the rifled shomrim, the drivers held up their hands in surrender. The women started screaming in high-pitched, hysterical wails. They pelted the Jews with tomatoes. Tevye was hit in the head. The barrage ended only when the kibbutzniks retreated out of range, not out of fear, but to salvage their precious crop.

“What do you want with us?” one of the drivers called out.

“We want our tomatoes,” Ben Zion answered.

“The tomatoes are ours,” the Arab said. “They grew in our fields.”

“We had an agreement,” Mendelevitch declared. “You promised to keep away from our crops.”

The Arab shook his head. “There was never any agreement.”

“What?!” the startled kibbutz treasurer asked. “I was there. I witnessed the payment. If you don’t believe me, we will go and speak with the sheik.”

“The sheik has moved his tribe to the Negev,” the Arab informed.

Mendelevitch was speechless. He stared open mouthed at Ben Zion.

“Tell them, Tevye,” he muttered. “You were there. Tell them you saw the sheik promise to keep his people away from our fields.”

Before Tevye could answer, another barrage of tomatoes came flying through the air like miniature red cannonballs. The Arab women had snuck back within range. Ben Zion fired a shot over the heads of the screaming women, frightening them away. His white blouse was stained crimson with tomato paste as if he had been shot in the heart.

“I should shoot one of them to teach them a lesson,” he said. “If only to get even for Peter.”

He raised his rifle and aimed at the driver who had done all of the talking.

“Wait,” Mendelevitch shouted. “I say we speak to the Turkish Habok. He’s in charge of this region. Before we act on our own, we should notify the Turkish authorities. It’s their job to settle this matter.”

The office of the local Habok was a good three-hour ride down the mountain at the base of Lake Kinneret.

“It will take us all day,” Ben Zion said. “Besides, we have talked long enough. Perchik’s peace is a joke. They have stolen our money. They have stolen our harvest. They have stolen our well. What other outrages are we to tolerate before we strike back?”

“We can’t just shoot them,” another kibbutznik said. “I think Mendelevitch is right. Let the Habok or the Turkish magistrate deal with the Arabs.”

Surprisingly, Ben Zion’s friend, Ari, agreed.

“It sounds like a sensible plan,” he said. “I think we should give it a try. What do you say, Tevye?”

To Tevye’s way of thinking, if the Turkish officials were anything like the commissioners of the Czar, appealing to them for assistance was a total waste of time. Then again, violating the commandment not to murder was out of the question. Of course, if someone tried to kill you, it was a man’s duty to rise up and kill the assailant first. But for the theft of tomatoes, as far as Tevye recalled from his studies, the death penalty didn’t apply.

“I suggest that we take their horses and the two wagons with the tomatoes and return to the kibbutz,” he said. “That should teach them a lesson.”

“Here here,” Ari agreed.

Mendelevitch wasn’t convinced.

“What’s to stop them from going to the Habok themselves and claiming we stole their wagons? In the name of the peace initiative which the kibbutz membership voted upon, I insist on handing this matter over to the official authorities.”

Once again, Ben Zion’s desire for revenge was frustrated. Glum faced, he stood aiming his gun at the Arabs while Mendelevitch galloped off to fetch the Turkish district magistrate. The scene remained frozen that way for ten minutes. Then, fed up with waiting, the Arab women picked up their long skirts and began walking away. Ben Zion’s threats and shots in the air didn’t faze them. Either they knew he wouldn’t shoot them, or they simply didn’t care. Even when his bullets exploded the dirt at their feet, they kept walking back to their village.

“They will bring reinforcements,” he warned.

“You can’t shoot them – they’re women,” Tevye said.

Frustrated, Ben Zion lowered his rifle. He ordered the Arab drivers to turn the wagons around and head back toward the kibbutz.

“There is no point in waiting here,” he said. “If their friends try to come to their rescue, it’s better for us to be back at the kibbutz where we can strengthen our forces.”

The Turkish Habok was the chief of police in the area. The magistrate was above him in power, but the magistrate was more like a governor, in charge of the district in an administrative way. When disputes arose involving the local populace, it was the Habok’s job to find a solution. Punishments included fines, imprisonment, and expulsion from the country. Occasionally cases were brought to court. Matters of an especially sensitive nature, such as the dealings of Baron Rothschild, were handled directly by the Turkish Military Governor of Palestine, the infamous Jamal Pasha.

The Habok in Tiberias had no great love for the Jews. But since Shoshana was isolated in the hills, the kibbutznikim rarely had dealings with him. Once a month, he would arrive at the kibbutz with several soldiers, as if on patrol of the area, to ask if they had any problems. The Jews treated him with a show of respect, since he could order the destruction of buildings which the settlers erected in excess of the quotas designed to keep Zionist expansion to a minimum. Accordingly, the kibbutz council leaders would pour him glasses of wine until a suitable feast could be cooked. Finally, after gulping down all of the food set before him, and receiving some generous gift, he would rise from the dining-hall table and lead his men back to Tiberias.

Accompanied by Mendelevitch and three Turkish soldiers, the Habok arrived in Shoshana wearing his official white uniform with shining buttons, polished boots, and a tall red turban on his head. Ben Zion related the story in all of its details, including the wounding of Peter, and the argument over the wells. As Perchik stood silently listening with a serious look on his face, Ben Zion told the Habok about the agreement the kibbutz had made with the sheik, and how the Arabs had broken its terms. Before doing anything else, the Turkish official dismounted from his horse and walked to a wagon to squeeze a few red-ripe tomatoes. Polishing a choice sample on the side of his jacket, he opened his mouth and took a big bite.

“This is indeed a very fine tomato,” he said. “How much are you asking?”

“For his honor, the Habok, I am sure we can reach a fair price,” Mendelevitch answered.

The Habok turned to the Arabs who were sitting on the ground in the shade of the wagon, their hands tied behind their backs.

“This property belongs to the Jews,” he declared. “Their deed to this land is one-hundred percent legal, certified by the Director General of the Imperial Land Office in Constantinople. For your criminal theft of the tomatoes, I am fining you with the loss of your wagons, horses, and rifles, and one of you will have to come back with me to sit out a term in the Tiberias jail.”

One of the Arabs starting yelling. Angrily, he jumped to his feet. The Habok nodded to his soldiers. They rushed forward and grabbed the prisoner, silencing his shouts with a punch to the stomach and a quickly tied gag.

“Another outburst like that and I will put both of you in prison for attacking an officer of the Turkish Government,” the Habok threatened.

“There is also the money we paid to the sheik as a gesture of goodwill when we made the agreement,” Ben Zion said. “The Arabs insist he took off for the Negev, no doubt with our funds. It seems to me that some additional compensation is in order to cover our loss.”

“If he took off for the Negev, there is nothing I can do,” the Habok replied. “That is not in my jurisdiction. You will have to deal with the matter yourselves, but you should know that the Negev is a very big desert. It may be impossible to find him. I suggest the next time you think about signing an agreement with Arabs, you come see me first before scattering your money to the wind.”

Ben Zion glanced at Perchik with an “I told you so” expression.

“But to be sure that these Arabs are telling the truth, I will send one of my men with you to their village to see if the sheik is still there.”

The Turkish police chief stepped over to Mendelevitch to exchange a few private words. Mendelevitch listened, nodded his head, then stepped away to confer with Ben Zion and Perchik. Finally, an agreement was reached. The Habok saluted and headed back to Tiberias with a wagon load of tomatoes at almost half their market price. His profit from their sale in Tiberias would make him a rich man until the next harvest in the spring. Mendelevitch insisted that the loss of revenue was justified if the bribe would put an end to the kibbutz’s quarrel with the Arabs. Besides, the Jews were getting the two wagons and horses, not to mention the rifles. And, last but not least, it paid to have the Turkish official as their friend.

Without untying the hands of the Arab driver whom the Habok had left behind, Ben Zion gave him a solid kick in the rear and sent him stumbling on his way back to his village. A group of Jews set off with the Turkish soldier to see what had become of the sheik. But just as the Arabs had said, the sheik was nowhere to be found. The questions of the Turkish soldier only brought silence and blank, expressionless stares from the shepherds who remained in the few remaining tents. An elder smoking a water pipe confirmed that the sheik had gone south to the Negev, but in answer to Perchik’s question, where in the Negev, the old shepherd could only respond with a shrug and a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke.

The Turkish soldier said that as far as he was concerned, the case was closed. There was nothing more to be done. Perchik was seething with frustration as they headed back to the kibbutz.

“Don’t take it so hard, Perchik,” Ben Zion chided. “Anyone can make a mistake. But it does look like Tevye’s Bible stories are more accurate than your dreams of fraternity and peace.”

Perchik didn’t answer. True, his “sons of the desert” had turned out to be a caravan of thieves, but he was loath to abandon his belief in the potential brotherhood of man.

The incident taught Perchik a lesson. Now, when Ben Zion insisted that more men were needed for guard duty, he didn’t argue that the manpower was better put to use in the fields. While the shomrim reclaimed the well for the Jews, the loss of the harvest, and the loan which had to be repaid, were blows to the young kibbutz. Perchik’s star plummeted among the kibbutznikim, and Ben Zion’s influence began to be more and more dominant.

For Tevye, life on the kibbutz returned to normal. If it could be called normal to have a grandson born in the Land of Israel! Throughout the labor, Hodel hollered as if the house was on fire, but, thank God, when it was over, both the mother and baby were healthy. It was an event of great celebration, not only for Tevye, but for everyone on the kibbutz. To their way of thinking, the newborn was the cooperative’s child, not the exclusive possession of the parents. Thus everyone participated in the joy of the birth.

Tevye couldn’t recall the last time he had drank so many “L’Chaims,” and the child’s brit milah was still eight days away! Since he was more concerned than anyone else that the mitzvah be carried out properly, Tevye volunteered to ride to Tiberias to notify a qualified mohel. A circumcision was not a job for any ordinary klutz with a knife. It required a delicate, experienced hand. Tevye half-expected Perchik to protest that a brit milah was a cruel and primitive rite, but the happy new father didn’t express a word of objection. No matter how far a Jew was from observing the Torah, a circumcision was the mark of his heritage, binding him to the holy covenant which Abraham had entered into with  God    .

Since Tevye was already in Tiberias, he decided to spend the night in the beautiful lakeside city and have a good kosher meal at the home of the town’s only Ashkenazic rabbi. In the morning, he prayed in a minyan. An enterprising Jew approached him and offered to take him on a visit to the holy gravesites of the great medieval scholar, Maimonides, and the famous Sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess. For a few piasters, of course. Tevye gladly assented. It was only because of great Sages like these that the Torah had survived through the centuries of persecutions, assimilations, and pogroms. If a Jew cut himself off from his past, he had nothing to pass on to the future.

“Oh God,” Tevye prayed, bending over their graves. “In the merit of these great Rabbis, and all of the Torah they learned, please bless my new grandson, the son of Hodel and Perchik, and bless Moishe and Hannie, the children of Tzeitl and Motel, and let them grow up to be filled with a love for Your commandments. May they see Your Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem, and may they witness the coming of the Mashiach. Amen.”

The night before the brit, Tevye sat awake studying Torah in Hodel’s house to keep away evil spirits. Outside, another sort of guarding was supposed to be taking place – the guarding of the kibbutz. Ben Zion, who was in charge of security, had arranged for Sonia to be his partner for the night. To rest from their rounds along the fence’s perimeter, Ben Zion suggested they share a cigarette in the dark tool shed which was located at the edge of the colony.

“Is this where you take Bat Sheva?” Sonia asked as he led her inside.

“Bat Sheva? Who has anything to do with Bat Sheva?” he answered.

Striking a match, he lit the wick of a lantern and hung it over a nail in the wall.

“You can’t fool me,” Sonia said. “I see the way you look at her.

“It’s your imagination. Besides, I would much rather look at you.”

“Truthfully?”

“Truthfully.”

Not for the first time, he took the girl in his arms and kissed her. Without letting her go, he backed her against the wall of the shed. Tools fell to the ground with a clang. She pretended to put up a struggle, but her protests fell on deaf ears. At first, when he felt the sharp metal blade rip into his back, he thought that Sonia had stabbed him. Then when she screamed, he knew that he had made the same mistake once again. The Arab standing by the door of the shed glared in hatred and fled. Ben Zion heard Arab voices and footsteps running away. He reached for his rifle, but his hands had no strength. Falling forward, he collapsed into her arms.

“Get help,” he gasped.

Unable to hold him, she clumsily eased him down to the ground. Blood covered her hands. Terrified, she ran out of the shed. Her screams brought everyone out of their houses. “Ben Zion has been stabbed! Ben Zion has been stabbed!” she called out again and again.

Without closing the book he was studying, Tevye ran out of the house.

“Where is he?” he yelled.

“In the tool shed.”

Bat Sheva and Hava appeared in their robes.

“How could it be?” Hava asked.

Bat Sheva stared at Sonia and instantly knew. Her heart sank like a stone cast into a bucket of water. Shuddering, she ran after her father toward the tool shed. Tevye was the first one to reach the wounded Ben Zion. He had crawled out from the shed and collapsed, clutching the earth he revered. A knife handle stuck out of his back. Perchik came running and knelt down beside him. With his last waning strength, Ben Zion gazed up at his comrade and rival.

“Some peace agreement,” he said.

Then, invisibly, his soul flew out of his body. The once strong, passion-filled Zionist lay dead. A circle of settlers gathered around them. Bat Sheva pushed through to the front. Seeing the knife in Ben Zion’s back, she gasped out in horror.

“Don’t look,” Tevye said, standing up. Embracing his daughter, he led her away from the crowd.

Perchik yelled to saddle up the horses. Someone shouted for the wagon. Men ran in all directions. The emergency bell clanged. Gently, Tevye handed Bat Sheva over to Hava.

“Take her home,” he said.

“Where are you going,” Hava asked.

“With the others,” Tevye answered.

This time he was ready to fight. So was Perchik. With determination in their eyes, they rode off with all of the armed men they could muster. Carrying torches, they galloped through the darkness like a wave of fire. The rumble of their horses echoed through the hills. Before reaching the Arab village, Perchik raised up his hand, signaling the war party to halt. Half of the group, he commanded, would circle around and attack from the rear. After the lead charge, the others would follow and set fire to the tents with their torches. But when the Jews reached the top of the hill overlooking the valley, there were no tents in sight. The encampment had vanished.

“They’ve gone,” Mendelevitch exclaimed.

Perchik was silent. Torchlight flickered over his grim, clean-shaven jaw.

“Like thieves in the night,” Abramson said. “Ben Zion was right.”

“My God,” Ari said quietly. “Here we are in our own country and still they attack us and kill us.”

Tevye was pensively silent.

The following day, a few hours after Ben Zion was laid to rest in the Shoshana cemetery, Hodel’s baby boy entered into the covenant of Abraham. Perchik wanted to postpone the circumcision, but Tevye told him that unless a baby was ill, the brit had to take place on the eighth day after his birth. The ceremony was solemn, overshadowed by the tragedy of the murder. Draped in a prayer shawl, Tevye, the sandek, held the baby in his lap while the mohel from Tiberias made the cut of circumcision. Perchik recited the words of the blessing, and his son became a link in a four-thousand-year old chain of tradition.

The mohel chanted the traditional verses, “By your blood you shall live. By your blood you shall live.”

By the blood of circumcision, a symbol of the bond between the Jewish people and God, the bond which gave the Jews the strength to persevere over all of their enemies and seemingly unending misfortunes.

The baby was named Ben Zion.

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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