Because of her treatment, or in spite of it, Tzeitl seemed to improve. She sat up in bed, color returned to her cheeks, and her fever subsided. But Tevye still worried about the rattling cough deep in her chest. The doctor said he could offer no more assistance. Fresh air and the approaching summer sun were the best things for her now. He didn’t know if a voyage to the Land of Israel would harm her. In fact, the ocean breeze might do her good. And Palestine’s mild, Mediterranean climate was certainly a healthier environment than Russia’s drastically changing seasons, he said.
When ten days passed and no word arrived from Odessa, they decided to continue their journey, as it says, “You have dwelt long enough in this mountain, turn away and take up your journey.” Tevye chided himself with having trusted Ben Zion with a large chunk of his savings. Fortunately, Hillel and Shmuelik had agreed to journey on with the Zionists to make sure that the money didn’t get lost. Tzeitl was still too weak to walk on her own, so her sisters helped her into the wagon. Nachman sat alongside Tevye, and the giant, Alexander Goliath, walked behind on the road, as if to make sure that the children didn’t fall out on the way.
“What about Hevedke?” asked Hava.
“What about him?” Tevye said.
“Aren’t we going to wait for him to come back from the market?”
“Why should we? It is a blessing to be rid of him.”
“How can you say that after all he did for Tzeitl?” Ruchela asked.
“He isn’t a part of this enterprise,” Tevye said. “My horse has done a great deal for me too, but I am going to part from him in Odessa. As Solomon says, There is a time to find, and a time to lose.”
“I think he has proven himself,” Tzeitl said. “I think you should give him a chance.”
Tevye was happy to see his daughter’s spirit returning, but his answer was no.
“Tell him, Nachman,” Ruchela said. “Tell my stubborn old Father that a gentile can convert.”
Nachman didn’t want to enter the family quarrel. “Halachically,” he said, “Jewish law makes it possible, but it isn’t a simple matter. Besides a brit milah, and immersion in a ritual mikvah, a long period of learning is required.”
“How long?” Hava asked.
“At least a year,” the young rabbi said. “And during that time, the prospective convert certainly isn’t allowed to be in the company of a Jewish woman with whom he has been intimate in the past.”
Hava blushed and fell silent.
“There!” Tevye said. “The rabbi has decided. You heard it from his mouth yourselves.”
“I’ll wait a year,” Hava said. “I’ll wait ten years.”
“Agreed,” Tevye answered. “After ten years, I will reconsider my decision. In the meantime, it’s final, and I don’t want to hear anymore.”
“I don’t blame Hava for loving Hevedke,” Bat Sheva said. “Jewish men are awful.”
They were the first words she had spoken for days. When word hadn’t arrived from Ben Zion, she had fallen into a lovesick depression. He had seduced her, betrayed her, and made her feel like a fool. All of his promises had been nothing but lies. He had wounded her heart, tarnished her purity, and worse than all, damaged her feminine pride. Though she had only succumbed to two kisses, she felt compromised beyond all repair.
The days turned beautiful, as if God had answered Tevye’s prayers for good weather. The sun melted all of the snow on the ground, and the Russian landscape seemed to sparkle with the promise of renewal which comes with the spring. Tzeitl’s spirits were characteristically cheerful. She seemed to feel better each day, but her cough clung to her like a shroud. Each time Tevye heard it, he felt a dagger pierce through his heart. Then, when they were only a half day’s journey from Odessa, a different kind of danger appeared on their path. Two highwaymen on horseback galloped out of the woods in front of the wagon and ordered them to halt. They both brandished rifles and their faces were covered with masks.
“Hand over your money and no one needs to get hurt,” one of them said.
“Have pity,” Tevye pleaded. “It’s all the money we have.”
“If we had pity, we would be priests, not robbers. Now get down from the wagon and hand over your rubles.”
Tevye had no choice. He didn’t have a gun, and even if he had, he didn’t know how to use one. Slowly, he stepped down from the wagon. His daughters huddled together, shielding the children. Just then, the protecting angel whom Tevye had prayed for appeared. As Tevye opened the wooden chest containing their valuables, he heard a loud roar like the sound of a bear. It was Goliath. With a terrifying bellow, he charged at one of the highwaymen. The startled bandit swung around in his saddle and fired his weapon. Miraculously, the shot missed its mark. The giant rammed into the horse and its rider, toppling them both to the ground. Before the other highwayman could steady his own horse and fire, Goliath grabbed his leg and dragged him out of the saddle. A wild shot went off in the air. The robber’s head hit the ground with a thud. His partner scrambled for his gun which had fallen to the road, but Goliath leaped over and crunched a foot on his hand, cracking his bones. Yelping in pain, he scurried off into the forest. Goliath picked up the rifles and broke them in half, as if they were twigs. Tevye grabbed the reins of the riderless horses.
“It looks like we have two new horses,” he grinned.
Goliath hurried back to the wagon. “Are you all right, Tzeitl?” he asked.
“And the children?”
Breathless, Tzeitl nodded again. Tevye checked through the pockets of the unconscious robber sprawled on the ground. He found close to two hundred rubles.
“Booty from the battle,” he said, holding the money in the air. “As the Good Book says…..”
When Tevye couldn’t think of a verse, Nachman came to his aid.
“`Thou has smitten all of my enemies on the cheek; Thou has broken the teeth of the wicked,'” he quoted a Psalm by heart.
To Tevye, it was a sign that their mazel was changing. At the first farm they came to, he was able to sell the two horses at a respectable price. When they arrived, exhausted but cheerful in Odessa, they headed straight for the port. Odessa was the biggest city Tevye’s daughters had ever seen. The stores, the boulevards, the carriages, and the smartly dressed women looked like they were part of a dream. Yet the wonder which made everyone stand up in the wagon was the sight of a motorized carriage that rode along the street without being pulled by a horse! Nachman said it was a miracle. Tevye called it an automobile. He had seen them before in his travels. For the moment, he was more concerned with the soldiers who stood idle at every corner, as if waiting for some menacing order. Though the wagon load of Jews looked out of place in the bustling city, no one ordered them to stop. Nevertheless, the milkman from Anatevka was reluctant to ask directions. He relied on his instincts and his sense of smell to lead them to the port. Though they may not have found the shortest route, before long the odor of fish and seawater filled everyone’s nostrils.
To the simple milkman’s family, the giant steamships and freighters which towered over their wagon as they road along the dock were symbols of the great new world which lay waiting over the ocean. Even a man as worldly as Tevye had never seen anything close to their size. The yachts belonging to the aristocrats in Boiberik were like tiny rowboats compared to these motorized whales. Workers, cargo men, porters, and passengers scurried over the dock, but Ben Zion, Naftali, Peter, and their friends were nowhere to be found. Tevye and Nachman ventured into a few shipping offices to inquire about boats leaving for Palestine, but they only received discouraging shakes of the head. There were ships taking vodka to France, potatoes to Hong Kong, coal to Spain, and lumber to Portugal, but none seemed to be taking Jewish pilgrims to Palestine.
With fallen spirits, Tevye and Nachman returned to the wagon. To their surprise, a little pitseleh of a man with a beard and a cap was standing by Goliath, barely reaching up to his waist.
“I understand you are looking for a boat to the Holy Land,” he said to them in Yiddish.
“Du bist a Yid?” Tevye asked. “You’re a Jew?”
“Through the kindness of God,” he answered. “Ever since I was born, or more officially, eight days later, when my father brought me into the Covenant of Abraham and gave me the name Eliahu.”
“Can you help us?” Tevye asked.
“To the extent that God allows,” their new acquaintance answered. “Isn’t it a mitzvah to help a fellow Jew? Of course it is. But it is also a mitzvah that a man support his family, and since my work is helping Jews, I will have to be paid a small, modest fee for my services.”
“Of course,” Tevye answered. “Never let it be said that Tevye, the milkman, failed to reimburse a man for his labor.”
“In advance,” the man said.
Tevye nodded. He turned his back, reached in his pocket, and peeled a small note from his stack. He handed the money to diminutive Jew, who glanced at it and made a small face. Tevye gave him another.
Satisfied, Eliahu led Tevye to the same shipping office where he had taken Ben Zion two weeks before. The Zionists had been lucky to arrive in Odessa the very day a boat was setting sail for Palestine. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, they had boarded at once. Bat Sheva turned red when she heard the report. She could picture the scoundrel, Ben Zion, laughing with his friends on the boat as he told them how he had seduced the milkman’s innocent daughter. Tevye was no less enraged, thinking of the money he had given the thieving gonif to purchase tickets for his family. Hadn’t his friend, the sandal maker, warned him back at the crossroads about the Zionist scoundrels? “Fortunate is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.” Of course the heretic had run off with the money. But then again, Tevye reasoned, to be fair, if they had not encountered Ben Zion, they would never have reached Odessa at all. How could Tevye complain? He was now only a boat ride away from his Hodel.
The miniature Jew, Eliahu, brought them to the shipping office and introduced them to an agent. Then he took their leave, giving them an address in the Jewish ghetto where they could find lodging and food. Swatting a fly away from the crackers and tea on his desk, the agent leafed through a thick heavy ledger and said he had a boat leaving for Constantinople in another fourteen days. From there, they could buy passage to Italy, which, he said, was only a short boat ride to Palestine. Or, if they preferred, he could sell them one ticket for all three sections of the journey, which would cost them considerably less in the end. The only problem was that the freighter leaving Odessa was already sold out, and the next scheduled departure was six weeks away.
“Six weeks away?” Tevye exclaimed.
“That’s the situation,” the shipping agent curtly replied.
“Isn’t there something you can do?” Tevye asked.
“The boat is overcrowded already,” the Russian replied.
“I am willing to pay a higher price,” Tevye offered.
“I’m sorry, but we have company rules.”
“I have to get to Palestine. I have a sick daughter.”
“I understand,” the man said.
Tevye waited as the agent opened a file and glanced through some papers, shaking his head. “I’ll be taking a big risk,” he declared.
Tevye pulled out his cache of newly found rubles. The agent stared at the money.
“It will cost you double the normal fare,” he said. “But in light of your sick daughter, I can try to arrange it.”
Tevye might have been a simple milkman from the country, but he had enough business experience to know when someone was playing him for a fool. But what could he do? He didn’t have a steamship of his own to sail the seven seas. So if he had to pay a little extra money, what else was new? Being a Jew was a blessing which came with a price.
The agent wrote up an agreement of sale for the tickets. Then, as if suddenly remembering, he handed Tevye an envelope which Ben Zion had left in the office. The envelope, addressed to “Reb Tevye from Anatevka,” looked as if it had already been opened. The letter inside was written in Ben Zion’s floundering Yiddish, apparently to prevent the shipping clerk from understanding its contents. “My dear and respected Reb Tevye,” it read. “Upon arriving in Odessa, we have been informed that a ship is sailing for Turkey today. Since the zealous are careful to perform the mitzvot as quickly as possible, we are boarding and continuing on our way. We will meet you in kibbutz Shoshana, in the land of our future. In the meantime, I am enclosing your money in this envelope. I have a feeling that it will be safer in the care of the shipping company than in the hands of the little Jew who brought us here. L’Hitraot. Ben Zion.”
Then, scribbled at the bottom of the page was a brief explanation, “I am writing in my childhood Yiddish because I don’t trust the shipping clerk either.”
Except for the letter, the envelope was empty. Tevye looked up at the bookish shipping agent who had returned to his work and his papers. A feeling of shame swept over Tevye for having judged the young Zionist in too hasty a fashion, thinking he had run off with his money. But he felt even worse knowing that the money had ended up in the pocket of the clean-shaven Laban before him.
“Excuse me,” Tevye said. “There was supposed to be money along with this letter, but the envelope is empty.”
The agent looked up with an innocent glance.
“Maybe your friend forget to put the money inside. I seem to remember that he was in a big hurry.”
“No,” Tevye answered. “He writes that he put it inside with the letter.”
The shipping agent shrugged.
“Somebody stole my money,” Tevye said.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you. Since I received the letter, it has been right here, locked up in my drawer. And I am the only one with a key.”
“That sort of limits the possibilities,” Tevye said.
“I resent the implication,” the clerk answered. He stood up with a look of great indignation. “If you would like to cancel your contract, I will be happy to oblige. I certainly won’t stand here and be insulted by a Jew. If you have a complaint, go tell the police.”
“Don’t you worry, I will,” Tevye threatened.
He strode out of the office. Wouldn’t you know it? A policeman was walking alongside the dock, eyeing the women in the wagon. Tevye decided to approach him. He was so enraged, he didn’t seem to notice that Hevedke was standing near the wagon talking to Hava.
Seeing Tevye and Nachman stride over to the policeman, Goliath walked over to find out what was the matter.
“A good day to you, officer, and to all upholders of the law” Tevye said. “I have reason to believe that the shipping agent in that office has stolen a considerable sum of money from me.”
“Who are you?” the policeman asked, staring at the thickly bearded Jew.
“Tevye, the milkman, from Anatevka.”
“It’s a long way from Anatevka for a milkman,” the policeman said. “What brings you to Odessa?”
“We are on our way to Palestine.”
“Have a good voyage. When Russia is free of all you stinking parasites, it will be a better country.”
“What did you say?” another voice asked. It was Goliath. He towered beside Tevye.
“Look what we have here,” the policeman said, staring up at the giant. “A whole mountain of filth.”
Nachman’s “No!” came too late. Goliath reached out and grabbed the policeman by his collar. With one hand, he lifted him off his feet into the air. With three giant strides, Goliath reached the edge of the dock. Grunting, he hurled the startled policeman through the air, down into the water below.
“Gevalt,” Tevye moaned, leading the race back to the wagon. When all of the Jews were aboard, he whipped the reins of the horse and the wagon sped off. Hevedke held his hand in the air and hollered out, “Wait!” but Tevye urged his steed onward as if he were in the midst of a chariot race. As the wagon thundered down the cobblestones of the dock, the women held fast to their mother’s galloping coffin. Porters rushed out of their way. Passersby cursed them. Though no one was chasing them, Tevye didn’t relax until they reached the neighborhood of the Jews at the outskirts of the city. “Refuge,” Tevye thought. Store signs were written in Yiddish. Shops sold pickles in barrels, dried fruit, chickens, and fish. Rolls of fabric stood in the doorway of one store, dresses in the window of another. If there was a problem of anti-Semitism in Russia, you wouldn’t have known it from the busy life of the Odessa ghetto.
Tevye found the address which Eliahu had given him. He lived in a small basement apartment, cramped with relatives and children. Like a king entertaining royal guests, the diminutive Jew sat them around a table and ordered his wife to bring rugelach cakes and tea. When Tevye told him what had happened at the dock, an aghast expression spread over his face.
“Your friend did what with the policeman?” he asked incredulously. Tevye, Nachman, and the oversized Alexander Goliath all started laughing. Their host failed to see anything humorous.
“Something like this can bring a pogrom on all of the Jews of Odessa,” he said.
“What should we do?” Tevye asked.
“You’ll have to set off on your voyage tonight.”
“But how? Our ship doesn’t leave for two weeks.”
“You can’t go back to the dock. The police will be waiting for you,”Eliahu warned them. “There are small boats for hire that can be secured for a price. The crossing is dangerous, but others have made it. With God’s help, I can arrange for one of the captains to sail tonight.”
“In a sailboat?” Nachman asked.
“That’s your only other choice. Unless you want to walk across Russia and Turkey, and that can take a year.”
“How dangerous is dangerous?” Tevye asked.
“I haven’t made the crossing myself,” the little Jew confided. “But there are Russians who do it for a living, and even a gentile doesn’t want to get killed. But I’d be lying if I told you that there haven’t been shipwrecks and drownings. The Black Sea isn’t a duck pond. It’s as big as an ocean and the winds can be treacherous.”
“God will answer our prayers for a safe journey,” Nachman said with his unflinching faith.
“What about the money I paid to that thief at the dock?” Tevye asked.
The Jew held up his hands. “Kaporas,” he said. “It is lost. May it be considered an atonement for your sins.”
The little Jew was right, Tevye decided. Why cry over spilled milk? Right now, the important thing was escaping from Odessa without going to prison. And besides, in the turn of events, there was one big consolation which Tevye didn’t dare mention. By sneaking off on a boat in the middle of the night, they would be rid of the tenacious Hevedke forever!
The Jews got down to business. The voyage would cost them three hundred rubles. It was almost half of the money that Tevye had left. And there were still two more sea journeys to follow. Which meant that they would be landing in the Holy Land with an empty purse and a prayer. As if sensing his thoughts, Goliath offered to pay the cost of the passage for everyone.
“It’s my fault that we have fallen into this mess,” he declared.
“You meant well,” Tevye retorted. “Besides, you upheld the honor of the people of God, and no man should be penalized for that.”
Finally, when it was agreed that each man would put up his own share of the fare, their host hurried off to arrange for a boat. In the meantime, Nachman wandered off to find an evening prayer minyan where he could say the mourner’s Kaddish for his father. Having spent the greater part of his life voyaging through Talmudic texts in the study hall of the yeshiva, it was his father’s dying blessing which gave Nachman the confidence to set out on such a hazardous voyage. As the Talmud states, a man who undertakes to do a good deed will be Divinely protected from the dangers of travel. And could there be a greater deed than going to live in the Land of Israel, a precept which was equal in weight to all of the commandments in the Torah? Especially when it had been his father’s last wish that Nachman pray at the sacred Wall in Jerusalem, at the site where their ancient Temple had stood. Surely, in the merit of his father, the Almighty would protect them on the way.
In a matter of hours, the Constantinople-bound Jews rendezvoused with Eliahu under the cover of nightfall. Sneaking out of the city like fugitives, Tevye’s daughters were frightened with the great rush and mystery. The boat was waiting for them at a dock at the edge of the forest. From the bow to the stern, the vessel was several wagons long, but it was tiny compared with the great freighters they had seen at the port. Eliahu introduced the captain as Leo. He wore what looked like an admiral’s jacket and cap, but Tevye eyed him with doubts. The captain’s breath reeked of cheap liquor. Not that Tevye blamed him for drinking. The roar of the waves, and the blackness of the sea in the distance invited the thought of a strong vodka or two, but it wasn’t something that inspired confidence at the start of a voyage. Especially since Tevye had never learned how to swim. And neither, of course, had his daughters.
The seaman greeted his passengers gruffly and shouted commands to his crew of three sailors, who helped carry their belongings aboard. It was Hava who voiced everyone’s worries.
“This is crazy!” she said.
No one expressed disagreement, yet no one could offer an alternative plan. As the captain and crew hurried to get the ship ready, Tevye and Goliath slid Golda’s coffin out of the wagon and carried it toward the boat. Suddenly, with an arm upraised, the captain told them to stop. Crossing himself, he said that corpses were bad luck on a voyage. He wasn’t about to set sail with an evil omen on board.
“An evil omen?” Tevye said, offended to hear his wife spoken about in such a crude manner.
“It’s enough of a curse that I’m carrying Jews.”
The ungrateful dog, Tevye thought. But before he could get into an argument, Nachman stepped between them and persuaded the captain to set aside his religious objections for another twenty-five rubles.
Tevye was impressed. The lad wasn’t only a scholar. Like Jacob, he knew how to get along in the world. Satisfied, the superstitious sailor put the money in his pocket and went on with the work of hoisting the sails. Then, when everything was ready, it was Hava who balked. Like a borscht which has been left boiling too long on the fire, her emotions spilled out from the pot.
“I am not leaving Russia without Hevedke,” she declared.
“We made an agreement,” her father said. “Let this be his test.”
“But how will he find us? And he doesn’t have any money. How will he get to Palestine?”
“That’s his problem, not ours,” Tevye answered.
Hava glared at her Father.
“Don’t worry,” Tzeitl told her. “He’ll find his way to Israel. And this will be proof to everyone that he really is serious about being a Jew.”
Soothed by her sister’s assurance, Hava let Tzeitl take her hand and lead her across the small wooden plank leading on to the ship.
Then came the most difficult part of the journey for Tevye. After all of their belongings were fastened on board in a compartment under the deck, he walked with heavy footsteps back onto shore to say a tearful good-bye to his horse.
To Tevye, departing from his wagon wasn’t the end of the world. A wagon was merely wood planks. Selling it to Eliahu was like any transaction. It was true that in the darkness of the forest, at this late hour by the sea, there were no other bidders to insure a good price, but the wagon had seen its best days, and anything at all which the milkman received was like extra money in his pocket. His horse, however, was a part of the family, a part of his history, like a brother and companion in life. Tevye couldn’t bring himself to sell him. He told Eliahu to look after him and to find him a kind owner, who wouldn’t work him too hard. Inhaling a last whiff of the horse’s musky aroma, Tevye stroked the animal’s mane and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Take care my good friend,” he said softly. “May the Almighty Who created us both, bless you and keep you. If there is a Heaven for workhorses and mules, if you get there before me, put in a good word for Tevye.”
Soon their boat was sailing away from the dock. Eliahu disappeared into the blackness. As the crew busied with the sails, the voyagers sat close together in an apprehensive huddle. As it turned out, their trepidations proved groundless. All week long, the Lord heard their prayers and kept the ocean winds calm. The captain said he had never seen anything like it. Tevye didn’t have to look far to discover the cause. Nachman sat all day on the bow, studying a tractate of Talmud. Obviously, the Almighty didn’t want to interrupt the scholar’s learning with the splash of a wave, so the sea remained as tranquil as milk in a bucket. And yet, over their heads a breeze billowed their sails and sped them on their journey.
Though Tevye was by no means a scholar, he enjoyed having a hevruta on board with whom he could argue the fine points of the law. While his mind worked at a much slower pace than Nachman’s, Tevye relished their Mishnaic exchanges. For the milkman, the time on the boat was like a vacation. When had he been able to sit all day in the sun and study the Torah? For as long as he could remember, his work day had started at four in the morning, before the rooster’s first crow, and finished late at night, after the children had fallen asleep. As it says in the Bible, “By the sweat of thy brow, thou shall eat bread.” So if Tevye had ever envied Baron Rothschild and his yachts, now he could tell everyone that he had been out yachting too.
Because of the clear skies and the gently rocking sea, the captain and his crew had little to do. They spent most of the day playing cards and drinking liquor. There were drunken arguments, and an occasional fight, plus a steady stream of bawdy songs and jokes that made the women blush. Goliath sat protectively near Tevye’s daughters and whittled stick-figure dolls to pass the time. If the crewmen entertained any non-kosher thoughts, the sight of the giant guarding the ladies was a convincing deterrent.
The gently rolling waves had a soothing effect on Hava also. The lullaby of the sea and the steady wind in the masts calmed her restless spirits and restored her belief that everything would work out in the end. To pass the time, she read the book of Psalms. The songs and prayers of King David lifted her out of her worries and transported her to a world where goodness and justice would triumph. For her, the boat ride was exactly what the Psalmist had penned, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.”
Only the downcast Bat Sheva remained obsessed with stormy ruminations. Tevye’s youngest daughter tried to push Ben Zion out of her mind by organizing meals for the crew, but her thoughts were possessed with schemes of revenge. Like rolling waves, her passions swayed back and forth. Chopping potatoes, she would dream of cutting off the hands that had held her; while peeling onions, she would cry at the thought that the gallant Zionist already had found some other woman to wed.
To make a long story short, everyone but Bat Sheva was in jubilant spirits when they reached Constantinople. Stepping onto dry land, Nachman said a blessing of thanks for God’s faithful providence, and everyone answered Amen! The dock of the port was bustling with action. Turks garbed in an assortment of caftans, turbans, and robes, scurried in every direction. Porters carried enormous loads on their backs: piles of silk, carpets, bananas, and ivory – bounty from all over the world. A red flag decorated with a yellow crescent moon flew over the roof of a limestone building which was guarded by red-turbanned policemen. Sweet, exotic smells filled the air. The new arrivals from Anatevka gazed around in a daze. Dressed in their winter clothing, the Jews looked out of place in the bright Mediterranean setting. Tevye and Goliath stood holding Golda’s coffin, not knowing in which direction to turn.
Just then, a small apparition, dressed like an Arab, rushed up to greet them in Yiddish. With his black moustache and beard, he could have been Eliahu’s double. It was as if the little Jew from Odessa had sped ahead to Constantinople to continue his work assisting fellow landsmen as they arrived in the strange, foreign port. Excitedly, he led them to a shipping office filled with flies, a broken overhead fan, and the stench of Turkish tobacco. For a small fee, he helped them book passage to Italy, where they would switch boats for the last leg of their journey.
Once again, after waiting ten days in Constantinople, the Lord blessed their trip. This time, their ship was a ship! The travelers even had cabins, and though the airless quarters made their stomachs rise up in their throats during the long nights of unending swells, come morning, the fresh air on deck brought color back to their cheeks. For the children, the ocean voyage was an exciting adventure, but their poor mother couldn’t bear the suffocating nights. She coughed and she coughed, as if gasping for breath, so Tevye slept up on deck with Tzeitl. With his daughter bundled in blankets in his arms, Tevye stared up at the stars and beseeched the Creator of heaven and earth to heal his ailing, firstborn girl.
Disembarking from the ship in Trieste, Tevye half-expected to meet an Italian version of Eliahu. Instead, he was greeted by an even bigger surprise. The tall, blond figure of Hevedke was waiting for them on the dock! Seeing him, Tevye almost dropped Golda’s coffin. Hava waved and called out his name. Her whole face was a radiant smile. She looked at her father and grinned.
“An agreement is an agreement,” she triumphantly said.
“He still has to study the Torah,” Tevye answered, clinging to the hope that time would extinguish the stubborn flame in their hearts.
But the bonds which had already formed were not to be broken so easily. Hava was in love with Hevedke, and her faith in him made her certain that he would overcome every obstacle which her father placed in his path. If he had to study the Torah to complete his trial, Hevedke was no stranger to books. It was his keen, open mind that had attracted Hava to him in the first place. Back in Anatevka, his discourses on Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky had captured her heart. On their walks through the country, he filled her head with a new vision of the world, where all men were equal to share in God’s blessing. It was a world without boundaries and prejudices, based on brotherhood and universal love, far more inspiring than the ghetto of Anatevka with its superstitious mistrust of anything and anyone new. At least, it had seemed that way to Hava when she ran away from her family to marry her poet and to embrace his modern, enlightened world. But the pogroms and expulsions had shattered her dream, teaching her and Hevedke alike that behind the beautiful speeches of Tolstoy lay a festering darkness which sought to wipe out the true light of God in the world.
The first chance she had, when her father went off to arrange passage to Palestine, Hava rushed off with Hevedke, filled with a burning desire to be alone with the man she had sworn not to see. He reached out for her hand and whisked her down an alley to the back of a warehouse. They stood there, holding hands, without saying a word. For Hava, just being near him again was enough.
“Oh my valiant, faithful Hevedke,” she said.
“Did your father see you run off?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, wanting him to kiss her.
“He will kill me if he finds us together.”
“It’s all right,” she assured him.
“When he finds you gone, he will surely come looking.”
“Stop worrying,” she told him. “Kiss me before I drop dead.”
“I can’t. I made a promise to your father, and I intend to keep it.”
At first, Hava was offended. She was dumbfounded by his words. She gazed at the light of honesty which shone in his eyes and realized that was the reason she loved him. His soul was pure and inspired by a passion for truth.
“I want to do everything I must in order to truly make you my wife,” he avowed.
“I am willing to wait if I have to,” she promised.
“Oh, Hava, I love you,” he said. “More than the oceans and more than the seas. Nothing can come between us.”
She stared in his eyes. “I worry about you,” she said.
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “Your God is looking after me now. You see, He brought me here even before you arrived.”
“How?” she asked.
“I boarded the same freighter that you were scheduled to take.”
“What happened to the policeman?”
“He got wet, that’s all. And his pride was insulted. But the Jews of Odessa fared a lot worse. The day after you left, there was a terrible pogrom. People were killed. The little Jew who helped you was arrested.”
“How awful,” Hava said.
“We will have a better life in Palestine,” Hevedke promised. “And once we set up a house of our own, we will work to bring all the Jews in Russia home to the Promised Land.”
Hava smiled with happiness.
“You had better hurry back,” he said. “I don’t want to give your father a chance to renege on his end of the bargain.”
Hava longed for a parting kiss, but Hevedke held her away and made her settle with a smile.
“Can’t you kiss me just once?” she asked him.
“Your father may not be watching, but God is,” he said. “I have to be true to Him, too.”
Reluctantly, he took a few steps backwards, smiled goodbye, and ran off down the alley.
Two weeks later, Tevye and his family boarded an overcrowded steamship heading for Jaffa. Along with the throng of Jews who had gathered from all over Russia, religious Jews and secular Zionists, Litvaks and Galitzianers, there were a family of Jews from France, German merchants on the way to Damascus and Cairo, Christians on their way to Jerusalem, Spanish Moslems journeying to Mecca, Turkish businessmen, and Hevedke. As the ship set sail, the Jews burst into a chorus of spirited songs, but a day out of port, the weather changed for the worse. Towering black clouds darkened the sky. As if stirred by some heavenly turmoil, the sea rose threateningly over the bow of the ship, splashing angry waves on board. The Jews had to huddle on deck under a tarpaulin, which they pulled over their heads to shelter them from the fierce, driving rain. Almost everyone grew seasick. Children cried at the crashing of thunder. Again and again, the bow rose in the air and plummeted into the depths of the ocean as if the steamship were sinking. Water splashed over the railing, soaking the Jews and their clothing. A chill shook Tzeitl’s body. Tevye and Goliath hurried her down below to warm her in the blast of the boiler.
The ocean’s fury lasted all through the night. The sun didn’t appear throughout the next day. Without any sign of letup or mercy, the hurricane raged unabated. Even the crew became nauseous and sick. Everyone prayed.
“Why doesn’t God stop it?” Ruchela asked in despair.
“We are getting closer to Israel,” Nachman explained. “Stepping foot in the Holy Land is the greatest blessing in the world. The reward only falls on the bravest, on those who are willing to sacrifice everything to reach the palace of the King.”
“Is it God’s will that we all die in the midst of the ocean?” Bat Sheva asked.
“No. He wants us to pray for His help.”
“Then what’s taking so long?” the girl asked. “We’ve been praying day and night.”
“If God doesn’t answer at first, it doesn’t mean He isn’t listening. He simply wants us to pray harder, with all of our hearts.”
Nachman’s faith was an inspiration to everyone. He closed his eyes and bobbed back and forth in deep prayer. With his heart directed to Heaven, he shut out the howl of the wind and the splash of the sea. His lips opened in a softly sung prayer, the prayer of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
“May Your kindness prevail
Over Your wrath,
May Your kindness prevail
Over Your wrath.
Have mercy on Your children,
Have mercy on Your children.”
Over and over, Nachman sang the refrain until he stood on his feet in a trance, pouring out his heart to the thundering clouds. Little Moishe stood up and joined him. His young, high-pitched wail pierced everyone’s heart. Soon, it was impossible to tell if the ship was swaying from the waves of the storm, or from the turbulent prayers of the Jews.
The next morning, one of the merchants was discovered dead in his cabin. Two crew members wrapped him in a sheet and threw him overboard, as if they were offering a sacrifice to a vengeful god. A few hours later another corpse was found. Rumors spread quickly that a plague had broken out aboard ship. Before long, the captain and four crew members stood in front of Tevye.
“Get your coffin and dump it overboard,” the captain ordered.
Tevye was stunned. His coffin. Golda. Overboard?
“I protest,” he mumbled when he found words to speak.
“I am not asking you. I am ordering you,” the captain repeated. “If you don’t, my men will. That coffin is endangering everyone on the ship.”
“My Golda? Endangering the ship? It’s preposterous,” Tevye replied.
“The plague is coming from somewhere,” the captain answered. “And I am certain it’s from that coffin. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this storm has been inflicted upon us because I am carrying a stinking dead Jew on my ship.”
Hearing his wife cursed, Tevye shuddered. With a growl, he lunged at the captain. A crew member held out a club and pushed him away. Tevye’s feet slipped out from under him, and he crashed down on the deck. Goliath started forward, but three drawn pistols stopped him in his tracks.
“It is only another day to Palestine,” Tevye pleaded, raising himself to his knees.
“The coffin goes overboard now,” the captain said.
“Please,” Tevye begged, grabbing onto the captain’s leg. “I beg of you, please.”
“Either you do it now,” the captain threatened, “or my men will do it for you.”
Tevye felt the barrel of a pistol press into his back. He let go of his grip on the captain, not because he was afraid for his own life, but because of his daughters. What would they do if he gave the captain a reason to shoot him? How would they survive all alone? The uncircumcised scoundrels would throw Golda into the ocean whether he helped them or not, so what was the use of resisting?
With his head bowed in anguish and submission, he slowly made his way to the cargo deck of the ship.
“Oy Golda, Oy Golda,” he moaned. “Is this to be your reward? To be thrown to the fish? To have your bones scattered to the ends of the seas? Without any dry earth to warm you, or a flower to grow over your head? Is this to be your reward for being Tevye’s wife for twenty-eight years and for raising his seven daughters?”
Goliath helped him carry the coffin onto the deck. The pistols were still pointed their way. Passengers cursed Tevye as he made his way to the rail. Several tattered umbrellas hit Tevye on the head. Jews crowded around to protect him and keep the crazed, superstitious heathens at bay. His daughters stood at his side, eyes filled with tears. A Hasid with a long beard pushed forward.
“Say Kaddish,” he said.
Tevye closed his eyes. He would rather have jumped into the ocean himself than obey the captain’s orders.
“Don’t cry,” he heard Golda say. “Be strong for the children.”
Catching a sob in his throat, Tevye choked out the words of the mourner’s prayer. “Yisgadal v’yiskadash shemay rabboh… May His Great Name be sanctified and magnified forever.”
The Jews on deck responded, “Amen.”
“Good-bye my love, Golda, good-bye,” Tevye whispered. He balanced the coffin on the rail of the ship and then gave it a push. A chill seized his body upon the sound of the splash. He felt he was going to faint. A hand kept him from falling.
“Be strong, my husband, be strong,” he heard his wife call.
The storm winds howled. A wave towered up over the coffin and snatched it away. A bolt of lighting lit up the sky. The coffin vanished from view. Long after it was gone, Golda’s voice echoed over the ocean.
“Be strong, my Tevye, be strong!”
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.
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