“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.”