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.
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. 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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