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.