A few days later, Hillel said “L’hitraot” to Tevye and set off with Shmuelik over the mountains toward Zichron Yaacov, trusting that God, in His kindness, would lead him to the woman he was destined to wed.
Their departure left Tevye saddened, but he didn’t have time to brood. Not wanting to be a shnorrer dependent on others, he insisted on working alongside the kibbutzniks for as long as he stayed in Shoshana. The back-breaking day started at five in the morning. Though the milkman habitually woke up every morning while the stars were still in the sky, he was not used to the strenuous physical work in the fields. True, milking a cow put a strain on the spine, and lugging containers of milk wasn’t easy, but after tilling the rocky soil for hours on end, Tevye understood how the Jews in Egypt must have felt when Pharaoh increased their slave labor.
The first day, in order to show the young settlers that he was no stranger to hard, honest toil, he picked up a pickax and joined in the work of upturning the rocky earth to clear a new field for planting.
“Conquer the work, conquer the land!” Perchik yelled out as the work day began.
The young people labored with unbounded enthusiasm. Singing songs, the pioneers dug up the soil, as if in conquering each new patch of earth, they were performing some joyous religious devotion. In trying to keep up with them, Tevye failed to notice his heavy breathing. Long before noon, with the sun beating down on the nape of his neck, he began to feel dizzy. The ground beneath his feet started swaying as if he were on a boat. Blisters broke out on his fingers and palms, and trickles of blood dripped down the handle of his pick.
“Lunch break!” someone finally called out.
The words echoed in Tevye’s ears like a bell. He had worked without respite, refusing to surrender to his thirst and exhaustion, and now that he could relax, a feeling of weakness made his limbs tremble. The pickax dropped out of his hand. He took one step forward and fainted. While the young people walked off for some food and some rest, Tevye lay collapsed in the field. Flies buzzed hungrily around him, but he didn’t have the strength to brush them away. He lay on his back, unable to move, blinded by the fiery sun.
When her father didn’t return with the others for lunch, Hodel ran out to the field, holding a flask of water in one hand, and her pregnant belly with the other. She found him sitting up dazed in the sun, his yarmulka on the ground, his lips parched, blood on his hands, his pickax lying on the soil beside him.
“Abba,” she hollered in a fright.
“I’ll show them,” he mumbled. “I’ll show them.”
“Look at you.”
“I’m fine, don’t you see?”
“I see a stubborn old man who doesn’t know when to stop. You don’t have to be such a hero.”
Gently, she let him drink from the flask she had brought from the house, and splashed drops of water over his face.
“The day is still young,” he said.
“For you, the day is over,” she answered.
“I want to do my share of the work.”
“You have done enough work for one day. Tomorrow, you will do more. But not in the fields. I’ll have Perchik put you to work with the cows.”
“I want to work the land too, like everyone else,” he insisted.
“My brave pioneer,” Hodel said, wetting her kerchief and moistening his forehead and his dry, sun-cracked lips.
Together, they walked back to the colony of thatched, mud-brick houses. Hodel soaked her father’s hands in soapy water to wash off the blood and the dirt. After lunch, with a groan, he pushed himself up from the table, put on his cap, and insisted on returning to work. When Hodel blocked the door with her big, swollen belly, Tevye let out a roar.
“I am still your father,” he bellowed.
Obediently, his daughter stepped away from the door. Grabbing a water pouch, Tevye strode outside and headed determinedly back to the fields. Tevye, the son of Reb Schneur Zalman, was nobody’s freeloader. Nobody was going to say that he didn’t carry his share of the load. Nobody was going to say that a religious Jew didn’t work as hard as the Zionists. Not on his account anyway. Arriving back at the field, he waved to his fellow workers and reached down for his pick.