“Easy, easy, old man,” a handsome, clean-shaven kibbutznik advised.
The girl working beside him laughed as Tevye swung the pickax over his head and drove it into the stony soil. The pick hit a rock. The handle reverberated in his hands, painfully reopening his blisters. Seeing Tevye wince, the kibbutznik held out a spade.
“Let’s swap tools for a while,” he said. “I enjoy working with a pick, and with your weight, the shoveling will go easier.”
Without arguing, Tevye switched tools. He stuck the spade into the ground and pressed his boot on the rim of its blade. The spade broke through the crusty topsoil. With a flick of his wrists, Tevye flipped the shovelful over, revealing a richer, darker soil below. The kibbutznik was right. Using the weight of his body to break up the earth, Tevye was able to relieve some of the strain on his hands. Working at a more relaxed pace, he upturned a long stretch of field and started back in the opposite direction. What was the hurry, he thought? It was a big country, and after all, the Almighty had made him a man, not an ox. What they didn’t finish today, they would finish tomorrow. As the famous Baal Shem Tov had taught, in serving the L-rd, the main thing was to be happy.
“Want to learn a new song?” he asked the young workers around him. They all gladly said yes.
“It’s a mitzvah to be happy,” he sang. “It’s a mitzvah to be always happy.”
Tevye repeated the simple tune a few times until his fellow workers joined in. Soon, everyone was working to the rhythm of the song. Maybe, Tevye thought, there was a hidden reason why God had brought him to this encampment of secular Jews. Maybe he could teach them some Yiddishkiet. Surely, he thought, without a connection to Torah, all of their love for the Land would one day turn sour. How long would a man break his back, struggling to coax life out of a desolate wasteland for socialist dreams?
That night, Tevye slept like a baby. Not even the rapacious mosquitoes disturbed him. If the night guard hadn’t pounded on the door of his adobe-brick hut in the morning, Tevye would gladly have slept until noon.
Though it was summertime, the nights in the Galilee mountains were cool, and the kibbutzniks took advantage of the pre-dawn breezes to put several hours of work behind them before the sun rose in the sky. When the workers paused for a drink of tea, Tevye took out his tefillin and prayer shawl, and prayed.
The long work day finished, Tevye could barely drag his legs back to the dining hall. Nevertheless, after dinner, he forced himself to follow the kibbutzniks to the schoolroom where a two-hour class in Hebrew was taught. More often than not, he fell asleep in his chair at the back of the room. After a few classes, the teacher got used to raising her voice over the sound of Tevye’s snoring. Bat Sheva and Hava sat beside him in class, nudging him awake whenever he started to slumber. What could he do? Didn’t they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do? Now that he was in Israel, he had to learn to be a Sabra, and that meant speaking Hebrew. True, Hebrew was a serious, holy language, lacking the spicy words and curses which made Yiddish such a rich, tasty soup. But as the Zionists asserted, Yiddish was an heirloom of the exile, the language of the shtetl, a jumble of foreign expressions and tongues.
“Did Moses speak Yiddish?” Ben Zion asked Tevye during one of their frequent discussions. “Did King David? Did Rabbi Akiva?” No they had not, Tevye conceded. So, at the end of the day, though he was exhausted and dreaming of bed, Tevye would squint at the new Hebrew words on the blackboard. Sometimes he felt that the classes at night were as punishing as his labor during the day. Instead of a pickax and shovel, he was using a pencil and eraser to overturn the rocks in his brain. As the Elders had taught – when you write on a new sheet of paper, the ink is absorbed; but if you write on an old sheet, the ink drips off the page. The grammar which his daughters grasped after repeating one or two times, Tevye had to hear time and again. Fortunately, he could already read Hebrew, and he already knew the Bible and Mishna, so he didn’t have to start out from the first letter, alef.