The sweetly sung song courted her ears. Though the lyrics metaphorically spoke of the love between a man and a woman, she knew it was a song about a Jew’s love for God.
“Love, shmov,” she heard her mother’s voice say. “What does love have to do with marriage? A man and a woman are brought together to bring children into the world. They live in the same house to raise up a family. What does love have to do with anything? Cooking, and cleaning, and scrubbing, and folding, and putting up with a man’s moanings and tantrums, that’s love.”
Immersed in her thoughts, Hodel began putting tomatoes into a potato sack. Yentel smiled and gave Hodel a wink as Hillel limped by, lugging a load of tomatoes over to the wagon.
“You’re not a spring chicken anymore yourself,” the older woman whispered, as if reading Hodel’s thoughts.
“Oh stop it,” Hodel protested.
It was ridiculous. How could she marry a man her father’s age?
Just as her mind asked the question, a wagon rode over and stopped a short distance away from the packing house. A mountain of tomatoes had arrived, waiting to be crated and shipped. Tevye was driving. Carmel sat beside him, holding their baby. The boy was big enough now to take along into the fields. While his mother picked tomatoes, little Tzvi Schneur Zalman rested nearby in the shade of an improvised lean-to. With a big, happy grin, Tevye got down from the wagon. He held out his hand and helped Carmel climb down with the child. How happy they seemed, Hodel thought. And though her father was much older than his wife was, they looked like a match made in Heaven.
“More of the Lord’s tomatoes,” Tevye cheerfully said to the packers. “The bounty of the land. Nurtured by hard work and God’s blessing. Sun-ripened tomatoes, harvested out of the remains of a swamp. Treat them gently, dear ladies, for the vegetables I set before you are not plain tomatoes – they are miracles! Yesterday, they were ravenous mosquitoes, and today, instead of them eating people, people are about to eat them!”
Everyone laughed. Tevye’s happiness was infectious.
“How’s my big tomato?” he asked, pinching Hodel’s cheek. Indeed, the way she blushed, there was a resemblance. Strolling off with his wife and child, Tevye stopped to say shalom to his good friend, the musician. Her father liked Hillel, she knew, and her father was a good judge of men, except, of course, in the case of Menachem Mendel, who had conned her father out of the family’s modest savings. If her father liked a man, it meant he was honest. And being a musician, Hillel’s mind certainly wasn’t closed down to art, literature, and creative inquiry, like so many other religious Jews. The beauty of his singing revealed that his soul, like hers, needed unfettered horizons. Yet, at the very same time, he was unquestionably God fearing. As the man of the house, he was sure to pass on the Jewish traditions which had become important to Hodel ever since Tzeitl’s death.
The next evening after dinner, someone knocked on the door of the cottage where Hodel lived with her child and four other young, single women. It was Hillel. Gallantly, he took off his cap and bowed.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said. “But a wagon load of tomatoes has just arrived from the fields and workers are needed to pack them.”
“Now? In the evening?” Hodel asked.
“The fresher they are, the better price they will command in the market,” he answered. “When the harvest time comes, you can’t tell tomatoes to wait. A wagon is leaving for Jaffa tonight.”
“I’ll get my shawl,” Hodel said with a blush.
Hillel waited outside. They walked to the packing house without speaking. He whistled happily, as if to draw attention away from his limp, which really wasn’t so bad, Hodel decided. At the packing house, a wagon piled high with tomatoes had been left unattended, waiting to be unloaded and packed for shipping, but no other workers were present.
“Where are the others?” Hodel asked.
“I don’t know,” Hillel said.
“Who sent you to fetch me?”