Latest update: April 17th, 2013
The day after Tevye’s rescue, he stayed in bed with a chill. His face and his hands were so swollen with mosquito bites, he barely looked like himself. Feeling too queasy to eat, he sipped on tea and quinine. As if expecting the worst, visitors stopped by all the day long to pay their respects. Carmel stood guard by her husband, making sure the guests didn’t linger too long and weaken his strength. Several times, he dozed off to sleep but awoke in a sweat, gasping from the same terrifying image — the head of the heroic mule sticking out of the swamp. Fearing that the creature would appear everytime he closed his eyes, Tevye preferred not to sleep. The following evening, he mustered enough strength to sit down with guests for a holiday meal. It was the last day of Passover, and Tevye filled up his silver goblet for the traditional Kiddush. True, he had vowed to give up drinking, but Kiddush couldn’t be called drinking. The blessing over the wine was a mitzvah, and he certainly hadn’t vowed to give up any mitzvah! With relish, he gulped down the sweet, pungent wine.
Thankfully, his chill went away. The malaria which everyone feared, never developed. After all, what sense did it make to save a man from the swamp, just to have him drop dead in his tent? No, you could be sure that God had some greater destiny in store for old Tevye.
When the holiday ended, Tevye joined the other settlers back at work in the swamp. With a new fearlessness, he reached out for the buckets of swamp water. If his night in the bog hadn’t killed him, his work during the day wouldn’t either. After all, he had received enough bites to be immune from malaria for life.
The work of draining the insect-filled swamps progressed with a frustrating slowness. But as weeks went by, the settlers could see that they were winning the battle. Little by little, the water marks on the reeds sticking out of the swamp began to descend. Slowly, slowly, the water level receded. Bucket after bucket passed from hand to hand in a constant rhythmic motion. Thousands and thousands of buckets were dumped into pits in the sand. Wagons arrived filled with tall eucalyptus trees, which cost the colony as much money as they had paid to buy the land. Planted in the swamps, their roots sucked up water like hoses.
Teams of diggers toiled day and night on the canal which was to drain swamp water off to the sea. Pipes were laid in the ditches, and the stagnant, deadly, marsh water began to trickle and flow.
Just when victory seemed within reach and a spirit of hope filled their labor, tragedy struck. Tevye was passing a bucket to Esther, the carpenter’s eldest daughter, when he saw Guttmacher swoon in the middle of the swamp and fall limply into the water. Quickly, Ariel grabbed him and pulled him out of the marsh to the shore. The undertaker was shivering. His eyes were red, his face yellow with fever.
“Let’s get him into a wagon, quickly!” Tevye called.
Immediately, Ariel ran for his wagon. Tevye bent down and grasped his friend’s hand. Though it was the middle of the day, with the sun high in the sky, the undertaker’s body was shaking. Bat Sheva handed a canteen to her father. He raised it to Guttmacher’s lips, but he was too ill to drink. The water spilled over his mouth.
“Where’s my wife? Where’s my wife?” the sick man deliriously asked.
Tevye trembled, recalling the black, stormy day when they had buried Guttmacher’s wife. Sand flew into the air as Ariel arrived with the wagon. By nightfall, Tevye reasoned, they could be in Zichron Yaacov. Though only a small number of the infirmary’s patients walked out alive, there was always a chance. The workers helped Ariel lift Guttmacher onto the wagon. For a moment, his eyes seemed to clear. He clung onto Tevye’s sleeve.
“Tevye, why bother?” he asked. “Bury me here.”
“You’re not going to die,” Tevye answered. “You can’t. You’re the only undertaker we have.”
Guttmacher smiled. Then his eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep. A half hour into the journey, he regained consciousness. He gazed up at Tevye and said, “I have a brother who lives in Minsk. He can take care of my children.”
His eyes closed once again. Tevye held him in his lap. An hour later, he was dead. For a long while, Tevye and Ariel rode on in silence. Finally, Ariel brought the wagon to a halt.
“Where are we going to bury him?” Ariel asked.
Tevye glanced around at the road, as if to gage where they were.
“We are still about three hours from Zichron,” Ariel said. “It makes more sense to go hack to Olat HaShachar.”
“Yes,” Tevye said. “I suppose that it does. But you would think that a man who spent his life burying people would be granted a more respectable burying place than a swamp.”
“It won’t always be a swamp,” Ariel said. “He gave his life for that.”
“I suppose,” Tevye answered, squinting off toward the distant mountains. His thoughts drifted away. Holding on to the reins of the wagon, Ariel stared at his father-in-law, waiting for a decision.
“What are you thinking, Abba?” he asked when Tevye continued to gaze off into space.
“I was thinking that he probably would want to be buried alongside his wife.”
“Yes,” Tevye answered.
“It’s almost a day’s journey away.”
“Yes, that’s true. But he’ll have a long time to rest after he gets there.”
“Yes,” Ariel reflected. “I suppose that he will.”
The Yemenite fell silent. His wife’s father had a well-meaning heart, but sometimes Ashkenazic Jews could be crazy. In Eretz Yisrael, what difference did it make where a man was buried? The whole land was holy. Wherever they buried him, his soul would go straight up to Heaven. Guttmacher would meet his wife there.
“I think that is what he would have wanted,” Tevye said.
Ariel didn’t argue. He flicked at the reins. “You knew him better than anyone.”
Before making the ascent into the mountains, Tevye insisted on stopping at Zichron Yaacov to prepare the body for burial in the proper ritual manner. He dragged Ariel into the local undertaker’s workroom to learn how to do the procedure. They watched as the undertaker administered the purifying bathing and carefully unloosened all of the corpse’s joints.
“What was his occupation?” the undertaker asked.
“The same as yours,” Tevye answered.
The Jew looked up in surprise.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“What difference does it make?”
“It’s a matter of professional courtesy,” the undertaker answered. “You know how it is. People die here like flies. With all the epidemics we’ve suffered this year, I’m kept busy day and night. You try to do your best with everyone, but sometimes, I don’t have to tell you. When I have the honor to work on a fellow undertaker, I like to do an extra special job. I mean he deserves it, am I right?”
Tevye nodded. “As the Rabbis say – the way you treat people
is the way you get treated in return.”
When the body was ready, they wrapped it securely in a sheet and lifted it back onto the wagon. Hava was waiting outside. Upon their arrival, Tevye had sent a youth to the infirmary to fetch her. The father washed his hands in the basin by the door of the undertaker’s workroom and kissed his daughter on the cheek.
“What will become of his children?” she asked, remembering Guttmacher’s remaining young son and a daughter.
“They have an uncle in Russia. In the meantime, they can move in with me.”
“Why don’t you spend the night in Zichron Yaacov and set out in the morning?” Hava suggested.
“Out of respect for the dead, the sooner he is buried, the sooner his soul will find rest.”
Tevye led his daughter a few steps down the path, where he could speak about more personal matters.
“When was the last time you saw your husband?” he asked.
“He was here for a Shabbos two months ago.”
“Two months ago?’’ Tevye queried.
“He’s very involved with his studies. But in another two weeks, I have a vacation. I will be joining him in Jaffa for three days.”
“That’s what you call a marriage – to see your husband for one or two days every few months?”
“He’s happy,” Hava answered. “So I’m happy too.”
Tevye frowned. He wanted to tell his daughter how foolish she was, but remembering the dead man in the wagon, he resisted the temptation to begin a lengthy discussion.
“Come to Olat HaShachar if you can,” Tevye said, walking back to the wagon. “We would all love to see you.”
Hava promised that she would try to come for a visit. Giving her father a kiss, she waved goodbye, and the men set off in the wagon.
“Involved in his studies?” Tevye wondered, riding away with Guttmacher’s corpse. “What man could be so involved with his studies to ignore his young wife right after their marriage? Not only that, but Hevedke, or Issac, as he called himself now, had been separated from Hava for over a year. Like a mad, panting dog, he had followed her across half of the world, and now he was content to see her every few months? Something smelled fishy. As the Rabbis taught – a man is a man, and not an angel. At the first opportunity, Tevye made up his mind to investigate. If that smooth-talking imposter had some other woman in Jaffa, Tevye would make sure he boarded the first steamship leaving for Russia.
In the middle of the night, they reached the ghost town on the dark Morasha hillside. Their Arab neighbors had not only razed the houses and barns, they had also smashed gravestones and desecrated the small Jewish cemetery. Tevye gazed at the scene in despair.
“It’s good that we came,” Ariel said. “There is other work to do here besides burying Guttmacher. In Yemen, the Moslems would desecrate our cemeteries all of the time.”
Late the next evening, Tevye and Ariel returned to Olat HaShachar. Long before they could see the colony of tents, the stink of the swamps filled their nostrils. An ocean breeze wafted the nauseating stench into their faces, reminding Tevye that come morning, he was to take Guttmacher’s place in the swamp. Tevye was exhausted, but he felt he had made the right decision. The undertaker was now resting peacefully beside the graves of his wife and his daughter.
The ordeal was over for Guttmacher, but for his children, it was just getting underway. Tevye had to tell them the heartbreaking news. The milkman had already decided to take care of the orphans if they wanted to stay in Palestine. There was room in his tent. They were both nearing the age of bar mitzvah – they were old enough to decide for themselves. Why return to Russia? What future was waiting for them there? In any event, God would provide for their needs. As far as Tevye was concerned, they could even share some of the money which the Baron had given to Moishe and Hannei.
Arriving at the colony, Tevye trudged off to his tent. He would tell the children in the morning. Now he needed to sleep. But surprisingly, his wife was not home. Where could she be at this hour of the night? Stepping outside, he saw a group of dark figures down the path leading toward Bat Sheva’s tent. Coming closer, he made out his wife, Carmel, standing with her father and one of her sisters. They didn’t have to say a word for Tevye to sense that bad news awaited. Their usually smiling expressions were as somber as the night. Inside the tent, Ariel sat by the bed, holding Bat Sheva’s limp hand. In the dim candlelight, Tevye could see beads of sweat on her forehead. He stood frozen, unable to believe the sight confronting his eyes. His other daughter, Ruchel, stood up from a chair when her father appeared. Ariel turned and looked up at Tevye. The hollow gaze in his eyes made the older man tremble.
“How is she’?” Tevye asked.
Ariel shook his head. “Come see for yourself.”
Tevye stepped closer and gazed down at his daughter, his beautiful, beautiful daughter. All of the rosiness was gone from her cheeks. All of the life was drained from her features. In the flickering candlelight, she looked like she had already been claimed by some other world.
“She has been sleeping all day,” Carmel said, taking her place beside her crestfallen husband. “Yesterday, after lunchbreak, she said she felt too weak to return to the swamp. We found her in bed with a fever. She managed to sip a little quinine, but then she passed out. We’ve tried to wake her, but she doesn’t seem to hear.”
Tevye stiffened. His eyes flashed with anger. He straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath.
“Is this why You spared me from sinking in the swamp?” he thought. “To witness the death of my daughter?”
Wildly, he stared at his wife.
“Is it?!” he said. “IS IT?!” he asked even louder.
Not understanding what he was saying, Carmel reached out for his hand, but he brushed it away. Eyes burning with pain, he charged out of the tent.
“IS THIS WHY YOU SPARED ME?!” he yelled up to the sky. “SO I COULD WITNESS THE DEATH OF MY DAUGHTER?!”
The star-studded heavens sparkled in all of their unfathomable wonder. Who was he, Tevye, the milkman, that the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth should single him out from all of the universe? What did God want from him? Was he Job that he could suffer such torture? What was the use of complaining? The Master of the World filled the universe, and he was just a speck down on earth. The Lord gives, he remembered. And the Lord takes away.
“Please God,” he said quietly. “Take me, but don’t take my daughter.’’
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Elisha stood beside him.
“Let’s go for a walk,” his good friend said.
“My daughter,” Tevye answered.
“There’s nothing to do now but pray.”
He gave Tevye a tug and led him away from the tent.
“You have to be strong, Tevye,” he said. “Everyone here looks up to you as a leader. We need you to set an example.”
“My daughter,” Tevye said again in a whisper.
“I know,” Elisha answered. “Today is your turn. Tomorrow, God forbid, someone else’s. We have to be strong for our children.’
He led him to the tent that served as their synagogue. Nachman sat inside, in front of the holy ark, reading from a book of Psalms. He stood up when Tevye entered. There was nothing to say. Tevye looked at him blankly, then sat down on a bench. Absently, he opened the prayer book before him. He stared down at its pages through the tears in his eyes. Elisha set a hand on his shoulder. Tevye looked up at his face, at the face of a people who had survived oppression and plague for thousands of years with an unbreakable faith. Quietly, Tevye looked down at the prayer book and began reading the comforting words of King David.
Bat Sheva died before sunrise. For the first time in his life, Tevye refused to do what the laws of the Torah commanded. After the funeral, he refused to sit shiva for his daughter. He refused to sit and mourn. What good would mourning do for a week? Grabbing a bucket, he strode off to the swamp. His work would be his memorial to his daughter. Enough people had died. The insatiable swamp had to he drained.
The other settlers watched him in silence. Feeling his friend’s anguish, Elisha grabbed a bucket and walked off after Tevye toward the swamp. Without saying a word, Shimon, Yigal, Hillel, and Munsho grabbed buckets. Even people who didn’t have to work in the swamps set off to join Tevye, who set to work with an incredible fierceness. Like a man driven with rage, he attacked the swamp with his bucket, as if beating a foe with a club. Buckets after buckets of water flew through the air onto the bank of the swamp. Elisha organized the settlers into a chain and buckets were passed hand to hand at a furious pace. Tevye stood knee-deep in the muck, working like a machine, putting all of his pain into the task of destroying the monster moloch which had claimed Bat Sheva’s life. For hours, he worked without rest.
“Don’t give up! Don’t despair!” he told himself over and over.
Settlers far younger than Tevye found it impossible to keep up with his pace. When his muscles ached with exhaustion, he growled and continued to fill up his bucket. He worked with the might of one thousand men, ready to drain the swamp single-handed. When it came time for lunch, Tevye rolled up his sleeves and kept working. Alone, he carried his splashing bucket to the bank of the swamp and went back for more.
“Don’t give up, Tevye!” the voice echoed in his brain like a song. “Don’t give up! Don’t despair!”
The sun blazed high in the sun. Dizzy with exhaustion, he remembered Rabbi Kook’s words, “Each Jew has to be like a thousand.”
An illumination, as bright as the sun, filled all of his being. All of the suffering and all of the trials were coming to transform Tevye, the milkman, into Tevye, the pioneer builder.
When his arms were too tired to lift up the bucket, he felt someone come to his aid. Goliath stood by his side, in a pool of dazzling sunshine, helping him lift the bucket out of the swamp. Goliath, as alive and real as could be.
“Don’t give up, Tevye! Don’t despair!” he urged.
Squinting into the swamp water’s brilliant reflections, Tevye saw that Goliath wasn’t alone. Shmuelik, stood beside him, his hands outstretched, waiting to grab a bucket! He took the bucket from Tevye and passed it to Guttmacher! The undertaker passed the bucket to Bat Sheva! With a smile, Tevye’s daughter handed the bucket to Guttmacher’s wife! And Guttmacher’s wife passed the bucket to Golda! They were all there beside him, working in the swamp. And they weren’t alone. Hundreds worked with them. Turning around in astonishment, Tevye saw his oldest daughter,Tzeitl, and Motel, the tailor! He saw his mother and father! He saw faces from Anatevka whom he had known as a boy! He saw Jews from all ages, from countries all over the world! He saw the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna! He saw Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochva! He saw Judah the Maccabee and King David working side by side, hurling waterfalls of refuse out of the swamp. Encouraged, Tevye set back to work. He wasn’t one single man, but an army. Elisha, and Ariel, and Yigal, and Nachman, and Hillel, and Munsho, and Shilo, and Shimon, and Reb Shraga, the scribe, all joined in the task of draining the swamp. Together with Tevye, and with all of the Jews of the past, they filled their buckets again and again, transforming a curse into a blessing, and bringing new life to their cherished Promised Land. For all the Jews of the future.
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 those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Jewish Press
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