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.”