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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Thirty-One: Hevedke the Jew

The next chapter of the award-winning novel.
Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

Almost at the same time that Tevye was immersing little Moishe in the mystical mikvah in Safed, Hevedke Galagan was immersing himself in a mikvah in Jaffa as part of his conversion to Judaism. Afterward, a special brit milah circumcision was performed, and the blond Russian youth entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish People. His new Hebrew name was Yitzhak ben Avraham, a name chosen for its Biblical significance, and for its similarity to the name of the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who the new Issac so greatly admired.

Issac’s studies had progressed remarkably quickly. He learned to speak Hebrew more fluently than Tevye, and with much less of a Russian accent. In addition, he had learned to read Aramaic and had already completed one tractate of the Talmud. Naturally, having only just started, he was behind everyone else, but with his characteristic long strides, he labored diligently to catch up. Jokingly, his friends called him Akiva, after the famous uneducated shepherd who had matured after decades of study into Israel’s greatest teacher of Torah.

Now and again, Issac had taken time from his busy learning schedule to write Hava a letter, but, true to his promise, he had not seen her in over a year. That had been the terms of his bargain with Tevye, and he had been stringent about keeping his end of the deal. But now, finally, the time had come to make their marriage kosher.

“If she will still have me,” he thought.

True, now he was Jewish, and that was a mountain out of the way, but he was no longer the same glib, outspoken poet who had mezmerized her in the sleepy village of Anatevka. The Torah had changed him. Discovering the unending depths of its wisdom, his own eclectic understandings had been exposed as superficial and false. All other religions were the inventions of man, whilst the Torah was given to the Jewish People by God. His former religious views and his vilification of Judaism filled the depths of his being with shame. When he realized how the New Testament had turned mankind away from the pure faith of the Torah, he understood why Tevye had banned his daughter from the house for having eloped with a stranger to their faith.

His day and night learning of the Talmud, and the thick volumes of Jewish law, had taught him that truth was more than platitudes. God’s will for man extended to every facet of life, to every thought and deed. Believing in a faraway deity wasn’t enough. A servant of God had to obey all of the orders of the King. But Hevedke didn’t look on the Torah’s commandments as an obligation or yoke. He embraced them with indescribable joy.

Recognizing the grandeur of his Creator, Hevedke’s boyhood bravado became a thing of the past. The yeshiva was like a fiery kiln, searing his pride, refining his coarse edges, and making him humble. Even his posture had changed. Instead of his once tall, upright swagger, the new Issac walked slightly bent over, with his head toward the ground, in constant awe of his Maker.

In a way, when Hava finally saw him after over a year, it was like meeting an entirely new person. From his letters, she knew that he was engrossed in his studies, but she never dreamed that it would cause such a change in his bearing. If he had not written her that he was coming to Zichron Yaaeov to marry her, she would not have recognized him when she saw him on the street. For one thing, he wore a hat. Not a fur shtreimel like Rabbi Kook, nor the cap of kibbutz worker, but a black fedora from Italy, like the hats worn by Jewish businessmen in Europe. Instead of his high Russian boots, he wore shoes, and instead of his casual suede jacket, he wore a simple black overcoat. But the biggest changes were his spectacles and his beard. Together they hid his youthful good looks. Long evenings of candlelight study, squinting at the flamelike Hebrew letters, had made eyeglasses a must. Though he needed them only for reading, he wore them the first time they met. And his reddish blond beard covered his cheekbones completely, taking away his Slavic appearance, and making him look like a Jew.

The change wasn’t only on the outside. Instead of the conceited confidence which Hava remembered, there was a quietness and calmness to him now. Instead of speaking first, he waited for others to voice their opinions. Instead of staring at her boldly, he turned his eyes modestly away toward the ground. And the new Issac’s Hebrew was a wonder. Unlike her own clumsy accent, his Hebrew came out like a song.

Ever since she had received Issac’s letter, Hava had been in a daze. The day he was due to arrive, she took the afternoon off from her work. She dressed up in her prettiest outfit, but after meeting him, she soon realized that if her beauty had attracted him before, now he was interested in something much deeper. Curiously, she sensed that he was far more religious than she was. While she wore her Jewishness naturally, like a comfortable robe, he seemed to work at it with all of his might. In a way, his newfound religious fervor seemed like a barrier that got in the way. He listened intently to everything she said. He earnestly wanted to hear everything that had happened to her and her family. But something was missing. When she spoke of the tragedies, his head shook with sorrow, and when she related the joys, his face shone in a smile, but the love which had flowed between them so naturally now seemed to be much more guarded and formal. It didn’t show in anything he said. Nor in any facial expression. With a woman’s sensitivity, she felt a barrier between them instead of a bond. But this, Hava hoped, was only a matter of time. After all, for more than a year, he had been living with nothing but books and long beards. Of course he behaved like a rabbi. Surely with time, his newfound modesty would thaw, and he would return to being the man who had swept her off her feet.

As they talked, they strolled around Zichron Moshe, wandering through the fields, the orchards, the pastures, and vineyards. Hava pointed out the winery, the barrel factory, the duck pond, and infirmary. She had written him about her job as a nurse, but she still had a lot of stories to tell. Behind the hospital building, Hava stopped and motioned toward the small village of tents in the distance where her father and sisters were living. On orders from the JCA office in Paris, the Morasha colony had been abandoned until the epidemic had passed. Their family, along with the rest of the Morasha settlers, had been quarantined for the past several weeks in the tent colony to make sure that no one had contacted the fatal disease. Doctors in Paris had decreed that the Morasha carriers could jeopardize the health of entire Jewish community in the country. But, thank God, ever since Tevye had returned from the mikvah in Safed, no other deaths had occurred.

“Can’t I even wish them shalom?” Issac asked.

“I’m sorry,” Hava answered. “We have strict orders that only the hospital staff is allowed to make visits.”

“How long do they have to be there?’

“Not much longer I hope.”

“They could catch pneumonia in those tents,” Issac said in concern.

“God forbid,” Hava replied.

“Yes, of course,” Issac corrected himself. “God forbid.”

As they stared out at the tents, Hava gently reached over and took a hold of Issac’s hand. Awkwardly, he pulled it away.

“No one can see us,” she said.

“It isn’t allowed,” he answered.

“We were once-upon-a-time married, you know.”

“You know that marriage doesn’t count.”

“Hevedke,” she said with a blush, “I want a husband, not a rabbi.”

The tall, bearded man averted her gaze.

“We have waited this long, we can wait a little longer,” he answered. “And please call me Issac. I hate the name Hevedke.”

“I’m sorry, Issac,” she told him. “I promise I will.”

They agreed to get married as soon as her father was allowed to leave quarantine. When the sun began to set, Issac hurried off to the synagogue to join the afternoon prayers. Filled with excitement, Hava ran out to the tents behind the infirmary to tell her family the news. But to her surprise, her father was missing.

“How long can you expect Abba to stay cooped up like a chicken?” Bat Sheva asked.

“Where did he go?” Hava asked.

“To Morasha.”

“To Morasha? Is he crazy? Does he want to get sick?”

“God forbid,” another voice said. It was the tailor’s wife. In the confines of the tent, she could not help fom overhearing the conversation.

“Of course,” Hava said. “God forbid. But why did he go back to Morasha?”

Tevye had ridden off to Morasha with Elisha to make sure the guard they had left there was doing his job. He wasn’t. They found him lying in a puddle of blood with a bullet in his back. Shocked, they stared in silent wonder at the destruction they saw all around them. All of the houses had been burned down to the ground. All of the livestock and tools had been stolen. The vegetables and flowers in Shmuelik’s beloved garden lay trampled and uprooted. The Torah ark was smashed into pieces. Luckily, the settlers had taken the sacred scroll with them when they had left. Tevye and Elisha gazed at the devastation. The settlement of Morasha had vanished, as if the earth had swallowed it up.

“At least,” Tevye said, “There is one consolation.”

“What is that?” the Yemenite asked.

“They stole the animals too.”

His friend looked at him with a puzzled expression.

“The animals were diseased,” Tevye said. “Hopefully, the murderers and thieves will be too.”

         

Hava’s wedding was held on a chilly, moonlit evening in the Hebrew month of Shevat. Festive torchlights were lit in one of the orchards where the ceremony was to be held. The chuppah was ready and waiting. Everyone in the settlement turned out to welcome Rabbi Kook, who had journeyed all the way from Jaffa to officiate at the marriage. Crowned by a fur shtreimel which accentuated his regal appearance, the heralded Chief Rabbi took the time to exchange a greeting with each and every guest. As much as the settlers loved Rabbi Kook, he loved them for their devotion to building the land. More than that – he loved them simply because they were Jews. And had they been gentiles, he would have loved them just the same. Everyone whom God had created, Rabbi Kook loved. Once, he had confided to Nachman, that even people who fell into sin were deserving of love. Certainly not for the evil they did, but for whatever small good, because they too had been formed in God’s image.

How ironic life could be, Tevye thought! The scandal that had been his greatest shame was now the cause of his greatest honor. Taking his daughter’s hand, he led her to the wedding canopy, accompanied by the distinguished Rabbi. What an honor of honors it was for Tevye to stand beside the revered Rabbi Kook as he chanted the blessing over the wine and read out the formal wedding Ketubah agreement. The traditional wedding glass was broken, recalling the destruction of Jerusalem and how the joy of the bride and the groom couldn’t be complete until the Holy City was restored. With a cheer from the crowd, Issac became Hava’s one-hundred-percent kosher husband.

The festive wedding meal was held in the Zichron Yaacov community hall. Wine was plentiful, and the dancing was joyous. Tevye was in exceptionally high spirits, fulfilling, with great gusto, the mitzvah of rejoicing with the newlyweds. Hillel played his accordion alongside a clarinet player and a Hasid with a fiddle. The wedding guests danced and danced. A group of Russian Jews balanced bottles of wine on their heads, entertaining the chatan and kallah. Not to be upstaged, Elisha’s sons Ariel and Yehuda folded up newspapers into cones, lighted them with matches, and balanced the flaming torches on the tips of their noses – an act which drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd.

The groom hugged Tevye and called him father. Laughing, Tevye dragged Hava’s husband over to meet the Yemenite side of the family. If Tevye was Issac’s father, that made Elisha a grandfather of sorts to the groom! Could better proof be found that the Almighty was gathering His exiled children from the four corners of the earth? In the joy of the great celebration, all of the winter’s sorrow was gladly put aside, as King Solomon had said, there was “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” There was enough sadness and tragedy in the life of a Jew. When an occasion of happiness fell out from the sky, a man had to seize it.

Only Hodel felt left out of the simcha. Ever since she had run away from Perchik, she hadn’t heard a word from her stubborn mule of a husband. But she was happy for her sister just the same.

Three weeks later, Bat Sheva married Elisha’s son, Ariel. Thus Ariel became not only Tevye’s brother-in-law, but his son-in-law as well. The wedding was more modest in size, but lovely all the same. Ariel’s sisters insisted on dressing Bat Sheva in the traditional Yemenite wedding gown and decorative head dress which Tevye’s wife, Carmel, had worn at her wedding. Tevye stood up during the festive dinner and held up a glass and a vintage bottle of wine. “Shecheyanu, v’keeymanu, v’higeyanu l’hazman hazeh!” he called out, thanking the Lord for having kept him alive to see this great day. Finally, all of his daughters were married! He could imagine his Golda kvelling with joy in Heaven. True, he still had to figure out a way to get rid of Hodel’s communist pig farmer, but, with patience, that happy day would arrive as well.

The string of weddings had a healing effect on the Morasha settlers. It was even rumored that the matchmaker had arranged a shidduch for Reb Guttmacher, with a rich widow who lived in Rechovot.

“Didn’t King Solomon say that there is a time for every thing?” Tevye reminded his friend, the undertaker, when he came to pour out his heart and his feelings of guilt. “A time to die and a time to live?”

“Is it right,” the undertaker asked, “that I should remarry when the worms are still eating my wife?”

“Of course it is right,” Tevye answered. “Didn’t I remarry? And I am glad that I did.”

Not only was Tevye glad – he was flabbergasted. His Carmel, God bless her, was pregnant!

“Stop acting so surprised,” Elisha told him on that dizzying day when his wife had informed him.

“Whoever thought?” Tevye stammered.

“Did you forget what it leads to?”

“At my age?”

Elisha’s eyes twinkled. “Yemenite women are fertile,” he said. “Families with ten children are small.”

“Ten children?” Tevye exclaimed.

“My grandmother raised eighteen.”

Rachmonis,” Tevye moaned. “May the Lord have mercy.”

Elisha quoted a few verses of Psalms. “Happy is the man who eats from the labor of his hands. Thy wife shall be like a fruitful vine inside thy house; thy children like olive plants around thy table.”

What was meant to be, would be, Tevye thought. And what wasn’t meant to be, wouldn’t. For instance, Morasha. After Arab marauders had burnt it to the ground, it seemed that establishing a settlement on that site just hadn’t been a part of the Almighty’s great Divine plan. The houses which the Morasha settlers had built had been razed. The saplings they had planted had been pulled out of the earth. The fields they had sown had been trampled by horses. As it says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor to build it, labor in vain.” What could a man do against the judgment of God? The great ledger in the sky had been opened, the Hand had written, and the sentence had been decreed. The ways of the Lord were a mystery. The task of a man was to lower his head in submission and say, “Baruch Hashem,” thanking God over misfortune, just as he thanked God when events turned out for the good.

Who knew, Tevye thought? Maybe if they had remained in Morasha, the plague would have killed them all. Maybe, its deadly microbes were still lingering over the mountain side. Maybe by having the Arabs destroy the colony, God had really saved the Jews from a far graver fate.

Meanwhile, the tent village behind the infirmary had become their temporary home, even after the quarantine had been lifted. Until the Jewish Colony Association purchased a new tract of land, Tevye and his comrades were staying in Zichron Moshe. A vote had been taken, and the settlers had decided that when the epidemic was over, they would refuse to rebuild Morasha. They were tired of saying the mourner’s Kaddish. If Baron Rothschild didn’t like it, he could go and and rebuild the ruins of Morasha himself.

Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Tevye and his bride set up their home in a tent. Tevye became a shlepper of wine barrels, hauling them from the Zichron warehouse to the wagons that transported them to Jaffa. And, like fruitful vines, while he was at work, his family expanded and grew. The orphans, Moishe and Little Sarah, came to love Ruchel and Nachman just like a real mother and father. Not only was Tevye’s wife, Carmel, pregnant, Ruchel was too. A radiant smile shone on her face whatever she was doing. Bat Sheva was as happy as could be as a homemaker. Hodel lived in a tent with unmarried young women, and Hava returned to her room in the infirmary dorm.

At first, the newlywed, Hava, was stunned when Issac informed her that he wanted to return to his studies in Jaffa.

“I am just beginning to embark on the real learning of Torah,” he said with an earnest glow in his eyes. “Up till now, I’ve been like a child studying the alphabet, learning to read and to write. If I hope to truly progress, I have to study for years. Don’t you understand, my Havila? I want to feel like a Jew, not only on the outside by growing a beard and wearing a hat, but in the depths of my very being. There are hundreds of books on the shelves of the yeshiva, and I have barely opened a few.”

Realizing how important his learning was to him, Hava didn’t have the heart to protest. He said that in Jaffa, near the yeshiva, they could rent a room in someone’s house. At first that seemed all right with Hava, but as days passed, she began to realize that her work as a nurse in the infirmary was as important to her as Torah learning was to him. Why should she sit alone in a room all the day, waiting for her husband to come home, when she could really help people, and even save lives! Though notices were posted all around the colony, offering free training for nurses, not every young woman was willing to work in a building filled with yellow fever and plagues. As it was, the infirmary at Zichron Yaacov was sorely understaffed. Hava’s energy and selfless devotion had made her one of its most counted-on workers. How could she leave?

After long discussions between them, they came to a joint conclusion. For the Zionist cause to succeed, it needed men learned in Torah, and women who were willing to sacrifice and work, not only at home, but wherever the ocassion demanded. Issac would continue to study in Jaffa. Hava would continue to work at the hospital. They would get together for Shabbos, whether in Zichron or Jaffa, whenever they could.

Firm in their resolve, they entered Tevye’s tent like soldiers reporting before their commanding officer. After they had finished their speeches, Tevye looked incredulously from one to the other. Is this why Hevedke had followed after his daughter all over the world? To leave her for a bunch of yeshiva boys and books? Was this why Hava had torn out her father’s heart in seeking his acceptance of a stranger – to live like a widow in a cholera ward, surrounded with sickness and death? Tevye smashed his fist on the barrel which served as a table.

“No!” he roared. “I won’t allow it! This isn’t love – it’s madness! To hell with Zionism and your crazy meshuganah dreams. A husband is commanded to live with his wife!”

“What about Rabbi Akiva?” answered Hava. “Didn’t he leave his wife, Rachel, to study Torah for twelve years without ever once coming home for a visit?”

“And when he finally went home and reached the window of his house,” Hevedke added, “he overheard her say to a friend that she would be happy if he were to keep studying, so he went straight back to the yeshiva for another twelve years without even saying hello.”

“Don’t quote me Rabbi Akiva!” Tevye shouted. “What do you have in common with a scholar like Rabbi Akiva?”

Tevye raised a hand as if to give the new convert a blow on the head, but Hava reached up and grabbed her father’s arm before it could fall.

Embarrassed at Tevye’s behavior, the saintly Issac lowered his glance.

Abba, be fair,” Hava pleaded. “Once upon a time you were angry at Issac for not being Jewish. Now you are angry at him for being too much of a Jew. Isn’t studying Torah the greatest mitzvah of all?”

Tevye grumbled. He dropped his raised hand to his side. He looked at the red-bearded scholar who stood humbly before him. Was this really the braggart Hevedke, or was the scoundrel acting out a role in some Chekov play? Tevye didn’t know what to think. Yes, studying the Torah was the greatest mitzvah there was. But building the land was also a supremely holy deed. Why should this one sit and learn all day long, when others slaved like mules, breaking their backs from morning until night in the fields? On the other hand, Tevye reasoned, if nobody learned, how would the scholarly traditions be guarded? Who would teach the future generations? Who would make sure that the menorah of Torah kept burning?

But just as important to Tevye, the father, was the ultimate question – if this Chaim Yankel of a son-in-law were to study full time in Jaffa, who would look after Tevye’s daughter?

“A husband belongs with his wife!” Tevye decreed.

There was silence in the tent. The newlyweds exchanged worried glances.

“I am proud of Issac’s decision,” Hava insisted. “I want him to study. And I can look after myself. If I were with him in Jaffa, I would only take his mind away from his learning.”

“I know I am an old man who is losing his senses,” Tevye said, “but tell me one thing. Why did you bother to marry?!”

“Because we love each other,” Issac answered. “As King Solomon said, ‘The greatest floodwaters cannot quench love.’

“Now he’s quoting King Solomon!” Tevye responded.

“The arrangement won’t be forever,” Issac assured. “And I will come to visit as often as I can.”

“We only came to inform you, not to ask your permission,” Hava said with a peppery tone to her voice. Tevye was speechless. Not to ask his permission? He stared at his strong-willed daughter. That was the Havila he remembered. She hadn’t listened to him in the past, why should she now? The two young people loved each other, that was certain. What could he do? At least Hevedke was taking off to study in a yeshiva, and not, God forbid, to become a priest in some church. A Jewish father could be thankful for that.

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." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press


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