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.