“I think it’s coming,” Carmel said. Tevye opened his eyes. As far as he could tell, it was the middle of the night.
“What’s coming?” he sleepily asked.
“Go back to sleep,” he said, rolling over onto his side. Tevye was no great scholar, but he was knowledgeable about two things in life — cows and babies. After all, he had fathered seven daughters. And with Golda, it was always the same hysterical false alarms until the real moment arrived. Tevye knew from experience that the birth of the baby could he hours away. Even days.
“Tevye. . .Tevye,” Carmel called in the dark.
Tevye grumbled. The next moment he was snoring.
“Tevye,” Carmel called urgently, poking her husband in the back. “Are you ready to be the midwife?”
Tevye stirred and sat up in bed.
“Midwife? What midwife?”
“I need a midwife, Tevye. I’m having the baby.”
“You’re having the baby?” Tevye asked, still groggy from sleep. He reached over to the table, found the matches, and lit a candle. On the other side of the tent, Guttmacher’s two children were sleeping. Carmel’s eyes were wide with a mixture of fear and wonder. Her forehead was sweating.
“You have contractions?” he asked.
She shook her head yes.
“For how long?”
“For hours,” she said, biting her lip as another painful contraction seized a hold of her hips.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he asked.
“I tried to. Three times.”
Tevye attempted to think clearly. If that were the case, his wife was liable to give birth to the baby right then and there in his lap. Wasn’t it written that the Hebrew women in Egypt gave birth in a lively fashion before the midwives would arrive? Maybe his Yemenite wife was like them. He stood up and thought about what he should do. In Anatevka, he would go and get Shendel, the midwife. But who knew where Shendel was now?
“Whom should I call?” he asked his wife as he hurriedly pulled on his trousers.
“My mother,” she answered.
“Your mother is a midwife?”
“All Yemenite women are midwives.”
“All of them?”
“Well, maybe not all of them, but most of them. Will you please hurry and call her before the baby comes out!”
“My shoes,” he said. “Where are my shoes?”
“Outside the tent,” his wife answered. Her back arched in pain and she let out a long anguished sigh. She clutched the bed with both hands and whimpered. Sweat shone on her forehead.
“Hurry!” she whispered. “But first check your shoes for scorpions.”
“What a saint,” Tevye thought. His wife worried about him, even when she was in the middle of labor. Quickly, Tevye hurried out of the tent. He didn’t bother to put on his shoes. He ran straight to the tent of Elisha.
To make a long story short, as the great writer, Sholom Aleicheim, would say, Carmel gave birth to a boy! When the moaning and groaning were over, Tevye had been blessed with a son! After seven daughters, a male child was born to Tevye, the son of Schneur Zalman! In the middle of the night, the whole settlement turned out to wish the proud father mazal tovs and L’chaims! While Carmel embraced her precious baby in the tent, Tevye danced outside. Everyone shared his great joy. Hillel was so happy, he played his accordion, stamped his feet, and blew into his harmonica, all at the very same time. Liquor and refreshments arrived as if by magic. Everyone joined in the party.
In the middle of the dancing, Tevye felt he had to make sure that this happiness wasn’t a dream. He simply couldn’t believe his good fortune. After so much hardship and sorrow, how could there be such great joy? He hurried to his tent and demanded to see the baby. The crowd of women made way. Pushing the cloth diaper aside, the father took a glimpse to be certain. There was no doubt about it. The good Lord had blessed Tevye with a boy! Holding his newborn son triumphantly up in one hand like a freshly baked loaf of challah, Tevye carried the bundle toward the door of the tent.
“Where are you going?!” Carmel asked.
“To show off our baby,” Tevye answered.
“Is he crazy?” one of the women asked.
“Father,” Ruchel protested. “You can’t!”
But nothing was going to stop Tevye. He had waited for this moment for a lifetime – almost as long as Abraham had waited for his cherished son, Issac. When the crowd saw Tevye holding the child aloft in the air, a new wave of simcha filled everyone’s heart. The settlers formed a circle around Tevye and everyone danced. At the door of their tent, Carmel’s eyes filled with tears. She thanked God in her heart for being the one to have brought Tevye such gladness.
Eight days later, everyone in the settlement once again gathered for the brit. Tevye ran around nervously, like a chicken without a head, making sure that everything was ready for the circumcision. With trembling hands, he put on his prayer shawl and tefillin. Then, like a protective mother hen, he watched every move which Yisroel, the ritual slaughterer, made as he removed the baby’s diaper.
“Don’t worry, Tevye. It isn’t my first circumcision,” the combination shochet, butcher, and mohel assured him.
“Just remember, it isn’t a flank of mutton.”
“Maybe you would prefer to do it yourself,” Yisroel suggested as Tevye continued to breathe down his neck.
The nervous father backed off. The way his hands were trembling, the last thing in the world he wanted to hold was the glistening knife.
Upon Yisroel’s instructions, Tevye set his son gently on the lap of the sandak, Elisha, who was also draped in a prayer shawl, in accord with the great honor of his role. Tevye’s voice cracked as he recited the emotional blessings, thanking God for bringing his son into the covenant of Abraham, and for having allowed Tevye to experience this long-dreamed-for day. Nachman recited the blessing over the wine and formally announced the child’s name – Tzvi Schneur Zalman ben Tevye. The mother and father had decided to name the boy Tzvi after the Land of Israel which was called Eretz HaTzvi, the land of the deer. And they gave him the name Schneur Zalman after Tevye’s father, may his memory be for a blessing. Everyone present shared the same uplifting feeling that, with all the hardships, the Jewish People live on!
Upon the birth of his son, the anger that Tevye had felt after Bat Sheva’s death transformed into a feeling of joy. If his frenzied labor had been fueled by an unresolved fury, Tevye was now propelled forward by a feeling of gratitude and great blessing. If he had worked with the strength of one thousand men after the death of Bat Sheva, now he worked with the strength of two thousand, one thousand to carry on the dreams of the past, and one thousand to build the world of the future. His baby boy had entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish People, making him an inheritor of the Land of Israel, and Tevye wanted to turn the desolate land into a Garden of Eden so that his son would grow up to harvest the fruit from the seeds which his father had planted.
When the marshes were dry, the Baron Rothschild was persuaded to advance the budding yishuv a large sum of money. Tools were purchased, fields were plowed, wheat and fruit trees were planted. Lumber arrived from Jaffa in wagons and boats. Houses, barns, worksheds, and fences were built. As if overnight, a synagogue appeared on a hill. Tevye lent a hand in all of the labor, whether it was clearing rocks from a road, leveling a sand dune, or pitching hay into a loft. Work was the key to the future. Work was the path of success. Work was the way a man could serve God, Rebbono Shel Olam, in the great endeavor of rebuilding the land.
Tevye no longer complained. He no longer felt bitter. His trust in God was complete. The Lord had taken loved ones away, and the Lord had given new ones to nurture and love. The dark cloud that was hanging over his life had been blown out to sea. The future was filled with sunshine and light. It was a time of happiness, a time of hope, a time to plant, a time to build, a time to take long walks with his wife, cradling his baby boy in his arms. Miraculously, he no longer felt like an old, broken-down man. He felt young!
It was a time when everything seemed to prosper around him. Little Moishe and Hannei grew bigger each day. Nachman taught in the Talmud Torah. Passing by the synagogue, one could hear the singsong verses of Bible being recited by the high-pitched voices of the children. Ruchel opened a kindergarten, though she didn’t know how long she could run it alone. She was pregnant, thank God, and as the months passed, and her belly grew bigger, she found herself exhausted by mid-morning.
The arrival of Hodel solved the problem. One day, she showed up in Olat HaShachar with her child. With her head bowed in shame, she told her father that she was divorced. Upon her return to Shoshana, she had found her husband, Perchik, living with the girl called Libby. He had taken the strumpet into their house, at first as a house maid, he said. But they had been living together ever since Hodel had left, in defiance of everything holy.
“I’ll kill him,’’ Tevye exclaimed.
“It’s all right,” Hodel answered. ‘‘I’ve left him. We arranged
for a divorce with the rabbinical court in Tiberias.”
“You have a get?” her father asked.
Hodel showed her father the official writ of divorce.
“What a shandah! What a scandal!” Tevye thought. Who ever heard of a Jewish husband and wife getting a divorce? In all of Anatevka, he couldn’t think of one case. With such a black stain, who would ever agree to marry his daughter? Then again, Tevye thought, it was better than going hack to her swine of a husband.
Tearfully, Hodel explained how she had lived months and months in Tiberias until a proper divorce was granted. Perchik had wished her good riddance and told her that he never wanted to see either her or their child again. Angrily, Hodel had vowed that he wouldn’t.
“You have done the right thing,” Tevye said. “Here, you can be sure that your child will be raised like a Jew.”
“Oh, Abba, it was so awful,” she cried, weeping in his arms like a baby.
Tevye hugged her. When she stopped sobbing, he wiped her tears away.
“Why didn’t you send word to me sooner?” he asked.
“I’ve been so ashamed.”
“It isn’t the end of the world.”
“I loved Perchik so much. My heart was so broken. I suppose it still is. He was everything to me.”
“You made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I felt so betrayed.”
Tevye nodded his head. He didn’t want to say, “I told you.” How could he? He himself was to blame. Hadn’t he invited the free-thinking Perchik into his house to teach his daughters about the wonders of the world? Well, now, thanks to her father, she knew.
In the meantime, to cover up the scandal, Tevye told his friends that his daughter, Hodel had come for a visit. She started to help Ruchel in her kindergarten, and the sisters got along fine. But the unpleasant matter left Tevye pensive. Not only about Hodel’s uncertain future, but about his other daughter, Hava. Could it be that her husband, the convert, was deceiving her also? What was he doing alone in Jaffa, separated weeks on end from his wife?
The suspicion harped at Tevye for days, like a mosquito that won’t go away. Finally, he decided to find out the truth for himself. Taking the day off from work, he awoke before dawn, mounted a horse, and rode off toward Jaffa. He reached the city by mid-afternoon. Stopping by the Yemenite market which bordered the Jewish neighborhood, Tevye bought himself a long flowing caftan and turban. He had decided that for his intrigue to work, he would have to wear a disguise. That way he could spy on Hevedke without being recognized. He slipped the white robe over his clothes and let the salesman adjust the turban in the proper fashion on his head. The salesman held up a mirror, and his customer nodded in approval. Straightening his shoulders and holding his head high, Tevye rather fancied the regal image he made. He looked like an Arab sheik with a bushy Jewish beard, or he could have passed for a holy Jew from Morocco. The salesman praised Tevye’s new wardrobe and offered to sell him a sword and string of gleaming trinkets, but Tevye refused. He paid the persistent merchant and led his horse through the market, feeling like a newly crowned prince. He walked leisurely, as if he had all the time in the world. Nobly, he bowed his head to passersby, and enjoyed the deep bows he received in return, as if he were really a man of importance. Remembering the location of the yeshiva, he walked up to the side window and glanced in. Immediately, Hevedke’s, or Issac’s, blond hair and red-pepper beard caught his attention. He was engaged in a fervent discussion, arguing a point of Talmudic law with a study partner, just as he had been when Tevye had visited the yeshiva over a year before.
For more than an hour, Tevye stood outside the yeshiva watching the learning. When the time came for the afternoon prayer, he faced in the direction of Jerusalem like the students inside the building and started to pray in the alleyway. Spotting a Jew swaying back and forth in prayer outside of the building, Hevedke rushed outside to invite him into the study hall.
“You’re a Jew?” Hevedke asked.
Keeping his head down, Tevye silently nodded.
“Come inside and join us.”
Tevye shook his head no.
“Come in. Please. By all means,” the gracious student insisted.
Again Tevye shook his head no. He glanced up to Heaven and moved his lips in silent prayer, as if to remind the yeshiva student that it was forbidden to speak in the middle of the silent Amidah prayer. Even if a snake were to coil around a Jew’s feet, it was forbidden to interrupt the holy supplication.
Unless the snake was poisonous, of course. Hevedke, or rather Issac, had learned the law. Nodding his head, he put his feel together and began to pray beside Tevye. When they had finished, and the shaliach tzibor inside the yeshiva began to repeat the prayer aloud for the congregation, the kindhearted student once again invited Tevye to Join them inside.
Waving a hand, Tevye shook his head no. He didn’t want to speak and betray his thick Russian accent. A piece of his turban unraveled, and he nervously stuck it back into place.
“I can take you to a Sephardi synagogue if you prefer,” Hevedke offered, thinking that was the reason why the oriental Jew didn’t want to enter the Ashkenazic yeshiva.
Lowering his head, Tevye waved no again. As he was mounting his horse, a hand grabbed his garment.
“Can’t you speak?” Hevedke inquired.
Tevye shook his head no. He made a slicing motion with his thumb just under his beard.
“Oh, no. You’re throat has been cut?” his son-in-law asked in alarm.
Tevye answered with a nod.
“By the Arabs?”
Tevye shook his head no.
“By the Turks?”
“Devils. May they be chased from our Land. Wait here,” the saintly youth said. “I’ll bring you a glass of water.”
When Hevedke ran off, Tevye mounted his horse. But just then, as he was planning to bolt, a Bedouin shepherd led a flock of bleating sheep into the alleyway. Tevye tugged on the reins of his horse to turn it around, but the sheep swarmed all around them, pinning the horse where it stood. Nervously, the creature reared up on its hind legs with a neigh. Taken by surprise, Tevye tumbled backwards out of the saddle. Sheep bleated and scattered as the horse’s rider crashed down on their backs. Luckily for Tevye, his fall was absorbed by the animals. But before the alley had cleared, a stampede of hooves battered his bones. Their scratches drew blood from his face. As Hevedke ran back to the alley, Tevye quickly adjusted his fallen and disheveled turban.
“Are you all right?” his son-in-law asked.
Holding the cloth head-covering in place, Tevye nodded.
“You’re bleeding. Let me help you. You can come to my place and rest. I have a room down the street.”
Hevedke put his arm under Tevye’s and helped him up to his feet. A sharp pain in the back made Tevye groan. He could hardly stand straight. His old milkman’s spine had been knocked out of place.
“Can you walk?” Hevedke asked.
Tevye took a careful step forward and froze. The nerves in his back screamed out in protest. His boot remained implanted in the sheep dung in the alley.
“Don’t worry,” his son-in-law said. “I’ll carry you. It isn’t far to my room.”
“Put me down,” Tevye wanted to yell, but he couldn’t without revealing his sham. Hevedke bent down and, with a grunt, lifted his crippled father-in-law on his back. Calling inside the yeshiva, he yelled for someone to tie up the horse in the alley.
What could Tevye do? He was paralyzed. He had to continue the luckless charade. The minute Hevedke left him alone, he would flee from the city.
“This is what I get for having suspected a fellow Jew of committing adultery,” he thought. Didn’t the Torah command a Jew to judge others in a favorable light? More than that. A Jew was to be especially kind to a convert. As it says, “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And this was no ordinary convert. Hevedke was truly a tzaddik, as moral and straight as a plowshare’s furrow. Tevye was no skinny chicken, yet Hevcdke carried him on his back all of the way down the street and up a flight of stairs to his room in an old boarding house.
“You can rest here,” Hevedke said. “My wife will take care of you. She’s a nurse.”
He pushed open a door with a shove. Across the small room, Hava sat at a table folding clothes. She stood up as her husband barged in, carrying the stranger on his back. With a grunt, Hevedke dropped Tevye onto the bed. He rolled onto his side so that his daughter couldn’t get a look at his face.
“He fell off a horse,” Hevedke said. “I’ll run and fetch a doctor.”
“Who is he?” Hava asked.
“I don’t know. A traveler from out of town. He can’t speak. The Turks slit his throat.”
“How awful,” Hava said.
Tevye heard the door close and the sound of Hevedke’s footsteps hurrying away down the stairs. Reaching around to his back, he grabbed onto his traitorous disc and gave it a shove back into place. Almost immediately, his pain went away.
‘I’ll bring you some water,” Hava said.
“Don’t bother,” he answered.
Hava was already pouring water from a pitcher when he spoke. The voice was strangely familiar. Surprised, she looked up at the turbaned stranger as he sat up on the bed. Their eyes briefly met.
“Abba!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Tevye held up a finger to his mouth. “Not so loud,” he said.
“Why are you dressed like an Arab?” his daughter asked in confusion.
“I bought a costume for Purim.”
“Purim is two months away.”
“How often do I get into the city?”
“Why did you tell Issac that a Turk slit your throat?” she asked.
“I never told him anything of the kind. He jumped to conclusions.”
“But why all the secrecy?” she asked.
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well you certainly have. But why did you make Issac rush off for a doctor?”
“Well, I did fall off my horse. That much is true. But I am feeling much better. Anyway, I can’t explain matters now. I have to get going. There is a lot of work waiting for me back at the colony.”
“You just got here!” Hava protested.
“Yes, but now that I see that everything is all right with you two, I have to set back on my journey. By the way, what are you doing here?”
“I took a three-day vacation from the hospital.”
“I’m glad,” Tevye said.
He stepped forward and kissed his daughter on the cheek.
“Be sure to come visit us soon,” he added as he hurrily walked to the door.
“Abba, wait!” she called, running after him. “This doesn’t make sense. Where are you going? What should I tell Issac?”
Tevye stopped on the stairs. ‘‘Don’t say it was me. Tell him I got up and left. Let him think he did a good deed for a stranger.”
“Abba, I don’t understand,” Hava called.
But Tevye didn’t answer. He rushed down the stairs. He didn’t want to be around when Hevedke returned. His mission was accomplished. His heart was at rest. His daughter had truly found herself a genuine Rabbi Akiva.
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.
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