Tevye and the former Morasha settlers became the new pioneers of Olat HaShachar. It soon became clear that the only thing poetic about the new colony was its melodious name. The swamps smelled like rotten eggs and sulphur. Scorpions, spiders, and snakes crawled over its sands. Mosquitoes swarmed in the air like demons. “Isn’t it a blessing?” Shimon asked, waving his hand out over the vista below.
Miles of sand dunes and swamp land stretched out before them as Tevye, Nachman, and the overweight leader of the “Lovers of Zion” brigade stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the coastline terrain. A village of tents had been erected between the dunes to house the new pioneers.
“This is a blessing?” Tevye asked.
“Of course, it’s a blessing,” Shimon enthusiastically responded, as if his eyes saw orchards and groves filled with fruit. “Our own plot of land in Eretz Yisrael! What could be a greater blessing than this?”
“You call this land?” Tevye asked. “This is nothing but desert and swamp.”
“I am surprised at you, Tevye. You look far wiser than your words. I see in your eyes that you have the heart of a believer. Is it too much for God to turn what you see into gardens and vineyards? To quote from the Scriptures: ‘Is the Lord’s hand too short?’”
“The Lord can do whatever He pleases. The question is, can we?”
“If we can’t, then nobody can. This is the land that God gave us. Surely, if we set to the task with trust in our Maker, our Rock shall not fail us.”
“With God’s help, we can turn these swamps into cities,” Tevye’s son-in-law said.
“I think both of you are dreamers!” Tevye answered. “A Jew is called upon to have faith, but suicide is forbidden.”
Tevye’s skepticism seemed to puncture their bubble. Even the energetic Shimon was momentarily quiet.
“How many of your men have already been lost?” Tevye asked.
“Three,” Shimon admitted. “But their lives won’t be in vain. We’ll dry up this swamp, you’ll see. We have waited two thousand years to return to our heritage, and we are not going to let some bothersome mosquitoes stop us.”
Tevye gazed at the young settlement leader. In a way, he reminded Tevye of Ben Zion. He spoke with the same fervor and had the same happy gleam in his eyes. The only difference was that Shimon had a beard, and while Ben Zion had relied upon his own strength and cleverness, Shimon relied upon God’s. His faith was as big as his bulk. What Goliath had been blessed with in height, Shimon had been blessed with in width. But it was the muscle of a bull, not fat, proving he was no stranger to work.
“You actually expect us to go into that quicksand to dry it up?” Tevye asked.
“How else?” Shimon responded.
“It’s like sacrificing humans to Molech,” Tevye observed.
“It’s a job that has to be done,” Shimon answered.
“Rishon Le Zion was once all swamp land too,” Nachman noted. “With hard work and God’s help, we will succeed in transforming this wasteland into a paradise for all Jews.”
“Both of you are crazy,” Tevye said.
Not only Shimon and Nachman were crazy. It turned out that all of the “Lovers of Zion” had their heads in the clouds. Not that they were mystics in the traditional sense of the word. Tevye didn’t see any of them walking around with the holy Zohar, but they all had a towering, supernatural faith in their mission.
Nachman tried to explain their great passion. Unlike popular legend, he said, the Zionist movement had not started with Theodor Herzl, but with the great rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna, more than a hundred years earlier. Possessed with a prophetic spirit, the renowned scholar had urged his students to make the long, dangerous journey to Eretz Yisrael With tears in his eyes, he warned that only in Zion would the Jews find a refuge from the horrible persecution which was destined to befall thcm in Russia and Europe. Faithful to their teacher’s command, his students had been the first Jewish pioneers to have reached the shores of Palestine during the first wave of immigration, or aliyah. Other great rabbis took up the call of the Gaon in rallying the Jews to wake up from their Diaspora slumber. The time had come to fulfill the words of their prayers and the longings of generations to return to the land of Zion and Jerusalem. Rabbis Guttmacher and Kalisher founded the “Lovers of Zion.” In fact, Nachman insisted, it was another great spiritual leader, Rabbi Shmuel Mohaliver, who inspired Baron Edmond Rothschild to support the Zionist cause. Naturally, as the movement spread, Jews from all walks of life became enthused with the dream of building a homeland in Zion, free from the oppression that had hounded them for nearly two-thousand years of wandering in foreign lands. For some, like Herzl, the new Jewish State would solve the “Jewish problem” by providing a political refuge for the Jews. For others, like Perchik and other disillusioned Marxists, it was a chance to build a new social utopia. And for the followers of the Vilna Gaon and the “Lovers of Zion,” the Jewish national revival in Eretz Yisrael was all of those goals, but also something much greater. The re-establishment of the Jewish nation in Israel was to be the harbinger for the Kingdom of God in the world, ushering in a time of universal blessing and peace.
“Meshuggeners” Tevye called the crazy bunch.
He believed in God as strongly as anyone. But to walk knee deep into a malaria-infested swamp, that was sheer madness. He had come to the Land of Israel to be reunited with his daughter, not to build Heavenly Kingdoms. Certainly, at the Anatevka crossroads, the dream of stepping foot in Jerusalem had given him an extra push. But to grab hold of a bucket and stick his hands into a hellish Gehenna of mosquitoes, that was out of the question.
“Didn’t Abraham survive a fiery furnace?” Shimon asked.
“I am not Abraham,” Tevye answered.
“Didn’t Joseph survive a pit filled with spiders and scorpions?”
“I am not Joseph.”
“Didn’t Daniel survive being thrown into a den of lions?”
“I am not Daniel either. I am Tevye, the milkman. And I want to stay Tevye, the milkman.”
“God has decreed otherwise,” Shimon said, as if he had some inside information that Tevye lacked. “Tevye, the milkman, is no longer to be Tevye, the milkman. He is to be Tevye, the pioneer. Tevye, the builder. Tevye, the drainer of swamps. One day, legends will be written about you.”
“You’ve got the wrong man, I’m afraid.”
“You will go down in history,” Shimon declared.
“I don’t want to go down in history. On the contrary. For the moment, I would like to stay on my feet as long as I can so I can watch my new child be born, grow up, and get married.”
“If our forefather Abraham had thought only of himself and his family when God commanded him to sacrifice Issac, where would the Jews be today?”
“Here we go again with Abraham,” Tevye groaned.
“My respected elder and friend,” Shimon said with a patient smile. “You should know – men don’t make history; history makes men. Each one of us has to be like a thousand. We have been chosen to resurrect our nation from the graveyards of Russia and Europe, and with God’s help, we shall succeed.”
Rabbi Kook’s words again, Tevye thought with dismay. He felt like the girl in the story which Perchik had told to his daughters – “Alice in Wonderland” – surrounded by a bunch of Mad Hatters. By chance, he had followed the path of the Zionists at the Anatevka crossroad, and, suddenly had fallen into a drama of unfolding Biblical history!
As if he were dreaming, Tevye found himself standing in a line with the other Morasha settlers. Shimon passed a hat filled with pieces of paper from one pioneer to the next. On each piece of paper a number was written. Each settler drew a number out of the hat to determine the order that he or she would work in the swamps. Teams of three worked together. Taking a deep breath, Tevye pulled out a slip of paper. Like a revolver about to explode, the hat passed from hand to hand. When the lots had been drawn, Tevye unfolded his slip. He had drawn number five. Yankele was number one. Ari was number two. Bat Sheva had drawn number three. They would be the first new team into the swamp. Their job was to fill up buckets of murky water and pass them to Guttmacher, who would be stationed up on the bank. He, in turn, would pass the buckets to Tevye, and he on to number six, Reb Shilo’s oldest daughter, and on down the line until the deadly swamp water was dumped into a pit in the sand. There, in the hot sun, the water would evaporate, and the larvae of the mosquitoes would be buried in the earth. Other settlers were put to work as diggers, working on the canal-like ditch which was to drain the swamp water into the sea, nearly a kilometer away.
“Give me your number, and you take mine,” Tevye told his youngest daughter when the nerve-wracking drawing was finished.
“I can’t,” she said. “You heard the rules. We are not allowed to switch places with anyone else.”
Tevye was taken aback. When had his little one become such a saint? The answer was clear. From the time she had married Ariel. The Yemenite youth was as righteous and brave as they came, always volunteering to do whatever had to be done, without any thought or concern for himself. Since her wedding, Tevye’s wild, unpredictable daughter had become a model, obedient wife. As if overnight, Ariel’s idealism and faith had become a part of her being. Just as her husband would walk unflinchingly into the swamp, she would unflinchingly follow.
“Maybe it isn’t too late to return to Morasha,” Guttmacher told Tevye on their first day of the job.
The undertaker stood on the bank of the swamp and reached out to grab a bucket splashing with rancid black water from Bat Sheva’s hands. Like all of the other workers in the swamp, she wore high rubber boots and long sleeves. But before long, she was drenched head to toe with the foul-smelling water.
“For what?” Tevye asked, reaching out to take the bucket from the undertaker.
“Haven’t you had enough of the plague?”
The swamp water splashed over Tevye’s hands as he passed the bucket on down the line.
“Is this any better, I ask you?”
“God will protect us,” Guttmacher said.
“One place is filled with the plague. The next place is a haven for malaria. What is person to do?”
“Pray,” Guttmacher told him.
Tevye reached out for the next bucket and passed it along to Reb Shilo’s oldest daughter. A mosquito landed on his forehead and took a hungry bite. With a slap, Tevye killed it and stared at the splatch of blood on his hand.
“Dear God,” Tevye said aloud, gazing up at the sky. “First, You almost killed us in a snowstorm. Then Cossacks nearly cut us in half with their swords. Then, You almost drowned us in the ocean, and when that didn’t work, You almost killed us with thirst. You took Tzeitl in Your mercy. When Arab marauders didn’t murder us all, You nearly finished us off with a plague. I ask You, haven’t we suffered enough? Must we also be eaten alive by mosquitoes?”
Guttmacher slapped at his neck. “Devils,” he said. “That’s what they are. Little devils.”
“You know,” Tevye said, taking another bucket from his friend, “when we left Anatevka, our Rabbi said that we shouldn’t go with the Zionists to Palestine. Maybe he was right.”
“Maybe he was wrong,” his friend countered. “For example, our Rabbi told us to go.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day all of the rabbis got together and decided the very same thing?”
“If that ever happened, the Mashiach would come for sure.”
In the middle of the swamp, waist deep in the water, Yankele was furiously swatting a cloud of mosquitoes. Apparently, in the middle of filling up buckets, he had stepped on a nest. With a scream, he made his way through the muck and climbed out of the swamp. Frantic to escape the angry mosquitoes, he threw himself on the ground and rolled over and over in the sand. When he stood up, he looked like a ghost. His body was trembling.
“I can’t take it,’’ he said.
“Take a rest,” Guttmacher advised.
“I can’t go back there,” the distraught butcher exclaimed.
“Sure you can. Because if you don’t, I’ll have to.”
Guttmacher stepped back into place and swung another bucket toward Tevye. In the swamp, Bat Sheva and Ariel kept working. They looked at each other and smiled. The buzzing mosquitoes didn’t seem to disturb them, as if they were in a cloud by themselves. Tevye was amazed at his daughter. All of her life, the girl had never been much of a worker. And if a spirit of self-sacrifice had been Golda’s emblem, their youngest child had grown up with an opposite nature. But suddenly, the girl had become an industrious pioneer, scooping up bucket after bucket without a word of complaint.
“I quit,” Yankele proclaimed, brushing the sand from his clothes. “I can’t take this anymore. You people can he heroes if you want to. I’m going to America.’’
“What do you think you are going to find in America?” Tevye asked.
“Swimming pools, for one thing, not swamps. I read your daughter’s letter. She didn’t say one word about mosquitoes, nor about Arabs, nor about plagues.”
“My daughter, God bless her, doesn’t always see things for what they really are. For instance, I would rather stay here with the snakes and mosquitoes and work in this swamp than live with her miserable husband who treats me with scorn because I work in a barn.”
“B’vakasha,” Yankele said. “By all means. You can have my place in line. Be my guest.”
Yanking off his boots, the butcher threw them to the ground and strode away from the swamp.
“Hey, where are you going?!” the undertaker called out. The butcher didn’t turn back. Tevye set down the bucket he held in his hands. Everyone watched as Yankele strode off. For a few moments, they all asked themselves the same question – why not walk off with him? In truth, that was the sensible thing to do. If life was only lived for the moment, for the happiness and fruits of today, then Yankele, the butcher, was right. But if life was something greater, something with a future, and a past, than there was a reason to stay and continue to work – so that the swamp today would turn into a field tomorrow. Fields of apples, and oranges, and corn for their children. So that the struggles and sacrifices of their parents and grandparents, and their great grandparents before them, wouldn’t have been in vain.
“Yalla,” Ariel called, using a popular local expression. “There’s work to be done!”
“Ariel’s right,” Tevye assented. “We have a country to build.”
He gazed at Reb Guttmacher, his friend. With Yankele’s desertion, the undertaker became number three. It was his turn to descend into the swamp. Already, he had lost his wife and a daughter. His eyes filled with hesitation.
“What’s wrong with building America?” he asked.
Tevye didn’t have an easy answer for the man who had already given so much.
“Let the Americans build America,” Ariel told him.
He scooped up a bucket of swamp water and handed it to Bat Sheva. Bat Sheva turned toward the bank and held out the bucket, but there was no one to take it. Tevye and Guttmachcr stared at one another, waiting for the other to make a move first. When Tevye took a step forward, Guttmacher held out his hand.
‘‘It’s my turn,’’ he said.
Solemnly, he bent down to the ground and picked up the high rubber boots which Yankele had thrown away in the sand.
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.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.