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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Thirty-Two: A Letter From America

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

          One late afternoon when Tevye returned to his tent after a back-breaking day in the winery, a letter was waiting from Baylke. Sure enough, she had been in touch with Golda’s distant cousin in Chicago, and he had forwarded Tevye’s letter to her in New York. She had been thrilled to hear from her family, and hoped that more letters were in the mail. She wrote that the news of their safe arrival in Palestine had quieted a nagging fear in her heart that perhaps, like so many others, they had been caught in the bloody persecutions in Russia. She was happy for them, but when she read about her big sister’s death, she had fallen into a week-long depression. The blades of grass from the Land of Israel which her father had stuffed into the envelope had brought tears to her eyes. She reported that neighbors came by their flat throughout the day to see the holy blades and to hold them in their hands. Though the letter had taken months to arrive, Baylke said that the grass had remained a deep shade of green.           “A miracle!” a friend of hers had exclaimed in the sweater factory where she worked.

Baylke wrote that they were doing wonderfully. At first, they had shared a flat with another family, but now they had their own large apartment. Her husband, Pedhotzer, had found work in a bank, and it hadn’t taken long before the management had recognized his outstanding business savvy and talents. He was now a manager in the loan department, and as soon as he mastered English, Baylke was sure that he would be promoted to an even higher position. Of course, his goal was to start a business of his own, and his work at the bank was only temporary in order to learn the ins-and-outs of American enterprise.

America, she confirmed, was truly a land of gold and fortune. Though dollars didn’t grow on trees, with hard work a man could become a millionaire. They had met people who had arrived in New York with nothing, and who now owned Manhattan hotels, theaters, dress factories, and jewelry stores on Fifth Avenue. It wouldn’t be long, she wrote, until they had a luxurious apartment of their own, but in the meantime, they had an extra room in their Essex Street flat, and she wanted her family to come.

The city of New York, Baylke wrote, was like a dream. Its buildings reached up to heaven. Kings and queens walked the streets. Cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs never closed. Stores were filled with treasures from all over the world. Everyone could own his own automobile. And a Jew didn’t have to live in a ghetto. He could be an American, like everyone else.

“That’s the end of the Jews in America,” Tevye said wryly.

“It sounds wonderful to me,” Bat Sheva argued. “Why does a Jew always have to be different? If we were like everyone else, the gentiles would stop hating us.”

“The gentiles will stop hating us when men will walk on the moon,” her father responded.

“That’s ridiculous,” Bat Sheva answered. “Men will never walk on the moon.”

“Neither will the goyim stop hating us.”

“Then again,” Tevye thought out loud, the very next day, as he was shlepping barrels of wine on his back like a donkey, “where is it written that Tevye has to be a poor shlemiel all of his life. If I had a million dollars like all of the Jews in New York, I could study, give charity, and do a long list of good deeds. I could become a great man like the Baron himself! After all, if the Almighty wanted a man to work like a mule all his life, He would have graced him with another two legs.”

Tevye carried the barrel on his shoulder from the warehouse to a wagon outside. With a groan, he let the great weight slide off his neck and roll onto the planks of the wagon. Walking back to the warehouse, he could barely stand straight. Why bother? He would only have to stoop over again to lift another barrel onto his back. But if he were in New York, there he could be a wealthy importer of wines, or the owner of a fancy restaurant, or the manager of one of his son-in-law’s hotels. True, Pedhotzer was a swine of a person, but for the sake of the family, Tevye could pretend to get along. He would move in with his daughter until he could get started on his own. With a little luck and hard work, it wouldn’t be long before Tevye could afford a mansion like everyone else.

The sweet reverie was interrupted by a whack on his back as another shlepper of barrels crashed into him.

‘‘Look where you are going!” Tevye called out.

‘‘Who told you to fall asleep on the job?’’ the other worker retorted.

That’s what a man got for day-dreaming. A whack on the back. His mansion would just have to wait. Right now, there was more important work to be done in Palestine. After all, Tevye wasn’t a fool. He could read between the lines of his daughter’s letter. If things were so good in America, why did she have to work in a factory? And even if Padhatzur were to make himself millions and buy a palace for his wife, the last person in the world his highness would want to find on his doorstep was Tevye, with his barnyard stink and dung on his shoes. Baylke’s pompous husband had humiliated Tevye enough for one lifetime, thank you very much. Tevye was staying right where he was in the Holy Land. With all of its trials, at least it was the land of the Jews. America would just have to get along with one less Yid. Tevye was needed far more in the Promised Land.

Tevye trudged on with his barrel. What had Rabbi Kook said? That every man had to do the work of one thousand? Every day, Jewish settlers were abandoning the country in despair, heading back to Russia and Europe, as if they had forgotten why they had left. Chaim Lev, who had lost two of his daughters in the plague, fled from Zichron Yaacov without being able to look Tevye in the eye. What could the goodhearted fellow do? His wife wanted to return to the old country, pogroms and all, to save her remaining children. Nothing which the repairman could say could convince her. And others, like Pincus, the storekeeper, set off for the “Promised Land” of America. If Tevye, and others like him, didn’t stay to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine, where would the Jews of the world find shelter from the never-ending fury of Esau and his bloodthirsty offspring?

It wasn’t long before another letter for Tevye arrived, this time from his daughter, Hodel. Before sneaking off from Zichron Yaacov, she handed the envelope to her sister, Hava, to deliver to their father. Hodel hadn’t had the courage to face him. She wrote that she loved being with the family, but Perchik was still her husband, and the father of her child. If he were too stubborn to come and fetch her, then she would follow after him, just like it said in the Bible, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over you.” Hodel said that she was giving Perchik one last chance. Their child was still a baby, unable to tell the difference between the Sabbath and any other day of the week, so for the while, his education in Torah could wait. The important thing for Hodel was to try and save her marriage. She asked for her father’s forgiveness, and promised to write. So once again, just like she had in the past, Hodel journeyed off after her free-thinking husband.

It was Nachman who told Tevye about a place called “Olat HaShachar.” On a visit to Jaffa, he had heard from a new immigrant that a group of religious Jews from Russia were starting a new yishuv along the coast, a few hours south of Zichron Yaacov. They belonged to the religious Zionist movement, “Lovers of Zion,” which had been founded many years before by the famous Rabbi Shmuel Mohaliver. With the help of the Keren Keyemet organization, these “Chovevei Tzion,” as they called themselves, had purchased a large tract of land for thirty-thousand francs, and they were looking for more Jews to join them. The land, Nachman reported, was an ideal stretch of rich, black soil, just waiting to he cultivated.

The news came as a ray of hope for the disgruntled Morasha settlers. After their refusal to return to the ill-fated colony, their request for a new tract of land was ignored. They were given the most menial jobs at Zichron and made to live in tents. The Company was certain that a cooling-off period would put an end to their rebellion, but the punitive treatment only further embittered the Morasha settlers against the dictatorial landlords. To their way of thinking, the Company’s policies were an obstacle to settling the land, not an aid. The settlers wanted freedom from foreign rulers, but Tevye and his friends found themselves being ruled by tyrannical officials and a portrait on the wall of the Baron who gave orders to the settlers from France. Lacking their own resources and funds, the would-be farmers had no choice. They either signed an oath of allegiance to the Baron or starved. But hearing about the new, religious colony, the Morasha settlers decided that they no longer had to be slaves to the Company. To hell with “The Benefactor” they thought, not realizing that the money which the “Lovers of Zion” were using to buy and develop the new Olat HaShachar location had come in large measure from the ever-gracious donation of the very same Nediv, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

In Hebrew, the expression “Olat HaShachar” meant “dawn.” As they set out on their new adventure, Nachman explained to his fellow pioneers that the Talmud describes the redemption of Israel using the very same term. Salvation, the Rabbis taught, comes in slow, gradual stages, like a dawning new day. After the darkness of exile, slowly, slowly, the light of salvation begins to appear on the nation. At first, small, scattered groups of Jews return to Zion. Fields are plowed. Houses are built. Fruit once again grows on the stark, barren hillsides. Little by little, more Jews arrive and more homes are built, until one day, as if miraculously, a new country is born.

“Spoken like Rabbi Kook,” Tevye approvingly said.

“Yes,” the young scholar admitted with blush. “I have heard Rabbi Kook describe our revival in the Land of Israel in this very light.”

“Nothing good comes easy.” the scribe, Shraga, said.

“Not only that,” Nachman added. “Just as the darkest part of the night comes just before the dawn, so too, we can expect to see more difficult times before experiencing the fruits of our labor.”

“The birthpains of Mashiach,” Guttmacher noted, referring to the long-awaited messiah.

“If you ask me,” Tevye said, “the bad times are over. We suffered enough labor pains in Morasha, may its memory be erased from our minds. Good times lay ahead.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears,” Munsho replied.

“We have had enough darkness,” Tevye declared. “As the Almighty Himself said, ‘Let there be light.’

Hillel popped a cork out of a bottle of wine.

“L’Chaim!” he called.

Everyone responded, “L‘Chaim!”

As it turned out, Nachman’s warning was right. As they reached the new settlement, a rank, musky smell of foul, stagnant water hung heavily in the air. The acres and acres of supposedly rich black soil was nothing but swamp. Sand dunes and swamp. Sand dunes and swamp, as far as the eye could see.

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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