Reaching the city was like entering another world. For one thing, Tevye did not see anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Ever since the time of the Second Temple, for nearly two-thousand years, Jews had lived in the ancient, mountain refuge. The roadway had never been smoothed, as if no one cared about physical comfort. Buildings were interspersed with crumbling ruins. A series of devastating earthquakes had left rubble everywhere. A legend claimed that the disasters had happened because of the awesome power of the Kabbalists’ prayers. The houses still standing were built out of large blocks of stone. The Jews who passed by on the roadside had long, untrimmed beards and burning mystical eyes. They darted swiftly down narrow alleyways, their eyes on the ground, their thoughts up in Heaven. Most of them lived on charity sent by Jews overseas. They spent their days fasting, engrossed in study and fervent prayer. When Tevye asked the way to the famous mikvah, they all pointed in a direction away from the town, down the sloping hillside.
The steepness of the descent was frightening. Tevye’s horse balked. At the outskirts of the old, picturesque village, the road ended and the wagon ride came to a halt. Tevye took the towels which Hava had packed with the food, and an extra blanket to make sure that Moishe didnt catch cold. A narrow dirt path led down to the ancient mountainside cemetery of Safed. Many of the tombstones were cracked. Though the earthquakes had made ruins of the city, the cemetery itself has been spared. A group of Hasidim stood reading Psalms around the gravesite where the Ari was buried. Day and night, supplicants prayed at the grave of the famous Kabbalist. Candles burned on the monument. A short distance away was the grave of Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the codified volumes of Jewish Law. Further down the hill was the tomb of the Prophet Hosea, and the cave where the martyred Hannah was buried with her eight slaughtered sons.
A serene, holy stillness hung over the hillside. Even Bat Sheva, who was normally skeptic, could sense the mystical pull of the site. She walked beside her father, not saying a word. Moishe opened his eyes and stared at the cemetery. Only God knew what the small boy was thinking.
“That must be the mikvah,” Tevye said, pointing to the mouth of a cave, where a Hasid was standing.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Bat Sheva said.
“There’s a woman in the cemetery,” her father said, “Go pray by her side.”
Embarrassed, Bat Sheva hesitated. She stood awed, feeling that all of the holy Rabbis were gazing at her from their graves. She was filled with shame, as if her lapses in keeping the Torah made her unworthy to pray in so sacred a place.
Carrying the boy in his arms, Tevye descended toward the cave. Its entrance was a narrow archway of rock. Inside, candles burning on a ledge lit the darkness. The walls were all solid stone, as if the cave had been carved out of a gigantic boulder. Deeper into the cave, an underground stream flowed into a small natural pool. The shadowy figure of the Hasid appeared behind them. Without questioning Tevye, he wished the boy a speedy recovery and asked if he could help. Tevye let him hold Moishe as he quickly undressed. The cold rocky floor sent chills through his body. In the flicker of the candlelight, the boy’s big eyes stared questioningly up at his grandfather.
“Don’t worry, my tateleh,” ‘Tevye said. “You are going to get better, I promise.”
He stripped the boy bare and scooped him up in his arms. Careful not to slip on the wet, rocky slate, Tevye inched toward the mikvah. He knew the mountain water was bound to be cold, but when his foot descended the first stone step into the pool, he felt as if he had submerged it into an ice-covered pond. Why prolong the agony, he thought? With a gasp, he rushed forward and leaped into the freezing pool. He carried Moishe down with him under the water, then let him go for the briefest of moments so that the boy would be completely immersed in the pool. Then with a shivering roar, he burst out of the water and lunged for the steps. The Hasid reached down and swept the boy into a towel. Tevye’s teeth chattered as he hoisted himself back up to the floor of the cave. They dried and dressed the boy quickly, then bundled him up in the blanket which his grandfather had brought. The Hasid said that Tevye could bring the boy to the yeshiva up the hill, to warm him by the stove. Tevye readily accepted the offer. Quickly, so that Moishe wouldn’t catch a cold, he followed the black-garbed Jew up the steep path. Outside the yeshiva, the Hasid stopped in a narrow alley and knocked on a door. An old, kerchiefed woman appeared. After a moment’s explanation, Bat Sheva was invited inside while her father took Moishe into the wooden building which housed the yeshiva.