“I have an idea,” Tevye said. “Let’s ask the Rabbi.”
That was a suggestion that everyone agreed to. It was always wise to ask the Rabbi. It was even wiser to listen to him, but nowadays, less and less people did. Still, everyone agreed it was proper to ask, so the crowd walked back to the elderly sage, who was sitting in his wagon alongside his married son.
“Rabbi, where should we go?” Yitzik, the tanner, inquired.
The Rabbi squinted his eyes and peered down the road. “Where the Almighty takes us,” he said.
“Yes, of course, but in which direction?”
“In which direction?” the Rabbi asked.
“Yes, there is a crossroad, and we have to decide which direction to take.”
The Rabbi nodded his head. “Go in the direction… which will take us as far away from the Czar as possible, may his name be erased from the earth.”
Just then, a loud burst of singing turned everyone’s head. A group of twelve beardless Jews, knapsacks on their backs, were marching down the road, singing a spirited Zionist song, “Zion, Zion, Zion, won’t you ask how your exiled people are faring?” A few wore small caps on their heads after the manner of students and peasants, but the majority had no head covering at all.
The Jews from Anatevka stared at the Zionist contingent in wonder. They marched down the road like soldiers on parade, their arms swaying in time with their steps. There was a feeling of boldness and zest in their singing, and brazenness in their upright gaits, as if there weren’t a King in the heavens to whom every head had to bend.
“Shalom,” their leader called, holding up his hand.
He was handsome with a rapier-thin moustache that made him look like a swashbuckling pirate. The group came to a halt behind him.
“Greetings, fellow Jews,” he continued in Russian. “Permit me to introduce myself. Though I was born to the family Poprinchkov, my name today is Ben Zion, and my companions and I are off to reclaim our ancient homeland. Where, may we ask, are our comrades heading?”
“Fellow Jews, yes. Comrades, that’s a topic for a debate,” Hershel, the sandal maker, answered.
“Are we not comrades in having been uprooted from our once beloved Russia?”
“That only makes us brothers in our shared misfortune, not in our beliefs,” Elijah called back.
“I see that we have come upon the guardians of tradition. By all means come with us. Join us on our journey. You are welcome to share in the modest provisions we have. Come with us to Zion, the land of our past, and the land of our future – to live as free Jews in our own Jewish land.”
“Jews go to the Land of Israel to die,” the woodcutter said.
“Not anymore,” the spirited youth responded. “Look at us for example. We are going to the Land of Israel to live!”
Tevye noticed that his daughters had joined the crowd, with other curious women. The milkman frowned. Wasn’t curiosity the very trait that had led Jacob’s daughter, Dina, to disaster? As the Torah says, she went out to see the daughters of the land. By the time her father, Jacob, realized she was missing, an uncircumcised heathen had raped her.
“Naftali,” Ben Zion called. “Sing us the song you composed.”
A thin, moustachioed minstrel stepped aside from the group. His first notes wavered, and his voice seemed to crack, but then he found his range and sang out the words from deep within his heart. Everyone stood in silence and listened, spellbound by the gentle, haunting tune. Even the little children stopped playing to hear the beautiful song:
“As long as in the inner heart,
The soul of a Jew beats,
To the ends of the east,
The eye gazes toward Zion.
Our hope has not been abandoned,
The hope of two-thousand years.
To be a free people in our Land,
The Land of Zion
All of Tevye’s daughters had tears in their eyes when he finished the anthem. Even their father, who never cried in public, had to wipe a bit of moistness away. The Jews of Anatevka were speechless. The words and the melody had struck a deep-seated chord in them all. Almost in unison, they turned to the Rabbi. His eyes, weary from a lifetime of candlelight study, were also filled with a nostalgic sparkle.