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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Three: Off to the Promised Land

Tevye in the Promised Land

“Why don’t we join them?” Shammai asked.

“Where are their skullcaps?” the Rabbi responded.

“God looks on what’s in the heart, not what’s on the outside,” their leader, Ben Zion said.

“Has God spoken to you that you know what He judges important?” the white-bearded scholar retorted.

“God doesn’t have to speak to us in words for us to understand His message. How many times must the Russians chase us out of our villages until we realize that we don’t belong in their land? Haven’t we been exiled enough? God wants us to have our own country.”

“God wants us to live by the Torah,” the Rabbi said.

“We have a new Torah,” one of the other Zionists called out. “The Torah of freedom, and the will in our hearts to work the soil of our own Jewish land.”

Tevye looked from the young heretics with their uncovered heads to the old, wizened face of the Rabbi.

“We will return to our land when the Mashiach takes us there,” he said, pronouncing his final decision. As if to emphasize his resolve, the Rabbi took the reins out of the hands of his son and gave their horse a flick. The wagon jerked forward. The tanner yelled out “Mashiach!” Others echoed his cry. Soon, the Jews of Anatevka were singing a song of their own, a lively Hasidic ballad filled with longing for the Mashiach, the Jewish messiah and king:

“Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, la, la, la, la, la.

Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, la, la, la, la, la.

Even though his coming may be delayed,

We will wait for him every day

With the hope that he will come, la, la, la, la, la.”

The tanner, the woodcutter, the scribe, and the slaughterer all returned to their families and wagons, and the procession once again moved onward, on the road to other lands and other foreign rulers. Only Tevye stood in his place, dust on his shoes, deep in ponderous thought.

“What about you, old man?” Ben Zion asked him. “Do you have the courage to stand tall and be a proud Jew in our own Promised Land?”

There was something in the words of the young Zionist pioneer that tugged at Tevye’s heart. True, his daughter, Baylke, was in America, and everyone knew that even an incompetent shlimazl of a milkman could become a millionaire in New York overnight, but how long would it be before persecutions began even there? At least in the Land of Israel, a Jew could feel like a Jew! After all, three times a day in his prayers, a Jew faced Jerusalem, not New York.

The words of the Rabbi echoed in Tevye’s mind as if in rebuttal. “Where are their skullcaps?” he had pointedly inquired, meaning that everyone enjoyed a nice Zionist song, but where was their tradition; where was their love and reverence for God? Hadn’t Tevye suffered enough from free-thinkers when Perchik had stolen away his daughter? Perchik too was brimming with slogans and highfalutin ideals, and where had it led but to prison? Who knew if Tevye would ever see his wonderful Hodel again? Did he want to take the same chance with another one of his daughters? Tevye wasn’t blind. He had seen the look in their eyes when the cocky, young “Herzl” had exchanged passionate words with the Rabbi.

Tevye stared after the Zionists as they marched in formation along the road to Odessa. There was a confidence, a pride, a spirit, and a purpose to their movements that Tevye recalled from his youth. They held their backs straight, actualizing the prayer which a Jew said everyday of his life, beseeching the Almighty “to shatter the yoke of foreign rulers and return us upright to our Land.” It was happening in front of Tevye’s eyes! The Zionists marched upright, their heads held high, envisioning a more hopeful future. What a different picture from the Jews of Anatevka who trudged along on their journey, bent over from the burdens of exile, dragging their tired feet in the dust, heads bowed like cattle, not knowing what lay ahead, where they were going, nor what they would do when they got there.

Tevye reached down for his tzitzit. The thin strings hanging down from his ritual undergarment were like lifelines, reminding the dreamer in him that he was a simple milkman, and not a young pioneer. “Thou shall not wander after pulling of your heart, nor after the sight of your eyes,” the commandment instructed. His daughters were staring at him. Tzeitl, Hava, Ruchel, and Bat Sheva. Little Moishe and Hannie gazed up at their grandfather too, as if to say, “Nu? What are we waiting here for?”

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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