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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Eight: Waiting for the Baron

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

When word arrived that Baron Edmond Rothschild was coming for a visit, with none other than the famous Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the colony turned into a frantic beehive of activity. Since the death of Theodor Herzl, Weizmann had become one of the driving forces behind the Zionist movement in Europe. The Russian-born chemist had become a leader of the World Zionist Congress, and his diplomatic skill, erudition, per­sonal magnetism, and dedication to the Zionist cause had won the respect of political leaders throughout the world. The rumor of the pending visit was started by the driver of the monthly supply wagon on one of his trips out of Zichron Yaacov. He said that the Baron and Weizmann were due to arrive in Palestine for an inspection of all of the settlements, and that the Morasha region was being considered as the next major development area of both the Keren Keyemet, Jewish National Fund, and the Jew­ish Colony Association. That meant a possible investment of millions and millions of francs to turn the quiet village of Morasha into a bustling agricultural center. The billionaire phi­lanthropist and the charismatic political leader were known to be friends, and if they were impressed by what they saw on their visit, it was almost certain that the Baron would spread money like fertiLazer throughout the hillsides of Morasha.

In the excitement, no one bothered to ask how the driver of the monthly supply wagon was privileged to such exclusive information. As the news spread from settler to settler, the dream of transforming the struggling yishuv into a model metropolis seemed absolutely assured. Someone said that the scientific-minded Weizmann planned to build a university on the crest of the Morasha hillside. Another said the area was slated to be turned into a modern industrial park. It was even rumored that the Baron Rothschild was thinking of Morasha as the site of a new summer mansion.

Hearing these wild fantasies, Tevye scoffed.

A boobe-miseh if I ever heard one,” he said. “And I sup­pose that the Mashiach is on his way too.”

His reference was to the Jewish messiah, whom the Jews had expected for two-thousand years. Faithful to the promises of the Prophets and Sages, the Jews waited for his coming every day. The Hasidim were especially on alert for his arrival. If nightfall came without a sign of his appearance, they took solace that certainly the Mashiach would come the very next day to usher in the awaited age of salvation. It was a dream Tevye had fostered every day of his life. He believed it with all of his soul. If only the Jews would return to their Maker in repentance, surely the scion of King David would come to rescue the downtrodden nation.

Tevye was far more skeptical regarding the coming of Baron

Rothschild.  But when the Company manager, LeClerc, arrived with the very same news, Tevye also caught the fast-spreading fever. His imagination proved as fertile as his neighbors. Not only would Morasha become the Paris of the Middle East, Tevye could very well become one of the wealthiest men in the region. Stranger things had happened in life. Hadn’t Joseph, the simple shepherd boy, become ruler of the mighty land of Egypt? Every schoolboy knew the story. And what was the secret of Joseph’s success? His dreams!

LeClerc assembled the settlers together outside of the barn as the sun sank over the distant ocean. The historic visit, he said, was just three days away. Because of political developments in Europe, the entourage had embarked sooner than planned. After brief stops in Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Yaacov, the Baron and the Doctor of Chemistry were arriving in Morasha to scout the site them­selves to determine if the expansive, virgin region could be transformed into a center of Jewish immigration for the hundreds of thousands of Jews whose lives were being threatened by the worsening persecutions in Russia.

Needless to say, LeClerc continued, it was imperative that the Morasha colony and its settlers put on their finest appear­ance. To this end, a shipment was due to arrive the next day with building supplies, paint, flowers and plants, new clothes for the settlers, and enough food to prepare a banquet for a king.

Everyone spoke out at once with suggestions of what should be done to insure the success of the visit, and of course, quite a few of the settlers took the opportunity to yell out complaints.

“Why are building materials only coming now to put on a show for the Baron, when we have been living like animals for months?!” Shilo, the carpenter, shouted.

“He’s right,” Munsho, the blacksmith, called out. “And while you are handing out presents, you can add a new anvil to the list!”

Shmuelik raised his hand politely. He had requested books for the synagogue’s library, but his letters had never been an­swered.

“How are we going to cook all of the food?” the storekeep­er’s wife wanted to know. “We hardly have any pots?”

If pots and pans didn’t arrive today, they will be arriving tomorrow, along with silverware, glasses, plates, tablecloths, and cloth napkins,” LeClerc responded.

“What is a tablecloth?” Hillel cynically asked.

The settlers laughed.

“What is a table?” the tailor, Lazer, added.

The laughter increased. Lazer wasn’t exaggerating. Their spartan lifestyle was so impoverished that many of life’s necessities were missing.

“You know what a table is,” Reb Sharagi joked. “A plank with four legs.”

“Like my cows,” Tevye said.

Everyone enjoyed the good humor. Except the tight-lipped, straight-faced Company manager. The gentile LeClerc shouted for order. Time was being wasted. They could joke after preparations had been completed. He was in charge of the visit, and if it were to be a success, people would have to listen to his orders and set to work on their tasks.

“Your futures are at stake,” he reminded them in a rebuking tone, as if he were scolding children.

“He means his future,” Hillel whispered to his neighbors.

“And it is my job and responsibiity to see that the honorabIe Baron de Rothschild is welcomed in the fashion which he de­serves.”

Tevye stood up. “He’s right. This is a serious matter, and we don’t have much time. I volunteer to welcome our guests on behalf of the colony and to deliver a welcoming speech.”

“There won’t be time for speeches,” LeClerc answered. “In addition to Dr. Weizmann, the Baron will be traveling with a team of land surveyors, investors, and agronomists. He is coming here on a work mission, not a political campaign.”

“Surely at lunch, there will be time for some welcoming words,” Tevye said.

            “The Baron and his entourage will eat in a special tent which will be arriving tomorrow. You will all be expected to continue on with your tasks after their initial tour of the colony. We want to show them that the pioneers of Morasha have come here to develop the land, not to picnic and drink wine in the middle of the day.”

Once again, a commotion broke out. Tevye helped LeClerc quiet the crowd. He was sure that he would find an opportunity to exchange a few words with the Benefactor and the Zionist leader. Now, the important thing was to get ready for the imminent visit.

“Our prayers have been answered,” Tevye told his wife later that evening. “Our salvation is on the way.”

Everyone shared his excitement. Everyone felt that the Re­demption was near. Tevye, like many of the settlers, was so filled with joy, he was unable to sleep. Joining a few of the fellows in the barn, there was drinking and dancing late into the night. In the morning, LeClerc did not have to command the Morasha settlers to work. With a burst of great industry, everyone set to the task of making their small village spotless. The barns were all cleaned. The horses were bathed and brushed till they shone. Stacks of hay were neatly piled. Logs were arranged in precise columns. Yards were tidied and houses were scrubbed. When the supply wagon arrived from Zichron Yaacov, Goliath and Shilo unloaded the lumber and set to work making a distinguished-looking gateway at the entrance to the yishuv. Others set to work painting fences, while others erected the sprawling tent where the great banquet would be held. Four dozen new rose bushes were planted in the Morasha gardens. In preparation for the visit, women washed their Sabbath dresses and hung them in the sun to dry. In the evening, the men tried on the new white shirts and khaki slacks which had arrived with the supply wagon. In the evening, Tevye started to compose a welcoming speech. No one had appointed him to make an address, but he reasoned that it would make a greater historic impression if a Jewish representative of the set­tlement welcolmed the guests, and not the gentile manager.

The industrious pace continued all the next day. While there

were pressing chores to be done in the fields, everything was set aside in order to turn the tiny settlement into a showplace. Women excitedly prepared the morrow’s royal luncheon, and children rehearsed Zionist songs so that the “Morasha Choir” could entertain the visitors. In the afternoon, when LeClerc gath­ered all of the settlers together to stage a practice welcoming ceremony, an argument broke out between Tevye and Pincus, regarding which one of the two men would deliver the welcoming speech. Both held up handwritten pages which they had already penned. Munsho, the blacksmith, had to step between them to prevent them from coming to blows. Finally, LeClerc announced that he, and he alone, would speak on behalf of the settlers.

“That’s ridiculous,” Pincus protested. “You aren’t even a Jew! What right do you have to decide things for us?”

LeClerc’s face took on the bright red color of his hair. “You are all ungrateful scoundrels,” the Frenchman retorted. “If I hadn’t arranged for the Baron’s visit, he never would have deigned to step foot in this miserable wretch of a hole. If I hadn’t made a big fuss in Zichron, none of these supplies would have come. You have me, and me alone, to thank for everything you have. If I don’t receive the respect I deserve, I will call the visit off now. Is that understood?”

The settlers grumbled. Slowly, while LeClerc waited, they regrouped in their welcoming formation and stood quietly in line. What choice did they have? Though LeClerc himself personally hadn’t given them anything, the Company had, and he was their go-between. So, for the time being, until they could survive on their own, they had to obey his commands. Nonetheless, that evening a group of the men got together to write out a long list of complaints which they intended to hand to the Baron, including the demand that LeClerc be immediately replaced.

Tevye slipped his speech into his pocket, where he could easily find it the next day, whether he received LeClerc’s permission or not. He was so certain that he would personally meet the legendary Baron, he stood before his wife’s mirror and carefully trimmed his beard. The goateed philanthropist was known for his immaculate appearance, and Tevye wanted him to feel like he was conversing with an equally distinguished man.

In the morning, everyone hurried excitedly about making final preparations. A welcoming party of riders was organized and sent out to meet the Baron’s contingent and escort them to the yishuv. Hillel rode along on the wagon with his accordion to give the Zionist leaders the musical fanfare they deserved. Shmuelik took the Torah scroll out of the ark and carried it to the impressive new gateway of the colony, where he stood holding it in anticipation of the Baron’s arrival, as if he were waiting to greet a king. Girls with flower wreaths in their hair stood on the road all through the hot sunny morning, holding baskets filled with flowers which they intended to throw on the visitors, until Guttmacher’s wife had the sense to gather them into the shade. Younger children soon became restless with standing on line and returned to their usual games.

Tevye and Nachman walked to the mountaintop lookout to catch the first glimpse of the Baron and the statesman whom God had chosen to plead the Jewish people’s plight before the world’s dukes, prime ministers, presidents, emperors, archbishops, and kings. For hours, they stared to the east, waiting for the entourage to appear in the valley below. The sun rose higher in the sky until it was a blinding orb over their heads. LeClerc wasn’t sure of the time of arrival, so the settlers had guessed around noon. But when the arc of the sun reached its zenith and began to plunge toward the sea, Nachman said that they had obviously judged incorrectly. As the Mishna said, “The sons of kings awaken three hours into the day.” That meant that the aristocrats would not arrive before three. And who could predict the time of his coming for sure? They were, after all, on a scouting tour of the land, and perhaps they had planned other stops on the way.

It was decided that Nachman would go back to the colony and bring Tevye some water and food. For the first time since morning, Tevye sat down. Remembering his speech, he removed the crumpled papers from his back pocket and started to rehearse once again. In the banquet tent, flies and bees were swarming around the buffet table and the lavish assortment of delicacies which the women had prepared. With nervous impatience, LeClerc ran around the tables, shouting at the insects and swatting them away from the food. When Nachman entered the tent and innocently asked the Company manager what time the Baron was due to arrive, the meticulously dressed Frenchman exploded.

“When he gets here!” he yelled. “Why does someone have to ask me every five minutes?”

“He had better get here quickly,” the butcher’s wife chided, “before the flies eat all of the food.”

LeClerc growled as he lunged at a battalion of ants which were advancing along the table and attacking a hill of creamy potatoes. Falling off balance, he tripped over a chair onto the ground. The women turned away and tried to suppress their giggles. Nachman smiled and retreated from the tent. Embarrassed, the Company manager rose to his feet. Brushing the dirt off of his neatly-starched suit and vest, he strode outside, ordering the women to cover up the food, as if they were to blame for the invasion of insects.

Nachman brought Tevye a pouch of water and a nourishing snack, and left him alone on the hilltop to continue his vigil. Instead of wasting more time on the mountain, Nachman announced that he was going to the synagogue to study Torah. Before long, LeClerc joined Tevye on the hillside. His head twitched nervously, as if his cravat were strangling him. With growing impatience, he paced up and down the mountain ridge, peering through a spyglass at the valley below.

“Are you sure they are coming today?” Tevye asked.

“Of course, I am sure,” the tyrannical clerk tensely replied. Compulsively, he brushed at his suit jacket, as if to straighten out wrinkles, though it seemed perfectly laundered to Tevye.

“The day is almost over,” Tevye noted, looking up at the afternoon sun.

LeClere paced to the other side of the ridge.

“It seems to me that you should let one of the settlers address the Baron on behalf of the yishuv,” Tevye said.

“Is that all you can think about?”

“It seems to me the proper thing to do.”

“As long as I am the Company manager, I will decide what is the proper thing to do.”

“You might have a revolt on you hands.” Tevye warned.

“Is that a threat?” LeClere asked with increasing irritation. Tevye didn’t have tune to answer. Far down the mountain side, a wagon appeared on the trail. Spotting it, Tevye froze, then gave out a shout.

“They’re coming!” he yelled. “They’re coming!”

Ecstatic, he threw his cap in the air. Beside himself with happiness, he grabbed onto LeClerc’s shoulders and spun him around in a whirl. Laughing, he ran off to fetch his cap, which had landed in a bush of wild berries. LeClerc peered through his spyglass down the mountain.

“Merde!” he exclaimed in French, almost spitting out the word.

“What’s the matter?” Tevye asked.

“The wagon you saw. It’s Hillel with Pincus and the scribe.”

“Where’s the Baron Rothschild?”

“I don’t know. They’re alone.”

“Give me that thing,” Tevye said.

He reached out and grabbed the spyglass away from LeClerc. Sure enough, it was the Morasha welcoming wagon. No other wagon, nor carriage, nor horse was in sight.

“Merde!” the Frenchman repeated.

Tevye didn’t have to ask what it meant. The gentile pronounced the word the very same way that a Jew would say drek.

“I’m going back to the colony to meet them and find out what happened,” the Company manager declared.

He was so upset, he forgot to take his spyglass. Tevye turned and looked back down the mountain. The only thing accompanying the wagon was dust. Hillel was sprawled out in the rear, his head on his accordion, sleeping.

“Hmmm,” Tevye snorted. Obviously, the Baron had been delayed on the way. After all, surveys took time, and he had probably stopped to measure some new tract of land. Also, one could never rule out bandits and highwaymen. Bedouins may have attacked the entourage, forcing them to turn back. Once again, Tevye sat down to wait. He had waited all day. He would wait a little more. After all, a Jew was used to waiting. Another day in galut. Another year in exile. Another lifetime waiting for salvation to come. Waiting and hoping, that was the fate of a Jew. Who knew? If the Baron didn’t show up, maybe the Mashiach would come in his place. Tevye had faith.

Across the hills of Ephraim and the plains of the Sharon, the sun sank like a dream into the ocean. Tevye stood up to pray. Gradually, darkness enveloped the mountain. Tevye crumpled his speech into his pocket. Tomorrow was another day. Perhaps, tomorrow the Baron would come.

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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