On the arranged date, the Jews set out to survey the land which their Arab neighbors wanted to sell. The Muktar Abdulla graciously sent them a guide who showed them the way through the mountains to his village. Traveling on horseback, the journey up and down the hillsides and valleys took them two hours, but a bird could have spanned the same distance in minutes. While LeClerc was adamantly against the meeting, calling it an excuse to take off from work, the Morasha settlers went all the same, having reached the conclusion that the Morasha colony desperately needed to find a new site. The topography of their present location was simply not suited for farming. If the parcel which the Arabs were selling had more potential than Morasha, than the settlers would advise the Baron to buy it. They hoped that by appealing to the Baron directly, they could circumvent his parsimonious clerk. In the meantime, the Morasha pioneers had made another important decision. After days of debate, the community forum had voted to hire Arab laborers to work with them in the fields. Nachman and Shmuelik were against the plan for ideological reasons. It was important, they claimed, to build a Jewish work force, and to rely solely on Jewish labor. Tevye was more pragmatic. The settlers were shorthanded, the work was never ending, and they needed to make as much progress as they could before the winter began. Also, if there were Arabs to work in the fields, the Jews would be free to erect more houses. In the end, Tevye’s supporters won out. The Arab village was modest in size, consisting of a few dozen mud dwellings, surrounding a centralized mosque. Children walked barefoot and scavenged through mounds of garbage. Many were skeleton thin, and yellow pus dripped from their eyes. Dogs lounged lifelessly in the shade, their tongues hanging out of their mouths, their ribs clearly visible in their emaciated chests. Chickens ran around everywhere. Dangling from a pole was the head of a camel. Flies swarmed around the blood which was still dripping from the cut where the neck had been severed from the animal’s body. “Camel is an Arab delicacy,” Elisha told Tevye.
“They eat it?” Tevye asked, his eyes wide in surprise.
“Not only do they eat it – they’ll expect you to eat it too.”
The Muktar rushed forward and greeted them warmly, falling on his knees and bowing. His hand moved ceremoniously from his heart to his lips in gestures of loyalty and devotion. For what seemed a full minute, the Jews faced the Arabs and bowed in exchanges of mutual honor. How different this tribe was from the Arabs who had murdered Ben Zion, Tevye thought. Still bowing, the chief inviting the Jews into his house, where a feast was laid out before them. Noticing their worried glances, the Muktar assured them that in preparing the food, he had been careful to respect the dietary laws of the Jews. All of the salads, vegetables, and fruits could be eaten, and the main course was to be a Mediterranean couscous with raisins and nuts. The Muktar‘s daughters poured tea from gleaming brass pots, and a water pipe filled with aromatic herbs was passed around for all to imbibe. Nachman refrained from eating the Arab pita, but Tevye and Elisha washed their hands and made a HaMotzei blessing on the bread, not wanting to offend their host who insisted they eat. Watching the Yemenite break off pieces of pita and scoop up the heavily oiled techina and humous, Tevye followed suit, as if he had been eating oriental salads for years. To his surprise, he found himself taking seconds of the pasty, exotic spreads. Nonetheless, as more colorful dishes and salads were spread out before them, Tevye kept an eye out for the other half of the camel which they had seen hanging outside.
The Muktar poured the Jews glasses of a tasty date liqueur which Elisha called Yaish.
“L’Chaim,” the chief toasted, allowing himself a small sip.
“L’Chaim,” the Jews responded.
After the satiating meal, the Muktar Abdul Abdulla showed the Jews his land deed and led them on a tour of the parcel of land which he wanted to sell, a short ride away from the village. The site was situated upon a plateau, with breathtaking views to all sides. Underground wells were plentiful, and, in the past, much of the land had been cultivated, obviating the need to carve fields out of the rocky soil. Hillsides had been planted with olive trees, and terraced for vineyards.
“All we would have to do is build houses,” Tevye said after they had circled the property.
One did not have to be an expert in farming to see that the plateau was ideally suited for crops. Also, the view which the site commanded overlooking the surrounding valleys had obvious strategic advantages. Furthermore, the Muktar assured them, as long as they were his neighbors, he would protect them and keep other, less friendly tribes away.
The hearty feast, the beauty of the region, and the Arab’s sincerity combined to convince the Jews. But to everyone’s surprise, Elisha shook his head, no. As far as he was concerned the site was out of the question. The altitude of the plateau would make for brutal winters. Plus, the site was in the middle of nowhere, a long six-hour journey from Zichron Yaacov, and a two to three day excursion to Jerusalem, Jaffa, or Tiberias.
“Who needs to be close to Jaffa?” Tevye asked.
Elisha walked over to his friend and took him a few steps to the side.
“If we seem too eager, the cost of the land will be four times the price. Abdulla may be a decent man, but he’s still an Arab. He’ll flash a big, sincere smile and let us pay ten times what the property is really worth. You’ve seen his village. They need the money even more than we need the land. I grew up with the Moslems, so leave the bargaining to me.”
Sure enough, the Muktar wanted the equivalent of fifty francs per dunam, almost five times the amount which the Baron had paid for the Morasha site. When Elisha told the Arab that the price was outrageous, a look of insult spread over his face, and he angrily walked away. The Yemenite winked at his friends and motioned with his head for them to follow him as he walked to his horse. Seeing that the Jews were getting ready to leave, the Muktar turned around and told them to wait. He had reconsidered the matter. Because he liked them so much and wanted them as neighbors, he would subtract five francs per dunam off of the price. Elisha mounted his horse. The other Jews did the same.
“Twenty francs per dunam,” the Yemenite said.
“Twenty francs!” the Arab exclaimed. “For a choice piece of land like this? Where else in Palestine can you find such excellent land?”
The Muktar bent down and scooped up a handful of brown soil. He continued his sales pitch, listing all of the land’s many praises. More than that – the land was an inheritance from his father. How could he let it go for so much less than its value?
“Thirty francs per dunam,” Elisha said with the face of a card player.
“Get down from your horses and we will talk,” Abdulla said.
“Why get down when we will only have to mount once again?” the Yemenite answered. “We are poor farmers with barely enough food for our families. Even if we were to sell the land we own now, we wouldn’t have enough money to meet the price you are asking.”
The Arab nodded his head.
“I understand,” he answered. “We are also poor people. The land is our only wealth. I cannot give it away for less than its worth.”
Solemnly, he walked to his horse and mounted.
“Of course, we can still be friends,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Elisha agreed.
“You have an open invitation to visit our village.”
“And you and your people are welcome in Morasha,” the Yemenite said.
Elisha raised his hand in a wave and wished the Arab shalom. He yanked the reins of his horse and started to ride away. The other Jews followed. After some moments, the Muktar called for them to wait and galloped alongside them.
“Give me thirty-five francs per dunam, and the land is yours.”
“Thirty,” Elisha answered. “And only if our main Company office in Paris agrees to the price.
“Company?” the Arab inquired. “What company? I thought you were farming the land on your own.”
Elisha explained that any transaction for land would have to be approved by the Jewish Colony Association which was headed by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris. When Abdulla heard the name of the Baron, rubles shone in his eyes. He started to yell. Soon both he and Elisha were shouting. Their hands flew in the air like roosters fighting over the same cob of corn.
Finally, after the Jews made a pretense of riding off once again, the Muktar gave in and agreed to lower the price.
On the way back to the village, as the Arabs led the way, Tevye congratulated Elisha on having bargained twenty francs per dunam off of the sale.
“If he agreed to thirty,” the Yemenite answered, “you can be sure that it’s worth fifteen.”
“So why did you agree to pay thirty?”
“Who agreed? I said it was dependent on the Baron. The next time we talk, I’ll say that the Baron refuses to pay more than ten. That way we’ll settle on twenty.”
“What makes you so sure?” Tevye asked. “Maybe in the meantime, the Arabs will sell the land to some other buyer.”
“Do you really think people are waiting on line? In this country, who else but a Jew would buy farmland on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere?”
“Then why even pay twenty?” Tevye wanted to know.
“Because the Muktar can’t sell the land for what it really is worth and then go back to being the chief of his people. We have to pay him a little extra to guard his pride.”
When they returned to the Arab village, the Muktar had a parting request. Several of his goats were sick, and perhaps one of the settlers could offer a cure, for as everyone knew, the Jews knew the secrets of the universe. Instinctively, the settlers looked at Tevye. If anyone knew about goats, it was bound to be a milkman.
“I’m not an animal doctor,” he said.
The chief wouldn’t take no for an answer. The disease was spreading, and it threatened to infect all of the animals of the tribe. He led them to the outskirts of the village, where the Arabs grazed their herds. The sick goats lay listlessly on the ground. Tevye bent down to examine one of the inert creatures. He opened its mouths to look at its gums and its tongue, then raised up an eyelid to check the white of its eye. Finally, Tevye lifted its stiff, lowered tail for a glimpse of its bottom. The diarrhea Tevye saw in the area confirmed his suspicions. He stood up and brushed his hands on his pants.
“It is probably worms,” he said. “Try chopping up garlic into very small pieces, mix it with something sweet like red wine and apples, and feed it to the goats for three days. If it’s worms, the garlic should kill them, and if not, then Allah will help.”
The Arab raised his hands to the sky.
“Certainly Allah will help,” he agreed. “He will help through his messengers, the Jews, who he has brought back to the Holy Land.”
Bowing graciously, the Muktar wished them “Salaam.“ Before they departed, he promised to send them the laborers they needed to work in their fields. Making sure their water pouches were full, and that their saddle bags were bursting with fruit, he sent them on their way with the guide who had brought them to the village.
Immediately upon their return to Morasha, Nachman wrote another letter to the Baron, describing in detail the property they had found.
Several days later, a dozen Arab workers showed up just as Abdul Abdulla had promised. They brought with them a special gift for Tevye, an exquisitely embroidered caftan fit for a king. The present was a token of thanks for having cured the disease of the goats. The garlic had worked. Tevye had saved the village. News of the incident spread to the neighboring Arab tribes, and Arabs began to show up in Morasha with sick animals in tow. Each time the milkman protested, but the Arabs would wave their hands no, insisting that only “the Muktar Tevye” could cure them.
At first, the Arab workers, or “Fellahim,” as they were locally known, proved a godsend to the struggling new colony. They worked like mules, performing the most difficult tasks without any complaints. Heat didn’t seem to faze them, and like camels, they could go without water from morning till night. Often their knowledge of the land and their farming experience saved the Jews from planting in areas which were hostile to delicate crops. When LeClerc insisted that the settlers follow the instructions of the Paris agronomists, the settlers revolted and listened to the Arabs instead. While the Jews had to pay the hired laborers out of their personal yearly allowance, the investment allowed the development of the colony to proceed at a much swifter pace. Work on the canal continued, and the Jews constructed more dwellings to prepare for the approaching winter. It was as if a great weight had been removed from their shoulders. The extra manpower boosted the morale of the colony in such a remarkable way that for the first time, settlers began talking about the future of Morasha. Plans for a mikvah were drawn, and a shed was erected near the well to house the ritual bath, so that the women of the settlement wouldn’t have to make the long journey to Zichron Yaacov in order to abide by the Torah laws which governed marital relations.
Nachman and Shmuelik remained firm in their opposition to the new Arab workers. Not only were they against the arrangement for ideological reasons, the settlers had to pay for the workers themselves, out of their fugal allowance, and most of the Jews had to borrow the money, at interest, from the Jewish Colony Association. Because borrowing at interest from Jews was a practice forbidden by the Torah, Nachman warned that no benefit or blessing could possibly come from such an affair. A Jew was enjoined to loan money out of kindness, and not to make money from the plight of a fellow Jew. Nachman complained bitterly to LeClerc, but the unctuous clerk shrugged his shoulders, saying that interest on loans was Company policy to insure that the settlers would not become freeloaders living on the Baron’s unending charity. Tevye had heard that there were affluent Turks in Jerusalem who lent money to Jews, and he suggested borrowing money from them. True, their interest rate was much higher than the Baron’s, but at least the settlers wouldn’t be breaking a commandment. If, God willing, the harvest was good, the settlers would have enough money to pay back the Turks, without ever having to transgress the Torah.
“And if the harvest, God forbid, isn’t good?” Hillel asked.
“Why shouldn’t the harvest be good?” Tevye answered. “With our hard work and the Lord’s blessing, of course the crops will be good. Surely, the same God who divided the Red Sea can supply the Jews of Morasha with a good crop of carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, and beets.”
A vote was taken in a general meeting, and to Nachman’s satisfaction, it was decided that if loans charging interest had to be transacted, they would be made only with Turkish merchants or banks. However, when Nachman called for another vote regarding the hiring of Arab workers, he and Shmuelik remained the only dissenters.
Often, Tevye would look up from his plowing to find himself surrounded by the swarthy, barefooted laborers. Since Tevye was the head of settlement security, he decided to place a shomer on guard, not only at night, but all through the day as well, to give the impression that the Jews were constantly on the alert. While he trusted the Muktar and his workers, he had lived long enough to have learned that any man can succumb to temptation. Sure enough, though the Arabs did their work in a diligent, well-behaved manner, already in the second week of their employment, the settlers discovered that a mattock was missing. Then a scythe disappeared. When Elisha’s healthiest goat was stolen, Tevye sent off an angry letter to the Muktar. The very next day, the goat was returned, with apologies and the promise that the stealing would stop.
One day, the Muktar himself galloped into the Morasha colony. Sobbing, he fell into Tevye’s arms. His eldest daughter was dying. The girl, he said, was ill with some mysterious disease which only Tevye could cure. Tevye protested, insisting he wasn’t a doctor. Abandoning all ceremony and stature, the Arab leader fell to the ground, grabbed Tevye’s shoes, and begged him to return with him to his village. A physician had examined the girl, and all of his remedies had failed. Her condition was weakening. Only the wisdom of the Jews could save her. He would pay Tevye money, give him cattle and land, whatever Tevye demanded. Finally, at Elisha’s prodding, Tevye consented. The relieved Arab prostrated himself on the ground and cried out effusive praise to Allah.
“Hurry, hurry,” he urged. “Every moment matters.”
“This is madness,” Tevye said to Elisha as they saddled their horses.
“If the girl recovers, he’s liable to send us workers for free,” the Yemenite answered.
“And if she dies?”
“It’s hard to say. In Yemen, if a caliph thought a doctor had made a mistake, he would cut off his hands.”
Tevye’s fingers froze on the horn of his saddle. He glanced at his friend to see if he was joking, but Elisha’s expression didn’t change.
Just to make sure that he returned in one piece, Tevye brought Ariel and Yigal along as his bodyguards. They rode in a sprint, driving their mounts to keep up with the galloping Muktar. The villagers who were gathered around the chief’s house made way for the Jews to enter. The high-pitched wailing of grief-stricken women filled the crowded bedroom. Bowing, they hastened outside when Tevye arrived. The room was dark and suffocating. Immediately, Elisha ordered that a hole be made in the mud wall to let in fresh air and light. Axes quickly appeared, and a window was punched through the wall. One look at the feverish girl told Tevye the problem. Her face had turned yellow. Eyes black as the night looked up at him imploringly, as if he were her only hope. She seemed to be the same age as his daughters.
The girl’s father stared anxiously at Tevye.
“You can examine her alone if you like,” he said. “We can leave the room.”
“I don’t have to examine her,” Tevye answered. “I think she has hepatitis.”
Elisha translated the ailment as “the yellow disease.”
“Can she be cured?” the Muktar asked.
Tevye didn’t know what to tell him. In Russia, when hepatitis struck, some people lived and others were carried out of their houses in burial sheets. The only treatment he knew, he remembered from his grandfather’s house. But he wasn’t at all certain that it would work on an Arab. It was a secret the Jews had kept to themselves. If a plague of yellow fever hit the gentiles, the Jews went about their own business, without saying a word, in fear that if the cure didn’t work, the gentiles would attack them for witchcraft.
“Allah is great,” Tevye said.
“Yes, Allah is great,” the father concurred. “But what can we mortals do?”
“I can only suggest a possible remedy, but I cannot promise the Muktar that the treatment will work. Take a young dove and placed it on the girl’s stomach,” Tevye advised. “If Allah decrees, the fever will pass from your daughter into the bird. The dove will die, and your daughter will live.”
Inspired with hope, the father rushed out of the bedroom, ordering that a dove be immediately brought to the house. The girl looked up at Tevye with her dark Mediterranean eyes and said a soft thank you. Abdulla yelled that refreshments be served, and in minutes a banquet of fruit was laid out in the salon before Tevye and Elisha. Within minutes, a young man rushed into the house holding a dove in his hands. The worried father took it from him and held it out to the doctor, but Tevye modestly declined.
“Your wife can do it,” he said.
“Wife!” Abdulla called. Immediately, four women appeared. The Muktar handed the dove to one of them, gave her instructions, and they all followed her into the bedroom. “Gevalt,” Tevye thought. “The old goat has four wives!”
Elisha smiled, reading Tevye’s mind.
“Thank God that I’m not a Muktar,” Tevye said quietly as Abdulla followed the women into the bedroom. His Golda, may her memory be blessed, had been the treasure of his life. But four Goldas? Even if he had had four houses and a Golda in every house, that was a blessing he was thankful to have been spared. After delivering milk from morning till night, what man had the strength to placate four women at home?
The house became tensely silent. The Arabs filling the room stared at the Jewish visitors. Minutes passed. Suddenly, a cheer sounded from the bedroom. The sick girl’s mother returned to the room with a dead dove in her hands. She had placed the bird on her daughter’s belly, and within minutes, the bird had turned limp and died. The patient was peacefully sleeping.
A happy Abdulla returned to the room. Tevye stood up and said the death of the bird was a positive sign. For the time being, there was nothing more he could do. If the girl didn’t improve by morning, they could repeat the procedure again, but two doves were the limit. The grateful father insisted on sending Tevye home with a wagon load of produce, but Tevye refused. If the girl recovered, that would be his payment. Before letting the Jews start on their way, the Muktar begged Tevye to pray for his daughter.
“Allah answers the prayers of the Jews,” he said.
What choice did Tevye have? The Arabs were their neighbors. The Muktar, in a way, was his friend. There was nothing in the Bible which forbade a Jew from praying for the health of a gentile. On the contrary, Abraham prayed for the Philistine king, Avimelech, and the king and his wife were healed. And the liturgy of Rosh HaShana, one of the holiest days of the year, was filled with prayers for all of mankind. So Tevye prayed, “May the Almighty heal the Muktar‘s daughter.”
Ten days later, the Abdul Abdulla showed up once again in Morasha. This time his daughter was with him. Like a princess, she rode in a wagon, swathed in a shawl and a veil which covered her cheeks. Flowers, the color of a sunset, were braided into her hair like a crown. Tevye was working in his garden when the Muktar rushed up and embraced him. His daughter had miraculously recovered. His friend Tevye had saved her from death. The very same day that Tevye had come to their village, the sick girl had stood on her feet. The next day, her color had returned to her face.
“See for yourself,” the happy Muktar said, pointing at his daughter.
With the veil hiding the lower half of her face, it was hard to tell how she was feeling. But the look of deep gratitude in her black, flashing eyes told Tevye that she had recovered.
The Muktar barked at his daughter, obviously commanding her to lower the veil for the doctor. When her fingers pushed the silk strands away, Tevye understood why Abdulla was so passionately concerned about his eldest daughter. She was, by all standards, a beauty.
“I can never repay you enough,” the chief said. “But to show you my gratitude, I want to give you my daughter in marriage. She will convert to your religion. She will learn to speak Hebrew. I promise you, she will be an obedient wife.”
Tevye was dumbfounded. For one of the few times in his life, he couldn’t find words.
The Arab held out his hand for his daughter to come down from the wagon. A slender golden leg appeared from the folds of her sari-like gown as she stepped down to the ground. Flustered, Tevye glanced away at his garden.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” the Muktar asked, proudly displaying the girl, as if she were a horse in the market.
Gracefully, like a snake in the grass, the girl moved forward in her long flowing dress. She was young, yes, but a woman all the same. Long black hair cascaded over her shoulders. Embarrassed, Tevye couldn’t find words.
“Please,” Abdulla said. “Take her. She’s yours.”
With the Muktar grabbing his arm, it was impossible for Tevye not to gaze at the girl. But even if a flood of raging waters were to smash the dam inside him, he would never, never give in. Some things were unthinkable. Some things could never be condoned. How could he ever face God? And how could he ever look at his daughters? What would become of all he had taught them if he himself were to be conquered by the wild beating in his heart? No, he would rather spend his life in the barn with the horses and cows than take some strange Delilah for a wife.
“Save me, dear Golda, save me,” he thought, clinging to her memory with all of his might.
“I will give you a rich dowry with land and with horses when you take her,” the Arab chief promised. “The marriage will be like a peace treaty between our two peoples.”
Tevye shook his head. No, no, it never could be. But he couldn’t find the right words to answer.
“Isn’t it written in your Bible that a man should not live alone? Allah heard your prayers and brought my girl back to life. Now she is yours forever.”
Tevye shook his head. He glanced at the girl, and her eyes flashed a look of unabashed gratitude, so bold and direct that Tevye felt as if a bomb had gone off in his head. He looked down at the ground, but even the mere sight of her sandaled foot made him shudder.
“Golda, save me,” he prayed.
Just then, Shmuelik called out his name. He stood in the doorway of the hut which served as the community synagogue. It was time for the afternoon prayer. Apologizing to the Muktar, Tevye said he had to hurry and pray before the sun sank in the west. He literally ran away, happier than he had ever been in his life about going to shul. The service had already started. Tevye stood there to make up the minyan of ten, but neither his mind nor his heart could focus on the words of the prayer. The eyes of the Muktar‘s daughter haunted him wherever he looked.
“Gevalt,” he thought. “Please God forgive me for sinful thoughts and get me out of this mess.”
At the end of the Kaddish, he grabbed Elisha and desperately took him aside.
“You have to help me,” he said. “Abdulla is waiting outside. His daughter recovered, and he’s so grateful, he’s brought her to Morasha to give her to me as a gift.”
“As a daughter?”
“As a wife.”
“Mazal tov!” the Yemenite said.
“What mazal tov?” Tevye stammered. “This is the work of the devil. You have got to do something to save me.”
Unconsciously, Tevye squeezed his friend’s arm until he cried out in pain.
“If you don’t want her, tell him no.”
“I don’t want to injure his pride,” Tevye said.
Elisha nodded his head. “That’s true. Muktars have killed people for less.”
“They are waiting outside,” Tevye said.
“Let’s go and talk to him.”
“You go. I’ll stay here. Please. I’ll do anything. Just get me out of this hell.”
“All right,” the Yemenite agreed. “You stay here and have a drink. There’s some wine in the cabinet. You look like you need it. I will see what I can do.”
Tevye found the bottle. He himself had put it there, so that a proper “L’Chaim” could be made on every happy occasion. With trembling fingers, he pulled out the cork and drank straight from the bottle without looking for a glass. But the wine only fueled the fires inside him. Outside the doorway, he could see Elisha talking heatedly with the Arab. “Please God,” he prayed. “In the name of the Torah; in the name of our Forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; in the name of my father, and his father before him; in the name of the Covenant of the Brit which I bear on my flesh; in the name of Your never-ending mercy, please spare me from the fires of Gehenna, and let me return to my simple life in peace.”
Looking up, Tevye saw the Arab girl in the door of the synagogue. Not knowing if it were truly her or a demon, he threw himself at the ark where the sacred scroll of the Torah was housed. Wildly, he opened its doors.
“Rise up, O Lord, and vanquish the enemies of Your people!” he called.
When he looked back to the door, the apparition was gone. Elisha appeared in its place. Distressed at the paleness of Tevye’s face, he shut the doors of the ark and sat his friend down in a chair.
“The matter has been settled,” he said.
“Settled?” Tevye asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means that Abdulla is taking his daughter home and giving you time to make up your mind.”
“Make up my mind about what?”
“About whether you want to marry his daughter or mine.”
“Marry your daughter?” Tevye asked.
“I had to tell him something,” the Yemenite said. “How else could I say that you were not interested and yet not hurt his feelings? So I told him that you were already engaged to my daughter.”
“Engaged to your daughter. Yes!” Tevye said with a breath of relief. “That was a wise thing to say. Elisha, my friend, you are a genius.”
“At first that didn’t bother Abdulla in the least. He said you could marry them both. Just like the great King Solomon had harems of women, so should his friend, Tevye.”
“That was King Solomon, while I am only Tevye, the milkman turned farmer.”
“That’s what I told him. Kings were kings, and farmers have dung on their shoes.”
“Now there is only one problem,” the Yemenite said.
“What problem is that?” Tevye asked.
“If you don’t marry my daughter, he will surely come back.”
Tevye looked at his friend to see if he was kidding, but the dark face and eyes were unflinchingly earnest.
“Marry your daughter!” Tevye exclaimed. “You must be joking?”
“Does a father joke about marrying off his daughters?”
“Certainly not,” Tevye said.
With seven daughters of his own, Tevye knew from experience that the matter was one of the most serious things in the world. Suddenly, he felt surrounded by demons wherever he looked. Not that there was something wrong with Elisha’s daughters. One was more beautiful than the next.
“What about my age? I could be a father to your daughters,” Tevye protested.
“Experience in life is a great treasure,” the Yemenite said. “Besides, it’s time my eldest got married.”
Once again, Tevye started to sweat. What had happened to his constellations in heaven that his fortune was being spun round and round like a wheel. He had lived a full life already. He was a grandfather several times over. Who had the strength for more new beginnings? And Golda. How could he ever face his Golda? When they met in up in Heaven, how could he ever explain? Not only that, if he were to marry again, and if he got to Gan Eden, which one of his wives would be his? If there were such things as pots and pans in Paradise, Golda would be waiting with one in her hand to give him a crack on his head.
“Elisha,” Tevye appealed. “You are a reasonable man. To whom are you speaking? To a grandfather. To a man past his prime. To a man who has one foot in the grave. Be fair to your daughter.
“Nonsense. You are as strong as a man half your age.”
“And if I were to marry one of your daughters, just between the two of us, how long do you think that my strength would last?”
Elisha slapped his knees in resignation.
“Very well,” he said, standing up. “Don’t marry my daughter. Marry the Muktar‘s daughter instead.”
“Gevalt!“ Tevye said. “Who said I want to marry at all?”
“So live the rest of your life with your cows,” the Yemenite answered.
Elisha walked out of the synagogue, leaving Tevye alone in deep thought. He had been minding his own business, tending to the bushes in his garden, and he had ended up insulting both the Arab and the Jew. What did the Lord want from him? To take a new wife? At this stage in his life? Could it be?
He took another drink of wine, returned the cork to the near-empty bottle, and walked to Ruchela’s house, longing for a touch of reality. As usual, the children were happy to see him. He sat down on the floor with them and played a game of building sticks as his daughter talked to him from the kitchen. She spoke while she was cooking, but Tevye didn’t hear what she said. Images of the Arab girl and Elisha’s oldest daughter flashed before his eyes. He remembered the evening when Elisha had introduced him to Carmel and the feelings which her look had aroused even then. Clumsily, he knocked over the tower which the children were building. Moishe and Hannie complained.
“Abba,“ Ruchel called. “Abba?“
“What?” Tevye said.
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“I asked you what kind of soup you wanted ten times already.”
“I didn’t hear,” Tevye responded.
He stood up and said he had to go. He looked at his daughter. Could he marry a girl a few years older than she was? But, then again, hadn’t Lazer, the butcher, been twice Tzeitl’s age when Tevye had agreed to a match? And hadn’t he been prepared to give one of his daughters to Hillel? Marriages between older men and young women were not so unusual. It wasn’t the end of the world. No one yelled scandal. Certainly none of the Hasidic Jews in Morasha would think to raise an eyebrow.
Ruchel was staring at him. “Are you all right, Abba?” she asked.
When Tevye looked at her, he saw her mother’s features. Would Golda understand? Would his daughters? Of course, he still loved their mother dearly. But yes, he was also a man. True, when Golda had died, he had buried that part of himself with her, but suddenly it had been resurrected. Was that his fault? Was he to blame? Was he truly expected to live out his life in the barn with the mules?
He left Ruchel’s house and paced back and forth outside the barn for hours. When he tried to sleep, he couldn’t. Every snort of a horse or squawk of a chicken disturbed him. When he shut his eyes, the Arab girl was waiting with a smile. It was the Satan, he was certain, coming to test him. To chase the evil beguiler away, he said “Shema Yisrael.“ But when Tevye closed his eyes again, the Arab girl was back, beckoning him with her gleaming black eyes, and circling around him exotically, in a spellbinding dance.
Tevye leaped up and ran out of the barn. With a roar, he dunked his head in the water trough. When he emerged, his yarmulka was floating on the waves. He ran his fingers through his hair and slapped at his face. Then, as if pursued by a devil, he hurried back to the barn, saddled his horse, and rode away into the night. Like a madman, he urged the steed over the mountainside, whacking its rump and jabbing his boots in its belly until its hooves were pounding the earth. Horse and rider raced down the hillside and galloped wildly through the valley. Crazily, he thought of riding to the ocean and jumping into its waves to drown the devil which clung to his back. He thought of riding all the way to Rishon LeZion to fall on Golda’s grave and beg forgiveness for his thoughts. He rode on and on until he was lost. Strange mountains loomed up around him. Spurring his horse, he continued his flight. Finally, in exhaustion, he collapsed forward, clutching the horse’s neck. Before long, he was snoring. The beast waited patiently, then realizing that its master was sleeping, it started to walk leisurely back home. An hour later, it had found its way back to the barn where the odyssey had begun. Snorting, the horse shook its body, and threw Tevye off into the trough of cool mountain water. The milkman awoke with a gasp. Dripping wet, he climbed out of the trough. Nobody else was in sight.
“Thank God,” he said, breathing deeply.
For the moment, the demon had fled.
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. 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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