“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.