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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Four: Morasha

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The Jewish Colony Association had chosen the mountainous location not for its suitability as farmland, but because of its price. When more and more Jews began immigrating to Palestine, the Turkish government began doubling and tripling the cost of the land until parcels were often ten times more expensive than farmland in Europe. The Baron had learned that supporting a settlement through its first struggling years was a certain financial disaster. Having to pour relief funds down never-ending holes, he strove to keep his initial investment to a minimum. While the theory was sound, Morasha was a perfect example of the problems inherent in absentee ownership. True, the vast stretch of property sat on the strategic ledge of mountains which ran down the spine of the country. But if the Jews chose to live near the only spring of underground water, they would have to trek two hours to work every day to reach the cultivatable fields. Likewise, if they built their homes near the fields, then their water supply would be an impossible distance away. But that was their problem, not the Baron’s. “Some big metsia,” Elisha had said during a scouting trip to the site. It was one of the Yiddish expressions he had learned in the winery. The Yemenite had taken the words out of Tevye’s mouth – the tract of land was no big bargain. Once again on their second scouting visit, all of the settlers had protested, but Mr. LeClerc, the Company manager who was in charge of the project, told them to take it or leave it. What did he care? After a few years with the Company in Palestine, the unctuous gentile would return to Paris and a secure job in one of the Baron’s banks. He had come to Palestine, not for ideological reasons, but for the promise of advancement in the Rothschild empire after his two-year indenture. Unlike the Frenchman, the settlers were committing themselves for a lifetime. They were ready to sacrifice for the mitzvah of building the land, but shlepping two hours to work, or to fetch a barrel of water, that was a proposition doomed from the start.

“Surely there are other areas more suited for settlements,” Shilo, the carpenter, had argued, when a caravan of camels had dragged lumber out to the site in preparation for the approaching encampment.

“The Company has made its decision,” the redheaded LeClerc declared.

“Then let the Baron live here,” Hillel remarked.

“All of you Jews want to live like the Baron,” the Frenchman answered in disdain.

“We don’t have to live like the Baron,” Tevye said. “Give me a wagon and a horse and I’m happy. But the Lord created man with a brain, and He expects him to live with some intelligent sechel. We are not Bedouins that we can live without water.”

“Our agronomists have determined that this acreage comprises some of the best farmland in the country,” the manager asserted.

“That may be so, but if we have to travel two hours to work, and another two hours to return, so that four hours a day of work time will be wasted on traveling instead of plowing and planting, then it sounds like the Baron has been given some lousy advice on what to do with his money.”

“Therefore,” LeClerc said. “The main camp will be built in the middle of the property, equidistant from both the fields and the water. Thus, you will only need to travel one hour each way.”

Tevye had sighed. Could it be that the Almighty had brought him to the Land of Israel to take orders from this pompous Frenchman? But what choice did they have? To go back to Russia? That was out of the question. America? Who knew what troubles would be waiting him there? If a Jew was hounded by troubles and tzuris in Israel, in the place he belonged, he could be certain to find even more heartache in a foreign country.

At least, with hard work, the parcel of land would become their very own. A man had to look optimistically toward the future and trust that everything would turn out for the best. Nothing was built in a day. As Nachman reminded them, the Torah itself starts with the words, “In the beginning….”

“God could have created the world all at once,” he said, “all complete at the start, but the story of Creation spans seven days to teach that a man has to have patience. Great undertakings take time. Hasn’t the settlement Company promised to build us a canal to bring the water to our homes and our fields? Savlanut, as they say in Hebrew. Patience is the secret to our success.”

Invigorated by the spirit of freedom which swept over the windy mountain terrain, Shmuelik agreed.

“All of us knew that this adventure wouldn’t be easy,” he said. “Yet, we all volunteered. Isn’t it better that we break our backs, and not leave the hard work to our children? Did Abraham, our forefather, demand to live in a castle? No. He was happy to live in a tent.”

Hearing this rallying speech, Tevye was surprised at the young scholar, as if some other person were speaking. These were the passionate words of a Perchik or a Ben Zion, not of a lad who had spent most of his life learning in a backwoods, Russian yeshiva. When had Shmuelik become such a Herzl? But the spirit of their mission, of the Land, and of the pioneers themselves, even seized Tevye. As the first tent stakes were hammered into the ground, he found himself one of the settlement’s leaders. In addition to being put in charge of the livestock and stables, he was appointed chief of defense. Tevye, the general! After all, he knew how to ride a horse, and he had learned how to shoot.  God forbid that the Jews of Morasha would ever have to fight, but if they were attacked, they had to be ready. How could Tevye refuse the trust which his comrades were placing in him? As the Sages had taught, “In a place where there isn’t a man, be a man.” Immediately, he appointed Elisha’s eldest sons, Ariel and Yigal, to be his lieutenants. They would be in charge of guard duty and training, while Tevye would provide the overall army strategy and command. As far as the embarrassing incident with Elisha’s daughter, Tevye blamed his infatuation on the dizzying liquor and put the matter out of his mind.

The first month, the women and children remained behind in Zichron Yaacov, while the men set up the compound. Goliath and Reb Shilo, the carpenter, cut wood for fencing and for the walls of the barn. Reb Guttmacher, the undertaker; Munsho, the blacksmith; and Hillel, the musician, started digging the canal which would bring the spring water down from the mountain to the more fertile plateaus. When Hillel’s blistered hands prevented him from playing his accordion at the nightly campfire, he was replaced by Ariel and Yigal, and assigned lighter work looking after the animals. Chaim Lev, the fixer, made furniture, while Shraga, the scribe; Yankele, the butcher; Pincus, the storekeeper; and Elisha went to work clearing the rocky soil for seeding. Lazer, the tailor, was set to work repairing the second-hand tents which the Company had provided. By virtue of a unanimous settlement vote, Nachman and Shmuelik were to set up a Beit Midrash, where their job was to sit and learn Torah all morning. In Russia, the Rebbe had told his Hasidim that wherever they went, they were to make sure that a yeshiva was the cornerstone of their community. In the afternoon, the two scholars worked alongside the others outdoors, and in the evening, Nachman led a class in the writings of the famous Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady. He explained the Kabbalistic mysteries in simple metaphors which the settlers could grasp, but exhausted from their day-long labor, his students would often fall off their benches and sleep at his feet. On the Sabbath, two settlers would be left to guard the Morasha site, while the others returned to Zichron to be with their families. Though the land had been purchased in accordance with all of the Turkish mandate laws, one could never be sure when nomadic Arabs would appear to contest the settlers’ claims to the property.

The task before them was staggering. Like shipwrecked sailors thrown onto a desert island without means or resources, they literally had to dig with their hands when there were not enough shovels for everyone. But they all set to the work like true pioneers, determined to prove that they could conquer the land before the land conquered them. Every morning, Tevye got down on his hands and knees and kissed the holy soil.

“You are going to be kind to us today, aren’t you, my beloved?” he whispered, addressing the earth as if it could hear. “Your children have come home, so you can put your thistles and thorns away, and open your arms to embrace us. Believe me, we have suffered enough in our exile. May bygones be bygones, and let’s start again anew just like a bride and a groom.”

“Talking to yourself?” Reb Guttmacher asked, passing by with the shovel that never left his hand.

“I was just saying good morning to our sweet Morasha soil.”

“Take the advice of someone who has worked outdoors all his life, if you are going to work in the fields, you should wear a hat with a brim. The sun can make a man crazy.”

Tevye stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants. “Sometimes I think we are all a little crazy.”

“Yes, I know. As Dr. Weizmann is supposed to have said, `You don’t have to be crazy to be a Zionist, but it helps.’”

“You have to admit, it is better to be a poor farmer in one’s own land than a rich businessman in someone else’s.”

“Do you really believe that?” the undertaker asked.

Tevye smiled. “I’m trying to,” he said.

At Tevye’s age, working in the hot sun all the day was no simple matter, but he was determined to carry his share of the burden. The undertaker assisted him, teaching him some of the tricks of the trade, how to best hold a spade and upturn the hard soil without straining his back, but the hours took their toll. Until an outer layer of callous grew over his soft milkman’s hands, his palms would blister and bleed. Sometimes, the pain was so great, the shovel would slip from his grip, but immediately, he would lift up the tool and set back to work. The younger settlers like Ariel and Yigal encouraged the older settlers along, singing songs and shoveling in time to their music. And in the evening, to bolster their spirits, Nachman extolled the great virtues of being in the Holy Land, where every shovelful of earth brought them closer to  God.

“You are right,” Tevye agreed. “We certainly are getting closer to God, because this back-breaking toil is killing us.”

Every morning, the farmers rose before dawn to make the long trek to the fields. Work on the canal was temporarily postponed so that the shovelers could join in the task of clearing a road for their wagons. Lunch consisted of sour bread, sardines, and cucumbers bought from the Arabs who lived in the neighboring hills. For a generous fee, the Arabs gave them permission to draw water from a well on their property. Water was retrieved by dropping a bucket and rope into a hole ten meters deep. Usually, it took several efforts before they succeeded in filling the bucket, and by then the water was murky with mud. With the unsightly black water, they boiled a tea of sorts which was hardly refreshing. It wasn’t unusual for a worker to pass the night with a fever and a vomiting attack of green bile. But the next morning, everyone was back to work, driven by the call of their mission. When the colony’s roots were established, a team of agricultural specialists sent by the Company to instruct the new settlers in planting techniques and fertilization arrived in Morasha. The JCA also provided each settler with a team of two horses, a harness, a cart, a plow, seed for 150 dunams, one cow, a chicken coop, five chickens, animal fodder, a food allowance for one year, and fifty francs for sundries. Mattocks, picks, shovels, sickles, and scythes were not on the company list, so the pioneers had to share the few tools they had until an emergency requisition order arrived after a long, four-month wait. While many needed items were missing from each shipment, the relief wagons were always met with a great celebration, as if the Mashiach himself had come. LeClerc frowned on their demands, as if the expenses came out of his pocket. Finally, desperately needed equipment arrived. There were eight new mattocks, four shovels, two scythes, a saw, an axe, a hammer and nails, three buckets, four pairs of suspenders, four floppy sun hats, one rifle, four blankets, some writing paper, and a dog. Important as the supplies were to the settlers, it was the feeling that they weren’t alone – that other Jews stood behind them, including the Baron and all of his wealth. That, along with their faith in God, gave them the strength to keep going.

The cherished tools were carried into the shed they had built and stored away in a corner like a treasure. The long, rectangular structure was their first wooden dwelling, thanks to the skilled handiwork of Shilo, Chaim Lev, and Goliath. According to Turkish law, only animal stables, called “chans” were allowed wooden roofs. All other Jewish dwellings had to be left roofless, or covered with canvas, straw mats, branches, or removable slats. Petitions could be submitted for permanent roofing, but applications often lingered for months on the desks of Turkish officials in Caesarea until a large enough bribe could be paid. Like Noah in his ark, the settlers slept with their animals in the chan, and all of their community meetings were held in the presence of their horses and cows.

Their first attempt to build houses was interrupted when Turkish officials arrived and ordered the roofs-in-progress demolished. LeClerc had not secured the necessary permits, and without a permit, the settlers couldn’t build roofs. However, if a structure had already been constructed, and if its roof was already in place, then the Turkish inspectors needed a court order to raze the building – and if a case got to court, the judge could be bribed with the traditional baksheesh. Because of the building infraction, their applications for permanent permits were rejected.

Needless to say, LeClerc’s ineptitude, or lack of concern, didn’t win him the respect of the settlers. Like the Turks, he was seen as an enemy who couldn’t be trusted. When he deigned to spend a night in the settlement, he slept in his spacious tent, while the Jews slept in the barn. For two weeks, work in the fields was suspended. Goliath and Hillel took off with a wagon and returned from Zichron Yaacov laden with reinforcements and lumber. Tevye positioned four guards in the corners of the colony to give early warning in the event the inspectors returned. Working around the clock, the Jews put up two barns and eight one-room cottages. The next time the Turkish officials visited, the roofs were all finished and sitting in place. The date for a court hearing was set. In the meantime, LeClerc applied to the Turkish Magistrate for the necessary permits. With the Baron’s intercession, the appropriate papers were signed. Fittingly, the permits and a letter from the Baron arrived on Tisha B’Av, the day the ancient Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed. Wasn’t it written that the sadness of the Jews would turn into joy, that their tears would turn into singing and laughter, and that the day of destruction would turn into a day of rebirth? With hard work and patience, it was all coming true.

And that wasn’t all. The letter from the Baron was personally addressed to Nachman. The “Benefactor” congratulated him on becoming a founder of a new Rothschild colony in Israel, and he wrote that the 5000 franc gift for the children was being transferred to Zichron Yaacov for the family’s convenience! The Baron appreciated Nachman’s honesty and concern, and wanted to assure him that the money was meant for the children, no matter where they lived, so long as they stayed in the Land of Israel.

When houses had been erected, the Morasha pioneers sent for their families. Once the women and children arrived, lives became more normal. Like the light which had filled the tents of the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, from one Sabbath to the next, a woman in the house brought a man a special blessing. But it was a blessing that Tevye was not privileged to share. Because of the shortage of houses, married couples were given first preference. Naturally, LeClerc, was given a cottage, even though his wife lived in Paris, and he himself spent more time in Zichron Yaacov and Jaffa than in the new colony of Morasha. Nachum and Ruchel insisted that Tevye share their tiny cottage with them, but Tevye refused. He didn’t want to intrude on the newlyweds. Little Moishe and Hannie slept in their one room as it was, so Tevye remained in the barn with the rest of the bachelors and cows.

Oy vay,” he thought. That’s the way it goes. You work all of your life, you raise seven daughters, you live with a woman twenty-five years, and then you are left out in the barn to sleep with the beasts. Every man had his mazel. If the barn was to be Tevye’s, so be it. His Golda had been an angel. So who was he to complain? Twenty-five years with an angel was reward enough for one lifetime. Not that it had always been easy to live with an angel, but even in her angriest moments, Golda never made her husband sleep in the barn.

It wasn’t that Tevye felt lonely. He had other men to talk to, and, like in the past, he still enjoyed a good conversation with a horse or a cow, but neither a man nor a beast was a woman, and a mattress of hay could never take the place of a bed.

“Why don’t you marry again?” Hillel asked him during one of their frequent late evening walks.

It was one of those magical nights that are so unique to the Holy Land, when you feel like you can reach out and touch thousands of stars. It was during these tranquil nocturnal strolls, or during his secluded night hours of guard duty, that Tevye most felt the full wonder of life. Under the vastness of the heavens, when the labors of the day gave way to peaceful contemplation of night, a man could feel his smallness in the universe, and experience the greatness of his Creator.

“Marry again?” Tevye asked. “What for?”

“A wife is better than a cow, is she not?”

“That depends on the woman, and the cow,” Tevye answered. “Fortunately, I was married to an angel. No woman could ever replace her.”

“The Torah says that it is not good for a man to live alone,” Hillel reminded.

“So why don’t you marry?” Tevye asked.

“What woman wants a lame minstrel like me?” Hillel said with a sigh.

“What woman wants a broken down horse of a milkman like me?”

“You’re still as strong as an ox,” the musician said.

“An ox with one foot in the grave,” Tevye tiredly answered.

“In this world, we all have one foot in the grave.”

“Comfort me with your music instead of your speeches,” Tevye said. “Besides, if I were to marry, my angel Golda would haunt me the rest of my life. Do you think she wants a strange woman sharing my bed? I’d rather sleep with the cows than awaken the wrath of my Golda.”

Hillel took up a tune on his harmonica, and the two bachelors walked on accompanied by the lonely chords of his song.

Weeks passed. Spurred on by the challenge of transforming the rugged terrain into fertile orchards and vineyards, the Jews of Morasha kept to their mission with a passionate fervor. As Tevye guided his team of horses and plow along the long furrows which would one day sprout bushels of corn, he thought of his children and grandchildren. Everything he was doing, he was doing for them. And for Golda. Often he would talk to her out loud, to take his mind off of the pains in his back. He didn’t remember his Golda speaking about the Land of Israel, but in his imagination, he built it into her dream. This is what she would have wanted for her children. Her voice rang in his ears, encouraging him, helping him to hold the plow in line, helping him to believe that the seeds he was planting would truly grow into corn stalks and wheat. With her great faith in him, nothing could break him, nor dampen the spirit of optimism which he put into all of his labor.

Not that everything was all roses. Almost nightly, there were discussions about abandoning the area to search out a better irrigated site, but the settlers decided to stay with the hope that their work would be blessed from Above. Whenever LeClerc visited the new settlement to see what progress had been made, all of the settlers crowded around him with a chorus of demands and complaints. They were short of manpower, short of horses, and short of tools. They had been promised 150 square dunams of land apiece, but had received only seventy-five. Shipments of meat which were supposed to be sent from Zichron Yaacov rarely arrived, and their stock of medicine and bandages was depleted. Finally, the distance they had to travel to their fields, day after day, was a punishment that was taking a toll on everyone, including their mules and their horses. LeClerc made notes in a pad and promised to pass on the information to the appropriate officials in Paris.

“Paris?!” Tevye exclaimed. “We’re the ones living here. We know what we need. What do our problems have to do with some clerk sitting on his tochis in Paris?”

“I sympathize with your plight,” the dapper dresser told them. “I sincerely do. And so does the Company. For this reason, I have brought a team of experts to assist in the great task before you.”

With him were an agronomist, a botanist, an engineer, and a mechanic whose job it was to study the area and make a report to the central office detailing how Morasha could be built into a money-making project. For the moment, Tevye’s anger abated. Though he didn’t know what an agronomist did, he was impressed by the professionalism of the contingent. None of the settlers understood French, so no one knew what the experts were saying, but they certainly gave out an impression that they knew about farming. They spent a full day exploring the site, taking measurements with some sort of surveying instrument Tevye had never see, making notes, testing the soil and water, and even taking some pictures with a camera they had brought in their wagon. At the end of the day, the settlers were handed a list of crops to plant. Seeds of mulberry, fenugreek, lentils, sorghum, sesame, maize, tobacco, sunflowers, and almonds were to be shipped out immediately, though, of course, they didn’t arrive until the planting season was over.

A short time afterward, a “welcoming committee” of Arabs came on a peace mission. Their caped and caftaned leaders were called Muktar Abdul Abdulla and Muktar Muchmad Mohammed. They said that they represented the villages in the area, and that they had come to make a treaty with the Jews. Elisha, the Yemenite, spoke Arabic fluently, and he served as translator and spokesman for the Morasha pioneers. He said that a Muktar was the chief of a village, like the sheik of a bedouin tribe. Tables were set up outside and refreshments were served to the guests. Muktar Abdulla said that they recognized the right of the Jews to settle the country, saying that it was written in their holy Koran that the Jews would return to the Land of Canaan one day, and that Allah had promised the Land to the children of Jacob. They wanted to make peace, to work together, and develop the region. The Muktar said he held legal claim to a large tract of land on the other side of the mountain, which was far superior to the Morasha site, and he was willing to sell it to the Jews. The land could house thousands of families, he said, and its water supply was abundant. Furthermore, he confided over a second glass of vodka, the Arabs wanted to unite with the Jews to throw out the Turks. They had 300 trained soldiers ready for battle, but the Jews would have to supply them with guns. When they conquered the Turks, they said, the Jews could have Eretz Yisrael with all of its Biblical borders, while the Arabs would take the lands which Allah had given to Ishmael.

Tevye ordered his daughters to gather the food which was set aside for the Sabbath and to prepare a festive banquet. Hadn’t Abraham welcomed all travelers into his tent, even idol worshippers with dirt on their feet? After all, didn’t the Jews and the Arabs share the same ancestral father, Abraham? Furthermore, the Arabs had come with an offer of peace, and shalom, the rabbis taught, was the foundation of the world.

“How can you trust them?” Bat Sheva asked. “Remember what they did to Ben Zion.”

“May his soul rest in peace,” Tevye said.

True, Arabs had murdered Ben Zion, but maybe the tribes in the region were different. They certainly acted sincere.

“Obviously, these Arabs are more religious,” he said. “And though I don’t understand what they are saying, your father, Tevye, has done business in the far corners of the world, and he knows when a man can be trusted. So hurry and prepare us a feast for our neighbors.”

“What about food for Shabbos?” Yankele asked, reluctant to slaughter a chicken for a weekday repast.

“God won’t let us go hungry on the Sabbath,” Tevye assured him.

Bottles of wine and Arak appeared, and the Arabs and Jews sat down for a meal. True, the Arab soldiers escorting the chiefs kept their rifles strapped over their chests, and Goliath never wandered far from his ax, but a spirit of brotherhood surrounded the occasion. Fortunately, LeClerc was absent, away on one of his frequent trips to Jaffa, where he was rumored to have a mistress. The Muktars, Tevye noticed, religiously abstained from liquor. For entertainment, two of the Arab horsemen demonstrated their skill with their swords, slicing melons in half at full gallop, and Hillel played his accordion. Inspired by the liquor and the prospects of acquiring a better piece of land, Tevye balanced a bottle of vodka on his head and taught Muktar Abdulla, how to dance like a Hasidic Jew. By the end of the banquet, Tevye had made a new friend. The Muktar bowed low and invited the settlers of Morasha to visit his village for a tour of the property which his tribe was offering to sell. A date was arranged, and the Arabs rode off.  Immediately, Nachman wrote a letter to the Baron regarding the available land, promising to forward more details as soon as they inspected the site and determined its price. But a reply from Paris was never received. When LeClerc was told about the visit of the Arabs and the proposition they had made, he wrote his own letter to Paris, advising the Baron against further land acquisitions in the region, at least until the Morasha experiment proved that the area was conducive to increased Jewish settlement.

“For the moment,” he wrote, “the stamina and mettle of these religious Jews is an unknown commodity which only time will disclose. If their complaining can be turned into constructive hard work, then the Morasha project might deserve greater manpower and investment. But for the present, further Company outlay and development in the region is to be strongly discouraged.”

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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