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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Plague

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

In the middle of the night, their slumber was ended. Reb Guttmacher’s twelve-year-old daughter came searching for her father. At first, because of the rain, the undertaker didn’t notice the tears streaming down her face. Then she fell into his arms crying.

“What is it,” he asked.

Ema,” she said, unable to finish the sentence.

“What about Ema?” he asked.

The girl couldn’t answer. She stammered and finally spewed out the words.

Ema is dead.”

Guttmacher felt a sledgehammer fall on the back of his head. His wife had gone to sleep with a fever, then suddenly her breathing had stopped. The undertaker wailed. Embracing his daughter, he rocked back and forth, as if he were praying. The girl’s tears rolled over his cheeks. Stoically, he stood up and braced himself for the job ahead. True, he was no stranger to death. He had been trained to bury people. He had been surrounded by death all of his married life. But to bury the woman he loved, that was a fate too harsh to bear. It was true that his wife had been a frail woman, exhausted by the long journey to Israel, and weakened by an asthma which had tortured her all through the summer, but the undertaker had never dreamed she would leave him without even a word of good-bye. Shocked, he let his daughter lead him from the barn. The other settlers followed in a silent and gloomy procession. Some of them grabbed shovels and trudged off in the rain to the deserted hillside which the undertaker had set aside for a cemetery upon his arrival in Morasha. Guttmacher went to the barn where the women were sheltered. The body had to be prepared for burial according to Jewish law, and he and Nachman were the only men on the yishuv who had learned how to do it.

The women made way as they entered. There was a look of fear in their eyes. Mothers tried to rock their weeping children to sleep. Goliath lifted the lifeless body and carried it outside. Guttmacher directed him toward the tool shed and instructed him to set his wife down on the worktable out back. He wanted the purifying rain to wash her.

A short time later, he lifted a sheet up over her face. A group of men lifted the plank which she lay on. In the pouring rainfall, the procession set off along the hillside toward the gasoline-lit lanterns which marked the open gravesite. All of the adults in the settlement turned out for the funeral. Water streamed down the hillside. Footing was treacherous. The men carrying the corpse often slipped beneath their burden. When they tired, other volunteers took ahold of the plank. Slowly, the procession made its way to the grave. A strong wind caused the flame off the lanterns to flicker, sending fingers of light into the freshly dug pit. With a sob, the undertaker climbed down into the grave, just as he had done for so many strangers. Then he reached out his hands to receive his wife’s body. Gently, he lowered her into the grave, making sure that she rested comfortably in her final abode. His children stood around the graveside, weeping. Loads of damp, heavy earth were tossed over the body. Guttmacher’s daughters cried out with each chilling scrape of the shovels. Finally, Nachman intoned the traditional memorial prayer, and Reb Guttmacher recited Kaddish. For a long while, the family stood around the grave, indifferent to the weather, as if it weren’t pouring at all. Following the light of their lanterns, the other settlers silently made their way back down the hill to the barns. The relentless rain continued to fall.

When morning came, Shmuelik didn’t have the strength to rise and pray with the minyan. His face was pale and his eyes had lost all of their color.

“Don’t tell Nachman,” he said.

Tevye hurried to bring him some water but the young scholar had already sunk back into a feverish sleep. Not knowing what else to do, Tevye covered Shmuelik’s shivering body with his blanket.

“Everything will turn out for the best,” Tevye said to assure him.

Kneeling beside him, Tevye placed his hand on Shmuelik’s head and said a quiet blessing. Rain continued to batter the roof. With a sigh, Tevye put on his tallit prayer shawl and tefillin and hurried to join the minyan which had already started in a corner of the barn. If day in and day out, a Jew’s prayer could become dulled with routine, today’s supplications echoed through the rafters. Pigeons fluttered nervously over their roosts, frightened by the cries and heartfelt lamentations.

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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