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

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

The praying halted when the barn door swung open. Tevye’s Bat Sheva rushed in from the rain. Her wet hair was flattened down to the sides of her head. Even before she spoke, everyone could tell from the fright in her eyes that she was the harbinger of something distressing. This time it was Guttmacher’s daughter. She was delirious with fever. Everyone stared at the undertaker as if he had the mark of Cain inscribed on his forehead. Wearing his phylacteries and prayer shawl, he hurried to the barn where the women had slept with the sheep. His daughter gazed at him blankly, without recognizing him in the least. She called for her mother and asked for her doll.

“When will we get to Eretz Yisrael”? she inquired.

Elisha said that the fever looked like cholera. If it was being spread by the animals, then all of the women who had slept in the barn might be infected. Until they could find out for sure, he said it was safer for the women to return to their houses, even if it meant getting drenched in the rain. In Yemen, he had seen whole villages wiped out by the plague.

A depression fell over the colony. There was no local doctor to turn to, and no medicines to combat the disease. Other settlers began complaining of a weakness in their limbs. Some had sharp pains in their stomachs. Settlers started moving back to their open-roofed houses, seeking shelter in corners which they were able to close off from the rain. Blankets were draped over tables and children were huddled below. At least the air was breathable in the houses, not like the foul-smelling air in the barns. Still there were those who stayed with the animals rather than exposing themselves to the rain and the cold.

By noon, Shmuelik had taken a turn for the worse. He opened his eyes and looked up at Tevye with a sad smile. “Where is Nachman?” he asked.

“Here I am,” Nachman answered. “Right here by your side.”

Shmuelik moved his head toward his friend’s familiar voice and managed a smile. He reached out his hand. Nachrnan took it and gave it a squeeze.

“What’s happening with me?” Shmuelik asked.

“You are going to be fine,” Nachman said. “You are just a little down from the weather and tired, that’s all.”

Tevye turned away with the pretext of fetching some water, but in truth, it was hard for him to see the life seeping out of this beautiful young man whom he had come to love like a son. Nachman also could barely hold back his tears. He loved his friend like a brother. They had grown up together, played together, and learned the Hebrew alef-bet together in heder. Later, when they were older, they had studied in yeshiva together every day. Shmuelik was a part of Nachman, almost as much as his wife.

Tevye handed Nachman a glass of water. Raising Shmuelik’s head, Nachman tilted the liquid toward the pale trembling lips and told his friend to sip. Then he gently rubbed water over Shmuelik’s hot sweating forehead.

“I saw your father in a dream,” Shmuelik said. “I was waiting at the gateway to Heaven, holding out his hand, but my time hadn’t come. I had to come back here to tell you not to I worry. ‘Don’t let the troubles in this world dismay you,’ your father said. ‘The real world is waiting. And the reward here is great.’”

Shmuelik gasped and his eyelids closed. Whispering the prayer, “Shema Yisrael. . . Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” he seemed to drift peacefully into a coma. Tevye and Nachman slumped over as if a great weight had been placed on their backs. What would they do without Shmuelik? Who would bolster their spirits? Who would remind them that God was always with them, in their joys, and in their sorrows as well?

Tevye stood up and staggered out of the barn. Looking up at the cloudy black sky, he raised his hands to Heaven, as if to ask why. All he received in response was a slap of wind and rain. Across the way, the door of his house opened, and his wife, Carmel, appeared. Trudging through the mud, he entered the crowded cottage. Using broken planks and branches, Goliath had succeeded in roofing most of the house. In a corner, water dripped from the ceiling like a forest cascade, but it was better than being outside in the downpour. Goliath had even succeeded in lighting the stove. The house was by no means warm, but by gathering around the fire, the chill was considerably lessened. Before Tevye spoke, the women in the house sensed that the Angel of Death had claimed someone else. Exhausted, Tevye collapsed into a chair and glanced at his wife and his daughters.

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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