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

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

“Who is it now?” Ruchel asked.

“Shmuelik,” Tevye said.

Lifting her shawl over her head, Ruchel ran out of the door into the rain. She found her husband quietly sobbing over his best friend’s body.

“Oh, Nachman, my love,” she said, laying her hand on his • shoulder.

“Go back to the house,” Nachman told Ruchel. “I have to help here with the burial.”

Ruchel nodded. Eyes filled with tears, she walked back out of the barn. Shmuelik had been more than a friend. He had been a part of the family. Every Sabbath, he had joined them for meals. Every evening, he had sat at their table with her husband, learning Torah by candlelight late into the night. And how happy he had been at their wedding! How he had danced!

Once again a funeral procession made its way through the rain to the Morasha cemetery. Nachman delivered a eulogy for his friend. All of the time, gusts of rain battered the hillside.

After the burial, it was decided that a wagon would take the sick to the infirmary in Zichron Yaacov for treatment. Besides Guttmacher’s delirious daughter, two of the blacksmith’s children were lifted onto the wagon. Tevye was chosen to drive, and Goliath volunteered to go with him. With a foreboding feeling, Tevye said good-bye to his wife and his daughters. Carmel followed him out to the wagon.

“I will be back by evening tomorrow,” he told her. “If the good Lord wills.”

“May God be with you,” she said.

Goliath sat in the back of the wagon with the children, holding a blanket over their heads like a tent. The blacksmith’s wife rode with them. Tevye flicked the reins of the wagon, but the horse didn’t budge. With a snort, it turned its head toward Tevye as if to ask if he truly intended to set off into the brunt of the storm.

“This isn’t the time for arguments,” Tevye told him, flicking the reins once again.

Still the horse wouldn’t budge. Tevye climbed down from the wagon and walked over to the beast.

“You are right,” Tevye told him. “Only a madman would set off on a journey in a hurricane like this, but people are sick.”

The horse only snorted.

“You are right,” Tevye said. “People are people, and horses are horses, so what business is it of yours? Well, it so happens that horses have been known to drop dead from the plague, so if we don’t get some help, you may never have to pull a wagon again. And if that isn’t reason enough, there’s this.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some sugar. The horse lapped it up gratefully. Once again, Tevye climbed into the wagon and gave the reins an authoritative flick. This time, the creature started off. Back in Anatevka, driving his wagon through rainstorms and blizzards, Tevye had come to understand the difference between a man and an animal. A man would do meshuganah things because he was crazy, or in pursuit of some higher ideal, but a animal had a more basic down-to-earth sense and had to be bribed.

As Tevye’s good friend, Sholom Aleichem, would say, “To make matters short,” Tevye drove slowly because of the treacherous footing. Floodwater splashed down the mountain. The trail had turned into mud. After several hours, they reached the stream which ran down from the highlands to the low coastal plain. Because of the deluge, its banks were overflowing. Overnight, the gentle stream had turned into a raging, whitecapped river. Without a bridge, there was no way they could cross with a wagon load of children. If a wheel were to shatter or get stuck in the mud, the children could drown. Standing on the bank of the torrent, Tevye and Goliath worked out a plan. First they carried their passengers across the rushing rapids. Then Goliath ripped off the upper planks of the wagon’s rail. Stretching them across the narrowest neck of the stream, he formed a makeshift bridge. The giant walked back into the water and guided the nervous horse into the current. Tevye aligned the wheels of the wagon with the planks of the bridge. Miraculously, the wagon rolled over the boards without tumbling into the water.

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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