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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-One: Reunion

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

The journey from Zichron Yaacov to Jaffa took almost three days. For Tevye, it was a chance to see another part of the Land of Israel, the sandy, swamp-infested coastline bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the landscape was barren, with only an occasional settlement along the way. The colonies of Hadera, Kfar Saba, and Petach Tikvah were like oases where the Jews could find a prayer minyan and stock up on supplies. Otherwise, the land lay in abandonment and ruin. Toward the end of the third day, the movement of ships out to sea told them that they were nearing the busy port city of Jaffa. In the distance, they could see the hill overlooking the harbor and the tower of the citadel which had been built during the Crusades. At the outskirts of the city, a new village consisting of rows of wooden houses and tents was being constructed on the beach. Someone said it was called Tel Aviv.

“Are they Jews?” Tevye asked.

“Free thinkers,” one of the winery workers said in a deprecatory tone.

“Free-thinking Jews,” Lishansky, the Zichron work foreman added, out of respect for all pioneers.

“You can’t be free thinking and still be a Jew,” the religious wine worker said.

“You can’t be a Jew without being free thinking,” Lishansky corrected, enjoying a little intellectual debate to pass the monotony of the journey.

“A Jew is obligated to do what God instructs him to do,” Tevye argued.

“That may be true,” Lishansky agreed. “But that in itself is the greatest freedom.”

The clang and pounding of hammering punctuated their talmudic discussion. Stone buildings and wooden frames were being erected along a dirt roadway, which was to become Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfare, Disengof Street. Within a short time, they reached the clustered dwellings of Jaffa, passed Rabbi Kook’s neighborhood, and continued on to the Rothschild wine warehouse. Tired from the journey, Tevye decided to spend the night sleeping between the rows of barrels. For a wine connoisseur like Tevye, he couldn’t have found a better hotel. The mosquitoes were merciless, but after purchasing a wholesale bottle of a vintage red brew, he managed to drift off to sleep. In the morning, Tevye and Goliath said so long to their comrades and kept heading south with the children. As they left the port city, a few settlers from Rishon hopped on the back of the wagon with bundles of food and supplies.

“Thank the Almighty,” Tevye said, “for sending us angels to help guide us on our way.”

“We are only simple Jews,” one of them answered.

“Can there be such a thing?” Tevye asked, in a philosophical mood. “Aren’t we all sons of the King?”

Moishe climbed into the front seat of the wagon and leaned sleepily against his grandfather. The mosquitoes in the warehouse had kept the boy awake all through the night. Not wanting to be left alone in the rear of the wagon with the strangers, Hannie followed after her brother and rested against Goliath’s secure, sturdy frame. Soon they had left the bustling port city behind.

Arriving in Rishon LeZion after sunset, they found Ruchel and Nachman at home in their small wooden cottage. How ecstatic the young couple was to see them! Since their wedding, it was the first time that family had come for a visit. While Ruchel hurried to set freshly baked cakes on the table, Tevye and Goliath carried the sleeping children to a corner where a spare bed was waiting.

“I have ordered another bed from the carpentry shop,” Nachman said, beaming with the happiness of a man who had found his niche in life. He even looked a little rounder around the belly, in praise of Ruchel’s cooking.

“Sit, Abba, sit,” he said to Tevye, motioning him to a chair. “You must be tired from the long journey. Please, by all means, take some cake. Ess, ess. Eat. Honor our house with a blessing over the food that God has so graciously given us.”

The guests sat down at the small table to eat. The sweet, creamy pastry was just what Tevye longed for after the long dusty trail. A picture of the past flashed in his eyes as he remembered his wife, Golda, and the delicious cakes she always had waiting when he trudged home from work.

“Just like your mother used to make,” he said. “May her memory be for a blessing.”

“She taught me,” Ruchel reminded him.

“A good thing for me,” Nachman said. “You should know, Reb Tevye, that your daughter has opened a business. In honor of the Sabbath, she bakes the most delicious pastries and cakes, and sells them to our neighbors.”

“As they say, like mother like daughter,” Tevye replied. “Wasn’t I known all over Russia as the milkman with the very finest cheese pastries?”

Their conversation extended late into the night. Tevye told them about their time in Shoshana, and their situation in Zichron Yaacov, and the happy young couple described their new life. Sliding an envelope out from beneath the tablecloth, Ruchel proudly showed her father the letter which the Baron had sent. The money he had sent for the children, she said, was safely locked away in the colony vault.

After an appetizing forshbite of pastries and a sip of some wine, Ruchel set plates of fresh, homegrown vegetables before them. Tevye’s eyelids began to feel heavy. After the meal, he lied down on a mat beside the children and fell into a deep, dream-filled sleep. Sometimes a person remembers his dreams, and other times he doesn’t, but the dreams he recalls often have meaning, if he separates the chaff from the wheat. In the middle of the night, Tevye found himself swimming in the ocean with whales. Suddenly, one of the mammals opened its jaws and swallowed up him up with his wagon. Terrified, he landed with a thud in the creature’s foul-smelling belly. Around him were piles of skeletons. To Tevye’s surprise, he recognized their faces – Lazar Wolf, the butcher; Ephraim, the matchmaker; Jeremiah, the fishmonger; and his other friends from Anatevka. Everyone was there except Golda.

Tevye awoke in a sweat. The children slept peacefully. The door to the bedroom was closed. In the darkness, his hand scraped along the floor until he found the yarmulkah which had slipped off of his head.

“May the dream be for a blessing,” he said.

Quietly, he slipped out of the house. Goliath was snoring under the wagon.

“May your dreams be more pleasant than mine,” he whispered as he set off down the path toward the cemetery. How could he leave Rishon in the morning without first paying a visit to Golda? Passing a small garden in the yard of a house, he stopped and gazed at the flowers. How could he go to the grave of his wife without something in hand? Quickly, he looked left and right to see if someone were watching. As he reached out to break off a rose, his hand paused like a bee hovering over a petal before stealing its pollen. True, they weren’t wildly growing flowers, but was it a sin to pick flowers for the mitzvah of honoring the dead? Isn’t that what flowers were for? Tevye would actually be doing the owner of the garden a favor by doing a good deed with his roses. Still, to ease a guilty conscience, after snapping off a twig, he stuck a Turkish mark over a thorny branch to pay for the petty larceny.

“Okay?” he asked, looking up at the sky when he had concluded the transaction. Stem and flower in hand, he set off for the grave. It was an hour before sunrise, and the first rays of light were beginning to appear in the sky. He remembered the way to the cemetery along the path of tall eucalyptus trees. Gently, he set the modest bouquet on the simple slab of stone which marked the earthly abode of his wife.

“You won’t mind me sitting down beside you, my sweet Golda,” he said. “If I stand I will feel like I have to deliver a sermon, when the reason I have come is to be close to my dear wife.”

Leaning his cheek against the tombstone, Tevye remembered the voyage to Israel and the extraordinary ordeal it had been to shlepp her coffin along. He recalled, with a shudder, how he had almost lost her, and how God, in his compassion, had commanded the waves of the ocean to return her to him. Then, with a sob, he remembered their sweet Tzeitl. It wasn’t like Tevye to cry, but in a cemetery, he didn’t have to worry that someone would notice.

“You’re right,” he said, as if his wife were sitting beside him. “It isn’t my fault that Tzeitl wouldn’t go to the hospital. No doubt, she is better off where she is up in Heaven than down here on this mosquito-filled planet called Earth. If you weren’t already in Gan Eden, I might worry, but I know you will look out for her the way you looked out for all of us. Oh, how we miss you, dear Golda.”

Once again, sleep overcame the road-weary settler. Without knowing it, he fell on his side alongside her grave.

“Good night, my sweet Tevye,” his wife said.

Soon, his snores sounded over the cemetery. Imagine the surprise of a worker on the way to the fields when he heard Tevye’s trumpeting and discovered a corpse lying above ground by a grave.

“Are you all right?” the husky voice asked.

Tevye sat up, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Is it morning already?” he asked.

“The sun’s in the sky.”

“I must have fallen asleep here.”

“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t dead,” the man said.

“Some days I feel that I am,” Tevye answered.

“You should live until you are a 120 years old,” the field worker responded, coining the age-old expression.

Tevye grumbled. That meant another seventy years of aggravation and toil. He stood up and brushed the dirt off his clothes. With a heavy heart, he headed back to colony. The day’s task was one of the hardest he ever had to face – saying good-bye to the children. Already, he missed his little kinderlach. Hadn’t he been like a father to them? Ever since Motel had died, Tevye had been the dominant man in their lives. He was more than their grandfather. But Tevye knew that the children needed a real home which only a husband and wife could provide. And, as their mother had wanted, with Ruchel and Nachman, they would grow up in a house filled with Torah.

When he returned to the house, the look in the children’s eyes pierced Tevye’s heart. He had been careful to hide from them the real reason for the visit, so when Ruchel had innocently told them that morning, they had received a grave shock. Ruchel might have been their aunt, but Tevye was, in their eyes, their father. How could they live without him? His presence was as vital to their existence as air. When he entered the house, they rushed at him passionately and grabbed a hold of his legs.

“I’m staying with you,” Moishe said, clinging to his grandfather’s pants.

“So am I,” Hannie said.

Tevye bent down on one knee. “You can’t, my sweet children,” he said. “You need to be raised by a mother and father, not by a broken-down horse.”

“You aren’t a horse,” Hannie said.

“If I had another two legs I would be,” her grandfather answered.

“I’ll run away,” Moishe threatened.

“So will I,” Hannie agreed.

Tevye looked up at his daughter. This wasn’t going to be easy. He sensed that the situation demanded a tenderness that he didn’t have. He knew how to milk cows without hurting them, but children were a far more delicate matter. When Ruchel stepped forward, Moishe and Hannie retreated behind their grandfather’s back.

“Your aunt Ruchel loves you both very much,” Tevye said.

“So does Uncle Nachman,” Ruchel assured.

“We hardly even know him,” Moishe said.

“We’ll get to know each other,” Nachman promised, looking up from the tome he was studying.

“Nachman is one of the best storytellers in the world,” Tevye said.

“Who cares?” Moishe said.

“Who cares?” Hannie echoed.

“Your mother’s last wish was that you grow up with your Aunt Ruchel and Uncle Nachman,” Tevye informed them.

“He isn’t our uncle,” Moishe said.

“Yes he is,” Hannie told him. “They’re married.”

“Who cares if they are married,” Moishe responded. “I’m staying with Saba.”

“You can’t,” Tevye said. “And that’s final.”

He stood up and tore the children away from his legs. The time had come to be decisive. To lay down the law. He had to let the children know there was no chance of returning with him to Zichron Yaacov.

Moishe and Hannie glared at him, hurt and betrayed.

“What about Goliath?” the little girl asked.

The big lumberjack stood by the door with tears in his eyes.

“Maybe I can stay on for a while,” he said. “Until the children are used to the change.”

“Maybe we can find you a place here in Rishon,” Nachman added. He turned to the children. “Would that make you happy?”

“No,” Moishe said. Sobbing, he stared at his grandfather. “You just want to be rid of us,” he accused. “Nobody wants us. Just like Abba and Ema left us, you are leaving us too. I wish I were dead like they are.”

Crying, he ran for the door but Goliath caught him by the shirt.

“Let me go,” Moishe screamed, taking a bite out of the giant’s big paw.

Goliath let go with a whelp and let the boy free. Hannie ran out of the house after her brother. Together, they took off toward the fields.

“Let them go,” Nachman said. “They’ll come back when they get tired.”

“They are little children. They could get lost,” Ruchel protested.

“They won’t go far,” Nachman assured.

“How do you know? Since when are you an expert on children?  God forbid they wander into the swamps.”

“She’s right,” Tevye said.

“Maybe you should go back to Zichron Yaacov now,” Nachman suggested. “We’ll find them and bring them back to the house. If you have already left, it might be easier for the children to realize they don’t have a choice.”

“I can’t leave until I know that they are safe,” Tevye answered.

Outside the house, the adults split up in different directions. Shouting out the names of the children, Nachman hurried toward the swamps, a short distance from the settlement. The settlers had long ago drained the malaria-infested waters which had surrounded the colony, but there were still patches of swampland close by. Goliath ran toward the fields to search for them. Ruchel headed for the orchards, and Tevye was to look along the main road leading to Jaffa. Passing the barn and inhaling the aroma of horses and cows, he stopped and decided to take a quick look inside. If he were a runaway child, the first place he would hide was the barn. Sure enough, almost as soon as he entered, Hannie jumped up from behind a hay stack and started to flee. Tevye darted after her, but the sheep pen was dirty with sheep dung and Tevye slipped in the muck. Luckily, he landed just clear of the droppings, but by the time he sat up, the girl had already scampered out the barn door. Moishe tried to jump over his grandfather, but Tevye grabbed onto a leg. The boy hollered and scrambled away. Quickly, he climbed up a ladder to the hay loft. Tevye raced up the ladder after him, but the fiesty little vance squirmed away. Bravely, he leapt down onto the haystack below. Holding his pounding heart, Tevye climbed back down the ladder.

Outside the barn, he could see the children running toward the gate of the colony. Hurrying back to Ruchel’s house, he climbed into his wagon and urged his horse to take up the chase. The wagon clamored through the yishuv, drawing curious glances. Outside the gate, he caught up with the fleeing children.

“Wooo!” he called, halting his horse.

He jumped down from the wagon, and with a great sustained effort, he ran after Moishe and scooped him up under his right arm, then ran after Hannie and lifted her off of her feet with his left. With his heart beating like galloping horses, and his lungs screaming for breath, he hoisted them up into the wagon. Pinning them down under his legs, he turned his horse around and headed back toward the colony.

“You don’t love us,” Moishe accused.

“Of course I do,” he told them. “Even more than I love my wagon and horse.”

“You just say that, but you don’t mean it. Otherwise you wouldn’t give us away.”

“I’m doing what your mother wanted, may she rest in heavenly peace. You may not like it now, but one day you both will be glad that you grew up with Ruchel and Nachman.”

When they arrived back at the house, the children ran into the bedroom and slammed the door shut in their grandfather’s face. He had to sit down and rest. His pounding heart told him that Tzeitl was right. The children needed a young father and mother, not an old, weary mule like their grandfather. He heard their sobs from the other side of the door, but didn’t have the courage to face them, so he waited outside on the porch until Ruchel came home.

“Thank God,” she said when he told her that the children were safe in the house.

“I think Nachman is right,” Tevye said. “It is better if I leave right away. In a few days the children will get over the change. It may be hard for them to understand now, but one day they will realize that everything God does is for the best. After all, He is the Master of the World, not us.”

“Sometimes, it is hard for me to understand everything He does,” Ruchel confided.

Ever since her father had arrived, neither of them had mentioned the pregnancy which had not come to fruition. If Tevye could see an unspoken sadness in his daughter’s eyes, neither of them wanted to bring the matter up now.

“Whether we understand or not, we have to believe,” Tevye said. “That’s what faith is about.”

He bent down and kissed his daughter’s forehead. Wanting to feel more of his love, she gave him a hug.

“Oh, Abba, I’ve missed you so much,” she said.

“I have missed you also, my daughter. As the Sages teach, ‘More than the baby calf wants to suck, the mother cow wants to give milk.’”

Tevye climbed up into his wagon. Once again, he headed for the gate of the colony. Ruchel stood watching as the wagon rolled over the dirt road leading away from the house. To her surprise, Moishe and Hannie raced by her, running after the wagon.

Saba!” they yelled. “Zeide! Don’t leave us!”

Ruchel ran after the children. Returning from the swamps, Nachman saw his wife scampering away from the house. Goliath, on his way back from the fields, saw Nachman race off after Ruchel. He too joined in the chase. Outside the settlement gate, Tevye heard the calls of the children behind him. Tugging on the reins of the wagon, he ordered his horse to once again halt on the road.

“Take us with you,” Moishe pleaded, latching on to the wagon. “We want to come with you. We don’t want to grow up with anyone else.”

They climbed into the wagon and hugged him, unwilling to let go. Puffing, Ruchel caught up to her father. Nachman ran up beside her. Within moments, Goliath arrived on the scene. The picture told the story. Moishe and Hannie refused to let go of their grandfather. Sobbing, they snuggled under his arms like terrified ducklings. Tevye glanced at his daughter with a shrug.

“What can I do?” his expression seemed to say.

Ruchel looked at her husband. Though they had only been married a very short time, they could read each other’s thoughts. It was a question they had debated dozens of times. To stay in Rishon where Nachman was happy with his teaching, or to join up with the rest of the family? For Ruchel, the decision rested with Nachman. True, she wanted to be with her father and sisters, and she wanted with all of her heart to raise Tzeitl’s children, but not if it went against the will of her husband. As her father would say, “Wasn’t it written, ‘And thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’?”

Nachman took her aside.

“The children want to be with their grandfather,” he said to his wife.

“Yes,” Ruchel answered.

“It seems to be what they need. They’ve suffered enough loss in their lifetimes. First a father, then a mother, and now their grandfather too? It could shatter their faith in the Almighty completely.”

“What should we do?” Ruchel asked.

“We should go with them,” Nachman answered. “Just like we decided before we received the Baron’s letter. That way we can raise the children like Tzeitl wanted, and they can be near their grandfather too.”

Ruchel hugged him with happiness. “Oh Nachman, I love you,” she said. “But what about you? What about your teaching position?”

“Wherever we go there will be a need for teachers of Torah. Rishon LeZion will have no trouble finding someone to take my place, whereas there is a special mitzvah to look after orphans.”

“Are you sure?” Ruchel asked.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Tevye looked on in suspense.

“What’s all the whispering?” he asked.

“We have decided to leave Rishon and come with you,” Nachman answered. “Right now, the children need their grandfather more than anyone else in the world.”

A wide smile filled Tevye’s face.

“Do you hear that children?” he said. “We are all going back to Zichron Yaacov together!”

The children cheered. They jumped happily all over their grandfather. Goliath beamed at the wonderful news. He loved Nachman like a brother, and the thought that everyone would be together gave him such a feeling of joy, he felt that he could lift up the wagon with everyone in it.

“Everyone hopped in the wagon,” Tevye called.

Happily, they all climbed aboard. With a tug on the reins, Tevye turned back once again toward the house, this time to load Ruchel’s and Nachman’s belongings onto the wagon for the trip back to Zichron Yaacov.

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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One Response to “Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-One: Reunion”

  1. Judy Goldman says:

    Tzvi
    I recently read this book. It made me laugh and cry. Every page spoke to me in some way. I am now working on a book review to present at the next Shabbat gathering of a group of women in the neighborhood. It will be hard to compress into one hour all the funny and poignant moments from the book that I want to share with them. I hope that anyone reading this blog will take the time to read the whole book — it is a wonderful read!

    I have now also added most of your other books to my "book wish list".

    Our daughter and her family will be making aliyah this summer, G-d willing, and my husband and I hope to follow them after they are settled. On the rare occasions when I have doubts or concerns, I read your blogs, and they are very reassuring.

    Please keep on writing, and I'll keep reading!

    Judy Goldman

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