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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Six: Tevye Takes a Wife

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  Both of Elisha’s two grown daughters were golden-skinned, beautiful, devoutly religious, and nearly half Tevye’s age. The eldest daughter, Carmel, was naturally the first choice of the parents, but Elisha told Tevye he could marry whomever he picked. Embarrassed by the whole distressing business, and wanting the matter to be concluded as discreetly as possible, Tevye told him that Carmel would be fine.      Tevye had never been a man to pay much attention to women, except for his wife, Golda, of course, but now and then on the settlement, he had noticed that Elisha’s eldest daughter far surpassed all of the other young women, not only in beauty, but also in the industrious way that she worked. Whether it was in the dining tent, the chicken coop, or the fields, she seemed to do twice as much work as the others. Now that a match was in the making, Tevye helped himself to a few extra looks. Being a man with a great lust for life and a healthy appreciation of the Almighty’s Creation, he could not help but notice how truly pretty she was. But her youth made him feel so uneasy, he wanted to forget the whole crazy scheme. As if to make sure, he snuck into Ruchel’s house and searched for a mirror. A long time had passed since he had seen his reflection, and now when he stared into her looking glass, he could only shake his head sadly at the old bearded goat that stared back. True, he had not turned grey completely, but white hairs were beginning to sprout in his beard and along the sides of his head like patches of weeds. Catching him with the mirror, Ruchela teased him for being so vain. She said that the “silver” in his hair lent him an air of nobility and wisdom. Laughing, she told him to stop worrying about getting old. But it was not only his age which bothered Tevye. Suddenly, he noticed that his belly had grown rounder and softer, his teeth had yellowed and chipped, and his back ached so painfully that some mornings he had to summon all of his strength to get out of bed. “It’s all in your mind,” Ruchel said. “Besides, Carmel is a woman already with a mind of her own.”

To make certain that Carmel was not being forced into the marriage, Tevye sent his daughter on a mission to speak to the bride. He wanted her to know what a broken-down husband she was getting. Tevye himself was too embarrassed to go. Since the day he had agreed to the marriage and shaken hands with the father, Tevye had hardly spoken a word to the young girl herself. For one thing, she was shy, and whenever she glanced at him with her dark, sparkling eyes, Tevye was flabbergasted completely. Suddenly, Tevye, the orator, had nothing to say. Whenever he was next to her, he became as tongue-tied as Moses had been when he had discovered the burning bush.

Ruchel came back with a glowing report. Carmel was all smiles, the happiest girl in the world. For months, she had been casting secret glances at Tevye, her father’s best friend. If her father thought highly of him, that was enough for Carmel. The difference in their ages didn’t bother her at all. On the contrary, she told Ruchel that Tevye’s great wisdom would help them build a proper Jewish house. What bothered Carmel the most, Ruchel said, was her own insecurity in being so young. After all, Tevye hardly ever said a word to her, certainly because he was so learned and worldly, and she was so naive and unschooled.

“What did you answer?” Tevye asked.

“I said that while it was true that you ranked with the likes of Rashi and the Rambam, you also enjoyed talking to horses and cows, and that she shouldn’t let your big beard make her think you were as old as Methusalah.”

Tevye nodded. It was good that a wife should feel some awe for her husband. True, Golda hadn’t. But she had lived with Tevye for twenty-five years and seen him in his weakest moments, like when he had let her cousin Menachem Mendel squander all of their savings on stocks. He realized that Elisha’s daughter saw him as a philosopher, a statesman, a pioneer builder. It was important, therefore, that he remain bigger than life in her eyes, and not let her find out that he was really an ordinary nebick like everyone else.

Bat Sheva was happy for Tevye too. Unbeknownst to her father, she had been seeing a lot of Ariel, Elisha’s oldest son. She had arranged to work with him in the fields and even joined him for guard duty at night. He was as handsome and idealistic as Ben Zion had been, yet humble and unassuming. To attract him, Bat Sheva found herself behaving more modestly and religiously than she ever had in the past. Never once did he touch her or kiss her, even when she pretended that she didn’t know how to shoot a rifle and asked him to teach her. She did her best not to flirt in a manner which would scare him away. How strange fortune was, Bat Sheva thought. If her father and Carmel were to marry, and if she and Ariel were to wed, Carmel would be not only her sister-in-law, but her stepmother as well.

Once Tevye’s children consented, there was only one obstacle in the way. Golda. But here too, like in every other question of life, the code of the Torah was clear. Nachman showed Tevye the law in the Shulchan Aruch. Opening the large volume, he let Tevye read. If a man’s wife were to die, God forbid, as soon as the period of mourning had ended, he was to marry again. A man was a man, and he had been created to live with a woman, as it said in the Bible, “Be fruitful and multiply.” That was God’s will. The Jews had to populate the Holy Land’s borders. They needed farmers, teachers, builders, rabbis, and soldiers. “Be fruitful and multiply,” was a mitzvah. The Jews had a country to build!

Tell that to Golda. She wasn’t just a memory that Tevye could forget. She inhabited his every thought and breath, just as she had when she was living. She had remained his faithful partner, in death as in life. How could he abandon her now? How could he expect her to turn the other way when he brought a strange exotic woman into his house? He tried to explain to her, to cajole her, apologize to her, and, patiently, he tried to assure her that he loved her now more than ever, and that he would never let his new wife take her place in his heart.

“But my Golda,” he pleaded, as the day of the wedding approached, “a man needs a women in the house. Have mercy. Is your Tevye an angel that you expect him to share his life with a farm animal forever?”

But all of his entreaties did him no good. The week before the wedding, he hardly slept a wink. Closing his eyes, he immediately saw his wife, Golda, standing at the entrance to the barn with a butcher’s cleaver in her hand.

“Is this my reward?” she would say. “After cleaning your dirty clothes and underwear for twenty-five years, you bring a Yemenite princess into my house? A young girl. A child the age of my daughters? Is this scandal my thanks? Is this humiliation to be my destiny in heaven? Is my soul to fly between heaven and hell without rest? Is this why you brought me to Israel? To witness your betrayal firsthand? To die a thousand new deaths each time you embrace this stranger?”

More than once, Tevye woke up in a sweat. On the day of the wedding, desperate to quiet her screams, he went to sit in the blacksmith’s shed, and held his head near the clang of the anvil to exorcise the curses he heard. But the ringing of the hammer only made his anguish worse. Finally, unable to stand up to his wife, he searched for Elisha in his field. Finding him, Tevye fell to his knees.

“I’m calling off the wedding,” he said.

“Stand on your feet like a man!” the little Yemenite commanded.

Flustered, Tevye stood up. He remembered that when Tzeitl had refused to go through with the match he had made with Lazar Wolf, in order to convince Golda that the marriage would bring only disaster, Tevye had invented a dream. Once again, with Elisha, he would use the same scheme.

“For the sake of your daughter,” Tevye said.

“What are you babbling about?” the Yemenite asked.

“A dream,” Tevye said in wild excitement. “A dream. The same dream came to me every night for a week – a sign that it’s true. My wife, Golda, you never met her. She came to me with a warning.”

“Tevye, your wife Golda is dead.”

“Dead? My wife Golda? You must be mistaken.”

“Didn’t you tell me you buried her in Rishon LeZion?”

“I thought that I did. But it must have been somebody else. My wife Golda returns every night. You don’t know her. What a revengeful woman she is. What a temper. Her jealousy reaches the sky. Believe me, she is planning to kill your daughter. Each night she appears with her knife. One day when I will be out in the fields, she will suddenly appear and slice your daughter to pieces.”

“Tevye, have you been drinking?” the bride’s father asked.

“Not a drop,” Tevye answered, raising his hand in an oath.

“Then you surely have fever.”

“I am as healthy and coherent as a person can be. For your own sake, I’m warning you. The wedding must be canceled. If you truly love your daughter, then save her.”

Elisha stared at his friend. Something really was the matter. Tevye’s hairs stuck out wildly from his kippah as if he had been truly frightened by a ghost. Indeed, a wise expression taught, “When there is a wedding, expect the Satan to arrive with the guests.” To prevent two souls from uniting in holy matrimony, the forces of evil exert all of their power to interfere.

“What about Abdul Abdulla?” Elisha asked.

“What about him?” Tevye responded.

“When he hears that you haven’t married my daughter, he will insist you marry his. And if you don’t, he will bring all of his soldiers, with all of the surrounding Arab villages, to war against us. He vowed to me, just as you and I are standing here now, that if you bring disgrace upon him and his daughter, he will slaughter all of the Jews in the region.”

“Slaughter all of the Jews?” Tevye asked.

“Those were his words. Believe me. I grew up among Arabs. When their pride is offended, they become savage beasts. I am sorry, Tevye, but to save all of our women and children, you will have to marry my daughter.”

What was Tevye to do? Certainly, it was better to have Golda curse him forever, rather than endanger all of the Jews. Elisha put a hand on his shoulder.

“Come my good friend,” he said. “Let’s go to the synagogue together. I remember, before my own wedding, my father-in-law took me with him to the synagogue to learn. He said that in a place where there is a Torah scroll and learning, demons weren’t allowed to enter. We will sit and study together just as God commanded Moses at Sinai. Time passes and a man comes to forget the many laws which govern a husband’s life with his wife. It’s time for a review. You will see that the blessing of learning Torah will turn all of your worries to joy. If your Golda truly loves you, which I am sure she does, do you really think she wants you to spend the rest of your life in the barn? On the contrary, I assure you, of all of the guests at the wedding, your Golda will be the most pleased.”

Tevye let the Yemenite lead him to the synagogue. How strange, he thought. This man, his very own age, was going to be his father-in-law, and Tevye, who already had grandchildren, was going to be his son.

As it turned out, Elisha was right. Golda was the happiest guest at the wedding. She stood at Tevye’s side under the canopied chuppah, beaming with pride, like a mother at the marriage of her son. Later, Hodel, who had arrived from Shoshana to be with her family for the wedding, confided to her father that she had noticed her too. Golda was even dressed for the occasion, wearing the same white gown which she had knitted for the wedding of Tzeitl and Motel. Her beauty was only surpassed by the bride’s. Carmel was adorned in the traditional Yemenite wedding gown and towering flower headset. Seeing how Golda smiled at her, Tevye let out a breath of relief. A grin spread across his serious expression, as wide as the crossing which God had made in the Red Sea for the Jews. Nachman recited the Ketubah wedding contract out loud and chanted the nuptial blessings. The bride blushed, Tevye stepped on the traditional glass, Hillel played on his accordion, “If I not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy,” and, miracle of miracles, Tevye, the milkman from Anatevka, had a stunning new Yemenite wife.

The Muktar Abdulla was the first guest to step forward to greet him.

Mazal tov,” said the Arab. “Since you have chosen not to marry my daughter, then I am giving her to one of your sons.”

For the first time in his life, Tevye was happy that he never had boys. Elisha embraced him and welcomed him to the family. Then Nachman, Shmuelik, Hillel, and Goliath, all shook his hand. Ruchel, Bat Sheva, Hava, and Hodel stood on line, waiting for hugs. Finally, Tevye lifted up Moishe and Hannie and gave them a kiss. The Hasidim clasped their hands together and started to dance. Tevye winked at his young wife and joined them. Snapping his fingers and holding his arms in the air, Tevye, the son of Schneur Zalman, forgot that he was nearly fifty-years old. He forgot his back hurt in the morning. He forgot all of his worries and doubts. He now had a wife at his side, a helpmate, and friend. A blessing of completeness returned to his heart. Since Golda had died, his life had felt empty. Now he felt whole. Miraculously, with his bride at his side, he felt that his life was beginning anew. Reb Guttmacher, the undertaker, balanced a bottle of wine on his head and stepped forward to entertain the groom and his guests. Tevye grabbed the bottle and shouted a joyous “L’Chaim!”

Thus, the Morasha settlement had its first wedding. And for the first time in months, Tevye didn’t have to sleep in the barn. The newlyweds were given their own little cottage. As he blew out their candle, Tevye suddenly had a whimsical thought about his old friend, Sholom Aleichem. How amazed the writer would be if he knew what had become of his milkman!

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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