“We are not interested in giving handouts to schnorrers and beggars,” he said at the beginning of their interview in the Company Director’s plush office when Tevye arrived in Zichron. “Our settlements are not havens for paupers. We are not settling up shtetls of the past, but showplaces of the future, where Jews are to live useful lives. With all due respect to tradition, the final word does not lie with the rabbi, but with the Company. The Baron decides what will be, and we, his executives, are entrusted to enforce his decrees. I presume this is clear?”
His small beady eyes peered over his eyeglasses at Tevye. Tevye nodded his head, just as Shmuelik and Hillel had coached him.
“At the moment, we are in the process of acquiring several new settlement sites. New seed groups will be venturing out to start new colonies when all of the legalities are completed. In the meantime, you and your family can find temporary housing in Zichron.”
Again Tevye nodded.
“You will be expected to sign an oath of allegiance to the Company, and to obey all of the conditions stipulated therein, as follows….”
Naborsky adjusted his spectacles on his nose and read from a document.
“I hereby agree to submit myself totally to the orders which the administration shall deem necessary in the name of Monsieur Le Baron in anything which concerns the cultivation of the land, and if any action be taken against me as penalty for any infraction, or for the benefit of the settlement, I have absolutely no right to oppose it….”
Tevye’s attention drifted away in the middle of the long recitation. He kept nodding his head, wondering what the difference was between the servitude of the Company, or, l’havdil, on the other extreme, the servitude demanded by the Czar. Still, the rulers of the Company were, for the most part, Jews, and the motherland they were to cultivate was Israel, not Russia. What could you do, Tevye thought? Just like an ox had a yoke, so did a poor Jew. Company, shmompany. The real yoke was the yoke of the Lord. Emperors, Caesars, Czars, and Barons came and went, but the Kingdom of God was forever. What did it matter what was written in the document which the Company Director was reading? A Jew’s first and only allegiance was to his Maker.
“Is this understood,” Naborsky asked.
Again Tevye nodded his head.
“Can you write?”
“Write what?” Tevye asked.
“In Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew.”
“Either one will suffice,” the Company official said, holding out the document for Tevye to sign. He pointed to a line at the bottom of the page. Tevye took the quill pen and inscribed his full name in Hebrew – Tevye, the son of Reb Schneur Zalman.
The Zichron Yaacov settlement was the Jewish Colony Association’s model yishuv. Located along the Mediterranean coastline between the seaports of Acco and Jaffa, it enjoyed well-travelled land routes and mild weather throughout most of the year. Over two hundred families already lived there, in quaint little houses situated along manicured, tree-lined streets. Like in Anatevka, there were cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, bakers, a milkman, a rabbi, and even a matchmaker, but unlike the shtetls and Jewish villages which Tevye had known, most of the Jews in Zichron Yaacov squeezed out their livelihood by farming the land. Workers with caps on their head labored in the fields, using an assortment of reapers and plows. The sweet smell of pressed grapes wafted over the settlement from the winery. The valley of Zichron Yaacov produced barrels and barrels of Rothschild wine which were exported all over the world. Acres and acres of vineyards spread out to the north and south as far as the eye could see. In a good vintage year, the revenue from wine sales filled the colony’s coffers, giving the Baron hope that his costly and ambitious Zionist enterprise might one day prove self-sustaining and even a financial success.
If not for the two-story building located in a remote corner of the colony, far away from the houses and workshops, Zichron Yaacov could have passed for a dream come true. The isolated building was the infirmary, serving all of the Jewish settlements in the country. Tevye and his family were sent there for health examinations on the first day of their arrival. Outside was a large frangipani tree with shining red flowers. The ground floor looked like a modern city hospital, with sparkling clean tiles, curtained examining rooms, and shining equipment. But a sign by the stairs, forbidding unauthorized personnel from entering, gave Tevye an uneasy feeling. In answer to his question, a doctor told him that the wards were filled with patients stricken with malaria, typhus fever, cholera, yellow fever, and what he simply termed the plague. Quarantined quarters and limited drugs such as quinine and sulfur were the only remedies the doctors could offer the ill. In a gesture of goodwill, the Baron provided health care and drugs free of charge, to Jews, Turks, and Arabs alike, but the infirmary’s staff was ostensibly helpless in combating the scourge of diseases in the plague-ridden land. Tevye was stunned to learn that almost half of the Jewish settlers died from incurable ailments within their first few years in the country. Hillel morosely referred to the building as the “Chevra Kadesha,” the society in charge of burying the dead.