Latest update: June 26th, 2012
All of that night, Tevye was unable to sleep. He rose from his bed, paced around the tiny room where his family had shared their modest meals, said a prayer over his sleeping children, and walked outside, holding his aching head from the after-effects of the vodka he had imbibed earlier in the day. The winter was ending, and the night was cold and black. Rays of moonlight shone now and again from behind a thick quilt of clouds. A thin layer of snow remained on the ground like manna, the wafers of food which God provided six days a week to the Jews in the wilderness. Tevye glanced up at the clouds.
“My God, and God of my forefathers,” he said, as if speaking to someone close by. “I know you are Master of everything. I know that a blade of grass does not grow unless you give it an order. I know we are like sheep in Your hand. I know that Tevye, Your servant, is a worm and not even a man. But what great sin did I transgress that You, in Your very great kindness, are throwing me out of my house? Haven’t I tried to please you all of my miserable life? Haven’t I woken up before dawn to milk the cows You gave me? Haven’t I trudged off to work day after day, pausing only at sunrise to don my tefillin and say morning prayers – just as You have commanded us in Your Torah? And though I could not always pray in a minyan with nine other men, and though I do not study Talmud as much as I might, haven’t I always tried to be a good Jew? And for my reward, I am given three days to abandon my house and my village. Yes, I know, Tevye is not the world’s biggest saint and tzaddik, and sometimes my neighbor’s horse looks a lot healthier than mine. But what, may I ask, do You want from us here in tiny Anatevka? Instead of uprooting us from our homes, don’t You have something more important to do in some other part of the world?”
Tevye walked through a familiar path in the forest. The night was as dark as the exile of the Jews from their land, but Tevye knew the path’s windings by heart. How many thousands of miles had he traveled back and forth through the forest, bringing his milk products to the neighboring villages, and to Boiberik and Yehupetz, where the aristocrats lived? Usually, he would lead his horse and wagon along the main road, but when the four-legged creature was sick, Tevye would drag the cart behind him in order to delivery his fresh milk and cheeses on time. And that meant taking the less traveled path through the forest.
Now in the moonlight, he could see the Jewish cemetery. A glow seemed to shine off Golda’s small tombstone. Careful not to step on Lazar Wolf, the butcher; nor Mendel, the cantor; or Shendel, the wife of the sandal maker; nor on the grave of the poor tailor, Motel, his son-in-law, Tevye walked to the only resting place his Golda had ever enjoyed.
He sighed a loud, weary sigh, a sigh of centuries, the sigh of a gypsy who has to wander on to yet another temporary home. A sob shook his body. He was not a man to break down like a woman and cry, but if he could not share his feelings with Golda, if she was not at his side to listen to his complainings, kvetchings, and moments of despair, where would he find the strength to carry on for the children? Hadn’t she been his helpmate since the day their fathers had brought them together under the canopy of the marital chuppah? True, she always moaned that she had been a fool to agree to the match, yet, dutifully, she had borne the pain of seven childbirths, and raised up seven daughters. As it is written in the Holiest of Books, “And they became one flesh.” She was his wife. Even in death. How could he leave her? How did he dare?
He bent down and placed a small stone on her grave, a sign that someone had visited.
“Oy, Golda, my Golda,” he groaned. “Forgive me for bothering you in the middle of the night, but the whole world has turned upside down. Your Tevye does not know whether he is coming or going. Sometimes, I say to myself, Tevye, enough. You’ve been punished enough. Give some other milkman a chance to be chosen. It’s time to join your wife, Golda. But, of course, you are right – who will look after our children?”
Tevye heard footsteps. In a graveyard, in the middle of the night, who could it be? From a distance he wasn’t certain, but as the figure came closer, the bearded face became clear. It was Hershel, the sandal maker, with a shovel in his hand.
“Greetings, RebYid,” he called to the milkman. “May the Mashiach come soon so that we may be finished with grave yards.”
“Amen,” Tevye answered.
“You also could not sleep?” the little Jew asked. Not that the sandal maker was short of stature, but his back was bent over from a lifetime of hammering heels.
As was his custom, whenever he could, Tevye answered with a verse of Scripture. “Like it is written, `And Achashverus, the King, could not sleep,’ may his name be erased. But tell me, my friend, why are you carrying that shovel? Has somebody died, God forbid?”
“Millions of people have died, but, thank God, not anyone I know of today,” came the philosopher’s reply.
“Nu?” Tevye asked, “Why are you here?”
“What do I look like to you, some kind of animal that I would leave my beloved Shendel behind? Who knows what the Russians will make out of her bones? Perhaps a church will be built here, or a pub for their drinking.”
Tevye had not thought of that possibility. What about his Golda? Did he love her less than the sandal maker loved his wife? Perish the notion.
“Where’s your shovel?” Hershel asked.
For a change, Tevye was speechless.
“No matter,” Hershel said. “There should be another one in the undertaker’s shed. You help me, and I’ll help you. That way the work will go faster.”
“You plan to take her with you?” Tevye asked.
“That’s right,” the sandal maker answered. “Don’t you?”
“Well….” Tevye stuttered.
“After all, our wives are already crated. All we have to do is load them on our wagons.”
“Where are you going, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Wherever God takes me. Is it a problem for the King who created the world to find another six feet of earth for my Shendel? Besides, haven’t our Sages told us, `Change of residence, change of luck?’ Maybe our mazel will improve. Take my shovel. I’ll find another in the undertaker’s shed. And hurry. The faster we work, the less we wake up the dead.”
Tevye took the shovel and started to dig. The earth was hard from the winter, but after breaking through the frozen topsoil, the ground became looser below. Whoever would have dreamed of Tevye digging up his Golda, may her soul rest in peace?
“Forgive me, my queen,” he beseeched, “Our good friend, Reb Hershel, is right. Who can tell what our friends, the Russians, might build here? How would you feel with a beer hall over your head? As it says about Laban, `And Jacob beheld the face of Laban, and behold, it was not the same towards him as before.'”
Tevye dug with all of his strength. The exhausting work helped take his mind off of his problems. Soon he reached Golda’s coffin. Lovingly now, he scraped the dirt away from the wood. Then he began to dig a wide pit so he could get in the grave to lift the heavy crate out. He wasn’t quite sure what he would do with her, but he was certain that Hashem, the Almighty, would help out. Wasn’t it a mitzvah to prevent the desecration of the dead? And when a Jew does a good deed, the Almighty always stands ready to help.
After an hour, Tevye was finished. A short distance away, Hershel continued to stab at the earth. Tevye called him to come over. Hunchbacked, he climbed into the grave to help lift Golda’s coffin. Bracing his feet in the dirt, Tevye gave a push and the box slid out of the pit. Then Tevye helped the sandal maker rescue his Shendel. After catching their breaths, they agreed that Hershel would stand guard in the cemetery while Tevye fetched his wagon. Before the morning sun had risen over the village, Tevye had picked up his precious cargo and driven it back to his barn. To make the crate seem like any other piece they were taking, he spread a large blanket over its sides to disguise its distinctly rectangular shape.
“Don’t you go anywhere, my Golda,” he said, patting his secret treasure. “Before you know it, we will be on our way.”
Outside the barn, the sun was beginning to shine in the treetops. Tevye hurried to the house to see if his Hava had truly come home. She lay sleeping with Tzeitl’s children, her blanket characteristically thrown at her feet. Tenderly, Tevye pulled the patchwork quilt up to her chin, just as he had done when she was a girl. Then, letting all of his angels sleep a little longer, he went off to the synagogue to say his morning prayers.
All of that day, Tevye ran around in circles like a slaughtered, headless chicken, selling the belongings they were leaving behind. It was no easy task to squeeze a whole lifetime into a wagon. The girls worked all day in the house. By the following morning, the packing was finished. Tevye took down the mezuzahs from the doorposts of his house, hoisted their last crates of memories onto his wagon, fastened the heap with a rope, and climbed aboard alongside Tzeitl and the children. Hava, Bat Sheva, and Ruchel sat in the rear with their mother’s coffin. Where were they going? Only God knew. Once again, the wandering Jews were heading off to an unknown destination.
Tevye coaxed his horse into the procession of wagons. On the third day of the decree of expulsion, the caravan set off, leaving the village of Anatevka behind. Other Jews had sold their wagons and horses and were beginning the exodus on foot. Villagers bent over, carrying heavy satchels and bundles on their backs. Expressions were downcast and grim except for Tevye’s smile. On that blackest of days, Tevye at least had the solace that his long-lost daughter, Hava, and his cherished Golda were traveling with him. As the great Rabbi Nachman had taught, it was a mitzvah to always be happy, in good times and bad. So to cheer up his family and friends, Tevye put on a smile and looked bravely out toward the future.Tzvi Fishman
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." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" will be available soon as a DVD.
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