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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Six: A Wagon of Worries

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Overnight, it became clear to the Jews of Branosk that there was no future for them in their village shtetl. Who could predict when the Czar’s soldiers would return to continue their wanton destruction? Nonetheless, with the optimism which eternally beats in the hearts of the Jews, there were villagers who wanted to stay and rebuild their razed homes. Others decided to pack up their belongings and seek their fortunes elsewhere, some to western Russia where the pogroms had not as yet reached, others to Germany and Poland. Only a handful of Nachman’s companions volunteered to join the Zionists on their journey to Eretz Yisrael.

One had the nickname Goliath. A woodcutter by trade, he towered several heads above Tevye. His real name was Alexander, and while he certainly wasn’t a scholar, he was fiercely devoted to Nachman. He even called the young Torah prodigy his rabbi. Another friend, Shmuelik, was like a brother to Nachman. They had grown up together, studied Gemara together, and dreamed of going to the Land of Israel together. When they were just children in heder, Shmuelik would collect sticks in the forest, hand them out to his companions like rifles, and lead them on make-believe attacks, as if they were Maccabee soldiers fighting for the freedom and honor of Israel. Always keeping an eye out for husbands, Tevye reasoned that Shmuelik might prove to be the right man for Bat Sheva, who with every passing day was becoming more enamored with the gallant Ben Zion and his bombastic speeches.

Their other new traveling companion was Hillel, an accordion player by trade. He was older than the others, with streaks of gray hair in his short scraggly beard. He walked with a limp, as if from the weight of his accordion which he lugged with him wherever he went. “Be happy today,” was his motto, “Because tomorrow you could be food for the worms.” It was a philosophy which Tevye shared. Hillel was a man he could talk to. Though he didn’t have a lucrative profession, Tevye thought that the musician might be a match for his Tzeitl. After all, with two children, she wasn’t exactly a new cow in the market.

But a greater mitzvah than marriage lay before them at the moment – the mitzvah of burying the dead. Tevye took a shovel from his wagon and helped in the work of digging graves for the corpses. His daughters helped with the wounded. Ruchel volunteered to assist Nachman’s mother and sisters in the kitchen of Nachman’s house, where with his brothers and sisters, he had to sit shiva, the traditional week of Jewish mourning. People came to offer their condolences all through the day and the evening, and Ruchel kept busy baking cakes for the guests. Though she rarely exchanged a word with Nachman, a deep bond was building between them. She felt that they communicated even without speaking, and he felt it too. When the elders of the community urged him to stay on and inherit his father’s position, the young scholar was uncertain where his greater obligation lay, as a guardian of the Torah in the exile, or as a builder of the Promised Land. Ruchel vowed to stand by him whatever he decided, even if it meant saying good-bye to her family. The dutiful son had qualms about leaving his mother, but his older brother and sisters promised to watch over her. After several days, he arrived at an answer.

“Our future is in the Land of Israel,” he said.

To pass the time while Nachman was observing the week of mourning, Tevye and the Zionists pitched in with the work of repair. One afternoon, as Ben Zion and Peter were out strolling through the woods to get away from the pious shtetl, they came across Hevedke, who had kept out of sight in the forest ever since the night the Cossacks had raided the village.

“Well, look what we have here,” Peter whispered to his friend.

“Hiding out in the woods like a spy,” Ben Zion answered.

“You think he’s like all the rest of the anti-Semites?” Peter asked.

“I don’t know, but for Tevye’s sake, let’s teach him a lesson.”

Ben Zion raised his hand in salutation and called out with a smile. “Hey, Hevedke! Over here!”

The Russian waved in a good-natured greeting. He was happy to see them. He hadn’t spoken to a soul in two days. He was running low on food, and he was beginning to feel profoundly unhappy walking around in endless circles to fight off the boredom and chill.

Smiling, Ben Zion walked up to him and reached out to shake his hand. Only he didn’t let go. He twisted Hevedke’s arm behind his back and held on to him tightly as Peter punched him hard in the stomach. When the Russian doubled over in pain, Ben Zion released him and added a shove of his own. Hevedke stumbled, but he didn’t fall down.

“Let’s see you fight!” Ben Zion shouted.

The poet refused to raise up his fists.

“Fight!” Peter yelled, hitting him again. Hevedke collapsed to his knees.

“Make sure we never see you again,” Ben Zion told him, leaving him on his knees in the forest, as if he were praying in church.

When the week of mourning was ended, Nachman packed his father’s Chumash and Siddur into his sack along with a few other books, kissed his blind mother good-bye, and joined Tevye’s family and the Zionists as they set off down the road.

“Don’t you worry about me,” his mother told him, as if reading his thoughts. “The Lord will be gracious. In His kindness, He has stricken me with blindness to spare me from seeing the horrors which are befalling our people, and in His kindness, He will send the Mashiach to bring all of us back to Eretz Yisrael.”

“May it be soon,” Nachman said. He kissed his mother one last time on the forehead and ran tearfully off to catch up with the others.

The voyage took almost three months. After having hurled fire and rain in their path, the Almighty dispatched a late winter snowstorm which covered their boots up to their knees and made traveling treacherous and slow. With heads lowered to escape the biting wind, the group trudged eastward toward the port of Odessa. For miles on end, blinded by the snow, they could barely make out the road. Only the instincts of the horse kept them on course. During the height of the blizzard, the wagon had to be pushed, and finally, as the wheels became buried in drifts, it refused to budge at all.

A feeling of despair fell over their endeavor. Hillel tried to cheer them up with a tune on his accordion, but his fingers were too frozen to manipulate the keys. Then, as if to dash their hopes completely, a group of Zionists coming from another evacuated region told them that a roadblock of soldiers a mile up the road was preventing Jews from entering the province which led to the port of Odessa. When the leader of their group had tried to break through the roadblock, the soldiers had shot him dead on the spot. His comrades were carrying his body to a proper Jewish cemetery and postponing their journey until more favorable conditions prevailed.

“What are we going to do now, Tata?” Bat Sheva asked.

“Haven’t our Rabbis told us that three things are obtained through suffering?” he philosophically answered.

“I suppose they did,” Bat Sheva responded. “They had something to say about everything.”

“What three things?” Hava inquired.

“Tell them, Nachman,” Tevye called, wanting to show off the wisdom of his learned groom, his daughter Hodel’s chassan.

“The Torah, the World to Come, and the Land of Israel,” the scholar responded. “They are the most precious things a man can attain, and to achieve them, he has to be willing to suffer.”

“In what tractate of Talmud can the teaching be found?” Tevye asked.

“The tractate Berachot.”

“On what page?”

Nachman blushed. He wasn’t a braggart, and it embarrassed him to be put on display. “Page five,” he responded.

“What’s the use of memorizing a lot of ancient history?” Ben Zion asked. “If you want to read a truly important book, you should read ‘The Jewish State,’ by Theodor Herzl. He was a prophet who spoke to the Jews of today.”

“The Lord has many messengers,” Nachman answered. “In our time, God chose Herzl to bring the message of Zion to our exiled people. But it wasn’t Herzl who invented the Zionist movement. It comes from our holy Torah and the Jews who have been following its call for thousands of years.”

“But how can we continue?” Bat Sheva asked. “The road is blocked by soldiers.”

“We’ll go through the woods and over the mountain,” Ben Zion answered. “Though my version of Jewish history differs from the young rabbi’s, our destination is admittedly the same.”

All eyes turned to the snow-covered mountains which loomed up on both sides of the road. “What about the wagon?” Tzeitl asked.

“The girl has a point,” Tevye said. “We can’t take the wagon over the mountain.”

“Hevedke can drive the wagon,” Hava said. “There is no reason for the soldiers to stop him.”

Everyone stared at Tevye, who sat in the wagon perplexed. Hevedke, as usual, was trailing behind them. Every few miles, he would appear like an apparition out of the snow. If Tevye gave in, it would be a victory for the Russian and arouse Hava’s hopes. But if he said no, they would either have to turn back, or abandon the wagon out on the road. What would become of his Golda? He couldn’t shlep her coffin over the mountain. Nor could he bury her in the snow. He turned to stare back along the tracks of the wagon. Down the road, a snowman stood rigid in the winter landscape. Tevye had to give the Galagani some credit. For a gentile, he was as stubborn as a Jew.

With a grumble, Tevye lay down the reins and climbed off the wagon.

“You go talk to him,” he said to Ben Zion. “But I want everyone to know – it’s only for the success of the journey.”

“This is insane,” Naftali argued. “We can’t be climbing mountains in this weather. I say we find shelter and wait for the storm to subside.”

“He Who formed the mountains and causes the winds to blow will give us the strength to succeed on our journey,” Shmuelik said.

“If you people are on such good terms with Him, why doesn’t He make the mountain disappear altogether and save us the effort?” Peter asked.

“According to the effort is the reward,” Shmuelik answered.

Like Nachson ben Amminadav, the first Jew to brave the mighty waters of the Red Sea when the children of Israel stood frightfully on its banks pursued by the chariots of Egypt, the faith-filled youth from the village of Branosk started out up the snowbound ascent. It was agreed that Hevedke would meet the group on the other side of the mountain. Wrapping the children in blankets, they set out on the arduous trek. The climb took most of the day. When the children tired, the men took turns carrying them up the rugged incline. Tevye’s beard turned white with snow. Several times, they had to pause and wait up for Tzeitl. Her feet were frozen, her legs felt like stones, her teeth chattered, and sneezes racked her thin body. By sunset, she was so weak Tevye had to lift her and carry her in his arms. He staggered forward beneath his precious load. Her eyes were feverish, and through her heavy clothing, Tevye could feel her body shivering with each raspy breath. Several times, she inquired after the children, then fell into a deep sleep in his arms. Gradually, the winds and snow stopped. At nightfall, they reached the summit. Clouds drifted apart over their heads, revealing patches of stars. Ben Zion wanted to camp for the evening and make the descent at dawn, when they would have a better idea of their bearings. But Tevye kept walking. He wanted to get Tzeitl to a lower altitude, where it would be warmer, and even try to meet up with the wagon that night. The girl needed a doctor. With a prayer on his lips, he hoisted his bundle over his shoulder. His legs carried him forward down the slope of the mountain. Shmuelik walked at his side. Nachman followed with Ruchel. Soon, everyone fell into line. After an hour, Tevye’s muscles were depleted of strength. With a groan, he sank to his knees in the snow. Gently, Goliath reached down and lifted Tzeitl into his arms. Nachman and Shmuelik helped Tevye to his feet, and the weary hikers continued on down the mountain.

When they reached the road, the wagon was nowhere in sight. Tevye gazed up to Heaven. A man was not supposed to rely on miracles, but the gates of prayer were always open to pleas from he heart.

“My dear and gracious King, have You brought us this far just to turn us into pillars of ice in this tundra?” he called. “Save us. If not for the sake of this miserable wretch of a milkman, then for the sake of his saintly wife, Golda.”

Tevye took his unconscious daughter from the arms of the giant, and once again the group started off in the darkness. Then, to everyone’s joy, around the first bend in the road, Tevye’s prayer was answered. Hevedke sat waiting in the wagon.

With shouts of triumph, the hikers ran forward. Tevye quickly lifted Tzeitl into the back of the wagon. The rest of his daughters climbed aboard. Goliath sat up front beside Hevedke who continued to drive. The others were to meet them in the next town along the road. The Russian whipped the reins and urged the horse onward into the night. Everyone’s thoughts were on finding a doctor for Tzeitl. Within a short time, the houses of a village appeared in the distance. Hevedke pounded on the first door they came to. The doorpost, Tevye noticed, lacked a mezuzah. The Russian peasant who answered pointed the way to the house of the local doctor. Tevye asked him if there was a Jewish doctor in town. The man shook his head, no. There weren’t any Jews in the village at all.

Once again, at the doctor’s, Hevedke did all of the talking. He said that his sister was sick. Reluctantly, the sleepy, night-gowned physician invited him into his house. Soon the small salon was crowded with Tevye’s snow-covered family. Like a guard, Goliath waited outside with the wagon.

Tevye set Tzeitl gently down on a bed in the doctor’s examining room.The physician quickly dressed, put on his eyeglasses and glanced from the dark, bearded Jew to the tall, blond Hevedke.

“I have to charge more for night visits,” he said.

Hevedke nodded, reached his hand in his pocket, and showed the doctor some rubles. Hava stood watching as the doctor examined her sister. Little Hannie cried for her mommy until Bat Sheva rocked her to sleep. Hevedke spoke to the doctor’s wife in the kitchen and convinced her to warm up a large samovar of tea. After a short while, the doctor reappeared. Tevye’s worries proved accurate. The girl had pneumonia and the doctor had given her some medicine which would bring down her fever. Hava was toweling her down. The patient would have to stay in bed for a few days and drink lots of hot tea. Tevye knew the rest of the story. What would be, would be. Tevye had known of people who had recovered from pneumonia, and others who had died, God forbid. Like Tzeitl’s poor husband, Motel, who had coughed himself into the grave.

Tevye prayed and followed the doctor’s orders. In the meantime, their journey was postponed. The Zionists arrived and went straight to the town inn to rest. Hevedke rented a room for Tzeitl and her family in the house of an old widow. Every day, he escorted Nachman and Ruchel to the market to buy fresh vegetables for soup. For the sake of his sick daughter, Tevye relied on the poet’s help, but he was careful to keep him a safe distance from Hava. Since there was no kosher meat in the town, Tevye bought a chicken and slaughtered it himself. If the doctor’s medicine couldn’t cure his daughter, certainly some chicken soup would.

It was agreed that Ben Zion would continue on to Odessa, another three days away, to arrange for ocean passage to Palestine. Tevye handed him a sizable share of the money he had received from the sale of his house, so that Ben Zion could buy them tickets. Before their departure, the Zionists returned to the inn for one last, hearty non-kosher repast.

Goliath said he was staying behind to travel with Tevye. Though the giant wouldn’t admit it, he had fallen in love with Tzeitl. Carrying the sick woman in his arms through the snow had stirred his big heart. Though he had barely exchanged a word with her, he felt like her guardian angel, duty bound to protect her. He played with her children and took them on rides through the woods on his back. At night, instead of sleeping in the warm corner which Shmuelik, Hillel, and Nachman had found in a barn, he slept on the porch of the old widow’s house, just to be closer to Tzeitl.

Although in principle Ben Zion shunned alcohol as the brew which kept the Russian peasantry content in their servitude and squalor, before setting out on the next leg of their journey, he allowed himself several glasses of wine during lunch. His head was happily spinning when his comrades led him out of the inn. Bat Sheva stood across the road, waiting to wish him good-bye. Catching a glimpse of her, he told his friends that he would rendezvous with them at the outskirts of town. Then with a wink, he walked off toward the girl.

“I came to say farewell and to wish you good luck,” she said.

“Don’t tell me farewell,” he said. “Tell me L’Hitraot. It’s Hebrew for `Until we see each other again.’”

“Do you really want to see me again?” she asked.

“What kind of question is that?” he answered. “Listen. I have something to tell you. But wait, we can’t talk here on the street. Come with me now.”

Quickly, he led her away from the houses and into the woods. When they were out of sight of the village, he took her hand and pushed her against the trunk of a tree. He looked into her eyes with a gaze so bold that it made her gasp for breath.

“I have a confession to make,” he told her.

Bat Sheva stood paralyzed, waiting for him to continue.

“I have the feeling that… I am falling in love with you.”

“I feel the same way,” Bat Sheva answered.

“Our beliefs are so different,” he said.

“They are not so different as you think,” she replied, blushing under his gaze.

“If you mean that, then show me. Let me give you a kiss.”

Bat Sheva trembled. A kiss was sacred. A kiss was a gesture of love. Just being alone with a man was forbidden. Her heart pounded so loudly, she felt certain that the whole village would hear. Before she could say no, Ben Zion bent his head down and he kissed her. When their lips touched, she tasted the pungent sweetness of wine.

“You’ve been drinking,” she accused, pushing him away.

“Since when is drinking a sin?” he retorted, grabbing her and kissing her again.

“Do you really love me?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, I love you madly,” he vowed.

“Will you marry me?” she asked

“Yes, yes,” he promised. “I will marry you a thousand times over.”

“You swear?” she asked.

“On the Holy Bible,” he told her.

“Oh, Ben Zion, I’m so happy,” she said.

“Well I’m not,” a deep, husky voice interrupted. It was the voice of her Father.

Tata!” she cried.

Tevye seemed to tower above them, clutching a stick in his hand. When Ben Zion looked up, all he saw was a shadow standing in front of the sun. The stick slammed into his back. Whack! Whack! Whack! Crying out, the Zionist raised his hands to block the blows to his head. Bat Sheva cried out and wept.

“I’ll kill you!” Tevye bellowed. “I’ll kill you if I ever catch you with my daughter again!”

Tevye landed a kick to Ben Zion’s butt, and the Rasputin ran off like a thief. When Tevye turned to his daughter, his eyes were ablaze.

“Is the Almighty blind that He doesn’t see what goes on in the forest?” he shouted. “Your dead mother is shamed!”

Red in the face, the girl couldn’t look at her father.

Tevye growled. The Zionists be damned. Maybe he was making a dreadful mistake in following them so blindly. A cloud of worry filled his head. What would become of his daughters?

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Match!”

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

All kidding aside. I would like to invite you, your family, your children, your friends, and all the Jewish People to join the hundreds of people who are reading my novel, Tevye in the Promised Land, which The Jewish Press.com is serialization every week, chapter by chapter, in its book section.

All of my blogs together don’t add up to the impact of Tevye’s continuing adventures in the Promised Land. Every week, I receive comments from readers who praise the book with superlatives like “wonderful,” “inspiring,” “amazing!” I don’t say this to boost my ego. I say it for you and your children, so that they experience how wonderful real Jewish fiction can be. The novel won the distinguished Israel Ministry of Education Award for Creativity and Jewish Culture, even though it’s filled with a proud religious, right-wing message – something which is amazing in itself!

I’d post the link to the famous “Matchmaker” song to remind you of the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” but since it’s the Three Weeks when we don’t listen to happy music, I’ll have to remind you with words.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the most beloved Jewish movies ever, not to mention the fantastically popular Broadway show. When I saw it as an assimilated youth, I was floored. Finally, a twinkle of Jewish light in the darkness of the gentile culture which surrounded and suffocated my adolescence. Years later, when I made aliyah to Israel, I remembered Tevye the Milkman trudging, head lowered in disgrace, out of his beloved village of Anatevka, and felt that I had to bring him to the Promised Land to experience the great blessing which Hashem had granted me. So, doing my best to copy Sholom Aleichem’s gifted portrayal, and adding a bit on my own, I transformed the downtrodden Jew of galut into a proud pioneer in the Holy Land and a brave fighter for Jewish freedom. It’s a saga that I am sure you and your children will love. And now, thanks to The Jewish Press, it’s free!

And for those of you who don’t want to wait to see how it ends, you can obtain the 600 page, large-size format, or the Kindle edition, at Amazon Books.

All proceeds go to tzedaka. Happy summer reading!

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Five: A Husband For Ruchel

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The next morning, Hevedke was waiting out on the road when Tevye and his Zionist entourage took up their journey. The two men stared at one another in silence.

“He has more guts than I thought,” Tevye brooded, giving the reins of the wagon a whip.

Hava was hoping that her father would give Hevedke a chance to prove his sincerity, but there was no sign of conciliation in her father’s angry expression. Hava herself was confused. Her heart was torn between a man she still loved, and the realization that the bond between them could never be sanctified as long as he belonged to the tormentors of her people. It wasn’t enough that Hevedke was ashamed of the evil decrees of the Czar. Unless he tore up all ties to his religion and his past, he would always remain one of them. Even if he were to fast a hundred days to prove his love for Hava, that would not be enough. Hava knew that he loved her. He had to prove he loved God by taking on the yoke of her people. Though Hava felt compassion and pity for Hevedke, she didn’t plead with her father to accept him into the fold. If she had listened to her parents in the first place, the whole painful situation would never have occurred. Now she wanted to make amends for the breach she had rent in the family. She wanted to be faithful to her father. She wanted to show her mother in Heaven that she was sorry for the pain she had caused. So sitting beside her father as their wagon drove down the road, Hava fought off her desire to gaze at the man she had lived with only a short time before. She stared forward at the future as if Hevedke did not exist, as if they had never crossed paths, trusting that one way or the other, God would restore peace to her torn, aching heart.

That evening they reached the Jewish shtetl of Branosk. The ultra-religious community was smaller than the Jewish community of Anatevka, but the sights, sounds, and smells were the same. The same wooden porches, tiled roofs, and shutters. The same sagging, weathered barns which stood erect by a miracle. The same aroma of horses, chickens, and soups. The same beards and black skullcaps on the men, and kerchiefs and shawls on the women. Even the fiery red sunset had been stolen from Anatevka and pasted over the Branosk forest.

The villagers rushed out of their houses when they heard that pioneers on the way to the Promised Land had arrived in the shtetl. Children and teenagers crowded around Tevye’s wagon. They all wore the caps and long curling peyes sidelocks which distinguished the Branosk community. Apparently, they had seen other Zionists, but the sight of Tevye, a bearded, God fearing Jew among them, was a novelty to be sure. Ben Zion jumped up on a porch and tried to deliver a spirited harangue, inviting the townspeople to throw off the yoke of the Russians and join them in rebuilding the ancient Jewish homeland, but he only drew heckles and a rotten tomato. Tevye and his daughters attracted a far larger crowd.

Where was he going, they wanted to know? To Eretz Yisrael, he answered, the Land of Israel. With the heretics, they asked? Tevye said that by accident they were traveling together, for safety along the way. But, Tevye assured them, his family was headed for a settlement more religious than the city of Vilna – in God’s Chosen Land. What could be better than that? For hadn’t they heard? The great Baron Rothschild, may he live several lifetimes, was building “frum,” God fearing communities throughout the Holy Land. Everyone who came got a villa and acres of orchards bursting with olives, pomegranates, fig trees, and dates.

People bombarded Tevye with questions. He answered with authority, as if he truly knew, as if he were the Baron’s agent, auctioning off parcels of land. When a question came his way for which he did not have an answer, he responded with a verse or two of Torah. One thing was clear – the expulsion which had hit Anatevka was sure to reach Branosk. Surely they had heard that the Czar’s Cossacks had been thundering throughout Russia, slaughtering thousands of Jews. Now was the time to flee for their lives. Now was the time to stop praying for God to take them to Zion, and let their feet do the talking instead.

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Four: ‘Thou Shall Not Murder’

Monday, July 9th, 2012

The Zionists were happy to have Tevye and his family join them. Feeling no pain from the vodka, Tevye invited their young leader to sit alongside him in the wagon. In a feeling of brotherhood, he even offered him a drink. Ben Zion refused. Alcohol, he said, was a drug which the wealthy class used to keep the peasants content in their religious stupor. He and his friends were drunk with the spirit of freedom, so who needed vodka? But if their distinguished traveling companion needed a drink, then by all means, he should imbibe – it was a day of emancipation, a time of independence, a cause for celebration.

“Emancipation from what?” Tevye asked.

“From the yoke of the Czar.”

“Amen,” Tevye said, taking another hearty drink.

Tzeitl reached out to take the bottle away from her father.

“Honor thy father,” Tevye warned, holding the vodka out of her reach. “Didn’t the angels inquire of Abraham, `Where is your wife?’ A woman’s place is out of sight, a queen in her palace, not with the men in the front seat of the wagon.”

“We believe that women should be liberated too,” Ben Zion said.

“You believe in a lot of foolish nonsense,” Tevye answered. “But you have an excuse – you’re still a young whelp.”

“Wasn’t Elazar ben Azariah even younger than I am when he was chosen to head the Sanhedrin?”

“Oh, I see I have the privilege of sharing my seat with a scholar of Torah. I truly am honored,” Tevye said.

“Just because I go with my head uncovered, don’t think that I haven’t learned. My father sent me to heder, and I was quite a good student until I discovered that the world had entered new times.”

“Hasn’t King Solomon taught us that there is nothing new under the sun?” Tevye asked.

“I can quote Scripture too, but don’t you see that it’s all an old-fashioned fable which doesn’t apply anymore?”

Tevye pulled on the reins until his horse came to a halt. “There will be no words of heresy in this wagon. While it may lack a roof, this is, for the time being, our humble abode, and Tevye, the son of Schneur Zalman, will not tolerate blasphemy in the presence of his family. So if you cannot control your speech, please step down from my wagon.”

Ben Zion smiled. “No problem, old man,” he said. “While I am unable to agree with your beliefs, I respect both you and your beautiful daughters. Besides, evening is approaching, and you probably would like to pray to your God. In the meantime, my comrades and I will look for a suitable camp site.”

“My beautiful daughters,” Tevye mumbled when the insolent scoundrel climbed down from the wagon. He would have felt safer if he were traveling with thieves. This free-thinking Herzl was cut from the very same cloth as his son-in-law Perchik. Why, Tevye wondered, had he turned a deaf ear to the Rabbi?

They camped in the woods by the roadside. Tevye unhitched his horse and fed him a bucket of oats. Then he spread out blankets and mats for his daughters under the wagon. The father intended to keep guard under the stars, where he could keep an eye on the Zionists. The family enjoyed a modest meal of black bread and potatoes which Tevye baked in the campfire. A swig of vodka helped to wash down the food. While they ate, Tevye’s eye kept wandering to the flickering light of a campfire on the other side of the road.

“He’s following us like a dog,” Tevye said.

“Please, Tata,” Hava appealed. “Don’t talk about Hevedke like that.”

“I see the devil still has you under his spell.”

“I’m not under a spell. If I were, I wouldn’t be here. But Hevedke is a good man. It isn’t his fault that he was born one of them.”

Tevye took a big bite out of his potato. Grumbling, he tilted his head back and poured some more vodka into his belly.

She’s right, he thought. It wasn’t the youth’s fault that he had been created that way, just as it wasn’t Tevye’s fault that he had been born a Jew. But just as Tevye had to suffer his fate, then let this Galagan suffer his fate too. How long was he planning on following them? Till he drove Tevye out of his mind?

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Three: Off to the Promised Land

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Tevye saw him when they reached the outskirts of the village. At first he wasn’t sure, but when he saw Hava keep turning her head, his suspicions proved true. It was Hevedke Galagan, the Russian who had stolen his daughter, the gentile she was supposed to have left – he was following the procession of Jews as they made their way down the bumpy dirt road.

“What’s this?” he said, tugging on the reins of his horse. The wagon stopped. Tevye turned a fierce eye on his daughter.

“What?” Hava asked.

“Don’t what me,” Tevye roared. He started to stand up in the wagon. His hand rose threateningly up in the air.

“I swear, Tata,” she said. “I’ve left him, I have. I told him I can’t be his wife. But he wants to come with us. He’s ashamed of his people. I told him no, it can’t be, but he wants to be a Jew.”

“A Jew!” Tevye roared. “A Jew! Is our life such a picnic that he wants to be a Jew!?” Tevye stared up to Heaven. “I ask you, good Lord. Isn’t exile enough of a punishment? Or is Tevye to suffer this disgrace as well?”

“It doesn’t have to be a disgrace,” Tzeitl said.

“Silence!” Tevye shouted. “The answer is no!” He sat down in his seat and whipped the reins of the horse.

The procession moved on through the dust. Wagons rattled under their loads. Golda’s coffin bounced over the rocks in the road. Glancing over his shoulder, Tevye could still see the tall Hevedke, following at the end of the long march of Jews. His fleece of blond hair shone in the sun under his brown student’s cap.

“No, I don’t want to know what is written,” Tevye brooded to himself, fighting to keep control of his thoughts. No, no, no. Hevedke could walk. He could crawl. He could die from hunger and thirst before Tevye would let him into his wagon.

Tevye, the guardian of tradition, refused to look at his daughter. He refuse to speak. For miles, they road in silence. Yet as they turned every bend, he could still see the lone figure of Hevedke Galagan walking determinedly after the Jews.

Suddenly, the procession came to a halt. Tevye’s horse snorted. “What’s the matter?” Moishe asked. “Why have we stopped?”

“Are we there already?” Hannie questioned.

“I’ll go and see what the problem is,” Tevye said, getting down from the wagon. He trudged off toward the head of the line. The caravan had stopped at a crossroads. One road led north to a stretch of Russian wasteland where pogroms had not yet erupted. Another road led to Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and America beyond. And the third path led to Odessa and Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem.

Naturally, a lively debate was in progress. Everyone had an opinion on which direction to take. All of a sudden, Jews who had never ventured beyond the boundaries of Anatevka became experts in international travel. Yitzik, the woodcutter, advised journeying on to Broditchov, a distant part of Russia, where at least people spoke the same language. Leb, the ritual slaughterer, argued that Jews speak the same language wherever they live. Tzvi Hirsh, the tanner, had an uncle in America who wrote that all the Jews had houses as big as hotels and rode in fancy carriages just like the gentiles. But Shammai, the scribe, warned that ocean travel after the winter rains was a dangerous affair.

“Is that so?” Tzvi Hirsh retorted. “And since when did you become a Columbus? How many times has our village scribe sailed around the world?”

“Here’s Tevye,” Shammai said. “You can ask him.”

Everyone turned to the milkman. Tevye looked up at the sign at the crossroad and gazed down each path, as if he could see the future at the end of the road.

“What do you say, Tevye? Which way should we go?”

Before the milkman could answer, Elijah, the town herald said, “The Midrash teaches that every road leads to Jerusalem.”

“Well, the Midrash must have been wrong,” the tanner responded. “Only one of these roads leads to Jerusalem.”

“The meaning is that wherever a Jew wanders, sooner or later he is going to get beaten over the head until he ends up back in Jerusalem,” Elijah explained.

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Two: Golda

Monday, June 25th, 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?

Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter One: Anatevka

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Nemerov, the district Police Commissioner, reared his horse in the air.

“Three days,” he warned. “The Jews of Anatevka have three days to clear out of the area.”

Tevye spat in disgust at the ground. “Three days,” he brooded. Three days were all the authorities were giving the Jews to sell their belongings and evacuate the village they loved.

It didn’t matter that the Jews had lived in Anatevka long before the Russians. The Police Commissioner didn’t care that Tevye’s great-grandfather, may his memory be a blessing, had cleared the forest by the lake and built the first house in the region. It didn’t matter to the Czar and his soldiers that for as long as anyone could remember, the Jews had dutifully paid the taxes which had laden the Czar’s table with food, while the pantries of the Jews remained bare. Nor did it matter to them that the Jews had cleaned out the stables of the Russian landowners, chopped their wood, sewed their garments, and delivered their milk. It didn’t matter that a Jew would bow in respect when a Russian passed by, just to keep peace. Nor did it matter to them that the decent folk of Anatevka had no other place to call home. They were Jews, and that was that. The Czar, may he and his loved ones be cursed, had made his decision in the interests of the motherland. His order was final. The Jews had three days to get out. The butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers of Anatevka had been declared enemies of the state.

The usually goodhearted milkman spat in anger as the Police Commissioner and his soldiers rode out of the village. Then he looked up at the heavens and prayed.

“My Father and King, Whose ways are perfect and just, and Who does only good to His people – even if we can’t understand Your kindness in throwing us out of our homes – after the Jews of Anatevka have journeyed to some faraway land, may the Czar and his Cossacks be swallowed up into the earth.”

Not that all Russians were as wicked as the Czar and his soldiers. After all, the same God had created all people, Jews and Russians alike. Loving God meant loving all of His creation. But sometimes, it wasn’t so easy. When someone kicks you out of your home, and treats you like dirt, it’s hard for a man to be grateful.

Where would they go? Tevye didn’t know. To Broditchov, in a distant part of Russia, where the pogroms had not yet struck? To America? To Poland? To the Land of Israel? To England? Or France? Tevye didn’t have time to think up a plan. He would simply go along with everyone else in his village, wherever the Almighty led them. After all, had Abraham known his destination when God told him to leave his birthplace for some faraway land? As the Torah says, “And Abraham believed!” He trusted in God. Without complaining, he packed up his belongings and went.

Tevye’s head kept spinning like it did when he drank too much vodka on Purim. There were so many things to arrange. How do you pack a lifetime into three days? Maybe he should have pulled the Police Commissioner off of his horse and given him a good thrashing. Maybe he should have rallied the Jews to rebellion. But what would that have accomplished? Reports of pogroms had reached them from all over Russia. Burnings, lootings, evacuations, the slaughter of innocent women and children. Just because they were Jews. How could they rebel? Did the Jews have an army? Did they have weapons with which they could fight? Was Tevye Judah the Maccabee, that he could rally people to follow him? What kind of resistance could the lowly Jews muster?

Tevye trudged back to his tiny castle, the home he had built long ago with more youthful hands. Was a house merely pieces of wood that a man could so easily sell it? What about all of the years, the memories, the joys, and the sorrows? True, Tevye thought, he could have survived just as well without all of the sorrows, but that was the life of a Jew. There were good times and bad. A house could be sold, but what about all of the memories engraved in the planks of the walls? Well, he supposed he could take his memories with him.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/the-book-shelf/tevye-in-the-promised-land-books/tevye-in-the-promised-land-chapter-one-anatevka/2012/06/18/

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