To help shorten their journey, Hillel sat in the rear of the wagon, playing his accordion and singing. Hadn’t musicians accompanied the Jews when Ezra led them back to the Holy Land to build the Second Temple? And didn’t the Psalm promise, “When the Lord will return the exiles to Zion, our mouths will be filled with glad song?” Hillel had a merry, soothing voice, and the children loved to listen. You might have thought he was a minstrel trying to win Bat Sheva’s heart, the way he kept smiling at her, hoping for a look of approval. But his intentions were the furthest thing from her mind, possessed as it was with thoughts of Ben Zion and the approaching moment when she would see him again.
Tevye’s spirits remained boisterous, not only with the prospect of soon seeing Hodel, but with the wise transaction he had made for the horse. Like a learned and experienced veterinarian, he had given the animal a careful examination, checking its teeth for decay, its legs for spastic twitches, and its feces for worms. The Jew who had sold it to Tevye was a carpenter. Unable to make a decent living, he was leaving the country to seek better luck in America. He said he was disillusioned with the Jewish Colony Association and with the Baron’s dictatorial clerks. They were the reason he had moved to Jerusalem. In the city, he couldn’t compete with the cheap Arab labor, so, to feed his family, he was forced to move on. Instead of fixing tables and chairs in Palestine, he would build mansions for the Jews in America. Tevye didn’t try to dissuade him. At the price he was asking, the horse was a steal. And, thank God, the beast passed the test in the field. It pulled the wagon with ease and didn’t seem to tire in the unrelenting sun. And to Tevye’s great pleasure, the animal responded to its new master’s cues as if they had been partners for years.
To entertain the children when Hillel wasn’t singing, Tevye pointed out the sites of famous Biblical battles and stories, as if he really knew the locations where they had occurred. On the hill over there, King Saul was born, he declared with great authority. And over there, by the very same olive tree, the prophet Samuel would receive pilgrims seeking the word of the Lord. Here, of course, in Gilgal, Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still. And here, on what was definitely Mount Tabor, the valiant Deborah had led an inspired Israeli army on a rout of Sisera’s forces. Shmuelik knew the Biblical stories with a great deal more textual accuracy, but since he wasn’t familiar with the geography of the Holy Land, he abstained from correcting Tevye and embarrassing him in front of his family.
Reaching the city of Shechem, which Jacob had captured with his bow and his sword, the travelers stopped to pray at the tomb of the saintly Joseph. Then, journeying over the mountains, they reached the Jordan Valley, north of the desert plains north of Jericho, where the Children of Israel had come into the Land of Israel after their forty years of wilderness wandering. The road wasn’t so much of a road as a trail of old wagon tracks. Sand-covered mountains rose up around them. Goliath suggested they rest during the fierce noon hours, but there was hardly a shade tree that could provide them with shelter all along the desolate way. To the east, an oasis of green date palms, cypress trees, and willows lined the serpentine path of the Jordan River, but the steep sand dunes and treacherous chasms in the valley prevented the wagon from reaching its banks.
To help pass the time, Shmuelik opened the Book of Books and read aloud, as if he were teaching children in heder.
The words of the Torah and the stark ancient landscape had a magical, inspiring effect. Tevye had traveled through many of the forests and mountains of Russia, but he had never experienced anything spiritual in the air. But here, in the Holy Land, everything was steeped with Biblical wonder. Tevye didn’t even complain about sleeping outdoors on a burlap sack which he spread out over the rocky, back-breaking earth. Had Jacob complained when he had slept on a pillow of rocks and dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder which reached up to Heaven? Imagine what would Moses have given to be in Tevye’s place! Moses, the faithful shepherd of the Children of Israel, who devoted his whole life to leading the Jews, had only one wish for himself – to enter the Promised Land, a blessing that was ultimately denied him. Lying on his back, staring up at the twinkling heavens, Tevye understood why Moses was so heartbroken after his entreaties failed. Even a simple milkman could feel the spirit of God in the Land. A canopy of constellations glimmered like gold dust in every corner of the sky, a witness to the promise which God had made to Abraham to make his offspring as illustrious as the stars in the heavens.