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The Thoughts of a New York Jew in the Judaean Hills

This is my father’s favorite scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye and the butcher Lazer Wolf are celebrating Lazer’s engagement to Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel at the local inn. The Jews drink to their health and dance together artlessly but with enthusiasm. Suddenly, the Cossacks sing over them and expropriate the dance floor, performing graceful but aggressive dance steps and chasing the Jews away, silencing them. One of them bumps into Tevye, and all the Jews in the bar tremble with apprehension, lest the night’s revelry end in bloodshed. But Tevye accepts the Cossack’s invitation and dances with him, for at least one night converting the hostile, bullying Cossacks into amiable drunks having some fun with the Jews that is mutually enjoyable for a change.

But it’s my father’s favorite. I don’t care for it. Being a Tevye myself, I know a bit about it. More likely, the real Tevye tried his best to dance with the Cossacks and befriend them, and they almost went along with him, but then one of them thought it might be more fun to kick his teeth in, and it was. Then a second Cossack saw Tevye lying on the floor bleeding, and being a bit tipsy decided to relieve himself on him.  Tevye, by lying still and enduring the golden stream, escaped with his life that time, but failed to convert his enemies into friends.

Tevye is an archetype, the Every-Jew of our long exile, trying to scratch out a line of melody pleasing both to his G-d and himself without breaking his neck. On that night, at least as played by Topol on the silver screen, he succeeded beautifully. But removing him from his birthplace in Sholem Aleichem’s short stories, and his artificial habitat in a beloved musical, let’s consider him. The real Tevyes, the ones who inspired the stories, did not get by so easily. One of them tried that trick of dancing with the gray-clad German occupiers, and they shot Lazer Wolf dead, and then hustled him, along with his wife, daughters and their husbands into cattle cars. Others, after the Czar chased all the Tevyes out of Anatevka, saw what was coming, and emigrated to America, where they prosper to this day, as they did in centuries gone by in Spain, medieval England, Germany and Poland, until each time disaster hit and they had to flee again.

Still others made it to the Holy Land, and found themselves unwelcome there for the same reason they were unwelcome in Russia and elsewhere: They’re Jews, Christ-killers, trouble-makers, unbelievers in this or that prophet that the local goyim adore.

Russia was not the Promised Land; it was easy to leave. We were merely tolerated there even in the best of times. The same is true of Iraq, Poland, Yemen, Hungary, Morocco, Germany, Algeria, and all the other places on earth where the Tevyes had managed their precarious existences, wearing a variety of hat styles but all remaining Tevyes to the bone.

Israel, however, is promised to us. That promise is a specific place to which we truly belong but few had ever actually seen, sustained the many generations of Tevyes for millennia. Along with a belief in our unique Divine mission, it has given our sufferings and travails meaning and depth without which we would not have survived as a people. And always, at every opportunity, those fortunate enough to find a way have come home. To a greater extent than Israel is promised to us, we are promised to it. More than it belongs to us, we belong to it. And here I speak not of the State of Israel grudgingly approved by the UN after Harry Truman precipitously recognized it, but of the Biblical land. We belonged to Hebron for thousands of years before it was ethnically cleansed (“Juden, raus!” or “Yahood rahoo!” Take your pick.) by angry mobs of Arabs (with the help of the British in their role as good cops) in 1929. We belonged to it for the 38 years in which it was kept artificially Judenrein (or “bedoon alyahood”). We belong to it now and forever, regardless of whether it’s diplomatically/politically expedient. We’re here. We’re staying.

The same holds true for Gush Etzion, Mitzpeh Yerecho, Itamar, Ariel, the Golan and East Jerusalem, as well as Tzefat, Shechem (Nablus) and any other place in Israel you might care to name. We belong to the land. Turkish Sultans, British Foreign Office bureaucrats, Israeli prime ministers, American presidents, and Arab demagogues have ignored, and continue to ignore that reality at their peril. But what of our cousins the Arabs?

The saddest thing about life in Israel is that I would like Arabs, if they weren’t so often full of hate. I like the sheep and goat herders who fearlessly drive their flocks across Tzomet Hagush’s (Gush Etzion junction) busy intersection, as well as the donkey riders who trot confidently along the shoulders of highways. Traffic stops, no matter how busy, whether Jewish or Arab drivers, to let stragglers catch up to their flock. I’ve only seen one road-killed sheep here in all this time. I like and envy ladies who can balance their groceries on their heads, old men who are comfortable sitting on the floor. I liked the van service driver at the tachaneh (bus stop) on Highway 60 below Efrat who offered to take me to Bethlehem because he had one space left in the back, until I explained that I was headed to Jerusalem. I like the doctor in Ezur Taasiya Beit (Industrial District II), in the Arab side of Kiryat Arba, who trains his tomato vines on trellises made from ropes staked to the ground and tied to the branches of his olive trees. The olive trees shade the tomatoes, while providing support for their v-shaped rope trellises. I like the pains they go to when randomly searched to show the good-natured resignation that reassures the nervous young kids with guns who’ve been ordered to search them. I like the way they study me until I wish them a good morning in either Hebrew or Arabic, and then they return the greeting with a nod of respect, recognizing that I recognized their humanity, too.

I liked the construction crew that a wealthy fellow congregant of mine, in exchange for a promise to pray for him, put at my disposal for a morning to help me move, and how I earned a measure of friendship and respect from them because I worked alongside them despite my age (50) and poor physical shape, rather than sitting in the shade and watching them work. My eldest (25) and youngest (8) sons both put their backs into it to the best of their abilities, and my wife served cold drinks. A teenager, Hassan, gave me one edge of our refrigerator to help lift, and laughed uproariously when I couldn’t do it. His senior, whose name I couldn’t pronounce well enough to remember, spoke English to me and we shook hands. My first-born gave each of them a modest but decent gratuity for their troubles, and they swore eternal friendship, but such oaths cannot be relied on.

I liked the two fellows I asked for directions on the road up Rosh Tzurim who in turn asked me for a job just because I was Jewish, despite my shabby clothes and disintegrating shoes. When I explained I was looking for work myself, they asked me for money, and I lied and said I had none, worried they might take my last 400 shekels and leave me bleeding by the roadside, to be commemorated by a pile of stones or a plaque with my name followed by the acronym “HYD” (Hashem Yinkom Damo [may G-d avenge his blood]), like those that dot the landscape throughout Israel, as well as the labyrinthine streets of the Old City of Jerusalem.

But too many of them are full of hatred for me and mine, will take towering offense to the most innocent remark, will scowl and shake their heads while staring me in the eyes if I greet them, will sneak into an open window in the middle of the night to murder, or pass out sweets in the street and shoot off fireworks to celebrate such an “heroic” act. And all that means that I cannot drop my guard and like them as I would like to.

Of what, actually, does my frustrated liking consist? They possess many old skills that have atrophied among more urbanized people such as myself, and they live close to nature and the earth.

CounterPuncher Marc Levy, who passed this piece along to us, writes, “We met years ago at various poetry readings in NYC.  In 2009 DOVID PRIMACK, an orthodox Jew, left the States for Israel.  His devotion to secular and sacred dogma is iron-clad.  To preserve the friendship I’ve always left his politics alone.”  To reach DOVID PRIMACK, email benmaxwellmaxwell910@gmail.com