“Tevye, wake up,” Golde said, elbowing me. “The meeting’s about to begin.”
I could barely keep my head up. Golde elbowed me harder in the ribs.
“Enough woman. My hearing isn’t improved by hitting me.”
“I don’t care about whether you can hear. I just don’t want to have to listen to your snoring.”
As soon as I lifted my head off the pillow, I could clearly hear Shmuel’s ding-ding, dong-dong, ding-ding, dong-dong, echoing through the kibbutz. More than one chaver had threatened to beat him to a pulp with his clapper.
“A meeting at midnight? I think I’ll skip it tonight. I’m beat.”
“You’re not skipping anything,” she said, pulling the blanket off me. “You can sleep afterward.”
“Or during,” I mumbled.
The chaverim assembled with their usual lack of late night enthusiasm. The dining hall was beginning to look its age, with paint chipping and walls cracking. When it rained, we had to spread pots around the floor to catch the runoff from all the leaks. The good news was that it meant we didn’t have to go to the well for drinking water. At meals, some chaverim just reached down and drank out of the pots.
Tonight, we didn’t have to worry about a deluge through the ceiling. We just had to cover ourselves with blankets to stay warm.
Meanwhile, sitting in the front of the room looking unaffected, as usual, was my good friend Simcha. He sat smiling, patiently waiting for everyone to arrive, looking as fresh as he did when he awoke in the morning.
“I’ll never understand why we have to meet so late at night. It’s Simcha’s only obnoxious habit. But, look at him. Even at this time of night, when the rest of us can barely keep our eyes open, he looks as alert and cheerful as ever.”
“Shush already,” Golde said. “He’s about to start.”
I looked around the room. Nothing had changed in all the years of meeting to discuss the kibbutz’s affairs. The apathetic members always slouched in the back and tried to sleep through the meeting, while the politicians sat stiffly in front, looking as though they’d slept all day to prepare for the evening’s debate. Then there were those like me who were genuinely interested in the discussion — at least part of it — but felt too exhausted to pay much attention. Fortunately, I have my own alarm clock.
“Quiet,” Golde said as she poked me again.
See what I mean.
“Shalom chaverim,” Simcha said brightly, with no hint of an apology for the lateness of the meeting. “As you know, the Royal Commission issued its report and the Mandatory Government is carrying out its recommendations, the worst of which is that immigration will again be curtailed. This will create problems for our brothers and sisters who are trying to reach Palestine, but efforts are being made to help them.”
“The good news is the report appears to have appeased the Arabs for the moment. I don’t expect it to last. While it does, however, we have to take advantage of the opportunity to do as much as possible to expand all of our industries. I want us to also begin to carry out the rest of Bernice’s recommendations, fortify the kibbutz more heavily, acquire as many weapons as possible and train our young people to shoot.”
Murmuring grew louder and louder before Natan stood up and asked, “Simcha, is there something you’re not telling us? Do you expect us to be attacked?”
“No Natan. As I said, for the moment, the violence has abated, but I don’t believe the Arabs have changed their view toward Zionism. The time will come, I’m afraid, when we’ll have to defend ourselves. I want us to be ready.”
Eitan was usually one of the people who slept in the rear, but he was roused by the unusual hubbub and stood. “Where will we get weapons, and who will train us now that Moshe and Devorah are gone?”
“Don’t worry. That is being taken care of. I just wanted to let everyone know what to expect.”
The words hardly registered in my brain. It was not so much that I was half asleep, I just found myself staring at Simcha, remembering the young man who had stopped me on the road from Anatevka ranting about the marvels of the Holy Land. From the day we arrived, he had been one of the hardest workers, and it was only fitting after so many years, and Jonathan’s death, that he had become the acknowledged leader of the kibbutz. It was the young idealists like him, more than old cockers like me, who had made so much progress toward building our state, from draining the marshes to planting the fields to administering the finances. Simcha, Moshe and others like them had done it all. I felt a surge of pride, as though he were my own son.
“I would like to congratulate the construction team on the completion of the new bathroom.”
“Now that’s good news!” I jumped up and shouted as the chaverim applauded wildly.
“Sit down, Tevye,” Golde said, tugging my shirt.
“You wanted me to wake up and now I’m up.”
“You can stay awake sitting down.”
Simcha held up his hands to quiet the room. “I’ve been asked to warn you all that some of the wood and tools are still lying about, so please be careful when you go out at night.”
“I’d hate to come back with more than I left with,” I said, provoking laughter among the members and another shot in the ribs from Golde.
“I’ve also been asked,” Simcha said, losing the battle to control his own laughter. “I’ve also been asked to remind everyone that tomorrow evening the poetry group will be meeting to discuss Bialik’s latest work. And, on a more serious note.”
“More serious than Bialik?” Natan interrupted.
“Well, maybe not that serious, Natan. The Committee has been alerted that we are having some problems at the makhsan. When we agreed to allow the membership to own their own clothes, we did not anticipate that anyone would remove clothes from the laundry that do not belong to them. I’m sure this has occurred accidentally from time to time. A greater concern is the discovery that the numbers on some garments have been sewed over.”
I looked around the room and saw that everyone was looking at each other suspiciously. I got the feeling more than one person was guilty.
“Anyone who is caught committing such a crime,” Simcha continued, “will be publicly denounced and suffer the appropriate punishment. The removals must stop.”
The smile never left Simcha’s face, but his tone left no doubt that he was concerned and angry. The chaverim put their heads down and slumped in their seats like children who had just been chastised by their parents.
“I have one more announcement. And this one I am happy to make. The Economic Committee has decided to purchase a new tractor, which should increase our productivity and relieve some of the burden from our animals, not to mention our backs. The committee will be issuing new job assignments to many of you in the next week.”
“And who will have the privilege of driving our new tractor?” Natan shouted.
Natan did not only pester me with his questions about the Bible. He annoyed everyone. If it wasn’t for his interruptions, our meetings would probably take half the time.
I was so intent on Natan’s question that I almost missed the answer.
Simcha looked in my direction and had a particularly wide grin that meant he was not just happy but pleased with himself.
“Tevye will be our new tractor driver,” he proclaimed.
“Tevye?” Timur blurted from the back of the room, and then began laughing. Soon others joined in. Even Golde was laughing.
I rose and shouted, “And what is so funny?”
“It’s just that you are the person that we least associate with anything new or modern,” Timur replied. “You’re still driving your little milk cart and practicing your shtetl rituals. It’s like introducing a car to a Philistine.” Timur laughed so hard he began snorting.
“You’re playing a joke on me, Simcha. Very funny.”
Simcha never joined in the laughter. “It’s no joke, Tevye. The world is changing, and the kibbutz will have to change with it. That’s progress. I’m afraid the situation with the Arabs makes it unsafe for you to make your deliveries to the villages and other kibbutzim. I want you to have a new job here. I think this will suit you.”
“Yea, another chance for Tevye to spend all his time on his tuchis,” Enoch shouted, causing Timur to laugh so hard he began choking.
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevye Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.