After Anatevka — Tevye in Palestine, Excerpt 29: From Names to Numbers

I like it here. I’ve always loved animals and since my horses and cows take care of me, it’s only fair I take care of them.

Golde says I just like a captive audience that can’t talk back. Maybe. But I know they’re listening. A neigh or a moo is their way of saying, “thank you, Reb Tevye. I agree, Reb Tevye. You’re a righteous man, Reb Tevye.”

I’m also a tired Reb Tevye. You think shoveling horse manure into a bucket isn’t exhausting? It doesn’t get easier to work when you get older. And, to tell you the truth, my foot is getting sore. You wouldn’t believe why. Before I show you the problem, I’d better explain.

Last month, Simcha made a startling announcement at our weekly meeting.

“Since the early days,” he said, “we have shared all our clothing. This has been in the best tradition of socialism, but it has had its drawbacks, as you all know.” Simcha raised both his arms so we could all see the sleeves stuck around his elbows.

“You should see my underwear,” Enoch shouted.

“Don’t make me sick,” Chana spat.

This was the type of intellectual exchange that I had come to expect at our meetings. And some people actually wondered why I held study sessions to discuss the Scriptures.

“All right. All right,” Simcha interrupted. I am happy to announce that the Committee has voted to allow everyone to own their own clothes.”

I think the cheer was the loudest I ever heard at the kibbutz since the committee voted to take birdseed out of the kitchen to prevent Chana from contaminating the kugel.

Well, not everyone was happy.

“What are you all applauding?” Uzi screamed over the din. What is more basic to the communal way of life than the sharing of the clothes on our backs?”

Uzi’s insistence on Marxist purity had kept the kibbutz from adopting many of the conveniences being used on other kibbutzim.

“Once you begin to compromise on basic principles, you start down a path that will lead to the complete abandonment of the ideals on which our movement was founded,” Uzi continued, warming up to one of his favorite topics. “Before long we will be buying and selling clothes like the petty bourgeoisie we despised in Russia. The sharing of clothes is a tradition that is no less sacred than collective labor.”

Golde gave me one of her looks and I knew she could hear echoes of my words about other traditions. And I understood Uzi’s argument, but I could not agree that the sharing of clothing undermined the essence of our collective existence. The truth was I wanted my own clothes.

“Believe me Uzi, we have given this very careful consideration. We understand your point and have not come to this decision easily,” Simcha said. “If there are others who share Uzi’s view, I would be willing to put the question to a vote of the members.”

“No! No! We’re with you Simcha,” people shouted from around the room.

I started to stand and Golde glared at me.

“I insist on a vote,” Eitan cried out, joining his ideological soul mate in open revolt.

“All right,” Simcha said. “Out of respect for two of our founders, let us take a vote. All those who support the committee’s decision to change our policy regarding clothing, and allow members to own their own clothes, signify by saying ‘Aye.’”

“Aye!” I shouted along with seemingly everyone else in the room.

“All those opposed to the change, who wish to keep the policy as it is, say “Nay.”

Uzi and Eitan stood and bellowed, “Nay.”

“The change has been ratified,” Simcha confirmed.

I watched Eitan and Uzi turn and storm out of the dining hall. It was one of the rare occasions when I saw the smile briefly leave Simcha’s face.

As a protest, Eitan and Uzi walked around wearing ill-fitting clothes; everyone else was thrilled to have their very own peasant shirts and khaki shorts. After years of having pants that either dragged on the floor or stuck around my knees, it was nice to have a pair that was the correct size.

Of course, it is one of God’s decrees that man’s decisions never turn out exactly as planned. That was the case with our clothes.

The problem started when the scholars on the Work Assignment Committee decided Chana needed a change of scenery — actually everyone needed a break from her cooking — and put her in the makhsan. Now the laundry is probably one of the three least popular jobs on the kibbutz, along with kitchen and stable duty, so Chana was not happy.

Working in the laundry was a pretty easy job when everyone was just handed whatever clean clothes were at the top of the pile. It requires a lot more time and effort now that everything has to be sorted by owner, especially since the wise men on the committee decided, for some unexplained reason, not to let us put our names in the clothes. Instead, we were assigned numbers. I guess this was a concession to Uzi and Eitan and a way to soften the blow of the shift toward a semblance of individualism.

Well, Chana and the other laundry workers now only recognize us by our numbers. When I see her, I’ll say, “Shalom, Chana. Ma nishma?” And even though we’ve known each other since the early days on the kibbutz, she’ll still answer, “Biseder, 271. And you?”

So this is socialist progress. I went from Tevye, son of Reb Shneour Zalman to Tevye the dairyman to Reb Tevye to Tevye to 271.

Yesterday, we exchanged our usual pleasantries and I started to leave the laundry. Then I heard her call after me, “Wait 271. I’ve got some socks for you.”

I went back and she dropped a handful of socks on top of my other clothes.

“And what is the occasion for this great windfall?” I asked.

“Last week I was assigned to mend old socks. Every chaver gets three new pairs.”

“Todah rabah,” I said, genuinely excited to get something new.

“Bivakasha, 271.”

I should have known better and looked at what she gave me before thanking her. Let me show you this blessing that I received. Her job was to go through the old socks and cut off those that had toes or heels that were torn and sew on new toes or heels from socks that were still whole. As you can see, she got a little confused and decided to replace the worn-out heel on this sock with toes she had mended. I now have a sock with toes on both ends. My toes feel fine, but my heel is killing me.

This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine, available now in paperback and on Kindle.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.