Why Tevye the Milkman made aliyah

Tzvi Fishman is simultaneously a jokester and a deadly serious, prolific author with profound ideological commitments.

TZVI FISHMAN: Life in Israel is a constant adventure. (photo credit: Courtesy)
TZVI FISHMAN: Life in Israel is a constant adventure.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem resident Tzvi Fishman is simultaneously a jokester and a deadly serious, prolific author with profound ideological commitments.
In advance of the book launch event for his Tevya in the Promised Land trilogy, Fishman joked on Facebook, “WARNING REMINDER! Any FB Friend who fails to show up at my party will be de-friended, unless he or she shows up with a letter from a doctor, or an affidavit authorized by a notary and signed by 2 witnesses.”
That’s typical Fishman humor. A bit irascible. But only because he cares so much about the things he writes about.
In 1996, Fishman published a novel of historical fiction based on the premise that Tevye and his family from Fiddler on the Roof moved to Palestine (pre-state Israel) from Anatevka, a village in the Russian Pale of Settlement, in 1905.
Tevye In the Promised Land brings Tevye, Golda and their daughters and sons-in-law to pre-state Israel under Ottoman (Turkish) Rule. Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for the novel.
Fishman just launched two follow-up volumes in the series – Arise and Shine and The Lion’s Roar, which both take place during the period of British rule.
Fishman isn’t shy about his agenda. He wants Jews living outside of Israel to join the revolution, helping to rebuild the third Jewish commonwealth. Fishman explained, “For me, Tevye is a symbol of the Jewish nation. Just like the Jewish people have undergone a tremendous transformation in the last century, gaining national Jewish independence in Israel, Tevye also discovers new strengths and talents.
“Moving to Israel is a great challenge. By sharing his trials and triumphs, I hope Jewish readers in the Diaspora will feel that they, too, can come closer to God and build a new future in Israel.“
For readers who already live in Israel, Fishman hopes Tevye’s story will also inspire them.
“Everyone needs chizuk and strengthening. Life in Israel is a constant adventure. Tevye clings to his great faith when tested by malaria-filled swamps, locusts, marauding Arabs, and a British Mandate Administration that was hostile to the Zionist dream. Everyone can learn from his example.”
Even though the trilogy, soon to be a quintet (series of five books), are focused on the very Jewish character of Tevye, Fishman believes that even non-Jews can gain from reading the continuation of his story.
“Because of the international success of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the Milkman is loved all over the world. His towering faith and devotion to the Almighty, along with his devotion to his family and to tradition, are universal themes.
“Non-Jews, especially those with religious values, enjoy and identify with Tevye’s triumphs and tribulations. In fact, one non-Jew bought a hundred copies of Tevye in the Promised Land to give away to all of his friends,” he reported.
Fishman is hard at work on the fourth book in the quintet, doing the background research. What can readers expect from the fourth book?
“Tevye, along with his children and grandchildren, will play a leading role in the underground revolt against the British.”
In typical Fishman story-telling fashion, he gives his readers a taste of the drama to look forward to.
“If you think The Godfather was filled with action, this part of the Zionist saga has bullets flying on every page. With the help of the Almighty, a fifth novel will reach its historic climax with the establishment of Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel),” he promises.
Asked which of the novels he recommends if a reader can only read one, Fishman demurs.
“It is impossible to read only one. Once a reader has immersed himself in the drama surrounding Tevye’s family, and in the incredible adventure of modern Zionism, becoming intimately entwined with the struggles of its heroes and visionaries, people like Yosef Trumpeldor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion and Yair Stern, he or she wants to stay with the drama and suspense till the end.”
Some people say that living in Israel today is akin to the tenuousness of being a fiddler on the roof. Fishman disagrees.
“I think that for a Jew, life is far more tenuous in the Diaspora. There, if you fall off the roof, you are at the mercy of strangers. Here, in the Jewish homeland, if you fall, you are surrounded by family and friends, and by a powerful Jewish army.
“As Tevye discovers, in the Promised Land, if an enemy hits you over the head, you can hit him back – double. You can’t do that in Anatevka or New York.”
A deeply religious, ideologically driven man, Fishman grew up in a decidedly non-Jewish neighborhood in Massachusetts. Looking at his early childhood, one would not readily predict that he would become such a cheerleader for Jewish life in Israel.
“My family belonged to a Reform congregation,” he related. “I had to attend Hebrew school three times a week, and the hours conflicted with the sports schedule at my regular public school so I could never be a starting player on any of the teams. For me, that was enough reason to reject Judaism.”
His antipathy toward Judaism continued throughout his teen years. “I didn’t even want to have a bar mitzvah, but my parents insisted. Our temple was undergoing renovations, so my bar mitzvah ceremony was held in a neighboring Unitarian church.
Needless to say, the experience didn’t leave me with any deep feeling for Torah.
“I went to high school at a very prestigious and ‘WASP-ish’ private school called Phillips Andover Academy. On Sundays, while the other students prayed in Andover’s magnificent chapel, Jewish students were confined to a room in the basement. That reinforced my feeling that Judaism was a fourth-class religion.”
It wasn’t until college, as a film student at New York University, that Fishman had his first positive Jewish experience.
He describes sitting in the dark, watching Fiddler on the Roof for the first time.
“For me, seeing Fiddler on the Roof was like a lightning blast from Mount Sinai. It was my first encounter with something really Jewish. I was blown away to discover that I wasn’t just another American youth. [As a Jew], I had a beautiful and noble ‘Tradition!’ of my own.”
That moment of inspiration eventually led to a religious awakening and, eventually, to Fishman making aliyah himself.
Once he was well-situated in Israel, Fishman thought back to his old friend Tevye who opened up the world of Judaism for him.
“I felt remorse that Tevye the Milkman was still stuck in foreign lands, so I decided to bring him to the Holy Land with his daughters to become pioneer builders and freedom fighters during the revival of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) in our eternal homeland.”
Just as novelist Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman inspired Fishman as a young college student, he continues to do so today.
“Tevye’s constant battle to remain attached to his Maker is something that I try to emulate. We, too, live in very challenging times, with a lot of cultural confusion and darkness pervading our lives. Tevye reminds me that in the stormy sea of modern life, the lifeline of tradition can save us from drowning.”
The books are available on Amazon and, in Israel, on the Sifriyat Bet El website as well as in local bookstores.