Diamond in the Rough-Excerpt

This gripping novel sheds light on complex family dynamics and the inner strength needed to overcome years of tension and friction. You will be mesmerized by the man who must come to terms with a difficult past and find it within himself to open up his heart and home, and enthralled by the underground revolution that has far-reaching ramifications for individuals on the other side of the globe.  Here’s a sample chapter for your reading pleasure…

Chapter 9

Toronto, Canada

With Pesach just around the corner, Mrs. Zichel was determined to use every spare moment for scrubbing. She removed the red washcloth and examined the silver mezuzah case with a critical eye.

“You see, Shlomo?” she said with satisfaction. “Every house needs a woman to clean it and organize it and care about it! The best cleaning lady in the world won’t do what a balabuste does in her own house.”

From his place in the hallway outside Mrs. Zichel’s apartment, Shlomo nodded politely and stifled a big yawn. The night shift had completely exhausted him. A serious car accident had foiled his plans to slip home at twelve o’clock noon. He’d been in the emergency room for five hours straight without a moment’s rest. In all, he had been at the hospital for twenty-five hours.

Mrs. Zichel tucked the washcloth into the pocket of her robe. “In my opinion Shlomo, you need to put a stop to this crazy way of life.”

Shlomo peered into the apartment. Mulik was nowhere in sight. “Mrs. Zichel, skip the introductions. What is it you’re getting at?”

A triumphant smile spread across Mrs. Zichel’s face, emphasizing the crinkles at the corners of her eyes. “You’re finally talking sense!” she said in a congratulatory tone of voice. “I’ve verified the name of that woman I told you about. Remember we spoke about it last time?”

Mulik appeared in the hallway. “Hi, Dr. Levin!” he called with a big smile, waving an old, dog-eared book in his hands. “Mrs. Zichel, I found an interesting book. Can I read it?”

Mrs. Zichel nodded her approval.

“Listen, Mulik,” Shlomo said. “I want to speak with Mrs. Zichel for a few minutes, but I’m expecting a call at home. Would you like to be my secretary?”

He withdrew his keyring from his pocket.

Mulik nodded eagerly. “Sure! I can be an excellent secretary. If someone calls, I’ll write down who it was and what he wanted, okay?”

Shlomo smiled and tossed him the keys. Mulik opened his palm and caught them easily.

Shlomo expected it to take a few minutes for Mulik to go downstairs but thirty seconds later, he heard the door to his own apartment below slam shut. The steel railing vibrated slightly, trying to regain its former stability. It had been many years since it had last served as a slide.

“Did you teach him to slam doors like that?” Mrs. Zichel asked, rubbing her ears and regarding Shlomo with a look of amusement. “Oh, well, I’m just a neighbor. But if I were your wife I’d teach you a thing or two!”

Shlomo’s forehead furrowed for a moment. “She tried, actually,” he said dryly. “She tried too hard. That was the problem – or most of it, anyway.”

XXX

The ringing of the phone forced Mulik to tear his eyes from the yellowing pages of the book he had borrowed from Mrs. Zichel. He looked around in momentary confusion. The stacks of papers, writing implements and office chair reminded him of his impressive job, and he quickly reached over to the telephone on the corner of the desk.

“Hello?” he said quickly, afraid the caller might be just about ready to hang up.

For a moment, all he heard was heavy breathing. Then a man’s voice said, “Hello?”

“Yes, hello,” replied Mulik. Once again, there was a brief silence, as if the caller was surprised to hear Mulik’s voice.

“Is this the residence of Shlomo Levin?” asked the caller. He sounded very authoritative. Maybe he was the director of the hospital where Dr. Levin worked.

“That’s correct,” Mulik confirmed. If it was the director, why did he say “Shlomo” and not “Dr. Levin”?

“Who am I speaking to?”

“His secretary,” Mulik replied calmly. Dr. Levin had personally granted him the important title just a few minutes ago, after all. Mulik thought Dr. Levin’s caller might find it very impressive.

“His secretary?” Yochanan was shocked. Who was this kid answering Shlomo’s phone and passing himself off as his secretary? “How old are you?” he asked when he found his tongue again.

Mulik hesitated. If he told the man his age, it would sound a lot less impressive. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, thinking fast, “but that’s not a very polite question. Imagine if I were to ask you your age?”

Yochanan understood. He must have dialed the wrong number and reached the home of a bored little boy who had decided to have some fun at his expense. Without another word, he hung up the phone and dialed again, carefully this time, checking the paper Shlomo had given him before he’d left as he pressed each digit.

“Yes?” It was the same child again!

“Uh, where did I reach, please?” Yochanan scratched his head. Maybe Shlomo had made a mistake on the note. Maybe the mistake had been intentional.

“Sir, you have reached the residence of Dr. Shlomo Levin. Forgive me, but it’s rude to suddenly hang up on someone in the middle of a conversation.”

Yochanan ignored the comment. “Is he home?”

“No.” Mulik was enjoying his new job.

“When will he be back?”

“In a little while. He told me that if anyone called, I should take a message. What would you like to tell Dr. Levin?”

“What else does your job as secretary entail, besides taking messages?” Yochanan asked, determined to get to the bottom of this enigma.

Mulik deliberated. What should he say? “I … I organize his papers,” he said, shoving a stack of papers on the desk to the far end. “And I sort his mail,” he added as he tossed a torn envelope into the wastebasket.

“But wait a minute; this is his house, isn’t it?” Yochanan wondered aloud. “Why does he need a secretary at home?”

“Dr. Levin is a very busy doctor,” Mulik informed the caller importantly. “He’s very much in demand. People call him even at home.”

“Does he receive patients at home?” Yochanan asked.

Mulik glanced at his left leg. “Yes,” he said simply. “He receives patients at home, too. And you see that you also called this number trying to reach him!”

“I’m his brother.” In his Manhattan home, Yochanan straightened his velvet yarmulke. Very nice! Shlomo had made it big time! But what kind of child secretary did he have? How old was the kid anyway?

“I see that you’re a very devoted secretary,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Shmuel Shapiro,” Mulik replied.

“Do you have any other jobs besides being Shlomo’s secretary?”

“Not really. The most I do is make his bed in the morning,” Mulik replied. “You see, I’m a live-in secretary,” he hurried to explain. “I sleep here.”

Yochanan was in a state of complete shock. “Where are you while he’s in the hospital? Do you accompany him there or do you handle the phone calls that come to the house?”

Mulik hesitated. “It depends. I don’t usually accompany him. Okay, what would you like me to tell the doctor?”

Yochanan had had enough of this strange conversation. “Tell him to call Yochanan,” he said. He’d have to ask his brother what exactly was going on in his house.

“But he told me that if anyone called, I should have him tell me what he wanted and write it down!” Mulik protested.

“Okay, tell him that I’m very surprised at … at what I heard and …”

“Yochanan is very surprised at what he heard,” Mulik repeated as he wrote it down. “And what else?”

“And I’d be pleased to have him as my guest for Pesach.”

Mulik threw down his pen in excitement. “Wonderful! But … you should know that includes us, too.”

“What?!”

“Dr. Levin said that wherever he goes for Pesach, if he goes anywhere, we’re coming along with him.”

“Who’s ‘we?’” Yochanan asked, picturing a troop of ten dwarves following Shlomo into his house.

Mulik hesitated a moment. “Me and the other secretary,” he said finally.

“He needs two secretaries at home?” Yochanan didn’t know what to think.

“Obviously he does,” Mulik said calmly. “So I’m writing, ‘Yochanan is inviting us to his house for Pesach.’ Anything else?”

“N-no,” Yochanan stammered. “I-I’ll call him later in the evening.”

“Fine,” Mulik said. “Thank you very much for the invitation,” he added warmly before hanging up.

XXX

Lakewood, New Jersey

The pleasant background music served only to further confuse Gita Levin’s tired mind. Standing in the produce department, she placed two bags of cucumbers into her overflowing shopping cart.

She suddenly raised her eyes to the curved mirror overhead. Her face turned white and then red. Someone was standing there and looking at her in silence. According to Gita’s calculations, the image in the mirror was directly behind her back.

Gita wheeled around sharply, hoping it was a mistake.

It wasn’t. Malka Strauss was regarding her with a piercing stare.

“Hello, Malka,” Gita said, taking a small step in her direction. Would she stop giving me that frozen stare already? It’s not as if their side was completely blameless.

Well, Malka’s not to blame for her sister’s foolishness.

Just as I bear no responsibility for my brother-in-law’s actions.

“Hi, Gita,” Malka replied, her voice as dry as the squeak of an old wooden door.

Gita placed her hands on the handle of her shopping cart. “How are you?” she asked. Great. That was a super original question. She wondered what kind of fascinating reply Malka would come up with.

“Fine, thanks.” Malka hesitated a moment and then went on. “Forgive me for asking, but since we’ve already met … can you tell me what your brother-in-law is doing these days and where he lives?”

Gita did not reply. What was the meaning of this completely unconventional inquiry? Could it be that Goldy wanted to …? In her mind Gita could not even complete the sentence.

“Not that I’m interested personally,” Malka went on, her eyes fixed on a pale tomato. “It’s just that my sister’s friend told her that she has an aunt in Toronto who’s a shadchan. My sister’s friend told her aunt all about my sister, and she said she had an idea for her. A young doctor, thirty-six years old, frum, of course. She said he was originally from New York. We were just wondering if there was a chance it happened to be him.”

“It could be,” Gita said quietly, her eyes fixed on the vegetables on display. She wondered what passersby thought when they saw a woman talking to a package of carrots. “He is working in Canada now.” Without intending to, she placed the package of carrots in her shopping cart.

“I see. In any case, the shadchan was going to suggest it to the doctor from Canada first, so if it really is your brother-in-law, he’ll be the one to say no.”

“Why ‘no?’” Gita couldn’t believe she’d actually said that. Was she looking for trouble?

“Thank you very much, Gita,” Malka said, her voice going from dry to downright prickly. “It’s very kind of you, really,” Malka went on, “but I think Goldy has had enough of your matchmaking services. The next time around she’ll look for someone a bit more experienced.”

Malka’s voice oozed bitterness, but Gita did not feel anger toward her. She understood her. The family was very hurt, although it had been Goldy rather than Shlomo who had pressed for a divorce. It was human nature to always blame the other side.

And to think that she and Malka had once been good friends … She glanced down at her shopping cart. How had a package of carrots gotten in? Who needed another package when there were two pounds of the same vegetable in her refrigerator at home?

She returned the carrots to the bin and turned around. Malka was no longer there. It was interesting that her family – her husband’s family, that is – didn’t go out of their way to justify Shlomo. They actually had lots of complaints against him.

She did too, of course. Before Shlomo had married, he and her husband, Pinny, had shared an excellent relationship. Shlomo used to come over twice a week to learn with Pinny. He’d consult with Pinny about his shidduch offers and take her own suggestions very seriously. And she’d had a truly great idea for him: Goldy, her friend Malka’s sister, who also seemed to be “stuck” for some reason.

Everything had gone so smoothly, but after the wedding – the problems had begun immediately after – Shlomo had refused to listen to her advice or cooperate with her attempts to work things out. When it was over, Pinny had accused him of not trying hard enough to save his marriage. She and Pinny still felt that way today, but Shlomo had practically nothing to do with them anymore.

She sighed and headed for the checkout counter. Maybe she ought to invite Shlomo for Pesach. He was probably very lonely over there in Toronto.

She’d speak to Pinny. Mistakes and resentment notwithstanding, a brother remains a brother.

XXX

The phone rang once more. Mulik was still busy dreaming rosy dreams about his upcoming trip to New York. Dr. Levin would surely be thrilled with the invitation and they’d immediately begin preparing for the trip. Maybe they’d even fly over!

Nah, he doubted it. You could travel to New York by bus. Another annoying ring interrupted his thoughts. Reluctantly, Mulik reached over to answer it.

“Alexander Graham Bell, were you as much of a nudnik as your invention?” he asked as he lifted the receiver. Then, remembering that the invitation to New York had come in through the telephone just a few moments earlier, he retracted his accusation. “Sorry. You’re actually quite wonderful. We appreciate all that you do for us.”

A confused voice came through from the other end of the line. “Is … is this the Levin residence?”

“Yes, this is Dr. Levin’s house, but he’s not home right now. He asked me to write down who called and why. What would you like me to write?” He had no time to chat now. He had to plan what to pack for the trip.

Pinny covered the mouthpiece of the receiver. “Shlomo’s not home,” he whispered to Gita. “A kid answered the phone and said he’d take a message. What do you say?”

Gita breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent. Just give him the message. This way you don’t have to worry that you might mistakenly say something that will annoy him.”

“Alright.” Pinny looked thoughtful. “Okay, kid. Write that Pinny called to invite him to spend Pesach with his family in Lakewood.” Mulik took down the message. He wondered if he ought to explain to this Pinny, whoever he was, that any invitation to Dr. Levin for Pesach automatically included an additional two guests. Remembering how surprised Dr. Levin’s brother Yochanan had been at that information however, he decided to say nothing. He’d leave it to Dr. Levin to explain the matter himself.

Pinny hung up the phone, his brow furrowed with creases. “Something very strange is going on,” he said to Gita. “Who might that child be?”

“Maybe a neighbor,” Gita said distractedly.

Pinny’s finely-honed Talmudic mind rejected the possibility. “No, he sounded very … sure of himself. He sounded like he felt completely at home there.” He paced up and down, hands behind his back. What was a kid doing in Shlomo’s house?

XXX

“You hear, Shlomo? Kanner. Goldy Kanner from Monsey. She’s a good friend of my niece.”

Shlomo gripped the banister tightly. “Who is your niece?” he asked. He felt certain that even Mrs. Zichel must have noticed the change in his voice, but he was wrong.

“My niece is Rivky Stern, Honigsberg from home. She had only the highest praise for the Kanner girl. She says she’s a real grab!”

“I’ve already grabbed,” Shlomo said, his voice steadying. What’s the big deal? he asked himself. So Mrs. Zichel is suggesting Goldy. She obviously has no idea who she was married to in the past.

“What did you say?” Mrs. Zichel suddenly sensed that something was wrong. “Are you familiar with the name already?”

“Yes. Very much so. From up close.” Each word sliced through the air.

Mrs. Zichel looked at him, perturbed. “And …?”

Shlomo sighed. “Mrs. Zichel, I really appreciate your goodwill, but this suggestion is out of the question. We’ve already tried.”

“I … I see.” Shlomo had never heard Mrs. Zichel stammer before. But the feisty woman recovered quickly. “And there’s no chance of you trying again?”

“No.” Shlomo’s voice was firm, and Mrs. Zichel knew it was time to give up.

“Okay, Shlomo. I tried. Have a good evening!”

“Good evening to you, too, Mrs. Zichel. I really appreciate your efforts.” He nearly ran down the steps, hoping his speed would banish certain memories he had no desire to think about now.

XXX

Shlomo entered his apartment to hear Mulik talking animatedly. Maybe this was the telephone call he had been expecting from the hospital with regard to the Braun girl’s surgery.

“Oh, here he is now,” Mulik said as Shlomo appeared in the doorway of the study. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “It’s your sister!” he whispered. “Maybe she wants to invite us for Pesach, too? We’ve already received two other invitations.” He handed Shlomo the paper with the messages he’d taken and said pleadingly, “I really want to visit New York, okay?”

Shlomo smiled and peeked at the paper. Unbelievable! Something had gotten into his siblings! He took the phone from Mulik.

“Hello, Penina,” he said, aware that Mulik was listening intently.

“Shlomo?” She sounded very surprised.

“Yes, how are you?”

Baruch Hashem, great. Who’s the cute kid who answered the phone?”

Yochanan had called her two minutes earlier to ask if she knew anything about Shlomo’s kid secretary. She was sure he’d had a wrong number; it was so like him to make a mistake and then blame someone else. But the kid had answered her phone call as well, explaining that he was the new secretary.

Shlomo deliberated over what to say. He didn’t feel like explaining what had moved him to take in two homeless kids, both because he didn’t want Penina to know that her words had had an effect on him and also because Mulik was sitting right there and staring at him.

“The cute kid?” he asked lightly. “He’s been staying at my house for the past few days. How are your children doing?”

“A kid has been staying with you for the past few days?” Penina echoed. Adding to her shock and confusion was the fact that Shlomo had just asked how her own children were doing. She took a deep breath.

“Yes,” Shlomo said quietly. “Mulik and his brother are staying with me for a while.” He couldn’t volunteer any more information with Mulik right there. He’d leave it to Penina to steer their conversation this time.

“Oh.” Penina had a dozen questions but she didn’t know how to ask them. The last thing she wanted was to make Shlomo angry. “Shlomo, Ima’s coming to me for leil haSeder,” she said. “I’d be pleased if you would come to us too, for the entire Yom Tov.”

Shlomo glanced at the paper in his hand and said politely, “You’re all so kind, I see.” He wanted to add a few choice sarcastic expressions but Mulik’s presence forced him to restrain himself. “Both Yochanan and Pinny invited me as well. All I have to do is choose who to go to.”

Mulik grabbed his hand. Shlomo smiled at him and said, “But, as I’ve already told you, I have two really nice kids living with me right now and if I go anywhere –”

“Of course we’re going!” Mulik whispered loudly.

“… they’re coming with me.” Mulik squeezed his hand and Shlomo squeezed back.

“Oh,” Penina said again. Her temples throbbed. “Of course, of course. They’re invited too. How old are they?” She was glad for the opportunity to ask one of the questions whirling through her head.

“Alex is thirteen and Mulik’s nine.” He paused. “They don’t have where to live right now, so they came to me,” he added by way of explanation.

Penina couldn’t believe it. Fascinating! Two kids didn’t have a place to live and Shlomo had taken them in? Why had they gone to him rather than to a normal family?

“What do you mean they ‘came to you’?” she asked hesitantly.

“They came to me,” Shlomo repeated firmly. “Their mother is in the hospital,” he added suddenly. “In the meantime, they’re staying with me.”

“Oh,” Penina said for the third time, feeling incredibly foolish. “That’s so nice of you. You’re doing a tremendous chessed. I’m sure Abba’s pleased up in Shamayim.” She fell silent, aware that she was treading on dangerous ground.

Shlomo felt the familiar mix of emotions begin to rise up and bubble inside him. He was about to tell Penina to keep her nose in her own business and stop thinking about whether or not their father was pleased with him. His anger very nearly overflowed but just then he felt Mulik’s small hand in his own. He murmured something unintelligible and thanked Penina for her invitation. He told her that they’d think about it and get back to her, and then said good-bye and hung up the phone.

 

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