Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 48 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“A sefer Torah that costs one hundred and forty thousand? That sounds like top of the line,” Menachem said to his son Yehuda.
“Of course,” Yehuda agreed. “That’s the standard of those in charge of us… But you can for sure get a good, mehudar sefer Torah for less money than that.”
“How much less?” his mother, Yocheved, wanted to know.
“Maybe a hundred thousand, a hundred and ten,” her husband replied.
“One minute, Eliyahu. Don’t tell me you are now going to spend one hundred thousand shekels!” Yocheved’s expression was reproachful. “How many months of renting your apartment will you need in order to have such a sum of ma’aser money?”
“Could be some sifrei Torah are even less than that,” Yehuda tried to interject.
“There are, for sure.” Eliyahu raised his eyes from the nutcracker and looked at those around him.
“Could be,” his brother-in-law concurred. “Have you looked into it?”
“Oh, so you’ve already done the field work…” Menachem smiled. “How much do they want?”
“About eighty. I’m not a hundred percent sure yet.”
“What?” Menachem’s hand left his glass and rose to his forehead. “Eighty?”
“Where are you going to find such a sofer?”
“I found one already. The sefer Torah is written. It’s a very mehudar sefer Torah, top of the line. A Sephardic one.”
There was a momentary silence in the room.
“I have never heard of an Ashkenazi family donating a Sephardic sefer Torah to a shul, or the opposite.” Yocheved sounded peevish.
“So you’re hearing about it now.” Her younger brother smiled. “And we are going to do it, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Did you know about his idea, Elisheva?” Her sister-in-law turned to her. “And you’re okay with it?”
Elisheva smiled. “Looks to me like Eliyahu found a very original and practical solution. We want to donate a sefer Torah, and we want it to be mehudar. So why not do it like this? Because people will say that they’ve never heard of such a thing in their lives?”
“What’s the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic sifrei Torah?” Binyamin asked.
“The Ashkenazi writing is considered much harder to do. Technically, the writing is more complicated and takes more time, and that’s why people pay more for it.”
“So the sefer Torah is written already?”
“Yes. Because of the time it takes, it’s rare that Ashkenazi sifrei Torah are written without pre-orders. But Sephardic sifrei Torah are written even without being ordered in advance, and I already went to see a few of them. I found them all to be very beautiful.”
“And do you know the sofrim who wrote them?” Yocheved asked.
“Yes, the one who wrote the one I’m thinking about is in my kollel. You remember Gueta, Elisheva? The one who wrote Binyamin’s tefillin? So he writes tefillin for Ashkenazim as well as for Sephardim, but he only writes Sephardic sifrei Torah. He has a beautiful handwriting, and he’s a real yarei Shamayim…” He smiled. Something dreamy and unfamiliar was glistening at the corner of his eye. “Maybe we’ll be able to make a hachnassas sefer Torah before Shavuos.”
“To which shul?” Yocheved asked.
“I’ll find out about a Sephardic shul that needs a sefer Torah.” Eliyahu nodded to himself. “There are lots of new minyanim of bnei yeshivah that haven’t yet fully established themselves. I’m sure they’ll be happy to receive their own sefer Torah.”
The coughs almost tore Gustav’s throat, and they annoyed the other passengers in the crowded sleeping hold of the ship.
“Take the boy out!” one woman grumbled, hugging a baby close to her. A five-year-old boy trailed behind her. “He can infect all of us!”
“He has nothing contagious,” Rabbi Walkin explained patiently yet again. “He was sick, but now he’s completely recovered. The doctors made this very clear before they released him from the hospital.”
“You can’t believe them.” The woman was angry. “I don’t want him near us!”
“Come, Gustav.” Rabbi Walkin grasped the boy’s hand. “I’ll arrange the best place for you: at the entrance near the stairs. If you feel like you need some clear air at night, you can go out quickly without having to find your way through this big room. Does that sound good to you?”
Gustav nodded and glanced back. Everyone was quiet, looking at him. Even the boys from the orphanage were staring in his direction. The boys liked their director very much, and even Gustav liked him, seeing what a good man he was. But all the children knew each other very well by now; they had been together for so long, more than a year already. Only he was new. Only he didn’t belong.
But soon, he would be in Eretz Yisrael, and he would be together with Edo again. He had been with Edo for so many years that they definitely could be considered brothers, if not more. He would go and tell him what he had done: that he had run away from Janek and Ulush’s house in order to retrieve the paper, so that he could remember what Edo’s real name was. All the children here had names, and they told all kinds of stories about themselves from the past. Maybe they were making things up; Gustav did not know. What he did know was that he had no stories to tell about himself, because he didn’t remember anything from his past. And there was no one to remember for him.
“Rabbi Walkin.” A short, slight boy suddenly appeared at the director’s side. “I also want to sleep near the door. Can I share a mattress with him?”
“Sure, Moshe.” Rabbi Walkin smiled at the boy. “Here, sit down here together.”
Both boys sat down quietly.
“How old are you?” Gustav asked.
“You know exactly how old you are?”
“So neither do I.”
Gustav took a deep breath. “Is Moshe your real name?”
“Yes. My Jewish name.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I always knew that. At home they called me Mosh’ke, but my father called me Moshe.”
“How did you know?”
“Why are you called Gustav?”
“Because that’s what the man at the orphanage decided to call me.”
“I have always been called by my name, even in the ghetto.”
Gustav was quiet. He wasn’t quite sure what the boy was talking about.
“Where are you from?” Moshe asked him.
“And I’m from Budapest. Hungary.” He sat with his legs folded for another moment, and then stretched them in front of him, rubbing his knees. “When we went to the ghetto, I was almost seven. They even made me a little birthday party in the ghetto. But I don’t remember the date. At the end of the war I was about eight, or maybe just seven and a half.”
“And do you have a family name?”
“Do you remember that too, or did you make it up?”
“I didn’t make it up,” the older boy answered, his eyes narrowing. “Why do you think I made it up?”
“Because, why don’t I remember anything?”
Moshe Horenstein frowned. “When did you come to that orphanage?”
“When I was little. Maybe three. No one really knows.”
“Nu, so how do you expect to remember?” The eleven-year-old fell silent. “I don’t know the details of what exactly happened during the war, but I think that the Nazis, yemach shemam, occupied Bratislava quite a few years before they occupied Hungary. So I was able to grow up a little bit, and know my name, before they took my mother and father away.”
“And I didn’t get to,” Gustav concluded tonelessly.
Moshe Horenstein lay down on the mattress, trying to keep to just one half of it, so he could leave space for Gustav. But Gustav did not want to lie down. He sat at the far end of the mattress and stared at the steps, which were very close to his legs. Then he suddenly stood up and went upstairs.
“Hey, where are you going?” Someone hissed, grabbing his shoulder. It was not Rabbi Walkin.
“Leave me alone!” the boy replied. “Let me go!”
“Where are you going?” the adult growled again into his ear.
“To the deck.”
“To the deck? It’s nighttime now. And we warned everyone over and over that there must be silence outside. Remember? The closer we get to the coast of Eretz Yisrael, the more dangerous it gets, because there’s a greater chance that the British will discover us. Go back downstairs.”
“I don’t want to!” Gustav said. He shrugged off the man’s grip.
The man’s long arm reached for Gustav a second time. “Young man, you don’t want me to lock you up in a room for you to understand what I’m saying, do you? No. Going. Upstairs. Period.”
Gustav went back down to the sleeping hall, defeated. Without saying another word, he curled up on the edge of his mattress. It was too quiet. Some of the adults sat and spoke in hushed voices, discussing the chances of getting to shore without being caught. He stifled a cough and turned over to the other side.
Fine, so this boy, Mosh’ke, came from Hungary, and that’s why he knew things about himself. But there were other boys in Rabbi Walkin’s orphanage from Czechoslovakia and even from Poland, and they had been very little when the Nazis took their parents away. How come almost all of them knew something about themselves?
He rubbed his eyes. Bondy, the tall one, had been hidden with neighbors, and they’d told him everything. Meir and Pinya had been hiding out in a convent, similar to where he had been, but their parents had brought with them documents with all their personal details. Like Edo, sort of. Yanku and Srul’che and Chaim’ke were hidden by the Underground, by all kinds of gentiles, and the Underground kept records of all their details, even their exact birthdays.
He turned to the other side and heard Moshe moving, as well. It was too bad that before they’d left, his father and mother had not thought to give him a paper with the names of his uncles, or his own name, and where he had lived before the war, and the names of those who might know him. Then Theodore would have found him with the paper, and he would have known everything about him. Gustav would have also known everything about himself. Now he was just plain Gustav: poor, little Gustav, with no one in the world, without even a family name, who didn’t know anything about himself.