Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
The shul for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russia was located in a simple, two-story structure, on the ground floor. Minchah was coming to a close, and Mr. Shikovitzer, the dedicated gabbai, distributed volumes of Mishnayos ahead of the rav’s shiur. Rabbi Betzalel Miller, who had accepted the position of rabbi reluctantly and temporarily, glanced at Binyamin, the only yeshivah bachur in the community, who sat down next to his father and opened his sefer.
“Perhaps we can give Mr. Reiness’s son the honor of giving the shiur today,” he said. “Binyamin, will you give the shiur today instead of me? A bachur who’s already learning Nashim and Nezikin…”
Binyamin raised his head from the volume of Mishnayos that he had opened, and a small, bashful smile crossed his lips as he shook his head from side to side. His father looked at him with a nachas-filled smile, and Binyamin, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks, hurried to bury his eyes in the small sefer.
“Nu, nu,” the gabbai said, “our Binyamin is bashful, Rabbi Miller. We’ll be happy to have the Rav give the shiur, as usual.”
Binyamin tried to listen, but something gave him no peace. Whenever he raised his eyes, he encountered Zelig’s father’s gaze. They hadn’t exchanged a word with one another since the moment he’d come to shul for Minchah. Not only because they were careful not to speak about mundane matters in the shul, but because even if it would have been just a random place, they hadn’t had a quiet moment of privacy.
Zelig’s father looked…nervous? Yes. Worried, too. Yet, remarkably enough, more than anything, he appeared angry.
Had he already found out that Binyamin had failed to carry out his errand? Had the British caught Zelig?
Binyamin bit his lips and rubbed the wooden table with his finger. He had gone to the market before coming here, but Zelig wasn’t at Wanunu’s fish stand, where he worked. The place had been teeming with soldiers, and two of them followed him the whole time. He deliberated whether to write a note and somehow stick it between the convulsing fish laid out on the wooden board, but he didn’t have a writing implement, and anyway, a note would immediately incriminate both him and Zelig. Because if everything was fine, and all was smooth and straight, then why did Zelig have to run away and only return home in the morning?
And what about him? If the British would catch him sending messages to Zelig, they would immediately associate him with “Protectors of Acco,” a group of young Jewish men who had decided to take the law into their hands and arm themselves with weapons of self-defense against the Arabs who wanted to harm them.
The Arab population lived alongside the Jews of Acco in relative tranquility, for the most part. An example was Mahmoud, Mr. Shikovitzer’s longtime partner. But it was impossible to ignore the negative sentiments in the eyes of many Arabs, and between the lines when they spoke.
Zelig and his friends were not the first of their kind. Already during the riots of 5680, a group called “Defenders of Yerushalayim” had been formed, and twenty of its members had been imprisoned together with their leader, Zev Jabotinsky, here, in the nearby Acco prison. The British did not like it when the Jews organized like that, sure as they were that these groups were the groundwork for an uprising against the Mandate.
“Nu?” Binyamin heard Mr. Shikovitzer address him. Binyamin had lingered after Maariv, letting all the mispallelim pass by him and leave. His father and brother had also left, and besides for Shikovitzer, only he was left in the room. He began to return the siddurim and other sefarim to their places.
“Nu?” Yitzchak Shikovitzer said again. “Did you meet Wanunu?”
“No,” Binyamin said quietly. “I was being trailed, and I didn’t want them to know that Zelig works for Wanunu. If they don’t already know that.”
“If they don’t already know that…” Shikovitzer repeated bitterly. “They know everything, these people. Why did my Zelig join Jabotinsky’s wild boys? What was he lacking?”
Binyamin was quiet.
“I’m going home now.” Zelig’s father looked awful, his face a dreadful combination of a worried pallor and a flush of anger. “And if Zelig comes, I’ll make it clear to him that he has to stop these dangerous games immediately. What does he think, that only son of mine?” He sighed. “You should go home, too, Binyamin. Are you coming to Shacharis tomorrow, or are you going to the Ramchal shul again?”
Binyamin watched his neighbor lock the big door, and as he turned to the stairs leading to his apartment on the second floor, he looked out to the placid sea in the dark expanse, his expression inscrutable. In the last half a year, had Zelig risen early with his father to prepare the shul for davening, or had he already been busy in other places? How little Binyamin knew about his friend.
“I’ll come here, b’ezras Hashem,” he said, with his broad, pleasant smile.
The walk from the Shikovitzer home to his own normally took about a minute and a half, but this time it took longer, because without knowing exactly why, Binyamin decided to take the long way around, past the horse and buggy workshop. Mahmoud was standing in the large lot, which was illuminated by an oil lantern that hung down from the pole Zelig had installed last summer. Mahmoud was brushing down a good-looking brown horse. The Arab owner, sporting a curled mustache, was standing nearby, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Hey, Binyamin!” Mahmoud called. “How are you? Why did you come back?”
“I might have left something here,” Binyamin said, his eyes darting in every direction. He had left lots of things here today: his innocence, the calm with which he had come home from yeshivah, the trust he’d had in Zelig, and perhaps even Zelig himself.
“But it’s locked there already,” Mahmoud said. “You know that only Yitzchak has the keys. I’m the lesser partner, and I am also going home soon, but this guy just came with something urgent. He couldn’t come in the morning, or what?” He chuckled as he stuck his hand out to get his payment from the Arab.
The Arab scolded him in Arabic, perhaps about the quality of his work or about the length of time it had taken, and Mahmoud screamed right back at him. Binyamin turned away from them and headed toward the workshop hut. As Mahmoud had said, the door was locked.
Binyamin went around to the back of the hut. The old, partially broken-down paddock was still standing there. About six years ago, when Mr. Shikovitzer had bought the lot, he had built a new, better paddock that hid the old one which remained behind it.
Binyamin walked slowly, looking at the crumbling railings that hadn’t been painted or tended to in years. Rusty wheels and rotting harnesses were tossed about, and thorns and brambles grew wild.
The darkness grew thicker as Binyamin reached the corner of the paddock. He stood there, motionless, straining only his eyes. He’d spent many vacation days here as a child, between the gates of the paddock. There wasn’t a better hiding place around.
And Zelig certainly hadn’t forgotten about it.
He advanced carefully, one step and then another. “Zelig?” he whispered, in the lowest tone he could manage. “Zelig, if you’re there—your father asked that you don’t come home tonight.”
“Okay. But did you bring me something to eat?”
The answer came so swiftly that Binyamin was startled. He could hardly see a thing, but he noticed a thorny, tangled bush moving slightly right next to him on the other side of the gate.
“No,” he said ruefully. “I’m sorry.”
“What did you think? That the soup from lunch would be enough for me?”
“You know, I went to look for you at Wanunu, in the market,” Binyamin whispered. “And the British came there also; they followed me.”
“Followed!” Zelig’s voice was sharp. “And…?”
“I think they realized they have nothing to look for with me.”
“Good, I’m glad. But then don’t go to my father now to bring me something to eat, because if they see you spending too much time with him, they’ll realize that you probably have information that they want, and they’ll hunt you down. It’s alright—I’ll starve a little longer. Don’t feel bad.”
“Binyamin?” His mother looked at him worriedly as he ate. He was very distracted, and didn’t even seem to notice what he was putting in his mouth.
“What?” He continued staring at the tablecloth even as he stuck the last piece of bread into his mouth.
“Binyamin, how are you?” She sat down across from him, forcing him to raise his gaze and look into her eyes. “Is everything okay?”
He tried to smile. “Baruch Hashem, yes.”
“So, what isn’t okay?” She smiled at him, but her eyes were worried. “I don’t know if it’s connected to yeshivah or not, but something is not okay, Binyamin. I can tell. What is it?”
“Everything is fine with me, baruch Hashem,” he repeated.
“And with whom are things not okay?”
Binyamin was quiet. He glanced at his twelve-year-old brother, who was sleeping in the main room.
“How is yeshivah?”
“Baruch Hashem, wonderful.”
“How are the Arabs there? Do you feel hatred from them?”
“Not especially. Mr. Slonim, the director of the local bank, is a very good friend of theirs, and their relations with the community and the yeshivah seem to be fine. I mean, an Arab might say something silly to me in the street, but nothing more than that.”
“That’s good. Here in Acco they are a bit more edgy, even if it’s not that serious.” Then she added quietly, “For now.”
“Yes, I met Mahmoud, Zelig’s father’s partner. He acted and sounded total normal.”
“Oh, right, you went to Zelig. How is he doing?”
Binyamin looked at his empty plate, and didn’t respond.
“I haven’t seen him around here for a long time,” Mamme said, and something in her tone was different. “I thought he wasn’t in town anymore, but it seemed strange to me that he would leave his father alone. It isn’t like him.”
“Not at all,” Binyamin answered, with the heaviness of an eighty-year-old.
Mamme fixed him with a look. “He left Acco?”
“So what is not like him?”
Binyamin sighed. “He’s changed,” he said after a moment, selecting his words carefully. “And I feel bad about our friendship. He still sees me as his friend, though, and he is expecting my help…”
Binyamin sighed again. “Things aren’t the same between us anymore. Very much not. Each of us has gone to such a different place… But I do owe him hakaras hatov. Do you remember what a shy, anxious boy I was when we came here, and how he really helped me find my footing?”
“You gave him no less than he gave you,” his mother declared warmly. “But I agree that hakaras hatov is a very important middah, and that Zelig indeed helped you a lot. So what are you deliberating about?”
“I don’t know if I can help him now. If I’m even allowed to help him now.”
His mother was quiet. “Look, based on the bit that I saw a few months ago…” she said hesitantly, toying with the aluminum fork that had come with them from Russia, “you don’t really look like any of his new friends. I thought it was just a one-off thing, but if you’ve also noticed it after just one encounter, then maybe it is a real change, unfortunately. And it’s better for you to keep your distance from him. As for hakaras hatov? Ask Tatte tomorrow.” She rose. “Go to sleep, Binyamin. It’s late. You’ve had a long, tiring day.”
She didn’t even know the half of it.
Binyamin didn’t ask which new friends she was referring to, and when and how she’d seen them. Was she concerned about their religious levels, and feared that they would be a bad influence on him? Or did she realize that it was an illegal organization that they belonged to?
Either way, it was becoming all too clear to Binyamin that Zelig was no longer good friend material for him.
The question was what he had to do now.
“I’m going to sleep,” he said when he stood up after bentching. “I promised Zelig’s father that I’d come to shul early tomorrow, to help him.”
Because Zelig, apparently, had no intention of showing up.