Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 29 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.
“Good morning, Mr. Shikovitzer.” Binyamin put his tefillin bag down on the small table at the entrance, and grasped the nearest bench. “How are you?”
“Hashem will have mercy,” Zelig’s father replied, and his lips pressed together firmly. He continued sweeping the entryway of the shul without saying another word. Binyamin’s eyes darted around in an effort to catch sight of Zelig, but his friend wasn’t there.
“Come here, Binyamin!” Shikovitzer shouted suddenly. “The bench doesn’t have to be like that. Did you forget where it belongs? Really now!”
Binyamin glanced up. Zelig’s father had never spoken to him in such a tone. He surely had a good reason for doing so.
“Here,” Yitzchak Shikovitzer said. “Let’s lift this bench together and push it against this wall.” As they lifted the wide, heavy bench, he muttered, “A friend of Zelig’s came to me in the middle of the night and brought me a note from him. But keep quiet—they are hanging around the windows.”
Binyamin didn’t look at the window or anywhere else. He pushed the bench to the wall and stood up, fingering the note that the older man had stuck into his hand. He bit his lip and turned to the next bench. Zelig was expecting help from him, and that was a reasonable expectation if he still considered him one of his good friends. The problem was that Mr. Shikovitzer was also convinced that Binyamin was the most suitable person to help in this situation. Did Binyamin really need to help, to blur, to cover up, and to convey information?
He didn’t look at the note. After a long moment, he stuck it into his pocket.
“Read it as soon as you can, and then get rid of it,” the older man whispered, with his back to Binyamin.
Binyamin nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly. He had to read the note. He wondered what Zelig wanted to tell him after they had parted last night near the old stable.
He continued to putter around the shul, straightening tablecloths and doing anything else that needed to be done. As soon as he got to a corner that was not visible from the window, he pulled the note out of his pocket and looked at it.
Abba, I’m fine. I might disappear for a short time with friends. Tell Binyamin that he can relax; I don’t expect him to break his sacred principles for me.
The words were not pleasant to read, perhaps because for Zelig, “sacred principles” were clearly not that sacred anymore. Binyamin bit his bottom lip again. True. He did not want to transgress his sacred principles; Zelig could mock him as much as he wanted about that. If it was necessary to help save Zelig, then he would perhaps help. But to be an accomplice? Had Zelig really expected Binyamin to join him and his friends?
“I don’t like his friend,” Shikovitzer murmured, passing by him again.
“Someone from here?” Binyamin asked, hardly moving his lips.
“I don’t think so. He’s from the Zionist freethinkers, and I think he came from Yerushalyim or Tel Aviv to form the group. I’ve seen him a few times already.” Shikovitzer’s eyes were glittering angrily. Binyamin wondered how much Zelig’s father knew.
“Did Zelig tell you?” Binyamin asked quietly, his fingers playing with the note.
“He didn’t tell me anything. But you can’t hide things from a father.”
“So you know…everything?”
“I didn’t know he was wanted.” Shikovitzer sighed. “And now I don’t know why they are looking for him. If his friend is wandering around freely, and Zelig can’t, that’s a sign that he did something that really got the British mad.” He was quiet for a minute, and then glanced at the door. “Since when do you know anything about this? Since you were here for Pesach?”
“Of course not. Only since yesterday afternoon.”
The first person came in to daven, and Binyamin went over the table where he’d put his tefillin down. A tiny fragment of the note found its way to the basket at the entrance to the shul. Another little piece was put to rest behind the siddurim on the shelf. Another fragment flew over to land near the broom behind the door. Binyamin felt he was making good progress.
But that did not help him when two British soldiers walked in after Shacharis—at least they’d waited for him to finish davening—and made a beeline for him. They muttered something in English, and then grasped his arms forcibly. Binyamin noticed his father in the corner of the shul gasp as his eyes widened in fright.
The sergeant at the police station that Binyamin was taken to was not friendly at all. He barked at him in English, but Binyamin, who understood virtually none of the language, was silent. Why had he been arrested? Did they think he was Zelig, or did they think he knew something? But he knew nothing. He had no idea where Zelig was right now!
Someone entered the dim room. He was dressed like a British policeman, but his facial features looked Jewish. He looked at Binyamin and asked in Hebrew, “What is your name?”
“And you are a friend of Zelig Shikovitzer?”
“What does that mean, you were? What about now?”
“I’ve been in yeshivah in Chevron for the past few months. I only returned to Acco the day before yesterday.”
The man switched to English, speaking to the British sergeant. The sergeant listened, and wrote and wrote. Then he issued a stream of words, and the Jewish policeman turned back to Binyamin. “After you returned to Acco, did you meet Zelig?”
“In the street.”
“What did you talk about with him?”
“All kinds of things.” Binyamin ran a few potential answers through his mind. “We tried to catch up with what each of us had been doing these past few months.”
“So, what did he tell you?”
“That he works in a fish store.”
The policeman did not ask, “What did you tell him?”’ He waited for Binyamin to continue speaking, but the boy was quiet. Finally the policeman asked, “And what did you do after that?”
“He told me his father would want to see me, because I had always spent a lot of time there. So we went to his father’s workplace. But then Zelig went somewhere else, and I ended up staying myself to speak to his father.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” Binyamin said honestly. Was it possible that Zelig had spent the entire afternoon hiding between the gates of the old, crumbling corral? Or had he been somewhere else, and had only crept back there toward nighttime?
The sergeant muttered something.
“He’s asking, where do you think he went?” the Jewish policeman said.
“I have no idea. Maybe to his workplace. After all, it was in the middle of the day.”
“Then you went to the market yourself.”
“Yes. I wanted to see where he works, but he wasn’t there.”
The policeman’s lips remained pressed together. “Just curiosity, or what?”
Binyamin didn’t answer.
“And what did you do this morning in the synagogue under their house? You gave his father any information?”
“No, nothing. When I’m not in yeshivah, I pray at that synagogue. His father opened it.”
“But you came long before the prayers.”
“I’ve been Zelig’s friend since I was a boy. I come to their place a lot.”
“This time only you came to the synagogue, not Zelig.”
“Why? Where was he?”
“I don’t know.”
“He didn’t give you any information about where he was? He didn’t ask you to come to him, to meet him, to help him out?”
Now there was silence in the room. The Jewish policeman sat down at the desk and spoke to the British officer in a low tone. Two other British policemen stood near the door of the room, and Binyamin averted his gaze. He had to hope that even if the Jew had picked up on his hesitance and his moments of deliberation, he would not convey them with his translation.
Long moments passed. The boy sat on the same wooden bench that he had been taken to when he’d come in. His eyes were fixed on the cracks and spaces between the ancient tiles on the floor. He could not remember even one perek of Tehillim; instead, he began to recite Maseches Brachos by heart. But he hadn’t gotten through more than eighteen mishnayos when tall boots suddenly approached him. The British officer barked something in English, and the Jewish policeman, sitting at the desk with his back to Binyamin, said, “Stand up and put out your hands. That’s what he said.”
Binyamin stared in horrified silence at the pair of handcuffs that closed with a snap around his wrists. “Where am I going?” he asked hoarsely.
“To the fortress prison,” the Jewish policeman’s back said.
“They want to find out more about your connection to your friend’s group. Three members have already been caught, and we’re looking for the rest.”
“But it has nothing to do with me! I know nothing about any of this! I was still in Chevron until two days ago!”
“Well, perhaps you corresponded in writing from there with Shikovitzer.” The Jewish policeman rose. He didn’t look at Binyamin, but at least this time he did not turn his back to him. “If you are indeed innocent, I’m sure you’ll be released in a day or two.” The sergeant said something in English, and the Jewish officer said, “Alright, go with them.”
“To the fortress?”
“So…I’m being imprisoned now?”
“Detained,” the man clarified. “You’re a detainee right now, not a prisoner. I hope that it’s only for a day or two.”
Binyamin was pushed outside, to the closed carriage that was waiting there. He climbed in and sat down on the narrow bench. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his dear father, waiting near the police station. He tried to hurry over to Binyamin, but before he could get there, the horses broke into a brisk trot. Their hoof beats thundered in Binyamin’s ears like the roar of a cannon. The irony of fate. Who if not Zelig’s father had affixed these horseshoes recently? The British army members were regular clients of his since he’d opened his workshop.
The city’s streets flew by through the windows of the carriage. Binyamin sat and thought about his friends in yeshivah. Would he be seeing them soon, or was he destined to rot in the prison fortress until someone would be able to prove that he really did not have any connection to Zelig’s new path in life?
So Zelig knew. Already when they’d met, Zelig knew that he was being targeted. If three of his friends had been arrested, it was clear that the British were on their way to him. What had he meant when he’d said that he would need help from Binyamin? That he was hoping to hide in Binyamin’s house? Unlikely. Perhaps he really wanted him to serve as a decoy figure: Zelig would run away, and Binyamin would be arrested in his place. What could be better?
No, Binyamin did not think that that was what Zelig had had in mind. Especially since Zelig certainly knew that even a minimal interrogation would reveal the fact that the Chevron yeshivah bachur had never had any connection to the Acco Defenders. It was more rational to assume that Zelig had really thought about Binyamin giving assistance in the event that he, Zelig, would have to disappear. Assistance in the form of conveying information, supporting his father who would be left alone, and things like that…
The carriage passed by the public well. Binyamin saw the people operating the pump, with the noise of trickling water accompanying them, and he suddenly felt very thirsty. He looked at his hands, which were damp with perspiration, and tried to remember which mishnah he had been up to. His brain felt hollow and empty.
Now the carriage approached the Acco wall that abutted the sea. He knew that they were very close to their destination. From afar he saw the familiar black and white lighthouse towering into the horizon.
They turned left, and then the horses finally stopped. Binyamin’s gaze took in the large iron gates in front of them. A mass of humanity crowded outside the gates, clinging to the bars. Perhaps visiting hours were nearing, or maybe this was the way it always was.
The soldier driving the carriage shouted something. The British sergeant pushed into the masses and raised both his voice and his truncheon. People moved a bit, crowding more to the sides of the road. Two additional soldiers appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and pushed the people even further to the sides. Then, with a chilling creak, the gates opened.
The carriage drove through the gates, into the walled fortress.