Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 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.
Binyamin sat in the little room, not knowing what he was waiting for. He had not been assigned a prison uniform when he entered, though he’d heard from others that that was what usually happened. He just passed by the reception room, and his escorts said something to the soldier who sat there, and continued further inside with him. A long corridor, steep stone stairs, and here he was, with his own clothes.
If he was not mistaken, at least two hours had passed since he had been brought here.
There was one narrow window in the room, and Binyamin rose toward it. He looked out at an empty pit between the high walls, filled with thorny summer flowers. A cool sea breeze whistled between the tall stone walls and reached him, cooling his sweaty forehead. He was still thirsty. And he still had no idea what was going to happen to him today. But he tried to focus on the fact that despite it all, it was not the British who would render his fate, nor would it be the Jewish policeman who had displayed a modicum of empathy. It was not even his own father, who was certainly scrambling about right now, trying to exercise his connections to make it clear to the British that this entire arrest was one big mistake.
There was only one Decider.
Binyamin took a deep breath of air and returned to his bench.
Two minutes later, the door opened, and a head with a burgundy beret appeared. “Come,” he said in English. Binyamin knew what the word meant, but the Brit was not addressing him; there was someone behind him, outside the room.
A figure entered the room, and Binyamin raised his eyes. Here it was, the famous prisoners’ uniform. And the face belonged to…no, it was not Zelig, but he knew this boy as well. His family had come just two years ago from Europe, and they worked mining coarse sand from the beachfront. A year ago, Zelig’s father had purchased sand for the renovation of his workshop, and if Binyamin remembered correctly, this young man had delivered it.
The Brit asked the bareheaded boy something in English, and the latter looked at Binyamin and shook his head from side to side. Binyamin returned a steady gaze, wondering if he would also be asked if they had any connection or if they knew each other. But the Brit did not even turn to him; he just pushed the boy out of the room, and someone else entered. Three more times, one after another, Jewish prisoners were led into the room, and three times, their answers were in the negative.
Zelig was not one of them.
“Binyamin!” Mahmoud clapped his hands loudly in the middle of the street. “Is that you, ya Binyamin? That’s it, just one day in prison? What did they do there to you that you are so pale?”
“Nothing.” Binyamin tried to smile. “It just wasn’t pleasant.” And I didn’t eat anything besides a few carrots.
“Sure, sure.” The Arab was friendly. “And why don’t you come to Itzchak a bit, to help him with his work? Now that Zelig isn’t here, he’s so alone…”
“I understand,” Binyamin said, his eyes lowered. “But I’m going back to my yeshivah today, in Chevron. Tell him that I’m praying for him, alright?”
“You won’t come?”
“I think that if I come again, the Brits will be sure that Zelig is guilty, and that I’m guilty, and that Mr. Shikovitzer is guilty.”
“Right, right. Better you shouldn’t come. It’s enough that you were in prison already. Who else is there?” the Arab asked curiously.
“All kinds of people.”
“And Zelig? He’s not there?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see him.”
“So where is he?” the Arab asked.
“I don’t know.” Binyamin shook his head. “He ran away and is probably hiding.”
“He’s not hiding, no way! They caught him, poor guy!”
“They caught him?!”
“Yes. This morning, he suddenly came to the workshop. He said he was hungry and that he was leaving Acco to go somewhere else, so that they shouldn’t look for him. Itzchak was so happy, and he wanted to bring him food. But before he managed to get the knife for the bread, the soldiers came.”
“And they took him?”
“They took him. Itzchak asked the soldiers lots of questions, but they didn’t answer him. They just put Zelig in the wagon and left. If they didn’t take him to the jail here, then where did they take him?”
“I don’t know.” Binyamin bit his bottom lip. Oy, Zelig. “I didn’t see him at all. Maybe he came just after I left. They sent me out early this morning, at nine. When did they come to arrest him?”
“I don’t remember what time it was—sometime mid-morning, you know, when the sun is strong. Maybe eleven or twelve? Maybe he will also be released as fast as you were. Why did they let you out in the end?”
“They realized that I have nothing to do with this whole story, that I wasn’t even in Acco in recent weeks at all.”
“Good, good,” the Arab said. “So I’ll tell Itzchak that you are out, and he will be happy. He was sad that you were taken in because of his Zelig, you know.”
Two years later, 5689, Jerusalem
“Binyamin!” Yitzchak Shikovitzer caught the young man walking in the street by the shoulder. “Binyamin, is that you?”
The boy raised his eyes. “It’s me,” he said, and fell silent.
“How are you? You don’t know how worried I was when we heard what happened in Chevron… The riots in Acco were child’s play compared to what you had…”
Binyamin nodded slowly.
“It’s a miracle I met your father, and he told me…” Zelig’s father sighed. “He told me that baruch Hashem nothing happened to you.”
“Yes. Baruch Hashem.”
They stood in silence, thinking of the others who hadn’t been as fortunate.
“Do you know,” Shikovitzer said, his eyes fiery, “how much I’d be ready to give for my Zelig to be among your holy friends, there in Chevron? Do you have any idea, or can you not possibly understand me and think that I’m a father who doesn’t—”
“Of course I understand you,” Binyamin cut him off. “Life in This World, compared to eternal life in the Next World…what’s the question?”
“Now I’m not even near my Zelig.” The father sighed again. “If I was, I could go visit him in prison, and maybe I could influence him a little to come back, to think. But when we can’t even think about going back to Acco… There are only a few Jews left there, you know—the ones who refused to leave in the great evacuation. The British said they are not taking responsibility for them, and I hope that nothing happens to any of them. So far we haven’t heard about any unusual incidents…Hashem should continue to protect them.”
“And the Jewish prisoners…are they protected there?”
“I hope so,” Yitzchak said darkly. “You know, it’s not like how it was two years ago, when you were there for two days. How many Jews were there then? Ten? A few more? Now there are nearly a hundred; the British send a lot of people there.”
“Yes…” Binyamin nodded slowly.
“After the terrible riots, the British cleared us all out from Acco. Since then, the Acco Prison is the best place for Jewish prisoners, in their view, in order to prevent any thoughts of escape. The Arab population in the city will not take kindly to Jewish escapees…”
“But in the riots there, quite a few Arabs actually helped out the Jews.” Binyamin leaned on the tree next to him. “The Arab fisherman who my father worked with protected him and two others on that dreadful Friday. My mother and the children went into an Arab neighbor’s home and waited there.”
“You’re telling me?” Yitzchak Shikovitzer’s smile was bitter. “Did you forget Mahmoud?”
“What happened with Mahmoud?”
“I hid in the workshop, behind the oven; he locked the door from the outside. When the Arab rioters came, he told them he had banished me from the property, and that everything now belongs to him. Baruch Hashem they believed him and left.”
“Baruch Hashem. And the shul?”
“They broke into it from the window, but they hardly did anything. The sefer Torah was with me in the workshop.” A thin but genuine smile lit up his eyes. “They wanted to set the house on fire, but the Arab owner came and screamed at them not to dare. It was his property, and he called the police. They came and banished the rioters pretty fast.”
“Halevai it should have happened that way in Chevron.” Binyamin’s lips hardly moved when he spoke.
Again they were both silent.
“What will be now?” Zelig’s father murmured, as he looked at the brown leaves above them. They were still in the dry, searing heat. “Looks like Mahmoud was right about what he said— either way, I’m gone already, and my workplace belongs to him…”
“The house where you lived, with the shul, was not yours. But the workshop area was, right?”
“Right. I bought it at full price. Though what does that help me now? Oy, we just have to thank Hashem that our lives were spared; it wouldn’t have taken much for Acco’s riots to finish in a bad way, chalilah.”
He suddenly looked straight into Binyamin’s eyes. “Not too many people knew, like you, about my dream all these years: that when the time would come and our community would grow, I would take the lot of the workshop and build a big, beautiful shul on it.” He shook his head. “In the last two years, these thoughts don’t leave me for a minute. I don’t know if there will be a descendant to learn for my soul after my passing. Based on the situation now, it does not appear that there will be. So at least I want to have the zechus of building a mikdash me’at, so that I should have some merits…”
“I hope Zelig will yet come back,” Binyamin said softly.
“Amen. Halevai,” Mr. Shikovtzer said, but there was a faraway look in his eye, as though he did not believe what he was saying. “Last time I came to visit him in prison…”
“He hardly spoke.”
“I don’t know.” Another sigh. “He’s become very distant, Binyamin. I’m at a loss for ideas of how to reach him.”
Binyamin looked at his fingers. “If the situation wasn’t so dangerous, I would go to him in prison, to try speaking to him myself. You know that last summer I tried to visit him?”
“I know.” Zelig’s father swallowed. He’d never spoken to Binyamin about that visit.
“Oh, you knew? I didn’t want to tell you, because I was afraid you’d feel bad that I didn’t get to meet with him. I wanted to speak to him, to try to influence him, but after I arrived and waited with all the visitors, someone came from inside to say that Zelig went to the infirmary, because his head was hurting, or something like that. I waited and waited until visiting time was over, and then I had to leave. So I didn’t get to see him.”
“Yes,” Shikovitzer said in a low voice. “He told me. He didn’t want to meet with you.”
“He didn’t want…?”
“I don’t know if his head was hurting or not. But he told me that you came and that he didn’t want to see you, and that he does not plan to see you if you try to come again.”
Binyamin looked at the deep scratches on the tree trunks at his side. “But why is he refusing to see me? What’s he afraid that I will do to him?” He chuckled bitterly. “If I would think that I had such a great influence on him, I would have run there ten times since he was arrested, not just once.”
“No, Zelig is not afraid of influence.” Shikovitzer looked right and left, and then started to cross the street. “Are you going in this direction anyway, Binyamin, or are you just accompanying me?”
“What’s he afraid of?” Binyamin asked again, following Mr. Shikovitzer.
“He’s not afraid. He’s angry.”
“Angry? At me?” A bit late, Binyamin realized that Zelig’s father had started walking because he didn’t want to face him. It was easier to evade a gaze while walking.
“He claims you turned him in to the British.”
“Me?! I turned him in to the British?!” Binyamin stopped in his tracks, his eyes opened wide.
“That’s what he says.” Zelig’s father sounded apologetic. “Not that I think he’s right, but you know, it’s in his head.”
“Why does he think this?”
“I have no idea, Binyamin. I think that the only thing he is basing it on is the fact that he was arrested the same morning that you were released. He thinks you made a deal with the Brits.”
“But how could I have turned him in if I had no idea where he was hiding?”
“I don’t know, Binyamin.” Mr. Shikovitzer passed a hand over his forehead. “Please don’t take it to heart. That’s what he decided to think; it’s his choice.”
“Right. Still, it’s hard for me to hear that…that this is what he thinks of me.” Binyamin sounded strangled.
“I know,” Shikovitzer said kindly. He began walking again, a bit slower than before, and Binyamin, without wanting to, hurried after him.
“Is there something I can do about any of this?” Binyamin asked, after a long moment.
“You? Nothing. And honestly, I can’t do anything either. Believe me, I’ve tried, Binyamin. He…” Shikovitzer blinked. “His brain is flooded with so many ridiculous ideas; this nonsense is just another one of them.” He spread his hands as if to say, What can we do?
The two continued walking together; strangers who passed could have mistaken them for father and son.
“Hashem will help,” Binyamin said finally, when they got to the next intersection and he knew he had to go back. “I…I’ll daven for him, Mr. Shikovitzer.”
“Thank you. You really are a good friend, more than he thinks.” The older man’s eyes were warm. “So now you are here, in Yerushalayim?”
“The yeshivah is. My parents moved to Tel Aviv.”
“Give your father warm regards when you meet him.”
“I will.” Binyamin smiled weakly, and the two parted ways.
Had only two years passed since he’d last seen Zelig? How come it felt to Binyamin like a hundred years at least?