Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 47 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.
“I spoke to them, Mr. Shikovitzer,” Emmanuel Bitton said as he sat down on the wooden chair. His eyes scanned the small, sad apartment. “It was just an exploratory conversation, to start with.”
“Nu, what did Mahmoud say?”
“He actually looks to me like someone who can be easily persuaded. He is very aware that the land is yours and not his. But on the other hand, he has friends and family, and they won’t let him give in so fast.” Bitton raised his eyes. “Besides, I didn’t quite understand. What will you do with the lot now? You don’t intend to live there, right?”
“Not to live.” Zelig’s father closer his eyes and then opened them. “It’s a hekdesh lot.”
“Since I bought it when I came to Eretz Yisrael, I dreamed of building a shul on it. I even saved up some money to do that. But I waited for more Jews to come to Acco, you know, and while I was waiting, I used the lot for my business… Only when I was hiding from the rioters in 1929 did I decide that if I would be saved, and I would get the lot back, I would not continue to use it for horses and buggies; I’d build a shul on the property.” He smiled morosely. “For now, I daven here every day, at the Kosel, the holiest site we have. Still, I cannot stop thinking about that place. I invested all my money there, and my dreams…”
“Was it a neder, a vow?” Through the window, Bitton could see the low houses of the Jewish Quarter. Somewhere beyond those houses was the Kosel.
“I don’t know if it was a vow or not; I don’t think I actually uttered anything— I just thought about it. But I still would want to try and keep it.”
“Now, yes. Binyamin Reiness only persuaded me now not to give up.”
“When I asked ‘now,’ I meant how you are planning to do that in such an Arab-filled city?”
Shikovitzer raised his eyes. “How much longer do you think I will live? Another two hundred years? Who is promising me that whenever there will be a safe and established Jewish community in Acco, I will still be among the living?”
“Well, I hope that that it will happen in less than two hundred years.”
“Amen v’amen. But I am now sixty-eight years old. So you do the math.”
Emmanuel nodded. “Look, I don’t really know what to tell you. In any case, as I’ve said, I’m going back to Acco, because of my mother who doesn’t want to go anywhere else. My brother used to live with her, but last year he got married and left. Now she’s very elderly, and we don’t want her living alone among the Arabs.”
“Yes, you told me.” Shikovitzer’s eyes were dull. Maybe he was thinking about his son at that moment.
“And I’m going to rent the house where you lived—yes, where you made the shul for the Ashkenazim. No one has lived there since you left, and it’s neglected and falling apart. You also can’t tell that there was a shul there.”
“It’s a very Arab-filled area,” Shikovitzer murmured.
“All of Acco is an Arab-filled area now, Mr. Shikovitzer.” Emmanuel Bitton smiled thinly. “In any case, I wear a kaffiyeh when I’m there, and I’m not planning to socialize much with my neighbors.
“Isn’t it very risky?”
“I hope not. Why, there aren’t any Arabs here? Anyway, I have friends there.” He rolled his eyes to the arched ceiling.
“And you believe they remained your friends?”
“I was a twelve-year-old boy in 1929. One neighbor of ours, a hulking fourteen-year-old, hid me in his house, under a bed. So no, I don’t trust anyone, but there are those whom I know don’t hate us, at least not as much as some of the others.”
“And the others?” He pushed a bowl of grapes toward his guest. Yes, there was something to what Bitton was saying.
“I think the others have also calmed down a bit.” He looked at the older man. “Anyway, is there something specific you’d like me to do for you in Acco?”
“Maybe try to set up a meeting with Mahmoud.”
“Why do you need a meeting?
“To sign him on a document stating that even if I cannot use my lot right now, it still does not become his, or his son’s or his clan’s. It belongs to me.”
“But what will his signature be worth?” Bitton asked.
Shikovitzer nodded his head sadly.
“Are you going, Emmanuel?” Bitton’s elderly mother stopped in the middle of peeling an apple. “Home?”
“No, to the port.”
“Uh-huh. I need to buy fresh fish.”
“What are you going to do with the fish?” She looked at his carriage that was standing outside, on the edge of the A-Zeitouna square. The horse was pawing at the sand. On the seat behind the driver’s bench was a huge crate filled with water.
He looked at her wizened face and felt a lump of pain choking his throat. “I’m opening a fish restaurant,” he said calmly, even though he’d already told this to her three times already. “It’ll be a good move for us. This way I will be ‘friends’ with the people here. They will come to buy food, we’ll talk, and everything will be fine. It’s not good to fight with them; it’s better to pretend to be friends with them.”
He did not tell her that he’d been tasked with conveying the impressions that he got from the locals to his higher-ups. As a fluent Arabic speaker, he had done it in a number of places already. He spent a few months in each city before moving on. In Jaffa he’d masqueraded as an Arab; he couldn’t take risks with Jaffa’s Arabs, known for their virulent hatred. In Ramle and Lod, he presented himself as a “Jewish friend.” It had gone quite well. But here, he was walking a very fine line. His mother’s neighbors all knew that he was Mariam Bitton’s son, but his neighbors on the water knew nothing about him. He was just a stranger to them, and no one pried; no one asked for his nationality, and they had almost nothing to do with him.
“Only pretend!” Mrs. Bitton wagged her finger. “Don’t think it’s real.”
“Of course not.” If only they knew that he had come here as a spy of sorts, the smiling faces that he had met thus far in the city would have been transformed at once. In the meantime, he hadn’t managed to garner a uniform impression of how the wind was blowing here. In Ramle, it seemed possible to enter into a dialogue with the heads of the chamula, the clan that ruled the city there. They were not avowed Jew-haters. And if there would be reasonable agreements with those in Ramle, it would have a positive effect on the situation in Lod. But in Acco, his native city, the situation just wasn’t clear to him. Of course the Arabs here were less brainwashed than in, say, Jaffa, but he would still not want to reveal himself to them as a Jew, certainly not when he was still trying to get a feel for the temperament of the place.
“Goodbye, Ima,” he said.
“Buy good fish!” she shouted from the door. “Check the gills well!”
He smiled and waved goodbye as he climbed into the carriage. He’d already bought burners, pots, and pans, and had ordered furniture. As the proprietor of a small, homey fish restaurant, he’d hear conversations between patrons, and could listen to the arguments and the opinions that they aired, and would get a feel for what was going on.
The port welcomed him with its regular dirty, smelly state. At once, Emmanuel felt like he had been swept two decades back in time. He didn’t think anyone would recognize him here, especially not with his Arab garb, unless one of his neighbors who still lived near his mother’s apartment happened to show up.
“Fresh?” he asked a fisherman who was just coming up on the pier.
“Sure!” The fisherman seemed offended. “An hour ago they were still swimming in the water!”
“I want the whole net,” Emmanuel said, and took out a few bills. “I pay well. And you can come to my place tomorrow and eat on the house, across from Burj al Karim.”
“Tomorrow?” The man narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You getting married or something?”
“No.” Emmanuel patted him on the shoulder. “I’m opening a restaurant. So come, and bring your friends, but only you get to eat for free.”
“Great!” The fisherman’s hostility suddenly melted away. “I’ll call my boy and we’ll carry the fish to your carriage.”
Twenty minutes later, Emmanuel’s crate was full, and his horse headed toward the house, with his merchandise. He’d already cleaned everything and hired an Arab boy to bring water from the nearby public well. Maybe he’d speak to the boy about doing additional work too, like customer service and cleaning. He would see about that based on how many people came. In honor of the restaurant’s opening, he was going to prepare a lot of food, but if it would not succeed, and only a few people showed up, he certainly wouldn’t need steady help.
He got the impression that the fisherman had lots of friends, because on the very first day, he already had more than thirty customers.