Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 49 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? Binyamin, do you get a mazel tov?” Shikovitzer pressed the telephone receiver to his ear. There was a lot of static on the line, and he could hardly recognize his young friend’s voice. “Binyamin?”
“Yes, it’s me. Hello, Mr. Shikovitzer.”
“Do you get a mazel tov, Binyamin?” Yitzchak repeated the question.
“Me? Not yet.”
His former neighbor was shocked. “But I met your father…”
“My younger brother got engaged,” Binyamin said lightly. “To a girl from a wonderful family, baruch Hashem.”
“Oh, so I guess I didn’t understand your father.” An awkward silence ensued on the Yerushalmi side of the line. “We met for a moment as I got onto the bus and he was getting off. He told me something about an engagement…I thought he was talking about you.”
“B’ezras Hashem, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Yes, yes, may it be very soon.”
It would have been understandable to end the conversation quickly, in an attempt to cut the discomfort short, but Binyamin did not want the older man to hang up with a bad feeling. “So what’s doing by you, Mr. Shikovitzer?”
“By me? Baruch Hashem, no change.”
“Do you have a telephone at home?”
“At home?” Shikovitzer chuckled. “In the Jewish Quarter? None of the private homes there have phones, Binyamin. I went to do some errands in the new city, so I’m talking to you from the post office.”
“So if, let’s say, Zelig wants to speak to you…”
Shikovitzer’s voice became thick. “Zelig doesn’t want to speak to me.” He sighed. “And if he suddenly gets the overwhelming urge, he has my address; he can always come.”
“Why shouldn’t he want to?” Binyamin asked. “He’s angry at me because he’s sure I informed on him to the Brits. But you?”
“He’s angry at me, too.” Shikovitzer glanced at the bored postal clerk who was not even trying to conceal that he was eavesdropping on the conversation. Maybe in a few years, they’d make a small, private room in the post office for people who wanted to have personal conversations on the phone. That would be nice.
“The second time the Brits were on his tail, he tried to send me a message that he’d escaped and that I should arrange a hiding place for him. But I wasn’t home that morning, and I never got the note.”
“And then he was caught?”
“And he’s angry about that? What’s there to be angry about?” Honestly, it wasn’t so nice of him to be getting into a long conversation like this. The other man was paying for every second of this call.
“I don’t know, but that’s my feeling. You know, people aren’t always angry about something because the other person did something bad to them, intentionally. Sometimes, the fact that I caused something bad to happen to someone makes him angry, even though I didn’t mean it at all.”
“That’s true,” Binyamin agreed.
“So that’s the situation.”
“Are you in a hurry, Binyamin?” Shikovitzer’s ear was sharp.
“You suddenly became very terse.”
“Oh.” Binyamin tried to laugh. “I feel bad. I’ve kept you on the phone for so long, and I know that each call costs a lot of money.”
“Binyamin, please let me decide what I should spend my money on.” Shikovitzer was direct. “In any case, I wanted to talk to you about the letter I got from Emmanuel Bitton.”
“The one who went to live in Acco?”
“Yes. As an aside, I have to say that I’m not sure what exactly his story is. It’s true that he doesn’t want to leave his old mother there herself, but it sounds to me like he’s very active among the Arabs. He opened a restaurant, forged some connections…Who ever heard in our day of a Jew opening a restaurant for Arab customers?! What does he need it for? I think he has an ulterior motive.”
“That’s very interesting,” Binyamin said.
“Right. But, like I said, that’s just my own postscript comment. In any case, he tells me that he recently spoke one-on-one to Mahmoud. And he thinks he can reach a good agreement with him regarding the lot.”
“An agreement? What kind of agreement?”
The older man lowered his voice. He didn’t want the postal clerk to be privy to every single detail of the conversation. “He claims that Mahmoud’s Arab hamoula will oppose any concession; he was there during a few short conversations among the family members, and that’s the impression he got. However, Mahmoud does remember, and constantly mentions, that the lot is mine. So Bitton had this idea: we should sign Mahmoud on a document in which I give him the land for, let’s say, ten years, without his family knowing. When that time passes, if it will be relevant, we can come to them with this signed document that says the place is mine. He claims that within ten years, the British will surely leave, and things will be different.”
“You should wait ten years?”
“Yes.” Shikovitzer laughed bitterly. “This way it will be easier to persuade him to sign for us, without him insisting on getting his family involved. As Bitton said, in any case I don’t have the option right now of using the land.”
Binyamin was silent for forty long seconds. “The idea sounds good,” he said finally.
“And I want to emphasize that the land was designated for a shul. If Zelig or one of his children ever finds out about this agreement,” he sighed, “what can I tell you? I wish I would merit descendants who are Torah observant, but if not, chalilah, I don’t want all my efforts to be for nothing, and for them to use this lot chalilah for just random things. I bought this land for the express purpose of building a beis medrash on it.”
“I imagine that this can be included in the contract, no?”
“Yes. And Bitton is inviting me to Acco.”
“Yes, he wants me to be the one to talk to Mahmoud about the agreement. Makes sense, right?”
“It does make sense,” Binyamin agreed. “Where will you do it?”
“He is offering the back room of his fish restaurant.” The man sighed. “It’s where our temporary shul used to be, if you remember it.”
“Of course I remember it! He rented the house that you used to rent?”
“Yes.” Yitzchak was silent for a moment. “He claims there’s no problem with coming to Acco. The residents are not specifically looking for Jews, and no one will pay any attention to two strangers; they won’t try to find out who they are.”
“Okay…” Two strangers? Not one? Binyamin had the distinct feeling that he knew what was coming next.
“You…will you agree to come with me, Binyamin?”
It was late evening when Binyamin Reiness found himself standing next to the wall in Acco. He was surprised at the waves of nostalgia and yearning that suddenly overwhelmed him. Yes, with all of his love for Yerushalayim, the city of his yeshivah, he still longed, at least a little bit, for the city that had welcomed him as a child. He liked the ancient walls, the sea smell, the narrow, dusty streets, and everything else that had been part of the backdrop of his early years.
“I haven’t been here in such a long time,” Yitzchak Shikovitzer whispered next to him.
Binyamin nodded, inhaling the salty air. “Me neither.”
“Emmanuel Bitton made up with me to meet at 8:30 in the evening. He told Mahmoud the same thing.” Yitzchak began to walk slowly. “And he doesn’t intend to get involved, from what I understand. He wants to give the impression of being a neutral mediator.”
“Does Mahmoud know that that he’s Jewish?”
“It’s not clear.”
“Not clear to whom?”
“To Bitton himself. Mahmoud made a comment here and there about it, but nothing more than that. Look, Emmanuel’s father, alav hashalom, was a regular client of ours, so Mahmoud probably recognized his son. But it’s alright; he’s pretty quiet and mild-mannered, not the hotheaded type. He’s always been like that.”
“I hope he is still that way.”
“And that he hasn’t told anyone in his family or his friends about this meeting.” Binyamin adjusted the sunhat on his head. It wasn’t very comfortable. He had no idea if he really looked like a tourist, though he hoped he did. In any case, Emmanuel’s fish restaurant—previously the Shikovitzer residence—was in a relatively quiet, out-of-the-way location. Hardly anyone was around during the evening hours.
“He closes at eight,” Yitzchak said, as if Binyamin’s thoughts were echoing in his own mind. “But I prefer to wait a few minutes, just to be sure. I don’t want to meet anyone.”
From afar, they saw the house. It certainly seemed very quiet, and Mr. Shikovitzer looked at Binyamin. “What do you say?” he asked, his eyes focused on a cat that was padding ahead of them. “Should we go in?”
“Yes, we should get there a little bit before Mahmoud,” Binyamin agreed.
They turned to the house. The windows were dark, but the back window, the one from the room that was used as a shul in better days, glowed with a dim light. There was a figure moving around inside. The cat, which had been walking right next to them, burst into a sudden run.
“Hey, he’s also going there,” Shikovitzer said, chuckling quietly.
“Who?” Binyamin turned his head, trying to find Mahmoud in the darkness.
“No, I meant the cat. He must be a regular customer of Emmanuel’s. Emmanuel is throwing him scraps from the window—look!”
Now Emmanuel’s figure was clearly visible through the window, as he emptied two large bowls onto the ground behind the house for the cat, which leaped excitedly at the food. Just then, Emmanuel noticed the two figures and waved to them.
They walked around the side of the house, entered the yard, and stood in front of the large door. Before they could knock, Emmanuel pulled the door open. Binyamin had a chance to scan the Arabic sign on the ground, leaning on the wall. He didn’t know how to read Arabic, but the drawing of a fish in a pot that was giving off steam was clearer than any language.
They exchanged handshakes, and Emmanuel hurriedly ushered them inside, closing the door behind them.
“No one saw you,” he said. “Right?”
“Right.” Shikovitzer studied Emmanel, decked out in a checked kaffiyeh from head to toe. “What’s your getup all about? Did things become dangerous now?”
“Not dangerous, but my clients sound more heated than they did half a year ago.” Emmanuel took off his apron and hung it on a hook near the door. Binyamin’s eyes noticed the dirty tables, the chairs that were pushed away from the table, and the dishes all over the room. “I haven’t had a chance to clean up yet,” Emmanuel said, noticing his gaze.
“I understand that you listen to your patrons,” Shikovitzer said.
“Absolutely.” Bitton scrubbed one of the wooden tables with a thick cloth. “Here, come sit down. I’m so happy to see some faces of ‘our own.’ I don’t take it for granted at all.”
“And still, you prefer to be here.”
“Does your mother still live with you?” Yitzchak inquired.
“No.” Emmanuel picked up a chair that was lying on the floor between the tables. “She fell two weeks ago and broke her hand. Now she’s at my sister’s house in Beit Shean. I don’t think she’s coming back to Acco anymore.”
“So why are you still here?” Shikovitzer asked bluntly.
“Oh, I have some nosing around to do. But I hope to be finished with that in the near future.”
“Yes, nothing major. I’m just supposed to find out what the Arabs in this city, and in the surrounding villages, are planning to do, so that we can prepare properly. You know: gifts, tefillah, or war.”
“I see that you remember,” Shikovitzer said gently. “That’s what girsa d’yankusa is all about. But you should know that Yaakov Avinu never chose only one of the three options; he did all three.”
“Do you mean to say that we need to both flatter the Arabs and fight them?”
“I mean to say that whichever option you choose, do not forego the tefillah.”
Bitton nodded vigorously. “That’s it,” he said. “Anyway, so that’s why I’m here, wasting my time preparing food for Arabs who despise me—except that they don’t know it.”
“And what do you hear?”
“I told you. The political situation is not simple these days.”
“We know that as well.” Yitzchak smiled. “But from what I understand, it’s not like we are in immediate danger, right?”
“I don’t think so. Still, I would not advise you to walk around in the streets in the daylight. It’s not safe at all.”
“We certainly have no intentions of wandering around here in the daytime hours. Actually,. we arranged with our driver to come and meet us in less than an hour and a half.”
“The driver? Who is that?”
Binyamin laughed. “Oh, a British major that Mr. Shikovitzer has become friendly with.”
“Are you joshing me?” Emmanuel stood up straight, cloth still in hand.
“Not at all,” the older man reassured him hastily. “He was a client of mine here in Acco, and a short time ago, we met in Yerushalayim. He has connections to the prison here, and I know that he travels this route often. We are paying him well for the trip, of course; don’t think a Brit gives any gifts.”
“I don’t think anything,” Emmanuel said wryly. “But why don’t you sit down?” He wrinkled his nose as he stepped on a fish bone and heard the cracking sound it made. “You know what, let’s go into the other room.” He scratched his right eyebrow. “I hope you won’t feel bad when you see what has become of your shul, Mr. Shikovitzer.”
They walked into the room, which now served as the restaurant kitchen, apparently.
Binyamin saw Mr. Shikovitzer bite his lip, but he remained silent.
“Here there is a table and chairs that are clean—something that I can’t say for the restaurant itself.” Bitton smiled. “In my area I keep things clean; my lovely clients, though, are not as particular as I am.”
As they sat down at the table, topics of conversation seemed to dry up. Bitton served them a bowl of fruits and stood up to wash some dishes in a large basin of water, as he hummed to himself.
“It’s past 8:30 already, isn’t it?” Shikovitzer suddenly asked, after a prolonged silence.
“Five minutes ago,” Binyamin replied.
“I hope Mahmoud doesn’t plan to disappoint us.”
Bitton’s humming suddenly stopped, and his eyes narrowed. “He’s here,” he said. “I’ll go open the door for him.”