Some Good Books, Early Summer 2016 Edition

Summer time hopefully means more time to read. Here is a round up of some recent novels that have been keeping me busy.  A few are big, weighty books (and I don’t mean their physical size), some have more modest ambition. But they’re all worth a read. For more on the rating system, see below.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota ©©©

41pcO-RsW8L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_This Man Booker short-listed novel follows the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a group of four young Indian immigrants to England. Each of their stories is followed from India as they try to make new lives and new identities in a generally inhospitable and strange environment. These interwoven stories are poignant and heartbreaking, each in its own way. The characters each want, and need, different things; they are each moved to act by different motivating factors. Along the way they bump up against each other and their stories become intertwined. In the end, each  finds a way out of the challenges of hunger, loneliness, and hopelessness, though in unexpected ways. These are both coming-of-age stories, and the familiar territory of grim immigration tales. Yet neither of those descriptions does justice to the painful journeys of all four of these young people trying to make their way in an uncertain world, the weight of familial desperation,  geo-political realities, religion limitations, and cultural expectations on their shoulders.

Gold Fame Citrus by Clair Vaye Watkins ©©©

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Since this book was named best book of the year by the Washington Post, NPR, Atlantic, and many other news outlets, it jumped its way up to the top of my to-read list. This novel portrays a terrifying dismal dystopian future in the United States of severe shortages and drought. Southern California is a ruined, parched, unsustainable ghost of its excessive past now under military control. The two main characters, Luz and Ray, subsist as squatters in a former starlet’s mansion full of useless luxuries but few necessities. They dream of heading east but the trip through the western states, now one enormous shifting dune sea devoid of life, is dangerous and unsanctioned. But when they come across an odd toddler and take her under their care, they decide to do what they can to improve their chances of a future, and they set out across the desert. Part adventure saga, part apocalyptic nightmare, part cautionary tale, this story of their trek and the people they encounter in the wilderness is a fantastical futuristic journey. There are echoes of some of the best of Ray Bradbury’s martian landscape imaginings, except that this is all the more terrifying for taking place in the United States of a very close future. Beyond the narrative arc of the individual characters, this novel presents a vision of what could be that is as highly original and compelling as it is disturbing. The descriptions of the world Luz and Ray inhabit, what they see along their trip, the charismatic leader and his tribe that they encounter, and in particular the Amargosa Dune Sea, are rich in imagery and imagination, simultaneously horrific and terrifyingly gorgeous. This book truly is a must-read.

Valley of Strength by Shulamit Lapid ©©

51SzkC3hNeLI read this novel in Hebrew years ago, albeit haltingly, so I was excited to see it in English. It is a classic of Israeli literature, a beautifully told tale of the Jewish settlement of the Galilee in the 1880’s. As a historical novel, it provides background about the backbreaking work involved in creating what eventually became Rosh Pinnah. It is rich with depictions of the intellectual battles fought at that time over the different settlements, and the ideologies, finances, and politics behind them. The narrator Fania is an immigrant from Russia, a survivor of a progrom in her hometown that killed her parents and left her pregnant at 16. Upon arriving in Jaffa she meets Yehiel, who takes her home with him to a settlement known first as Gai Oni to help him raise his two children, whose mother has died. In Israel this novel is seen as an early feminist work, as Fania is an independent woman who goes against communal constraints in a number of ways, including creatively finding opportunities to help her family’s finances. Though the translation seems a bit abrupt at times, it is well worth the read for the underlying love story between Fania and Yehiel, and for the way it brings to life the reality of that time in the history of the country that comes to be Israel. It was a good reminder that any romanticized image we have today of all the Jews getting along and working together to establish Israel was as untrue then as it is now – the story is filled with fights and arguments between all the various Jewish groups on the basis of ethnicity, religiosity, and ideology. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Israeli fiction, women’s fiction, and a peek into early modern Zionism.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood ©©

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In another, but completely different, dystopian future, resources are extremely limited. Jobs have dried up and the cities have descended into chaos. Gangs roam freely and no one is safe. Charmaine and Stan live in their car, having had to give up their house, and though Charmaine is lucky enough to have a job at a strip joint, they are barely surviving. Charmaine learns about Consilience, a planned community which guarantees employment, housing, and safety. She convinces Stan to join up and be part of this visionary community which she sees as their way to have a secure future. Consilience is based on the premise that its members spend half their time living and working in the town, and half their time as voluntary prisoners in the town’s jail. Residents share apartments, with one couple in place and the other in jail, back and forth. They are sold on the idea that this isn’t a regular prison – there are no scary or violent prisoners, and it’s all rather civilized and pleasant. But there is a terrifying underbelly to this grand vision which becomes clearer as the novel progresses. Each in his or her own way, Charmaine and Stan get caught up in what is really going on behind the scenes of the placid every day life of Consilience. On a human scale, this novel poses many questions about love, control, passion and compassion. But is also poses some of the big questions that underlie many works of dystopian fiction: what happens to our society when human lives and human rights are sacrificed on the altar of the profit-driven insatiable greed of big business? This novel can momentarily veer into predictability and preachiness, but it is generally smart, well crafted, and wonderfully imaginative, and well worth a read.

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis ©©

4113iaNuRYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This complicated, complex novel about a former Russian dissident who is now a disgraced Israeli politician was a winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award and received much praise from other corners as well.  Baruch, formerly Boris, has left Israel and his family in the middle of a tense political moment, running away to the resort town of Yalta with his young mistress. While there, he comes across the very man who had sent him to the Gulag many years earlier. The past rises up to meet him, shedding light on the principled but flawed man he has become today. He encounters his betrayer at the very moment that he himself has betrayed his wife and children and made off with his mistress. He must come to terms with the trajectory of his life and the result of choices he made as a young man as he faces his own aging. The framing of this novel is about the good versus the bad, the right versus the wrong, truth versus lies, youth versus age, and yet nothing, and no one, is all one and not the other. Someone who has spent his life on the side of justice and truth, a man who can’t be blackmailed, a man whose life has been shaped by big ideas and taking stands on often unpopular beliefs, is the same man who has let down those closest to him, his wife and children. Funny, poignant, slightly snarky, sometimes uncomfortable, and highly intelligent, this is well worth the read.

The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan ©

51JEPGjrvWLThis book is based on a great premise. Richard Glass has died suddenly in a car accident. He leaves behind a wive, their baby, and an ex-wife and their twins. The wives are not friends, which is understandable since Richard was involved with the second wife while still married to the first. Anger, hurt, and frustration ensues, and there is some welcome humor in the midst of the family’s grief. The ex-wife, Evie, would like the second wife, Nicole, to go away and leave her alone. But out of financial need, sorrow, and the wish to keep their children (who of course are siblings) connected, they wind up joining forces  and creating a new kind family. It is somewhat less Hallmark-y than it sounds though it does lean in that direction. But the writing does not soar; the novel lacks  the kind of sparkle and nuance that would lift it beyond the level of just a good story.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber ©

51YUsTIE1JLIf you’re looking for some enjoyable historical fiction for your summer reading, this is a good one. This novel tells the story of the terrible 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas, in which thousands of people were killed in one day. Told from two points of view, the place and the time come to life. At the heart of the novel are two very different women: Catherine, a talented and Oberlin educated pianist who has committed adultery with a married man in Philadelphia and is now being shunned for it, and a local woman, Nan, who only knows this reality. Out of desperation, Catherine renews correspondence with an old acquaintance, Oscar, who has a young son and has just lost his wife. He invites her to join him at his farm outside of Galveston as his wife, and out of desperation, she agrees. Nan meanwhile is ensconced at Oscar’s, looking after him and his son as a promise made to the deceased wife, who had been her dear friend. Once Catherine arrives, naturally the two women clash in classic city mouse versus country mouse style. As Catherine acclimates to a harsher life than anything she has ever known, real love develops between her and Oscar, and she begins to make inroads with his son, but things remain complicated between the two women. All of this is backdrop for the big storm which quickly changes the course of events for all the people of the Galveston area. The characters and their story are compelling, but the real drama is the storm itself. Weisgarber builds steam slowly so that even though we know what actually happened, the tension builds as the storm rages on, and the consequences still manage to come as terrible surprises.

Rating System

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

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Some Good Books, Spring 2016 Edition

It’s been a rainy few days and we all know there’s nothing better in the rain than settling in with a good book. Here is a round up of some recent good books I’ve spent some time with.  This is a mixed bag of some newer and some not-as-new titles, but all were good reads. See below for more info on the rating system. Happy reading!

The Children Act by Ian Mcewan   @@@

51UJmXPQY2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_This one is a breathstopper. The writing is gorgeous, and the plot thick, complex, and engrossing. Fiona Maye is a family court judge in London in the midst of a complicated case involving a very sick young man who has not quite reached the age of majority and whose parents do not want him given a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons. She must grapple with the intricacies of the case as her husband of many years leaves her for another (younger) woman. Fiona is a densely written character who thinks intensely about the ethics of this case and others. Mcewan deftly takes readers on a journey into a fascinating legal mind that is driven by fairness, a sense of integrity, and a love for the law at its best. As she struggles with what it means to be a successful, childless woman who has prioritized her career over other kinds of choices, Fiona must also face the aftermath of her decision in the case of the sick young man. What does success mean when your husband goes looking for something/someone else? How can she tell strangers how to live their lives when her own is a mess? How can she adjudicate relationships between parents and children when she has none of her own? What does her own happiness mean and how can she realize it? Who has the right to decide whether someone lives or dies, and what must she do with that power? Mcewan gives his readers a lot to think about in this powerful novel that weaves together the personal and professional in a powerful way.

 

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng   @@@

51Y+A2dOhQL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Tseng took a dive into the deep end in this novel about a middle aged woman’s need for intimacy and sexual fulfillment. (Ok, middle aged might be a bit of a stretch – she is in her young forties but refers to herself as middle aged). Mayumi is a part-Japanese librarian living year round in a New England island summer community that expands in the summer and contracts in the winter. The island and sea metaphors run deep throughout this novel and highlight Mayumi’s solitude. She is in an unsatisfying marriage with a man with whom she barely interacts. He sleeps alone in one room, and she sleeps with their young daughter, Maria. One day a teenager walks into the library. Mayumi quickly develops a  crush on him, and sets out to interact with him as much as she can. She craves any contact she can have with him, even if it is just checking out his books, or making a reading recommendation. She meets his mother as well, and they become friends of a sort. Her one sided crush on him sustains her for a while, and provides her with a much needed refreshed sense of hope and interest in life. Needless to say, Mayumi and the boy eventually embark on a secret sexual relationship. This is a book that takes women’s sexuality seriously. The narrative about their physical relationship is told only from Mayumi’s side. With some initial coaching and encouragement, he is able to bring her great satisfaction. One of the fascinating things about this book is that it tells a story rarely told – that of an older woman seducing a young man, a sort of Lolita in reverse. And Lolita, the book, indeed plays a role in this tale, as do many other well known novels that this literarily-inclined character refers to throughout. Mayumi does worry about the ethics of what she is doing, but her drive to be with him and to find pleasure is stronger than any sense of wrongdoing. What is also fascinating in this novel is the language used to express sexuality. Unlike the typical phallic references, subtle and otherwise, that we are familiar with from the vast body of the male canon, Tseng plays with creating a woman-centered imagery, in which windows and door become sexual metaphors, and triangles dot the descriptive landscape. Go, run, read this book!

 

41xgKh4KBKL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout   @@@

Another exquisite novel by Elizabeth Strout. As always, her writing is spare and precise. With few words, she creates a world. Lucy Barton is laid up in the hospital after what should have been a quick and easy procedure. Days turn into weeks and she still cannot return to the home she shares with her husband and daughters. Her estranged mother comes to visit, and the past becomes entangled with the present. This is a quiet story that contains deep emotion right below the surface. Old longings and frustrations peak through the seams. Even in this diminished state Lucy cannot get what she wants from her mother, and cannot redeem her past. The loneliness of late afternoon vistas from hospital windows is interwoven with threads of hope, gratitude, and determination as Lucy Barton considers her past, present and future; in other words, her self.

 

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld   @@

51sNj07dgfL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I was motivated to read this after reading another book by Wyld, All the Birds Singing (reviewed here in 2014). After the Fire is is her debut novel (and for my rabbinic friends I’ll just say despite the biblical title, this is not a Jewish-themed book) but I was so taken with her elegantly constructed writing that I wanted to try another one. This novel was not as ambitious as All the Birds Singing, but it did not disappoint. Set in the wilds of eastern Australia, there are two main characters with different story arcs. It is not clear until the very end how the stories, and the two characters, Frank and Leon, are connected. At the start, Frank has just been left by a woman and sets out in search of a new beginning back at a cabin that once belonged to his grandparents. Leon is the son of a baker and his wife, immigrants to Australia who eventually leave their son to manage on his own as they set out on a post-war journey of their own. Both are men in search of love and connection, even as they are bruised, solitary figures, flawed survivors of damage only barely hinted at. In both stories, the past rises up to be dealt with, and the jagged edges are intertwined with tenderness.  The cabin is a character of its own, an attempt to create home and order in the midst of chaos. And in the end, the two stories bump up into each other without, thankfully, a neat resolution. This is a writer worth watching.

 

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer   @

51EC+5Zc0dL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_That this novel had to do with both Iraqi Jews and with food intrigued me. I will confess it was a slow start and I almost abandoned it. The food parts of the book were great, yes, but the story seemed at moments disjointed and way too pat. The main character, Lorca, is an adolescent girl in tremendous emotional pain. Severely unmothered, she seeks ways to make her mother, a celebrated chef, notice her and be grateful for her. She sets out to make what her mother has said is her favorite dish of all time, a fish dish called masgouf. For a time the book has a YA feel to is, a tortured coming of age story with painful details and angst but without a lot of depth. This is not by any means a happy story, but even so, the lucky coincidences seemed to pile up too fast and too neatly. But then it takes a turn which makes it much more interesting; it turns out that this is not actually about coincidences at all but about the power and pitfalls of wishful thinking, and about finding love where you can get it. Despite what it seemed like at the beginning, there is no magical happy ending, not everything gets resolved, and redemption is still somewhere in the distance. In the end, it was worth the read. And as an added bonus, the fish recipe central to this tale is included at the back.

Rating System

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II: Chapter Six

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, use this Table of Contents to start at the beginning). Here is Part II, Chapter 6. Enjoy!

Chapter Six

IMG_4550He talked and talked and talked. For a man who had been described as quiet and private, he had a lot to say. Outside, the rain continued to pour, unabated. Planes sat motionless on the runway. A peculiar silence, undisturbed by announcements and takeoffs. enveloped the terminal. My attention was so riveted by what I was hearing that I didn’t have time to worry about Hannah or feel guilty that I wasn’t home, and mercifully, Simon didn’t call. It was as if time was just stopped, like we were suspended in an infinite moment out of time. I was sure that if I looked at one of the large clocks over the bar, the hands wouldn’t be moving.

“Yankeleh is dead. If there is one thing I know for sure in this world, it is that Yankeleh is dead. I don’t know who this other man is, but Yankeleh is dead. You have to try to understand what it was like,” he began, still looking down at his hands. No longer weeping, a sense of calm had descended upon him, the kind of peace that comes with acceptance. “It was a time of total chaos, all normal rules of civilization were gone. You did what you had to do to survive. And try to understand my anger and confusion. I was about to be thirteen. It should have been my bar mitzvah, the biggest event in my life so far. Even though life for Jews had been getting worse and worse for some time, I had been sheltered from most of it. I was a little prince, the heir apparent, the future Halizcher rebbe. I was pampered, protected, praised for my scholarship. I was the rebbe’s brilliant grandson, the center of the universe, or so I thought.

“Somehow I was sure that God would save us, that the God who had saved Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would step in and make everything okay. How could it be otherwise? I was so selfish, so blind. It barely mattered to me that thousands, that millions of Jews had already died. They weren’t Halizchers—they didn’t have my grandfather’s special connection to God. I was sure we would be spared.

“You see, I was completely naive. Suddenly my world fell apart. We were rounded up and transported. Earlier, my grandfather had had a chance to save all of us, not just the family but the whole community, if only he had permitted himself to see what was going on. He had connections, he knew people, we could have all gotten out. But what did he do–he trusted his God! He condemned everyone I knew to death. He condemned me to death, me, his beloved! And my father, my father the weakling who could never stand up to my grandfather or my mother. And my mother, who thought her father actually was God. And my brother Yankeleh, and my grandmother, and my aunts Chayale and Sura. He could have saved me, he could have saved all of us, but he chose not to!

“And then they came to my grandfather, his Chasidim, with all the money and jewelry they could collect. Most of them weren’t rich people, but they gave him everything they had. Understand, not so they could save themselves, it was already too late for that because they had made the fatal mistake of listening to their rebbe. But so that they could save my grandfather, and so that they could save me. So they could buy our freedom, and have a future through me. And in the end, he could have saved me even without money. My uncle came to see him. I didn’t remember ever meeting my uncle before because they left for Palestine when I was young. But he got back into Poland and he came to save us. He had a plan. Would it have worked? Who knows? But attempting it would have been better than doing nothing. And in the end he did save many Jews, even some of the other rebbes. Turns out my uncle the Zionist, who did the unforgivable sin of taking my aunt away from my grandfather, turning her into a Zionist and taking her to the land of Israel, turns out he had a soft spot for Chasids after all. But my grandfather had no soft spot for him. No, he only had trust in his God, his God who allowed everyone I knew to die. Matters of life and death were not for us mere mortals to decide. It was all up to God.   My grandfather used to tell a story about a rebbe passing through a town in a train. As he passed through, his Chasidim who lived in the town came to see him. One was clearly distraught, and so the rebbe asked him what was wrong. He told his rebbe that his factory had burned down and his home had been destroyed and he had nothing left. What did the rebbe do? He comforted the man and told him that at least he still had his faith, and that was more important than any material assets. The rebbe told this man not to worry, that as long as he had his faith all his material goods would soon be restored to him, and miraculously, it was just as the rebbe had predicted. This is how I grew up, believing that faith would solve everything, but by this time I had already learned that isn’t so, that the story in reality had a very different ending. In my version, not only did the poor man lose every possession he had in the world, but he and his family were taken away to Treblinka and died. All his faith meant nothing.

“I turned thirteen in Treblinka. I didn’t read Torah that day, and never have since. There were those inside who knew who I was, who tried to help me, some because they revered who I was, and some maybe because they thought I had the money hidden away. There were old men who tried to befriend me and give me the glory I once thought was my birthright. Old men my grandfather’s age came to me for blessings, for advice, for wisdom. But I was a child, for God’s sake, a child! I didn’t want to be their leader, I only wanted to be safe. I knew my father was dead—he didn’t survive the trip to Treblinka. My mother and grandmother died before we’d even arrived. I saw my grandfather die in front of me. I didn’t know what had happened to my aunts but I had no hope I would ever see them again. And I could see that my brother was dying. I was the younger brother, but he was always the smaller one, the weaker one. I did everything I could to help him. Any extra food or clothes that came my way from the Chasidim, I gave to Yankeleh. I slept with my arms around him for warmth. I did my best to make him not look so sick. At roll call I secretly pinched his cheeks to make them look pink. But I knew he wasn’t going to live. So I made a choice. It was simple, really. I decided to survive, just for spite. To see what the world was like after God. I wasn’t going to be the rebbe, I wasn’t going to be a Halizcher, I wasn’t even going to be a Chasid. But I would prove to my grandfather that life would go on despite God and despite the Halizchers. To prove that I could be anyone and anything I wanted to be. So when my brother collapsed one day, he was just a skeleton by then, and was beaten almost to death by a guard, I knew the end was near. There was nothing I could do to save him, and no miracle was going to happen.”

He paused in his telling, taking a deep breath, and then plunged ahead. “You see, I loved Yankeleh with all my soul. We were very different, yes, but we were like twins, two sides of the same person. He was brilliant, but it was a quiet brilliance. He wasn’t a showoff, a showman like I was. It wasn’t the kind of brilliance that drew people to him, but he was so good, so kind, so gentle. Ever since we were little I was the one protecting him, watching over him. He was otherworldly, naïve, acquiescent. When someone disagreed with a point he made in cheder, he would back down immediately, and agree that he had been wrong. His humility went unnoticed, and people simply thought he wasn’t a good student. But many of my “brilliant” insights came from him. That was my deep, dark secret as a child. Many of my Talmudic gems were Yankeleh’s. I was just a more convincing speaker. And he didn’t seem to mind. He was too busy studying the next page.

“But then during the time in the ghetto he began to change. He had become even more removed, distant, withdrawn. My parents and grandfather worried about him, worried that he was getting himself into trouble with people he shouldn’t be associating with, worried that he wasn’t studying enough. We were sure it was for a good reason, we never doubted his intentions, he must have felt some good would come out of it, but we were scared for him. He seemed so vulnerable. I worried that he wouldn’t know how to take care of himself if he got into trouble–he was always so pure in a way, so removed from the hard realities. My grandfather made me promise that no matter what happened, I would take care of him, that I would keep him safe and out of trouble. Yankeleh was my responsibility. Even though I was younger, he told me that I was smarter and stronger, and that Yankeleh needed my protection. So there, in the camp, my job was to save Yankeleh, and I couldn’t do it. Some of the Halizchers in the camp tried to help me. But some were just glad it wasn’t me dying. Can you imagine how I felt?

“So, finally, one day we are told we are going out of the camp. The guards joke that we are going on a vacation. Hah. They march us along a road, with ill-fitting wooden clogs on our decaying feet, miles, miles, in the cold, I cannot describe that march. And the whole time I am almost carrying Yankeleh. So many times he stumbles and falls. He is running a high fever. He tells me to let him go, that he is already dead. But I won’t. The person on his other side also takes an arm, and somehow, somehow, we get there, and he is still breathing. They give us shovels and tell us to dig. Anyone who can’t dig will be shot, and they provide examples. We dig and we dig, and of course, we know these are our graves. All around me I hear Jews praying under their breath, asking for help and salvation, reciting the shema and making their last confessions. Fools, I think to myself. But then I too am filled with thoughts of my parents, my grandfather, my aunts. I dig and I dig, for both of us, because Yankeleh is too weak. But I prop the shovel in his hand so that it looks like he is working and soon enough it doesn’t matter because we are in the hole and the guards can’t see. They’re busy joking and laughing and smoking. And Yankeleh’s breath is labored, slow, and I know he’s slipping away. I am getting not scared, not sad, there’s no room for that, but very very angry. How dare anyone do this to my brother. How dare my grandfather not have saved both of us? But I also know in my heart of hearts that he had never even considered saving Yankeleh. All the whispered conversations had only been about saving me. And I knew that I would not have left Poland without Yankeleh, not while he was still alive. And so as I know that Yankeleh is about to die, I also know that I am about to have a chance to take my fate into my own hands and change it.

“The guards come and decide that we have dug enough. Quite a few people have died during the digging, but what do they care? They line us up in front of the pits, and I know right away what is going to happen. Among the swaying and the praying, I hear shots, and quickly, quickly, right away, before the bullets come my way, I fall. I fall right onto Yankeleh. And I realize I have to do exactly as he is doing. He has stopped breathing, and so must I. And I do. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. I don’t believe in miracles, but there it is. I stopped breathing, only I’m not dead. I can’t describe what it was like lying there, on top of Yankeleh, entangled in a multitude of other corpses. But mostly there was anger. They walked over us, making sure we were all dead. And I did just like Yankeleh, I didn’t breath or move or make a sound. They brought other prisoners afterwards to cover us with dirt, but it had started to snow and the guards were cold, so they called it off before we were covered with more than a thin layer of dirt. As the last lorry left, I took a deep breath. I closed Yankeleh’s eyes, and I kissed his face. And then I noticed he had something in his hand. My grandfather’s kiddush cup. I don’t know how he’s managed to conceal it all that time, and where. But he must have brought it with him, concealed in his clothes, because he knew he wouldn’t make it and he wanted me to have it. I know it sounds impossible but it’s true, somehow he managed. And it was like a message from him telling me to escape. So I took the cup, got up out of the pit, and ran into the forest.”

He paused to take a deep breath and wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. There were so many questions I wanted to ask, so many things I still didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to interrupt. I waited patiently, and after a few moments, he continued.

“Both of us died there in that pit. I couldn’t live as myself anymore, so I became Yankeleh. Leib was gone, that arrogant little boy who thought he was going to be the next king of the Jews, or at least the Halizchers, gone. But Yankeleh could live on in me, his humility, his goodness, his gentleness. I became Yankeleh. If I’d really been smart, I would have changed my name entirely, I would have thrown away Gelberman and become, I don’t know, Smith. But I couldn’t think that far ahead. So I became Yankeleh, and I survived. I lived alone in the forest, foraging for roots and berries. I was starving, and cold, but it was no worse than in the camp, and I was free. I was found by a farmer’s widow, who for some reason didn’t turn me in, with my fair hair and blue eyes maybe she could pretend to herself that I wasn’t a Jew, and she hid me for some time. During the day I hid curled up in a hollowed out space under the hay. I stunk but who cared? And at night I would help her with repairs, things she couldn’t do herself. I think she liked having a “man” around. She didn’t seem to notice that I was so young, and whatever she wanted me to do, I learned quickly. She fed me fairly well, so all in all I was lucky. But then she got scared and I had to leave. Eventually I came across a group of young Jewish partisans and they took me in. They had all grown up in secular homes, so my name meant nothing to them. By then the allied troops were already on their way. I went from there to a D.P. camp in Italy.

“In the D.P. camp I came across some of the surviving Halizchers. But no one recognized me. I had grown, my body acting in defiance of the reality of those years, just as my soul had done. And through my contact with the Americans and the Red Cross volunteers, I met a soldier named Jack. He had the healthy, bright red cheeks of someone who had grown up well-fed, and this cheery optimism despite what he’d seen. To me he embodied America. The name Jack sounded strong, solid, new world, brash. And of course it was short for Jacob, or Yaakov, Yankeleh’s real name. So Yankeleh quickly became Jack. It was easy. And none of the Halizchers realized who I was. It was terrible for me to see them. Most had died, and those who hadn’t were broken. Everyone had lost so much. Yet they still believed in miracles, in their God. They still had faith, and they still wanted a rebbe. I made sure to stay far away from them, but I heard from others that both the Gelberman brothers had died in a pit outside Treblinka. Good, I thought. Good. That world is dead, and Yankeleh is dead, and Leib is dead. I am Jack, and Jack is going to America.

“I learned English there in the camp, while I waited for papers to go to America. I volunteered with the various agencies there, translating and trying to be of help. One day, I heard two Americans talking about a woman in the infirmary section of the camp, how no one knew what to do with her or how to help her, and that they didn’t know where to send her. She had no home to go back to, no relatives they could find, and that since she was clearly mentally ill, America wouldn’t take her. Israel, of course, wasn’t yet taking in refugees legally, because this was before 1948. They spoke about how this woman, who they could tell had been young and beautiful but was now an empty shell, had been kept as a mistress by a prominent Nazi, and had undergone unspeakable horrors. Apparently one of the Jewish doctors had surmised that she might have come from a Chasidic family, because while she wouldn’t speak, she sang Chasidic niggunim. At that point I interrupted their conversation, and volunteered to go speak to the woman. I knew that I was risking something by associating myself with Chasidut, since I had worked so hard to keep away from any connection, but her story sounded so utterly sad, and I felt compelled to help, if I could. So one of the American nurses took me to see this woman.

“I walked into the makeshift infirmary, and they brought me over to her. I realized right away it—it was Chayale. You can’t know, you can’t imagine. My joy at finding a family member alive, my horror at what had happened to her. She had been like Yankeleh in so many ways, so delicate, unprepared for hardship and suffering. I wanted to grab her and take her away, but I couldn’t. I had no way to help her, other than to be with her, to spend time with her. She recognized me, and we embraced, but she never spoke. She only sang, over and over, the songs from her childhood. She was my aunt, but she was only four years older than I was. Now, after the war, she was much older than I would ever be, and much younger than I can ever remember being. She was a child in an old woman’s shattered body. But I couldn’t leave her. Every day I went, I talked to her, I sang with her. Every day I cried. I hadn’t cried over all the deaths, but over Chayale I cried every day. Then one day I got word that I could be sponsored to go the United States. I didn’t want to go to New York, or to some big city where I might encounter Chasidim and be recognized. But this was perfect. They wanted to send me to some godforsaken part of the country, to western Pennsylvania. I didn’t know where it was, but it didn’t matter, it wasn’t New York or LA or Chicago. But I couldn’t take Chayale. I didn’t have the resources, and they wouldn’t let her in as a refugee. So again, I chose myself over someone I loved, and I went, promising to find a way to bring her.

“After 1948, she was sent to Israel. They tried to rehabilitate her there, but nothing worked. She was institutionalized. Finally I had enough money, and I brought her here. At first my wife and I tried to keep her in our house, but that didn’t work. She needed too much care. We tried a facility in Pittsburgh, but that didn’t work either. She needed round the clock care in a facility where she could hear Yiddish and eat kosher food. We sent her to Jewish Memorial Home in the Bronx. We were able to convince them to take her even though she was really too young at the time. She’s been there so long that now she is at last an old woman. It’s hard because I can’t go often, especially now that I’m here. But she is happy there. Or she was, until recently. And I’m afraid that this is where you come in.”

I was beginning to feel exhausted from his story, emotionally and physically. But there were clearly many more pieces. How did the kiddush cup figure in? Jack Gelberman sat still for a few moments, gazing over my head at the storm outside. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled, and continued his story.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II, Chapter Five

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part II, Chapter 5. Enjoy!

Chapter Five

IMG_3894There was another call from Simon on the hotel voice mail, telling me that Hannah was miserable, itchy, and whiny, but not to worry. I called back, and Simon assured me that everything was under control, but I could hear Hannah whimpering in the background. As soon as we hung up, I called the airline, then threw everything back into my bag, grabbed my laptop, my duffel and my purse, and left the room. The hotel clerk was ready to argue about the bill, but I managed to convince him that I was prepared to pay the full price, despite only having occupied it for several hours.

Driving to the airport, I noticed that it looked like more rain was coming. Wasn’t that what a hurricane was, I asked myself, a lot of rain and roofs getting blown off of trailer homes? As long as I got to the airport quickly and could change my ticket, everything would be fine.

After returning the rental car and getting over to the main terminal, I took a look around. My self-appointed guardian was nowhere to be seen. In any of the work I had done so far, nothing had ever gotten quite this strange. I couldn’t decide if I was more scared or flattered that someone was looking out for me. That is, if he was for real. As I stood on line at the airport waiting to confirm the availability of a seat on the next flight, my fingers reflexively formed a protective shield around the torn newspaper article in my pocket

The overly cheerful airline representative got me a seat on a to for LaGuardia that was supposed to leave in forty-five minutes, and I raced through security and on to the gate. Still no sign of Eli Yankovski. He must have either abandoned me entirely, or else he was a better chameleon than I had thought possible. Intent on acting as if everything was normal, despite the fact that my baby was home with chicken pox, my husband was panicking, and there was a large man following me, I pulled out my paperback mystery and immersed myself in Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker’s latest case.

I was deeply into my book when I heard my flight number being called. I stood up and grabbed my bag before I realized that no one else was getting up. In fact, they were all groaning. Dragging my bag behind me, I shuffled over to the counter, where a dour airline employee with badly dyed hair informed me that due to hurricane warnings, the airport was temporarily closed, all incoming flights were being diverted, and there would be no outgoing flights for some time.

“Make yourself comfortable until we know more,” she barked.

Comfortable! Comfort and airports were two words that had nothing in common. At home I’d be comfortable. In my hotel room I’d be comfortable. Waiting at the airport indefinitely, I wasn’t going to be comfortable. I didn’t want to make myself comfortable, I wanted to get home. Damn this hurricane! Several deep breaths later, I called Simon to let him know that I was trying my best to get there, though I now didn’t know when I’d be landing. Then I called Jack Gelberman.

The answering machine picked up after four rings. What a surprise. “This is 813-867-3229. Please leave a message.” Short and to the point.

I decided it would be a wise decision to play it polite and calm, instead of letting him know how annoyed I was. “Hi, this is Abby Marcus. I’m on my way back to New York, but I’d really like to finish our conversation.” Even though I’d given him my business card, I repeated my cell number, and hung up. This job was going nowhere fast. Here I was, stuck in the airport because of a hurricane, leaving with no more information than when I’d come, nowhere closer to finding Sarah Gelberman, having been followed by either a lunatic or my fairy godfather. Not to mention having to pay the hotel bills at two hotels, neither of which I had had the pleasure of sleeping in.

A television nearby informed me that the Yankees were winning, making it look like the subway series was going to be a sure thing. Simon must be elated, that is, if he had taken time out from the chicken pox crisis to watch the game. I spent the next twenty minutes shifting uncomfortably in my seat and trying to re-focus on my novel. Then the international news came on. I had been so involved all day in the Gelbermans that I hadn’t heard the latest about Israel. The news wasn’t good, fighting was still going on and the situation was looking bleak indeed.   After the international news, I decided to put my time to better use. My Frequent Flyer Club Card got me into the Aviator’s Club, with its free pretzels, sodas, and free wifi. Within minutes I was nestled into a corner workstation, surrounded on two sides by the jutting glass panes of the exterior walls and an unobstructed view of an eerily empty runway. Their coffee machine didn’t work, which almost caused me to completely lose my cool, but getting the better of myself, decided that caffeine in any form would do. A Diet Coke with lemon was now next to me, my laptop was plugged in and ready to go, and a bowl of pretzels was to the left of the computer. My notebook and pen occupied an empty seat, along with my purse. I was settled in for the duration.

A search on Leon Gelberman yielded the same Los Angeles phone number I had already called, which wasn’t surprising. I wrote down the number, but wasn’t yet ready to call. In a rush to gather as much information as possible, I didn’t allow myself to think about what it might mean if both Leib and Yankeleh were in fact alive, despite the plentiful stories of their deaths. It was too weird to be believable. Then on to Pinchas Seigel. There was no listing for a Pinchas Seigel in Los Angeles, also not surprising. He could be living with someone, or he might have another name. A search of the Los Angeles Times archives was unhelpful, and the website of the archives of the local Jewish newspapers was so poorly designed that it was impossible to get any actual information. Another search turned up a telephone number without an address for an Eliyahu Yankovski in Brooklyn, but no Eli Yankovski. I called the number for Eliyahu but it went unanswered. For now, it looked like I had hit a dead end.

I got up, stretched, and checked the departure screen. Nothing had changed since the last time I had checked. All incoming flights were delayed, and there was no new information. Outside, rain was coming down in great gusts, the palm trees swirling back and forth in the wind. This would have been a great night to curl up in bed with my novel and fall asleep with the lights on. Wary not to let myself get too sleepy, I exchanged my empty cup of Diet Coke for a new one, and settled back down at the computer. Itching for another task to keep me busy, I accessed my e-mail, and found several messages waiting. My mother had already written back—she and my father were still having a fabulous time eating, drinking and sightseeing their way across Europe. She reported that yes, I was right in remembering that I did have some Chasidic roots, yes, my father’s father had left Chasidism behind when he came to America in 1912, but no, she and my father had discussed it and were quite sure that his family didn’t come from Halizch. Leah had sent me the draft of her sermon for Friday night as promised, which I downloaded to read later, as I didn’t have patience right now for a sermon.

Then it was time to call Leon Gelberman.

“Yes,” a man answered when I asked to speak to Leon Gelberman. “Speaking.” I recognized the slightly accented voice of an older man from our previous conversation.

“Mr. Gelberman, hello, my name is Abby Marcus. I called you a few days ago, doing genealogical research. I want to make sure I understood you correctly. When I called, you told me you weren’t connected to the Gelberman family I was looking for. But having just read an article in the Los Angeles Times about your concern over a kiddush cup, I have to wonder what your connection really is to the Gelberman family of Halizch, Poland, and in particular to the Halizcher rebbe, Yosef Yehuda. Can you clarify this for me? Are you Leib Gelberman?

There was the sound of a throat being cleared, and muffled noises in the background.

“Yes, I am Leib. Yes.”

“The brother of Yankeleh?” I asked gently, knowing I was in danger of pushing too far.

“Yes, he was my brother.”

And before I could continue to ask questions, the line was disconnected.

I immediately called back.

“What do you want?” asked a brusque male voice. This voice was younger and smoother, with no trace of an accent.

“Leon Gelberman, please.”

“Yeah.”

“Mr. Gelberman?” I asked.

There was a moment of tense silence as I waited for a response.

“I’m Leon Gelberman. What do you want?”

There was no way this was the same man I had just spoken to, but two could play at the false identity game. “Mr. Gelberman, I’m Abby Simon, a reporter for the Jewish News in New York. We’re writing a piece on your conflict with the Skirball Museum. Would you mind clarifying a few points for us?”

His response was quick, almost too quick, conveying a sense that he was glad to get publicity, whether good or bad. “Sure, go ahead.”

“You are purported to have said that you are related to the last Halizcher Rebbe—”

“The late Rebbe Yosef Yehuda, zikaron l’vracha. Not the last, baruch hashem. Not the last.”

“I see. And how exactly are you related?” I asked, taking note of his repetition of the words “not the last.”

“I am his grandson, Leib Gelberman, son of Nossen Shlomo, zikaron l’vracha. I am all that is left.”

“I’m so sorry. How awful.”

“Awful is not the word.”

“No, of course not. I’m sorry. But can you tell me how you managed to survive?”

“They are many and they have evil on their side, but we have brains. Don’t you know that’s how Jews have always survived? Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Romans, Greeks, Cossacks, Nazis, Hamas, whatever name they use, we have always survived. Are you Jewish Mizz Simon?” he asked, drawing out the Ms. as though it was painful to say, and continued on without waiting for an answer, his voice getting louder and more high-pitched. “Don’t you know that no matter what, we have always been able to outwit them? How else do we survive other than using our brains, our smarts, our yiddishe kups. Every day we place another foot in front of the other, it’s a victory, we’re spitting in their faces, pissing on their graves. Who’s alive and who’s dead, huh, Mizz Simon? We’re alive here, and Hitler is dead over there. And someday the world will know that that’s it, the Jews have had enough. But not yet, not yet, we’re not there yet, too many Jews are still trying to be like the goyim, still trying to make nice to the goyim so what, so they won’t kill us, won’t knife us in the back, won’t steal our possessions? But someday, tell this to your newspaper, someday we will rise up again, a strong, united people. We will give those dogs what they deserve. We will march with the Messiah into Jerusalem. We are the chosen people, and we must never forget that. That is my prophecy.”

I had never encountered a real life prophet before. This man was clearly disturbed, but passionate, and it was the passion that worried me. “How did you receive this prophecy?” I asked.

“How does one receive any prophecy? It came to me from God. But there are things I am not yet ready to discuss. Thank you for your time.” And with that, the phone went dead.

Anxiously chewing a piece of ice, I made notes of the conversation as I tried to make sense of it. The man I had spoken to the second time was definitely not Leon Gelberman, but who was this guy, and how dangerous was he? He sounded too fanatical to be taken seriously, but then so did Meir Kahana. Whoever he was, why was he pretending to be Leon Gelberman? I needed to get some background on Pinchas Seigel as fast as possible.

In the meantime, there was new e-mail in my in-box.

Meira was checking in, letting me know that she hadn’t yet uncovered anything definitive on the death or emigration of Ruchel Gelberman or her son, Leib. I almost spit out my Coke as I read that name in her e-mail.   Leib. Could there have been two Leib Gelbermans? Of course it was possible that two sisters had both named their sons after their mutual grandfather, especially since he had been an illustrious rabbi. It made perfect sense that there would be two cousins with the same name. But could it be the same boy? Could he have been smuggled out of Europe after all, maybe by his uncle, and raised as their son in Palestine? It had to be one of these Leib Gelbermans who was currently causing problems in Los Angeles. And then it hit me—of course! It had been right under my nose a few hours ago, but I’d been too focused elsewhere. I pulled the crumpled article out of my pocket, and yes, sure enough, the conflict with Pinchas Seigel in Los Angeles was over a kiddush cup. That couldn’t be a coincidence. After my perusal of the Halizcher Yizkor Book, I couldn’t help but admit that there was a connection that revolved around an obsession with a kiddush cup.

Before I could let my thoughts wander further, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around slowly, ready to scream if it was Eli Yankovski. But instead, I stared, speechless, at Jack Gelberman.

“I know, I know,” he began, speaking quickly. “I wasn’t very nice to you. But I had my reasons. Then, about an hour ago, someone slipped this under my apartment door.”

He handed me an envelope and I took it from him slowly, with hesitation.

“What is this?”

“Look at it. You’re the detective. At first I thought it was junk mail, or someone trying to harass me. That has happened from time to time. But when I saw what it was I thought I should come find you.”

A detective I wasn’t. If I had been a detective, I would have put on gloves and dropped it into a sterile ziplock bag. Instead, I turned it over. The envelope was addressed to Jack Gelberman, but there were no stamps. Inside was a newspaper article with a yellow post-it covering most of the text. The post-it contained my name, and the number and time of my flight, as well as the information that my flight was delayed and where I could be found. So much for thinking that I was no longer being followed. I tore off the post-it, and read the headline.

Mystery Surrounds Woman Found Near Gowanus Canal

An unidentified woman was found two days ago near the Carroll Street Bridge of the Gowanus Canal. A police car responding to a burglary came across the woman, who was dazed and appeared to have suffered minor injuries. The woman, who police estimate to be in her early twenties, was brought to Long Island College Hospital, where she was admitted and was being kept under observation. At approximately three o’clock yesterday afternoon she disappeared from the hospital. During her stay, the woman refused to speak to the police or any medical personnel. According to the police description, the woman is white, five feet five inches tall, weighs about 130 pounds, and has shoulder-length red hair. No identification was found on or near the woman, who police think may be a tourist. The woman was well-kept when discovered by the police and did not appear to be homeless. The police are asking the public to come forth with any information regarding the woman’s identity, or the identity of her assailants. The police are also looking for information regarding her current whereabouts, as she is in need of medical attention.

I looked up at Jack Gelberman, unsure what to say. There was not a doubt in my mind that this unidentified woman was Sarah Gelberman, and that it was probably my fault she was in trouble. In fact, given where she was found, she might have even been on her way to see me when she got attacked. The room swam and I swayed with it, my hand over my mouth, afraid that at any minute I was going to lose the contents of my stomach.

Jack Gelberman put a steady hand on my shoulder. He met my gaze, his blue eyes bright with fear but strangely also a sense of calm, of having long ago made peace with darkness and pain. Without a word, with only his eyes, he offered me support, strength and solace, a willingness to absorb some portion of my fear and suffering into himself. I felt my stomach loosen and relax, and the room stopped spinning. I took a deep breath that filled me to the soles of my feet, and exhaled. Then he sighed, let go of my shoulder, and looked out the window.

Suddenly the words and thoughts inside my head were chasing each other in their hurry to come out and I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out, “And there’s more—I think I found Leib.”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. His face registered terrible shock, becoming first tense and rigid, then completely slack, and ending in puzzlement. “What?”

“Leib, Leib Gelberman. Your brother, or maybe your cousin. Ok, I don’t really know yet who he is, but I know he’s part of this. You have to help me, we have to work together. This might not be your granddaughter, but you do know something about her. You know as well as I do that this is the young woman who came to me claiming to be Sarah Gelberman, otherwise you wouldn’t have come here. Someone has done something to hurt her, I don’t know why, and we need to stop this before things get worse.” I thrust the article from Eli Yankovski into his hand. “Read this.”

But he continued to stare out the window behind me, not looking at the piece of newspaper in his hand.   He spoke slowly and deliberately, as if wanting to be extra sure that he was getting it right. “Yes, I’m sure she is your mysterious visitor. Yes, that’s why I decided to come here and find you. Yes, we have to work together. But you can’t have found Leib. It’s impossible.”

“I know, I know, everyone says that he died, and no offense but everyone says that you died too, and here you are. I don’t really understand it all, but I’m sure that this Leon Gelberman is Leib. Or at least a Leib. It has to be.”

Again, Jack Gelberman sighed. “Sometimes people see what they want to see, or sometimes they even re-write history so that they can live with it better. Things aren’t always what they seem. Whoever this man is, he’s not Leib. Of that I’m sure.”

Even through the lenses of his glasses his eyes were more sorrowful than I’d ever known eyes could be, bluer than the bluest sky and as deep as an ocean, so deep that I was afraid to look at him for fear that I would be completely swallowed up, yet unable to look away. It was as if he had somehow magically locked my eyes onto his.   “You’ve figured out so much already,” he continued in a voice that was eerily calm, “I’m surprised that you haven’t figured this out yet. You seem to know all the legends about the Halizchers, but this you seem not to have noticed.”

Suddenly it was like a door had blown open and fresh air swept in to the room, and I understood. Yankeleh Gelberman didn’t have blue eyes. In fact, those blue eyes were such an important point in everything I’d read about the Gelbermans that I’d almost begun to think that the sole reason Leib was seen as the natural heir to the Halizcher dynasty instead of his older brother Yankeleh was because he, and only he, had his grandfather’s unique blue eyes.   But now I understood. Not only was Sarah Gelberman not the Sarah Gelberman who was the granddaughter of Jack Gelberman, but the man across from me wasn’t who he claimed to be. “Oh my God. You may be Jack Gelberman,” I said to the man across from me, “But you’re not Yankeleh. It was Leib who had the blue eyes. You’re not Yankeleh, you’re Leib.”

And the man across from me shifted his gaze downward, lowered his head, and began to weep.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II, Chapter Four

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, catch up with the Table of Contents for the previous chapters). Here is Part II, Chapter 4. Enjoy!

Chapter Four

IMG_2561He seemed surprised, but pleased, to see me walking toward him. As I approached, he opened the car door and got out.

“Eli Yankovski,” he said by way of introduction. “Nice to meet you, Abby Marcus.”

He was younger than I’d thought, in his late thirties or early forties. Up close his look, a white shirt, black pants, a neatly trimmed dark goatee and mustache, was, other than the kippah, only vaguely religious. What had looked like baldness from above was actually a neatly shaved head, round and shiny in all its glory, and topped with the black kippah. I wondered momentarily how the kippah managed to stay on his head, not having any hair on which to attach itself. His tzittzit, if he had them, weren’t hanging out of his pants, and as his head was completely shaved, he didn’t sport payas. His accent was vague too, lacking a hint of Brooklyn or the Yiddish inflection that often crept into the English of even the American born of the traditional Jews in New York.   What was more striking was his open, broad smile, and that he looked me right in the eyes, even though he had to peer down from his considerable height to do so. The men I’d been encountering lately in Chasidic circles had a tendency to look away and avert their gaze from mine. But this guy looked like someone you’d instinctively want to trust, even though I had every reason to fear him.

Perhaps it was because he was so friendly that I began to yell, my fear giving way to anger. “Who the hell are you? Why have you been watching me? What kind of creep are you?”

He took a step back toward to car. “Like I said, I’m Eli Yankovski. Sorry if I scared you. I’m here to watch out for you.”

Watch out for me? Is that the newest euphemism for stalking?”

He held up a hand, but whether it was to keep me away or to calm me down, I couldn’t be sure. “Wait, don’t jump to conclusions. This is just a misunderstanding.”

I folded my arms over my chest and glared. “That’s what they always say about date rape too.”

“This is hard to understand, I know but—”

“Give me a break. Hard to understand, yeah, I’d say so.” Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I continued to project the toughest, meanest look I could conjure up and waved my cell phone. I didn’t feel menacing, but I tried to do my best to pretend that I wasn’t the slightest bit scared by this bizarre encounter. “Look, whoever you are, you have one minute to explain your saintly intentions, and that’s it. Then I’m calling the police. All I have to do is press ‘send.’ I’ve had enough of this, enough of being threatened and warned, and now, yes, enough of being protected by self-appointed mysterious guardians. So get started.” For added emphasis, I glanced with exaggerated seriousness at my watch.

Looking down at the asphalt, he cleared his throat. “It’s come to my attention that you have been looking into the history of the Gelberman dynasty. That’s got some people concerned. You’ve sort of been, how can I put it, you’ve been stirring up a pot that’s been left covered for many years, a pot that many people don’t want stirred. Bad metaphor, but you get my point. And on the other hand, there are some people who very much want the information you’re coming up with, but they want to get it themselves, without you or anyone else knowing. So, to make a very long story short, I was asked to look out for you. Make sure nobody tries to keep you away, or get in your way.”

Suddenly I was incredibly grateful that we were standing in a parking lot, outdoors, with people entering and leaving rooms in the hotel behind me and cars entering and exiting the lot. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. But whatever I did, and whatever this lunatic Eli Yankovski did, there would be witnesses, and that could only be a good thing.

“Are you okay?” he asked, moving toward me.

Gathering my strength once again, I quickly stepped back. “Don’t get near me. I don’t need protecting. Just leave me alone and get out of here!” By now I was screaming, and a family unloading suitcases a few spots over turned to stare. I didn’t care—the more people around, the better.

“Don’t be scared of me, really, I’m on your side,” he pleaded.

I was almost ready to believe him only because he seemed so sincere. But I held my ground. “I don’t understand what this is all about. All I’m doing is a simple family tree project.” But even I knew that things were more complicated than that, and my retort came out sounding limp and unconvincing. “Just leave me alone, or I mean it, I’ll press ‘send.’”

In one fluid movement, he turned away, ducked down, and pulled something out of the car. For one terrible moment I thought he was going to shoot me, but when he turned back around all that was in his hands was a piece of paper, which he handed to me. It was a small article, cut out of the Los Angeles Times, from deep inside the Arts Section. The headline read: Skirball Museum Deflects Criticism. According to the article, a man named Pinchas Seigel was claiming that the prominent Jewish museum owned Judaica that had been stolen from Jews during the Holocaust, and that the museum should return the pieces to the survivors of those families. In particular, he was “outraged” that the museum had on permanent exhibit a kiddush cup that he believed belonged to members of his family, who had died during the Holocaust. The article went on to quote a Mr. Leon Gelberman, also the descendant of victims of the Holocaust, who agreed that the Kiddush cup and all the Judaica should be returned to the rightful owners. The article ended with a quote from the museum’s lawyer, who dismissed the incident as a publicity stunt and stated that the museum, which belonged to the Jewish people, was the rightful repository of the legacy of the Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust. I finished reading the article and stood still, my eyes looking at the pavement but not seeing anything except newsprint. I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. I had talked to a Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles. There had been something unusual about the call. For several moments, I stood still, hearing only a mosquito buzz around my head.

When I looked up at last, I noticed that the quality of light in the early evening sky had changed yet again and was unnaturally bright, like a kodachrome of a sunset. Maybe the hurricane was actually going to arrive.

Eli Yankovski looked at me. “So, what do you make of that?”

Since I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to make of him, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Cautiously I said, “So what? What does this mean? Why give this to me?”

He smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “I want to show you that I am well informed about this business. I want to show you that there is more than you know about going on here. I’m sharing information so that you will trust me.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “This is supposed to make me trust you? Now I trust you less. Who am I supposed to think this Leon Gelberman is? I don’t know what you want, what your point is, and forget whose side you’re on, I don’t even know what sides exist in this game. All I know is that a young woman who came to me for help seems to be missing, and for all I know, you may have played a crucial role in that.”

He looked genuinely concerned, but I wasn’t ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Okay, I’ll be more straightforward—”

“It’s about time,” I shot back.

“Look, there are people who are worried about this guy, Pinchas Seigel. Right now he’s nothing, a putz with a big mouth, a con man and a schnorrer, but he’s charismatic and he’s smart and he’s found an old man named Leon Gelberman to team up with. People are worried that he is going to start trouble, of some sort or another. Some people with Halizcher roots are worried about what this guy could do to stir things up.”

“I don’t understand, what is there to stir up?”

“No group is immune from battles over power, or authority. The face of Chasidism is not what it was before the war—things have changed. There are some who would like to go back to the past, and others who are looking towards the future. An outsider might not see it, but there are factions, struggles, disagreements over how to plan for the future, how to name successors. It’s very complicated. But having someone claim to be a descendant of Yosef Yehudah complicates things even more, especially if it looks like he may be trying to gather a following.”

“But why does it matter today, after so long? Maybe he’s just some crackpot. There’s a lot of them in California.”

“He probably is. And it wouldn’t matter, except for this Leon Gelberman. He’s the wildcard. Who is he? What is his connection? There are going to be a lot of questions, difficult questions. There are some Chasidim who would be happy to go back to being Halizchers, under the leadership of a Gelberman. A romanticized past has a strong pull. I can’t tell you who asked me to look out for you, but I can tell you it is a friend, not an enemy. Someone who would prefer that you were not involved but who knows that once you were, you were not going to let things be. Someone who knew that you would manage to find Jack Gelberman, even if it is believed that Leib and Yankeleh cannot be alive. So here I am. I’ve been following your movements since you left your house this morning in Brooklyn. You didn’t even notice, did you? Because they are concerned about you, you see.”

That’s supposed to convince me to believe you?”

He raised his shoulders in a slow shrug. “Let’s just say, maybe, why not believe me? You’re better off believing me.”

“And you, or your mysterious patron, think that I’m in over my head.”

“Everyone needs some help now and then. Especially when money and religion intersect, don’t you think?”

“This is about money?”

He shrugged a second time, as if this was a relaxed, easy-going interchange on a calm spring afternoon. “There’s a lot going on here.”

“What else?”

Again he flashed his most disarming smile. “That is not for me to say. But the concern is that there may be other people following your movements. You implied that you have received some threats. If I were you, I would take them seriously, and be glad of the protection I can offer you.”

“I didn’t ask for protection, and I don’t want it. I can take care of myself. I’m heading home. You’re welcome to follow me, but maybe it’s my lucky day and you only bought a one-way ticket.” He started to speak but I put up my hand. “No–don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Just leave me alone.” As I turned around, there was a crack of thunder and a stripe of lighting broke the sky into two halves. Instantly it began to rain, big heavy drops falling from the gray sky. I marched quickly across the parking lot and up the stairs to my room, leaving Eli Yankovski to get drenched. In my hand was the article about Pinchas Seigel and Leon Gelberman.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II, Chapter Three

Welcome back to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning – here is the Table of Contents). Here is Part II, Chapter 3. Enjoy!

Chapter Three

IMG_1322Promptly at five, I pulled up in front of Jack Gelberman’s building. I was anxious for the puzzle pieces to come together, and I wanted to see if I was right about the role that Chayale had perhaps unknowingly played in this saga. The storm seemed to have passed and I paused for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the Florida sunshine on my skin through the car window. It stayed lighter longer down here; in Brooklyn it would have already been twilight in this post-daylight savings time of the year.

Interesting thoughts, but nothing more than procrastination. Just go see him, I told myself. Get this thing resolved already. Yet I knew some of my hesitation to get out of the car had to do with not wanting this to end. Deep inside, I was enjoying myself. Maybe it was the sense of mystery, maybe it was the joy of the hunt, maybe it was the vague thrill of danger, whatever it was, I was having fun. I was feeling more alive than I’d felt in a long time. As much as I wanted answers, I was going to miss this whole Gelberman thing when it was over.

With some reluctance, I got out of the car and walked back up the stairs. On the way, I crossed paths with a large woman in a white gym suit decorated with gold nautical appliqués. As we passed on the staircase, she nodded hello. What a concept, saying hello to strangers.

I rang the doorbell, waited, then rang again. With a sinking feeling, I knocked loudly, then yelled his name. No answer. I rang again. Maybe I was just early. Maybe he was just late.   I started to breathe rapidly and my heart began to race. Was he lying inside, helpless, or even worse? Maybe it was my fault; maybe my visit put him in danger.

As I debated whether or not to call 911, a voice came from the parking lot below. “Hello? Dear?”

I looked over the railing and saw the woman I had just passed calling up to me as she opened the door of her large, white Cadillac.

“Hello, dear. Are you looking for Jack?”

“Have you seen him?”

She nodded. “Yes, he just left about fifteen minutes ago. I saw him leave when I came in from walking Pucci.”

I exhaled in relief that at least he was safe. “Was he expecting you?”

“Yes, he was.”

“He looked like he was in a big hurry. I’m sure he’ll be able to explain when he calls you. He’s such a polite man.” She leaned on the door of her car and threw her purse inside.

My grandmother was always complaining about the nosiness of the neighbors at her condo, where the retirees had nothing better to do than keep tabs on each other. I figured it was the same here. “Was he alone?” I asked.

She scrunched up her face, as if to rewind her mental videotape. “Let’s see, yes, I’m sure he was. Yes, I would have noticed if someone was with him. He’s such a solitary type, you know? It would have been unusual.”

I smiled at her. “We must have gotten our signals crossed. Thanks so much.”

“My pleasure, dear,” she replied. “It’s nice that Jack has some visitors. He kind of keeps to himself, you know? We asked him to join the board of the condo association, but he declined. Didn’t want to join the book club, or the bridge club either. Oh well. A loner. What can you do? It’s not like we didn’t try, right?” She shrugged, waved, slid into her white Cadillac, and drove off.

***

They say bad news comes in threes. Sometimes it comes in fours.

Frustrated by Jack Gelberman’s absence, I drove around town for a while, finally going in to a diner for coffee and a lousy tuna sandwich with too much celery. Back in the hotel room I turned on the news to catch the update on the coming rainstorm and sat down on the bed to listen to my voice mail messages that I’d missed by accidently leaving my cell phone in the car while I ate. The first message was from Jack Gelberman: “This is Jack Gelberman. I assume that by now you will have been to my apartment and discovered that I am not there. I am terribly sorry. Something unexpected has turned up, something that needs my immediate attention. I will be in touch with you as soon as possible. Thank you so much for your concern regarding Sarah.”

The second message was from Simon: “Hey, Abs. Hope everything is fine down there. Don’t panic, but it looks like Hannah does have chicken pox. I called Dr. Martin, who confirmed it. Not to panic. Hannah is feeling okay, just a little itchy. It doesn’t seem too bad. I bought calamine lotion and dabbed it all over. I’m trying to keep Caleb away from her, which is of course useless. Don’t panic. I’ll keep her home from school, it’s all set up with Ronit. No need to panic.”

Clearly, Simon was in a panic.

As I put down the phone, I caught the weather report.

“Heavy rains expected throughout central Florida tonight and tomorrow. Flood warnings are in effect for Hillsborough County. The airlines are reporting some flight delays. We will keep you posted as the situation progresses.” I clicked the mute button, and went to look out the window. Dark storm clouds had again filled the sky. And outside, a man with a dark beard in a white car was looking up at me.

***

Where was my x-ray vision spy telescope when I needed it? For that matter, where were my guts? V.I. Warshawski would have found some way to get out of the room unnoticed, maybe by crawling through the air duct into the next room or onto the roof, sneak down the stairs, around the other side of the car, and take the driver by surprise. But that’s probably because she had a gun. And she was a fictional character. Instead, I walked to the sink and splashed cold water on my face, then walked back to the window and took another look. Still there. Whoever he is, he looks like a religious Jew, so he can’t be dangerous, right? Strange, maybe fanatical, but not dangerous. But fanatics of any stripe were generally dangerous, and I had no idea who this man was.

Trying to be responsible rather than heroic, I called the front desk and asked to speak to the head of the security.

“The what?” the clerk replied. “We don’t have nothing like that. Can I help you with something?”

“Can I speak to the manager?” I asked.

“I’m the night manager,” he answered.

“Okay then, here’s the thing. I know this sounds weird, but there’s a man in a car in the parking lot looking up at me.”

“Hey, look, lady, we don’t run a dating service here.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. “I mean, like, he’s stalking me.”

“We can’t get involved in domestic disputes.”

I was beginning to really lose my patience with this cretin. “Look, this is serious.”

“Should I call the police?” the clerk asked, still unfazed.

“No, but can’t you do something about him?”

“No ma’am, I cannot leave the front desk. But I can call the police.”

“No, no, never mind,” I answered, as that seemed like an extreme reaction, and put down the phone. I didn’t want to waste time at a police station filling out forms and trying to explain myself.

There was only one thing to do. This man didn’t seem dangerous, just way too curious. And I was getting mighty curious myself. I grabbed my keys, purse, and cell phone, twisted the handle, and opened the door.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper – A Table of Contents

For several months, I have been sharing my blog with His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series by Eva Hirschel, set in 2000, in New York. (Since Eva doesn’t have a social media presence, I’m giving her a hand).

Some readers have asked for a linked Table of Contents to His Brother’s Keeper, because this mystery has so many chapters.  Here it is. (Unlinked chapters have not yet been published).

IMG_1578Part I

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Part II

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Part III

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

 

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II: Chapter Two

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part II, Chapter 2. Enjoy!

Chapter Two

IMG_2032My new hotel was a step up. This one had Crabtree and Evelyn bath products on a marble top vanity, a real shower curtain in addition to the vinyl liner, a great view of the marina, and a coffee maker with coffee, herb teas, and hot cocoa. I was paying more for these luxuries, but safety was important, and Sarah Gelberman had given me money for expenses. I had repeatedly looked behind me as I drove, making sure no one was following. Before checking in, I had driven around the parking lot, but didn’t see the white car or any sign of my secret admirer. I tried repeatedly to reassure myself that everything was fine, that nothing strange was going on. I could have just gone home, but I was in this too deep and I had to see it through. And the truth was, though I wouldn’t have admitted it to Simon, there was something exciting about the sense of danger.

Too antsy for t.v., I pulled out my file on the Gelbermans and glanced at the last message from Meira. How could these people have been reported dead if they were in fact alive? I glanced at her message again, trying to find a hint that would help me solve this ever-increasing mystery. My eyes slid over the lines, reading and re-reading the names of family members who had supposedly perished in the Holocaust. But then I paused—someone was missing. I had been so busy before focusing on the appearance of Leib and Yankeleh’s names on the list that I had not noticed whose name was missing. Suddenly I remembered a piece of information gleaned from the marriage certificate in Altoona, and I got an idea. It was a little farfetched perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, there was a connection here.

Luck was with me, and Leah was actually in her office. This was hunch built on a long shot, but clichés aside, but it was worth a try. There was only one problem—I needed the help of an insider.

“Hey, Reb. I need a favor,” I said. “I don’t have a lot of time right now for preliminaries, but tell me, do you know the rabbi at the Jewish Memorial Home in the Bronx?”

“Hello, how are you, okay, never mind. You’ll fill me in later. Yes, I do know her. Her name is Miriam Kreiner. Really nice, a JTS graduate, a second-career rabbi who went to rabbinic school in her late forties. They love her over there. Why?”

“It’s a long story, but I met Jack Gelberman, and I think he might have a relative there. Only I don’t know her name, or if she’s in any shape to talk to me. I want to ask the rabbi for some help.”

Leah laughed. “Well, give her a call and see. This is getting more interesting by the minute.”

“I promise, I promise, when this is all over I’ll fill you in,” I said. “I’ll be your best congregant. I’ll even serve on the Religious School Committee, if you really want. Or the Capital Campaign. Or the Ritual Committee.”

“No you won’t, and we both know you won’t,” Leah answered. “But you know, if you keep on like this, you might as well go to rabbinic school yourself. Think how useful it would be in your line of work.”

I could just picture Leah at her big desk, surrounded by piles of papers and books, pushing her hair behind her ears and grinning at me over the phone. “Not in a million years, but thanks,” I answered. “Better you than me.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say. Now a favor from you–when you’re sitting on the plane, bored to death, read my sermon over and let me know what you think. I’m having trouble with it, and I need feedback.”

I groaned. “Okay, okay, I promise. Quid pro quo.”

“You’re a pal. Look, I’ve got to run–meeting with the President to talk about tomorrow’s board meeting. When you call Miriam, mention my name. We’ve done some work together. And keep me posted. ”

“I promise, I promise. Would I lie to a rabbi?”

We both laughed, and I hung up.

***

Rabbi Miriam Kreiner was polite but stiff.

“How can I help you?” she asked, after I introduced myself and established my connection to Leah.

I hesitated briefly, then plunged right in. I wasn’t going to lie, but I didn’t have to burden her with superfluous details either. “I’m looking for someone who is a resident at the Home, someone whose name may be Chaya, maybe she goes by Chaya Esther, a woman who would be at least in her late 70’s if not 80’s, and who is most likely a Holocaust survivor. Her maiden name would have been Markusevisz but I don’t know what name she uses now.”

“I’m sorry,” Rabbi Kreiner said, her voice tighter and more formal. “I can’t give out information on residents.”

“Yes, of course, I understand,” I assured her. “It’s just that, well, this is sort of complicated. I’m an investigator, and I was doing what seemed at first like routine genealogical research, but it’s turning into something else entirely. The young woman who is my client is in danger, and if I’m right that such a resident does exist at the Jewish Memorial Home, she may be in danger as well. I know it sounds totally far-fetched. Please, call Leah if you want to confirm that I’m for real. If I could just find her name, I could come speak to her. I think she could help me.”

Rabbi Kreiner was silent for a moment as she thought. “I’m sorry. This is very, um, unusual. Let me call Rabbi Brown, and I’ll get right back to you. I hope you understand. It’s unethical for me to speak to you about this, unless I’m sure there’s a compelling reason.”

Trying not to sound overly eager or annoyed, I agreed that that was a good idea, and gave her my cell phone number. She was right, but I was impatient. It was always a surprise to meet people, even rabbis, who took ethics seriously, rather than being driven by the values of expediency, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. But I had no doubt that Rabbi Kreiner would call me back, and soon enough, my phone rang.

Rabbi Kreiner spoke, her voice softer than before. “Okay, I’m sorry I had to do that, but I hope you understand. Leah told me it was okay to talk to you, but please understand that I am doing this only because it may save someone from danger. I’m not entirely sure I should be doing this at all. So, okay, yes, there is someone here who fits your description. Her name is Chayale. That’s what everyone calls her here. Chayale Markusevisz.”

“Yes, that must be her!” I blurted out. How strange—I had seen the name on Jack Gelberman’s marriage certificate in Altoona, but I’d been so focused on him that it hadn’t hit me. Markusevisz had been my own grandfather’s name before he changed it to Marcus at Ellis Island. Could we possibly be related? If I remembered my father’s stories correctly, it was my Marcus grandparents who had the Chasidic roots back in Poland. But there was no way we were connected. That just couldn’t be.

“Are you all right?” Rabbi Kreiner asked with concern.

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. It’s just that–never mind. Please go on.”

She sighed. “Honestly, I don’t think that Chayale will be much help to you. She’s, well, a gentle soul. A special person here at the Home. But things, terrible things, unspeakable things happened to her during the Shoah, when she was just a teenager. She was quite beautiful, and, well, you know the stories. Apparently she was never the same afterwards. She has lived most of her life in a kind of darkness. She doesn’t speak, she only sings and chants, Chasidic niggunim, prayers and blessings, verses from Torah. She’s been like a child for all of her adult life, as if she reverted back to a safe place before the horrors of the war.”

I gulped. “Oh my God, I had no idea.”

“Her nephew is her only legal next-of-kin. I’ve spoken with him a few times when he’s been here. He doesn’t live in New York, and only comes occasionally. But to be honest, and maybe this is connected to what you’re working on, there have been some strange things lately.”

I kept myself calm. “Like what?”

“Well, a few months ago a volunteer doing bikur cholim, you know, visiting the sick, came to her room. It was a Chasidic woman­­­—they’re great at organizing people to come visit our residents—an older woman who was herself a survivor. Chayale was singing away. And this woman somehow recognized her from before the war and started shouting. Maybe she just recognized the name, I don’t know. I don’t think she meant to upset Chayale, actually I think she was happy to see her. Apparently she had thought that Chayale had died during the war. But Chayale began to scream and cry and tried to push the woman out of the room. She was frantic—no one here had ever seen her like that. She somehow managed to pull her mirror off the wall and she threw it at the woman, who finally left. It took a long time for Chayale to return to herself. For days she was crying and whimpering.”

“I’m sorry, it sounds terrible.”

“Yes, it caused a big uproar,” she continued. “The staff was upset, and no one understood what had happened. Of course, how can we ever understand what she must have gone through during the war? But it’s hard to watch that kind of pain, whatever the reason. I tried to spend some time with her, talking calmly and quietly, brushing her hair. She loves to have her hair brushed. She has long braids, they’re gray of course, but every day the attendants braid it for her. They’re all quite fond of her, because usually she’s so sweet.

“So after that, it was decided that no strangers should visit Chayale. We all made the decision together, me, the social worker, the head nurse on her floor, the nurses who work with her everyday, and of course in consultation with her nephew. But there was another strange incident not too long after that. There was an occupational therapist who was fairly new to the Home. One day, not too long after the other incident, she went in to see Chayale, and apparently Chayale had a similar reaction. She screamed and cried, but instead of throwing something at her, she tried to rip off the therapist’s name tag, and she pulled at her hair. One evening shortly after that the therapist was found going through Chayale’s file. I don’t mean going through files that might have pertained to her work. I mean the confidential files that are kept in the main office. She was fired, of course. But still, it makes you wonder. And then some of her co-workers reported that she had been asking questions about Chayale, who she was, where she came from, who her nephew was, where he lived, things like that. But when she was fired, well, we just put it behind us.”

“But you made sure to tell her nephew.”

“Someone did, yes. I’m sure they did. And about the bikur cholim visitor as well. Yes, because he called me after that to ask me to please keep an eye on her, to make sure to continue to visit her. That’s what I do anyway, of course, but it’s good for the families to know that someone here cares. It’s very hard to put a loved one into a residence. I know her nephew feels guilty about having her here. But it’s really best for her here, she gets good care and her needs are too great to be cared at home.” She sighed. “Is this any help?”

“Maybe. One more question. Do you know the occupational therapist’s name?”

“Humm, let me see.” She thought for a moment. “It was biblical. Rebecca? Ruth? No. Oh, yes, Rachel. Yes, that’s right, because after she left Chayale’s room, apparently for some time after that Chayale sang the name Ruchel over and over. I don’t remember her last name. But it sounds like this is all making some kind of sense to you.”

“Yes, it might be,” I answered. “But I need to know one more thing. This Rachel, did she have red hair?”

Rabbi Kreiner was startled. “Why, yes, yes she did. How did you know that?”

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II, Chapter One

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part II, Chapter One. Enjoy!

PART II

Just a few clicks and it’s all set in motion. It’s all a matter of finding the right people and learning what makes them tick. Everyone has the button that gets them going—it’s just a matter of finding it. It wasn’t too hard this time. I unraveled his story so quickly I even surprised myself! Now he’s jumping when I say jump, crawling when I say crawl! History repeats itself, as they like to say. Once a crawler, always a crawler, I like to say. And I say, this time history will not repeat itself. This time will be different.

They don’t know yet what is coming. But they will see. They will see that history can be overturned. They will see that we don’t have to accept the past as it is. We can change the past by changing the future. He told me that I live in the past but that’s because he doesn’t understand that it’s all about the future.

Once we crawled like cockroaches across the face of Europe. We were passive, weak. But not anymore. Not anymore. And never again. I come from that same diseased gene pool but I know that we can make our destiny—we don’t have to let it make us.

 They say they want peace. Not me. It’s not peace that ensures safety, it’s power. They don’t understand that. They’ve been corrupted by the ideas of western humanism. They say they want justice. I say I want a future. What good is justice if it’s not mine? For too long we have fought other people’s battles, financed other people’s wars and conquests and futures. It’s our turn now. No one will do it for us so we have to do it for ourselves. Just a few more clicks, a few more buttons to push, and I will have them all right where I want them. Right here. Right now.

Chapter One

IMG_1332Being by myself in a hotel room was a guilty pleasure. Even if the hotel room wasn’t anything special, and this one wasn’t, it felt like an indulgence to be alone. There was no one asking me for anything, no one to take care of, no one to interrupt me. Best of all, I didn’t have to clean up after myself, much less anyone else. I could take a shower without having to clear away plastic boats and floating dinosaurs. My single friends’ fantasies were about nights spent with someone else, but mine were about nights alone, when I could watch t.v., or read in bed, falling asleep with the light on. I loved the anonymity of hotel rooms, in which I was surrounded by blank surfaces and items that held no emotional connection or anxious reminders of responsibilities. Albeit only temporarily, hotel rooms were places of reinvention. I could be a high-powered player making multi-million dollar deals, or a cat burglar preparing for a heist. The possibilities were endless.

I stretched out on the bed and clicked away on the remote control, watching the channels change and morph into each other over and over in a desperate loop screaming for attention. There were three hours to go until it was time to meet again with Jack Gelberman, or whoever he was. Three hours to sift through what I knew and still didn’t know, what I wanted to ask and what I needed explained. The pink-faced weather announcer on the television screen gestured excitedly while trying not to drop his props. Behind him, palm trees waved in the wind. The big news was an impending rainstorm. Just my luck, to come down to Florida and miss out on sunny weather. Not that I was here to get a tan, but a little Florida sunshine would be nice. I kept on flipping, past Barney, past the Home Shopping Network’s display of cubic zirconium, past a demonstration on potato peeling techniques. Re-runs of Starsky and Hutch momentarily caught my interest, but I was distracted by a loud burst of thunder and a sudden darkening of the sky outside.

I got up and pulled back the opaque curtain. The balmy sky had transformed into a thick, murky shade of gray. Fat raindrops spattered down on the asphalt of the parking lot one floor down, and onto the windshield of the cars parked below. One car unexpectedly caught my eye. Instead of being parked parallel to the other cars in the lot, it was parked perpendicular, greedily taking up several spots. It was also strange that despite the rain, the driver’s window was open. And the driver, a man with a dark beard and what looked like a black kippah on a mostly bald head, was staring up at me.

Quickly, I moved back from the window, holding the curtain open. I slid carefully, around to the other side of the curtain, and peered out. He was still staring up at my window. Although it was probably a rental car, I committed the license plate to memory. It was too much of a coincidence that a man in a kippah would be parked outside my motel, staring in the direction of my room. The driver was there for a reason, and the reason was me. He was doing surveillance, and I was his target. I let the curtain drop, and jumped in the bed, covering myself with the blankets. The room suddenly felt cold, and I realized I was shivering.

***

“Yeah, I’m okay, really,” I reassured Simon. “Don’t worry. I’m in sunny Florida, everything’s cool.” I didn’t want to tell him about the man in the parking lot, but he knew me too well.

“Something’s wrong, Abby. I know you don’t want to worry me, but I can tell.”

“Everything’s fine. Tell me about Hannah.”

I heard Simon take a deep sigh. “I’m still uncomfortable about this.”

“Hey, relax,” I answered, trying to sound lighthearted. “Don’t be such a worrier.”

“Don’t you be such a warrior.”

“Oh come on, what is this, you have to protect me?”

“Don’t go flexing your feminist muscles at me, okay?”

“Simon, I’m an adult. Enough already.”

“An adult who doesn’t always use common sense.”

“Look, I’m meeting with Gelberman tonight at five. He’s going to fill in a lot of the blanks, and then that will be that. It’ll be a wrap. Tomorrow morning I’ll be on my way home, and this whole thing will be over.”

“I hope so.”

“Hannah.”

“She’s okay.”

I sat down on the edge of the bed. “No fever, no cold?”

“Nah. She has a rash on her stomach, nothing serious.”

Breathe in, breathe out, I told myself. Just like Lamaze.   Be calm. “What!!” I screamed. “A rash on her stomach! What kind of rash? Raised dots with a white center?”

I could hear Simon getting nervous. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. It was just a little rash. You know Hannah and her dry skin. She gets rashes all the time.”

Keep breathing, I told myself again. Never mind that there’s some unidentified stranger in the parking lot stalking me, and that Hannah is probably coming down with chicken pox. Never mind. Everything is fine. Keep breathing. Even if you were there, there’s nothing you could do to stop Hannah from getting chicken pox. Or Caleb either, for that matter. Of course, if you were there and not here, there wouldn’t be someone watching you from the parking lot. You chose to not get them vaccinated, so what do you expect? If you had, they wouldn’t be getting chicken pox now, but there would still be someone in the parking lot watching you.

“You still there?” Simon asked tentatively. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong is that it sounds like chicken pox!” I screamed. “Didn’t you have a clue? I told you it was going around her class.”

“Honestly, I didn’t think about it.”

“Obviously.”

“Didn’t they get vaccinated?”

“No. I can’t believe you don’t remember. Dr. Martin wasn’t convinced at first that the vaccination was a good idea, and we decided to wait, and then at their last checkup he said the results were more conclusive now and he was recommending the vaccine, but you wanted to think about it more and talk to Emma, and then she was busy, and I said we should just do it, and you said no, we’d talk to Emma next time we saw her, and I said –”

“So it’s my fault?”

“No, I’m just saying–”

“Oh, give me a break, Abby. Kids get chicken pox. Just come home quickly, okay?”

Yeah, I thought to myself. Come home quickly to take care of children with chicken pox, so that Simon wouldn’t be too inconvenienced. But I caught myself , and realized that that wasn’t fair. “Okay, I’ll be careful, and I’ll be home in the morning. But if the rash is still there, don’t send her to school tomorrow.”

“Got it,” Simon said in assent. “Call me tonight, before you go to bed, yeah?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“Love you.”

“Me too,” I said, and hung up.

Then it was time to deal with the man outside. I crept over to the window on my tiptoes, as if he could hear me. It made no sense, but it made me feel better. Opening the curtain a crack, I peered out. There was no man in a white car watching my window. The place where his car had been was empty.

As quickly as I could, I shoved my belongings back into my bag. I grabbed my laptop, my purse, and my overnight bag, and started to open the door. Then I paused, went back to the window, and looked as far as I could in every direction. Nothing. Taking my chances, I opened the door and left.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Twenty

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 20. Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty

IMG_0324I parked the rental car in a guest spot near the entrance to the building. Getting out of the car, I checked carefully to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules by parking too close to the yellow line or too far from the cement barrier. If this condominium complex was anything like my grandmother’s, you could get your car towed from the lot for a multitude of minor infractions. The complex in which Jack Gelberman lived was called The Seabreeze, despite the fact that it was not on the ocean. The four identical buildings that made up the complex were ivory stucco, with brown wood trim, and blue canopies. There was a sense of well-being in the complex, due in part to the meticulous landscaping and the fresh coat of paint. Each building had been created to look like it was made up of a series of connected townhouses, with covered walkways connecting the entrances on each floor. The first two floors appeared to be made up of duplex townhouses, but Jack Gelberman’s apartment was 3C, on the third and top floor. I took a deep breath, and walked up the steps that jutted out from the center of the building.

I had landed about two hours ago, feeling surprisingly footloose and fancy free.   Traveling without Simon and the kids had its advantages. I’d been able to nap on the plane, and to indulge my mystery novel cravings. Now that I was actually there, this trip was feeling fun, despite Simon’s displeasure at my going, and despite my worry that Hannah might be coming down with something. I checked into a hotel, and spent some time there having lunch and getting my bearings. Winter Park was a quiet Florida city, not a major tourist destination but a rather cultured college town. Fairleigh College, the main attraction of the town, provided the locals with concerts, plays, art and even tuition remission for senior citizens. It wasn’t the kind of place where you’d want to retire if you dreamed of spending your golden years on the beach, but it might be a nice place if you were used to a certain proximity to academia, and craved a life of culture along with your sunshine and warm weather.

To squelch my nervousness, I took some deep breaths on my way up the stairs. But deep breathing hadn’t helped in childbirth and it wasn’t helping now. What if he wasn’t home? I had called from the car pretending to be a wrong number. A man’s voice answered, which was the best I was going to get. What if he wouldn’t talk to me? What if he slammed the door in my face?

There I was, in front of 3C. It was the only door I passed that had a mezuzah hanging on the doorframe. One more deep breath, and I knocked. After a few moments, the door opened.

A tall man, appearing to be in his seventies, with a shock of white hair around the crown of his head, stood facing me. Except for the fact that his hair was whiter and there was less of it, and that he was wearing thick glasses, this was definitely the same man I had seen in the photo at the Klein’s house in Altoona, the same prominent cheekbones, the same thick lips. It was definitely the same man, but it was also like seeing a ghost. After all the research, here I finally was, standing across from the man I’d been studying. Whatever secrets he might be hiding, he was certainly real, and that was a surreal feeling. I knew I had to quickly figure out a way to get him to trust me and talk to me. And yet I continued to stare at him. Because despite his resemblance to the photo, something about his appearance was not right.

He stared back at me. “May I help you, ma’m?” he asked politely.

Trying to regain my composure, I smiled. “I’m sorry, yes. Hello. I’m Abby Marcus. I’m looking for a Mr. Jack Gelberman. Might that be you?”

As soon as I mentioned his name, the set of his mouth became tight. “And why are you looking for him?” he asked.

I didn’t have a great cover story, so I was going to have to be as honest as I could be, without blowing the surprise element of Sarah Gelberman’s story. I only had one chance at this. “Well, I’ll come right to the point. I’m here because of your granddaughter, Sarah. I came to know Sarah in the course of my work, and to be honest, I’m concerned about her, and you’re the only family she’s mentioned.”

His expression went from tense to troubled. “Come in, come in, please.”

The living room was small and dark and anonymous, except for the books that filled every possible corner and surface of the room. There seemed to be no particular kind of book that was favored. As I sat on the couch, I noticed books on history, architecture, art, physics, biology, Judaism, Buddhism, communism, and feminism. And that was only the books that were piled on the end tables on either side of the couch.

Jack Gelberman sat across from me on a faded recliner. “Please, tell me who you are, and how you know Sarah,” he said calmly, though I could hear the undercurrent of anxiety in his voice.

I explained, in the most vague terms possible, that I was a researcher living in New York. I told him that Sarah had contacted me regarding a project that she was working on for school, but that midway through, she seemed to have abruptly moved and cut off contact.   I was concerned, because I hadn’t been able to find her, and that I hadn’t supplied her with the information she paid me to find for her. I tried to emphasize the fact that I was just trying to finish a job I had been paid for, which wasn’t entirely true, and de-emphasize any sense of foul play, but I wasn’t smart enough or a good enough liar for Jack Gelberman.

“I appreciate your concern for Sarah’s well being,” he said, looking right at me. “But, and I hope you won’t take offense, I don’t quite believe your story. I can’t imagine Sarah paid you that much money to look up some information for her, certainly not enough to make you fly down here to speak to me when you could have easily called by phone. You obviously are talented at finding people. If you were able to find my address, you surely could have found my phone number. For that matter, you could have found the phone number of Sarah’s parents. The other thing that is not believable in your story is that Sarah would have paid someone to do research for her. She is quite talented at research herself, and doesn’t spend money she doesn’t have. I’m willing to listen to you, but you must come up with a better story than that.”

As he spoke, I had the eerie feeling that he could read my mind. What could I say, without spoiling Sarah’s surprise? But by now, my concern for Sarah’s safety outweighed my desire to maintain the element of surprise. Besides which, I had so many doubts about Sarah’s story that I wasn’t sure her goal had really been a surprise for her grandfather. On the other hand, this man had neither denied being Jack Gelberman, nor denied having a granddaughter named Sarah. So I took a deep breath, and began to tell this man some, but not by any means all, of the real reason behind my visit.

It was going to be hard to look him straight in the eye and not be entirely honest, so I kept my eyes on the books behind him. I told him that among other things, I was a genealogical researcher. I told him that Sarah had hired me to create a family tree for his birthday, and that she had disappeared under suspicious circumstances. I told him that there were people who had warned me away from this research, and that I was afraid Sarah might have gotten tangled up in something bigger than herself. When I was done, I looked back at him, and he was smiling.

“This is an interesting tale you tell,” he said. “It sounds incredibly plausible, and certainly fascinating. Except for one thing. I just spoke to Sarah last night. She is in her senior year at Amherst, where she is busy researching the mating patterns of moths for her senior thesis. She has never lived in New York, nor does she appear to be in any danger. Not only that, but I celebrated my birthday two months ago, in August, and Sarah gave me a lovely present. You can probably guess, a book.” And again, he smiled. “So, I am going to ask you once more, who are you, and why you are here?”

I turned and stared at him, my mouth open in surprise. “Actually, what I just told you is true. There are details I didn’t elaborate on, like the fact that I went to Altoona to learn as much about you as I could, and that I have a good suspicion that you are the grandson of the last of the Halizcher rebbe despite the fact that the Halizchers think you, or rather, he, died in Treblinka. I don’t have it all figured out. But everything I just told you concerning Sarah is true, to the best of my knowledge. The young woman who came to see told me that she was Sarah Gelberman, and so far my research inon her identity has revealed nothing to contradicts that. She signed a lease under that name, and presented the landlord with a copy of a driver’s license.”

Now he stared at me, not in surprise, but rather in thoughtful concentration. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he ran his hands through what was left of his hair, and let out a long, slow sigh. “Well then, Ms. Abby Marcus. I don’t know what to make of the fact that you have been going around finding out things about me that I might not want to be found. But we can discuss the merits of freedom of information at another opportunity. Let me ask you this: This Sarah Gelberman who came to see you, did she have red hair?”

“Yes,” I answered, confused by the question. “Yes, she did.”

Without a word, he quickly got up, and walked into what I assumed was the bedroom. If this had been a spy novel, I would have used the few moments he was out of the room to rifle through his drawers and unearth his secrets. But this wasn’t a novel, and I wasn’t a spy. Besides, I didn’t really know how to rifle through drawers. That was all I needed, to be caught going through his things. However, while I wasn’t a spy, I was a good observer. And as I sat waiting for him return from the bedroom, my attention was drawn to a pile of mail on top of some books on the end table next to the couch. On the very top of the pile was an envelope with an interesting return address—Jewish Memorial Home, in the Bronx. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, except for the story the Kleins had told me about a mystery relative in New York. And this letter didn’t look like a random junk mail solicitation—it was addressed to Mr. Jack Gelberman, and had a first class stamp.

Before I had time to ponder the ethics of going through a stranger’s mail, Jack Gelberman returned, holding in his hand a framed picture, which he held out to me. “This is from Sarah’s brother’s bar mitzvah a few years ago,” he said. “She’s the one on my right.   Hasn’t changed much since then, only gotten smarter.”

I took the picture, and stared at the young woman who stood second from the left in the family grouping. There was no way that this was my Sarah Gelberman. It wasn’t even a matter of hair dye. This man’s granddaughter looked Asian, or at least partially Asian. Or at least, not like the Sarah Gelberman who came to see me. She had gleaming, long black hair, dark skin, and dark eyes. Jack Gelberman’s son Nathan had married an Asian woman, and their three children were clearly a combination of Eastern European and Asian genes. The son looked a great deal like his father, with the same nose and eyes, but his mother’s broad cheeks, small mouth, and black hair. The middle sister had fair hair, the mother’s eyes, and fair skin. Suddenly I understood what everyone in Altoona had meant when they remarked on how the children looked different and stood out. No wonder. There probably weren’t a lot of racially mixed couples in Western Pennsylvania twenty years ago. And this also explained what Rabbi Bergman might have meant about there being issues over whether or not Nathan Gelberman and his family was going to join the synagogue, and why the Kleins had segued from talking about Nathan and his family to the issues of intermarriage in their own family. Nathan’s wife wasn’t Jewish, or at least hadn’t been born Jewish. This also explained why my Sarah Gelberman hadn’t known that Jack Gelberman had lived in Altoona, because he wasn’t really her grandfather, apparently. Some puzzles were solved, but a bigger problem remained. Who was the young woman who had come to me for help, and why was she paying me to research a man who was not her grandfather?

I handed him back the photograph. “You’re right, this is not the Sarah Gelberman who came to see me. But you knew she had red hair. Why?”

He took the photograph and came to sit next to me on the couch. “A lucky guess. Let’s leave it at that for now. I have some appointments this afternoon that I must not be late for, I tutor at an after-school center, but would you care to meet for dinner?”

I nodded my head in agreement. “I would love to speak to you some more.”

“Good. We will speak then.” He got up, and I followed suit. He led me to the door, and opened it.

I stepped out into the warm sunshine, a stark contrast to the unlit apartment, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my skin.

Jack Gelberman blinked in the bright sunshine. He slipped off his thick bifocals and rubbed his eyes as they adjusted to the sunlight. “Still hard sometimes getting used to the sun. Anyway, let us meet at five o’clock,” he said, his face appearing rounder and softer without the glasses. Smiling, he continued, “We’ll catch an early bird special at one of my usual haunts. It’s one of the only perks of getting old.”

I agreed, gave him my cell phone number in case there was a change in plans, and thanked him for his time. He closed the door, and I started down the steps. All I could think about was how different he looked without his glasses on, almost like another person entirely. As I drove away it again occurred to me that something wasn’t right about the man I just met, something important, but I still couldn’t figure out what.

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