Some Good Books, Fall 2015 Edition

Looking for some good holiday reading, or some presents for the readers in your life? Here is a round up of some recent good books I’ve read. In the last edition of Some Good Books, I started a rating system. See below for more info about the ratings. Enjoy!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara ©©©
51Khv+2lemL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This book is quite literally breathtaking. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award finalist, it was my personal top choice for the winner. This book will make you gasp with pleasure, with pain, with sorrow, with anger. This is one of those books that will change whomever encounters it. There will be the before you read it, and the after. It is incredibly gorgeous, but exquisitely painful. You can’t put it down, but it hurts to read it. The narrative follows a group of men, friends from an elite New England college, who stay closely connected to each other as they build lives and careers. There is an almost fairy tale quality to their stories on one level, as each one achieves significant success in his field. But even their privilege, whether inborn or hard-earned, can’t make them immune to pain and to the damage that people can inflict on each other. This is a book about love, about friendship, about trust, and about trauma that looks at the best and the worst of human behavior. Yanagihara digs deep into our capacity to wound, to nurture, to heal, to care, to cause harm. Do not read this looking for an uplifting story of redemption and recovery. Rather, this is a story in which the trauma is so bone deep that even the truest love cannot heal the damage. And yet strangely it is not a book without hope even in the midst of suffering.

Golden Age by Jane Smiley ©©©

51+eW3sBVxL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The third, and sadly, final book in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy continues the march forward of the Langdon family as they continue to bump up against realities of the time in which they live. At the risk of being overly grandiose, there is something almost sweepingly biblical about the trilogy, with its spare writing and ability to depict dramatic change through the small details of individuals lives.  This hundred year journey depicts the story of a tribe as it makes its way from its Iowa farm origins and spreads throughout the country, with each generation and indeed each family member responding each in his or her own way to the world. The family members are impacted by the events, trends, and developments that occur in their lifetimes: the economy, feminism, drugs, the sexual revolution, psychoanalysis, cults are just some of the factors by which their lives are shaped. War is an especially powerful and recurrent theme, as different generations are impacted by different wars in different ways.  And yet the individuals who make up the now quite extended Langdon clan never completely sever their ties to the land and the primal power of the natural world.  From the centrality of the farm and the lack of control over things like rain and drought in the first book, this third circles back in a near-apocalyptical way to the family farm and the environment.  Climate change, with its attendant fears and impact on human life, looms large in this last book in the trilogy, which depicts a worrisome future not too far away from now. If you haven’t read the first two in the series (see review of the 2nd book), read them in the proper order, but do read them!

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan ©©

41Kq6PCW6eL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Another Man Booker longlist title, this is one of those books that just quietly sneaks up on you until you’re completely enraptured. The story essentially follows two trajectories, one of an older woman Anne, and the other of Luke, her grandson. Anne, now battling old age, is someone who was almost famous – a pioneering photographer who garnered some attention in her time but has been long forgotten. Her grandson Luke is a soldier in Afganistan whose mission has gone seriously off course. When Luke was a child, Anne had taught him how to see beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary, a bond which still unites to two. Their stories reconnect once Luke returns home and comes to visit his grandmother, taking her on a journey which stirs up her past and his present, and illuminates that which has been hidden. Without veering into sentimentality, it is a tender tale of a pairing not seen often in literature, that of a grandmother and a grandson.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff ©©

61F+t-ywhCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Get ready for a gyrating tale about marriage and the tales we build about ourselves and those we love. The book, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, is divided into the first half, Fates, and the second, Furies, as it chronicles the lives and marriage of the two central character, Lotto and Mathilde. Fates focuses on Lotto, and what better name for this character. Does he make his own fate, was it predetermined, is it all just a game of chance, or was it shaped behind the scenes by one of the powerful women in his life? Is his creativity really his, is it well deserved, or just luck? Furies shifts to Mathilde, who is revealed to be someone quite different than she seemed when she was the subject of Lotto’s narrative. This is a fascinating, at times grim, but always powerful story of passion, determination, manipulation, and our human tendency to see what we want to see in those around us.


 The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami ©©© 
51jzobdRhGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_This book has a serious pedigree: it is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and winner of the American Book Award. And the accolades are well deserved.  This account by a black Moroccan slave provides an untold perspective of the colonization of the Gulf coast of the what is now the United States by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The writing is gorgeous, with lush descriptions of both people and place, and the relationships between the characters are fully drawn in all their complicated richness. In the course of their perilous journey, the narrative deftly explores questions about the constructs of race, class, gender, and power, and of course colonization.  This book is part adventure tale, part historical fiction, part a meditation on the notions of civilization and culture, part just a beautiful work of writing that will get its grip on you and not let go until you’ve read the last page.

Untwine by Edwidge Danticat ©
51vW1Iq6wYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Danticat’s last book, Claire of the Sea Light, was among my favorite books of the past few years. Untwine is a YA novel, and anyone looking for the magic of Claire will be in for a disappointment in comparison. But once you understand that it indeed meant to be in the YA category and adjust your expectations accordingly, there’s a lot to love here in this heartrending story of two identical twins, and the aftermath of a terrible car accident. In the face of tragedy, this book elegantly asks the question of how do you keep on living when half of you is suddenly gone? How do you understand who you are when your whole sense of self has changed in an instant? The intergenerational family relationships are beautifully brought to life and provide the life-affirming underpinning of this tragic story.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler ©

51VXVWyB4BL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_There were moments that shone in this intergenerational family story, but overall this book was only fine. Not terrible, but not great. Just fine. I am not, admittedly, a great fan of Anne Tyler’s novels, but its designation as a Man Booker shortlist title intrigued me. I read the book wanting to be surprised, but alas, that did not happen. This novel covers several generations of the Whitshank family, and centers around a house built originally by the family patriarch. Perhaps this book suffers from having been read in close proximity to Smiley’s Hundred Year Trilogy, which similarly tells the story of several generations of a family and not a house but a farm (see above). But where Smiley’s account had depth and nuance, Tyler’s feels tired and predictable.


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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Thanksgiving Pumpkin Challah

After posting some photos of the annual Thanksgiving pumpkin challah, I got a lot of requests for the recipe. My tradition is to go to beloved cousins for an actual Thanksgiving dinner, and then to host a Shabbat post-Thanksgiving dinner the next night, which is generally also a celebration for the child whose birthday tends to fall right around then.  So the pumpkin challah has now become part of the tradition of both of those dinners. While it’s certainly not a historic menu item for either Thanksgiving or Shabbat – it was surely not eaten by the Pilgrims or by our Jewish ancestors in the Old Country or even on the Lower East Side – it’s a classic example of Jewish American cross-fertilization and a tradition-in-the-making. Here is the recipe.

IMG_1886Pumpkin Pie Challah Recipe

1 c boiled water

1/2 c cold water

1 c sugar

1 c vegetable oil

pinch of salt

2 1/2 T yeast

3 eggs

8-9 c flour

1 15 oz can pumpkin pie mix

handful of pumpkin seeds 

1/4 c crushed pecans

Optional: Extra spices or cinnamon sugar

Pumpkin challah: before

Pumpkin challah: before

1. Boil 1 cup water.

2. Put one cup of oil, pinch of salt, and one cup of sugar in large bowl or Kitchenaid type mixer.

3. Pour the cup of boiling water over the mix and stir with the oil to dissolve the sugar and salt.

4. When fully dissolved, pour in the 1/2 cup cold water. Mix well.

5. Add 2 ½ t yeast to mix. Let sit for a few minutes.

6. Add three eggs.

7. Stir in 7 cups of flour.

8. Stir in 1 can pumpkin pie puree. (Optional – add additional cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg if you want it to be spicier).

9. Knead. (Works best with a bread hook in Kitchenaid-type machine but can be done by hand).

1o. Add 1-2 additional cups of flour, depending on stickiness. After kneading, you want an elastic texture that barely sticks to your fingers.

11. Let dough rise in oiled bowl, preferably in warm, humid place. A slightly pre-warmed oven with the light on works great if the room is cold.

12. When dough has risen, punch it down, divide into 3 or 4 balls, and braid each one into a challah. You can make a round loaf and put into an oiled springform pan, or a bundt pan. Otherwise use a silicon sheet or parchment paper on a baking sheet.

Pumpkin challah: after

Pumpkin challah: after

13. Let rise again.

14. Apply egg wash. Sprinkle with pumpkin seeds and pecan pieces. Or go wild and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

14. Bake at 350 until golden brown and the loaves make a hollow sound when tapped.


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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Eighteen

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 18. Enjoy!

Chapter Eighteen

IMG_2470Into the bag went a spare pair of pants, a cotton sweater, two pairs of clean underwear, socks, a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt, my favorite short-sleeve black blouse, one purple t-shirt and my toiletry kit. I needed to bring clothes that would make me look presentable and put together, but not overly professional. Since I wasn’t planning on calling Jack Gelberman ahead of time, the look I was going for was earnest and concerned, not someone there in an official capacity. Luckily, everything fit easily into the small duffel bag that I had recently gotten free from the bank upon opening a new account. My files were in my laptop case, which was leaning against the bed, also ready to go. The boarding pass was in the outside pocket of the case, along with my wallet containing some of the cash from Sarah Gelberman. Ronit and I worked out a schedule for the next two days, and everything seemed more or less in place for the morning. Everything, that is, except that I hadn’t exactly discussed it yet with Simon. I was not looking forward to talking to him about this trip, and I knew that he was not going to be happy about it.

Packed and more or less ready to go, I walked out of my bedroom and went to check on the kids. Hannah was fast asleep, curled up in her bed as if in a nest, the blankets swirled around her. A day out in the autumn sun had exhausted her and she had gone to sleep without any protest. No doubt she was dreaming about apples. I bent down to straighten out the covers and pulled them up over her shoulders. She felt warm and I placed my lips on her forehead. She seemed warmer than usual, but not burning hot. Maybe she’s just overheated, I said to myself, trying to be rationale; it’s a warm evening. She hadn’t acted droopy or given any other indication that she was coming down with something. Careful not to wake her, I laid my cheek against hers and listened to her breathing. I was probably just imaging it, anxious about going away and leaving the kids even though it would be a short trip. From the day she was born, the sound of her breath going in and out, in and out, was one of the most calming sounds I had ever heard. I remained with her for a few moments, tempted to crawl right in next to her and fall asleep, avoiding having to speak to Simon. Instead, I got up and walked over to Caleb.

He was stretched out in one of his favorite sleeping places, on the rug at the foot of Hannah’s bed, his flannel dinosaur blanket clutched in his hand. Sometimes she would let him get into bed with her, and that was his favorite place to sleep. But some nights she wanted her bed to herself, and often on those nights he would sprawl on the rug, like a puppy denied his rightful place in the master’s bed. He was a loyal pup.   No matter how much he and his sister squabbled during the daytime hours, at night-time he wanted to be as close to Hannah as possible. Not wanting to wake him, I let him stay where he was for the time being, making sure he was properly covered with a blanket. Trying not to make the floorboards creak under my weight, I crept out of the room and went downstairs.

The sight that greeted me as I descended the stairs made me want to run back up quickly and stick my head under the covers. The kitchen counter was piled high with newspapers, books, half-finished art projects, and dirty dishes. The recycling container overflowed with empty cans, jars, and seltzer bottles. Coffee grinds and carrot peels mingled in the sink, along with a pot of burnt rice that needed to soak overnight. A pile of clean but still-to-be folded clothes were heaped on the dining room table. Caleb’s Brio train tracks snaked their way around the couch and coffee table, and pieces of Duplo were scattered across the rug. Construction paper lined the floor in front of the fireplace, crayons flung down across the paper waited to be crushed by an unsuspecting shoe. Plastic storage boxes of toys stuffed into a wooden cabinet were perched precariously, about to tumble off of the shelves. I sighed. Someday, my house would be neat and clean and organized. Someday I would teach my children to pick up their toys and take responsibility for their belongings. Someday I would be the perfect wife and mother.

Simon was due home shortly. He had a meeting with his partner and some clients that involved dinner, so I had eaten earlier with the kids. Before dinner we made a crumble with apples Hannah brought back from the field trip. Apple crumble was one of Simon’s all-time favorite desserts, especially served warm with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. I had made sure to buy the ice cream this afternoon, and I was hoping the dessert might serve to sweeten the news of my trip. I knew that things were tense at work for him; he was trying to finish up a big project for a client and they had hit some snags. He had been working lots of extra hours, and it hadn’t helped that I had asked him to come home early last night so that I could meet with Avrum Shapira. He was not going to be happy with the news that I was planning on flying to Florida tomorrow. I knew rationally that there was no reason that his work should take higher priority than my work, which is what this trip was all about, but at the same time it was his job that paid most of our bills and allowed us to live the life style we tried to maintain. He wasn’t wrong in wanting and expecting my support at stressful times like this. However, if I always put my professional needs on hold until it was a good time for Simon, I would not have any clients and therefore would not have any professional needs. If I took on a client and a job, I needed the flexibility to be able to follow the job through. Generally the jobs I took were easy enough to do through my computer and perhaps some visits to local libraries and resource centers. I rarely needed to travel, but this particular job was proving to be an exception in every way, and Simon was going to have to deal with that.

All my ducks were in a row, for a change. Ronit was around and available, and every minute of the kids’ waking hours for the next three days were planned out. I had typed up detailed lists with the daily schedules for Simon and Ronit. I didn’t really think I would be gone for three days, but just to be on the safe side I had thought through the rest of the week. I even briefly considered taking Caleb with me and dropping him off with my grandmother while I went about my business down there, as she lived only about an hour away from my destination. But she had answered my e-mail with the news that as much as she would love to see us, she was heading over to the Miami area for a few days to see her one of her cousins, who was recovering from hip replacement surgery. I reminded myself to send Cousin Ida a get-well card.

I was racking my brain trying to think of additional things I could do to prove to Simon that things were under control. I had gone so far as to lay out clothes for the kids for the rest of the week, in neat piles on top of their dressers, even though it was inevitable that Hannah would want to wear something else entirely, and the less it matched, the better.

The phone rang and I reached for it, glad for the distraction.

“Hey, Abby,” said Bird. “How are you?”

I settled myself on a stool, turning my back on the dirty dishes. “Fine. You?”

“Fine, fine. So what’s the deal? Are you considering my offer? Why haven’t I heard an immediate yes?”

I groaned. “Oh, Bird, not everyone’s like you. Not everyone knows what they want right away.”

She laughed. “Okay. But you’ve had a few days. What are you thinking?”

Just then the phone beeped, indicated another call. “Hold on, call waiting.” I depressed the call button. “Hello?”

“Hi Abby.” Simon’s deep voice boomed into my ear. “Everything okay over there?”

“Yeah. How’d the meeting go?” I asked, doing my best not to sound accusatory.   “I thought you’d already be on your way by now.”

Simon cleared his throat. “Abs, it’s not going so great. I’m going to be at least another hour.” He paused, waiting for a response, but I didn’t say anything. “I’m sorry, hon. I wish it was over, believe me. Will you wait up?”

“I’ll be up, I’ll be up. I need to talk to you. Hold on a sec.” I clicked back to Bird. “Can you hold on another minute? It’s Simon. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Sure,” she answered.

“Thanks.” I clicked back to Simon. “Okay, I’m back.”

“What’s up? Everything okay? I can’t really talk now.”

“Yeah, fine. But I need to go to Florida tomorrow.” I got up and walked over to the sink, willing myself to face the mess. “I’ll explain when you get home.”

There was silence on the other end.

“You there, Simon?”

A strange sound came from the receiver, something between a sigh and a groan. “I assume you’re not joking. And I assume this has to do with Jack Gelberman, and not your grandmother.”

“You assume correctly.” As I spoke, I dumped the carrot peels in the garbage and ran more water in the pot. The warm sudsy water felt good on my hands.

“Shit, Abby. This is a really bad time for me right now. Never mind the fact that you’re in way over your head here with this whole Gelberman thing.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. “Simon, you have to go back to work, and Bird’s waiting patiently to finish our conversation. We’ll talk later. Good luck with the rest of the meeting.”

“Abby, this isn’t fair. You can’t just throw this at me.”

I attacked the bottom of the pot with gusto I didn’t know I had in me after this long day. “Simon, trust me, I’ve got to go. It will be fine. Just a quick trip down and back. Ronit is around. It’s not a big deal.”

“Look, they’re calling me to come back in. Don’t make any quick decisions and we’ll talk later. You didn’t buy a ticket already, did you?”

I turned the faucet back on and ran more hot water. “What did you say? I can’t hear you over the water.”

“That’s an old trick, Abby. You bought the ticket, didn’t you?”

My silence was enough of an answer.

“I can’t believe you would—look, I really gotta go. I’ll be late, but try to stay up, okay?” Simon’s voice was strained and my guilt level increased. I knew he was under a lot of stress at work, and I wasn’t helping the situation.

I exhaled loudly. “Okay. I’ll probably be downstairs working.”

“I’ll come down when I get in. Believe me, I’d be home if I had a choice.”

“I know. Go, good luck. I’ll see you later.”

I clicked back to Bird. “Okay, I’m back.”

She picked up right where she had left off. “This job is made for you. You have to at least give it serious consideration. Flexible hours, good pay, benefits. Come on, what are you waiting for? Someone else is going to grab it up, and you’ll be sorry forever.”

It really was a great offer and I needed some time to think it through. “Can you give me a week?” I said, renewing my futile attempt to scrub burnt rice off the bottom of the pot. The pot needed to soak overnight, but I was too stubborn and too jumpy to just let it be.

Bird thought for a moment. “Okay, but just for a week. I really can’t do more than that.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m sure that I won’t need more than a week to resolve this case.” Famous last words.

[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 Seventeen

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 17. Enjoy!

Chapter Seventeen

IMG_1773It was late in the day by the time I got back to Brooklyn with Hannah and her class. Ronit met us at pick up and I sent them home, then ran to the subway as quickly as was humanly possible, risking looking rude toward the other mothers for not sticking around to do the usual after-school post-field-trip chat.

The Jewish Genealogical Division of the New York Public Library was located in the basement of the main branch of the library on Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street. I dashed up the many steps leading to the front doors of the library, nodding in passing to the famous lions who kept guard on either side of the stone steps, avoided the New Yorkers sprawled across the steps taking advantage of the sunny day, and ran inside. The temperature was quite a few degrees colder inside the building, but the chill that ran down my spine was not due to the cold. There was a special kind of reverence that hit me every time I entered this branch of the library, the main reference branch of the whole New York Public Library system. Libraries were a kind of sacred space, and this particular library was truly worthy of reverence. Its vast spaces, hushed tones, muted color scheme, majestic murals and high vaulted ceilings created a sense of awe. Just trying to grasp the amount of knowledge and information available within the walls of this building was enough to make me giddy. Forget Central Park, the Empire State Building, or the South Street Seaport–the main reading room was one of the great wonders of New York.   A cavernous, echoing space filled with polished wooden desks, substantial wooden chairs, and green desk lamps, where an incredible spectrum of humanity read, wrote, researched, and dreamed, the main reading room was a candy store packed with endless possibilities of knowledge.

This afternoon, however, my research led me downstairs, to Room 101. It was a miniature version of the main reading room, complete with the same wooden desks, chairs, and reading lamps. Though my work rarely allowed me to indulge in it, I loved the tactile adventure of pure research, research that involved actual books, card catalogues, pens, and index cards. The Internet and other new technologies made research so much easier and faster, yet something was missing from the process. There was almost nothing I loved better than sitting at one of those wooden tables, a pile of books in front of me waiting to be opened, and my supplies at the ready. If it was possible to bottle the musty, slightly clammy smell of old books, I’d be one happy person. My work this afternoon promised to be the old-fashioned kind of book research, a good antidote to the computer searches and e-mail driven work I’d been so busy with lately. Despite the twinge of guilt I felt about not spending the afternoon with the kids, and especially Caleb, whom I had not seen all day, I was excited and in a great mood.

I walked over to talk to the librarian, a tall, thin, amiable guy, with a lopsided grin and a head of dirty-blond curls inexplicably parted in the middle.

“Hi there,” he said. “What good stuff are you coming here to find, and how can I be of service?”

I explained what I was looking for, and he helped me locate the book. According to him, I was lucky that NYPL had the book, because their collection of Yizkor books was incomplete. The best source for Yizkor books, apparently, was the YIVO Institute, except that it was impossible to find anything there.

Before I knew it, I was happily ensconced in a chair, the Halizch Yizkor book in front of me and a pile of notecards and a pen to my right. I could have turned to page 138 or 174 right away, but first I wanted to get an idea of the structure of the book. Each Yizkor book is different, but the basic elements are the same. It is a history of a certain town, one that either no longer exists today at all, or one in which there are no longer any Jews. The books generally record the renowned rabbis and dignitaries who lived in the town, along with information about the communal institutions. There can be memorials to other people who lived in the town as well.

Jews had first come to Halizch, a small shtetl about 30 kilometers from Warsaw, in 1763. There they lived for many generations, on relatively good terms with their Christian neighbors. In 1935, about sixty percent of the population was Jewish. The Jews of Halizch were mostly simple folk who worked in manual labor or owned small family businesses. There were woodcutters, milkmen, a blacksmith, tailors, watchmakers, a kosher butcher, innkeepers, and the like. There were the standard Jewish communal organizations, like the chevra kadisha, the society that prepared bodies for burial, the cheder, where boys were educated, the beis midrash, where they continued their Jewish studies, the mikveh, or ritual bath, and of course the synagogue. Like many Polish synagogues, it was a modest wooden building that purposely did not call attention to itself.   But it was what went on inside the synagogue that was a source of great pride for the residents of Halizch, for the town was the seat of the Halizch chasidic dynasty, home of the Halizcher rebbe.

Jews came from all over to meet the rebbe, study with him, and hear him speak. On Shabbat the town would be packed with visitors who made long and difficult journeys in order to be able to spend time in the presence of their rebbe. It was a great honor to get to share a meal with the rebbe, who, seated at a large table ringed by his chasidim, would take small bites of food and then pass along the rest of his meals to be divided by his followers. At these meals he would tell stories, sing niggunim, and teach Torah. During the time memorialized in the Yizkor book, the years directly preceding the war, most of the local Jews were followers of the rebbe, Yosef Yehudah, who had followed in the footsteps of his revered father, Leib Mendel. There was a great deal written in the Yizkor book about these beloved rebbes. Both were said to have incredible powers, to teach and to preach, to heal and to comfort. Both were thought to have direct lines of communication with God, their Creator. Much was written about Leib Mendel’s healing touch and comforting song, and about Yosef Yehudah’s eyes, with their ability to penetrate one’s very soul with a glance.

At the back of the book was an extensive list of those from Halizch who died during the Holocaust. I checked the lists, and saw right away that Yosef Yehudah, Yankeleh, and Leib Mendel were all listed as having died in Treblinka. As far as this book was concerned, none of them had survived.

Many of the essays focused on the impact of the Holocaust on the town and on its inhabitants. Their experiences in the war were chronicled and the memories of their suffering and deaths properly recorded. From what I could gather from flipping through the book, the Jewish citizens of Halizch suffered greatly in the war. By the time the war ended, the majority of the town’s Jewish population had been killed. Most of the Jews of Halizch had been Halizcher chasidim, and had loyally followed the teachings of their rebbe that their fate was in God’s hands. Only some, like Mrs. Freiburg and her husband, left and thus survived. The passivity of it astounded me, especially since I had been fed a rich diet of active Jewish resistance to martyrdom. The heroes of my childhood were the Jews who had fought back, the partisans and the ghetto fighters, because that was the only way I could make sense of such a situation. I was able to accept that Jews lacked the resources and numbers to effectively stand up to the Nazi war machine, but the kind of passive acceptance of fate that I saw spelled out before me in the Yizkor book made no sense. I didn’t want to incorporate this new information into my understanding of the Holocaust. I had always rejected the idea of Jews going like sheep to the slaughter, as it came dangerously close to blaming the victim. And more than that, I didn’t understand the kind of faith in God and loyalty to a human leader that would cause people to not try to save themselves.

Remembering that I didn’t have a lot of time before heading back to Brooklyn, I forced myself to stop musing and get back to work. As I continued to flip through the book, one account leapt out at me. It was written by Moishe Feldman, a survivor who, like Avrum Shapira, had been in Treblinka. Included in this account was a strange dream, identical in every way to the dream I had heard in the Achim Brothers Luncheonette except for one interesting difference. In this version of the dream, the boy rising from the mass grave was clutching a large silver Kiddush cup. The symbolism of this cup meant a great deal to the writer of this account, who, like Mr. Shapira, saw the dream as a sign of reassurance and love from the rebbe, whose cup it had been and who had used the cup on many special occasions with his chasidim. I made some notes on this version of the dream, asking myself whether this was in fact something that both men had actually dreamt, or perhaps heard from another party and had come to think of as their own. The rationalist in me had to ask also whether it had been a dream at all, or whether in their weakened, almost delirious states they had actually seen something happen that they naturally thought could only be a dream.           I continued to flip through the book, and my eye was caught by a sketch of a Kiddush cup. I turned back a page to the beginning of this entry, and saw that it was written by Avrum Shapira himself. And sure enough, the picture of the cup was on page 174, one of the page numbers he had scribbled on the piece of paper he stuffed into my bag. The essay was intended as a memorial to Mr. Shapira’s father, the local scribe, and detailed the kind of work that he did and what a good and pious man he had been. But there was also some mention about other aspects of daily life in Halizch, including the relationship between the chasidim and their rebbe.

Apparently there was a special, oversized silver Kiddush cup that played an important role in the community. It was very old, and was said to have been handed down to Yosef Yehudah from his father Leib Mendel, who had been given it by his teacher, Yoel Shlomo . A prized possession among the Halizchers, the cup was greatly sought after for use in weddings and at brisses, and was passed around to all when the rebbe shared a meal with his chasidim. It seemed to function almost as a good luck charm. It would make sense then that Moishe Feldman might have dreamed that he saw the grandson rise from the grave clutching the kiddish cup, and that he would have understood the vision as a good sign. I wasn’t sure exactly why Avrum Shapira would have pointed me to this page, unless he was trying in a round-about way to show me that there were other versions of his dream and to explain the discrepancies by letting me know how important the kiddish cup was to them. It didn’t totally make sense, but I made a note and decided to keep going. I was about to turn the page, when my eyes were pulled back to the picture. Something about that drawing looked incredibly familiar. But surely, despite its age, it was a common design. Perhaps I had seen one like it in a museum or a book of Judaica. Maybe a cup like this one had even been featured in the Jewish calendar that we got sent every year from one of the local Jewish funeral homes. Yet something bothered me in the pit of my stomach about this cup, and all I could think to do was make a note on yet another index card. This cup must play some role in my case—it must be important, or Avrum Shapira wouldn’t have sent me to look at it—but I couldn’t fathom where it fit in. I flagged the page with a post-it so that I would make sure to xerox it before I went home.

The next essay I turned to was about the conflict between the Zionists and the Halizcher chasidim. Though Zionism had not been particularly popular, there were apparently some local Jews who were attracted to the idea of a new Jewish state. Primarily young people, they saw Zionism as an antidote to the Jewish life available in Eastern Europe, a life filled with constant fear and terror, a life based on faith and not on action. Though affiliating with the Zionists meant making a break, both emotional and physically, with their families, some had chosen this path. In the early 1930’s a handful of young people left Halizch for Palestine, including Ruchel and Yitzhak Gelberman. And then in the late 1930’s and into the early 1940’s, as the situation became even more dire for the Jews, several emissaries from Palestine slipped back into Eastern Europe on a mission to try and save as many lives as possible.

The account was vague on the details of this attempt, like how they were able to enter Poland, and who funded their mission. Between the weapons and bribes necessary to carry out their task, they had to have been heavily financed. But this was a collection of memories and personal accounts of history, not a scholarly work, and so many details were left out. I would have to do more research on this issue elsewhere. However, the essay did recount the story that I had already heard, that the Zionists were primarily concerned with saving children, and well-known figures, the Halizcher rebbe Yosef Yehudah among them. But as I had already learned, he adamantly refused, citing his faith in God, his loathing of the Zionists who were forcing the hand of God by trying to establish a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah, and his unwillingness to abandon his followers to their fates. A strong man he must have been, to refuse a chance to be spared. The account told in detail how the chasidim went to the rebbe en masse, begging him to at least let the boy Leib Mendel go, so that the future of the Halizchers would be assured. But he stubbornly refused, even when they came to him with all the gold and jewelry they could collect, in order to pay for false papers and secure passage. The account conveyed some of the anger, disappointment, and confusion of the chasidim when the rebbe refused. And despite his immediate refusal, they had still given their hoard in to his safekeeping, in the hopes that he would change his mind. Though nothing in the essay indicated what might have happened to the valuables subsequently, there was one part that especially intrigued me. It said, “The rebbe turned his back on the Zionists and their offer of help. His followers understood his reasons, but still felt he should have saved his grandson. Though no one wanted to doubt the rebbe, some secretly wondered if his refusal had something to do with the fact that his chossen had taken his beloved daughter away from Poland and away from chasidut.” I knew enough Yiddish to know that chossen was the word for both groom and son-in-law, but I didn’t understand the reference. Was the author’s use of this word here merely a vague allusion to the fact that the rebbe had a son-in-law who had chosen Zionism over chasidism? Or was this reference more specific? Could it mean that Yitzhak Gelberman had been actively involved in trying to save the rebbe and Leib Mendel? If so, might the trail of the missing money lead in his direction? This was getting more tangled by the minute, and none of it was making sense or providing the answers I needed. Though it was a tenuous possibility at best, I diligently made a note to check out whether or not Yitzhak Gelberman had played a role in rescuing European Jews, and kept going.

There was one essay on the Halizcher dynasty that was particularly interesting. It was written by Shlomo Linsk, who had grown up in a Halizcher family. His father had been Yosef Yehudah’s shamash, his right-hand man whose glory lay not in his exemplary scholarship or in his immense riches, neither of which he possessed, but through the access and proximity to the great rebbe that he gained through his selfless devotion. He composed letters for the rebbe, functioned as an intermediary between the rebbe and his chasidim when needed, and made countless arrangements of all kinds, behind-the-scenes work that garnered him little fame but much praise from the rebbe. In his memorial essay, Shlomo Linsk traced the genealogy of both the family and the dynasty, connecting Leib Mendel back to the Baal Shem Tov himself, through a chain of disciples and disciples of disciples. Linsk’s version was almost identical to what Rabbi Springer had described to me. Leib Mendel, Yosef Yehudah’s father, was the founder of the Halizcher dynasty. Leib Mendel had been the disciple of Yoel Shlomo, who was the disciple of Yisrael Eliezer haLevi, who was the disciple of Dov Baer, who was the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov.   The line went straight back to the source. Leib Mendel had been no unknown upstart, rather he was the inheritor of a tradition and a hand-picked leader. He had yichus, the right credentials. Linsk’s account echoed what I had already heard and read elsewhere, that while Yosef Yehudah had only daughters, it was acknowledged that his grandson Leib Mendel, named of course after the original rebbe, would someday become the next leader. As a young boy he had already greatly impressed the Halizcher chasidim with his piety, scholarship, oratorial skills, and innate leadership ability.

I kept reading, looking for some new information. I turned the page, and the page number jumped up at me. Page 138. Why had Avrum Shapira directed me to this particular page? Impatient now, I quickly scanned the text. And there it was. A story, a rumor really, an unconfirmed wisp of possibility. It was believed that the original Leib Mendel had inherited not only the mantle of leadership from his teacher Yoel Shlomo , but something else as well. What Rabbi Springer had not told me when he spoke about the connection between the Halizchers and the Baal Shem Tov was that supposedly the first Leib Mendel had inherited the only original writing left by the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Springer had told me that the Besht had left no writings, but according to Linsk’s essay, that was not entirely the case. Supposedly, Yosef Yehudah was given a piece of parchment by his father on which the Besht had written some of his teachings. And not any teachings, but his teachings about the end of days and a prediction about coming of the Messiah. This was no small thing. The only extant writings by the Besht himself, and about such an important topic. Being in possession of such a thing must have contributed greatly to the status of the Halizchers, and to that of their leaders.

The first question I had to ask was whether this story contained any truth. Did such a document actually exist? And if it did, was it really from the Baal Shem Tov, or was it written by a later disciple? Was it a complete forgery? Linsk’s essay went on to try to prove that such a document did in fact exist, and that it had once been carefully inspected by a local scribe, Menachem Shapira, who had supported its supposed provenance. It would be logical to assume that this Shapira was the father of Avrum Shapira. This was obviously the piece of parchment of which he had spoken when we met. But Linsk continued by lamenting the fact that like so much else, the document disappeared during the war and had probably been destroyed.

All of this of course led to many more questions. Why had Avrum Shapira not told me about this directly? Why had he not spoken about the document, when he clearly wanted me to learn about it? Why had he gone so far to convince me to give up the chase when we met in person, and then provided the very clues that would help me continue? And why did he need to point me toward this information in the first place? How was it connected to my search for the Gelbermans? If this precious document had existed at one time, had it survived the war, and if so, where was it now? Was he trying to tell me that searching for the Gelbermans might be fruitless, but that a search for the Kiddush cup might turn up something of interest?

This mysterious document was undoubtedly a source of pride for the Halizcher chasidim. It was something that would have conferred legitimacy, as well as the superior sense of being the chosen of the chosen.   This piece of parchment could consequently be important to a person seeking an instant road to leadership in the Chasidic world today, or to a group seeking a bigger piece of the internal political pie of within a branch of Chasidism. But could someone really want it badly enough to act in a threatening manner, in a manner completely out of keeping with the basic ideals of chasidism, and of Judaism as a whole? Could someone want it so desperately that anyone who got in the way was in danger? Part of me found it hard to believe that Jews could cause harm to others over issues of ideology or faith. But my other, more cynical side reminded myself that ideology, faith and power were closely connected, and that there were plenty of Jewish bad guys. There were Meir Kahane and his followers, Kach and the guys from the Jewish Defense League, there was Baruch Goldstein who had coldly murdered a group of Muslims as they quietly prayed, and of course there was Yigal Amir, who shot and killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhack Rabin. What motivated all of them was exactly that potent brew of ideology, faith, and power. Despite the fact that the reading room was overheated and stuffy, I suddenly found myself chilled. I had to admit that for the first time since I had heard the name Jack Gelberman, I was truly scared. I might actually be up against something bigger than a simple genealogical search. But realizing this did not make me any less interested in this case. If anything, my resolve to get to the bottom of it was strengthened. I needed to find Sarah Gelberman, I needed to meet Jack Gelberman, and I needed to start getting some answers to my questions.

[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 Sixteen

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 16. Enjoy!

Chapter Sixteen

IMG_2312The soil in the orchard was a deep, rich brown. I breathed in the loamy sweet-sour scent and exhaled. What a difference a one-hour drive north made. We were in the countryside, surrounded by apple trees and the fertility of the natural cycle of growth and harvest. These were small apple trees, not fully mature but just right for the four year old farmers currently grouped around one particularly well-endowed tree. The owner of the orchard had just finished explaining how he raised the trees, and they were discussing the relative merits of Delicious, Macintoshes, Granny Smiths, and Jonathans. Now the children were gazing up in wonder as the farmer demonstrated the proper picking technique and explained how the apples were sorted according to size and quality. A good part of it went over their heads, but they listened attentively and asked questions.

As the farmer continued to speak, I sat down on the ground behind the children, avoiding the overly ripe apples that lay on the ground in puddles of sticky, fragrant mush. The sun was unusually warm and I took off my jacket. Tilting my face up to the heat, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the stolen moment of peace. How good the sun felt on my face. It was an easy cliché that city dwellers didn’t know where their food came from, but there was truly something to it. It was so simple when buying an apple at the store, even at the coop, to forget the miraculousness of it, to forget that the apple came from a tree tended by a farmer, fed by water and sun, grown from a seed. Yes, there was photosynthesis and genetics and biology and botany and chemistry and fertilizers behind all of that, but beyond the science there remained the miracle that set it in motion. We knew enough to understand the how, but we still didn’t understand the why, and maybe that was where God came in to the equation. It was truly an incredible thing, an apple, a thing of glory and wonder. And at that moment I suddenly understood what I had read about the Chasidic idea of the miracle of the everyday. I understood the need to say thanks for the miracle of an apple, and the need to say a prayer before eating such a miracle. It wasn’t just to say thank you to God for having created the apple and providing it to us for food, but it was also a way to sanctify the moment, to stop and notice the miraculousness of God’s creation rather than taking it for granted. How better to praise God than to notice these everyday miracles and rejoice in them.

I opened my eyes and looked at my daughter. She stood between her two buddies Jonah and Zoë. As they listened to the farmer, she and Zoë held hands in the unselfconscious manner of young children. Her curls bounced as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, her dark eyes bright with excitement, her upturned cheeks glowing in the sunlight. Talk about miracles. It was still amazing to me that this little creature, who had emerged from my body looking like a hairless elf now not only possessed a mass of dark curly hair and an enormous vocabulary but friends of her very own. It was fascinating to watch her interact with her peers, especially when she was too absorbed to know I was watching.

Hannah had been independent practically from the moment she was born, trying to push herself up in my arms into a sitting position at three weeks old so that she could see what was going on around her. She crawled at five months and walked at ten, always in pursuit of what to explore, always pushing the limits of how far she could go before I would call her back. When the other mothers in my mothers’ group were complaining about separation anxiety and clinginess, I would have nothing to say, wishing silently that my brave daughter would show signs of either occasionally, if for no reason other than to reassure me that our love affair was mutual. I came to realize that as the mother my job was to reassure her when she needed it, but that it was not in the nature of things for her to reassure me about anything. She showered me with kisses and hugs when she felt like it, and was happy to be hugged and kissed and cuddled when she was tired or not feeling well, but the rest of the time she was simply too busy investigating the world as fast she could to be content sitting in my arms.

At four, she was as independent and self-confident as she had been as a baby and toddler. She had emerged in the last year as a real person, with likes and dislikes and her own way of seeing the world. Now that she had left babyhood behind, Simon and I were enjoying her in a whole new way. The intensity and drive in her personality that we saw in her as a baby was still there, and was channeled into what she was learning and doing at school. She hadn’t been the kind of baby who was happy just being held, but now she couldn’t get enough of sitting with us and telling us about the differences between an apotosaurus and a T-rex, what animals lived in Australia, or how to make the color purple. It was absolutely delightful listening to her talk about her day, and analyze the various intricacies of preschool social dynamics. It had come as a shock to realize that I was going to enjoy interacting with her more and more as she got older, and that that was really what parenthood was about, not whether you started with solid foods at four months or at seven, or whether you nursed for three months or two years, or not at all. It was the ability to accept and appreciate your child as a person, to teach and guide and raise that person while all the time acknowledging that the person he or she was had already formed inside.

A jarring vibration at my side jolted me out of my reverie. Damn. I was always annoyed on field trips when other parents spent the whole time on their cell phones. What was the point of coming if you weren’t really there? But I could see that it was Shuki, and I knew he wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t important. My left leg had fallen asleep, but I got up as gracefully as possible and walked a little bit away from the group in to an empty part of the orchard.

He had met with success. Once again I marveled at both Shuki’s skills and the power of cash. Holding a fifty dollar bill in his hand, he had convinced the super of Sarah Gelberman’s building on Second Street to talk to him about Sarah. It was looking likely that the young woman was for real, as the super had a copy of her credit report and driver’s license, even though he wouldn’t let Shuki see them. But the combination of cash and a promise to share any contact info he found convinced the super to give Shuki her parents’ phone number, which she had given him in case of an emergency, and her license number. The lease wasn’t up until June, and it looked like Sarah, who had moved in sixteen months ago, had cleared out in a big hurry, without any prior notice and without paying the last month’s rent. Needless to say, the super wasn’t happy and welcomed a chance to track her down and collect his money. But he did report that until she left, she had been a model tenant, on time with her rent, quiet and neat. For a little additional cash, Shuki was allowed in to the building, where he managed to speak to Sarah’s former next door neighbor, a musician who, as luck would have it, was home during the days and worked at night. He hadn’t seen Sarah move out, but he had noted that about two months ago, when he was coming up from doing his laundry, he had seen Sarah entering her apartment with two of what he called “chasids,” who he described as being in their twenties, with beards and black hats, wearing black suits with white shirts. More specific than that he couldn’t be, but he remembered being struck by how incongruous they looked here and wondering what business they had with Sarah. He had seen a similar man again, last Thursday night, around 8:00 at night. He remembered, because he was getting ready to go to work when he heard noise in the hallway. He had looked through the peephole, and saw a man pounding on Sarah’s door and yelling at her to open up.   Sarah opened her door and immediately slammed it, but the man hadn’t let up. Finally, just as the neighbor was about to intervene, she opened the door again and let the man in. The neighbor had remarked to Shuki that he thought it was unusual that a girl like Sarah would have one of those guys for a boyfriend, but that in this city anything was possible.

I thanked Shuki so profusely I think I embarrassed him. This was extremely helpful information, but probably not good news. It also made me more worried than ever about Sarah Gelberman’s well being. Where had she run to, and why? Who was this man at her door, and what did he have to do with all of this? And still, the biggest question of all, what was this case about anyway? Just a nice foray into genealogical research, as Sarah had told me, or was there something else going on here, as Mr. Shapira and Mrs. Freiburg seemed to think?

At this point, there seemed to be only one sane thing to do, and that was to pay a visit to a mysterious man living in Winter Park, Florida. I had done a lot of circling of the target. By now I was sincerely worried that Sarah was in danger. It was time to go to the source. There was too much going on that I didn’t understand. But first, I had one more visit to make in New York.

[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 Fifteen

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 15. Enjoy!

Chapter Fifteen

IMG_1595In the end, Simon agreed to come home from work earlier than originally planned. Ronit had a class and none of the high school babysitters I occasionally used were available on a school night. My grandmother was not due back in New York until Passover. It was one of those times when I wished my parents were around, instead of traipsing around the globe having the time of their life. I felt bad asking Simon to leave work at the ridiculously early hour of five and make it home by six, but he was their parent too.

Brooklyn Heights was an elegant, landmarked community of meticulously renovated brownstones and ridiculously over-priced coop apartments with river views. When traversing one of the tree-lined sidewalks in the heart of Brooklyn Heights and admiring the nineteenth century architecture, it was hard to think that just a few blocks away was Court Street, the commercial strip that divided Brooklyn Heights from its neighboring downtown community of office buildings, discount stores, and low-income housing.   The area was also home to Family Court, the State Supreme Court, and Federal Court, hence the name Court Street, as well as Borough Hall and New York City’s Board of Education. The fact that there were so many people who came to the area to work every day was the only justification I could come up with for the ongoing existence of the Achim Brothers Diary Luncheonette, a sad little kosher dive that stank of cooked onions, stale coffee, and commercial disinfectant.

I looked around the restaurant, not that there was much to see. It was a tiny luncheonette, with a counter at the front and a handful of tables in the back. I figured that they must do most of their business by delivery.   The walls were unadorned, except for two cheaply framed photographs of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, and an El Al poster of Jerusalem taped up between them. Next to the counter was a small sink so that observant customers could wash their hands before eating. Above the sink were taped copies of the blessings, in Hebrew and English, to be said before and after eating. At one of the tables closest to the counter were three young kippot-clad men talking loudly and laughing. In the back corner sat a small but plump man with a long gray beard.

“Mrs. Marcus?” he called, waving.

I walked over to his table. “Call me Abby,” I replied, putting out my hand to shake his but pulling back quickly as I remembered that being observant, he would not touch someone of the opposite sex who was not related to him.

“Sit, sit,” he said, motioning with his arm.   He didn’t get up, but if he had, I didn’t think he would be any taller than I. The little bit of hair left on his head was covered with a dark kippah. Behind his black-framed glasses, his deep-set eyes gleamed warmly as he smiled at me. “Such a pleasure. Sit, nu, sit.”

I took off my jacket and sat down across from him.

“A glassel tea, maybe I can order for you?” Mr. Shapira asked me.

“No thank you,” I answered.

“It will be good, take the chill off this evening,” he said, and nodded to the woman behind the counter. “Two teas please here. Thank you.”

What could I do? Apparently for the duration of this job I was condemned to drink tea. It killed me to think that down the block there was a Starbucks, where other people were enjoying cups of strong, dark coffee.

“Let us begin, yes?” he asked me, and I nodded. He settled himself in his seat and continued to speak as the woman brought over two glasses of tea. “Thank you. Drink. L’chaim. Now, I am a simple man, and I have lived a simple life. I am a scribe, and thanks God, I manage to have food to eat and a bed to sleep in and a roof over my head. Every day I take another breath, I say thanks God for keeping me alive, though I don’t know why God chose me for this honor, for helping me to see another morning and another evening. Every day I say thanks God for bringing me out of the hell-holes where I spent three years of my life. I lost my parents, my wife, my brother, may their memories be for a blessing, but thanks God my sister lived and we have each other. Every day I say thank you for what I have and don’t spend a lot of time on what I don’t have, because what can you do? That kind of thinking gets you nowhere except mad and ungrateful. With God’s help I lived through a terrible time and managed to see another sunrise. Why me and not my brother, not my father or mother, I don’t know. But still I must give thanks to God. You understand?”

I wasn’t sure I did, but nodded anyway.

He took a deep gulp of the hot tea. “So when Mrs. Freiburg called and asked me to speak to you, of course I agreed. How else to respond to a friend? A link to the world that used to be? We are landsmen, I went to cheder with her brother, zikaron livracha. Sometimes I am a guest in her house for Shabbos, especially since my wife, my second wife, zikrona livracha, passed away. You understand?”

What I was beginning to understand, rightly or wrongly, and despite the friendliness evident in his eyes, was that he didn’t particularly want to speak to me, but was doing so at the behest of Mrs. Freiburg. However, it didn’t seem like malevolence on his part, simply an unwillingness to get involved in something difficult or complicated.

“Over the years, we help each other. She and her family needs a claf, a scroll for a mezuzah, they come to me. Ketubot, marriage contracts, they come to me. My father was a scribe, my grandfather was a scribe, and so on. They know if they need something written, they come to me and it will be beautiful, kosher, just right. If I need help, I go to them. My sister had some troubles, I didn’t know what to do, I go to my friend, her son recommends a doctor. So, we will speak, you and I. But what I must tell you more important than all, what my old friend wanted to tell you, and couldn’t, is this–be careful. Mrs. Freiburg, she doesn’t think you have been asked to do this research as a nice birthday present for an old man. She thinks maybe there is some other reason. Something to do with her grandson, Arieh. You see, Arieh, he is not a bad boy. Maybe he overdoes it sometimes, but he is a good boy. But he belongs to a group of young men, all good boys but too quick to jump, too safe to think careful. They are real Americans, these boys, and they don’t think about being careful. They just think about being right.”

“And what are they trying to be right about?” I asked, trying not to show my impatience as Mr. Shapira stopped to take a breath and gulp some more tea.

“Yes, yes. They want to control the future by controlling the past. The past is like their coloring book. They think that if they can reach back into the past, if they can get what they believe is theirs, then they can get what they want in the future.”

“But what do they want?” None of this was making sense, and I wanted him to get to the point.

“Ah, that is the question. What they want is the future, I believe, the power to shape the future. None of them will ever lead their community, none of them will ever be the rebbe, but they want to be close to the rebbe. They want to help make decisions. They want a big and bright future. They are, none of them, scholars. Smart, but not brilliant. Rather, they are politicians, wheelers and dealers. They are good boys, but also angry young men who never had to prove themselves and test their courage. They have been raised on the best of what America has to offer them. They have never known hunger, never known cold, never known pain. And this makes them feel bad. Like they are not worthy because they haven’t suffered. It also makes them feel angry, that they can’t fight against the evil that their parents and grandparents knew. Because they believe that even though life has been good to them so far, that history in the end is against them, and the world is against them, and therefore it is their right to grab what they believe is theirs. Things may be good now, but there is no guarantee that things will be good tomorrow, unless they make sure it will be so by their acts of bravery and heroism. They are looking for a cause, something to fight for.”

He stopped speaking and looked at me, waiting for me to react, but I was having trouble following him. “Where do I come into this?” I asked. “What does this have to do with the Gelbermans?”

“Yes, yes. That is the question,” he replied. “What do you think? You must know about these things in your line of work. What do you think this might have to do with?”

One thing I learned long ago was that when it came to trusting people, you had to go with your gut. There wasn’t usually time to gather quantitative analysis on someone’s trustworthiness. My intuition was telling me that while Mr. Shapira might have been hesitant to talk, not wanting to dredge up difficult memories with a total stranger, he was a friend, not a foe. I didn’t think I had anything to lose by being honest with him.   “I admit to feeling somewhat out of my depth here, Mr. Shapira. The only thing I can think of that could be motivating someone to get involved with this whole thing is the money that Yosef Yehudah is supposed to have been given by his Chasidim to get his grandson out of Poland. Now granted, there’s a lot I don’t understand about the family, about the Holocaust, and about the Halizchers in general. But honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine that the money is simply sitting somewhere waiting to be re-claimed. If in fact the whole family died, it had to have either disappeared or been used during the war.” Of course, what I didn’t say was that if someone had lived, someone like the other grandson Yankeleh, then maybe in fact the money was still in Gelberman hands. And then it hit me — that had to be why people were looking for Jack Gelberman. That had to be why Sarah Gelberman’s story did not check out. Maybe she truly was not who she said she was, and she had hired me to find him so that someone, herself or some other person yet unknown, could try to reclaim the money from Jack Gelberman. And if that was the case, whomever she was, either she or Jack Gelberman, or both, could be in a lot of danger. Trying to stay calm, I took a deep breath and spoke. “Is that what Arieh is after, this theoretical stash of money that might have belonged to his ancestors?”

Mr. Shapira unexpectedly smiled. “You are sharp, I see. But I think you are wrong. Maybe not entirely wrong, because if there are other people who think that there is a Gelberman alive, they may only know about the money and may want to find it. But I would be surprised if that is the case. You are right in assuming that the money would be long gone. I don’t know myself, but I would also think it would be long gone. No, no, what Arieh Freiburg and his friends are after is not the money. It is something else, something entirely more valuable. So you see, my friend Mrs. Freiburg is not worried about Arieh harming you, but she is worried he may not be the only one. She wants you to be careful.”

“But about what? From whom? What is it that they are looking for? Can you tell me more?” I asked, hoping that he might give me some information to relieve the anxiety I was now experiencing over the fates of Jack and Sarah Gelberman.

He looked past me, his eyes staring straight ahead. He sighed deeply and pulled on his beard. “As I said, I am a scribe, a simple man. What do I know from these things? There are rumors, crazy stories. We Chasidim love stories. There was a once a rumor that I heard as a young boy about a special piece of parchment that was in the possession of our rebbe, Yosef Yehudah, the Halizcher rebbe. It was said that this document was given to him by his father, the rebbe before him, Leib Mendel, who was given the parchment by his teacher, who got it from his teacher, who got it from his teacher. It is said to be a precious piece of parchment. But that is all I know. Rumors.”

“That’s it?” I asked, unwilling to believe this was the whole story. This couldn’t be all there was.

“Mmm,” he nodded, still looking at me. “The problem is that no one really knows what this piece of parchment is, and so everyone thinks he knows. That is worse than knowing itself, to think you know, because then you have to try to prove what you know. And some people have themselves convinced that this little scrap of parchment contains something very important, and if they think you have it or can find it, their goal is to get this back from you. I am a scribe and so one thing I do know is the importance of authenticity. If a scrap of parchment is real, the owner has credibility, he has power. And it doesn’t even have to be real if he can convince others that it is. So it is dangerous, and you would do best to drop this. I want you to know there is no way either Gelberman boy lived. You are chasing ghosts.”

I had to ask the question that was stuck in my throat. “Why is everyone so sure that neither Yankeleh nor Leib could have lived?” Mr. Shapira looked at me, and nodded his head. He took his time answering, getting up to stretch, adjusting his glasses and twirling the ends of his beard. Finally he took a deep breath and sat down again. “Now I will tell you a story. There is much in this world that I do not know. But of one thing I am certain – there is no chance that either Gelberman boy survived. In 1941 all of the Jews from Halizch were rounded up and deported to the ghetto. What it was like, you cannot imagine. The crowding, the hunger, the filth. But somehow we managed to crowd in, somehow room was made for another group of people, and another, and still another. We lived there, crowded in among the earlier arrivals, and it was terrible, but not as terrible as what was still to come. The rebbe continued to hold court, his Chasidim came to him and they studied and prayed, like always, but not like always. We had a cheder, we had a beis meidrash, we had a soup kitchen. Life was difficult, but we kept on the best we could, even as conditions got worse and worse. After some time, the rebbetzin died of typhus, and so did her daughter Sura. We didn’t understand why the rebbe hadn’t agreed to save the grandson when he could have, why he hadn’t agreed to save himself when he could have, but he was our rebbe, you see. Who were we to doubt? He believed, until the very end, that the Jews would not be destroyed, that the Nazis would be defeated. He didn’t seem to care about whether or not he lived to see it, that wasn’t important. He said he couldn’t worry about his own fate when the fate of his Chasidim was hanging in the balance. Who was he to place more importance on himself, to save himself when his people were suffering. What was important was not to give up faith, not to stop believing and praying and studying and giving thanks. A true tzaddik he was. Until the day he died he was there to give us hope, to give us comfort. Even in the camp, in that place of hopelessness and despair, he led prayers, he taught, he looked us in the eye with those deep blue pools of his and didn’t let us give up. And in the end, though he was no longer there to see it, he was right.   The Jews were not destroyed and the Nazis were defeated. Life kept on going.

“Thanks God, he died before the boys. He was so weak and thin, so sick by that time, all you could see was his beard and his big blue eyes like deep, shining pools. It was a miracle he made it to Treblinka at all. The men his age, they usually didn’t even waste their time with, usually they were killed right away. But through some miracle, he was placed in the line going to the right, only a few people ahead of me, with all the young men. And Nossen, his son-in-law, Nossen who was already skinny and not strong, Nossen was sent to the left. Again, why, I don’t know. We never saw Nossen again. We knew what happened to those who were sent to the left.   The rebbe didn’t live a long time in the camp, but while he was there, even so sick, he continued to teach, to pray, to comfort, to keep us from becoming animals like the Nazis wanted. He helped us remember our humanity, who we were. Even so shrunken and so sick, the light of Torah still shone from his eyes. We did our best to help him and protect him, but one morning that was it. He collapsed and was shot right there, like a rabid dog. Ay, why am I blessed with such a memory, to live with that picture in my head always, I don’t know. But he managed to die with dignity, a look of peace on his face, God’s name on his lips.

“One day not too long after that, they rounded us up and sent us to work. It was March 28, 1942. I know that because it was two days before Pesach. Our work detail that day—to cover bodies in a ditch. I do not want to give you nightmares, Mrs. Marcus, I have plenty to share but why should you have that burden, so I will spare you details. And don’t tell me you want to know, because you don’t. We hear shots, many shots. Then they open the door of the truck and tell us to get out and start working. In front of us is a ditch. In the ditch are bodies, hundreds of bodies. Many are people we know. You see, the Nazis are not stupid in their cruelty. They know just how to make us suffer as much as possible. These bodies, they are those who came with us from Warsaw, and some even from Halizch. They are our neighbors, our friends, our family. And there in the ditch I see the two boys, Leib and Yankeleh. There they are, holding hands still, Leib under Yankeleh. Always, he was the younger, but the stronger, the leader, always supporting his brother, even in death.” He turned from the window to face me. “So you see, Mrs. Marcus, there is no way this Jack Gelberman you are chasing is Yankeleh the rebbe’s grandson. I took a good look at the boy, I saw those sad dark eyes of his staring at nothing, and believe me, I can assure you he was not alive.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” I asked quietly.

“Yes, absolutely. He could not have lived after what they did to him. I managed to reach over and close his eyes while the guard wasn’t looking, and he was cold to the touch already.”

“And then what did you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“With heavy hearts, we began to cover them with dirt. It was a terrible job, but it was also a mitzvah, the most we could do to properly care for the dead. Silently, to ourselves, many of us said Kaddish. A guard came out of the truck and spoke to the one guarding over us as we worked. I couldn’t hear him, but he must have told him to make us hurry, because he tried to get us to work faster. But it was bitter cold, and starting to snow, and we were so weak and sick ourselves that we couldn’t work faster. Finally, when we had covered them with just a thin layer of dirt, they rushed us back into the truck and took us back. Then a strange thing happened. I never slept well all the time I was there, but at that moment I must have dozed off, and I had a strange dream. I dreamt that I was looking behind me as we drove away in the lorry, and I saw the rebbe’s hands reached down from heaven and lift Yankeleh out of the pit. But then Yankeleh turned in to Leib, like they melded into one whole, I could see his bright blue eyes like the color of the sky, and he was being lifted by the rebbe, and the rebbe before him, and the rebbe before him, and so on back to Adam. By the merits of the forefathers the boy was lifted out of the pit and floated along the ground, and into the forest. It was a beautiful dream, because I woke up again to the nightmare that was life, but I had in my heart the knowledge that both boys had been carried safely to the next world where they would know no pain and no horror like what they had already seen in their young lives. It was a message, a message of hope from the rebbe that he was able to send to me even from the grave. That dream gave me hope, even on the darkest days, and helped me to not fear my own death. I knew how much the rebbe cared about his chasidim, and I knew that just as he chose not to value his grandsons’ lives above the lives of his chasidism, he would surely do no less for me in death than he would do for his grandsons.”

One part of me was full of skepticism, doubting Mr. Shapira and trying to come up with logical explanations for what he reported to have seen. But I had to admit that a small part of me that felt like I was there with him on that horrible, cold day, seeing the vision in his dream and drawing some small measure of comfort from it. In the end, the researcher in me won out. “Did you tell anyone about this dream?” I asked tentatively.

“That was also a wonderful thing, you see,” he answered. “I was not the only one to have this dream. Many of us who were there that day had such a dream. The details were different from man to man, but the dreams were similar. Even some who were not Chasidim, even them the rebbe reached with his rachmanes, his compassion, you see? Many people had that dream, and the story of the dream spread, giving comfort to countless.”

I nodded encouragingly. “That’s amazing.”

“Yes, yes, it was. It truly was. A miracle. As I said, I will never understand why God chose me to survive, and not someone else. But I know that that dream helped me. It gave me strength in the darkness. That was what the rebbe did, and that’s what Leib himself would have done if he had lived. There are just people like that, people who have an extra spark in their soul. And you are so lucky when they share some of the light of that spark with you. Even after death, they are able to spread some of that light.”

By now my mind was racing faster than my mouth could speak. “Mr. Shapira, I hope I don’t seem rude, so forgive me, but I must ask you this question. It seems to me very possible, though maybe not logical, that Yankeleh survived. Is there any, any chance that you did not see what you think you saw, that your memory is playing tricks on you?”

Mr. Shapira gasped and inhaled sharply. “No, no, it is impossible. As I told you, I got a good look at Yankeleh. There is no way he could have lived after what they did to him. No, it cannot be. Believe me, I know how a body feels when the spirit has departed.”

Alarmed that I had offended him, I spoke quickly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply—”

“No, no,” he said, smiling sadly now and shaking his head. “I’m sorry myself, don’t apologize. It is just that such an idea, that we would have done such a thing to the boy, no, never. It cannot be. What a thought. Mrs. Marcus, how happy I would be if that was the case that he got up and walked away, but no, for him to have lived would have been a miracle.”

“But why not? Why not a miracle? You said that the dream itself was a miracle, didn’t you? Doesn’t your belief system allow for the miraculous? Isn’t that what Chasidism teaches? So why not this miracle?” I countered, surprising even myself with my audacity.

A range of responses played across Mr. Shapira’s features, surprise, humor, even a slight flicker of anger. “Mrs. Marcus, it is not every day that someone I just met tells me what I belief. Yes, you are right, my ‘belief system’ as you call it allows for miracles. But there are miracles, and there are miracles. I don’t believe that what I saw in the dream literally happened. I believe with all my heart that it was a miracle, but the miracle was that the rebbe was able to deliver this message of comfort and hope from beyond the grave. The miracle was that even the Nazis were not able to stop the rebbe from coming to the aid of his chasidism in their time of trouble. That was the miracle, Mrs. Marcus. Even the rebbe, even from the grave, could not literally bring someone back to life from the dead. That will happen only when the Messiah comes, and I do not believe that the Messiah was there that day in Treblinka. Believe me, Mrs. Marcus, neither of those boys lived. The world would have been a different place if Leib had lived. Such a boy was destined for great things, great things for the Jews and for the whole human race. A tragedy, a tragedy it was, Mrs. Marcus.”

As he spoke the last words, I heard a door shutting inside him. It was clear our time was over. He had delivered the message he had been asked to deliver, and I had asked all the questions I was going to be allowed to ask. I would have to be satisfied with what I had gotten.

He asked for the check, and would not let me pay for the two glasses of tea. As Mr. Shapira reached for his wallet, the sleeve of his jacket brushed against his spoon and it clattered to the floor, landing near my bag. I reached down to retrieve it, but despite his age, Mr. Shapira’s reflexes were faster than mine and he got to the spoon first. He fumbled for it, picked it up, and set it back on the table. As he set it carefully down on the table next to his glass of tea, I looked at this man who had been through so much in his life. It was a wonder to me that someone could have witnessed the things that he saw, and suffered what he must have suffered, and still seem to be a caring, thoughtful person. There was so much more that I would have liked to ask him, but the questions I had weren’t related to my current research, and it didn’t seem as though he wanted to speak more than necessary about those years of his life. I knew that some Holocaust survivors saw it as their personal responsibility to speak about their experiences in order to teach subsequent generations, as well as to ensure that sure a thing would never happen again. But Mr. Shapira did not seem like such a person. For this reason, the little bit that he had shared with me seemed all the more precious, and I was grateful for it. He had had his reasons for speaking to me today, and though I wasn’t sure if I fully knew yet what those reasons were, I did know that whatever the impact of our discussion would be on the outcome of this particular job, his words and the emotions they conjured within me would remain for many years.

I stood up and got ready to leave. “Thank you so much,” I said. He nodded, lost in his own thoughts. I turned and began to walk out towards the subway when his voice made me turn back around.

“You be careful, Mrs. Marcus,” he called to me from his table in the back of the restaurant. “There are a lot of mishugenas out there. You be careful.”

The brief subway ride from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope was not exactly a trip through the danger zone, especially not at this hour when the trains were still full of commuters on their way home. But since I assumed he meant well, I waved by way of thanks, and hurried towards the station. If I rushed, I might just be able to help Simon tuck the kids into bed. After listening to Mr. Shapira, there was nothing I wanted to do more than see my kids’ faces and kiss them goodnight.

When I reached into my bag for my metrocard, I felt a piece of paper sticking up. It was an edge torn from a paper placemat with a note written in shaky handwriting. On the note were the words: Halizch Yizkor Book, page 138; page 174. I leaned against the turnstile, trying to catch my breath, oblivious to the passengers exiting and entering around me. I was sure this piece of paper hadn’t been in my bag earlier. Mr. Shapira must have put this note in my bag when he “dropped” the spoon. The note confirmed my impression that while Mr. Shapira was essentially a friend and not a foe, there was something holding him back from what the Court Street lawyers would have called “full disclosure.” Could he have been acting out of fear? If so, what was going on that was making this man afraid? Although I couldn’t yet fathom the answers to these questions, one thing that I did know was that I was going to have to find that Halizch Yizkor book.

[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 Fourteen

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 14. Enjoy!

Chapter Fourteen
IMG_1578A trip to the local coffee bar and two double espressos later, I was back at my desk, hand on my mouse, ready for action.

My first stop was This was a genealogy website devoted to helping Holocaust survivors find each other, the latest incarnation of a program that had been going on since the end of the war. Over the years, it had helped thousands of people find long-lost relatives. It was no longer as active as it was in the early years, but the survivor’s group that sponsored the program and the site still thought that the reuniting of families was a worthy mission. Interestingly, with the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the last ten years, the group’s activities had seen a slight increase. On the site were listings of names of people being sought, and listings of names of people searching. Going alphabetically down both lists I found nothing. Then I entered the several possible variants into the search engine, and again, nothing turned up. Nobody had contacted this site looking for any Gelbermans, and no Gelbermans had listed themselves on the site. Another dead end.

Before moving on, I paused on the home page of the site, unnerved. Again I experienced that great sense of overwhelming incomprehension I always felt whenever I thought about the Holocaust on a human level. It was one thing to learn dates, facts and numbers. And another thing entirely to think about what it really all meant, to think about being separated from Simon, from my children, from my parents, from my sister, or to think about Caleb and Hannah being separated. It was truly beyond my understanding, and the more I learned the less it made sense. One section of the site, “Lost Children,” was devoted to people who had been so young when hit by the horrors of the war that they had no memory of who they really were, of whom their families had been.   In this section were baby photographs of people who had been adopted by Polish farmers, stowed away in convents, thrown out of trains on their way to sure death in concentration camps, people who had been saved by the generosity and caring of strangers but whose identities, other than being told that their parents were Jews, had been completely erased. The site tracked their progress in trying to find their identities, and in some cases there were happy endings. But most of the stories looked hopeless, impossible attempts at unearthing history long erased.

Meanwhile, my computer informed me that I had mail, a welcome interruption of the sadness of these unfinished stories. There was the message I was waiting for, from Meira, the Israeli genealogy researcher. We had never met in person, but we had developed a relationship by connecting on-line in a genealogical research list-serv and agreeing to help each other out now and then with research. If I needed something looked up in Israel that needed to be done in person, I knew I could ask Meira to help me, and vice versa. If it was a big job, I would pay her, but usually it was quid pro quo. Last year I had spent the better part of two freezing February days in a cemetery in Iselin, New Jersey, locating and then photographing gravestones for her. Now she owed me.

She had replied warmly, happy to be able to return the favor. With all the political instability in Israel, work was slow, and she was happy to have something to do. Not one to sit still when there was research to do, she had already been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Located there was an archive of those who had died in the Holocaust, as attested to by the survivors. The Germans had not, of course, issued death certificates, and so this archive was the most reliable way to get information on Holocaust-related deaths. The goal was to ultimately document the death of every Jew who died during the Holocaust.

What Meira had found was interesting, and worth every minute I spent freezing my tush off last winter. In the archives at Yad Vashem were the documented deaths of the Halizcher Rebbe Yosef Yehudah, his wife Bronia, his young daughters Sura and Chaya Esther, his son-in-law Nossen Shlomo and his daughter Basya, and his two grandchildren Leib Mendel Gelberman, and Yankeleh Chaim Gelberman.   I knew that the archive wasn’t infallible. The center assumed good intentions on the part of the reportees, and simply allowed people to fill out forms stating that they knew the person had died. It was an important service to provide, and generally reliable. But if someone did have a reason to record a false death, it could easily be done.   Still, it was a place to start. Meira promised to send me copies of the documents she had found later on that evening, her time, which would be in a few hours. It was going to be hard to wait to get my hands on the documentation, but I would try my best to be patient.

Before I had too long to sit and stew, the phone rang.

A shaky, elderly male voice with a deep Eastern European accent asked to speak to Mrs. Marcus. Right away I knew this call had to be connected to the Gelbermans, since no else except telemarketers called me Mrs. Marcus, and it was too early in the day for them. They only called during dinner.

“This is Abby Marcus. Can I help you?” I asked politely.

“Maybe rather I can help you,” came the reply. “I am Avrum Shapira, a childhood friend of Mrs. Freiburg. She asked me to call you.”

I sat up straight in my chair. “Yes?”

“I grew up in Halizch.”


“You spoke with her, but I understand you did not finish your talk, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, then,” he continued. “She is sorry that she was not feeling well enough to finish the conversation. So maybe I will tell you some more stories, yes? You would like that?”

“Yes,” I said again, completely unable to be articulate. And never mind that it was Mrs. Freiburg’s grandson who put an end to our conversation, not her ill health. Who was this man, dropping out of the sky or at least out of my fiber-optic cables?   Maybe miracles really did happen after all.

“Good then. You can come tomorrow, ten o’clock in the morning? We can meet somewhere not too far away.”

“Yes, thank you so much.” Then I remembered that I had promised to go on Hannah’s class field trip to the apple orchard. For a moment I seriously considered not going on the trip, but maternal guilt kicked in. I sternly reminded myself, family first, family first, family first. “Could we meet in the afternoon instead, at like four o’clock?”

“No,” he said. “In the afternoon I go to the doctor tomorrow. We will meet in the evening tonight instead. It is better not to wait too long. Six o’clock tonight. I will be in the Achim Brothers Dairy Luncheonette on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, near Livingston. You know where it is?”

This was not an invitation, but a summons. I had no coverage for the kids at that hour, as I knew Ronit was not going to be available, but I would figure something out. “Yes,” I said, “I know it. Across from Borough Hall?”

“Yes, that is right. I will see you tonight,” he said, and abruptly hung up.

Now I had to be doubly patient, waiting for the material from Meira, and waiting to hear what Avrum Shapira would say. But it wasn’t like I had nothing to do. For a change of pace, I decided to do some more reading. I grabbed one of the books piled on my desk, took my index cards and red pen, and went over to the couch. Soon I was back in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, watching Chasidism spread and flourish. What was becoming clear was that Emancipation and the choices that went with rights and citizenship had a major impact on the future development of Chasidism. Once Chasidism had been a movement of radical reform in opposition to the yeshiva-focused Judaism of their adversaries, the mitnagdim. In the face of the explosion of options, the two camps realized they had more in common with each other than not and formed alliances against the growing liberalization within Judaism. The differences between the groups became blurred, and the importance of scholarship began to play an important role for the later Chasidic leaders.   As Orthodoxy came into being as a reaction to the movement for reform and liberalization within Judaism, and as Jews for the first time had the option of leaving the ghettoes and becoming part of the mainstream, the more conservative elements within Judaism began to emphasize the importance of tradition and look with disdain upon anything new or innovative. If the Baal Shem Tov himself had appeared in the 19th century, with his radical new ideas and ways of worshipping God, he might have been scorned by his own descendants for not being traditional enough.

The phone rang again, interrupting my thoughts. I got up from the couch and walked over to my desk, nearly tripping over a stack of files I had left on the floor. On the fourth ring I scooped up the receiver and plopped myself down in the chair.

“Yes?” I said, forgetting as usual to be appropriately professional.

A man’s voice, sounding very far away, said, “Is this Abby Marcus?”

Oh no, I said to myself. Not someone else with something they had to tell me. One surprise phone call a day was quite enough. I was getting impatient with the subterfuge. But I tried my best to be polite, and simply said, “Yes, who is this?”

“A friend of a friend,” came the reply, and this time I realized that the far-away sound was the result of someone trying to disguise his voice. “I am trying to help. Stay away from Gelberman. It’s not your business. Just keep away. And tell your red-haired friend to stay away before she gets in bigger trouble than she already is.”

Before I could reply, he hung up.

I slammed the receiver down hard. Damn! Leaning back in my swivel chair, I stared up the ceiling and knotted my hands behind my head. What the hell was going on? Who was the mysterious caller? And what was his definition of “friend,” a word he obviously liked to overuse? What was going on with this case that seemed so innocent on the surface?   My first thought was that Arieh Freiburg was behind this call, but that was too implausible. I couldn’t believe he would actually threaten me, or Sarah Gelberman for that matter. More than scaring me, the call made me angry. I was angry at being lied to, which was by now abundantly clear, but I couldn’t be sure by whom. I was angry at the audacious interference of this mysterious caller. And I was angry that anyone dared tell me what to do or not to do. But I was also worried, not for myself, but for Sarah Gelberman. What kind of trouble was she in? Regardless of whatever was going on here, having taken her money I now felt partly responsible for whatever happened to her.

I dialed *69, trying to find out what from phone number the call had been made. No luck. All I got for my effort was a recording from the phone company, telling me that the number I was trying to reach was not available. He had probably called from a pay phone, or else was smart enough to plan ahead and block his phone.

My whole body was aching by now, and I needed to stretch. I got up, and walked back over to the dry-erase board. There was one more column that needed to be added. Picking up the pen again, I added a column and wrote at the top: Sarah Gelberman? I paused, the pen in mid-air, then underneath her name I wrote the only thing I could think of at that moment to write: Florida. Then I sat down and typed out a note with detailed instructions for Shuki, and left it taped to the door of their apartment so that he would see it right away when he got home from work.

[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 Thirteen

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 13. Enjoy!

Chapter Thirteen

IMG_1900We headed back from Altoona Saturday night, as something was brewing at work that needed Simon’s attention. The kids and I spent part of Sunday with the Egyptian mummies at the Brooklyn Museum, and the rest just relaxing at home. I had given myself and Jack Gelberman a day off, not including the several hours spent at my computer after they went to sleep and before Simon got home, exhausted and grumpy.

Now it was Monday, and back to work. Though I hadn’t done much on Sunday, others had been working on my behalf. The call I had gotten on Saturday afternoon at Horseshoe Curve was from Shuki, Ronit’s boyfriend, with the results of some legwork I had asked him to do. Shuki worked for a moving company and his hours were irregular. He was always glad to make extra money helping me out. He had been in an elite unit in the Israeli army for three years—though he was on the short side, he was tough and didn’t scare easily. It had been hard to hear him over the noise of the freight train rounding the curve, but I heard enough to know that he was willing to spend a few hours on Sunday walking around the East Village.

I had sent him to scout out the address Sarah provided, in the hope that it was real even though the phone number wasn’t. But surprise, surprise—there was no 47 East Second Street, or rather, there might have been at one time but now it was a vacant lot that had been taken over by community garden activists. But Shuki was a smart guy, not to mention persistent and resourceful. He was being paid to do a job, and he was going to get the job done. He went to 45 East Second Street, and 49 East Second Street. Then he crossed the street and went to 46 East Second Street. Not finding anyone or anything that seemed connected to Sarah Gelberman at any of those buildings, he walked down the block and visited 74 East Second Street.

The lock was broken on the front door to the building, a barely gentrified former tenement most likely now occupied by the graduate students, musicians, artists, and fledging filmmakers who were drawn to the gritty, downtown neighborhood with its surfeit of Indian and Polish restaurants, all-night coffee shops, and independent book stores. He went in and looked at the names on the bells. And there it was–Gelberman, 3B. He rang, but no one answered. Being not only smart but patient, he waited in the vestibule until he found a tenant willing to talk to him. Apparently there had been someone living in the building who fit the description of Sarah Gelberman, but she had moved out about a week ago.

On the e-mail front, there was also some interesting news. I had stayed up late Saturday night when we got home from Altoona, sending off some questions via e-mail and responding to the several messages that were waiting when I signed on. I queried an expert in Polish shtetls about the variant spellings of Halizch, and he verified that Calicz was indeed the same as Halizch. He also pointed me in the direction of the Halizch Yizkor book. Since whole communities were exterminated during the Holocaust, the survivors had created memorial books recording the history of their birthplaces, stories about the people who had lived there, and lists of names of former inhabitants. The publication of Yizkor books was in keeping with the Jewish insistence on remembering our history and our dead. The Halizch Yizkor book, if I could find it, could be a goldmine. And I had made preliminary contact with an Israeli researcher, to find out how to trace Holocaust records, since this was the first time my research had touched on this area. She wrote back with several possible avenues to continue my investigation and I quickly responded with a note thanking her and offering work.

There was also a surprising message from Bird.

Hey Abs.

Got an interesting proposition. How’d you like to come work for my firm full-time? We’ve got an opening for someone with your skills–think about it–benefits, stability, security, health insurance, paid vacations, 401k, you could still work from home but not have the worries of being freelance. Little direct dealing with clients. Wills, dead-beat dads, straw corporations, background checks, fraud, etc. Doesn’t it sound great?????

Let me know what you think ASAP.


I stared at the screen in disbelief. This job was tailor-made for me. Simon would be thrilled. Yet while I knew I should be begging for an interview, part of me wanted to delete the message and pretend I had never received it. It was everything I should want, but didn’t. I enjoyed the unpredictable nature of what I did, never knowing who the next client would be and what I would learn. I enjoyed being my own boss, setting my own schedule, and dealing with my clients. I liked the thrill of the chase.

Just a few clicks, and the message was archived in some deep, secret place far inside my hard disk. Gone from the screen, gone from the new messages. I definitely couldn’t think clearly now. I knew Bird meant well, but she had thrown a wrench into the precarious balance of my life.

I promised myself that I would seriously consider the offer as soon as I wrapped up the Gelberman case. In the meantime, I had to get organized. At this point, I was going in three directions at once. On my dry-erase board I made three columns. The heading on the first read: Is JG grandson of H Rebbe? Although all signs were pointing to yes, I still needed to do some work to get concrete verification. The heading on the second column read: Why is everyone sure he died? There was clearly a discrepancy, what with such a critical piece of Halizcher lore being that both grandsons had died. More research was needed there. And heading the third column I wrote: Brother? It was time to start actively trying to locate information about the brother. Then, reluctantly, off to the side of the board, heading a fourth, smaller column, I wrote: Arieh F.? What was the story with this man, who clearly did not want me talking to his grandmother? What was his connection, if any, to Sarah Gelberman? Under each heading, I wrote a list of places to check for information and ideas for ways to proceed.

Up to this point, most of my attention had been focused on finding information about Jack Gelberman himself. I hadn’t done badly so far, though there was much more to do. But it was time to go in a different direction and see if Leib Gelberman was alive and well and living in the United States. Or anywhere for that matter. I didn’t think that finding him was going to be easy, because if it was, they wouldn’t have hired me to do it. But before I used any fancy tricks, I needed to cross some of the basic methods off my list.

I went to the on-line Social Security Death Index, just in case he a) had survived the war, b) had immigrated to America, and c) had died here. If all those things were true, and assuming he would have arrived here between 1940 and 1965, and not died earlier than 1965, he would be listed in the Death Index. The Social Security system was computerized in 1968, retroactive to 1965. It was a long shot, but if I did find anything, I would be able to get his date of death, the zip code that the place of death was recorded and the zip code of his last residence. All of this would obviously not help Jack Gelberman meet his brother, but it could provide information that would help him learn what happened to his brother after the war, and might lead him to his brother’s descendants, if there were any. The chances were slim that his brother had survived the war at all, and even if he had, he could be anywhere in the world. He could have changed his name, for that matter. Sometimes genealogy was like playing the slots.

There was also a good possibility that even if he was alive and well, he didn’t want to be found. Terrible things happened during the war. For all the heart-wrenching stories of goodness that emerged from the camps, stories about how complete strangers cared for each other and helped ensure each other’s survival, there were also the other stories. The stories of parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives who betrayed each other for scraps of bread. Why would two brothers not have looked for each other in the last fifty years if they truly wanted to be reunited? What had happened during those years? This was Sarah’s mission, presumably financed by her parents, but was this really what her grandfather would want?

I got nowhere with the Social Security Death Index and promptly put a line through that idea. Either he died during the war, he never came to this country, he changed his name, or he was still alive. Onwards. I went to again, and made another $24.95 offering to the gods of the Internet. Next I went to, where my monthly subscription fee made it convenient for me to find information about anyone in the United States who had a listed phone number. I did a search for Leib Gelberman but turned up nothing. Apparently Gelberman was not an extremely popular last name in this country. I did a modified search for L* Gelberman, expecting to have to wade through several hundred, but only three turned up. There was an L. Gelberman in New Haven, Connecticut, a Leonard Gelberman in New York City, and a Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles.

Cold calls. It was one of my least favorite aspects of genealogical research. But it could be extremely rewarding. I dialed the Manhattan number first. A man answered affirmatively when I asked to speak to Leonard Gelberman. I explained that I had been retained by the Gelberman family to do research on their family tree, and that I was looking for relatives of Jacob Gelberman, from Halizch, Poland. Leonard was interested, but said he had been born in this country, as had been his father and grandfather on his Gelberman side, and didn’t think he was connected to my Gelbermans. I thanked him politely and hung up. Next I dialed the number in New Haven and got the answering machine of a Lisa Gelberman. Another probable dead-end, but I left her my name and phone number with a brief explanation of why I had called. You never know. By this time I needed a cup of coffee badly, or better yet, a double espresso. But I called the third number, hoping to get Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles before he left the house for the day. A man with a slight trace of an accent answered the phone. Once again, I identified myself and explained my reason for calling. He paused and cleared his throat. I felt a slight tingle of excitement, then chided myself for thinking that it could be this easy. After a moment he spoke, and his words burst my bubble of hope.

“That’s not me what you’re looking for,” he said. “I was born in Palestine.”

I could have sworn that he was about to continue, but he remained silent. I thanked him very much and apologized for taking his time. Just before he hung up, he spoke again.

“Good luck with your search. Don’t give up.”

Afterward, I sat staring at my phone. I was left with a totally irrational gut feeling that he had been challenging me to read between the lines. As I sat there, trying to decide if I was simply overdue for some caffeine or if he had really been trying to tell me something, my eye was caught by the sketchy and incomplete Gelberman family tree hanging on my wall. Ruchel, the oldest daughter of Yosef Yehudah, had also married a Gelberman, Yitzhak Gelberman, the brother of Nossen Shlomo. As both Rabbi Springer and Mrs. Freiburg had told me, two sisters married two brothers. It wasn’t uncommon in those days. But she had also told me that the two brothers had been different. While Nossen Shlomo was a shy, soft-spoken Chasid, a devoted follower of his father-in-law, his brother Yitzhak had been a Zionist. Mrs. Freiburg didn’t remember them well, because they left for Palestine when she was a child. Could this Leon Gelberman of Los Angeles, who was born in Palestine, be their son? Could there have been two Leib Gelbermans in one generation? Could Leon be an Americanization of Leib? But if so, why hadn’t this Leon Gelberman reacted with familiarity to the name Halizch, Poland, or any of the family names I had mentioned? If he really was another grandson of the Halizcher rebbe, had he simply not been told his family history? But that didn’t account for the feeling that he had been trying to tell me something. It was unusual for a Jew today to use the name “Palestine” instead of Israel. As farfetched as it might be, could he have used that name on purpose, trying to help me place him in a certain generation? Could he have been trying to tell me that he was another branch of the family I was researching, the branch that had split off ideologically and gone off to Israel in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, when it was still called Palestine, the branch that escaped the Holocaust? But then why couldn’t he just tell me straight out? My head was now spinning. I was probably making a mountain out of molehill, reading far more into the short conversation than was warranted. But these Gelbermans and their family secrets were making me nuts, and I no longer knew which way was up. If I didn’t get that cup of java soon, my head was going to explode.

[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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Filed under Abby Marcus, Fiction, Judaism

Rosh HaShanah in the Pines 2015

Every year I write a new poem for Rosh HaShanah to share with the community I lead in Fire Island Pines. Below is this year’s poem. I’m also including the poem from 2014 since I never posted it last year. 

Rosh HaShanah in the Pines, 2015/5776

The sea pushes back off the shore,

yielding to gravity with a sigh,

not a leaving but a letting go,

a retreat into its own deep fullness.

The sun relinquishes its hold on the sky

only to rise once more at daybreak

as the tide rolls back in,

a different kind of letting go,

an unspooling across the expanse.

And we creatures of earth are granted a fresh start,

a chance to gather the debris

and shape a whole new world.


Wholeness is a kind of holiness,

the stasis of perfection.

But brokenness demands re-creation,

a churning cycle of endings and beginnings,

the act of pulling hope and brightness from the wreckage,

taking the jagged shards and making of them,

if not wholeness, a new sort of sacred splendor.


(Copyright (c) 2015 by Hara Person)


Rosh HaShanah in the Pines, 2014/5775


We gather, poised at the edge of time,

hearts teeming with intention.

Like the tide, we expand and contract,

unsure of how to proceed.


A tenuous new moon tilts in a Tishrei sky,

while below the ocean roars.

Trees dip and sway in the darkness.

Wind rolls in off the sea.

Swells churn dangerously

as the deluge approaches landfall.


Accept our burdened hearts, we plead,

our broken spirits,

our yearnings for redemption.


Like the moon, let us begin the work

of rebuilding our selves anew.

Help us find shelter from the storm.


(Copyright (c) 2014 by Hara Person)

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Filed under High Holy days, Poetry

His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Twelve

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 12. Enjoy!

Chapter Twelve

IMG_2505Horseshoe Curve was a must-see on the list of anyone who was seriously interested in railroads or in the history of American industry, and Simon was almost as big a railroad buff as Caleb. Opened in 1854 by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, it had made possible cross-country train travel and the transport of goods from east to west. Where the Allegheny Mountains had once been an impenetrable barrier, the curve created a kind of horseshoe-shaped shelf upon which the train tracks could be laid. It was still one of the busiest sections of track in the country, with hundreds of trains passing around the curve every week.

We parked the car and entered the official Horseshoe Curve museum. The exhibits were interesting, but the real excitement lay elsewhere. Up a mountain by cablecar and there we were, right in the middle of the curve. Surrounding us on three sides were train tracks, making an enormous U-shape around the contours of the mountain. It was easy to see why it was considered a feat of engineering and ingenuity. Simon sat on a bench, admiring the planning that went into such a project, and the kids ran back and forth in front of the railing that kept the tracks safely beyond their reach. It was a crisp October day, with just enough of a breeze to blow the leaves around our ankles. From this high up, we could see the valley below and the reservoir directly beneath us.

Sitting down on the bench next to Simon, I leaned back and let the sun warm my face.

“So was it worth it coming all this way?” he asked me.

“You mean, to see this?”

He moved closer and put his arm around my shoulder. “No, wise guy. Did you get helpful information that you couldn’t have gotten without making this incredibly long trip?”

“Yes, very helpful. I have some real solid information to go on, and a much better picture of Jack Gelberman.”

“So are you ready to fold your cards and give the granddaughter the information you’ve gathered?”

I bolted straight up and looked at him, shocked. “What are you talking about? I’m far from done. And she’s paid me. I have to finish.”

“I know,” he answered. “But you do have some answers for her. I just think this ‘case’ has some strange aspects to it. Don’t you think something weird is going on?”

“Simon, you need to be more supportive.”

“Oh, Abby, come on. I’m very supportive. But you need to know when it’s time to move on. There are a lot of holes in this situation you’re dealing with. I just don’t want you to get in over your head.”

The trouble was, I still hadn’t told Simon about not being able to contact Sarah Gelberman. This didn’t really seem like the time or place. “I’m okay,” I answered. “I’m not a babe in the woods. It’s interesting, I’m learning a lot, and I’ve been paid. I’m going to see this guy Mort Klein later on, which I’m sure will prove fruitful. I don’t see a problem.”

Simon sighed deeply. “Well, I can’t tell you what to do.”


“Abby, I don’t want to fight.”

“So don’t tell me what to do.”

“You really feel the granddaughter is trustworthy?”

Now it was my turn to sigh. “Okay, look, no, she’s not. Don’t scream, but she gave me a false phone number. I’m sure the address is false too. But Jack Gelberman is for real. I’ve been paid enough to let me continue for a while, and I want to figure out what this is about.”

Simon just looked at me, his eyebrows tense with tightly controlled anger. “I can’t believe this. When were you planning on telling me? I mean—”

I cut him off. “Don’t get over-dramatic. Now you sound like Hannah. This isn’t anything I can’t handle.”

Simon was silent for some time. Finally he spoke. “I think you’re making a mistake. But it’s your choice.” He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “It’s just that I worry about you. Don’t do anything dumb.”

“I won’t,” I said, and squeezed back. But as I spoke, a new plan was hatching in my head.

Suddenly there were two jumping, squirming children in my lap. “Daddy, Mommy, come see!” exclaimed Hannah.

Caleb grabbed one of my hands, and Hannah the other. “Come, come, the train is coming.”

And sure enough, I could hear the whistle. A moment later the train itself chugged into view. A freight train was slowly and carefully making its way around the curve. Hannah jumped onto a bench and began to count excitedly. “One, two, three, four,” she yelled, “five, six, seven…”

Caleb ran to the railing to get as close a look as possible. He waved at the engineer, who waved back.

More cars followed the engine. I had never seen such a long train in my life. It went on and on and on, and so did Hannah. “Forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight,” she continued.

As the train progressed, there was no end in sight to the freight cars. Caleb hopped up and down, trying to guess what was in each car. “Bananas, blankets, toys, chairs, ice cream…”

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for, when enough of the train had gone around the bend of the curve so that we were surrounded by it on three sides. Theoretically, the engine could wave to the caboose.

“Eighty-nine,” Hannah recited, “ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two…”

“I didn’t know she could count so well,” I said to Simon.

“Yeah,” he answered just as my cell phone rang. “She’s just full of surprises, like her mother.”

It was the call I’d been waiting for.


Over the phone, Betty Klein had been as friendly as could be. When I explained why I was calling, she’d invited me to come over in the late afternoon and have some coffee with them, telling me they’d be glad to have a chance to do some reminiscing. I had stopped at a nearby bakery and picked up a coffee cake. The Kleins lived in Holidaysburg, right outside of Altoona and about a ten-minute drive from our hotel. I was quickly learning that in this small city, nothing was too far away. But when I got to their house, Mort Klein did not exactly radiate a warm welcome.

I stood at the entrance to the Klein’s fifties ranch house, holding the cake box in one hand and my bag in the other. Before I could even shift something to other hand in order to ring the bell, a face appeared at the door.

“Hi,” I said brightly, “I’m Abby Marcus.”

A tall, bald-headed man in his late seventies, wearing jeans, a faded flannel shirt, and sneakers, opened the door. He placed his foot firmly in the doorway, blocking my entrance. “Show me some identification,” he said. He was clearly used to giving commands and being listened to.

Surprised, I stared at him, trying to decide if this was for real. “Will a driver’s license do?”

“Let’s see it,” was the reply.

I handed him the box of cake, and pulled my wallet out of my bag.

He took my license and studied it carefully, looking up at me twice. Grudgingly, and with a sense of disappointment, he gave me back the card. “Don’t suppose you have a P.I. license or anything, huh?” he asked. “A gun license?”

For a quick moment I let myself enter the fantasy and imagine that I was a tough-talking, thin, six foot tall sharpshooter, not a short, out-of-shape mother of two. Many different retorts ran through my mind, but in the end I simply flashed my most virtuous smile and said, “I’m not a P.I., and I don’t carry a gun.” The man watched far too much t.v. “I’m just doing some harmless genealogical research. Would you like to see my library card? Or my Jewish Genealogical Society membership card?”

“Okay, never mind,” he said gruffly, as if I was the one setting up the obstacles. “So you’re Abby Marcus. I suppose I’ll have to trust the rest of your story as well. Mort Klein, nice to meet you.” He stuck out his hand to shake mine, then ushered me inside.

The living room was to the right of the doorway and behind that was the kitchen; I assumed the bedrooms were off to the left. The wood-paneled room featured a stone fireplace, overstuffed bookshelves, and glass doors leading to the back deck. A rocking chair was placed next to the fireplace, and signs of a knitting project were in evidence on the table next to the chair. On the coffee table was a crossword puzzle book and the remote control to the television positioned across from the orange slipcovered couch. Also on the coffee table were about half a dozen small puzzles and games of various types, the kind where you have to align all the colored squares up just right, or move the balls from one side to another without jumping any of them, and several books of word jumbles. A red plaid recliner, worn out in the seat, was placed next to the couch, a crocheted afghan hanging over one arm. It was a warm, comfortable room, clearly the center of the house and not just meant for entertaining guests.

“Sorry to welcome you like that,” Mort Klein explained before I had time to fully recover, “but you can’t be too careful today. People think up schemes to prey on the elderly, pretend they’re our friends, you know. We don’t like to think of ourselves as elderly and vulnerable, but we are. I tell Betty that all the time, and still she trusts people too much.”

“No problem,” I said smiling. “I totally understand. Better safe than sorry.”

“Exactly,” he answered. “Just the other day, a young man came by, said he was collecting money for abused children. Betty was ready to let him in, give him a cup of coffee, the whole nine yards. She’s just a sucker for anything having to do with children. Luckily, I heard her and intercepted that one. Who knows who he was? You can’t be too safe.” He stopped, and motioned to the couch. “Here, have a seat. Sorry, I’m not being a good host, talking too much already and we haven’t even gotten started. Betty’s making coffee. She’ll be out shortly. I guess I better bring her this—one second.”

He took the box of cake into the kitchen, leaving me to take a deep breath. Had he been like this in the classroom, or was his overbearing personality simply a result of the boredom of retirement? Seating myself on the couch, I scanned the titles on the shelves. One whole bookcase was filled with science books of various kinds, including textbooks. There were also books on Jewish history and the Holocaust, a sizable collection of art history books, and hardcover editions of popular bestsellers.

Before long, Mort Klein returned with the coffee cake, now decorously placed on a silver-rimmed plate. He was accompanied by a woman I assumed was Betty, carrying a tray of mugs and other coffee-related fixings.

“Can I help with anything?” I asked.

“No, no,” she said, smiling. “Make yourself comfortable. I hope Mort hasn’t been doing his attack dog routine.” She laughed at and looked at her husband fondly. “We don’t need a guard dog with Mort in the house.”

After we were settled comfortably with our coffee and cake, and had made some small talk about the differences between Altoona and New York City, it was time to get down to business. Placing my mug on the table, I took out my notebook and a pencil.

“So, how can we help you?” asked Mort, leaning back in the red plaid recliner.

“I’m trying to find out as much as I can about Jack Gelberman so that I can accurately put together his family tree, and try to locate his brother.”

“Brother? I didn’t know he had a brother,” said Betty.

“I don’t know if the brother is still alive, or if he even made it through the war. But the family wants me to find out.”

Mort looked thoughtful as he chewed a piece of cake. “Jack and I, we worked together for many years. He taught physics, I taught earth sciences. We belonged to the same synagogue. We played bridge now and then, over the years, were on the science curriculum committee together. We were buddies, you know, friends, but not really close. He was a private person, wouldn’t you say?” He turned to Betty for confirmation, and she nodded in agreement. “He didn’t let people in. His wife was the same way. It’s funny, really. We worked together for so many years, knew each other for so long, but it’s not like I really knew him. You always felt there was a whole lot locked up in there. Other than the wife and kids, I’m unaware of any other family.

“Betty, here, she knew Judith, Jack’s wife. Their kids were around the same ages as our kids, you know how that is. They spent time together when the kids were young, play groups, things like that. You knew her as well as anyone, wouldn’t you say, Betty?”

Betty nodded.

“But I can’t say we ever heard about any family, from either of them,” Mort continued. “It was like they were starting from scratch when they had kids, building their world all over again. Nope, don’t know about any other family they mighta had.”

“Except there was that time— ” said Betty with hesitation. “Remember, Mort? When he had to rush to New York and you covered some of his classes that time. Not too long before he retired.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Betty, in the meantime, had gotten up from the couch and crossed the room. She had pulled an album off a shelf and was leafing through it.

“Humm, that’s right, Bets. Forgot about that.” Mort looked like he was trying to gather his thoughts. “We were at school, in the teacher’s lounge, and a call came through to Jack from his wife. Apparently there was some family emergency, and he had to leave town for a few days. Right, right, now I remember. Forgot about that, Betty, forgot all about that. Yup, it struck me as strange at the time, because I never knew he had any family other than the wife and kids. He was gone for a few days, and then came back, and that was that. But I remember while he was gone I called to make sure everything was okay and his wife told me he had gone to New York. Remember, Betty? We both remarked on how strange it was at the time.”

“Yes, I remember. Sure was.”

“See, we knew he was a refugee,” Mort continued.   “You know, a survivor of the camps, and had a lot he didn’t like to talk about. She had no family either. Yup, the two of them musta had some tragic stories to tell. But they were private, didn’t talk about their stories. It was like they put it all behind them. And I’m sure we would have known if there was family. After all, we were at the son Nathan’s bar mitzvah, and what a small, sad affair that was. Just a modest lunch back at the house, no music, no dancing, no family, just a handful of acquaintances like us, and Nathan’s friends. And we were at Nathan’s wedding, also, no family from either Jack or Judith’s side. More like a funeral than a party.”

Betty nodded in agreement as she walked back to us, the album open in her hands. She perched herself on the arm of the couch next to me. “This is Jack, at our daughter’s wedding, must have been 1979. He didn’t like to be photographed, but the photographer was too quick for him here.” She laughed, handing me the album and pointed to a picture on the upper right hand corner. “Always such a serious man. He never seemed to like parties, but if he was invited to a bar mitzvah or a wedding, he came.”

The color had faded, giving the photograph a bleached out look, and his eyes were red from the flash. But I could make out a tall, slim man, wearing a brown sports jacket and white shirt, looking warily into the camera. His dark hair was graying at the temples and beginning to recede, making his large ears appear especially prominent. He was handsome, with prominent cheekbones and full lips, if you liked the strong, silent types. But the redeye from the flash made it hard to tell what he really looked like or what his eyes might have revealed about his character. I studied the photograph carefully, looking for further insight or other distinguishing features, but I didn’t notice anything else that might be helpful to me. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe a sign behind him saying something like, yes, I am the grandson of the last Halizcher rebbe, but there was nothing like that in the photo. I sighed and handed the album back to Betty.

Betty got up from her perch on the arm of the couch, and went back to the bookshelf where she tucked it back into its place among the other albums.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to figure out how to steer the conversation back to the mystery phone conversation. I figured that being direct was the best bet. “But if you don’t mind, you were just talking about that call he got. Did you learn anything later about why he rushed off to New York?”

His hand on his chin, Mort tapped his nose and thought for a moment. “It seems to me that there was a problem with a relative, but not a brother. I would have remembered that. I think it was a woman. I remember, when he answered the phone that day in teacher’s lounge, not that I was eavesdropping or anything, him saying something like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ And he sprang into action, clearly very worried, said he’d be gone a few days, it was an emergency, and so on. I remember, because at first I thought maybe it was something with his daughter. But it wasn’t. Asked a bunch of us to take over his classes. It was out of character.”

Now this was something interesting indeed. As far as I knew, he had had no sisters. Who was this mystery woman?

“Really out of character,” Mort continued. “He was such a self-contained type, didn’t need anything from anyone. And we were friendly and all, like I said, played bridge, helped each other out once in a while, sat together at staff meetings, shared some meals, chaired some meetings, attended each other’s kids’ weddings, but since he left for Florida, I haven’t heard a word from him. Not a word.”

“That’s true,” Betty agreed. I wondered briefly what would happen if she didn’t agree with him, or whether that ever even happened.

“So, can you tell more about his character?” I asked. “Or anything else that might help me trace other family members. Anything about his background?”

Mort shrugged and looked at Betty. “He was a quiet guy, like I said. He was a great teacher, his students loved him because he taught something difficult but made them feel they could do it. Oh, they loved him. I remember thinking, what does this guy have that I don’t, you know? Students who were scared of science and math opted to take his classes, because he had this reputation, a well-deserved one, as a great teacher, someone who wouldn’t intimidate you or make you feel stupid. My own kids tried to explain this to me. And boy did he know his stuff. It always amazed me that he didn’t go into research or academics. He was so bright. But he seemed happy with the life he had, content to stay here in Altoona and teach in the high school and go home every night. Never took on extra responsibilities like coaching or overseeing a club, only what the school assigned him to do. Though he did a lot of extra tutoring of the kids in his classes. He hated to see a kid fail or not live up to their potential.”

“Mort was the advisor of the ham radio club,” Betty interjected proudly.

“That’s right,” he said, smiling. “Before e-mail and faxes and cell phones, that was the greatest thing on earth. Talk to someone on the other side of the world, find out something about life over there. It was great for the kids. They don’t even have it anymore at the high school. How things change. But back to your question, his background, no, I just don’t know much. I don’t know how much his kids or grandkids know, I guess not much, otherwise they wouldn’t have you doing this. All I know is that he came from Europe, I think Poland or thereabouts, and was in the camps. He must have been a young boy.”

“He and his wife met here,” Betty said. “She was a refugee too, you see. She had some incredible story, hid in a barn of a Polish farmer until someone turned them in. Once she opened up and talked a little, years and years ago. The community here, together with the Joint Hebrew Immigrant Charities branch in Pittsburgh, sponsored a group of young refugees. My parents collected clothes and kitchenware and bedding for months in preparation. I think Jack and Judith both came as part of that group. Do you remember, Mort? The idea was to bring these poor young people— ”

“Yes, yes,” Mort interrupted. “Sure, sure, it was big news. To bring them from the D.P. camps, they were all alone, to bring them here and help them get a fresh start. They were given jobs and helped to enroll in the university. You know, many of them had never even gone to high school because, well, you know, they were in those camps. But they learned English and other basics, and they made lives for themselves. I remember when they came, the papers were full of it. They were the biggest news around for a while. In fact, my father, who was an immigrant himself, took it very seriously. He didn’t have a lot of money to give, but he helped however he could. It was important to him. But I remember that he was disappointed, because he was thinking he’d have people he could speak Yiddish with. And this group of young people, including Jack, they didn’t want anything to do with Europe and what they’d left behind. They wanted to learn English and become American as quickly as possible. And really, could you blame them?”

Betty cleared her throat, turned first to her husband, and then turned back to me. “Actually, Mort,” she said, “Just to set the record straight, Jack and Judith both did quite a bit of volunteer work in their spare time. Judith volunteered at the library and was involved in adult literacy. Jack tutored new immigrants in English, both at the high school and in the evenings, at a local church, he would teach adults a few nights a week.”

“Really?” Mort exclaimed. “See, I didn’t even know this. Worked with guy how many years, I never knew this. Amazing. How’d you know, Bets?”

“One time the city wanted to give them both an award. Must have been in 1976, with the Bicentennial, and the city was doing thing on Outstanding Citizens. It was going to be written up in the newspapers, a big megillah. I was on the nominating committee, representing the synagogue Sisterhood. They got this group together of people from all the local synagogues and churches and civic groups, the Rotary club, the Altoona Development Corporation, what have you. They were both nominated, and the newspaper was going to profile all the nominees and people would vote for who they thought should be the Outstanding Citizens, something like that. But when they heard about it, both Jack and Judith asked that their names be left out of it, they didn’t want any recognition for what they did. And that’s just the way they were. So don’t blame yourself that you didn’t know. I was surprised myself.”

“The things you find out about people! So Sarah hired you to do this?” Mort asked me.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Interesting,” he muttered between bites of his second piece of coffee cake. “A’course, I haven’t seen her in years, since they moved away, but I would think she’s too young to have money to hire a detective or whatever you are. She can’t be too long out of college yet.”

“I don’t think she’s doing this on her own. It seems to be a family effort.”

“How nice,” murmured Betty. “So sweet.”

Mort licked his fingers clean and put down his cake plate. “Well, it sure is a nice thing to do for Jack. And why they’d come to you? You specialize in the Holocaust, or finding people or something?”

I was silent. It was a question that was starting to gnaw at me, a question I would really have liked to have asked Sarah Gelberman, if she hadn’t disappeared on me. Then I spoke. “Yeah, I’m good at finding people. But honestly, I don’t know why they came to me. I really have no idea whatsoever.” And that was the truth.

“Let me ask you a question,” I said with hesitation, choosing my words carefully.

“Sure,” said Mort.

“From what you know, and I realize it’s been a while, what do you think about Jack’s kids and grandkids? Are they on the up and up?” I asked.

“Now, what are you referring to?” asked Mort, taken aback. “Far as I know, they’re as straight as they come. The daughter, Beth, she was in sales or something, left here to go to college and never came back except for an occasional visit. Couldn’t wait to leave, I think. But real smart, real nice kid. Probably has a family by now, must be in her late forties. The son, Nathan, also in his late forties, also super-smart. I had him for two classes. Wow, what a mind. But he didn’t go into science. Became a professor of American Literature, if I’m not mistaken. Last I heard, he got tenure somewhere or other. And Sarah herself? Well, the last time I saw her, she was a little girl. So cute, they were, those kids.”

“Cute as buttons,” Betty said.

“Yup. Well, they stood out here, but what can you do? She was a nice girl that Nathan married, don’t remember her name, something unusual, you know, well, whatever. Nice. Nothing weird there. I think she was a professor too, right Betty?”

“I really don’t remember. I just remember talking to Jack and Judith about it, and they weren’t thrilled at first, but they were accepting,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for parents, you know.”

I wasn’t sure I did know, but I could imagine how hard it could be for parents to let go and let them make their own matches. “Kind of makes you wish for the old days of matchmaking,” I said laughing lightly, fishing for more information. They joined in on the laughter.

“Kids marry who they want, and there’s nothing we parents can do about it,” Betty said. “Though we have nothing to complain about, do we Mort?”

“No, we don’t” he agreed, “Except for that terrible mincemeat pie our daughter-in-law Polly insists on making every Thanksgiving. And then we have to pretend to like it.”

“Now Mort,” Betty chided. “It’s not so bad. It’s just so, so — ”

“So goyishe,” Mort said, finishing her sentence. “Betty’s just too darn nice to say it, but it’s true. Two of our kids married non-Jews. That’s the way it goes here. Life in America, right, what can you do? But we got ourselves some cute grandkids outta the deal, so what can I tell you. Our daughter-in-law Polly, she converted, whadda they call it now? She’s a Jew-by-choice.   And my son-in-law, he didn’t convert but agreed to raise the kids Jewish. So I got one grandkid named Shira McConnell, and I got another grandkid named Shannon Klein. Only in America. But so what? You love ‘em no matter what, even if they were not being raised Jewish, what, I wouldn’t love my own flesh and blood? So what if my father’s turning in his grave. Life ain’t like it once was in the old country. Nothing you can do about that.”

I nodded sympathetically. It seemed like it was time to go, before they started dragging out pictures of their grandchildren. But I had one more question to ask.

“Can you think of any reason why Sarah might think that her grandfather had lived in New York before he retired to Florida? Was she so young when they left here that she might have gotten confused?”

“Naw, she had to be about five, six when they moved away. That makes no sense. Is that what she said to you? How strange.”

I sat back on the couch and looked at Mort and Betty. How strange indeed. I couldn’t have agreed with Mort more. But what I didn’t know then, sitting there comfortably in their homey living room, was just how much stranger it was going to get.

[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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