Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, catch up with the Table of Contents for the previous chapters). Here is Part II, Chapter 4. Enjoy!
“Eli Yankovski,” he said by way of introduction. “Nice to meet you, Abby Marcus.”
He was younger than I’d thought, in his late thirties or early forties. Up close his look, a white shirt, black pants, a neatly trimmed dark goatee and mustache, was, other than the kippah, only vaguely religious. What had looked like baldness from above was actually a neatly shaved head, round and shiny in all its glory, and topped with the black kippah. I wondered momentarily how the kippah managed to stay on his head, not having any hair on which to attach itself. His tzittzit, if he had them, weren’t hanging out of his pants, and as his head was completely shaved, he didn’t sport payas. His accent was vague too, lacking a hint of Brooklyn or the Yiddish inflection that often crept into the English of even the American born of the traditional Jews in New York. What was more striking was his open, broad smile, and that he looked me right in the eyes, even though he had to peer down from his considerable height to do so. The men I’d been encountering lately in Chasidic circles had a tendency to look away and avert their gaze from mine. But this guy looked like someone you’d instinctively want to trust, even though I had every reason to fear him.
Perhaps it was because he was so friendly that I began to yell, my fear giving way to anger. “Who the hell are you? Why have you been watching me? What kind of creep are you?”
He took a step back toward to car. “Like I said, I’m Eli Yankovski. Sorry if I scared you. I’m here to watch out for you.”
“Watch out for me? Is that the newest euphemism for stalking?”
He held up a hand, but whether it was to keep me away or to calm me down, I couldn’t be sure. “Wait, don’t jump to conclusions. This is just a misunderstanding.”
I folded my arms over my chest and glared. “That’s what they always say about date rape too.”
“This is hard to understand, I know but—”
“Give me a break. Hard to understand, yeah, I’d say so.” Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I continued to project the toughest, meanest look I could conjure up and waved my cell phone. I didn’t feel menacing, but I tried to do my best to pretend that I wasn’t the slightest bit scared by this bizarre encounter. “Look, whoever you are, you have one minute to explain your saintly intentions, and that’s it. Then I’m calling the police. All I have to do is press ‘send.’ I’ve had enough of this, enough of being threatened and warned, and now, yes, enough of being protected by self-appointed mysterious guardians. So get started.” For added emphasis, I glanced with exaggerated seriousness at my watch.
Looking down at the asphalt, he cleared his throat. “It’s come to my attention that you have been looking into the history of the Gelberman dynasty. That’s got some people concerned. You’ve sort of been, how can I put it, you’ve been stirring up a pot that’s been left covered for many years, a pot that many people don’t want stirred. Bad metaphor, but you get my point. And on the other hand, there are some people who very much want the information you’re coming up with, but they want to get it themselves, without you or anyone else knowing. So, to make a very long story short, I was asked to look out for you. Make sure nobody tries to keep you away, or get in your way.”
Suddenly I was incredibly grateful that we were standing in a parking lot, outdoors, with people entering and leaving rooms in the hotel behind me and cars entering and exiting the lot. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. But whatever I did, and whatever this lunatic Eli Yankovski did, there would be witnesses, and that could only be a good thing.
“Are you okay?” he asked, moving toward me.
Gathering my strength once again, I quickly stepped back. “Don’t get near me. I don’t need protecting. Just leave me alone and get out of here!” By now I was screaming, and a family unloading suitcases a few spots over turned to stare. I didn’t care—the more people around, the better.
“Don’t be scared of me, really, I’m on your side,” he pleaded.
I was almost ready to believe him only because he seemed so sincere. But I held my ground. “I don’t understand what this is all about. All I’m doing is a simple family tree project.” But even I knew that things were more complicated than that, and my retort came out sounding limp and unconvincing. “Just leave me alone, or I mean it, I’ll press ‘send.’”
In one fluid movement, he turned away, ducked down, and pulled something out of the car. For one terrible moment I thought he was going to shoot me, but when he turned back around all that was in his hands was a piece of paper, which he handed to me. It was a small article, cut out of the Los Angeles Times, from deep inside the Arts Section. The headline read: Skirball Museum Deflects Criticism. According to the article, a man named Pinchas Seigel was claiming that the prominent Jewish museum owned Judaica that had been stolen from Jews during the Holocaust, and that the museum should return the pieces to the survivors of those families. In particular, he was “outraged” that the museum had on permanent exhibit a kiddush cup that he believed belonged to members of his family, who had died during the Holocaust. The article went on to quote a Mr. Leon Gelberman, also the descendant of victims of the Holocaust, who agreed that the Kiddush cup and all the Judaica should be returned to the rightful owners. The article ended with a quote from the museum’s lawyer, who dismissed the incident as a publicity stunt and stated that the museum, which belonged to the Jewish people, was the rightful repository of the legacy of the Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust. I finished reading the article and stood still, my eyes looking at the pavement but not seeing anything except newsprint. I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. I had talked to a Leon Gelberman in Los Angeles. There had been something unusual about the call. For several moments, I stood still, hearing only a mosquito buzz around my head.
When I looked up at last, I noticed that the quality of light in the early evening sky had changed yet again and was unnaturally bright, like a kodachrome of a sunset. Maybe the hurricane was actually going to arrive.
Eli Yankovski looked at me. “So, what do you make of that?”
Since I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to make of him, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Cautiously I said, “So what? What does this mean? Why give this to me?”
He smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “I want to show you that I am well informed about this business. I want to show you that there is more than you know about going on here. I’m sharing information so that you will trust me.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “This is supposed to make me trust you? Now I trust you less. Who am I supposed to think this Leon Gelberman is? I don’t know what you want, what your point is, and forget whose side you’re on, I don’t even know what sides exist in this game. All I know is that a young woman who came to me for help seems to be missing, and for all I know, you may have played a crucial role in that.”
He looked genuinely concerned, but I wasn’t ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Okay, I’ll be more straightforward—”
“It’s about time,” I shot back.
“Look, there are people who are worried about this guy, Pinchas Seigel. Right now he’s nothing, a putz with a big mouth, a con man and a schnorrer, but he’s charismatic and he’s smart and he’s found an old man named Leon Gelberman to team up with. People are worried that he is going to start trouble, of some sort or another. Some people with Halizcher roots are worried about what this guy could do to stir things up.”
“I don’t understand, what is there to stir up?”
“No group is immune from battles over power, or authority. The face of Chasidism is not what it was before the war—things have changed. There are some who would like to go back to the past, and others who are looking towards the future. An outsider might not see it, but there are factions, struggles, disagreements over how to plan for the future, how to name successors. It’s very complicated. But having someone claim to be a descendant of Yosef Yehudah complicates things even more, especially if it looks like he may be trying to gather a following.”
“But why does it matter today, after so long? Maybe he’s just some crackpot. There’s a lot of them in California.”
“He probably is. And it wouldn’t matter, except for this Leon Gelberman. He’s the wildcard. Who is he? What is his connection? There are going to be a lot of questions, difficult questions. There are some Chasidim who would be happy to go back to being Halizchers, under the leadership of a Gelberman. A romanticized past has a strong pull. I can’t tell you who asked me to look out for you, but I can tell you it is a friend, not an enemy. Someone who would prefer that you were not involved but who knows that once you were, you were not going to let things be. Someone who knew that you would manage to find Jack Gelberman, even if it is believed that Leib and Yankeleh cannot be alive. So here I am. I’ve been following your movements since you left your house this morning in Brooklyn. You didn’t even notice, did you? Because they are concerned about you, you see.”
“That’s supposed to convince me to believe you?”
He raised his shoulders in a slow shrug. “Let’s just say, maybe, why not believe me? You’re better off believing me.”
“And you, or your mysterious patron, think that I’m in over my head.”
“Everyone needs some help now and then. Especially when money and religion intersect, don’t you think?”
“This is about money?”
He shrugged a second time, as if this was a relaxed, easy-going interchange on a calm spring afternoon. “There’s a lot going on here.”
Again he flashed his most disarming smile. “That is not for me to say. But the concern is that there may be other people following your movements. You implied that you have received some threats. If I were you, I would take them seriously, and be glad of the protection I can offer you.”
“I didn’t ask for protection, and I don’t want it. I can take care of myself. I’m heading home. You’re welcome to follow me, but maybe it’s my lucky day and you only bought a one-way ticket.” He started to speak but I put up my hand. “No–don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Just leave me alone.” As I turned around, there was a crack of thunder and a stripe of lighting broke the sky into two halves. Instantly it began to rain, big heavy drops falling from the gray sky. I marched quickly across the parking lot and up the stairs to my room, leaving Eli Yankovski to get drenched. In my hand was the article about Pinchas Seigel and Leon Gelberman.
[To be continued…]