The Fugitive, Part 2 - short story

The lead item on the Israeli TV news displayed a photograph of a young, haredi man with a black beard and peyot. There was no mistaking who it was: Elior!

 A view of Barcelona’s La Rumbla from the Christopher Columbus monument. (photo credit: Ralf Roletschek/Wikipedia)
A view of Barcelona’s La Rumbla from the Christopher Columbus monument.
(photo credit: Ralf Roletschek/Wikipedia)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A stroll along Barcelona’s La Rambla was just what I needed to clear my head from the events of the past week: colorful street scenes, jugglers and clowns, human statues on stilts, and the aroma of fragrant tapas in the air. Every now and then one is astounded to behold the architectural delights of Antoni Gaudi; urban structures that defy convention, with ceramic cones and towers in various shapes and sizes spiraling seemingly out of nowhere. I kept walking, past the most famous Gaudi, the 19th-century church known as la Sagrada Familia, until I finally came to what I was looking for, the unassuming but intimate Versus Teatre, on los Castillejos.

I was greeted by a frenetic theater manager who apologized on behalf of the director, who was sick with the flu and would not be able to attend the performance of my play, Einstein, in the evening. “Anyway,” the manager explained somewhat sheepishly, but perhaps in retrospect intending to soften the blow that was soon to come, “tonight’s performance is only a roadhouse version of the play from Argentina, in advance of our own Catalan production that has not yet entered rehearsals.”

The manager, who spoke little English, assured me that there would be a Spanish interpreter on hand to accompany me for the evening performance and for the audience discussion that had been arranged to take place immediately following the show.

All that was left for me to do was to chill out for the hour or so that was remaining until the performance, and that suited me just fine for I was still reeling from the aftershock of my near arrest in Tel Aviv.

I sat down in an easy chair in the theater lounge and heaved a sigh of relief. The realization that I was now in Spain, a country with which I had always felt linked to due to the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, was beginning to dawn upon me. While I had no historical proof that I was in any way genealogically linked to the period of the Inquisition of the Jews and their expulsion from Spain in 1492, I harbored a hunch that my ancestors had traveled that route.

 The Versus Teatre on los Castillejos. (credit: WIKIPEDIA) The Versus Teatre on los Castillejos. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

After flourishing for several hundred years, the notorious Inquisition forced about a third of the half million or so Jewish community to make one of three choices. They could convert to Christianity, choose to be tortured and martyred, or go into exile. Perhaps a third underwent forced conversions, and many of these new converts to Catholicism continued to secretly practice their religion under penalty of death. This group became known as Marranos, a derogatory Spanish word for “pig,” apparently symbolizing the esteem in which these secret Jews were held by their gentile neighbors.

“Oh, if only Divine Providence, Destiny or Fate could send me a beautiful descendant of the legendary Marranos to be my interpreter for this evening,” I sighed to myself in a half-whimsical fantasy. Before I could indulge my imagination any further, a striking-looking young woman with high, gently carved cheekbones, hazel green eyes and long, auburn hair walked over and extended her hand.

“Gabriel?” she asked.

I hesitated to answer, momentarily lost somewhere in the void between fantasy and reality. The young woman knelt a little closer and asked again.

“Excuse me, are you Gabriel?”

“Why, yes,” I managed to respond, still mesmerized by the vision of Barcelona beauty that had materialized before my eyes.

“My name is Eliana,” she said with a warm smile and a distinct trace of a Catalan accent. “I will be your interpreter. I also translated your play, by the way.”

I don’t recall what I said after that. In fact, I don’t remember much of the play either, other than that the Argentinian actor, bald as a billiard ball, hardly resembled Albert Einstein and his tousled mane of hair. That the actor chose not to wear a wig was indeed unfortunate, as it might have compensated somewhat for the dreadful performance that required, as I assured Eliana, no translation at all.

A feeling of eelectricity 

WHAT ALSO required no translation was the sheer electricity that I felt seated beside Eliana: her whispering into my ear in an effort to simultaneously translate the actor’s words while I breathed in her intoxicating scent resulted in a massive sensory overload. I was feeling dizzy and had to get some air, but feared it would be embarrassing to the actor on stage and to the audience if the author suddenly left his seat.

Eliana picked up on my discomfort and we were soon trying to stifle our mutual laughter while the bald-headed Einstein continued to declaim in a hodgepodge of German-accented Spanish as he cavorted and stumbled about on stage.

Following a brief Q&A with the audience that I did my best to shorten by feigning jet lag, I was invited to join a few of the theater crew for drinks at a nearby bar. There the discussion inevitably turned political, and as often is the case in a European setting, anti-Israel. But I held my own, and Eliana surprised me by arguing with her peers who were denouncing Israel with the usual volley of slogans and clichés that had little bearing in reality, but had many roots in centuries of religious rhetoric nourished by the Church and that fed the ever fertile grounds of European antisemitism.

I left the bar with Eliana my guide, and she led me to a cozier bar with a décor consisting of plush white leather seats, a black and white checkered dance floor, pulsating strobe lights, and ethereal, eclectic music sounding much like a modern, Catalan version of New York’s classic Velvet Underground.

I must admit I may not have had the purest of thoughts while seated intimately close to one of the most dazzling and alluring women I had ever set eyes upon. But my conscious mind (or perhaps it was just my conscience) kept reminding my baser instincts that this was all a non-starter. At this point in my life I had adopted the lifestyle of an observant Jew, ate strictly kosher food and observed the Sabbath. Was this some kind of a test of faith, I wondered, as I downed another single malt in order to try and dispel that theory? Here I was, thousands of miles from my home and community while this attractive female apparition whose very real leg was touching mine under the table, exuded sex appeal such as I had never encountered before.

“But she’s Catholic,” I could hear my conscience admonish while seemingly tapping me on the shoulder with a pointy Star of David. And then, right on cue, Eliana clasped my hand in both of hers.

“You know, I was not planning to come to the theater this evening,” she said in a confessional tone, her doleful eyes looking down. “But I wanted to meet you because you are a Jew and my family is also descended from Jewish ancestors.”

If my head was not spinning enough from the scotch and the strobe lights on the checkerboard floor, I nearly fell off my chair.

“How do you know that?” I gasped.

“My surname, Bontov, is from Jewish origins. Besides, there is a tradition in my family for generations... ”

I don’t remember the rest. I was completely stunned. Was I having an epiphany? Could this be a heavenly guided reunion of lost souls that had been ordained for one another pre-Inquisition? Was I coming face to face with a past life? Perhaps we were once a couple, betrothed to one another. Along came the fearsome Inquisition separating the lovers before they could wed. A veiled bride tortured at the stake while her true love was murdered before her or thrust into exile on the stormy seas? Could our meeting half a millennium later be the rectification? Or had I simply indulged myself with one drink too many?

Whatever the case, I was not to find out that night, as Eliana put me into a taxi – alone - and dispatched the driver to take me straight to my hotel for I had a flight to catch the next morning.

On board the flight, readying for takeoff and still groggy from the night before, I received the first of what would become a soulful, intimate and enchantingly romantic email correspondence from my new Catalan pen pal.

“Already I long to see you again,” she wrote. “I felt something last night that I have never felt before.”

So had I, and so much more. But being cognizant of the inherent risks involved, I tried to deny the feeling, much as the mammoth iron airliner tried to defy the wind as it climbed higher and higher into the thin, blue sky.

Before long I was traversing the Atlantic again from West to East as we had arranged for a rendezvous in Tel Aviv. Entering my Tel Aviv apartment with Eliana by my side would serve as the redemptive tikkun necessary to expunge the memories of my former homecoming fiasco. Flashbacks of being detained at Customs, and of being interrogated in a dilapidated, old police station rushed through my mind as I turned the key, opened the door, and led Eliana inside.

Eliana brought me some Flamenco guitar music from Spain and I, in turn, played for her some songs by the great Canadian poet and singer, Leonard Cohen. Intuitively, she began to dance and her movement was mesmerizing. Such energy in which she swayed to the baritone tones of a contemporary Jewish poet might have inspired the iconic song “Hallelujah,” I thought, just as Batsheva’s rooftop bath had once awakened King David.

A storybook romance

It was the beginning of a storybook romance. Eliana was unlike any woman I had ever been with before. Aside from her beauty, she embodied the Sephardi essence. In fact, she was everything that a cold, unemotional Ashkenazi man could desire: warmth, femininity, sensuality, old-fashioned values of love and respect.

She was at home in nature, having grown up in the country – she knew the name of every herb and flower. She could also cook sublime Mediterranean cuisine – and enjoyed doing so. In addition to being fluent in several languages and gifted with a keen intellect, she was also a talented dancer, choreographer and actor. I must admit that the characteristics that I knew to be associated with that latter talent did cause me some degree of trepidation, for I knew too many actors who were satisfied with too few roles and were always looking to move on to the next drama whether on or off stage.

Eliana was both motivated to explore her Jewish heritage and determined to follow the trail wherever it would lead her. She would cut no corners nor make any compromises. On her own, she quickly established a connection to the tiny Orthodox Jewish community of Barcelona and to their aging rabbi.

Word of mouth led to an enigmatic rabbi from the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel. Originally from Argentina, Rabbi Daniel served as a liaison to the Spanish Jewish Diaspora at large. He conducted seminars and hosted a website that was an invaluable source of easily accessible information on Judaism for the various splintered and fragmented souls of the “Anusim,” or “Forced Ones,” the offspring of Jews who had been forced to undergo conversions during the Inquisition.

Hard to believe, but even after hundreds of years these Anusim were still trying to connect with their “mothership”: still retaining remnants of Jewish tradition, such as secretly lighting candles in the basement on a Friday night in honor of the Sabbath, though the sanctity of the Sabbath itself had been lost for generations.

Rabbi Daniel was quick to lay down the law between us. As Eliana was embarking upon an intensive course ultimately leading to an Orthodox conversion, there was to be no close contact between us. This was easier said than done, but in some ways I was relieved. Ever since meeting Eliana it had felt surreal to me to walk down the streets of Barcelona, Toronto or Tel Aviv, arm in arm with such an alluring beauty who caused heads to turn wherever she walked.

One night in Tel Aviv, we stepped outside a restaurant and were greeted by a downpour of rain. In an attempt at chivalry, I carried Eliana on my back while wading through large puddles that were rapidly forming on the street. We laughed as more and more buckets of rain fell, soaking our clothes until they became translucent in the moonlight.

Catching the glances of passersby, I felt like an imposter. They would look at Eliana with wonder and then me with disdain as if to say, “What does she possibly see in that guy?” I wanted to answer them, “You’re so right, friends, trust me, this is just a temporary façade, a mirage, it is bound to disappear. My rightful place is with you.”

And so it was that I had this nagging insecurity while walking with her, yet paradoxically, this was so very common and natural for her, just as it was to take hold of my hand as if it were her own.

When I visited Eliana in Barcelona I began to understand why that was. Everywhere couples were embracing, even kissing passionately in the streets. Canada, where I was born and raised, was much more reserved. And Israel? Aside from the urban island of Tel Aviv, such outward displays of affection were rare and even reviled in some quarters. One such quarter was the Old City of Jerusalem, where Rabbi Daniel resided and where Eliana had become a live-in guest of the family. There, she had to quickly adapt to long skirts and shirts that buttoned modestly up to her neck and covered her arms.

Only a few weeks earlier we had driven up the magnificent Spanish coast, known as the Costa Brava. Breathtaking views of the mountains and the sea. It was the first time outside of Israel that I felt that I was almost in a mirror image of Israel given the foothills, the foliage, the fig and olive trees, and the salty, windswept air of the Mediterranean. I could readily understand why for more than five centuries my exiled ancestors had felt so at home there.

We stopped at a crossroads where a curious sign read “Villa Juega,” or “City of the Jews.” I could not resist and took a sharp turn off the main road.

One thing that became quickly apparent about the City of the Jews was that there were absolutely no Jews there. Only an old stone church that faced East, possibly converted from a synagogue centuries ago. Perhaps here they had burned the last of the Jews of Villa Juega on the stake outside this very place of worship, I thought to myself. Reading my mind, Eliana suggested we get back inside her blue Austin mini and move on.

In a place called Sa Tuna we stopped at a roadside motel perched in a mountain above the sea. I opened the window and heard the powerful, crashing sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below. I gazed deeply into the pools of Eliana’s sea-green eyes. We fell into each other’s arms.

She was becoming the love of my life and yet all the time I felt it couldn’t last. She was the closest to the concept of a soulmate I had ever known, and still, I felt that I somehow did not know her, could not know her.

That night I had a strange dream. We were a couple of secret Jews, lovers in the time of the Inquisition. Hauled before the Church, we had to embrace Christianity and repudiate our Jewish faith. The instruments of torture – hooks and chains, a long rack with a crank-like device to stretch a person’s body – awaited those who secretly practiced their religion. Suddenly, knives were drawn and I was seized. Someone had betrayed me! A procession of lit torches was coming toward me. Who had betrayed me?

Eliana WAS determined to make even the most Orthodox rabbis of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim, recognize her strict conversion. After more than a year of intense study and dedication, she was about to succeed in her mission. Amazingly, she was prepared to turn her back on a promising career in the Performing Arts and to leave her home and family just as Abraham, the very first Jew, had been prepared to do. And like Abraham who became known as an Ivri, meaning “from the other side” in Hebrew, so too had Eliana drawn a line in the sand. Her exceptionally modest dress must have stood out in Barcelona, probably as much as a bikini would stand out in the haredi quarter of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. For a former actor and dancer, this was a very profound change. All bars were now removed for our marriage to take place.

We started to plan for a summer wedding in Israel but the plans were interrupted due to the sudden outbreak of war between Israel and Hezbollah on the northern border. We were watching the television news in my Tel Aviv apartment when some live coverage of the war came on screen.

“If war ever broke out and we had children,” Eliana speculated, “I could take them to my mother in Spain, where they could be safe and we could safely wait out the war.”

I started pacing back and forth and felt a throbbing in my temples.

“What are you talking about? This is home! Here is where we belong – in Israel. How could you think about leaving Israel while others are willing to risk their lives to defend this country?”

“But it’s only a temporary measure,” she countered.

“You don’t abandon the ship because of a storm.”

“Surely you can take steps to protect your own children,” she cried, and left the room in tears.

I dropped the subject.

Israel got over the war with Hezbollah. And while the existential question regarding the unborn child’s place of refuge was left undecided, we agreed that love had to be first given a chance and that love would always find a way.

But something had changed.

We planned to be married by the sea at sunset, and invitations followed. Eliana’s mother and sister arrived from Barcelona a few days before the event. We decided to keep some distance from one another for the week leading up to the wedding in accordance with religious custom, which cautioned that such a stressful time was ripe for chaos. And then something inexplicable and unforeseen happened.

The morning before the wedding was to take place, Eliana called me to meet her in the lobby of the hotel where she was staying with her family. She was tense, and looked like she had not slept all night. She didn’t say anything at first but opened her hand and in it was her diamond engagement ring that she had removed from her finger. Words were not necessary, and I don’t remember whether any were in fact spoken.

A romance's end

I was no stranger to love’s disappointments and had been wounded before; but the timing of this latest announcement, with the accompanying embarrassment and expense, was undeniably a hard blow to bear. My friends and family got together for a dinner that proved to be funereal rather than the original festive one that we had planned.

Having little choice, I found some solace in the Hebrew mantra, “Gam zu l’tova,” meaning, “this, too, is for the good.” “Gam zu l’tova,” I repeated daily, more like hourly, and with each affirmation I became a tiny bit stronger.

Aside from the wedding party that had to be immediately canceled, there was also the matter of the honeymoon. I had decided to combine our honeymoon with an invitation to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my play, Einstein, which was still running in Brazil.

A trip to Brazil

So it was thankfully but a few days later that I found myself beside an empty seat on a flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto, where I had a connecting flight to São Paulo. At the Toronto Airport I encountered an Orthodox man dressed in black with a black hat and a black beard. He appeared confused looking up at the flight monitor, so I approached him and asked, in Hebrew, if I could help.

“Baruch Hashem! Praise God,” he said, and then proceeded to ask me if I could direct him to the right gate where he was to catch a flight to São Paulo.

“You can praise Him again,” I said. “Looks like we are both on the same flight.”

“Yishtabach shemo, blessed be His name,” he put down his carry-on black bag and threw his arms above his head in a gesture of thanks to the Almighty. He then embraced me, kissing me on both cheeks.

The man in black knew absolutely no English, and explained that not only was this the first time he had ever been outside of Israel, but also the first time he had flown in an airplane. He had been summoned urgently, he explained, to replace a religious school teacher in São Paulo who had quit unexpectedly, and as a result had no time to even pack a proper suitcase.

I invited the young man to sit beside me in the extra seat that I had originally reserved for my Barcelona bride. My inexperienced friend was also unaware that he had to have previously placed an order for kosher meals with the airlines, but fortunately for him, Eliana’s special meal request was still pending in the system

“Hakol Mishamayim,” he said, meaning, everything is from above. “Gam zu l’tova,” I concurred.

“My name is Elior,” he said. “I am a rabbi from Bet Shemesh and I am also a mekubal.” The latter surprised me, for I knew it to mean someone deeply versed in the secrets and mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. It is not every day that you meet someone professing to be the equivalent of a seer and miracle worker. This ought to make for an interesting flight, I thought, as we shook hands and I helped him to fasten his seat belt.

In the ensuing conversation, I related some of the recent circumstances that had brought me to be traveling solo to São Paulo.

“You are probably wondering why this tragedy happened to you,” Elior interjected.

“Just a little,” I replied with a tinge of sarcasm.

After a long pause in which the young mekubal looked intently into my eyes and scrutinized my aura – or lack thereof – he began to speak:

“I am going to wrap myself in my tallit,” he said, pulling out his white fringed prayer shawl from his bag. “And when I finish praying, you will have all the answers.”

Elior then proceeded to go into what seemed to me to be a trance-like state. He wrapped his entire body in the prayer shawl and also buried his face inside. He then started swaying from side to side and back and forth. Some of the passengers looked at him curiously and others nervously, but I gave them a wave as if to say, “Don’t worry; he may be an oddball but he’s harmless.”

After several minutes the swaying slowed down and Elior fell back in his seat. Intrigued, I waited patiently for him to emerge from underneath his tallit and say something profound but he remained immersed in meditation. After several more minutes I heard the unmistakable sound of snoring emanating from the still sealed prayer shawl.

After several hours the mummified kabbalist awoke and seemed to have forgotten all about his promise to reveal secrets gleaned from worlds above. Neither did I feel like reminding him. The stewardess came by with some customs forms, and Elior handed me his Israeli passport and asked if I could complete the English form for him, which I did.

Sensing he was on a thrifty budget, I offered him to share my taxi from the airport and he gratefully accepted. He presented an address that had been written for him on a scrap of paper. Outside the airport terminal I flagged a taxi driver and showed him the piece of paper. He said that the address scribbled there was not far from my hotel.

My stop was first and so I tipped the driver to take Elior to his nearby destination. We parted, shaking hands and wishing each other a successful trip. As I turned around Elior shouted, “Wait!” I could see by his pained expression that the mekubal remembered that he was supposed to tell me something.

“About what happened to you,” he said, lowering the back seat window as the driver started to pull away. “I know why it happened.”

 “It’s alright,” I said. “Honest, it’s better this way.” I waved in his direction as he shouted something at me, which I could not hear above the screeching of the taxi’s tires amidst the noisy traffic.

I watched as the taxi sped away with Elior’s long peyot blowing out the window, and wondered whether I might bump into him again during my stay.

As for me, the celebrations honoring the 10th anniversary of Einstein succeeded in preventing me from sinking into any tailspin I may otherwise have fallen into had I remained back in Tel Aviv. The temporary escape proved to be therapeutic as was the rhythmic Samba music in the air and bottomless cervezas shared with old thespian pals.

Feeling rested and mostly cured of the “wedding blues,” I arrived back in Toronto where some legal work had piled up on my desk in my absence. I continued working late into the night until taking a break to check the news in Canada and in Israel.

Canadian news tends to be uneventful, the crisis of the day typically being no more disastrous than a fisheries strike in Newfoundland or a snowstorm in the middle of Spring. But checking the news in Israel is often times an ordeal fraught with apprehension and misgiving. The lead item could range anywhere from a suicide bombing at a bus stop to Iranian ayatollahs threatening nuclear Armageddon.

But none of these scenes could prepare me for what was about to appear on my computer screen. The lead item on the Israeli TV news displayed a photograph of a young, haredi man with a black beard and peyot. There was no mistaking who it was: Elior! The very same rabbi and mekubal who had sat beside me on the flight to São Paulo!

I turned up the volume to hear what the announcer was saying. Under Elior’s image were the words, “Wanted in child sexual abuse scandal.” For the next half an hour or so, the prime-time news report continued to be dominated by a shocking story of physical and sexual abuse that had allegedly taken place in a cult-like atmosphere with Elior being the alleged kingpin. One of the abused children had suffered third-degree burns and was brought to the hospital in a comatose state. The broadcast concluded by speculating that the fugitive had fled to Toronto, and that the Canadian police had been alerted to be on the lookout for him.

 Elior Chen is extradited to Israel on October 24, 2009. (credit: RAANAN COHEN/MAARIV) Elior Chen is extradited to Israel on October 24, 2009. (credit: RAANAN COHEN/MAARIV)

There could be no mistaking that it was one and the same person. I recognized both the name and the photograph as it was taken from the same passport that I had seen to help him fill out his customs form. “Now what do I do?” I asked myself as I closed my laptop. As a lawyer, I was acutely aware of how sensational and how wrong the media could be in reporting crimes of this nature. And then again, what if the allegations were true?

I decided to ask a friend and teacher, both a lawyer and an Orthodox rabbi, what he thought I should do. Rabbi Yosef was much more circumspect in his opinion. “What if they are wrong?” he asked. “What if they have some vendetta against him? Are you going to cause his arrest and detention, perhaps in squalid conditions in Brazil where who knows what the standard of justice may be?”

“But if I remain silent, and he is guilty, no one will ever find him,” I said. “They think he is somewhere in Canada, and he is thousands of miles away.”

“But do you want to be a moyser?” he asked.

Few Yiddish words conjure up the repugnance that is associated with that cursed expression. A moyser is an informant, someone who rats on his brother, usually for financial gain or to save his own skin. Sad to say, but there were moysers going all the way back to Egypt when Jews were slaves, and even Moses had to run for his life after killing an Egyptian taskmaster because a moyser informed on him to Pharoah. Moysers abounded during the Inquisition when Jews were secretly practicing their religion under penalty of death. There were moysers in the ghettos, the camps, and in Communist Russia, where they reported to their masters whenever an “illegal” circumcision was performed or the Torah was taught.

“Me, a moyser?” I shot back, offended by the accusation. “But is it not against the Torah to stand idly by your brother’s blood?”

“True enough,” said the rabbi. “But the issues are complicated and better for wiser heads than mine to decide. I suggest you call Rabbi Miller,” he said. Rabbi Miller was the head of the Bet Din Rabbinical Council and a heavyweight in Canada’s Orthodox community. “He probably won’t talk to you personally,” Rabbi Yosef added, “but perhaps his assistant will relay the question and get back to you.”

I called the telephone number Rabbi Yosef provided and was indeed screened by Rabbi Miller’s assistant. He asked to put me on hold and after several minutes another voice came on the line.

“Tell me how you know it is him,” said Rabbi Miller, without introducing himself.

“Because I saw his passport,” I said. “I had to help him fill out the customs form as he could not read nor write English.”

Rabbi Miller wanted to know every detail about everything that I knew or had learned.

“This is a very serious matter,” he said more than once, while continuing to cross-examine me.

I told Rabbi Miller that the Israeli police were actively searching for Elior, and that they had misleading information that he was still in Canada.

“This is very serious,” he repeated.

“Should I contact the Israeli Embassy?”

“Do you know where he went to in São Paulo?”

“I saw the address written on a piece of paper but I can’t remember it now.”

There was a long pause.

“You can tell them that he is no longer in Canada; that he is in Brazil,” the rabbi said and abruptly ended the conversation.

I called the Israeli Embassy. The consul was ecstatic about the news, though I was starting to feel somewhat uncomfortable with my role.

A short while later I received a telephone call from Interpol. The case was red flagged and the Investigator wanted to know everything I knew about Elior, where we had met, what airlines had we traveled on, flight number, my hotel, etc.

“Do you know where he was going?” he asked.

“I did,” I replied. “But I’ve forgotten.”

“Alright, we will take it from here. You are sure he was going somewhere in São Paulo?” he asked almost as an afterthought.

“Of that I’m certain,” I replied.

He exhaled a deep breath causing static to reverberate inside my ear.

“Eleven point four million,” he sighed. “That’s how many people live in São Paulo. This is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

That night I had a restless sleep, waking up several times. The next day I again checked the prime-time television news from Israel. It opened with the same photo of Elior, but this time the caption read, “Fugitive believed to be in Brazil.”

More witnesses were coming forward with further allegations of sexual and child abuse. The sadistic reports were hard to reconcile with the odd but seemingly harmless fellow who sat quietly beside me on the plane and shook my hand in the taxi.

Not being able to sleep again, I began organizing my receipts from the trip. I pulled out a fistful of paper scraps from my carry-on bag and lo and behold, out jumped a taxi receipt from Guarulhos Airport and a crumpled piece of paper with an address scribbled on it.

“Oh, brother, now what do I do?” I agonized. “Do I call back Interpol? The Israeli consulate? The chief rabbi? My mother?”

The last option was definitely out of the question. Like most Jewish mothers, mine would surely have taken me to task for having started a conversation with a complete stranger and accuse me of having brought this trouble, this tzorah, upon myself.

My conscience started to bait me: “If you don’t tell, they will never find him and that little boy lying comatose in intensive care will haunt you for the rest of your worthless life.”

“But what if he didn’t do it?” I silently pleaded.

“That’s not for you to decide,” came the swift retort.

“Why do these things happen to me?”

“You are just the messenger. You are not as important as you think. So what if you’re a moyser? Just do the right thing and get over it.”

I picked up the phone.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to the investigator, “but I think I may have found the needle in the haystack you’re looking for.”

“Have you been to a hypnotist?” he asked.

“Neither to a hypnotist nor to a kabbalist,” I said, and read him the address.

Two days later I saw Elior’s face again leading off the prime-time news from Israel, this time with the caption: “Arrested in Brazil.” Several months later he was extradited. The consul from the Israel Embassy in Toronto called to ask whether she could give my contact information to an Israeli newspaper reporter who was eager to do a story on the capture of the fugitive. I declined. “The last thing I need at this point in my life is to be the victim of a kabbalistic curse emanating from within prison walls. No thank you. Please spare me the credit.”

Eventually, Elior Chen was put on trial in Israel for having severely abused no less than eight children, one of whom remains in a vegetative state. According to the prosecution, Chen was the head of a secretive cult and had ordered the various assaults on the children in order to rid them of “demons” that he alleged had possessed them. Ultimately, he was convicted and sentenced to a 24-year term in a maximum security prison.

As I read the summary of the sentencing, a thought went through my mind: what would have happened had I been on my honeymoon trip as planned? Would I have even noticed this haredi fellow at the airport or on the flight? It’s not like the sight of an Orthodox Jew dressed in black with a black beard and hat is at all unusual in Israel or for that matter in New York or Toronto. And besides, when Eliana was in my sights, I wasn’t looking elsewhere.

Surely, our paths – Elior’s and mine, that is – would never have crossed had my tightly bound tie with Eliana not first have come undone.

Coincidence? Some would say I suppose. But for kabbalists and even for simple believers like me, there are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. When the universe was created, they say that vessels containing sparks of holiness shattered, and since the very beginning of time we have had to redeem these sparks and restore them to their rightful place.

Every encounter along the path of life’s uncharted highway is but an opportunity to raise a spark, or God forbid to plunge the world into further evil, chaos and darkness. Each one of us encounters people who are not randomly set in motion but are there for a reason – a reason that may not be known at the time, but that we may come to discover.

Had I made the right decision? I certainly hope so. In the end, it may not even have been my decision at all if everything, as Elior himself would say, has been pre-ordained, “Hakol Mishamayim!” ■

©2022 Gabriel Emanuel