Where to go right now: Excerpt from ‘A Tale of Two Avrahams’

"A Tale of Two Avrahams" spans the eastern Mediterranean from Israel to Greece and Italy, and joins its heroes across a distance of four centuries.

A Tale of Two Avrahams370 (photo credit: courtesy)
A Tale of Two Avrahams370
(photo credit: courtesy)
Sandor came alone, unannounced, unexpected. The night was dark and moonless; he had chosen the lower entrance that was unlit, knowing that the family used the brightly illuminated one in the back. The doorbell rang, and there he stood.
Unusual in this neighborhood, a hasid in full uniform: shtraymel tilted a bit rakishly, but shtraymel it was. Long coat of shiny gabardine – black; black suit, white shirt, no tie, black beard. Hasidic rabbis never go anywhere without an escort – only if there is a death in the family or someone is in the hospital does the rebbe come to you – but he came alone.
I call him Sandor, a diminutive of Alexander, someone much admired by the ancient rabbis – but no longer to his face. Others call him Rackover rebbe, Rackov being a tiny town in Poland where his grandfather had once carried on their small but respected dynasty.
I sat, bare-headed, waiting.
Sooner or later he’d tell me why he came.
In the dark of night. Alone.
I waited. He sighed. I saw his lips move as he made the blessing over the tea.
He said nothing. Finally I spoke.
“I‘m listening.”
“Rodef. They are talking about rodef. Moser.” It was uttered in a conversational tone, but hushed.
I sighed as well. His tone was not accusatory.
Rodef means persecutor – a Jew who persecutes his own people.
Moser is the one who betrays you to the authorities. Over the centuries, the moser, or moyser in Yiddish, and the rodef, have both been considered the lowest of the low.
If a Jewish court of law passes a sentence of moser on a fellow Jew, the non-Jewish government carries out the execution. Either way: death for a moser. Death for a rodef. Sandor looked at me and then lowered his eyes. Perhaps he was apologizing for their decision.
Who are “they”? you ask. A group of rabbis, loosely organized – if at all – but powerful enough for their decisions to carry weight.
Influential enough to get the word out. The same decision that condemned Yitzhak Rabin to death, though not necessarily the same rabbis. The killer only pulled the trigger; “they” triggered him.
I studied Sandor’s face. “You placed yourself in danger tonight.” He shrugged.
“Am I so important?’ I asked.
“Am I a prime minister?” He looked steadily at me. “They think you are a moser, father of the fathers of all mosrim.” His tone was even, flat. “Don’t put them to the test. Go!” The term he used, “father of,” is equal to another rabbinic term – “father of the fathers of impurity.”
I sat like a stone. Not rigid.
Just settled – a stone in its rightful place doesn’t want to move.
He spoke. “I won’t come again.”
Or maybe he said, “I can’t come again.” I can’t be sure. Of course, he had broken the code, the inner code of the inside rabbis. “I won’t come again. But I could not stand silent on your blood.”
I shuddered. I knew the verse to which he was referring. Thou shalt not stand silent on thy brother’s blood.
He asked me to let him out the way he came. I did not turn on the stoop light. He did not offer me his hand before melting black on black into the night. I was too stunned to ask why he wore a shtraymel on an ordinary weekday, one neither Sabbath nor Holy Day.
Which Sandor was here tonight? The warm, almostnephew requiting childhood love and adolescent affection? He had not even looked at me. Was he sealing over the closeness we had shared since his childhood? I realized something else, too, another chilling detail. He had not said hello. He had not said good-bye.
He had waited for me to speak first. He had followed the protocol for visiting a house of mourning.
I was already being mourned.
And I was also the mourner, mourning my own future death.
Had I been visited by Sandor the almost-nephew or the other Sandor, leader and counselor of the Sages? Perhaps he hadn’t come of his own accord. Perhaps he had been sent. Perhaps by the gentler rabbis who abhor bloodshed. Perhaps by the haters who nonetheless don’t want to kill a fellow Jew if there’s another way.
I packed during the night, when the aching calls of the muezzins rang across the Jerusalem valley below the Turkish walls of the Old City.... With false dawn the church bells tolled from the Armenian church just inside the wall, and from the Dormition on Mount Zion, echoed by tinnier sounds from within the Christian quarter itself.
By noon, I was on a bus to Haifa. Rodef means persecutor, the one who pursues. But I was the one being pursued, I thought, as I faded into the bus and through the port.
I felt uprooted, torn from the comfort of my home, from my routine.
The adrenaline that came with being hunted had reinvigorated me, but now, in the embrace of a ship’s cabin, gently rocked by the sea, I fell asleep.
I dreamed of my wife and making love; of strange women walking by, exuding desire, but of making love to my wife. And I dreamed also of fearsome death figures waiting for me, and killers with knives lurking around corners.
I dreamed of horses riding through a steamy land I did not know, and of a beautiful figure of a woman whose speaking voice rang as true as a tuned bell in a perfect belfry, in a synagogue whose cupola had a cross on it.
People in shrouds reached out to me, but I knew my wife’s arms were waiting and death would not claim me.
I awakened refreshed, ready to make some decisions. The first had been made: I had fled.
Should I now go into hiding? How far did their threat go? If I stopped my work, would they call off the hunt? Or would they, pursue me still, relentless? Would they become the rodfim, the pursuers, the persecutors, and I the nirdaf, the pursued? Was I under a death sentence in all circumstances, or would staying in Israel be the basis for my execution? Would remaining abroad mean a stay of execution? I must begin to weave a web of lies. Lies are always more certain than the truth. All my life I have tried to fight lies and lying, but I must learn a new skill and adapt quickly. Will I be able to? I am faced with a much more immediate problem, however: Where to go right now.The writer has been a senior civil servant, an academic and head of Keren Hayesod-UIA. A Tale of Two Avrahams spans the eastern Mediterranean from Israel to Greece and Italy, and joins its heroes across a distance of four centuries. It is available at Amazon.com, in both paperback and Kindle editions and soon in Israel at [email protected]