Victory Gardens – Chapter 3

Novel

Manny and Esther go for Shabbos seudos to Papa and Mama Rothstein’s apartment. After the seudah, Papa tells Manny to join him for a walk. They meet a neighbor who alerts Papa to reports of unrest in Hebron, where the Rothstein’s son Mutty is learning. Papa returns to the original conversation, which deals with Manny and Esther’s future.

*   *   *

Manny was quieter than usual on the walk home that evening. Normally he made the effort to keep up conversation as they trekked up Fifth Avenue on the way home, choosing a different street each week to turn down as they headed east towards their apartment, to make the long walk pass more enjoyably. Esther normally enjoyed these walks immensely. Manny would save up things to tell her from the week, and would keep her entertained the entire trip.

“Something on your mind?” she asked.

“Nah,” he said. “You know Papa and his opinions.”

She nodded. Although Manny was used to protecting himself from his father, Papa was occasionally successful in getting under his skin. “He means well,” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Manny was mortified. Never, ever would he repeat to Esther the conversation he was forced to endure with his father this particular evening. Instead, he recalled the strange meeting with Birenzweig.

“Did you happen to listen to the radio today?” he asked.

“Manny! Nisht oif Shabbes geredt!” she cried.

“No, it’s relevant. When I was walking with Papa, one of his friends stopped him to tell us there was some unrest in Hebron. Did you hear anything about it?”

“Are you worried about Mutty? Don’t be. If anyone could take care of himself it’s that one.”

“Even though Mama spoils him so much?” Manny smiled grimly. He loved his younger brother fiercely, but the fact that Mutty was clearly his parents’ favorite occasionally rankled.

“Somehow. I’m not sure how it works. You and I are both the eldest in our families. Nobody spoiled us, but I’m not sure how well I would do in a crisis or an emergency.”

In his heart of hearts Manny had to agree with her assessment, even against his will. Esther was an aishes chayil, but everything she did was by the book. As long as the challenges weren’t too overwhelming, she thrived.

He sometimes wondered what she told herself as year after year went by and they still had not been blessed with children. It was, he felt, just about the greatest test of faith a woman could go through, and she handled it with dignity and grace. Maybe he had underestimated her and she was stronger than he thought? He shook his head. No, he decided. Maybe she just didn’t want children all that much.

“Why are you shaking your head?” asked Esther, breaking the silence.

He hadn’t realized he’d actually shook his head.

“I’m just thinking about Mutty. You’re probably right. He’s pretty scrappy. If there are problems with the Arabs there he’ll figure out what to do.”
“There, that’s better. A little positive thinking. Tracht gut und ess vet zein gut,” she said, sincerely. “Now, why don’t you tell me over a vort? That should cover us until we finally get home. My feet are killing me!”

*   *   *

As Manny and Esther were making their way home that muggy Friday evening, Mordechai Rothstein, known to all as Mutty, was walking from the yeshivah to the home of his maggid shiur, clutching a bouquet of flowers. He checked his watch again to make sure he wasn’t too early or too late. He hoped to be able to daven at the Ma’aras Hamachpela for Minchah-Maariv. He didn’t daven there often, preferring to daven with the yeshivah. He was always anxious that, if he got too close to the “seventh step,” he’d be pushed over, and the consequences of that were too dire to consider. So when he did brave davening there, he made sure to stay way back, almost at the back of the minyan, to avoid the possibility.

Coming towards him on his bicycle, he could make out the distinct outline of his friend, Ahmed. Since Mutty was in charge of purchasing the vegetables for the yeshivah, and Ahmed, the son of the proprietor of the vegetable stand, was in charge of packing them up, the two young men would often spend some time making light conversation. They didn’t have much in common, obviously, but they always found something to say, even if it was the giving and accepting of small tokens of friendship. Mutty could sometimes arrange a cigarette for Ahmed, who would reciprocate with a small package, wrapped in newspaper, containing figs or olives. Mutty was always careful to take maaser before eating them, and would derive a thrill from being able to perform mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz .

Raising up his hand to greet Ahmed with a friendly wave, he was surprised when Ahmed neither returned the gesture or offered one of his bright and frequent smiles. When Mutty stopped to say hello, Ahmed kept peddling forward, muttering unfamiliar but definitely ominous-sounding Arabic words  instead of his normally cheerful As-SalaamAlaikum, causing a frission of alarm to course through Mutty’s body. Not once since his arrival in Hebron had he felt any fear, despite the warnings he had received before departing New York. His father had assured him that Hebron was perfectly safe, and the opportunity to learn in the Slabodka Yeshivah under the famous Gaon, Harav Sher was not to be missed. Mutty had been thrilled at the chance both to learn in such a prestigious yeshivah and to have the experience of living in Hebron at the same time. He trusted his father implicitly, certain he would never send his youngest son to a place he felt was even remotely dangerous. But as he saw the expression in Ahmed’s black eyes as he cycled past him, his heart was suddenly filled with dread.

To be continued . . .