Victory Gardens – Chapter 4


Manny shares with Esther his worries over Mutty’s safety, and Esther tries to reassure him. In Hebron, Mutty encounters Ahmed, son of the fruit-and-vegetable seller. Ahmed’s hostile expression is unlike anything Mutty has previously experienced from his Arab acquaintance.

*   *   *

Right in the middle of shalosh seudos, there was a loud pounding on the door. Papa Rothstein was in the middle of singing Mizmor l’Dovid and was not happy about being interrupted.

“Ignore it!” he said to Mama when he stopped to take a breath.

But the pounding could not be ignored. When Papa Rothstein finished his niggun, he took his hat and, placing it firmly on his head, rose to his full height and walked over to the door.

Ver iz es?” he shouted, assuming it was one of his pesky neighbors. “Who is it?”

There was a short silence on the other side of the door, and then the knocking resumed.

Papa Rothstein flung the door open, only to find a Western Union man standing there with a confused look on his face.

“Telegram for Jozef Rothstein,” the messenger said, placing a clipboard in front of him for Papa to take. “Sign here, sir.”

“Impossible! It’s the Sabbath. There’s no one who would send me a telegram today!” Papa Rothstein was adamant, but Mama was not so sure. With Mutty constantly on her mind, the telegram portended no good, but the bad news you knew about for sure was much better than the bad news you imagined on your own.

“One moment please,” said Mama, stepping around both her husband and the messenger.

“Shaina Fraydel!” Papa hissed. “What are you doing?”

Mama proceeded down the hallway and knocked on the door of her neighbor, Ida O’Flanahan, who opened up to Mama without hesitation, as though she had been standing right by the door, waiting for the knock.

“Why, a good day to ya, Shirley. How are you and yours today?” Mrs. O’Flanahan was called occasionally into the Rothstein home on the weekends to perform all sorts of mundane and unusual tasks. She’d grown accustomed to her quiet neighbor’s timid knocks on her door from time to time.

“Good day, Mary. Could you come for a moment?” asked Mama.

“Certainly, dear.” As she stepped out into the hallway, she immediately spied the messenger standing at the door of the Rothstein’s apartment, with her scary bear of a husband looming over the poor fellow. Taking in the situation immediately, she walked over to the messenger.

“Where’s that telegram then?” she said. Signing her name on the proffered clipboard, she took the envelope in her hands and slipped her finger under the flap to open it. Mama was shaking so hard she had to hold on to the wall behind her as Mrs. O’Flanahan read the tersely-worded message.

“Mordechai Rothstein missing in Hebron-STOP. Search in progress-STOP. No cause for concern-STOP.” She uttered each sentence slowly and carefully.

“Give me that!” said Papa, grabbing the telegram out of her hand. He was certain she was making it up.

As he scanned the words, his face grew so white Mama feared for his health.

“No cause for concern? They send such a telegram and tell me not to worry?”

Mama turned first to Mrs. O’Flanahan. “Thank you ever zo much, Mary,” she said in her careful English. “Have a fine evening.”

“Well is there anythin’ I ken do for ya, Shirley?” said the older woman. “Sounds like you’ve got a bit of bad news, heven’t ya?”

“We’ll be fine,” said Mama. “Thank you all the same.” She smiled again as she left her neighbor in the hallway, closing the door to the apartment gently behind her.

“The telegram is in English,” she said quietly.

Papa’s face had turned from white to red. “So?”

“So, it means it was sent by the English, not by the yeshivah,” Mama said in a voice barely above a whisper. Her heart was pounding as she tried to find a reason for the message not to say what it clearly said. “It’s probably just a hoax.”

Papa held his head in his heads. “That Birenzweig,” he muttered. “For once he knew what he was talking about!”

“Excuse me?” said Mama. “Did you say something?”

“No. Nothing, Mama. How do you know all of this about the English in Hebron?” he asked.

Mama smiled shyly. “I read the newspaper a few times. I pick up things here and there.”

“Hmmph.” Papa was always mildly surprised when Mama did anything he hadn’t specifically told or asked her to do.

“I’m going to make us both a cup of tea. We’ll find out more after Shabbes is over. I’m sure Mutty is fine and it’s just a misunderstanding.” She was holding on to the fact that if the telegram was in English there was no problem. If there had been, she felt certain that the telegram would have been worded in Yiddish.

As Mama stepped into the small kitchen she had insisted on (“I wouldn’t know what to do with a big kitchen,” she’d told her husband when he had first purchased the apartments. “I like everything to be where I can see it.”), Papa replayed the brief exchange he’d had with Birenzweig the night before. How was it possible that unrest had erupted in Hebron, of all places? The city was known for its friendly relations between Jews and Arabs, and he had been reassured by others who had sent their sons there that it was perfectly safe. What could have gone wrong?

Mama came back out from the kitchen holding a small tray containing two cups of tea and four sugar cubes. “Here you are, Yosef,” she said. “Have some tea, and then we’ll bentsch. You’ll go daven and we’ll see what’s what.”

“Thank you, Shaina.” He tried to remain calm on the surface, grateful he hadn’t repeated Birenzweig’s alarming words to his wife the night before. He took a deep sip of tea, placing a sugar cube between his teeth as he drank. The hot sweet liquid ran down his throat, trying to make its way through the knot of fear that was blocking its passage.

To be continued . . .