Victory Gardens – Chapter 5

Novel

During shalosh seudos, someone comes to deliver a telegram to Papa and Mama Rothstein. Their Irish Catholic neighbor signs for it and opens it, and they learn that Mutty has been reported missing.

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Mutty would have been wise to take Ahmed’s strange greeting as a warning. But Shabbos was coming and there was no time to waste dwelling on real or imagined slights. Besides, in Chevron the Jews and the Arabs were friends. Nearly every Chevron resident he had spoken with made sure to mention it. The children would play together outside in the fields and on the dusty roads. Businessmen would do business together, and weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage were community affairs attended by both. There was no cause for worry.

After dropping off the flowers at the home of his host and hostess, Mutty made his way to the Ma’arat Machpelah. While it was forbidden by the Arab and British authorities for Jews to enter, they were allowed to daven up to the seventh step leading into the holy kever. The Yidden were so grateful for the opportunity to daven even that close to their beloved patriarchs and matriarchs that they accepted the decree. The place filled Mutty with awe and fear and he couldn’t stay away. Its kedushah reached out to him like a beacon guides a ship on a foggy night at sea.

Normally the atmosphere in the crowd was quiet and respectful, but tonight the mood was anxious. The davening was choppy and distracted, and the anxiety affected Mutty. Looking around, he noticed the expressions on the faces of the Arab guards who surrounded the area. Their eyes and faces appeared as hard as flint, their jaws clamped shut.

Suddenly all he wanted was to leave. He quickly finished davening and, before the crowd could disperse and slow him down, he hurried back to the safety of the yeshivah grounds.

After returning from the Friday night seudah, Mutty fell into a fitful sleep. He dreamed he was running along a dirt road next to the sea, when suddenly the road ended but he kept going. Mutty fell into the water and sank to the bottom. There he found his father, sitting in a chair, smoking a pipe as though he were sitting on a park bench. “Mordechai,” his dream father said. “How did you find me? I was hiding here.”

In the dream Mutty couldn’t speak, but his mind was churning furiously. “What does it mean that I am seeing you here?” it called out. His father only smiled, whereupon a large fish came along. Climbing onto its back, his father and the fish swam away.

Mutty woke up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t morning yet, but he was through sleeping for the night. He dressed quickly and, after saying brachos, quietly left the dormitory and headed toward the surrounding fields. The air was fresh and clean; just breathing it in made him feel better.

Homes dotted the landscape, most belonging to extended Arab families, with several generations living together. The sections of those homes were arranged in a square surrounding a central courtyard where all cooking, eating and socializing took place. Walking by one of the dwellings, Mutty couldn’t help but hear raised voices coming from within the family compound. His Arabic wasn’t great, but he understood enough to get the general idea.

“When you see a Jew — any Jew! — take a knife and stab him! Cut off his feet and hands, and his head.” Mutty stopped in his tracks, his heart pounding with fear. Searching along the stone façade, he found a small hole he could peer through.

An older man stood in the middle of the courtyard, instructing the younger family members.

“But Grandfather, women too? And children? They are our friends. Why is it different now?” One young boy, about seventeen, was clearly disturbed by the order.

“Every Jew! Do not look at their faces. Do not be merciful!”

Mutty had heard all he needed to hear. He slipped quietly away and, once the coast was clear, started to run for his life.

He felt trapped. Was it only this family plotting to attack the Jews, or were all the city’s Arabs involved? If so, if he tried to run back to the yeshivah, he greatly risked being accosted. Which way should he go? He was cold in the morning chill and he had no food or water, so hiding out by himself seemed too difficult a possibility.

“What would Papa do?” he thought suddenly, recalling his strange dream. He tried to imagine his tall, outspoken father running for his life, and he couldn’t. His father would never do that. He would formulate a plan and then he would carry it out precisely.

Carefully hiding behind some large boulders, Mutty finally was able to sit and think. Let’s say, he told himself, the entire Arab population of Chevron suddenly were to go on a rampage, seeking to slaughter Jews. Where would they go first? He knew their habits well enough, through observation and hearsay, to know that they were not likely to plan. They would search for places where Jews might congregate. Mutty wondered if they would break into private houses, but he wasn’t certain. They would definitely enter the shuls, though. Hiding there was to be avoided.

To be continued . . .