Victory Gardens – Chapter 61

Novel

Manny seriously considers the proposal of the Rabbanim to stay in Eretz Yisrael and bring his wife, Esther, to join him there.

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The days were dragging on ominously, without word from Manny or Mutty except for Mutty’s terse proclamation that he was “alive and well.” Papa waited anxiously each day for the Western Union man to arrive with a telegram announcing their departure from Eretz Yisrael and impending return to New York, and yet each day passed with no word from either of his sons.

His days might have continued in this vein had the world not woken up one morning to find itself turned black. It was Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Thousands of men who entered their lavish offices as millionaires exited them that day as paupers. Some even took their lives when they learned of their financial ruin. The world was in an uproar.

Almost every family was affected by the economic catastrophe in one way or another. The poor became poorer, some of the wealthy became poorer still, but were far less accustomed to poverty and less able to face its pinch.

Papa awoke that morning, Black Tuesday, as he did every other morning. He washed, dressed, took his tallis bag and headed out to shul. He learned the bitter news from the shocked fellow mispallelim who greeted him there, but he still held his head high. He was a frugal and prudent man, and truly believed that this crisis would pass him by. His money was safe, secure and untouchable. He returned home to find Schultz, his business manager, just entering the building lobby.

“I called your house and spoke to Mrs. Rothstein,” he said to Papa as they took the elevator up to the apartment. “This is news I had to deliver in person.”

Papa Rothstein put his finger to his lips, so that the elevator operator would not be privy to bad news about the Rothsteins, and they completed their ride in silence.

Papa opened the door and saw Shaindel seated at the dining room table, as still as a stone and just as silent. Not sure what was amiss, he noted the identical expression of numb shock in their eyes.

Instinct warned him to speak to Shaindel first, and she placed both of her hands on the table.

“What is it, Shaindel?” he said. “What’s happened?”

“Jozef,” the manager spoke, “I will explain.”

“If I were speaking to you, I would be glad to hear you explain. But right now I am speaking with my wife. What’s happened Shaindel? What did he tell you?”

“He told me that there was a — how do they call it — run on the bank. The bank … is out of businesses. All our money is gone,” said Shaindel. Her voice was without inflection, and it was not because she was worried for herself. Forty years of marriage to Jozef Rothstein taught her that he was not nearly as strong as he made himself out to be, and she had to tread lightly.

“It’s impossible.” His voice was firm and steady.

Schultz stared at him unflinchingly. “It is happening throughout the state, probably even throughout the country,” he said. “The banks are being asked to pay all their debts to bigger banks, but they don’t have the money, so, pffft,” he continued, making a gesture of dismissal with his hand.

“I don’t understand,” said Papa, “how such a thing could have happened. I don’t understand it at all.”

Mama had been surprised that Papa had let her remain in the room, rather than simply talking with Schultz. Perhaps because he already knew there was going to be bad news, he needed her there. In any case, after the initial shock of it, Mama was unperturbed. She would have little problem returning to the frugal habits of her youth. She’d never grown attached to their wealth, and felt surprisingly little at its demise.

But to a man who prided himself on supporting his family honorably, the blow was devastating. It was impossible that a man as meticulous as Jozef Rothstein could be brought from wealth to poverty in a moment, all because of the actions of bankers whom he had never even met. He had to close his eyes and swallow many times. He had to swallow the pain and hurt and shame, he had to swallow the bitter bile of failure. His faith, that these things happen for a reason, that G-d’s ways are not random, that each person’s tests are handpicked for him by the One Above, was all that he could cling to in this moment. He had not, for example, lost his home. Businesses could be lost and gained a hundred times over in a lifetime. All of this could be borne.

Even though Shaindel expressed no anger or alarm, and there was not a hint of blame in her eyes, he could feel the shame radiating from his skin, the shame of failing as her provider. This was a test that could not be borne. Not by him, at least. Not now, and not ever.

To be continued . . .