Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Finding Yossi, VI


            In his clandestine work Ori Zohar had only been in peril once.
            This was in Paris, one year ago.  He had made contact with a young Jordanian student who had dealings with a group the Agency was eager to penetrate.  Zohar, in his limited capacity, was to be the first point of contact. 
            Zohar had been meeting the young man at various cafes in different parts of the city, in alcoves away from windows.  The encounters seemed to be leading nowhere; the man did not appear to know anyone of consequence.  But Zohar sensed a growing hesitation in the man, which grew more desperate with each encounter.  The man began to pepper his French with Arabic words and phrases.  Much of what he said made little sense.
            One day, Zohar was delayed in meeting the Arab.  When he arrived at the café a policeman stopped Zohar from entering.
            “What happened?” Zohar asked.
            “A murder,” the policemen answered.  And then, since Zohar’s French was fluent and he took him for a native. “Some sort of thing among the Arabs.”
            Zohar managed to look around the bulk of the policeman.  His contact was dead on the café floor, a knife between the blades of his shoulder.
            He returned to Jerusalem and briefed Omri.  The words came out flat enough, a factual autopsy of a failed attempt to establish human contact, to build trust and merit through reciprocation and incentives.   
             Omri listened with gravity, like a patient who had just been told by a doctor that he was gravely ill, but it was not terminal.  Only later in his flat did Ori Zohar begin to shake.  If the trolley had not been late, he would not be here, in his flat, trembling like a leaf, alive, his eyes as dry from dread as if he was dead already.  For Zohar, this was a fraught moment.  Conjuring up the sensation of death was as easy as drawing the next breathe.
            Now, in Buenos Aires, he felt a sensation akin to that, a gradation of death.  As he grew closer to Alter Shapira and his daughter, he felt the gradual demise of Ori Zohar.  Although bewitched by the growing stature of Levy Levinsky in his soul, Ori Zohar was cogent enough to realize the perplexity of his situation.  Here he was not the French businessman, the Belgian importer, the Dutch agronomist, all essentially foreign guises.   
            Levy Levinsky was a completely credulous character, in many ways less psychologically dubious than Ori Zohar.  Levy Levinsky was grounded in a living time, place and a community.  For the Ganaver Chasidim had a great weapon: they were certain of their certitude.  Zohar knew Ben-Gurion’s concern was not misspent.  Zohar realized the Chasidim could destroy Israel. The kidnapping of Yossi Kushner was simply an opening salvo in a long, undeclared war to transform the Jewish state into a theocracy.  A shard of this scenario appealed to Zohar: to believe and be certain of your belief. 
            Zohar found himself in an expected position: that of the double agent.  But even double agents had greater allegiance to one side.   Where did Zohar’s lay?  
            Then he thought he was in love with Bluma Shapira and his flickering soul fell over the divide.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Finding Yossi, V


            After two months at Kushner’s he still had not been transferred to Amsterdam, despite his repeated attempts.  He was to establish himself in Buenos Aires as Levy Levinsky and then move on to Amsterdam and make inroads in finding Yossi Kushner, if not retrieve the boy himself.
            But his boss was obstructing the promotion, hoping that Levy would marry his only daughter.  Ori had Sabbath dinner at Alter Shapira’s house nearly every week.  When Shapira found Levy Levinsky was an orphan, he became more fixated than ever on having him as a son-in-law.  He would say:
            “Why my boy, I can be the father who God, Blessed Be His Name, took away from you!”
            The father brought his daughter Bluma out and paraded her like the Torah scroll during the Feast of Weeks.  And Ori had to admit, she was an enchanting girl.  She was at least ten years younger than Zohar, with long dark lashes and skin the color of porcelain.  Zohar was drawn to her, and instead of distancing himself from this entangling arrangement, as he should have, he found himself unconsciously inching toward its solidification.  His handler in Buenos Aires, Nadab, was growing impatient.
            “No one is pleased,” Nadab, not his real name, explained.  Zohar met him at different hotel rooms in Buenos Aires almost every week.  Nadab sat on the edge of the bed, and Zohar stood in front of him, like a disobedient boy called before the headmaster. 
            “It’s complicated…”
            “Complicated?  How?” Nadab sneered.  “You are the crème of the crop.  The agency has spent a million shekels to train you.  Are you such a poor clerk that you can’t get a promotion in a Chasidic warehouse?”
            “You are looking at this in the wrong way,” Zohar explained to Nadab firmly, but averting the man’s gaze.  “Kushner & Son’s isn’t a government bureaucracy. There's no civil service exams.  It's a family business.  Everyone is related to everyone else, either by marriage or blood.  That is how you get ahead.”
            “So that’s it hah,” Nadab laughed, reclining his large body to one side, resting his elbow on the bed, as if he was at Passover Seder. “They want you to marry this little matriarch?  Then Amsterdam would be in reach?”
            “Yes, Nadab, obviously... but…”
            “Yes, obviously it would be a breach of protocol to marry her for a transfer.”
            “Of course,” Zohar stood firm, but he could feel Nadab fishing about the edges of their mutual expectations.
            “And it wouldn’t lead quid pro quo, to an Amsterdam transfer, now would it?” Nadab added, a statement tinged with the exigencies of the moment, a question mark for Zohar to scrutinize in a dingy hotel room in Buenos Aires, like the wisps of smoky light, forming and un-forming through the cracks in the beat up shade.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Finding Yossi, IV


              Levy Levinsky did not have a moment to himself.    He had forgotten the strident, sometimes hectic pace of the observant.  Always a prayer coming around the corner, a service in a shul, a concern with sitting on the seat of a taxi lest the seat be composed of wool and flax.
              Levinsky, speaking Yiddish out loud for the first time outside his dreams, could not see beyond the sphere of Chasidic Buenos Aires.   This was a densely packed world, with the frenzied work at Kushner & Sons Import Export, and the tangle of religious observation.  He spoke Yiddish in the office, Spanish in the streets.  On overseas lines he often used Dutch with operators when trying to contact the headquarters of Kushner’s main office in Amsterdam.
            This welter of languages, this shifting of identity, was nothing new to Ori Zohar.  But sometimes he would catch sight of himself in a store window, and for a moment he thought his grandfather was tailing him.   
            After a mere instant he realized it was him:  broad brimmed hat, black capote, side-locks, a lush beard, standing beneath a plane tree on a wide boulevard in Buenos Aires.  At such moments he said a sentence aloud in Hebrew, to ground the moment in something beside the dead past and this strange, indistinct present.  He realized it did not work.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Following Yossi, III

            Ori Zohar thought of his dead grandfather in vivid and unsettling vignettes.  The old man often stood before him, as if the witch of Endor had conjured him up instead of Samuel. 
            Zohar had been orphaned as a toddler, and his Yiddish speaking grandfather raised him until he was fourteen and ran away to the same kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where his parents had lived and died.   
            The visions came in fits and starts, like a movie showing on a broken projector, the frame moving in and out of the light which gave it life and action:  His grandfather studying with him over a page of Talmud, mumbling.  His grandfather wrapped in a prayer shawl, facing east, praying toward the destroyed Temple.  His grandfather admonishing him in his Hungarian Yiddish to be true to the Torah, down to the slightest of injunctions. 
            Zohar stayed with his grandfather until he was old enough to leave. When he left the old man was sick.  Zohar was too young to remember the death of his parents, so their departure felt like desertion.    
            So when he was fourteen, Zohar felt no compunction about abandoning his grandfather.  In fact, there was a strange feeling of reciprocity in the act, a kind of overturned justice, as if he had traded life for life, act for act.  But the purgative course he expected at the kibbutz never really happened.  Day by day a creeping dread entered his life, as if being alone was the ontological status of the world.   He found no redemption in the place where his parents had departed this world.  He expected to find them, and it was as if they had never existed. 
            When Zohar left Jerusalem for the kibbutz he shaved his side-locks and flossy beard and became a farmhand in overall and boots.  He seldom thought directly of his grandfather.   
            It was only several years later when he entered the intelligence service, where human connections are key, where some measure of trust gained and fostered, scrutinized and tested against a backdrop of common goals is essential, did he realize what an awful sin he had committed by leaving his grandfather to die alone.  He had trampled on a trust freely given.  He had learned nothing from a human interaction.
            But he pushed this all from his mind, stayed on the task entrusted to him.  And didn’t the new identity papers in his pocket already have claim to another self?  He no longer had to create alibis for Ori Zohar’s infractions.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Finding Yossi, II


          The ‘kidnapping’ of Yossi Kusher was headline news for a month.  Egypt rattled her saber at the Jewish state.  Syrian shells plunged on Galilee farms.  Jordanian snipers fired over the wire of a divided Jerusalem, yet the county was fixated on the abduction of one little boy.
            Ori Zohar scratched at his beard and tugged at the side-locks which swayed in his peripheral vision.  He sat at his desk and pulled out the contents of Yossi Kushner’s file.  With his beard and side-locks, he caught himself swaying over the papers and mumbling the words, as if he was studying Talmud with his grandfather.  He immediately stopped.  A shiver of recognition he wished to go unclaimed pulsed down his spine.
            First he read a three page memo from Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, single spaced, typed on Cabinet stationary, detailing the importance of the kidnapping of Yossi Kushner for the security of the State of Israel.   
            The crime, he explained, had both practical and symbolic importance.  He felt the symbolic took precedence over the practical.  Yossi Kushner’s kidnapping was a threat to secular Zionism, the very keystone of the Jewish state.  
             In his long explication, he even used an example from ancient history: “Zealot impractically in military matters, spurred on by their specious messianic notions, led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the scattering of the Jewish people abroad.  This impulse, to take history out of the hands of the Jewish state and invest it in some castle in the sky, is as grave a threat as an invasion by an Arab army, if not more so…”
            Zohar turned over Ben-Gurion’s memo.  Behind it and bound with a clip, were carbon copies of daily briefings provided to the Prime Minister on the progress of the case.  Attached to them were several short notes, a few handwritten, from Ben-Gurion expressing displeasure over the lack of progress in the investigation.   
            One carbon copy memo from Omri’s superior, Ahab, explained to the Prime Minister the difficulty of penetrating the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Ahab explained that procedurally and tactically it was easier to plant a team on the ground in Cairo than in a Yiddish speaking neighborhood in London or New York.  The entire intelligence apparatus was focused on the Arab threat, and not finding the Chasidic kidnappers of a secular Jewish boy.  Ben-Gurion’s response was one word: Unacceptable!
            Behind these sheaves of correspondence were  police reports of the crime.  On August 7, 1955, Theo and Anat Kushner reported to the Beersheba police that their eight year old son, Yossi Kushner, had not returned from his paternal grandparent’s house in Jerusalem, where he had been staying for the Sabbath.  The parents were secular farmers living on Kibbutz Gan, on the outskirts of Beersheba.  The grandparents, Shammai and Sarah Kushner, were Ganaver Chasidim residing in Jerusalem.
            The police believed the grandparents were late getting the boy on the bus and told the parents to go home.  But the next day, Theo Kushner returned to the Beersheba police station and told them that his parents had decamped from their flat in Jerusalem and the neighbors claimed they did not know where they had gone.  There was a transcript in the police report:

            Do you get on well with your parents, Mar Kushner?
            Yes, but they have expressed, more than once, their desire that my wife and myself should be more religious… if not for ourselves, then for the welfare of the boy…
            Do you think they took Yossi to make him a Ganaver?  Are they capable of that?
            I didn’t think so, but now I’m not so sure…

            Following this were reports from the Jerusalem Police: interviews with neighbors, and the elder Kushner’s rebbe.  The police suspected evasion and feigned ignorance.   
            By this time the kidnapping had become national news.  The prime minister was involved.  An unnamed agency dealing with internal security investigated the matter.  Their documents were highly redacted, presumably to hide the existence of the agency.  Whole sections were blocked out with India ink.  
            This agency claimed there was no evidence that Shammai, Sarah, or Yossi Kushner were in Israel.  According to the documents, this agency had secured the manifests of a Ganaver travel agency in Jerusalem which listed an “S & S Kushner & son,” as purchasing a one-way ticket to Amsterdam.   
            There were documents from the Passport Bureau claiming there was no record of Shammai, Sarah or Yossi Kushner as having purchased a passport.  This unnamed agency thought it unlikely that Ganaver Chasidim would forge passports or visas, but they could not rule it out.  They also noted that often, although without consistency, El Al employees allowed Ganaver Chasidim to fly without proper documentation, owing to the sect’s reluctance to deal with official agencies of the State.
            This was the last document.  Zohar closed the file.  In a week he would fly to Argentina to establish his new identity among the Ganaver Chasidim in Buenos Aires.  
            And then when possible and necessary, when his new self was ripe in his own bosom and the eyes of others, he would move on to Amsterdam and find Yossi.