The cozener was a fattish man who wore a fatter man’s clothes to give the impression that for a man such as he, despite the impeccably manicured fingernails, worldly elegance was bupkes. To strangers he introduced himself as Ber Elah although doubtless his birth name was different. Ber Elah was in a line of business which involved frequent stretches behind bars. He was, during these enforced sojourns, a model prisoner; never ill behaved. All he asked for was a pen, a Bible and a writing pad.
Thus equipped, Ber Elah spent his locked up days poring over the first five chapters of the Good Book, which the Jews call the Torah. He would sit for hours leafing through the verses between Genesis and Deuteronomy, occasionally nodding his head back and forth, whispering the words to hear to their music. Then he would close the Bible, place it under a white handkerchief then mumble something over it. Next he would stand up, bow slightly as if in reverence to the Book, then walk three times clockwise round his cell then three times anticlockwise.
Over the years, he had perfected this ritual; it was an excellent way to fool his fellow prisoners into thinking he knew secrets which were beyond their comprehension. Back at the table, he would unscrew his pen, flip open the writing pad and proceed to spin yarns in Yiddish, covering page upon page with spidery handwriting, the letters of which slanted to the right, conveying an impression that their tops were travelling faster than their bottoms.
In this way, Ber Elah produced extensive and erudite Bible commentaries that were greatly appreciated. Thanks to his prowess with the pen, he was able to strike up a learned correspondence with rabbis in different countries, with whom he would promise to debate the issues in person, once his unfortunate detainment was over. It goes without saying that these rabbis were unable to countenance such a devout, educated man being in prison on anything but trumped up charges. After all, even now in the late 1960s there was still so much brutal anti-Semitism about. The man wrote so beautifully, with wisdom and wit. There was no doubt about it, a scholar such as he was one of their own.
Upon release from gaol, Ber Elah would travel the Yiddish world in search of his rabbis, using the money they had collected to finance the trip. They did so without a moment’s hesitation, it being an honour to meet and converse with a man as wise as he. Through this network, Ber Elah soon singled out one or two rabbis as suitable fodder for his purposes. By preference, he would choose as his next victim one whose synagogue was in a provincial town that he had not worked before. One such might have been Rabbi Kohen, a weasely man with a wan complexion who wore a broad-brimmed hat…
After prayers, Rabbi Kohen and Ber Elah sat hunched over the table, discussing Biblical issues. Unlike his middle-aged guest, Kohen had not lived through the war. The fervour which shone in his eyes was a matter of belligerent belief bordering on the blinkered whereas the cunning in Ber Elah’s averted gaze was born of necessity and the certain knowledge that all God’s creatures are given to greed. The former’s sureness showed in his strictly orthodox attire and facial hair. The latter was clean-shaven and shinily balding, his features pink and flabby like those of a sow. The only clue to Ber Elah’s duplicity was in the length of his fingers, which were thin and double-jointed, perfectly smooth, much younger than the rest of him. The tips of these fingers Ber Elah occasionally pressed together during conversation, such that the gap showing between his thumbs and forefingers took on the shape of the ace of spades. Thus joined, he swivelled his hands forth and back, slicing them through the air to emphasize a point, pausing only to sip lemon tea and to politely wave away cinnamon babka.
“Do please excuse me. I am unable to eat food as rich as this these days, I expect it has something to do with the concentration camp. A little matzo bread will do me fine, thank you.”
Such a modest, humble man! He was waiting for the right moment.
All men have to make their way in world and Ber Elah was no exception. His path was a risky one that not many chose to tread. When he sensed the time was right, once all the niceties had been sewn up and, for the time being at least, his friend’s Godthirst quenched, Ber Elah shifted uncomfortably on his chair. Then, in a barely audible voice, he asked:
“Rabbi Kohen, might I ask you to do me a small favour?”
A flicker of doubt crossed the rabbi’s features. It travelled along a furrow in his brow and found refuge behind the long curls dangling on either side of his face. What, he wondered, might he be letting himself in for here?
“Erm, it depends… My friend, what did you have in mind?”
By way of reply, Ber Elah adopted a conspiratorial air and fished around in the many pockets of his fat man’s threadbare suit. Then, after looking this way and that, as if fearing discovery, he took something from a pouch concealed in a double seam in his waistcoat and placed it on the table between them.
“This!” he whispered.
Rabbi Kohen arched a surprised eyebrow. It was an old sock.
“Rabbi, would you be so kind as to look after this for me until tomorrow afternoon after prayers?”
The rabbi hesitated, caught between doubt and embarrassment. His eyes flicked nervously from the candlesticks to his mother’s Russian samovar. Had the pressures of imprisonment unloosened a screw or two in the scholarly brain seated across the table from him? Perhaps humour was the best approach.
“My friend, have you not another sock to make a pair? If so I might hide it in the fruit bowl.”
“Indeed I do.
The insect dragon settled on a twig, folded its wings and gathered its legs in awkward disarray about it. Once immobile, it was barely visible. Occasionally its ugly head rotated slowly through 180°, seeking prey. It looked like an alien.
Ber Elah’s eyes twinkled with mirth. Not due to the rabbi’s feeble joke but because his plan was working. Camouflage was his stock in trade.
“But can I trust you?” he continued.
“Why would you not?”
Jewish people do tend to ask each other a lot of questions, don’t they?
“Why not, indeed?” enquired Ber Elah.
“My friend, I should consider it an honour to look after your sock.” The rabbi figured he didn’t risk much. “I shall treat it as if it were one of my very own.”
“Thank you, Rabbi Kohen! You are very kind. I shall return tomorrow with the other one.”
True to his word, Ber Elah kept the appointment the next day. Following another interesting hour of theological debate, the two men sat once again sipping tea, the fruit bowl on the table between them.
“What is it my friend?”
“Did you keep my sock safe?”
“Of course I did!”
Rabbi Kohen shifted a small pineapple out of the way in the fruit bowl and rummaged behind the plums.
“Here it is. Did you doubt I would?”
Ber Elah took the sock and turned it inside out. In the toe was a small rectangle of white tissue paper, folded neatly so that it fitted snugly unseen inside the sock. Looking the rabbi in the eye, Ber Elah placed the tissue paper on the table and unfolded it. Inside were hidden twelve tiny diamonds.
“These, Rabbi Kohen, are my twelve prophets,” said Ber Elah solemnly. He recited their names as he counted the stones to make sure they were all still there. “Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadia, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. They tell me you are a trustworthy man, Rabbi Kohen.”
Needless to say, the diamond chips (or melee as they are known in the trade) were made of glass but the rabbi was not to know that. What he did know was that he had underestimated his new friend. Perhaps I should have looked to see what was inside the sock, he mused as he bowed his head in recognition of Ber Elah’s compliment.
“May I now show you the other half of the pair?”
So saying, Ber Elah produced another sock, which earlier in the day he had retrieved from a safe deposit box, and turned it inside out. The contents were another, unevenly fatter rectangle of tissue paper, a wad of five and ten dollar bills, an ugly signet ring and a heavy gold Chai pendant that he had stolen from a friend whose name was Chayyim. There was also a sepia colour passport photograph of an elderly man.
“Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, who had feet of clay, all I own you will find in my socks, Rabbi Kohen. My meagre fortune I keep under my toes. The diamonds make them twinkle.”
“Oh no,” chortled the rabbi, “meagre it is not! Why, it is a rich man I see before me.”
Ber Elah watched the rabbi intensely out of the corner of his eye, alert for the slightest sign of avarice. And there it was. The rabbi’s long side curls fell like a curtain before his face as he bent forward to look at the contents of the sock. Peeping momentarily though a gap between them, a furtive look lingered a split second too long upon the money. Ber Elah repressed a smile of satisfaction. He knew that American money was of the same colour as envy.
“Rabbi, the dollars you see here belong to Abraham. Only the jewellery is mine.”
Here was another conundrum for the rabbi to ponder. Was his new friend in feeble state mind or was he several steps ahead?
“Did you not hear me, rabbi?”
“Yes, but to which Abraham do you refer?”
Did Ber Elah mean Abraham Lincoln, whose portrait features on the five dollar bill? Or was he referring to Abram, father of the Hebrew nation? Either way, it was odd. Unlike the cash sitting on the table, the man seemed to be not quite all there. And that tissue paper, it looked thick with stones! It reawakened a yearning in Rabbi Kohen that yeshiva had all but banished.
Rabbi Kohen possessed a few diamonds himself, which his mother had given him before she was taken away. He kept them hidden in an empty caviar tin that he had meticulously resealed with its original rubber band. The hiding place was under a loose floorboard beneath the heavy oak dresser that now stood adorned with candlesticks. As Rabbi Kohen surveyed the contents of the sock before him, the deep rasp of his mother’s smoker’s voice came back to him.
“Never you forget this my son! A Jew must always be ready to run!” she lectured. “A fortune is worth nothing if you cannot carry it with you!” she said. It was woman’s wisdom. Rabbi Kohen had argued that a man’s fortune was to be found in the spiritual world not this one. God willing. “Acht, you mean Hitler willing!” she had retorted with that knowing air of hers. He was a long way off making the fortune that would have satisfied her.
Ber Elah’s thick accent interrupted the rabbi’s reverie. “Rabbi, might I ask you another small favour?”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Rabbi Kohen, in a voice less than spiritual.
Ber Elah possessed the dry-eyed guile and unblinking alertness of the praying mantis. The absence of hesitation in the devout man’s response could not fail to escape him.
The juicy smell of a fat underbelly titillated its antennae, which twitched in anticipation. Patience.
Rabbi Kohen, like the hapless insect that inches within striking distance of the predator’s mandibles, was oblivious to the danger he was in.
“Rabbi, now that I have shown you the pair, would you be so kind as to place them in your fruit bowl and look after them for me until next week?”
“But my friend, I could not possibly do this for you!”
“Please! I must travel to Paris for a few days. I trust you, Rabbi Kohen. Wrongful imprisonment, you see, has left me friendless.”
Ber Elah went on to explain that he was afraid to walk the streets of Paris with these socks in his possession. Their contents were needed to help an old friend who had fled Budapest during the war. The refugee had crossed the border into the Ukraine on foot and continued walking until he reached Russia, where he was now trapped, unable to get a visa to leave.
“Abraham is losing his sight and fears he will never see Jerusalem. He is a good man.”
The rabbi was annoyed with himself. This strange new friend was not drawing out his better side.
In Hungary, Ber Elah explained, Abraham had been a very rich man but in Russia he was penniless. Worse than that, he was a penniless Jew. His flight had taken him in precisely the opposite direction to his fortune, much of which was deposited in a bank vault in Strasbourg, to which Ber Elah had a key, or so he said.
“These dollars are Abraham’s. The jewellery is mine.”
Ber Elah knew that repeating himself in this way made him appear absent-minded. It was part of the plan.
“Rabbi, now that I have shown you the pair, would you be so kind as to place them in your fruit bowl and look after them for me until next week?”
In the face of such confused abnegation, the rabbi felt unable to refuse his new friend’s strange request. Besides, sly schemes were now sneaking surreptitiously into his thoughts.
“ I will do this for you my friend,” said Rabbi Kohen, brushing aside the recalcitrant coils of side curls which were obscuring his vision, “and, of course, for Abraham. But I am afraid to leave this treasure on display. I had better keep it on me all the time.”
That’s right, thought Ber Elah, you do that. All the better to tempt you with. God protect you, haha.
“Do you know how much money there is here?” enquired the rabbi, resisting a sudden urge to moisten dry lips.
“I trust you.”
“Aren’t you even going to count it?”
“I told you I trust you. You are my friend. God will watch over us. I must just take the diamond chips with me to sell.”
And so Ber Elah bade the rabbi good day and took his leave.
Now came the risky bit. The dollars were real.
Ber Elah fretted away the ensuing few days holed up in a dingy hotel room on the edge of town, counting the flowers on the yellow wallpaper. As usual in such establishments, whenever he wished to wash, he had to avoid the uneven spurts of water that exploded from the brass tap atop a weary washbasin that clung to one wall, while what sounded like a faulty machine gun pummelled the pipework and resonated throughout the building. He was worried that Rabbi Kohen might get wise and make off with his socks. True, the gold items, and what the rabbi had taken to be big diamonds, were false, but the dollars were pucker and plenty. They had to be genuine for it would not do for the rabbi to have them checked and find them forged. Were, on the other hand, he to discover that the gems were fake it would matter little, for Ber Elah had never claimed they were real.
Across town Rabbi Kohen was also finding the weekend wearisome as he wrestled with his conscience. Dollars. He had looked at them, stretched out his fingers to touch them, approached his nose and sniffed them. After prayers he counted them, telling himself that if Ber Elah accused him of stealing some he would need to know precisely how much money there was. Finally, he took the extremities of one note between the fingertips of each hand, put it up to his ear and snapped it taut to see if it sounded crisp. “A fortune is worth nothing if you can’t carry it with you!” his mother’s words echoed in his ears.
The next meeting between the two men came as a relief to them both. Money fosters suspicion between friends as surely as religion does. This time there was no talk of the Bible.
“Rabbi, what have you done with my socks?”
“What do you mean?”
That’s it my fat juicy caterpillar, come a little closer, the mantis prayed.
“May I have them back please?”
“What do you mean, what did I do with your socks? What do you think I did?”
Keep coming, hissed the mantis, unstiffening the joints of its thorn-barbed legs, I love the smell of petulance.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?”
“What I said. What are you insinuating, Ber Elah?
“I mean I want my darned socks back, Rabbi Kohen! Give them to me.”
“But of course. Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Here, take them.”
Ber Elah could sense the irritation in the rabbi’s voice. Excellent, he thought, this can only mean one thing. This so-called man of God has had his itchy fingers in my socks this weekend. He’s a hypocrite, just like the rest of them.
The mantis has the fastest strike in the insect world.
“Thank you,” said Ber Elah, putting the socks back into the pouch in his waistcoat.
“Aren’t you going to count the money?”
“No, I trust you Rabbi Kohen, you are a devout man.”
“Maybe you should count your money, nevertheless”.
“Look, I am sorry for what happened just now. I am worried about Abraham; the news is not good”.
The rabbi accepted the apology with good grace but he was more confused than ever regarding his guest.
The hideous triangle formed by the bulbous eyes and the unnerving swivelling head of the mantis identifies it as one of the Devil’s own creatures, not one of God’s.
“The matter is forgotten,” said the rabbi, although they both knew it wasn’t.
Congealed brown saliva lubricated the mandibles of the mantis. Then without warning it struck.
“Rabbi Kohen, would you care to make yourself some money?”
“Make money, whatever do you mean?
“Lend me 5000 dollars and I will give you back 30,000.”
The mantis entraps its prey with long legs covered in sharp barbs. No sooner hooked, the victim, be it insect, bird or rodent is devoured alive. Opinions differ as to whether an insect feels pain. The other animals most certainly do.
“Ber Elah, you are meshugeh, how is that possible?”
Ber Elah looked round the room, alert for prying eyes and trailing ears.
“Listen carefully, Rabbi Kohen”.
Ber Elah went on explain the need for the rabbi’s cash advance and how the return could be so great. This was the part of his craft that he enjoyed most. The story was basically the same for all his victims but he embroidered it and carried out alterations to fit the person’s stature. Ber Elah was a master tailor of the ruse, a couturier of the confidence trick, a deadly diddler. Charity was not his strong suit. He liked nothing more than to kit out his clients in a cloak of many colours before stitching them up and hanging them out to dry.
It was not honest work but it was what Ber Elah did and he was good at. All he needed was an inkling of greed upon which to feed. Why rabbis? Why not? It was not as if they were any less avaricious than average. According to Ber Elah they were in the same business as he was:– hoodwinkery, or the art of pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Ber Elah had seen inside Auschwitz so he knew there was no God. He was sure the rabbis knew, too. Godliness, he said, got Jews gassed. Only the crooks stood any chance of surviving concentration camp unless it was Treblinka, where you only had two hours from the time you got there to the time you were murdered. Ber Elah himself regularly freshened up the number tattooed on his outer forearm for he was afraid it would fade. This he did in indelible Quink applied with a Parker 51 pen given to him by a prison governor who in turn had received it from an inmate, in exchange for not disturbing the latter’s frilly-pantied visitor before she had finished what she had come to do.
“Are you listening, Rabbi Kohen?”
“With the patience of Job…”
“Abraham wishes to emigrate to Israel. He wants to go to the Western Wall. He wants to see the desert bloom, tended by honest Jewish hands. At night, he dreams of avenues of palm trees leading to kibbutzim. He seeks a place of freedom in which to work as best he can and then to rest his bones in the promised land. However, in order to see Jewish palms he must first grease many Russian palms.”
Rabbi Kohen fought back a tear. He was a sensitive man.
The mandibles of the mantis begin to chomp.
“Abraham has money here in France,” continued Ber Elah, “but he cannot withdraw it.”
It was a heart-rending tale.
“If he tries to transfer it to a bank account in Russia, the money will never reach him. He will probably be arrested.”
“I do not see what this has to do with me,” said Rabbi Kohen.
Ber Elah quickly filled him in. The old man in Russia needed someone to help him get his money out of the French bank and convey it to him in Russia. Dollars were worth a lot in Russia, they bought things that were beyond the wildest dreams of anyone bearing roubles. He was prepared to go 50-50 with Ber Elah if the latter could collect the money and pass it across the borders. Ber Elah had found a way but he had to give money up front. For each withdrawal, the bank manager wanted a 10% cutpaid in advance, as did the Hungarian Embassy for the use of the diplomatic bag to Budapest, leaving Ber Elah with 30%. Out of his 50% share, Abraham would pay for someone to pick up the cash from Budapest. By the time he had bribed everyone blocking his way to a visa and a plane ticket, the old man would have little money left. However, Abraham did not expect to live long.
“Before he dies, Abraham wants to kiss the soil of Israel.” Ber Elah’s voice cracked. “You see, he seeks only the freedom to die free.”
Ber Elah fell silent, waiting for his words to take effect. Then came a question he was expecting.
“But why would you need my money? You already have plenty in your socks.”
“That money belongs to Abraham. I cannot risk it. I do not trust myself with it. In fact, I should like you to look after it until we can put it with the rest of Abraham’s money safely in the diplomatic bag. After that I can do no more, it will be in the hands of God.”
Rabbi Kohen failed to see the logic in all this. Ber Elah wanted to leave a wad of dollars in his possession while using his (the rabbi’s) money to pay off the bank manager and the embassy. Rabbi Kohen was no fool. When Ber Elah had left him his second sock he had removed a few notes and taken them to the bank. He told them he was worried they were counterfeit but the bank assured him they were genuine.
“But Rabbi Kohen, surely the reason is obvious to you?”
“Indeed it is not!”
“Because I have dollars and you have francs!”
The bank manager could not change dollars without raising suspicion, said Ber Elah, whereas francs were less likely to draw attention and were easy to spend. The Hungarians didn’t care either way.
“So how does all this add up?” asked the rabbi, thinking of his mother.
“Give or take a hundred, there are 100,000 dollars left in Abraham’s bank box. That makes 500,000 francs. Half for him and half for you, 50,000 dollars for him and 250,000 francs for you. From your share we must set aside 50,000 francs for the bank manager and the same amount for the ambassador.”
“I see,” mused the rabbi. In his imagination he heard his mother cough. “But what about you?”
A mantis first chews through the neck of its victim, severing the nerve routes to the brain and causing it to dysfunction
“If I were able to advance such a sum of money myself, would I ask you?” said Ber Elah, shrugging his shoulders and stretching his arms forward such that his Auschwitz tattoo was in full view. How many others are there like him, wondered Rabbi Kohen, who have left behind a fortune and come back to find nothing, their possessions spoliated and their property stolen? The rabbi had a generous heart. He pondered the plan. If I do this I will give some money to Ber Elah, he decided. “Not too much,” he heard his mother say. She would see him in a different light after this.
So the rabbi agreed to gather the sum. He would have to sell half his mother’s diamonds but he was sure she would have approved. He would buy better ones after this, which would see him half-way to making a fortune he could carry with him. Diamonds were currency, nothing more. In the meantime, he had Ber Elah’s socks. What did he risk?
What he risked was what then happened.
For this part of the job Ber Elah had to move quickly. His corpulence was a hindrance and without his long fingers all would have been lost. He had taken the rabbi’s money, shied clear of the synagogue for what seemed like the longest few days of the rabbi’s life, then returned in time for afternoon prayers, exchanging the smile on his face for a yarmulke at the door of the synagogue. Rabbi Kohen was as relieved as he was excited. Ber Elah too was delighted. On more than one occasion at this stage of the game he had returned to find himself met by beefy men with stony faces under Homburg hats. That meant he had been unmasked and they invariably took him away somewhere quiet to administer divine retribution in the most unholy of manners. But not this time.
The two happy men took their seats in the parlour in the way to which they had grown accustomed.
“What news my friend?” enquired the rabbi.
“All the money is here,” replied Ber Elah, producing yet another set of socks. “This one is Abraham’s and this one is yours.”
So saying, he peeled back the cuff of the sock destined for the rabbi and rifled the notes in front of the latter’s eyes. Rabbi Kohen’s first thoughts were for his mother. He strained his ears to hear her approving words floating in the air, just out of earshot.
“And this one is Abraham’s.” Ber Elah showed the wad it contained but did not bother to rifle the notes. It mattered little, for Rabbi Kohen was otherwise occupied with his thoughts. Nevertheless, his eyes registered a glimpse of green.
“Thanks to you, rabbi, Abraham’s dream is about to come true. You are a good man.”
Rabbi Kohen regained his composure. “And you, Ber Elah, are a man of many socks!”
“Fetch the other pair, rabbi.”
Rabbi Kohen was caught off-guard. He had put them in his mother’s hiding place, inside the caviar tin. Never mind, he told himself, Ber Elah has kept his word, what does it matter if he sees where I keep them?
Ber Elah was not in the least bit surprised to discover the whereabouts of the hiding place, it was so obvious. The caviar tin was a novel touch, however, obviously not the rabbi’s idea.
“Rabbi Kohen, there is now something decidedly fishy about my socks!”
The rabbi chuckled. “My mother’s idea.”
Four socks were now on the table. Rabbi Kohen’s reward was in one, sitting comfortably in front of him, just where he had left it. Another contained Abraham’s future. Ber Elah emptied the fishy ones onto the table. His long fingers working fast, he put the rest of Abraham’s money into the sock with the fat wad and the remaining articles into his pocket.
Ber Elah pushed the empty socks across the table. “Put them away. Now, if you will excuse me, I must hurry! The Paris train leaves in 5 minutes; I have to be there for an appointment with the ambassador this evening. If all goes well I shall return for prayers tomorrow afternoon and we shall pray as one for Abraham and Israel. Afterwards, If you agree, we shall take a glass of schnapps together in his honour and I should like to taste some of that cinnamon babka of yours.”
The two men embraced. Once out of the door, Ber Elah moved with as much haste as a fattish man could muster.
The mantis returned to the praying position to digest its meal. Before long it would be hungry again.
Rabbi Kohen returned to his chair. Sitting back comfortably, he allowed his eyes to roam over the contents of the room, taking in his mother’s furniture, her candlesticks and her Russian samovar. When Ber Elah returns tomorrow, he thought, I shall give him half the money.
Pleased with this display of generosity, Rabbi Kohen took the three socks from his pocket and put them up to his nose. The two empty ones did indeed smell faintly of fish. The third one, however, was almost odourless. Strange, he thought, he would have expected banknotes to smell of ink or whatever so much money usually smelt of. If anything, it smelt more like an old book. He quickly peeled back the cuff of the sock and extracted the wad it contained and began to count.
The first two notes were crisp and hard. The remainder felt like cigarette paper to the touch. With his mother’s raucous cough resounding in his ears, Rabbi Kohen felt faint as he parted his side curls and lowered his eyes to see what was amiss. They fell upon a stack of thin book paper. Looking closer, he saw that his treasure comprised ten dollars and a set of clippings cut anyhow from the Bible. No doubt Ber Elah found this final flourish funny, otherwise it was a waste of a good Bible. “Oy, oy, oy” lamented the rabbi, cupping his head in his hands.
Not wishing to add ridicule to ignominy, Rabbi Kohen never told anyone about his misfortune. He should have paid more attention to the deftness of the conman’s double-jointed fingers. Switching socks was a doddle for the deadly diddler.