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  Prologue from
Time Bomb

By Yair Weinstock 



Prologue

The last rays of the sun lit up the room with a golden glow that grew dimmer from moment to moment. Then it was gone completely, and the room descended into darkness.

A motionless figure lay on the bed. An onlooker would have found it difficult to detect any signs of life. Suddenly Shmuel Bilad awoke with a confused start. He shivered; his body was covered with goose bumps. The terrible scream heard in his dream seemed so real to him. For a full ten minutes he lay in his bed trying to compose himself.

What time is it? He sat bolt upright and grabbed his watch. I haven’t davened Minchah yet! Who knows if I’ve missed shekiah!

He leaped out of bed and hurried as quickly as possible to prepare himself for prayer. His mind was in a whirl. It had been years since he had slept so heavily, a sleep much deeper than a normal night’s slumber. It is said that sleep is one-sixtieth of death; undoubtedly it was this kind of sleep that was meant.

Even after he had finished praying and had once again fallen into bed, still trembling, he could not understand what had come over him, and why he was feeling such a deep weariness.

How fortunate that the necessity of davening was so deeply ingrained in him that he managed to remember it amidst the chaos that had overtaken his brain. He usually davened Minchah at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, in yeshivah; the habit had almost caused him to miss the afternoon prayers today.

Yeshivah. That was it.

His mind began slowly, ever so slowly, to clear, like water whose sediment sinks to the bottom, leaving transparent liquid. Now he could remember well what had sent him to sleep in the middle of the day, something almost unheard of. It was the telephone conversation this afternoon.

For two weeks he had nervously awaited the call. What wouldn’t he do to get the coveted position of maggid shiur in Yeshivas Masuos Avraham? He knew the students in the top class of the yeshivah, and the desire to teach them burned within him like a flame.

At noon the much-anticipated call finally came through. The ring caught him when he was in the kitchen. He anxiously lifted the receiver. He knew what he was expecting: “Rabbi Shmuel Bilad, we’ve decided to take you on as a lecturer in the yeshivah. Prepare to give a shiur in Perek ‘Lo Yachpor.’”

He had already prepared ten classes, on credit so to speak.

But instead, the words came upon him, sharp as thorns. Every word pierced: “Rabbi Bilad, this is Efraim Levi, the secretary.” (He should have realized that if the Rosh Yeshivah, R’ Isser Zalman Samet, had not made the call himself, that was a sign that something had gone wrong.) Efraim stuttered and seemed to be having difficulty in choosing his words. “We don’t need proof of what is well known; we’re all aware of your tremendous ability in Torah.”

Shmuel realized he was breathing heavily. He cut him off impatiently. “Nu -- and so --”

Efraim was truly pitiful. The task of being the bad guy had fallen to him. The words seemed to stick in his throat. “We had a special staff meeting on the issue. Don’t think, Heaven forbid, that we’re in any way criticizing you, but -- but --”

After that stammer, nothing else had to be said. Shmuel could feel a rock, cold and hard, settle upon his heart. His jaws tensed, and he felt paralyzed by pain. Efraim Levi muttered something about special suitability needed for the students in the current class: “They’re overstimulated, and need someone young and effervescent, like they are.” (With all due respect, Shmuel thought bitterly, you yourself are approaching 50, and your beard is partly white. The students had obviously discussed the fact that they were learning in a yeshivah for young people, and not in an old-age home.)

“But the current shiur beis, that is, next year’s shiur gimmel, is another story entirely. It consists of incredible boys, much more stable and mature. We hope that next year we’ll call upon you to do a marvelous job as teacher of shiur gimmel.” That was Efraim’s feeble attempt at bandaging a bleeding wound. “The main thing, R’ Shmuel, is for you to continue to do great things. We’ll be in touch.”

The conversation left him drained and despairing. The disappointment was terrible; his exalted mood had shattered into shards of pain and bitterness. He ate his lunch listlessly, without appetite, and then fell apathetically into his bed.

He had awaited this call for two weeks. Waited? Every few minutes he had wandered over toward the phone in his home, or gently padded the cell phone in his pocket.

And then he had fallen into a very deep sleep.

That was when the black nightmare began. A nightmare, not a dream. The nightmare that had begun to recur again and again.

Dark skies, threatening, almost black. Frightening rain clouds, cold and biting rain pounding down upon Jerusalem. A boy standing, wailing in the gloom, completely drenched. Shmuel recognizes the boy. The boy lifts dark eyes accusingly towards him; suddenly Shmuel sees himself reflected in the boy’s pupils. He sees himself as he looks today, and he stares into his own eyes and sees, again, the boy’s accusing eyes, and within those eyes he sees himself and within himself he sees the boy, two mirrors reflecting each other endlessly.

The boy cries and cries. His weak sobs grow stronger, turn louder and louder, like a screaming siren.

The siren takes on words. “Shmulik, you are guilty. Shmulik, why?”

The terrible echo of the siren, the wail of the words, “Shmulik, why?” always awakens him, no matter how deep his sleep.

How many years had passed since then? Thirty-six.

What’s the matter with me? Why should something that wasn’t my fault at all, something that happened when I was just a child, why should such an event turn my life into a nightmare?

How could it have happened, that terrible thing?

The memories overwhelmed him.

l l l

Prague, 5598 (1838)

It was late at night when he decided to do the deed. The decision had been preceded by months of doubts, sleepless nights, long days filled with persecution and hatred. He had been beset by fears and misgivings. Several times he had decided to act, only to back down at the last minute.

But tonight he was going to cross the Rubicon, to do a deed from which there was no turning back. Finally he was at peace with himself. There had been just too many persecutions. He was at the end of his tether, having fallen from the giddy heights to the lowest depths. He was a strong person, but he could not bear the degradation any longer.

“They’ve made the decision for me,” he muttered with bitter anger as he donned his clothing in the darkness of the room. “The good L-rd can’t have any complaints against me, can’t ask me why I’ve done this. Am I guilty? Or perhaps the guilt rests upon Your sweet children who have harassed me, humbled me, all but struck me. Me, who helped everyone in this ‘incredible’ community. They’ve left me no other choice.”

Silently, he left his house in the ancient Jewish Quarter of Prague.

The Altneushul stood out in the dim starlight. The sloping roof seemed to split the dark sky with its sharp spires, rising like a challenge into the blackness. There was no moon on this night, with the lunar month coming to an end; this fact, too, became a part of his calculations. Better that no one witness his deeds.

With all this, I’m ashamed of what I’m doing, came the depressing thought. Is that surprising? This is extremely difficult.

The Jewish community building, near the Altneushul, was also dark, but a large clock on the spire told him the time, marked in Hebrew letters. Prague Jewry, which had always felt threatened by the vast number of churches in the city, the thousands of gilded crosses that pierced their vision from every spire and tower, took great pride in the clock. With its square Hebrew letters and a movement that circled counterclockwise, the clock provided a warm and pleasant air to the Jewish ghetto, intimate, a community encircled, a lone island in a stormy Christian sea.

He walked between winding streets and alleyways, trying to trad quietly upon the cobblestones, not to make any noise, not to draw attention to himself. His shadowy figure blended well into the darkness as it crept silently through the Jewish Quarter which, ten years hence, would see its walls destroyed by order of Josef II and which would be named for him -- Josefov.

He took a deep breath. Now he was no longer in danger of being found, yet even here in the Old City he was known by many men. He was, after all, not some anonymous person. But here, at least, he could find some justification for his presence. He had no intention, in any case, of retracing his steps. He had burned his bridges behind him.

He stopped for a moment, trying to remember where Cardinal Matthias Bilcav stayed when he was not in his luxurious residence in the great Hradcany Castle that looked down upon Prague. During the day he could find his way around here, more or less, but in such darkness how could he remember whether to turn right or left, go forward or back?

His head moved back and forth, turning from side to side. Suddenly he felt both frightened and panic stricken. A drunk emerging from his saloon might well honor him with a swift and brutal blow, solely because of his obviously Jewish appearance. He took a deep breath to compose himself and forced himself to think with icy calm. Again he examined his surroundings. All around him rose buildings with sharp steepled roofs, beautifully designed in a variety of architectural styles. Some were gothic and ancient, relics of the days of Charles IV, others baroque, in the style that characterized the city over two centuries earlier, during the days of the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. The cornices of the windows were decorated with bas-relief images of delicate flowers; carved statuettes stood in niches built into the walls; entranceways were decorated with wide arches. Craftsmanship was evident in each and every building, and none resembled the next: each one had been given its own individual imprint. What a difference between these fashionable buildings and the tasteless ones of the Jewish ghetto! A short distance away, the Vltava River streamed placidly, like some ancient and mighty serpent snaking its way through Prague, its calm green waters coursing pleasantly downstream.

All of a sudden he recalled, with startling clarity that the Cardinal actually lived quite near to here, next to the old town hall, the “Staromestska radnice.” He had to walk in a straight line until he saw the council headquarters, which looked like a row of private homes with a tower at one end. Immediately after, stood a large home with a giant golden cross on its facade. Another cross, this one next to the entrance, served as a second indication.

He walked quickly and confidently and in a short while stood before the Cardinal’s home.

A carved wooden door met his eye, a heavy knocker in whose center was carved a cherub with a turned-up nose that had been worn down by thousands of blows to the wood.

He gave a few subdued knocks, hoping the Cardinal was a light sleeper who would awaken quickly.

His hopes were fulfilled, or perhaps the Cardinal had already been awake. The door opened a crack, that immediately widened. The Cardinal’s eyes gazed in shock when, by the light of a flickering oil lamp held in his hand, he recognized his honored guest. Impossible to mistake that small, burly figure, that red face and the narrow eyes that emitted an expression of wisdom. That expression, now, seemed to have been extinguished.

“Getzel Fernbach! The wealthy banker and head of the Prague Jewish community. What brings you to my house at this hour of the night?”

Getzel Fernbach put his finger to his lips. “Sssh, speak softly; no one knows of this visit.”

The Cardinal rapidly recovered his composure. He threw his arm around the banker’s shoulders and pulled him inside. The door was swiftly slammed shut.

They walked through the darkened foyer and entered a large room. The oil lamp trembled in the priest’s hands, giving off a weak reddish light, revealing heavy antique furniture. There was a comfortable wide bed meant for guests, large oil paintings on the walls, and an immense wooden closet in a corner.

They sat down near a large table. The lamp was set down on the floor, illuminating the faces of the two, casting giant shadows upon the walls.

“Getzel, what brings to my house the owner of the Bank Fernbach, head of the Prague community, and number one resident of the Jewish ghetto?” the Cardinal asked, his curiosity evident in his voice.

The banker shuddered; his eyes were cast down and his hands played nervously with the edge of the tablecloth. His voice trembled as he said the words, “I want to convert.”

“What?” the Cardinal shouted in consternation.

Getzel took a deep breath. How hard this was, despite the fact that he had thought of it a hundred, a thousand times in recent days. But his voice grew steadier as he said, “I want to change my religion. To convert.”

The Cardinal, too, had gotten over the initial shock. His voice sank to a hoarse whisper. “What’s happened? What brings a respected Jew, of high position, to change his beliefs and his religion in his old age? Have you finally recognized Christianity’s superiority over Judaism?”

“Apparently you haven’t heard what’s been going on in the Jewish ghetto.” The banker’s eyes flashed with hatred. “I’ve been pushed out of my job as community head and excommunicated. Everyone shuns me. My bank is beset with financial difficulties and has almost collapsed as a result of the excommunication. I have huge debts and I can’t get out of them unless I join the Christians of Prague.”

The Cardinal was disappointed. The wealthy Jew had gone bankrupt, and had lost his prestigious position as well. The Cardinal’s sharp mind swiftly went over the facts. Every situation had to be assessed and used to the best purpose. He glanced at the Jew shrewdly.

“Getzel, I have a wonderful idea. But first let me clarify one thing: Why did they excommunicate you?”

“My enemies are slandering me,” Fernbach’s voice trembled with rage. “Absolute baseless slanders! My community, which over the years I’ve supported with enormous sums, has betrayed me without making the tiniest effort at discovering the truth. No one bothered hearing my side of the story. If these are my brothers, it’s time for me to look for different ones.”

Yes, the situation was good, excellent in fact. It had been many years since such a juicy bone had fallen onto the Cardinal’s plate. He swallowed a laugh that threatened to burst forth and forced himself to speak coolly and serenely.

“Getzel, my friend, let me suggest an excellent deal to you,” the shrewd spark in his eye now burned with fervor. “You don’t have to convert. I wouldn’t suggest you take such a step at your age. You won’t feel comfortable in your new world and in the end you’ll be frozen out of both worlds.”

Fernbach was taken aback. “But what should I do? Stay among those who’ve betrayed me? Happily thank them for spitting on me, those who enjoyed my generosity all these years?”

“I didn’t say that. I can restore your former position,” Matthias spoke with the confidence of one who has planned ahead and knows what lies before him.

“And what about revenge? Wouldn’t you want to take vengeance?” he asked after a brief silence.

“Certainly.” The banker jumped up from his place. “I want to punish each and every one of them. Vengeance doesn’t begin to describe what I wish to do.”

Matthias grinned inwardly. Probing the wound had yielded good results. “You will have your revenge upon them, Getzel, a revenge so sweet that Satan himself couldn’t imagine such a thing. None of them will know what happened, and how their entire wonderful community was destroyed; only you, my dear Getzel.”

“How will you do it?”

“I have a plan.” His voice sank into a whisper, a hiss. “Listen.”

l l l

Chechnya, the Caucasus Mountains, 5760 (2000)

Night fell on the mountains, a darkness illuminated only by the stars. Winter’s chill, a cold that crept into the bones, hung heavy between the peaks.

But in the secret headquarters of the Chechen rebels it was not cold; the atmosphere prevailing there radiated hot anger, fear, and panic. The burning hatred was like something out of a nuclear furnace, hatred for anything or anyone Russian. A few days earlier the Chechen rebels had been dealt a terrible blow, with the capture of Salamon Radeyv, “The Gray Fox,” taken into Russian custody. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had been so proud of the feat that he had personally informed his people of the deed. He made the dramatic announcement immediately prior to the elections, and it was possible that as a result he had risen from acting president to the actual, official president of Russia. He had, indeed, cause to be proud: Salamon Radeyv, son-in-law of Dzhokar Dudayev, one of Chechnya’s greatest leaders, was considered one of the most dangerous, sought-after terrorists, and his forces had inflicted heavy losses upon the Russian occupiers.

All of Russia could see the prisoner with their own eyes. It was hard to recognize him: his short beard had vanished, as his captors had forced him to shave. The sunglasses that he always wore, even in dark rooms, had been removed. One mystery was revealed: a glass eye had been hidden behind those dark glasses. Beneath the beard the terrorist’s face was riddled with scars, a reminder of a Russian whip from the not-so-distant past.

Radeyv’s face had changed almost unrecognizably, but the real transformation had taken place within. The incredible self-confidence he had radiated, the well-known arrogance, the mouth that had voiced such terrible threats toward Russia, the personality that seemed to know no fear -- hardly any of that remained.

The broadcast ended and the picture metamorphosed into the face of the Russian narrator. In the rebel headquarters someone rushed to turn off the set. The atmosphere was heavy. Chatav, another leader of the Chechen guerrillas, ground his teeth in rage as thoughts raced swiftly through his mind.

The war of the tiny Chechen nation seemed all but lost. Grozny, its capital city, had been captured by the Russians after being turned into a pile of rubble by the heavy air and artillery strikes. Russia had fought a brutal, uncompromising war in Chechnya. It had committed atrocities there -- and the world had stood silent, with the exception of a few human rights organizations, and some media people, particularly in the United States, who had protested the mass murders and the slaughter of innocent civilians. The American government kept its peace and said not a word in the face of the horrifying scenes.

The entire Caucasus region hung in the balance, and Russia wanted desperately to hold on to it, thus ensuring access to the Caspian Sea with its vast oil reserves. In Russia’s eyes the Caucasus was nothing more than its backyard, as it had been for all of history -- or at least since the days of the great czars in the 18th and 19th centuries. The United States had no objection to Russia protecting its interests in the Caucasus.

“Have you seen what they’ve done to our Salamon?” Chatav asked, his pain kept carefully in check. “It was hard to recognize him.”

His mobile phone vibrated in his pocket; he put it to his ear. “Quiet,” he said, his voice tinged with awe. “Our esteemed leader, Aslan Maschaduv, wants to speak.”

He placed the phone next to a microphone that stood upon his desk. The voice of President Maschaduv could be heard clearly, despite some static.

“We cannot remain silent,” Maschaduv said. “We must hit the Russians with such a blow that the entire world will tremble. But not only them. The hypocrisy of the Americans pains me even more than the cruelty of the Russians. We will hit both of them together. They have captured the ‘Gray Fox,’ but many other foxes lie in wait for them, waiting for their prey. Chatav, you will surely be meeting with members of the media. You will tell the world that our mujahideen are prepared for battle, and not only in Chechnya. We will take the struggle right into Russia. Our war for an independent Chechnya will shock the world. Sitting next to me is one of the best of our men, Selim Yagudayev, who has given me an incredible idea for how to return Chechnya to our hands. Just wait and see.”

l l l

Jerusalem, 5670 (2000)

The three-story house in the elite neighborhood of Savyon Beit HaKerem had not changed in the past decade, since the Talmi family had come direct from Argentina, land of their birth, to live there. In 1990, it had been lovely by any standards, and the ten intervening years had simply enhanced its grace.

This was not a house for millionaires, and Talmi had no ambitions to be one. But it was clearly beautifully designed, spacious and modern with much air and light and furniture that displayed no ostentation. This was a house where everything flowed naturally and quietly. This was meant to be a place that inspired thought and contemplation by its distinguished residents: the regional judge Professor Dori (Doriel) Talmi, his wife, the law professor Ariella Talmi-Sturm, and their journalist daughter, Nufar Talmi, who came there on the few days when she was not staying in Gaza. The residents of Savyon Beit HaKerem respected their notable neighbors. Judge Talmi was a well-known figure, a brilliant jurist who had been educated in the ivy tower of Argentinian academia and had burst like a thunderbolt coming down from Olympus into the political life of the State of Israel when he snagged one of the top legal-political posts in the nation. He stubbornly insisted that all of his judgments were absolutely free of the taint of politics and were completely professional.

Dori had a pleasant personality, shy and reserved, but beneath his shining bald pate lay an acute legal brain. He held controversial views on almost every issue, particularly in the matter of the judicial authority upon Israeli society. His views were unusual even within the left-leaning judiciary itself, and more than one colleague had remonstrated with him on them. Professor Talmi heard them out, gave his shy smile, and declined to reply. “I’m no debater,” he would say laconically, when asked why he did not argue for his beliefs.

No one knew the true answer. Dori Talmi scorned argument because he believed in deeds, not words. He had a clear goal: to be appointed one day to the Supreme Court, and from there to become its Chief Justice. At that point he would be able to put his legal and philosophical views into practice and to imprint his radical beliefs onto every issue, whether the people liked them or not. He knew better than the rest what was good for human society in general and Israelis in particular and he would rewrite the norms and mores of behavior for them.

Professor Dori Talmi was absolutely convinced that he and a small group of enlightened judges were the elite among the elite in society. They represented the ultimate of human development, the purity of human genius; it was they who were the torchbearers of an ethical vision. He looked at the six billion inhabitants of the globe and saw the majority of them as trained monkeys. Only in the universities, in their schools of humanities, and in the temples of the law, were there those who could answer to the designation “human beings.” It was a small number, but ultimately those “human beings” would create the norms and ethics for the entire world.

There was one more place where this pure enlightened understanding dwelled, but Professor Dori Talmi did not want to think about it.

 
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