Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yehuda Avner's The Scarlet Pimpernel

Bygone Days: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The bus slowed as it approached the bustling intersection dissecting Tel Aviv from Jaffa, where a sinewy Arab constable, perched on a pedestal under a sun shade, and dressed in short pants and a fur fez, directed the traffic with a truncheon. Abruptly, he began blowing his whistle and swung his arms around like a windmill, doing his bungling best to halt the traffic while two English policemen darted across the road, their revolvers at the ready. Another bus, clearly unaware of anything amiss, swerved around the corner and crashed into an empty cart that had halted in the middle of the road. The cart rolled onto its side, knocking down an Arab clutching a sack of oranges. The Arab groaned in pain, his oranges spilling and bouncing all over the road, causing even more chaos.

The bus driver agitatedly jumped to his feet, and cried, "Look -they're chasing someone. He's throwing leaflets. He must be an Irgunist."

Leaflets fluttered around the intersection like so many laundered kerchiefs flapping in the wind, displaying an ill-printed Irgun broadside: "JEWS ARISE! FREE THE HOMELAND OF THE BRITISH OPPRESSOR!"

The flyer was crowned by an emblem in the form of a rifle thrust aloft by a clenched fist, and ringed by the motto, "ONLY THUS!" It was the insignia of the Irgun.

All keyed up, the driver stuck his head out of the window to get a better view, and gasped, "Oh my God, they've got him cornered. They're beating him up. He's bleeding."

Two middle-aged passengers, white faced, clung fast to each other, standing on their tip-toes trying to peer over the driver's shoulders. A schoolgirl with long fair plats and a satchel on her back, sat paralyzed, eyes riveted to the floor, pressing her hands to her ears. An old Hassid screwed up his face in repugnance upon seeing people on the other side of the street gazing in fright upon a young man - just a boy really - lying prone on the curbside, his arms twisted behind his back, manacled. Blood oozed from a gash at the nape of his neck, staining the collar of his gray windjammer. And as he lay there face down on his belly amid his scattered leaflets, with his khaki trousers crumpled to his knees and his dark-blue beret askew on his curly ginger head, he kicked blindly and futilely at a British soldier who, with one steel-studded boot on his shoulder and the other in the small of his back, had him pinioned to the ground like a maimed steer.

THE TWO English policemen with the revolvers came panting back and, gesticulating at the jammed traffic, barked orders to systematically sort it out, and open up a lane to let a Black Maria through. They flung the handcuffed lad into this mobile dungeon, and soon the intersection returned to normal.

A bearded passerby, attired in the long-coated, dusty garb of a humble, God-fearing Jew, his black fedora dented by wear and tear, stared upon the scene with suppressed rage. Head bent, he walked through the check post adjacent to the crossroad manned by British policemen who, in their starched ironed uniforms, brassy belts, navy-blue peaked caps, and polished boots, seemed invincible. None gave the weary-eyed, pious Jew a second look as he walked by, not noticing his fleeting glance at the poster plastered onto the wall by the check post, which read: "WANTED: MENACHEM BEGIN DEAD OR ALIVE TEN THOUSAND POUNDS REWARD FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO HIS CAPTURE."

Gazing back at him from the heart of the poster was a grainy, grimy, unshaven, lean, coffin-like face with piecing black eyes framed in spectacles, and with the desperate stare of a man on the run. The image looked nothing like the Jew peeking at it.

BY THE TIME he reached his house - a ramshackle tiny home in a nondescript refuse-strewn side street called Yehoshau Bin-Nun - the sun had begun to set. He was about to place his key in the lock when a man on the other side of the street called out loudly, "Reb Yisrael Sassover - we need you for the mincha minyan" [afternoon prayer quorum]. The man had to shout because of the cacophony of chained dogs barking from the municipal dogs' home on one side of the little house, and doomed cattle mooing and snorting in the municipal abattoir on the other side. Given the noise, the smell, and the flies, few people ventured down Yehoshua Bin-Nun Street, which is precisely why its occupant chose to live there.

Reb Yisrael Sassover shouted back, "I shall join you presently, Reb Simcha. I just have to tell my wife I'm home." Reb Simcha, a short, round-bellied, red bearded fellow, full of good cheer and goodly deeds, was the beadle of the shtiebel - the homey, intimate neighborhood synagogue on a parallel street.

As Reb Yisrael Sassover entered his frugal home the chief of operations of the Irgun underground army sighed in relief: "Menachem, thank God your back. We were getting worried." "I'll get you some tea," said his wife, Aliza without fuss.

"They're expecting me in shule for mincha," Menachem Begin told them. "I must go. I won't be long."

It was 1947, and the revolt against the British rule of Palestine was at its height. As commander of the Irgun Menachem Begin had adopted a variety of guises - Pimpernel style - to avoid British detection. He had been a down-and-out law student, an out-of-pocket solicitor, and presently he was Reb Yisrael Sassover - a run-of-the-mill, unpretentious, deeply observant, God-fearing Jew, without much of a livelihood, and seemingly incapable of ever making one, subsisting, so local gossip had it, on his wife's dowry, poor thing.

THERE WAS absolutely nothing about the man to stamp him as an underground fighter, let alone a commander-in-chief. He was no gunman, no dashing, heroic-looking rebel, no ruthless-looking killer type, no poet of insurrection ripe for legend. In fact, a British dossier of the day titled "The Jewish Terrorist Index" profiled him as having "a long, hooked nose, bad teeth, and horn-rimmed spectacles." Time and again the British army and police on the look-out for him would pass him by without a second glance.

Nevertheless, besides its obvious perils, leading this secret life had its ludicrous complications, as happened that day at the end of the mincha service. His fellow congregants were a hardworking bunch of pious laborers, small shopkeepers, artisans and craftsman who, over the course of time, had grown fond of him and he of them. Some were Irgunists, unbeknownst to one another because of the tightly isolated underground cells. Reb Simcha, the beadle, was a fellow traveler, too.

On the way out from the mincha service Reb Simcha accosted Reb Yisrael Sassover, and said to him with a benevolent smile, "Reb Yisrael, I have a mitzva for you to perform."

"You do? Thank you, I'll be happy to do a good deed," said Reb Yisrael returning the smile. 'What is it?"

"Our butcher, Reb Dovid, needs a favor."

"What kind of a favor?"

"In order for him to get his kosher certification renewed he needs two witnesses that he is totally Shomer Shabbos - observant in every way. Since all the other congregants are hard at work all day and you seem to have time on your hands. I want you to come with me to the chief rabbinate's office to testify on his behalf. It's just a mere formality; won't take long. The dayanim [rabbinical judges] will ask you a few questions, that's all."

Begin shifted uneasily, not sure how to answer. To be cross- examined by such sharp-eyed scholarly types could unmask him totally.

"You have a problem with this, Reb Yisrael?" asked Reb Simcha, surprised at the shilly-shallying.

"Of course not," replied Begin pulling himself together, knowing that his chief operations officer was awaiting his urgent return to approve a vital action against a British police station that was to take place in a few hours time. So he said, "I know Reb Dovid is a truly honest man with impeccable kosher credentials, but..."

"But what? All you have to do is to tell that to the dayanim. They'll believe you."

"I'm sure they will. It's just that…"

"Just that, what?" returned the beadle, baffled.

"It's just that you'll have to ask somebody else," said Begin in his distinctive husky voice, as he made for the door.

"Somebody else?" Reb Simcha called after him impatiently. "What's wrong with you, Reb Yisrael - you're so busy all of a sudden?"

Begin paused at the exit. "Yes," he said, "I am."

"With what?"

"Urgent things - things I have to attend to myself."

"What kind of urgent things?" Reb Simcha's face was a picture of skepticism and sarcasm.

"Important things," answered Begin uncomfortably, not wanting to tell a lie but unable to tell the truth.

"Bah!" huffed the beadle, and he swung on his heels in disgust.

A year later, on a lovely mid-May evening, after the Sabbath had ended, Reb Simcha was sitting at home with two of his shule goers, one a stone mason, the other a plumber, drinking a l'chayim to the new Jewish state which had been declared the day before. And as they sipped their schnapps they had their ears glued to the radio listening to Menachem Begin's husky voice declaring, "Citizens of the Jewish homeland, the rule of oppression has been expelled. The State of Israel has arisen…"

Reb Simcha's eyebrows arched into triangles. "I know that voice," he muttered. "Shah, shtil!" [Yiddish for shut up!], admonished the mason, trying to take possession of every word the Irgun commander was saying.

"The State of Israel has arisen through blood and fire," intoned Begin…"

The three sat back, incredulous.

"We Jews now govern ourselves…"

"It's him," they exclaimed in unison.

Awestruck, they listened in exultation as the man they knew as Reb Yisrael Sassover raised his voice in peroration, and declared, "The Irgun is now leaving the underground. From now on we are all builders and soldiers of Israel."