A Parable of the Diaspora
(This short story is a revamped Corona version of the story “On Eagle’s Wings” which I wrote 2 decades ago, and which appears in my book of short stories “Days of Mashiach” available at Amazon Books or as a Free Download on tzvifishmanbooks.com. The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, but it could just as easily take place in the Minneapolis of today, or in New York, LA, Miami, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, WDC, Lakewood, Monsey, or Boro Park.)
This day, as always, Mervyn Levy woke up at six, in time to catch the morning minyan. He was still alive, thank the Almighty. No fever. No coughing. No shortness of breath. For over fifty years, he had said the same morning prayer, “Modeh ani… I render thanks unto You, living and everlasting King….” Just to be sure, he slipped on his cloth face mask. He and his wife had been boarded up in the house for nearly a week without visitors, and most of their domestic help didn’t come anymore, so it wasn’t likely that the Coronavirus was lurking in their home, but why tempt the Satan?
Quietly, so as not to disturb his sleeping wife, he rose out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom to wash in the ritual fashion, according to Jewish custom, and then with soap, scrubbing his hands diligently for half a minute, just like the World Health Organization had warned. His knuckles were red already from all the bloody scrubbing. It looked like another splendid South African day. Light filtered in from the bathroom skylight and sparkled over the hanging ferns and marble counters. Birds chirped happily outside. The only reminder of trouble was the faint aroma of smoke blowing in through the window.
Mervyn dried his hands with a soft, monogrammed towel. The reflection in the mirror was mildly depressing – darkening bags under his eyes and a paler shade of grey in his hair. He had almost gotten used to the face mask, but still it gave him a creepy feeling, as if he were going to pull out a gun and demand that he give over his wallet and cash. He adjusted the black skullcap on his head, ran an electric shaver back and forth over his suntanned cheeks, and stepped outside the bathroom to say the morning blessings.
Gunshots sounded in the distance as he dressed. Away from the aroma of soap in the bathroom, the smell of the fires was stronger. He gazed out of the mansion’s second story window to make sure everything was quiet around the high-voltage fence which surrounded the house. The Doberman and German shepherd snoozed peacefully out on the lawn, not bothering to lift up their heads as Johnson, the white security guard, walked by on his rounds. In the distance, the cloud of smoke which had blackened the Johannesburg sky for the last three days looked ominously closer.
Mervyn walked into his upstairs study. Volumes of holy Jewish texts, many worn with use, filled the shelves of his library. Plaques and certificates which he had received for a lifetime of philanthropy and fundraising covered the walls. Mervyn turned on the radio and tuned in on the chimes of the BBC News.
The announcer’s polite British accent belied the gravity of his report. In England, both rich and poor were perishing in the plague. Rioting Muslims were still looting throughout London and its suburbs, the Queen had dramatically leapt off the roof of the Buckingham Palace to her royal death, the police had freed all prisoners and were paying them wages, like mercenaries, to fight against the Arabs.
Mervyn switched the station to Radio South Africa. The voice of the Defense Minister was typically cool, promising to bring the situation under control. In Johannesburg, the rioting blacks had overtaken the President’s residence, and were holding him captive until their demands for a rebel government were met. The eastern district of the city was ablaze from the night’s rioting, and masses of rampaging “shocks” were heading toward the northern suburbs, battling soldiers with the rifles that Marxist rebels had smuggled into the country.
The announcer’s calm, civilized reporting continued. The rioting tribes were overpowering the South African soldiers with the sheer force of their numbers. To Mervyn’s chagrin, they were progressing toward the suburbs of the affluent whites. The airport road was still open, and thousands of citizens were fleeing the country each hour. All highways entering the city were open, but motorists were being advised to drive elsewhere.
Other than that, the Coronavirus was spreading like brush fire. South Africa’s hospital had National Guard troops stationed at the doors to turn people away from the overcrowded medical centers. Another two thousand residents had been afflicted with the contagion, and over two hundred were dying each day. The world stock market was taking an ugly beating, and South African sugar cane was rotting on the docks.
Mervyn walked across the hallway to his son’s empty bedroom. The view from the boy’s window looked out toward the city. Beyond the sparkling blue swimming pool and tennis court, smoke billowed in the air over the Johannesburg skyline. The twenty-year-old youth was in Israel, and Mervyn never stopped worrying about his safety. He had left home, contrary to his father’s wishes, to study in a Yeshiva in the volatile West Bank. While Mervyn was pleased that the boy was learning, he feared that the impressionable lad would come under the influence of some radical rabbi and decide not to come home. Their daughter, too, was in Israel, volunteering on a religious kibbutz. Every day, the first thing the Levys looked for in the newspaper were the reports from the Middle East. Both he and his wife were terrified that their children would be the victims, G-d forbid, of an Arab attack. Every week, in letters and phone calls, Mervyn urged the kids to come home. Gazing about the boy’s room, he felt it was hopeless. Pictures of Israeli warplanes and tanks covered the walls, alongside posters of Masada and Jerusalem. Looking at them made Mervyn uneasy. He had never been a Zionist. He loved the Holy Land itself, and he donated money to several ultra-Orthodox religious schools in Jerusalem, but he could never support a government in Israel which didn’t uphold the laws of the Torah. In addition, although the Israelis seemed to be handling the Coronavirus pandemic in a responsible fashion, they hardly behaved like a civilized people, and a decent living couldn’t be found. It would take the Almighty Himself, or at least the Mashiach, to bring Mervyn to Zion. This was what his rabbis in South Africa had taught him, and that is what the leading Torah authorities in Brooklyn said as well.
The black cook and the houseboy were nowhere in sight as Mervyn walked downstairs to the kitchen. He picked up the phone and dialed the synagogue. Since the outbreak of the rioting, before driving over to pray, he called to check that the road was all clear. In other Jewish communities around the world, synagogues has closed because of the global epidemic, but his shul remained open for daily minyans. As he waited for an answer, an explosion in the distance shook the foundations of the house.
“Hallooo,” said a deep African voice at the other end of the wire.
“Who is this?” Mervyn asked.
“It ain’t the rabbi,” the voice, like jungle drums, answered.
Mervyn could hear the laughter of “shocks” in the background.
“I want to speak to the shamash,” Mervyn demanded.
“You’re next, Jew,” the ugly voice said and hung up the phone.
Mervyn’s wife appeared in her bathrobe and slippers. “What was that explosion?” she asked. She didn’t wear a face mask, insisting that it made her look funny.
“The rioting,” he answered.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, noticing his pale white complexion.
“They’ve taken over the shul!”
“Oh my G-d, no,” she gasped.
It was practically their personal synagogue. Mervyn had donated the money to build it.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“One of them answered the phone.”
Rose Levy walked to the window. The dogs were up and around now, racing along the perimeter of the fence, jittery from the explosion. Their noses pointed in the air, sniffing at the ashes in the wind. A cat lied lifeless and stiff on the lawn – another victim of the deadly virus.
“Where are the servants?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen them,” Mervyn said.
He opened the window and called to the security man whose company guarded the house day and night. His report confirmed Mervyn’s suspicions. The last of the servants had left with their suitcases and Mervyn’s Mercedes early that morning. Sure enough, when the Levys checked through the house, several radios, cameras, and pieces of silver were missing, along with the valuable car.
“It’s like rats leaving the sinking ship,” Rose said. “If we were smart, we would leave too.”
“Nonsense,” the businessman answered.
“There’s nothing here for us now,” his wife insisted.
“What are you talking about? Our whole life is here. Our house, our friends, my business.”
“Most of our friends have left the country,” she argued. “Our house is like a palace that no one comes to visit. You can’t even get to work. They’ve taken over the synagogue, the plague is spreading, and our children are six-thousand kilometers away in Israel. Oh, Mervyn, let’s join them.”
She looked at him pleadingly.
“We will join them when G-d wants us to,” he said.
“Please, Mervin. We have all the money we need. Even if we can’t take it all out of the country, so what? Who cares about the business? Who cares about the house? I want to be close to our children.”
Mervyn didn’t answer. He was tired of discussions about living in Israel. In a matter of hours, the riots would be squelched, a vaccine for the virus would be discovered, and life would return to normal.
He retreated to his study to phone the police. Until the authorities drove the “shocks” from the shul, he wouldn’t be able to daven. He didn’t have his tefillin at home. They were in the cabinet in shul where he left them each day after the morning prayers.
Finally, the police station answered.
“Hallooo,” the same deep tribal voice said.
“Police?” Mervyn asked.
“That’s right. This is the pooolice.”
Immediately, Mervyn hung up. The police station was less than a kilometer away from his house. Quickly, he opened his wall safe and pulled out two guns. His wife watched from the doorway. He had taught her to shoot in the range he had built in the basement.
“Please, Mervyn, please, take me to Israel,” she urged.
“We’ll go to Israel when G-d wants us to,” he insisted. “Meantime, our life is here.”
He placed a heavy Magnum in her hand. Unable to face the look in her eyes, he turned away and dialed the security services. He breathed easier when a white voice answered the phone. Mervyn requested that two additional guards be sent to his house, but they didn’t have a single man free.
“I’ll pay you double,” he offered.
“Not even triple,” the man said. “We are all hired out.”
Two other security services told him the same. Finally, he managed to hire an extra guard for one-thousand rand a day.
“I thought you had brains,” his wife said. “But this is committing suicide. Is that what G-d wants?”
“G-d wants us to trust in Him, and He’ll take care of the rest.”
Just then, the telephone rang. It was a collect call from Israel.
“It’s Jerry,” Mervyn said. Rose ran to pick up the phone in the kitchen.
“Hello, Jerry. Can you hear me?” Mervyn yelled.
“Shalom, Dad,” the boy answered.
“Where are you?” his mother asked.
“In the yeshiva. We started learning again. It looks like the government has the epidemic under control.”
“Thank G-d you’re all right,” the mother said.
“Things are fine, Mother, don’t worry. But I hear you have problems. Why don’t you pack up and come to Israel?”
“Nonsense. Everything is fine here,” Mervyn insisted.
Just then, a bullet shattered the living-room window. A sliver of glass grazed Mervyn’s cheek. Instinctively, Mervyn dropped down to the floor.
“I’m worried about you, Dad. I heard on the radio that the rioting is getting worse.”
“You’re mother and I are fine,” Mervyn replied.
Drops of blood trickled over the telephone. A bullet hole graced the oil painting on the far wall. “How is your sister?” he asked.
Jerry said she was fine. They had spent Shabbat with each other in Jerusalem. Interference on the line jumbled the rest of his answer.
“Jerry, do you hear me?” Mervyn shouted. “Your mother is sick with worry about you two. We want you both to come home. The airport is still open. Come home!”
“Israel is my home,” the youth said.
Before Mervin could argue, the connection was lost. Rose found her husband sitting on the floor, wiping the blood off his cheek.
“Sweetheart, what happened?” she asked in alarm.
Her husband didn’t answer. He crawled across the room and switched on the radio. According to the latest report, the Defense Minister had fled the country. The revolting tribes had taken over the Union buildings, and a fierce battle was being fought at the airport.
“Please, Mervyn, let’s leave the country right now,” Rose beseeched.
“We’ll go when G-d takes us,” he answered.
He reached for the telephone and dialed the security service to find out why the new guard hadn’t come.
“Hallooo,” the voice answered.
Trembling, Mervyn hung up the phone.
“I’m going to pack,” his wife said.
Mervyn raised his head to the window in time to see the security man, Johnson, open the front gate and run off. The guard dogs ran off down the street after him. The cloud of smoke was closer now, only a few streets away. Quickly, Melvyn ran downstairs, unbolted the heavy front door, and raced outside to relock the gate. Like a soccer forward, he scampered back into the house, triple-locked the door, and raised the voltage of the electric fence. Suddenly, a voice called out from outside the house.
“Levy? Are you in there?”
Mervyn peeked out the window. An army jeep was parked at the gate. A soldier held a megaphone to his lips.
“Shalom, Levy,” the soldier shouted. “An airplane is waiting to take you to Israel. We’re from the Israeli army.”
“Go away,” Mervyn yelled back.
“We have orders to evacuate all Jews from the area,” the soldier replied.
“Orders from whom?”
“Orders from the Prime Minister of Israel.”
“I take my orders from G-d,” Mervyn yelled back.
Angrily, he closed the windows and shutter.
“It may be our only chance,” his wife said. She stood beside their suitcases, all packed to leave.
“It’s the Satan,” Mervyn mumbled.
He strode past her, and returned upstairs to his study. Determined to carry on as usual, he opened the business file he had been reviewing the previous night. If he couldn’t drive to his office, he would continue to work at home. In a few hours, the South African army would have the situation under control. Nervously, he reached over and switched on the radio.
“Hallooo,” the jungle voice said. “AMANDLA! The people will govern!”
Mervyn switched off the set. He picked up the telephone, but the line was dead. Rose stood staring at him from the doorway. They had been married for thirty-five years. Before she could speak, a great rumble, like thunder, sounded outside the house. Lightning seemed to flash in the sky. The lamp in the room blinked off and on. Melvyn rushed to the window. A tank had smashed through the electric security fence. It parked in the yard, leaving a trail of trenches in the manicured lawn. The tank hatch flipped open, and another soldier appeared.
“Levy!” he called through his megaphone.
Mervyn stared out the window.
“Let’s go with them,” Rose pleaded, appearing at his side.
“No,” he answered adamantly.
“Levy! We’ve come to take you to Israel. The roads are all closed. It’s your last chance.”
“I’ll go to Israel when G-d comes and takes me,” Mervyn yelled out. “Now get off of my property!”
The soldier shook his head and dropped down out of sight into the tank. The hatched closed. The tank lurched into gear, spun a neat circle, and drove off, chewing up more of the Levy front lawn.
“Why, Mervyn?” his wife asked with tears in her eyes. “Tell me why.”
“G-d won’t betray us,” he answered. “He’ll send the Mashiach. The Almighty will answer our prayers.”
Rose thought he was wrong, but she didn’t know what to say. She loved him. She admired his earnest belief. But she was frightened. She didn’t possess his ardent convictions. Her husband was ready to die for his religious convictions – hers were less strong. She wanted to be with her children, to see them married, to see them have babies of their own.
An explosion shook the mansion. The gas burner in the villa down the street had blown up, and the three-story home was ablaze. Rose looked out the window. Rebel soldiers were converging from every direction.
“They’re coming!” she said.
Mervyn pulled off his face mask and handed her more bullets.
“What good will these do?” she asked. “There are thousands of them.”
“We’ll have to shoot as many as we can. Maybe we can scare them away.”
Another roar shook the house. This time it came from above. A ferocious wind stripped the leaves off tree branches outside. Mervyn rushed to the staircase leading up to the roof. He swung open the metal door. A gust almost knocked him over. An army helicopter hovered above the house. A Star of David was painted on its tail. A rope ladder unraveled in the sky and dropped down to the roof. Once again, a soldier held a megaphone to his lips.
“Let’s go, Levy,” he called. “This is your final chance.”
“Please, Mervyn, please,” Rose said, pulling at his arm. She grabbed a hold of the swaying ladder and tried to drag him toward it. “If not for my sake, for the sake of the children.”
“Levy, hurry!” came the call from above.
Mervyn didn’t answer. He stood on the rooftop, praying. “Please, G-d, come and save us. Please, G-d, come and save us,” he repeated again and again.
Rose couldn’t budge him. The blacks were running up the street. Within moments, they would reach the mansion.
“Climb up the ladder!” the soldier ordered.
Mervyn ignored him. He continued to pray. Beside him, the ladder jerked out of Rose’s grasp.
“Mervyn!” she yelled at her husband. “Open your eyes! G-d sent you a jeep. Then a tank. Then a helicopter. What more do you want?”
Gunshots whistled through the air. The helicopter flew up and away. The blacks were charging into their yard now. They smashed into the house.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” Rose hysterically shouted, but her husband continued to pray.
He saw them burst onto the roof. He saw them grab his wife before she could shoot. He heard her wild scream. They slammed shut the metal door to the roof, trapping them with no hope of escape. Mervyn didn’t even raise his gun. He only kept praying. Even when they grabbed him, he still kept on praying for the Almighty to save them. A black arm grasped him around the neck. As the air left his body, he closed his eyes and heard Hebrew voices.
“I must be going to heaven,” he thought.
Then, once again, he felt a great whirlwind around him and heard the roar of a thundering chariot. A commotion of voices burst out all around him, all speaking the sacred tongue. He opened his eyes expecting to see a vision of angels and the gates of Gan Eden, but he was still on his roof.
It was the blacks who were shouting in Hebrew!
“They’re Ethiopians!” he realized. “Jews!”
Sure enough, they were Israelis! A special team which the Mossad had sent to rescue the stubborn South African Jews!
The helicopter swooped back over the house, dangling a rope through the air. Two heavy vests landed on the rooftop with a thud.
“Mahere! Quickly,” one of the black soldiers ordered.
Forcefully, he strapped a vest around Mervyn. Another soldier snapped a hook closed, and Melvyn was hoisted off his feet into the sky. He spun in small circles as the rope whisked him hydraulically up toward the aircraft. Its automatic fire kept the real rioters at bay on the lawn. Up and up he swirled. Israeli soldiers reached down to pull Mervyn into the ship.
“I’m not going to Israel until….” he began to argue, when a punch silenced his protests at last. Rose was lifted aboard next to her unconscious husband. As gunshots ricocheted off the cabin, the helicopter rose away from the house and from the burning city below. Not until the Levys had been flown to a military base forty kilometers away and transferred to an Israeli Air-Force plane did Mervyn awaken.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“On a plane to Israel,” Rose told him.
Mervyn stared out the window as the powerful jet raced down the runway and soared into the air. Below them, the South African plain lands disappeared under clouds of black smoke.
“G-d answered your prayers, Mervyn,” Rose said with a smile.
Mervyn glanced back out the window. Tears of happiness welled in his eyes. They were on their way to Israel. The Almighty was bringing them home.