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In a small American town in the 1930s, a poor Jewish couple tries to do its best to make a living. Their child, Zekharia, learns soon how to work honestly and how to save money, building his own empire from nothing. Working hard and helping needing people, he turns thirty and realizes it’s time to start a family. He meets the young Elisheva at the synagogue and immediately falls in love with her, so they decide to get married. They have two children, Gavriel and Yacoov. Yacoov moves to Australia; Gavriel marries Rah’el and has a child, Mykhael.Life goes on and Zekharia becomes old; one day, after his daily walk, he has a heart attack and dies, leaving his family, especially Mykhael to whom he can’t teach all the things he knows.Now, Mykhael is a teenager and along with his friends, Robert and Cheryl, builds a device for detecting ghosts… and the story becomes exciting, because grandpa Zek somehow managed to come back.
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Claudio Oliva, Zekharia Blum’s Secret Dream
© Edizioni Esordienti E-book
E-book edition: 9788866902454, March, 2015
First paper edition: ISBN: 9788866902492, April 2015
English paperback edition: 9788866904212, January 2018
English e-book edition: 9788866904229, January 2018
Publisher: EEE - Edizioni Esordienti E-book
All rights reserved, in all countries.
English translation: Ilaria Battaglia, Elena Evangelisti.
Proofreader: Miriam Drissi.
Cover: credits to Canstockphoto.com.
I dedicate this short but intense story to my sons,
Fulvio and Diego, hoping they’ll get the chance of a better future
Zekharia was about to finish his daily walk.
He was on the verge of eighty-five, and sometimes it seemed that life had flashed by.
He came from a Jewish family, and he was born in 1930, when the United States of America were going through tough times.
He lived his childhood without really understanding what was happening around him, around his family and around the world.
His parents were advanced in years when they had him, and his father did all he could for his son, who was like a heaven-sent blessing.
Their house was in a poor zone, at the edge of a swamp.
Zekharia’s parents, contrary to what other people who were offered that house did, understood that living so close to a swamp could lead to different opportunities.
The house was built on top of a small hill made of solid stone, which had a depression at its peak, probably due to the erosion of the soft rock from natural elements. This depression had been further enlarged, so that it could house the base beams. The basement was a ring made of rock that preserved food supplies or stored materials from humidity, avoiding their deterioration.
Zekharia chose a recess in the wall as his personal, secret hiding place. There, he used to put his precious belongings, including the gold dollar he had found in the swamp.
At times, his parents hosted hunters attracted by the swamp for their hunting sessions. When this happened, Zekharia’s room was used as guest room, so he had to sleep in the living room, in front of the fireplace.
Tourists sometimes left a tip or some gifts. A man from New York even gave Zek a book, Pinocchio, which soon became his favorite reading.
In fact, he could read and write, because he had studied the Torah, as all the members of his community had done.
Zekharia perfectly remembered all the places of his childhood, as well as his parents’ teachings. His grandfather had been his best playmate, and he taught him how to make wooden tops or puppets. From his mother, he learned how to extract colors from plants or flowers, so he could draw on some cardboards found among the rich’s garbage. With his father and grandpa, he used to go into the woods or in the swamp to pick up mushrooms; his parents taught him where to find the best and most succulent ones, which could be dried or eaten at once. He learned how to recognize, pick and store some special herbs, ideal for cooking unforgettable roast chicken. He had also learned how to catch frogs, crayfish or swamp eels, which his mother cooked on the wood stove that her father and mother-in-law had given her.
His father was a farmer without land. He was a sharecropper, and that’s how he made a living. They bred chickens and rabbits, selling them too. On feast days, his mother used to prepare delicious herb omelets.
Then, the U.S.A. entered World War II, in part because they were being dragged in by Japan and in part because it was inevitable. People were simple, so it was easy to work on their national pride, influencing them with stories about justice and heroes.
When the first veterans returned to their own country, their accounts provided a crystal-clear version of the events. War meant death, destruction, poverty, but everything was softened by the victory on tyranny.
War was over before he turned eighteen.
At the age of twelve, as he finished primary school, his parents decided he had to start working for a mechanic. He didn’t like his employer very much, least of all the job, but this way he could earn money. And those earnings would have been useful later, for buying a van and starting a poultry transport business. He moved chickens from the country to the city, where they were slaughtered and sold. Chickens belonged to his parents and to the near breeding farms, too.
He ingratiated himself with a store owner, who was Jewish just like him. He was unmarried, had no children and he was close to retirement. One day, he decided to quit working: Zakharia managed the store at first, and then he acquired it.
Zek didn’t let the van get rusty. On the contrary, he hired a man and his wife, a Polish couple just arrived from Europe to escape the Iron Curtain.
The woman’s name was Agnes and her husband’s was Marek. They had no place to go, so that Agnes entered the store, asking for a job.
“Whatever job is OK,” she specified.
Zekharia looked straight into her eyes, as blue as the ocean, and told her: “Please, put the apron on, the store opens in a few minutes.”
As Agnes stood still open-mouthed in surprise, he slipped a ten-dollar bill into her hand, adding: “I have a room upstairs, you and your husband could stay there, if you wish. Go and tell him not to wait outside, I have a job for him, too.”
What had knocked the woman out most, besides the answer itself, was that the man standing behind the counter had talked in… Polish.
Zekharia’s mother had Polish origins, that’s why he perfectly knew that language. Until the age of eighteen, he had eaten Polish food, thought in Polish, and even breathed in Polish. His father didn’t mind, as he was charmed by that warm-hearted, quick-witted woman.
Then, thanks to their management skills and to their aptitude for work, the first earnings came, and with them a second van, as well as a second store: Agnes managed the first one, which was a deli, while the second one was a spice shop. Zek entrusted its management to an Indian couple originally from Goa. They were masters at mixing, suggesting and choosing the spices to buy. Their curry powder was the best and people came from the surrounding cities to buy it. The chefs of some renowned restaurants used to buy their spices and trusted the old Indian couple, Chitra and Nalin, blindly.
But fate went straight on rewarding Zekharia, maybe because of his humble nature, maybe because he showed no sign of having a break.
One of the restaurants that usually stocked up at their spice store was in a bad situation. Zekharia decided to take the business over, so it could get a new lease for life. The owner accepted to sell the restaurant and Zekharia substituted the staff with a Greek family: Eustachius, Aghate, their sons and some relatives. The renowned Greek cuisine and its explosion of flavors, along with some repairs and by keeping prices low, attracted new customers.
Zekharia wanted to keep the prices low even in the future.
So, what to do?
With the money scraped together, and thanks to the amount lent by the bank after he had mortgaged his stores and restaurant, the young businessman bought a farm and entrusted its management to some Turkish families just arrived in the U.S.
Argun and Serap represented the group, as they were the oldest couple and the ones who spoke better English. On the farm, they cultivated and bred animals.
Each one of them gave his contribution and advice on breeding sheep and pigs, chickens and cows, on planting fruit trees and sowing cereals and vegetables.
Zekharia paid back the loan quickly, and once again he had some extra money to invest. So, he decided to boost his farm, and he bought other plots of land he planted with flax. Buying some secondhand machines and a shed fallen into disuse, he started the production of flaxseed oil and textile fibers. Then, he applied for another loan: with the wool obtained from sheep and the flax produced at the farm, he launched a textile factory and started two clothing stores.
Zekharia had never given way to anger, but just once in his lifetime he couldn’t stop himself from getting angry. One day, a distinguished man dressed elegantly like a classic bank employee, showed up in front of Zekharia, saying he was a bank manager and a renowned financial consultant. He offered his advice on how to make his money and how to make wealth grow quickly. Unfortunately, his advice consisted in selling all the businesses he had acquired: this way he could make money to invest later, with no regard to the ones who would have gone bankrupt because of it.
But let’s be clear: the consultant suggested only safe speculations, which consisted in acquiring at low price some important businesses with lack of liquidity, and then selling them piece by piece.
“You could sell your properties to some people who contacted me so I could act as a go-between. The deal is practically closed, you just need to sign these papers.”
Zekharia asked the consultant what would happen to the families who worked for him. The fop answered, saying that it wasn’t important. What really mattered was making money and becoming rich, and he would become very rich. Zekharia got up from the armchair and, grabbing him by the tie, yelled at him to get his ass out of there and never to come back. The financial consultant couldn’t understand such an angry reaction, but he got up and did exactly what Zekharia had ordered.
As he left, Chitra and Nalin, who lived next door, arrived.
“We heard someone screaming! What happened?”
“Nothing important, don’t you worry. But you have to know that I would never throw the families who work for me out onto the street, and who thinks so, is completely wrong. Honesty, living in peace and helping each other come first. Then come the filthy lucre and all the rest.”
The two Indians didn’t understand the young man’s outburst; Chitra prepared an herbal tea and they all went to sleep.
Zakharia’s number of employees increased, and he was thirty now.
He realized he had never taken a moment for himself; he had never had a break for resting or having fun, except for those days in which he visited his parents. Many times, he had to give up holidays because of his job commitments. Now, it was time for a change, he needed a new lifestyle: a specific idea and a desire were making their way into his head.
He used to frequent the local synagogue, where he noticed a pretty young woman. The rabbi confided to him that she was twenty-eight. Until then, she had clearly found no suitors yet.
Zek was struck by her eyes, which were black, deep and a bit sad.
She never put make up on, and her clothes weren’t the latest fashions, but for a reason: her family was not among the richest of the area, but her parents’ honesty was common knowledge.
Zekharia always avoided displaying his wealth; in fact, no one knew his balance sheet, and the accountant, who managed his interests as well as the relationship with the banks and the tax payment, was asked for maximum discretion. He lived in a small out-of-the-way accommodation, and he used to reach the Saturday function on foot, always making sure to have some details out of place: a shoe lace shorter than the other one, or a little rip in his trousers.
One day, he decided to make his move.
Many times, he observed that young woman from afar at the synagogue, sometimes also persistently, and he received some embarrassing smiles in return. He tried his luck and approached the girl with an excuse; the rabbi accompanied him, willingly accepting to be his partner in crime. Their gazes crossed, and after a quick, clumsy smile, he asked her whether she would consider the idea of becoming his wife.
Her mother showed no enthusiasm for the proposal, but the young woman was glad. After all, her suitor was handsome, too. So, like a princess who waits for her Prince Charming, she clearly nodded, holding a smile.
Naturally, Elisheva - that was the young woman’s name - needed her father’s approval.
On a Saturday afternoon, after work, Zekharia showed up at her parents’ house. He used to be a sloppy dresser, but this time he really cared about his personal grooming.
After having exchanged courtesies, Elisheva’s father showed uncertainty about giving his daughter’s hand in marriage, as the suitor looked like a penniless man who couldn’t have made his girl happy.
Zekharia, with the calmness of the strong, asked him to go out for a walk.
As they were outside and turned the corner, they got in Zekharia’s car.
“Do you own car?” asked Elisheva’s father in surprise.
They reached the Greek restaurant, where they were welcomed and immediately accompanied to the best table.
“Everyone here knows you well” observed the young woman’s father. “I bet he’s one of your best customers, isn’t he?” he then asked to the waiter, who was Eustachius and Aghate’s son.
The guy smiled at first, and then started to chuckle. But when he translated into Greek what the man had just said, he couldn’t help laughing, like the other staff of the restaurant.
“What did I say that was so funny? I really don’t get these people…” said Elisheva’s father, frowning at Zekharia.
“They’re good people, and I don’t get them either at times, but they’re great at cooking. Please, try their dishes.”
As they finished eating, one of the waiters played the role of the driver.
They went to buy spices, some new clothes, and a roast chicken; Chitra made some small garlands of flowers for Elisheva and her mother.
At every store, Elisheva’s father asked the same question he had already asked before leaving the restaurant: “But… won’t you pay for that?”
They returned home with a lot of things and gifts.
“Sir, I must confess I didn’t tell the truth. But I didn’t mean to be wicked, I swear.”
“So, that’s what I thought! It was all an act, wasn’t it? You didn’t have enough money to buy this stuff. You’d better give it back, right away. I understand and I forgive you, you just wanted to impress me, so I would have allowed you to marry Elisheva. I have to admit your attempt was great, but no, I won’t give you my daughter. Your creativity will be useful for you in the future.”
“Well, actually… it’s not exactly like you think…” said Zekharia. “I didn’t pay for those things or for the lunch at the restaurant because… well, because they were mine already.”
“Hey, listen. I’ve just said that you won’t marry my daughter. Don’t you think it’s time to stop joking? After all, I’m older than you and…”
“The fact is that… that I’m not joking. The stores and the restaurant are mine and, if you agree, I would be pleased to show you the farms where the products I sell come from. I will also show you the textile and the knitwear factories.”
“Are you kidding me?” replied Elisheva’s father, frowning at him.
Behind Zekharia, appeared Chitra and Nalin, Eustachius and Aghate, Marek and Agnes with their three-years-old child in her arms as well as Argun and Serap.
“What our master is saying is true.” Chitra spoke, in name of them all.
“Chitra, please. I’ve told you a million times not to call me master,” said Zekharia, almost resigned.
“Yes, lord. Forgive me.”
“Here we are again! There’s nothing to do…”
“We all are happy for our master, who will finally share his joy and sorrow with a partner. Shiva will protect them,” continued Chitra.
“God will guide them,” added Aghate.
“Our Lord gave them his blessing,” replied Agnes, and Serap concluded: “Allah chose and joined them together.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to give my blessing, too. Since bride and groom both descend from Abraham… you know…” said the rabbi, after having shown up without making a noise. As he spoke those words, they all burst out laughing.
“What’s happening? Why are all these people here?” exclaimed Elisheva’s mother, appearing at the window.
“Nothing, I’ll explain you later… maybe… Elisheva is going to get married. I have accepted the marriage proposal of this good, young man… well… he convinced me, by Abraham’s beard!” replied her husband.
Zekharia still remembered that moment like it was yesterday.
The wedding was a simple ceremony, perfectly organized. Elisheva, who learnt about her husband’s properties only after they got married, reacted concisely: “If you need a woman to work for you, I’ll be there for you. That stuff doesn’t belong to me. You are mine, you are my property, and no one dares to take you away from me.”
It was the first and last time he heard her speak that categorically.
Zekharia, besides starting new stores, farms, restaurants and factories, had also managed to conceive two heirs, and Elisheva played her part in it.
But life was not a bed of roses.
Many unscrupulous people tried to extort money and exploit his honest workers. This also happened especially when he started his first Chinese restaurant in a nearby city, thanks to the collaboration of a couple coming from Shanghai, Eiko and Chun.
Some criminals visited the restaurant three times, threatening to destroy everything and have it closed. Zekharia decided to ask for advice to an FBI agent of Greek origin, who was a friend and a regular at the Greek restaurant.
Norman, this was his name, didn’t say a word. He just made a call.
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