Uncle Yidel was dancing in the middle with two rabbanim, but he lit up when he saw Shmuly. Of course he did — the orphaned nephew, the perfect prop for his simchah, along with the ice sculpture and cut-up melon before the chuppah
hmuly made his way through the lobby, trying to figure out what they were up to inside the ballroom. It sounded like the middle of the first dance, which was kind of perfect, early enough in the chasunah that he was there, he could dance and smile when the video camera guy came around and everyone got all insecure and busy with their cream of chicken soup, but late enough that he’d missed the chuppah.
At the last wedding, Uncle Yidel had pulled him in for a bear hug just after the chuppah and said, “You know, the seforim say that the neshamos of the zeides come from yenneh velt to the chuppah, but I know your father was here too, I felt him.
“Some uncles get special privileges,” he’d added, as if he could see clear into Heaven and read a printout of which souls had been sent down for the evening.
Estie was excited for this wedding. She was new enough to the family that she still enjoyed the warmth. Aunt Shevy and all the cousins would no doubt make a big deal about her, and Mommy would feel good to have her newest daughter-in-law there.
Mommy. Probably dancing with Aunt Shevy, a dignified smile on her face as she played the part, the widowed sister-in-law rejoicing with her deceased husband’s siblings. They say Yidel and Shevy support her now. They say he paid off the mortgage. They say they say they say, all the they says filling the air around them, mixing with “Toraso Magen Lanu” and pounding feet and the big-name Israeli electric guitarist who had a small crowd around him taking videos.
Uncle Yidel was dancing in the middle with two rabbanim, but he lit up when he saw Shmuly. Of course he did — the orphaned nephew, the perfect prop for his simchah, along with the ice sculpture and cut-up melon before the chuppah.
“Shmulik’el,” he said, using the name only Shmuly’s father had used, and pulled him in, pressing Shmuly’s face into the silken folds of his beketshe. Uncle Yidel started dancing, still grasping Shmuly like a tattered old teddy bear, holding him close. Shmuly knew what was coming next, and he let his uncle pull him over to meet the new mechutan.
“Reb Shea, this is my nephew Shmuly. His father, Yankel, and I were best friends, like twins, people said. Like twins. He’s already not here four years and we’re all not okay. We never will be again, ’til Moshiach comes.”
He nodded somberly, and the new mechutan, who probably bought the whole thing, joined them in a little circle.
Mendy, Uncle Yidel’s oldest son, came and joined the circle too, smiling beatifically as he took Shmuly’s hand. Mark from acquisitions, Shmuly thought bitterly, remembering the six months he’d worked for his uncle after leaving yeshivah. Uncle Yidel had played the benevolent benefactor eager to take his orphaned nephew in and show him the ropes; it had all started out nicely, until they realized that Shmuly was good. That he worked hard and was smart and determined, and that scared the living daylights out of Uncle Yidel, and especially Aunt Shevy, who panicked that her nephew would take all the jobs and there would be nothing left for her sons.
So Uncle Yidel had called him in, told him again that he and his brother Yankel had been close as twins. He laughed and wiped away tears and he talked about how they’d built succahs for money and bought a used lawnmower one bein hazmanim and also, they had to downsize at Ace Developments and he would give Shmuly six months’ salary, but there simply wasn’t room for all of them, the industry was shifting, you know how it is.
Uncle Yidel had called the next day, wondering how the job search was going. He had a small part in a food business, was that something Shmuly wanted to do? He was very good with Gluck, from the plumbing supplies, was that interesting? Of course, if Shmuly wanted to join any of the moisdes, all it would take was a phone call.
“Nah,” Shmuly said, “I’m good, thanks. I’ll figure it out.”
Now, at the chasunah, Uncle Yidel’s son-in-law Pinchus — Philip from tenant relations — took Shmuly’s other hand, offering an extra squeeze to show his warmth. Mazel tov.
After Ace, Shmuly had gone to work at Broadway Health, which he didn’t love, but it was where he’d met Yossi, his current boss at Kehilla RealTime, a job he did love. The website was growing every day, and Shmuly, who’d gone from selling ads to writing and interviewing, had found his calling. Between the website and social media, RealTime was influential and profitable, and while there were other writers, no one could research a story, turning over every stone and following every lead, like Shmuly could.
He didn’t use his real name yet — none of them did — but it was a matter of time. Their last major story, his investigative report of how kosher restaurants sold their chometz and what they did with it, had over one hundred thousand hits and it had forced three major restaurants to issue statements and one kashrus agency to change their policy.
He was making a difference and making money and the sky was the limit. He was knee-deep in his newest story: tuition arrangements for yesomim. He was calling various schools and they all talked the good talk, but he wanted actual figures. This, he told Yossi, was personal.
Yesterday, he’d tracked down a British askan who covered tuition for all yesomim out of his own pocket. Shmuly also spoke with a belligerent board member from the Midwest who maintained that there were plenty of non-yesomim who also had no money and he personally knew yesomim who had plenty of money. Shmuly put the phone on speaker and went to make coffee. When he came back, the man was still speaking, his voice a bit disjointed as he pontificated about the fact that there were families that had made serious money on life insurance and —
“You’re kidding, right?” Shmuly asked.
His father had had life insurance. His mother had gotten enough to pay off the mortgage and marry off the girls, but not more than that. There had been no funds or collections either, because the askanim reasoned that no one was giving monthly credit card donations for Yidel Aker’s brother.
He hung up, cutting off the askan midsentence.
Hei Cheshvan. They didn’t say “Tatty’s yahrtzeit,” they just said “Hei Cheshvan.” It was easier and less painful. Where’s the seudah on Hei Cheshvan? We can’t go on vacation that week, it’s Hei Cheshvan.
The seudah was at Breindy’s house this year — they took turns — and along with all Shmuly’s siblings and their spouses and children, the uncles and aunts were also there. Uncle Yidel was sitting at the head table, looking somber and also concerned that there were no bowls of chrein near where he was sitting and he would have to stand up if he wanted chrein with his gefilte fish.
The rav of the new shul on Fifteenth Avenue came to speak. He hadn’t known Tatty, he conceded, but he could see the children and someone who could merit such peiros… And of course, he’d heard about Reb Yidel’s beloved brother, about the closeness between them.
Uncle Yidel closed his eyes and nodded along. There was a time, Shmuly remembered, after Tatty’s passing, that Uncle Yidel had started to think that he was Tatty. The stories about the driving the old men to shul every morning, about the Yerushalmi meshulach who slept in the basement for six months, about saying the whole Sefer Tehillim very morning — Uncle Yidel seemed to think that those stories were about him. He bought himself a massive leather Tehillim and kept it in his living room, reflecting his brother’s light, and when he once gave old Mr. Greengrass a ride to shul on a freezing morning, he announced to the whole shul that it was a family mesorah: “Yankel would also do such things.”
Mommy had urged Shmuly to ignore it, telling him that Tatty would have smiled and said it was fine. Shmuly couldn’t smile, but he could try to look away. A year and a half ago, Shmuly and Estie had finally had gotten their chance to give the name, Yaakov Yissaschar Ber, and Uncle Yidel had insisted on speaking at the bris. Mommy had asked Shmuly not to make a fuss, even though he could barely look at his uncle. Shmuly had given his older brother Ephraim krias sheim, the honor of announcing the name, but Uncle Yidel had shaken his head and announced the name along with Ephraim just the same, as if he were the only one in the room who knew it was coming.
Now, Uncle Yidel signaled to the corner of the room where the choir he’d hired sat waiting, and they snapped to attention, five layers of voices singing “Zechus Avos Yagen Aleinu” as Uncle Yidel started swaying back and forth and also looking through the mechitzah to make sure Mommy appreciated the generous gesture.
Shmuly’s oldest brother Shragie made a siyum on Seder Taharos and Ephraim’s teenage Gershon made a siyum on Megillah.
Later, after bentshing, Shragie came over with a serious expression on his face. Trying to be my Tatty, Shmuly thought.
“How are things in the new job?” Shragie asked.
He couldn’t bring himself to say the word website. He was kind. He’d already been married when Tatty had died, so he was less of a yasom, maybe; he understood Shmuly, the struggles and confusion (did he know about the rage?) and sometimes Shmuly could see his older brother trying hard to be nonjudgmental, like some rav had likely advised him. Now, Shragie placed a hand on Shmuly’s shoulder.
“Shmuly, tzaddik, wouldn’t it be nice if you made a siyum for Tatty’s yahrtzeit? Or even not on the yahrtzeit, something for his neshamah? I know you work hard, and baruch Hashem you have your own family keeping you busy now”—he smiled, as if to underscore how nonjudgmental he was being—“but you’re a child… and there’s nothing greater for the neshamah. I would make time to learn with you.”
Shmuly stepped back, but nodded just the same. “Thanks, Shragie, I hear you. I do.”
It was a regular winter Erev Shabbos. The office was closed and Shmuly had taken little Yanky with him to visit Mommy while Estie prepared for Shabbos. He was sitting in the dining room, feeding the baby little bites of kugel when he noticed the empty space in the breakfront.
“Hey, where’s the menorah?” he asked, waving the fork in the air, a single strand of kugel dangling back and forth like a pendulum.
Mommy pretended not to hear the question, and he repeated it.
She wiped her hands on her apron and turned away. “Oh, whatever, it found another home.” She was trying to sound nonchalant.
He unbuckled Yanky from the old high chair and followed her into the kitchen.
“What does that mean? Its home is here. It belonged to Zeidy, and Tatty lit it every year, how could it have another home?”
He knew the answer as soon as she turned to face him. “Yidel wanted it, he called me last week nearly crying. He’d always wanted it, but when they divided Zeidy’s yerushah, he was mevater when he saw how much it meant to Tatty. He was happy for Tatty to have it, he said, but now that no one is using it, he would really love to have it, and I couldn’t think of a reason why not. You boys all have your own menorahs already. I never got menorahs for Duvy and Chaim, there wasn’t extra money, but Yidel told me to go buy them both menorahs, to spend whatever I wanted at SilverScape, and I did. So that’s that. I’m excited for Fraidy and Mirel to be able to give their husbands beautiful menorahs, just like you got, and I don’t want to hear a word from you about this.”
“He’s a big jerk, that’s what he is,” Shmuly burst out, his bitterness acute enough to taste.
“Shmuly.” She turned her back again. “He’s been very good to us and Tatty loved him.”
Very good to us. She had no idea. She didn’t know that none of the askanim had ever been allowed to raise money for her or create funds that might ease her situation: Yidel Aker was on it! She hadn’t heard, as he had, that Uncle Yidel would tell any executive director who asked that he couldn’t do what he once had because he was carrying his brother’s family too.
Shmuly remembered approaching the guy from Hachnassas Kallah before Mirel’s wedding. “My father isn’t here anymore, and my younger sister is getting married, I heard you give coupons for furniture and housewares?”
The askan had looked at him strangely. “Aren’t you Aker? Reb Yidel’s nephew? Come on, tzaddik, leave it for those who need it.”
Being Yidel Aker’s nephew meant that Shmuly had to give his kallah the cheapest leichter in the store, but then call his uncle and aunt and thank them for the massive chocolate platter they had sent in honor of Shabbos aufruf.
“Only the best for our Shmuly,” Aunt Shevy had said.
Now, he looked back at the empty space in the breakfront and then at Mommy.
“Ha,” he said, wondering if his brothers would even care. Shragie would go all tzaddik on him, and Ephraim, who was becoming a therapist, would tell him he had to let go of his anger.
He still wanted kugel but he couldn’t bring himself to eat; so much injustice, and he was the only one who cared.
Shmuly’s boss, Yossi, was leaning against the windowsill.
“This is a big story and we need to own it. Shmuly, I’m assigning it to you because you’ll do the best job. Take a few days and hit the road, go down to Sullivan County, hang around and see what you can find out.” He held up a map he’d printed out. “Look here, these three”—he circled three dots with a blue marker —“are the major colonies near Kiamesha Lake — Sunset whatever, Something Heights and Cedar the-other-thing, you know what I mean. Now here,” Yossi tapped a large empty space, “is the proposed casino, literally bordering the edge of the colonies. It’s really way too close for comfort, I get the ones who are fighting it. But at the same time, the county wants to make its money and that’s their right too. Get to the politicians behind it, hear their side, speak to the askanim fighting it, to everyone. Have fun.”
Shmuly gave his boss a high five. “Awesome. I’m on it.”
“And Shmuly, this has 100K-hit potential, maybe more. I can see it getting picked up by secular media. Make it yours,” he said.
Route 17 in the winter was different than in the summer. The frum advertisements — Dirshu, Gombo’s, Gefen — were gone, and the billboards were framed by the black skeletons of trees. Pickup trucks replaced the Odyssey parade, and piles of dirty gray snow lined the side of the highway.
Shmuly missed his little family, Estie and the baby. He was booked in the Liberty Days Inn for the next two nights, his first road trip as a journalist, and he felt a bit homesick. Yanky would have climbed out of the Pack ’n Play and found the dustiest corners of the hotel room (not a difficult challenge, Shmuly thought, because they were all dusty) and Estie would have covered the pillows with her own pillowcases, brought from home. Instead, it was him alone, the intrepid journalist on a mission. He was exhausted, and part of him just wanted to fall back on the green-and brown-striped blanket Estie wouldn’t dream of touching and fall asleep.
No rest for the weary. One hundred thousand clicks. He stood up and went to wash his face before heading out.
Eunice, read the secretary’s name tag, and Shmuly went straight for the charm.
“Hey, Eunice, that mug is awesome,” he said, indicating her I Don’t Argue I Just Explain Why I’m Right coffee cup. “I’m glad I’m not here to argue.”
She barely looked up.
“You know, it’s like a different world up here in the winter, I love how you guys keep this place running. Up in the city, where we have a much bigger budget, you don’t see snow removal like this, it’s impressive.”
She moved her head a quarter of an inch. “How can I help you?”
It was time to do his thing.
It was already dark out, and Shmuly was still sitting in the small office of Jackson Hollier, editor and publisher of the Sullivan County Democrat. Hollier, John Deere cap pulled low, red-and-black flannel shirt untucked, removed another Camel from the box and lit it.
His eyes narrowed as he peered at Shmuly through a cloud of smoke. “Sam, I don’t know what to tell you, but I see you’ve done your homework. Small towns work differently, I guess, welcome to our world.”
Shmuly nodded, not wanting to appear overeager but also not ready for his host to stop talking.
“I think there are many layers here, you’ll have to monitor the online discussions, reach out to the commenters and connect the dots. If you’re really an investigative reporter, you’ll break through.”
Shmuly thanked him and went back to the motel to pore over the articles he’d printed out. He sat on the shaky chair pushed against the light brown desk in the hotel room, a picture of what looked like several standing-up paper clips on the wall in front of him. He circled and underlined and drew arrows until it was getting light outside.
He slept a few hours, then davened and drove to Monticello. He pulled into a gravel parking lot and at precisely 9:15 a.m., he walked into Community Oil and Gas, asking for Mr. Harvey Welch, owner, Kiamesha Village trustee, and principal investor in the proposed Mountain Gold casino.
Harvey Welch wore a leather vest and matching tie, clearly aiming for the casino-magnate look.
“You’re from Brooklyn, huh?” Welch said Brooklyn as if it were the name of a leper colony.
“Originally, yes, but now I live in Toms River, New Jersey,” Shmuly answered.
“So how can I help you?” Welch spread his arms apart. “You Brooklyn people know the story here better than me. You guys come up for a few weeks and think that gives you a right to torpedo our plans, it’s like only you have a right to make money, no one else.”
Shmuly chose his next words carefully. “I’m a journalist, Mr. Welch. I don’t represent any side.”
The large meaty hand came down hard on the table. “Do you know that they made an event, a fundraising dinner just to fight the casino? Like, people gave money to create obstacles for me? Is that normal?”
Did Shmuly know?
Did Harvey Welch know who had been behind that parlor meeting? Shmuly remembered the invitation, gray print on a black background, as if to indicate the seriousness of the threat: Berri Horowitz, Shaul Glauberg, and Yidel Aker invite you… The big three. They had a rav speak and Mezamrim sing and little eggrolls and Uncle Yidel got up and exhorted the people to fight back, to sign petitions and show up to zoning board meetings in the Catskills and exercise their legal rights. At one point, Uncle Yidel had even used the phrase “my fellow Americans,” no doubt feeling very patriotic as he did so.
Wait, Shmuly wondered, had Welch made the connection between his own last name and Uncle Yidel’s? It didn’t seem so.
Shmuly tried to remain calm. “What did they do with the money they raised?”
Welch waved his hand. “Attorneys. Petitions. But I’ll win. You know why? Because I’m up here, I’m on site, I’m eating dinner with the town clerks and trustees. I play pinochle with the town supervisor every Tuesday night. I have patience.”
The town supervisor, Shmuly knew, had run on the promise of getting the casino built. It had been a close election, and Shmuly remembered Uncle Yidel’s panic, calling mekubalim and telling them about the anti-Semite who was poised to win.
The anti-Semite had won. Kehilla RealTime had done a story about it — not Shmuly, another writer — and Uncle Yidel had given a comment, something like, “We have many more tools in our box. America is the land of democracy.”
The anti-Semite had printed impressive booklets explaining how the casino would work, how it would benefit all the locals and even the summer visitors, lowering property taxes and funding new roads. New roads meant less traffic. The pamphlets were distributed in every bungalow colony, and Uncle Yidel found that the people weren’t as passionate in their resistance as they’d been a few months earlier. There were handsome signs all along Route 52 that said, “More Jobs, Less Crime,” and “The Future Starts Now.”
Shmuly had another question. “Mr. Welch, can I ask who funded the town supervisor and his campaign? He seems to have quite a war chest. Was it you?”
Harvey Welch looked at Shmuly for a long time, sizing him up like the guy at the guess-your-weight-booth at a carnival. “Ask your friends in Brooklyn that question,” he finally said.
Shmuly went for a drive. He headed to the proposed site of the Mountain Gold casino and parked. It was bleak and gray, but there was unmistakable charm in the sloping expanse, leading the edge of a frozen lake. He could visualize chalets and gazebos all around the central building, the way the blueprint at the municipal building showed. In the distance, he could see the row of trees that bordered the first of three bungalow colonies, and he got back into his car.
Cedar Peak was Uncle Yidel’s fiefdom. He owned five houses there, and would sigh with pleasure whenever he discussed it. Each summer, Shmuly, his siblings and Mommy would be invited up for Shabbos, a “family reunion,” Aunt Shevy liked to call it. It was never Shabbos Nachamu or one of the special Shabbosos, and it always seemed to be raining.
They would be paraded around, “Yidel’s brother’s family, nebach,” and once Aunt Shevy had even arranged for her friend’s widowed mother-in-law to come give Mommy chizuk. This past year, Shmuly hadn’t gone, but Mommy insisted on showing up, loyal to her husband and doing what she thought he would want.
Shmuly parked at the top of the circle, right near Uncle Yidel’s house, and went out for a walk. He understood why the colony residents didn’t want a massive casino less than a mile away: aside from the spiritual danger, there would be traffic and noise and the beautiful view, the soaring mountains that were the backdrop of the colony, would be gone.
What he didn’t understand was why Uncle Yidel had made this his personal battle. It wasn’t his uncle’s type to get passionate about something like this; it was easier to sell the houses at a loss and build somewhere else. That was more his uncle’s style.
Shmuly breathed in the frigid air, studying the landscape and wondering who owned the huge tract of land between Cedar Peak and the proposed casino site.
He stopped walking suddenly and headed back to his car. In room 218 of the Liberty Days Inn, he opened his laptop and got to work.
The county assessor’s website was typical for government: functional, but not convenient. Eventually, he figured it out and located the property between the bungalow colony and the casino site. The tax ID was there, the actual address, and the owner.
A1A1AMERICA owned the land, all 453 acres of it.
He bit his lower lip so hard it hurt and tried to remember if he’d heard that name before.
He did a search through his inbox and immediately hit pay dirt. It was an e-mail from back when he was working for Uncle Yidel, and he’d been writing a Letter of Intent to purchase a certain property. The accompanying e-mail was meant to show that the offer was coming from a serious player, so Shmuly had listed all the subsidiaries of Ace Developments.
There it was, A1A1AMERICA.
So Uncle Yidel owned the land between the colony and the casino site. Something didn’t add up. Why would Uncle Yidel be fighting the casino if its arrival would cause his land to immediately quadruple in value?
Shmuly closed the laptop and set off again, this time to the office of Town Supervisor Bill van Cleave. The supervisor wasn’t in, but Shmuly presented his press credentials and asked for a list of donors to the supervisor’s election campaign. Sandy, the elderly secretary, seemed to enjoy the burst of drama, and asked if it was for a television show or something.
Shmuly accepted the printout and thanked her. Back in the car, he started running through the names, the collection of twenty-five-dollar and fifty-dollar donations to Van Cleave for Town of Thompson. At the end, there were several large corporate donations.
SKYLINE NEW YORK DEVELOPMENTS
SOUTH BROOKLYN INSURANCE
THE 317 GROUP
The names weren’t familiar to Shmuly, but he immediately knew that they were all included in the many streams that ran down the hallway and ended in Uncle Yidel’s office. He remembered Uncle Yidel boasting that, instead of using outside suppliers, he bought the company that supplied cleaning supplies for his buildings, and the insurance agency was his too.
Uncle Yidel had put Van Cleave in office. Uncle Yidel, fighter of immorality, crusader for purity, had funded the casino candidate.
Shmuly had been holding his breath without realizing it, and he exhaled deeply.
Enjoy Tatty’s menorah, he thought, as he began organizing the story in his mind. Enjoy the dinners and honors and plaques and “long overdue” vacations, because in a day from now, everyone in Brooklyn will know that you’re a hypocrite, pretending to be against the casino when really, you’re doing everything you can to make it succeed.
Enjoy the menorah you took from your widowed sister-in-law, dear uncle.
“One hundred thousand clicks is nothing,” he texted Yossi.
He called Estie. “Hey,” he said.
“You sound happy. You found a story?” she asked.
“I did. Can I have another day up here to write it, take some pictures, pull it all together?”
“Of course,” she said, then put the phone by Yanky’s high chair so his father could hear his laughter.
By the next morning, Shmuly had filled most of the notebook, writing through most of the night. He would head back home and type it out at the office, then post it in time for Thursday night, so that by Shabbos, it would be the story.
Brooklyn Zealot Is Secret Casino Funder.
Tossing the Dice in Boro Park
Yossi would know how to sell it best. It was all there, in a very simple graph Shmuly had created. A1A1America traced to the same address as Ace Developments. That was part one. Part two was showing that the five largest donors to Van Cleave for Town of Thompson were all linked to the Brooklyn home owned by Shirley Goldstein Aker.
He checked out of the hotel and drove to the kosher grocery in South Fallsburg, buying a celebratory breakfast before heading home.
As he drove, he worked his way through three days of voice mails.
First, he called Mommy back.
“Hey, Ma, long time no speak.”
“Shmulik’el, I was worried about you, how are you? How are Estie and the baby?”
“Good, sorry, I was away all week, traveling. Headed home now.”
“Good,” she paused and he could tell she was worried. Why was he traveling so much? What was he busy with? He also knew that she wouldn’t say anything more, as if she’d lost the right to have opinions when she’d buried Tatty.
He moved on, message after message. The insurance guy. The secretary of the camp director he was trying to reach for his story about special summer camps for anti-vaxxers. The Israeli politician who was mounting a comeback and needed everyone to know. A message from Shragie about learning together. “Think about it Shmuly, Tatty’s neshamah is waiting for a gift from you. You choose the time.”
He’d beat traffic along the 17 and Parkway, and he was about an hour from Toms River when he decided to stop by Tatty. He tried to go once a week, and he was overdue.
He pulled off by Rahway and drove up the familiar road. The cemetery was empty on this winter afternoon, just the way he liked it, and he was able to pull up close to the kever. He left the car running, planning to stay for just a few minutes, but as he stood by the large matzeivah, saying Tehillim, something felt strange.
He placed a hand on the gray stone, trying to steady himself, and then shook his head slowly.
“Tatty,” he said, the single word echoing across the empty field.
He reached into the car, under the laptop, and took the brown spiral notebook. He tore out some pages, one, two, three, all the pages covered in writing, and walked back toward the kever.
For four years he’d visited the kever and rarely had Shmuly found the tears that seemed to come so easily to everyone else, but this time, he cried. He cried and tore, cried and tore, the little ripped pieces of paper piling up at his feet. He stomped on them, watching them sink into puddles of snow and mud, then leaned over and kissed the kever.
In the car, he called Shragie back.
“I thought of something I can do for Tatty’s neshamah,” Shmuly told his brother, “but I don’t want to talk about it. It’s private, but trust me, it’s a gift and he’s happy with me.”
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 781)