Excerpt from The Debba by Avner Mandelman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Debba

By Avner Mandelman

The Debba
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  • Paperback: Jul 2010,
    368 pages.

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But the Kol Nidrey was delayed. Rebb Itzelle remained closeted with my father for three hours. Finally the door to my father's room opened and Rebb Itzelle emerged. He was pale, says Aunt Rina, and his hand trembled. In his right hand he held the knife, its blade pointing upwards, like a Lullav in Succoth. Wordlessly he laid it down on the cabinet, on which it remained, untouched, all during the Day of Atonement. Then he went to the synagogue and chanted the Kol Nidrey. Two and a half years later my father left for Palestine, taking with him all his wooden lasts, his shoe templates, and a few favorite knives. His phylacteries he left behind.


He landed in Yaffo, after an eleven day sea voyage from Firenze, on the eve of Purim, 1922. He almost didn't make it. During the landing the row-boat taking him ashore capsized on the Rock of Andromeda and he and two other passengers-- another Polish boy (one Paltiel Rubinsky), and an elderly Briton-- nearly drowned. The Arab boatman jumped into the churning waves and rescued all three.

I still have a torn copy of the Yaffo bi-weekly Fillastin, carrying a faded photograph of the event. It shows two men: the hero, chief boatman to Messrs. Thos. Cooke & Sons, a broad-shouldered young swain in a striped bathing-suit with slightly effeminate lips, squinting shyly into the camera; on his left is a portly Briton, lank hair hiding his eyes and nose, clasping his rescuer's reluctant wrist. To the right, a boat's bow intrudes into the picture; a faint line at its edge may be an oar. Of the two young Jews there is no sign. This was a mere ten months after the May Day riots in Yaffo, in which twenty one Jews (among which two full-fledged poets) were slaughtered. Showing disembarking Jews on the front page could have sparked fresh riots.

The Arab hero shows clearly in the photograph, though his name is smudged by a yellow stain; but the Briton is clearly identified. He is Sir Geoffrey Mewlness, publisher of the London Grand, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land for his health. The article notes that upon his return to London, Sir Geoffrey thanked the directors of Thos. Cooke & Sons in person for his rescue, and sent a hundred gold sovereigns to the Yaffoi boatman, in gratitude, and a gold watch to each of his boat-mates, in memory of the miracle that had befallen them in the land of the Bible. Both watches were expertly inscribed with the Hebrew thankful prayer of HaGommel, in Rashi script.

Paltiel Rubinsky (who later changed his name to Rubin) right away gave his watch to a Yemenite actress. My father, after hanging on to his for three years, at last sold it in 1925 for fifty gold pounds to his landlord, a Mr. Efraim Glantz, with whom he and Paltiel Rubin had taken rooms in Tel Aviv the day after their arrival. With this money my father opened his cobblery and shoe store on Herzl Street, taking in Paltiel Rubin as a salesman, and in that same store he worked on and off throughout the Events of '36 - '39, before finally closing it in 1946, as he began rising in the ranks of the Hagganah, the budding Jewish resistance, and later, in the Israeli Army. But a day after Ben Gurion had signed the Armistice agreement in 1949, my father left the army and went straight back to that same store, where, taking neither helpers (Paltiel was dead then) nor vacations, he kept cobbling heels and selling sandals, until the day of his murder. Part I: Jahilliyeh (The Age of Ignorance) - 1 -

It was in Toronto in 1977, seven years after I had last seen him, that I learned of my father's murder. When the phone rang I half expected to hear Aunt Rina's voice, inviting me to the Passover Seder. Instead I heard the line crackle and a faint voice said, "Starkman? David Starkman?"

In an instant I knew. "Ken?" I croaked in Hebrew-- yes.

"This is Ya'akov Gelber. I am an attorney in Tel Aviv--"

"My father." I said.

Excerpted from The Debba by Avner Mandelman. Copyright © 2010 by Avner Mandelman. Excerpted by permission of Other Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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