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A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Nisan 5776 - April 21, 2016 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Jewish Mystery

By B. Navon


Steaming pots stood on the stove top in the Menucha V'Simcha Nursing Home.

Bilha, the cook, stood close to the silver-colored counter and quickly cut cucumbers for a salad.

Miriam, her assistant, was busy washing a large pile of dishes near the huge sink.

"I think that I'll go talk to the director again today when I finish working," Miriam said. "It's impossible to continue like this!"

"You're right," Bilha agreed, "Yesterday I went to the director. He said he's working on it and looking for someone."

"He told me the same thing." Miriam's comment was heard in between streams of water. "But it doesn't help. His words don't help me wash the dishes; they don't help me lift the pots or wash the floor."

Against the silence in the kitchen, the sound of the water hitting the metal sink was louder than ever.

"Do you remember how quickly Yan, the Chinese worker, cleaned the dishes?" Miriam asked. "And how Niko, the Romanian worker, washed the floor?"

Bilha smiled while chopping the vegetables for the hot side dish to be served at lunch time.

They talked about the same topics every day; they recalled the same memories and continued their discussion from exactly the same point where they had left off the previous day. What would they do from now on?

Miriam continued talking. "It's impossible to run an institutional kitchen this way: two women, a secretary who's only willing to lift the heaviest things and a salary that makes it not worth the effort."

"You're right," Bilha weaved in her words of agreement.

"Nu? So we'll go back to the director today?" Miriam asked, "We'll go to him and tell him that we don't agree to work like this?"

"Maybe," said Bilha.

"It's a shame that Yan left," Miriam said, "and it's also too bad that Niko was caught by the police."

In the nurses' room on the second floor Devorah and Chagit were discussing the same thing.

"I'm telling you that Mr. Caspi is sick only because of a lack of manpower," said Chagit. "It's impossible to maintain maximum sterility when you barely have a single cleaner. He can't keep up with everything. He doesn't get anything done. He cleans every room once a day and that's not always enough for senior citizens."

"I spoke with the director about this today," Devorah said, "I told him what I think. He said he's aware of the problem and that he's dealing with it."

"We need an especially efficient and thorough worker," Chagit said, "someone who'll manage to get everything done."


The conversation in the kitchen between Bilha and Miriam was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. The two women turned their heads toward the door and saw the director standing there with a victorious smile on his face, a dark- skinned, bareheaded man was at his side.

"This is Maksim," said the director. At the sound of his pager he left the room.

The two women didn't say anything as they looked at the man.

"A new worker," Miriam said, "He came just as we were talking about the mess."

"It's great to see him," Bilha whispered under her breath, "the long awaited new worker finally arrived."

"What do you say," she turned to Miriam, "should he set up the dining hall now?"

"That's the most urgent," Miriam agreed, "afterwards the goods that arrived yesterday need to be put away and the large pots need to be scrubbed."

"He needs to also go upstairs and clean the rooms," said the facility director who appeared suddenly, "to clean the lobby and to take care of the garden."

"The most important thing right now is to straighten up the dining room and to clean it," the director informed the foreign worker. He pointed to the door on the right. "The cleaning supplies are in the storeroom."

"I don't Hebrew," said the foreign worker, "Russian, Romanian."

The director sighed. A new foreign worker, new difficulties.

"Come," he said and gestured with his hand.

The worker followed him obligingly.

"These," the director pointed to the broom, mop and cleaning supplies.

"Here," he entered the dining hall, "Very clean."

The director looked at Maksim who was expertly wiping the tables, arranging the chairs and preparing the dining room for a thorough cleaning.

"He seems like a good worker," the director said to himself as he went up to the top floor. "I hope he'll last longer than the others."

Time passed. Maksim worked from early in the morning until late at night: he cleaned, tidied up, washed dishes, peeled vegetables and helped in the garden.

He was fast and thorough, exactly as the nurses had hoped. He was clean just as Bilha had wished and organized like the director had always wanted a worker to be.

"It's a shame that he doesn't sleep here," Devorah remarked once. "There's a big advantage to having a worker that sleeps at the facility."

"One is enough for us," responded the director who was passing by. "We don't need two of them around the clock. It costs a lot of money and it causes fights which we can do without and... it's not necessary!"


"Mr. Levine doesn't feel well," said the announcement, "He's having difficulty breathing. He needs to go to the hospital right away!"

The nurses ran up and down the corridor. The elderly residents went into their rooms to say Tehillim. Oxygen was rushed into the room and the following was heard over the loudspeaker: "Call an ambulance, right away!"

Precious moments passed. Liba, the receptionist, stood at the main desk and looked at the street.

"Where's the ambulance?" she asked herself.

"Where's the ambulance?" Chagit, the nurse who approached the main desk, also asked.

"There are traffic jams," apologized the ambulance dispatcher, "The ambulance is on its way."

"We can't wait any longer," Chagit said, nervously. "Mr. Levine needs to get to the hospital immediately! Where's Motty the secretary? Maybe he could drive Mr. Levine to the hospital. He doesn't need a stretcher; it would be enough to take him in the nursing home's car with oxygen and a doctor. It's not far from here to the hospital."

"Motty's not here," Liba said. "He didn't come today."

Maksim stood close by, cleaning the furniture. He looked at the two women talking and then suddenly decided to approach them.

"You can't clean here now," Chagit told him.

"You need car?" He asked them in his flawed Hebrew. "I can car..."

"Do you know how to drive?" Liba asked.

"Yes," Maksim responded, motioning like he was driving with his hands.

"Do you have a license?" Chagit asked suspiciously.

"Yes, yes." Maksim removed a card from his pocket and tried to briefly explain that he understood the problem. "I can hospital, Mr. ..."

Mr. Levine was quickly brought to the ground floor and escorted into the car. The doctor sat next to him and Maksim took his place behind the wheel.

In just a few days Mr. Levine returned to the nursing home, feeling better, while Maksim continued his work as usual.

"We need to ask Maksim if he would like to live here," the director said. "He could be a big help."

"There already is one around-the-clock worker," responded Menasheh, the head custodian.

"Maksim is much better and the fact that he has a license is a big bonus," explained the director.

"If that's what you want, who am I to oppose?" Menasheh gave in.

The director laughed and the matter was settled.

Maksim brought his few things the very next day and moved into the nursing home.


Shabbos arrived.

The candles burned in the dining room; the men davened in shul and the elderly women said Tehillim in the lobby.

Everything was tranquil and quiet until the resident Sara announced in an unnerved tone, "The light on the second floor is off. I tried to go up to my room, but you can't see a thing!"

"It's not such a big problem to solve," her friend Fruma said soothingly, "You just have to call the foreign worker."

"Maybe Grisha the cleaner will do it," Bertha offered. "There's no reason to call in someone from outside the Premises."

"Grisha isn't here," Sara said. "I saw him leave before Shabbos."

Maksim appeared as if out of nowhere.

"Light?" he asked the elderly ladies. "I fix light. Where light?"

"Here's a worker that has a head on his shoulders!" Bertha praised him, "When there isn't a problem, he doesn't bother anyone, but when there is one, he shows up immediately."

Everyone smiled. Bertha always knew how to improve everyone's mood and bring a smile to people's faces.

"Maksim is doing well on the job," Menasheh, the head custodian, told the director one day. "He learned what's expected of him and quickly became acquainted with the facility and it's rules. There are no two ways about it. Maksim is a good worker!"

"How does he fit in with regards to halochoh?" the director asked. Is he helpful on Shabbos? How does he manage with kashrus in the kitchen? How many dishes did he treif already?"

"He's even better than we expected!" Menasheh exclaimed. "He's very helpful when problems occur on Shabbos. It even seems like he knows what we're allowed to do and what we're not. He hasn't treifed a single thing in the kitchen. He blends in so well there that you'd think he was born into a kosher kitchen!"

"Strange, isn't it?" the director responded, "We never had a foreign worker blend in so well, interesting."


Bilha, the cook, and Miriam, the assistant, silently blessed the new worker even though he asked so many questions.

"This fleishig, right?" he asked about every utensil in the beginning, "Meat here."

"Must open egg, look very good, yes?" he asked when they prepared omelets for dinner.

"Chicken kosher?" he asked Bilha when he saw her cleaning a frozen chicken. "Salt now?"

"He knows concepts in kashrus," Miriam said, surprised, "Interesting. He must have worked in a kosher kitchen before coming here."

"It really would be interesting to know how he knows about salting meat," Bilha said, "I was so surprised when he asked me if it was now time to put the salt on the chicken."

"Yes, I saw," Miriam laughed, "You almost swallowed your tongue you were so surprised."


Erev Pesach arrived. New help was enlisted for this period in order to thoroughly clean the rooms, the halls, the storage closets and the offices. It goes without saying that the kitchen and dining room needed cleaning even more than everything else.

Maksim managed the work like a fish in water. He supervised the new workers with obvious pleasure, worked with them and conveyed instructions from the people in charge.

The work progressed efficiently. The upper floors had already been cleaned and the offices had been aired out and polished. Now it was time to clean the ground floor: the kitchen, the dining hall and the storage areas.

The staff of workers took over the storage closet. Bilha and Miriam were in the adjacent kitchen doing their normal work. The nursing home residents had to receive their meals even during the days preceding Pesach.

Menasheh gave a few instructions in advance:

"Don't throw anything out. Take everything out and put it on the table next to the storeroom, clean and then call me and I will come and check everything before you put it back."

"Okay," Maksim said in the name of the staff.

The sounds of laughter and conversation in Rumanian were heard quite well in the kitchen.

"It seems like they're enjoying themselves there," Miriam said, "They'll work well in a good atmosphere."

"Yes," Bilha agreed, "Maksim makes a people feel good."

The spray of water that gushed out of the large hose did a good job cleaning all of the closet walls.

One of the workers thoroughly scrubbed the ceiling, the walls, the shelves and the floor. His friend washed everything with the rubber hose while the rest of the group laughed.

"They're enjoying the water like little kids," Miriam would say.

"We're done," Maksim shouted to Menasheh, "You can come look."

Menasheh came to the storeroom and appreciated the thorough work.

"It really is clean!" he said to Maksim who translated the praise for his friends.

"There no chometz here!" Maksim said, "It's really clean!"

"What?" Menasheh asked, shocked, "What did you say?"

"I say here is no chometz," Maksim reiterated, "The storeroom is perfect!"

He didn't see Menasheh's eyes open wide in shock, but continued with his normal work.

A few days later Pesach arrived. The nursing home was already clean and shiny, ready to usher in the holiday.

Bilha and Miriam worked very hard to prepare the special holiday dishes for the nursing home residents. Everyone would spend the first day of the holiday with their families, but some of the residents would return to the nursing home during chol hamoed. Others would stay with their children for the whole week and enjoy their grandchildren's company.

A large truck stopped by the rear entrance and unloaded its merchandise.

Maksim stood ready to arrange everything in its place.

"These are matzos," Maksim cried happily when he saw the boxes, "I know what this is!"

Menasheh's eyes widened again in surprise, but Maksim didn't notice.

It was only on chol hamoed when things calmed down that the custodian thought about the incident and decided to discuss it with the director.

"Maksim knows a lot of Jewish concepts," he told the director, "It's really strange."

"Why does it seem strange to you?" the director inquired.

"The nursing home is the first place that Maksim has worked here in Israel," Menasheh explained, "He came straight here from Romania. Where did he learn all of these concepts from?"

"What things seem so strange to you?" the director continued asking questions.

"He knows what chometz and matzo are," Menasheh explained. "He knows what Jews are allowed to do on Shabbos and what they're not. The cooks told me that he knows about kashering meat. That's an impressive amount of things, and who knows what else he knows?"

"It really is interesting," the director said and paused to think. "We need to try to find out what's beneath it, I'll see what we can do. Could you try to talk to him a little? But gently!"

"Yes, yes, of course," Menasheh agreed, "gently, very gently, he won't notice a thing!"


"Maksim?" Menasheh knocked on the door of the foreign workers' room, "Maksim!"

"Yes, Mr. Menasheh," Maksim opened the door, "You can come in."

"What are you doing now?" Menasheh asked, "I wanted you to help me arrange the small auditorium for a program we'll have this evening. I need to leave early tonight."

"Okay," Maksim said, "I just need to finish eating and I'll come."

Menasheh looked into the small, organized room and saw a box of matzos on the table.

"Do you eat matzos?" he asked Maksim.

"Yes," Maksim said, "I bought it for myself. It's not from the nursing home, it's mine!"

"I see," Menasheh said, "I didn't think you took it from us; I see that the package is different."

Maksim finished his meal quickly and followed Menasheh to the auditorium.

"I'm only eating matzos now he told Menasheh innocently, "I know not to eat bread now in the nursing home. The director told me and I always knew it. It's forbidden to bring bread here now; it's chometz!"

"Where do you know this from," Menasheh jumped at the opportunity to ask.

"I've known it already for a long time. I know when I boy."

"Are there Jews in Romania?" Menasheh asked, "Did you have Jewish neighbors?"

"No!" Maksim was taken aback, "No neighbors, no synagogue in our area, there aren't any Jews!"

"So from where do you know so much about Judaism?" Menasheh continued asking.

"I know from my family, from my grandmother," Maksim dropped a bomb without even realizing it.

"From your family?" Menasheh was shocked, "Your grandmother is Jewish?"

"She was," Maksim corrected him, "She had Shabbos, kosher, matzo."

Menasheh ran out of the auditorium and quickly went up to the director's office. Maksim remained in the auditorium, without understanding what suddenly happened to his boss.

"His grandmother was Jewish?" The director couldn't believe it, "We need to ask a rav what to do, to check carefully; it's not a simple matter."

The director pulled his beard and rubbed his yarmulke helplessly and said: "Keep checking. But carefully, Menasheh, very gently! So that he shouldn't get nervous!"

"Of course," Menasheh agreed and returned to the auditorium.

Maksim continued his work silently.

"The director said to continue checking carefully," Menasheh pondered, "How do I continue the conversation. I know how to fix things, to supervise workers, but I'm not a psychologist. How should I know how to continue the conversation?"

Pesach ended. There was a double amount of work to do after the holiday: removing the Pesach dishes, returning the chometz utensils and, in addition, it was Friday.


"Mr. Director?" Maksim entered the boss's office Friday afternoon.

"Yes, Maksim," the worker was received with a smile, "Please have a seat."

`I wonder what he wants,' the thought passed through the director's mind, `Maybe he's noticed what's going on around him and he'd like to tell me something.'

"How can I help you?" the director asked.

"I wanted to say..." Maksim mumbled, "I wanted to say that I have to return to Romania and I need all of the money now!"

"What?" The director cried, shocked, "Why? What happened?"

"I need to go," Maksim repeated his message, "My mother's sick and she asked that I come back. She needs me there, with her."

"She's right," the director recovered, "Of course you belong with your sick mother! When are you going?"

"I have a ticket for Sunday," Maksim said, "As for the work, I have a friend who doesn't have any work now. If Mr. Director wants, I can talk to him to work here. He's very good!"

"Okay," the director agreed, "Tell him that it's for a trial period."


When Menasheh returned to work on Sunday, he received the message that Maksim had left in complete shock.

"He already left?" he asked, almost yelling, "What will we do now?"

"Don't worry. Maksim is a responsible young man. He sent another worker in his place," the director comforted him.

"But, but, what will we do about continuing to check?"

"What?" The director didn't understand. "What investigation are you talking about?"

"How will I continue finding out how he knows about Judaism?" Menasheh almost cried. "Which grandmother was Jewish?"

"Ah," now the director understood. He pulled his beard. "You're talking about that? There's no way to keep checking; Maksim didn't leave an address or telephone number. We don't even know his last name."

"But," Menasheh said, emotionally, "maybe he's Jewish. Maybe it's his mother's mother. Maybe he's a lost Jewish neshomoh, a real tinok shenishbo, someone who never had any opportunity to learn. A Jew who almost got connected to his people, but instead got lost again!"

The director pulled his beard, moved his yarmulke helplessly and shrugged his shoulders.

"There's nothing to do, Menasheh," the director said what Menasheh already knew himself. "We can only daven! Daven for Maksim, who maybe is Jewish, and for all of the other people like him, the lost neshomos that should find their place, be'ezras Hashem."

The paging system came to life. Menasheh was called urgently to room number 103 to open a clogged pipe in the bathroom. But the memory of Maksim, who might be part of the Jewish People, didn't leave him. And while Menasheh ran up the stairs, a silent tefilloh escaped his lips, "veshavo banim legvulam," the children should come home.


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