“We’re talking peanuts here, Netanel. Drop the price by five million, and I’ll have the papers drawn up today.”
David Rothkopf leaned back in his custom-made Pininfarina chair, with the ease of a man holding all the cards. Netanel Gold, on the other side of the mahogany desk, didn’t look nearly as comfortable, even though the chair he sat in was a Le Corbusier.
“David, we’re not in the shuk. I didn’t fly all the way here from Tel Aviv just for you to handel with me.”
“You and I both know that the hotel is worth 40 million tops, and that’s only because of the land.”
Netanel jabbed the top of the desk with his index finger. “That building is a Bauhaus masterpiece!”
“The foundation is crumbling. I’m going to have to put in a couple of million dollars to shore it up.”
“So bring in a partner.”
David chuckled dismissively. “For what—to eat up even more of my profit? No, thanks.” At Netanel’s defeated look, he allowed his voice to soften. “Listen, no one’s going to touch the place at your asking price, and I think you know that. You would never have flown here otherwise. Let’s be honest—you need this deal more than I do.”
Netanel’s head fell into his hands. “You have no idea how much I’m bleeding already.”
“Your wife’s attorney is cleaning you out?”
Netanel groaned. “You know what they say—if you want to get into a boxing ring, go through a divorce.”
David’s heart went out to him, but he quickly stifled the impulse to offer comfort. As his grandfather had taught him, sentimentality was a costly distraction. “Meet me at 45 million and save yourself any more aggravation.”
Netanel’s reply was interrupted by a knock at the door. David’s secretary, Janine, poked her head into the office. “Mr. Rothkopf, there’s someone here to see you.”
“I tried, but…” Janine trailed off, her eyes darting from Netanel to David.
“What’d he say?”
“He said…he’s your father.”
The only indication that this news had any effect on David was the slightest tightening of his jaw. He cleared his throat and turned to Netanel with a halfhearted smile. “Why don’t I have my secretary take you to the conference room and make you a cappuccino.”
Netanel’s face was the picture of curiosity. “Ehh, sure,” he said, following the secretary out. “Do you have almond milk? The real stuff doesn’t agree with me anymore…”
Within seconds, an elderly man stood in the doorway to David’s office. David, positioned safely on the other side of his desk, allowed himself a moment to eye the visitor before offering him a seat.
“Thank you,” the man said, hurrying to the Le Corbusier that Netanel had just occupied.
They looked at each other.
“You don’t know me, but—” the man began.
“You’re Yoel Hertz.”
“So you know who I am?”
“I’ve heard your name.”
There were a thousand more questions in the man’s eyes, but he didn’t ask them. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry to just show up like this. I would never have…”
“Contacted me otherwise?”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” He took a breath. “Look, I’m just going to say it as it is. I came here to beg you to change your mind.”
“About saving my son’s yeshivah.”
A flash of recognition, almost imperceptible, came and went on David’s face. Just a week ago, he’d received a call from a community askan about a yeshivah that had recently burned down. Apparently it was a fixture in the community, but a snafu with the insurance had made it impossible to rebuild. Though he lived and davened in Lawrence and had no relationship to this enclave in Queens, David had agreed to a substantial contribution, until he learned the recipient’s name—Aron Hertz. David had promptly hung up.
“I understand why you withdrew your pledge,” Yoel said. “But I’m asking you not to punish Aron for my mistakes. He’s a good man, a rav, four kids, always busy with something in the community. ” His voice wavered, but he took a breath to collect himself. “He lived for the yeshivah, and his apartment was even in the building. If he doesn’t get help, he and his family will be out on the street.”
“Where are they now?”
“In someone’s chesed apartment. One bedroom. Not sustainable for a family of six.”
David’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Does he know about me?”
Yoel sighed. “No.”
“Do any of them know about me?”
Yoel said nothing.
“I didn’t think so,” said David.
“I don’t know what to say.” Yoel’s palms tipped up toward the ceiling. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t expect you to help me. I don’t blame you for that. But Aron’s done nothing wrong. You could save his family.”
There was a long, tense silence before David said, “I don’t know.”
“Think about it. Please.” Yoel slid a card across the desk. “You can reach me here whenever you need. Thank you for your time. I know you’re a busy man.”
Yoel walked to the door, then stopped. “For the record, I really am sorry. I’ve been sorry for a very long time.”
* * *
When David Rothkopf was in fourth grade, he brought his zeidy with him to school on Bring Your Father to School Day. He’d never been prouder. In walked his tall, strapping grandfather in a three-piece suit and shiny shoes, and he wowed every kid in the class with the incredible story of how his parents had put him on a train to England when he was 13, along with hundreds of other children who were escaping the Nazis.
“Were you scared?” asked one of David’s classmates.
“Sometimes, at night,” his grandfather, Berl Rothkopf, replied. “Other times, it felt like an adventure.”
If he felt any longing for the family that had saved his life by sending him away, there was no sign of it. Zeidy told them instead that he had lived with a family in London that made him drink cod liver oil with his breakfast (“Yuck!” “Eww!”) until a cousin in America helped him buy a third-class ticket to New York. Everyone on the ship was seasick, said his grandfather, except him. “I slept on the deck so I’d be the first to see the Statue of Liberty.”
He told them how, as a bricklayer, he had stood on a scaffold a hundred stories high. Now he paid builders to work for him. Zeidy led the class to the entrance of the school, where a new sign had been affixed over the door: “The Berl and Mamie Rothkopf Building.”
“I helped build this school for you so that you can learn anything you want,” he said, then handed a giant chocolate bar to every child in the class.
For the rest of the morning, David felt as though he were filled with soda bubbles. He knew how lucky he was that Zeidy was his grandfather, and now the rest of his class knew it, too.
That is, until recess, when Dovy Markowitz cornered him on the playground. “Why did you bring your grandfather? Why didn’t your father come?”
“I don’t have a father.”
“Everyone has a father.”
David couldn’t count the times he’d wanted to ask his mother the same question, but she was often away, traveling to Miami, London, Los Angeles, Paris. It felt sometimes as though he said goodbye to her more often than he said hello.
He often thought about asking his grandfather, but he sensed that the topic was a fire that was too hot to touch. So he kept it to himself.
When kids like Dovy asked about his father, there was only one thing David could say: “I don’t know.”
Children are Petri dishes for germs and curiosity, and the latter took fierce hold of David. Since there were no facts to work with, his imagination began filling in the gaps. His father was an astronaut on Mars, preparing the planet for human occupation. He was a CIA operative saving the world from evil. He was a scientist who lived in a secret lab 10,000 feet underground.
David began poking around his house for clues, turning over his mother’s closet, digging through boxes in the basement, then finally risking his grandfather’s study, which was forbidden to everyone in the house—even Flora, the housekeeper. David was a compulsively honest child, and only pure desperation could have driven him to break an ironclad rule.
Dizzy with the scent of his grandfather’s pipe tobacco and his own fear, David sifted through papers in the drawers of his grandfather’s heavy mahogany desk. There was not much except some pictures of David, his mother and his grandmother, a leatherbound checkbook, some typed letters, a heavy gold pen, and a locked safe. He was about to reach for the latter when a voice made him jump.
“What are you doing?”
His grandfather filled the doorway. He did not look happy.
Although he was almost paralyzed with terror, David didn’t have it in him to lie. “I wanted to find out about…my father.”
“What do you need a father for? You have me.”
He wasn’t wrong. His grandfather had made sure that David wanted for nothing. He had raised his grandson with every comfort in a giant Brooklyn brownstone, sent him to one of the best yeshivos in Brooklyn, filled his room with the newest, most expensive toys and gadgets.
“You’re my grandfather,” David said. “A father’s different.”
“Ach, a father’s not so special. I haven’t seen mine since I was 13.”
“But you knew him.”
“That only made it worse!”
“Zeidy,” said David, “I just want to know who he is.”
“The man’s a bum. A nobody from Queens.”
“I still want to know.”
“Listen to me, Duvid’l. A son doesn’t chase after his father. It’s not the way of things.”
“Can’t you just tell me his name?”
Zeidy’s eyes narrowed. “You can’t leave it alone, eh? Fine.” He strode to the desk, yanked at the drawer, and opened the small safe. He withdrew a piece of paper and held it out.
David took it. He didn’t understand the lines and numbers on the thin, rectangular paper, but he did see a name in the middle: Yoel Hertz. He looked up expectantly. “Yoel Hertz! That’s his name?”
“He’s not worth the breath it takes to say it,” his grandfather said.
“Can I keep this?”
“Do whatever you want with it. Now get out of my office and don’t go poking around in here again.”
David was so electrified that he barely registered his grandfather’s departure. For the rest of the night, he looked at the paper over and over again, rolling the name around in his mind, savoring it like a rich chocolate truffle. Yoel Hertz.
When he came home from school the following afternoon, he grabbed the paper his grandfather had given him and went straight to the phone book in the kitchen. The ease with which he found his father’s name astounded him. It was right there the whole time! With shaking fingers, he dialed the number and jumped when he heard it ring…once…twice—
“Hello?” It was a man’s voice, deep and gravelly.
David hung up the phone.
For a few long minutes, the boy stared off in shock. Just yesterday there had been an empty hole where a father should have been. Now there was a name, a number, a voice.
He tried again the next afternoon. This time there was no answer. That was all right. He was happy just to have a destination, a connection point. He didn’t need to think beyond that.
In the beginning, he tried restraint. He called twice a week, then three times. But soon he couldn’t help himself; he was calling every day, sometimes more than once. There was usually no answer. But when there was, he quickly hung up.
On a warm May afternoon, David made his usual call. When there was no reply, he hung up, then jumped when the phone rang almost instantly.
It rang again.
With trepidation, he picked up. “He-hello?”
The voice that answered was a boy’s. “Hello?”
“Are you the one who keeps calling us?”
The boy’s gravelly tone was familiar.
“What?” said David, buying time.
“Someone keeps calling and hanging up, so I dialed *69 and you answered. Who is this?”
“Who is this?”
“I’m Aron Hertz.”
David’s entire body went cold. “Is your dad…Yoel?”
“Yep, Yoel Hertz. You want to talk to him?”
David quietly hung up the phone.
He never called again.
* * *
For hours after the meeting in his office, David was unable to focus. Waves of fury, grief and guilt crashed over each other, tossing him from past to future to present and back again.
The moment he had hung up the phone that afternoon, David had gone to his room and ripped the paper with Yoel Hertz’s name to shreds. It was exactly as his grandfather had said—he wasn’t worth it. Not only had his father not bothered to find him, he’d gone off and had another family. Another son. From that moment, in David’s eyes, his father might as well have been dead.
David aligned himself completely with his grandfather, who came to every one of his basketball games, took him to shul every week, visited yeshivos with him, and gave him a building for his 21st birthday. “This is the beginning of your empire,” Zeidy had said as he handed him the deed.
His prediction was right. With his help, David became a real estate legend in his own right. By 25, he was buying and selling properties across New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. When Zeidy finally retired, David took the reins of Rothkopf Developments and expanded internationally. Now, at 52, he was at the helm of the company, which had become a household name in the real estate circles of Tel Aviv, Dubai, Sydney and Berlin. He had whatever he could want—a sprawling house in the Five Towns, an Upper West Side penthouse, a triplex in Jerusalem, a beachside house in Miami, a fleet of cars, a wonderful, dedicated wife and six gorgeous children. His life was dipped in gold.
And then, just like that, his father had come back from the dead. He was so unlike anything David had expected that it was almost impossible to believe that he was his father. Shaken, David realized that there was no comparing a flesh-and-blood human being to the myth he’d built in his mind: hero and villain all at once.
Even more confusing was what his father had said before he’d walked out: I’ve been sorry for a very long time. The words echoed in David’s mind. Could they actually be true?
He gave in to the temptation that had been nagging him since his father had left. He googled Aron Hertz.
His father hadn’t exaggerated. Aron was an incredible person. He was a Queens rabbi who was known for his dynamic outreach work; every article written about him and his grassroots program, Elevate, was glowing. A devoted husband and father who had inspired thousands of people to come closer to Judaism, Aron also regularly visited hospitals and senior living centers, taught classes at day schools and yeshivos, and visited Jewish prisoners in detention centers, all while running a popular shul. If this man had been a stranger on the street, David wouldn’t have thought twice about helping him. Technically, he was a stranger on the street.
But he was also his brother.
That word blindsided him with bitterness and—he hated to admit it—jealousy. He pictured Yoel doting over Aron when he himself lived just a few miles away, longing to hear Yoel’s voice on the telephone. Aron had already gotten more than his fair share.
But David had to be honest with himself. His was no poor, neglected orphan story. He’d grown up with a grandfather who was dedicated to him, who loved him as any father would, and who gave him every opportunity imaginable.
But the injustice of it. The audacity of that man to delete himself entirely from David’s life, then show up here decades later because Aron needed help. He would never have come to see David of his own accord.
And then saying he was sorry! Disgusted with himself and the situation, David left his office and drove out of the city. But instead of heading home to Lawrence, he found himself pulling up to the brownstone where he’d grown up, where his grandfather was now homebound after a stroke.
David found his grandfather in his room, sitting in an overstuffed chair and staring intently at a Sudoku board on the table in front of him. The left side of his grandfather’s face drooped, and his palsied left hand curved in toward his body at an odd angle. No matter how many times he came to visit, it was a shock for David to recognize that the inimitable Berl Rothkopf had become a feeble old man.
“Hi, Zeidy,” David said.
His grandfather looked up at him, then back at the board. With a slow, slurred voice, he said, “Come…help…stuck.”
David slid into the chair across from him. “Hmm…tough one. Try moving that three.”
As David held the board steady, his grandfather placed the tile with his good hand. The number square fell into place, and the old man’s face lit up. He pointed at David. “Luck.”
David smiled, then took a breath. “Yoel Hertz came to see me today.”
Shock crossed his grandfather’s eyes before they darkened. “Why?”
“His son’s yeshivah burned down. He asked me to pay to rebuild it.”
“I don’t know.”
His grandfather turned back to the board, moving squares for a few quiet moments.
“He told me he was sorry,” David continued. “Why would he say that?”
Berl looked back up at his grandson with a mournful expression David had never seen. “Shick,” he said with a heavy tongue.
“What, Zeidy? I didn’t hear that.”
“Sorry, one more time.”
Berl seemed agitated, so David murmured, “Mmm,” as if he understood. They spent the next half-hour at the Sudoku board before David adjusted the blanket around his grandfather’s shoulders and hugged him goodbye.
On the drive home, David fell into memories of the night his grandfather had told him about his father. He remembered the distress on his face when he wrenched open the desk drawer and handed him the strange paper with the lines and numbers and Yoel’s name.
And then he realized which word Zeidy had been trying to say.
He quickly retrieved the card that his father had given him and dialed the number. “Why does my grandfather have a copy of a check made out to you?”
* * *
Yoel Hertz and Miri Rothkopf were a disaster from the start. He was the son of miserable Polish immigrants who had many children and not enough money. She was the pampered daughter of a real estate king.
The marriage lasted six months.
One evening, Yoel came home to find Miri gone, her closet empty, her belongings cleared out. Berl Rothkopf was sitting on the couch waiting for him.
“She came home,” Berl informed his son-in-law.
“I see that.”
“I want you to give her a get.”
Yoel was surprised to feel more relief than pain.
“We’ll settle it quickly, I’m sure,” said Berl. “I’m here because I want to make sure that once the marriage ends, she will never see you again.”
“Why would she?”
“She didn’t tell you? About the baby?”
Once, when Yoel was seven, he’d fallen ten feet from the top of a slide and landed on his back, and the impact had knocked the air entirely out of his body. It was the first time he had experienced that terrifying suspension between life and death. This was the second time.
“Are you sure?”
“Three months along.”
“How could she not…?” But Yoel had his answer before he finished the question. Telling him she was expecting would have made the child theirs instead of only hers.
“I’m going to make this easy for you,” said Berl, pulling a checkbook and pen from his coat pocket. “I will cover all the expenses for the get, the civil divorce and for you to restart your life. I’ll provide for the child. I’ll clothe, shoe, feed and educate him. He’ll be raised like a prince. All you have to do is disappear. Completely. From her life, from the child’s, and most definitely from mine.”
Berl signed the check and held it out to Yoel. “Do we understand each other?”
Yoel nearly fell over when he saw the line of zeros. He wasn’t a fool. He was 21 years old and had nothing to offer a child, let alone a wife who didn’t want him. Maybe, with this check, he could build a life he actually wanted to live.
“We do,” he said, and put the check in his pocket.
* * *
Yoel kept his commitment to his former father-in-law—almost. Only once did he go to see his child, on the day he was born. After hearing through a friend that Miri had gone to the hospital, he showed up after visiting hours and begged a nurse to let him see the baby. The little one was asleep, but Yoel was permitted to look at him through the nursery window.
The baby was so small under his blue blanket, a knit cap covering his head. He lay on his back with his arms bent up, his fingers curled into loose little fists.
He was perfect.
But there was no way Yoel could raise him on his own. In the long run, it was better for both of them if he simply disappeared.
At least, that’s what he told himself.
Many times over the years, he repeated it: He’s better off without you. When he met his wife, Ruthie, he disclosed only that he had been married once, for a very short time. He was afraid that mentioning a child would scare her away. By the time he and Ruthie got married, it was too late to tell her the truth. Then came the children, and the stakes were simply too high.
He consoled himself by keeping tabs on David’s life. He knew where the boy went to school, who his teachers were, where he spent his time. As Yoel’s dental practice grew, he even opened a branch in Flatbush, hoping it would give him an excuse to catch a glimpse of David. He never did.
Then, one night, his son Aron said something strange. “A kid called you today.”
“What do you mean? One of my patients?”
“No, just a kid,” Aron said. “He called a lot of times, and he asked if you were my dad. Then he hung up.”
Yoel knew it was David.
He was overjoyed…and terrified.
It was all he could do not to call David back. It was fear that stopped him. First of all, there was Berl, whose ruthlessness he had seen up close. It would not be easy to get through Berl to David, even if he wanted to. But the real truth of it was that Yoel wasn’t strong enough to risk everything he had in order to reach out to his son.
So he didn’t.
The secret rotted in him for four decades. So did the shame.
And it would have continued if Aron had not lost his yeshivah and his home. For Aron, Yoel was willing to risk everything. He got word to an askan that David might be willing to donate, taking a gamble that the askan would reach out.
The gamble paid off.
* * *
“So I was right,” David said into the phone. “You would never have contacted me if not for Aron.”
“Probably not—but not because I didn’t want to. I was just too ashamed.”
“Ashamed of what?”
“I’m a weak man, David. I sacrificed my own child for a better life.”
Sentimentality is a costly distraction, David reminded himself. But this time, the old adage wasn’t enough to quiet his sorrow—sorrow for himself, sorrow for his father, and sorrow for the family they had both lost.
* * *
After hanging up with Yoel, David drove the rest of the way home in a daze. He sat in his driveway for a long time, thinking about the check that had irrevocably changed his life.
His phone buzzed with a text from Netanel.
I’ll take 45 million.
David thought for a moment, then replied: I’ll meet your price at 50, but I’m going to give you 60, and I need you to do something for me with the extra ten.
Then he wrote a proposal he never thought he would make. He waited in silence for Netanel’s reply, and exhaled deeply when it came.
Aron Hertz must be some kind of angel, the message said. You’ve got a deal.
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