As Israel braves Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles, a Torah from Iraq disappears in China. Can the “Jewish Miss Marple” find the historic religious scroll in time for a momentous diplomatic breakthrough?
Lily Kovner, while scoffing at her nickname, the “Jewish Miss Marple,” undertakes the improbable quest of finding a Torah gone missing in Shanghai. Political intrigue and long-buried resentments of an ancient community figure into a journey plagued by threats, physical attack and murder. And the ultimate unraveling of the theft opens a Pandora’s box of personal history in a Jewish community that endured a diaspora that stretched over 2500 years in Iraq, India and China.
As soon as I got home, I clicked on the television in my study. CNN’s around-the-clock coverage alleviated the need to wait for the evening network news programs. I sat down and really watched this time. The live shots from rooftops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv fascinated as much as frightened me. As a print journalist, I’ve always pooh-poohed the glib and abbreviated news coverage of the younger medium. But I had to admit these onsite reports in real time were mesmerizing. Alerted by the wail of sirens seconds ahead of those now familiar bursts of light, I witnessed an entire enemy attack on screen. The missiles exploding over downtown Tel Aviv and over ships in Haifa’s port may have sparkled on first glimpse. But these explosions ignited real fires and giant puffs of smoke that lingered ominously. The correspondents speculated that anthrax or other chemical toxins could be attached.
All I could think about was Simon and my cousins. It was frustrating not to be able to talk to them. Perhaps in the morning. In the meantime, CNN reported that the United States was urging Israel to not retaliate but to let us take care of it. If this warning exasperated me, I could only imagine how it was playing with the Israelis.
I stayed up as long as possible, until ten o’clock, but slept restlessly. Every time I woke up, my head felt more and more stuffed and my throat was sore. In case that wasn’t enough to keep me from sleeping, I’d switch on CNN again and just lie there watching Scuds showering down on Tel Aviv and Haifa. Finally, at four—11 a.m. in Israel—I picked up the phone and dialed Simon’s office.
“Lily, what are you doing up? It’s the middle of the night there. I was going to call you about seven o’clock your time.”
“I’ve been watching CNN on and off all night. Are you all right? What were you saying when I talked to you before? Where were you?”
“In a safe room.”
“You mean a bomb shelter?”
“Right. People here are making them at home, even if they don’t know what they’re doing or have the knowledge or experience to seal them properly.”
“So, was this at your house? Was Ruth there? Everything was garbled on the call.”
“No, I haven’t had time to do anything at my house. This was a special Mossad safe room at headquarters in Tel Aviv.”
Simon and I had met nearly a year before at an auction where my family’s antique Seder plate reappeared in my life fifty-two years after the Nazis stole it—and vanished again moments later. At that time Simon Rieger was a name I’d only read about on the society pages. I figured he was too much of a player for me, but our relationship evolved to an intimate affair during the course of my search for the looted treasure. Along the way, actually on the day I got the Seder plate back, yet another surprise about Simon came out— his job moonlighting with the Mossad. He was an expert on precious Jewish texts and books, and served as a consultant to Israel’s legendary spy agency.
“And Ruth was there?”
“Yes, when I heard from Avi”—Avi Ben-Zeev was Simon’s closest colleague in the Mossad—“that I should get over to headquarters, he asked if there was anyone else I wanted to bring, up to six people. I called Ruth, and she and Boaz and the twins came. I also took Shoshana from my office and her husband.”
He couldn’t see either my smile or my eyes welling up with tears of gratitude for the generous and considerate gesture of reaching out to my family and inviting them to what was probably the safest place in Israel at the moment.
“Thank you, Simon.”
“Nonsense. Your family is my family. Plus, it turned out to be a very interesting evening…”
“I’ll bet, sitting there listening to how close to you the Scuds were landing.”
“Well, that, too. But didn’t you hear what I told you about the Torah that was stolen from Ruth’s aunt and uncle in Shanghai?”
“Her aunt and uncle had a Torah stolen? In China? All I heard was Torah…China. What were they doing with a Torah?”
“I’m still not entirely sure, but it has to do with a family her father was close to during the war. Ruth didn’t want to talk about it in too much detail in the safe room. I think she didn’t want to upset the twins with talk of her going away. She wants to go to China as soon as possible to help her relatives. And she wants us to go with her.”
Incredible, I thought. Another lost treasure! But a Torah in China?