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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 9, Part 2

When a thief offers Pisgat some contraband beluga, Max senses an opportunity

Steve Stern
April 27, 2010

“Wait a minute!” Pisgat shouted. “What’s a matter, you never heard from negotiation? Or maybe you mean to bluff a bluffer?”

Jocheved turned again, searching her mind for more leverage; she was after all doing the old fortz a favor—but just as she was about to offer that insight, another man shouldered his way through the office door. This one wore the sealskin reefer that was a common livery in the twilight world of which the girl had some bitter knowledge.

“I got outside in my wagon a shipment beluga caviar, three-quarters pood fresh off the boxcar from Vilna,” the man informed the proprietor, who told him shah, couldn’t he see they were not alone? Tapping a sharpened tooth with the handle of his horsewhip, the man continued to disregard the youth as he issued his ultimatum: “You want it, you don’t want it? I got other customers standing in line. The g’vir Poznanski, him with his palace on Piotrkowska, is prepared to pay top zloty, no questions asked. Make up your mind, the stuff won’t wait.”

Snapped Pisgat: “Didn’t I tell you I have already a buyer with an order from the millionaire Belmont in America, USA? This is guaranteed. Only a few arrangements I got first to make.”

Pisgat’s visitor, heavy-set, with greasy hair like matted seaweed straggling from under his cap, chewed impatiently on his braided whip. “I gah arery arraymum uh my om.” Unclamping his teeth, “And don’t think I don’t know what happened to the sevruga that got seized at the border last month.”

“Then why you even came here?” barked Pisgat.

The middleman relaxed into irony. “Think of it as a courtesy call.”

Kibbitzing, Jocheved was only just able to catch the drift of their discourse, while the worldlier Max seemed to comprehend more. By “arrangements” the ice mensch meant contacts for smuggling contraband undetected over an obstacle course of customs agents and border guards. In this instance the shipment involved a case of black market caviar transported by land to Lodz from the Gulf of Riga. The legal export of such a luxury item was apparently out of the question: International tariffs and duties would be prohibitive, and the taxes alone on imported delicacies—or so Max assumed—could be excessive to the extent of canceling one’s return on the initial investment. There might even be a loss of revenue. You could camouflage the caviar along with other less levy-heavy perishables, but those items would still warrant transport by sealed boxcar and later in a ship’s refrigeration hold, thus inviting careful scrutiny. Besides, since the aforementioned seizure, Pisgat’s network had by his own admission broken down.

In an effort to stall the middleman, the ice mensch allowed that things were difficult, but he needed only a couple of days to reestablish his connections and pave the way for the shipment. Until then the sturgeon roe might be kept safe from spoilage in his icehouse.

“A couple days and Poznanski returns to his Black Sea dacha,” said the middleman, taking another bite out of his whip.

The ice mensch sputtered that the rich man should burst from pleasure. “May disease enter his gums!”

Meanwhile Jocheved, her confidence increased several fold by Max’s ingenuity, had concluded that here was a chance that would not come again. The idea she’d hit upon and refined while giving ear to their felonious exchange was this: It would be more economical to facilitate the legal transport of a dead relation for burial in a family plot overseas than to finance a clandestine consignment with all the elaborate palm-greasings that entailed. And what better cover for the fish roe than the rigid rabbi (his casket reinforced and lined with lead, or better zinc), whose frozen condition would ensure the freshness of the merchandise upon disembarkation in the Golden Land? As the self-possessed Max Feinshmeker, Jocheved stepped forward to present her alternative.

“Gentlemen,” she began, clearing her throat, lowering her voice an octave or two. “Gentlemen, perhaps I can be of service.”

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Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book award, teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.