Our Finest


Our Finest

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Ariel Horowitz

Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan


Menachem and Shoshana Laufer dedicated their retirement to an array of hobbies and endeavors they’d neglected over the years. When he wasn’t wandering among the offices of his political party, Laufer tended to the garden in his home in Kfar Pines, in the backyard that had previously served as the family’s dumping ground. Shoshana went to museums, attended literature and art lectures, enrolled in creative writing classes, and spent time with her grandchildren.
But their favorite pastime was travel abroad: at first they did this sparingly, a hesitant trickle of flights to standard destinations like Paris or Rome, thrilled with the variety of options that opened up to them in anticipation of their long years of aimlessness, returning with suitcases overflowing with gifts, excitedly regaling their relatives with stories of the short line outside of the Eiffel Tower.
Once they discovered Skybound, a tour company tailored for the religious population, the trips became an almost physical necessity, and the destinations grew more exotic. The Laufers had first heard of Skybound (originally named Heavenbound) from Eli and Nechama, who told them one Shabbat dinner about a new tour company started by Shabi, Eli’s brother-in-law. Two weeks later, religious weekend bulletins were inundated with Heavenbound ads, which featured an illustration of a smiling globe wearing a knit yarmulke. The brother-in-law, who had thought the devout-sounding name would enchant worshippers, quickly discovered that his potential clients were referring to the company as “hellbound,” and the very next week a new ad appeared in the bulletins—almost identical, but using the name Skybound, and promising attractive Passover deals (‘All inclusive… even the matzah!’) in Barcelona and Lithuania, as well as a trip to Morocco for “fitness freaks”.
And so, Menachem and Shoshana spent their children’s inheritance on discounted journeys where they met new friends, renewed connections from youth movement or high school days, and felt like they were reliving their eighth grade summer camp, though every traveler in the group was in their eighth decade of life.
For years, Menachem, Shoshana, and their friends had staggered under the burden of making ends meet and raising children, weighing themselves down with amassing commitments. Now that they’d reached their days of rest and relaxation, they wished to liberate themselves from penny-pinching and spend their final years traveling around the world, squandering their money on kosher gourmet meals in Eastern Europe and gaudy souvenirs placed on shelves in their small, sterile homes.
As Passover approached, Shoshana finalized plans with friends and booked the two of them tickets to London. Once the holiday ended, Menachem and Shoshana kissed their children and grandchildren goodbye, nudged them out the door, and called a taxi to take them to the airport.
For years, Shoshana had suspected that Yael and Yoav, their children, were avoiding having Passover Seder with them. Yael offered a different excuse every year—one time, she said her husband Itamar had to stay on base due to security tensions up north. Another year, they went abroad. Once, they spent the Seder at Itamar’s parents’ place. Yoav wasn’t keen on the idea either. Just before the final nail could be hammered into the coffin of family tradition, Shoshana called both her children and informed them that this year they were coming over for Seder, no ifs, ands, or buts.
But when the interview with Yoav was published two days before the holiday, Menachem tried to convince Shoshana to undo her initiative. She refused, grabbed the newspaper before he’d had a chance to peruse it, and said, “We’ll deal with it, Menachem, and that’s the last I want to hear about this interview.”
Later that night, after completing his chametz inspection around the house, Menachem turned on his computer, found the interview, read it, and his face screwed up. Having turned the computer off, he suddenly recalled the meatballs that his mother used to make, and though he typically stayed out of the kitchen on weekdays, he decided to make them and take some comfort in their flavor.
The next day, during those long, pliable hours before the Passover Seder, he opened the old, stained cookbook, and went to work. First, he placed two kilos of ground beef in a bowl, peeled and minced ten garlic cloves, added matzah crumbs and eggs, and worked the reddish-brown mixture with his bare hands until it became a cohesive mash. He placed a large pot on the stove, emptied a can of crushed tomatoes into it, and added water and a tablespoon of honey. Then he squeezed a lemon into the pot and picked out the seeds, minced another clove of garlic and dumped that in as well, fried the meatballs in a pan before dropping them into the red, bubbling sauce, and left the stove running on low while he took a quick nap. Two hours later he woke up, turned off the stove, tasted the sauce, and his dead mother appeared before him.
Yoav and Naama arrived an hour before the start of the holiday, bathed, their hair combed, and smiling, with their children. Ido and Evyatar carried bags in from the car, Abigail took a seat on the gray couch next to Shoshana, and Ethan hung back outside, talking on the phone. Yael and Itamar hadn’t arrived yet, and everyone pretended they didn’t know that an hour later, after the beginning of the holiday, they would be parking their car at a distance from the house and trekking on foot with their children, piercings removed and clothes concealing loud tattoos that would have given their grandparents a heart attack.
When they finally showed up—Menachem noticed Yarden, Yael and Itamar’s eldest daughter, resting a hand over her back pocket to hide the rectangular protrusion of what he knew for certain to be her phone—everyone smiled at each other, and Menachem, who was hungry and knew he had a long, dull evening to wade through before they got to the meatballs, went to uncork a bottle of wine.
Yael and Itamar had met through mutual friends: she was a literature and history major at Tel Aviv University, and he was a paratrooper officer who came home only on weekends. From the beginning, Menachem and Shoshana had suspected that a relationship with a secular guy—as principled and idealistic as he may be—would be the first step in Yael’s path away from a religious life. When they tried to voice their concerns to her, she soured and ignored them. They gave up, and from that point on, their  relationship with their daughter was painted with shades of denial andsuppressed concerns.
Whenever Yael, who was living in a rental apartment in northern Tel Aviv, came to Kfar Pines for Shabbat, she’d go out for a “quick walk” after dinner. Menachem, who would be lying on the couch, perusing through his religious paper, would nod a farewell. Shoshana, reading a book in the armchair, would say, “Shabbat Shalom, sweetheart. Should I wake you up tomorrow in time for shul?” Yael would shake her head no and walk out, only returning from her quick walk the next afternoon, happy, exhausted, and reeking of strange beds. They knew she was driving on Shabbat, knew where she was driving to, where she was returning from, and whose bed she’d been sleeping in—Itamar had been to their house a few times.
They said nothing about it. And this silence—Menachem admitted to himself as he watched his daughter’s three children sitting down at the dinner table, donning the same kind of blazing white yarmulkes their father had worn the first time he and his wife had met him—was convenient. He preferred it that way—a hand concealing a vibrating cell phone, a satin yarmulke pulled out of the glove compartment of a car parked a safe distance away, alongside the cars of the other children of the moshav who’d grown up and abandoned their parents’ lifestyles, and who all showed up for Seder, like some kind of conspiracy, not in time for the beginning of the holiday, but thirty minutes to an hour later, under the cover of darkness, and who all left, as if by the same conspiracy, immediately after dinner, leaving their aging devout parents behind, not even considering spending a moment longer than absolutely necessary in the moshav, which Menachem had overheard Glaubach’s daughter, who had also lost her faith, refer to over the phone one Saturday afternoon as “Moshav Penis.”
On rare occasions, usually right after Shoshana was forced to present her family in public, the two of them would discuss Yael. They’d always taken pride in Yoav and his family, but Yael’s loss of faith was like a scarlet letter on both their foreheads, and especially Shoshana’s. “I know people are looking at me,” she told Menachem one night, after they’d returned from her retirement party. Yael and her children, tan like their father, bareheaded like their father, had been sitting in the front row. “Would you look at that! The mythological teacher who spent forty years teaching young girls to live an observant life couldn’t even bring up her own daughter. And her grandkids look like pimps and whores.”
Menachem, who knew she was right, said nothing.
Lacking the energy to meet expectations and run the Seder, Menachem plopped into his seat at the head of the table, across from Shoshana. For the first time since he’d walked in, he looked at Yoav’s face, wondering when someone would bring up the interview, the campaign. Their eyes met for a flash, and Menachem quickly averted his, pulled a tattered Haggadah from the pile—a gift for Ministry of Education employees from 1981—and began humming the outline of the Seder. Then he kept quiet for most of Maggid, allowing the discussion to move freely through the table—Yael and her daughter Naama debated whether the Haggadah judged the evil son unfavorably—crumbling a piece of matzah in his hands and losing himself in the simple illustrations surrounding the text, occasionally glancing at his grandchildren, who stared into the air, bored, most likely wondering, just like he was, when they’d finally get to eat.
“What do you think, Dad?” he heard Yael asking. “You think the evil son truly is evil? Is this a negative message?”
Menachem, pulling himself out of his reverie, fixed his eyes on his daughter and noticed that everyone around the table was staring at him. Smiling, he said, “Come on, Yaeli, how should I know? That’s a question for a literature teacher, like yourself.”
“But Grandpa,” said Ido, “I remember that a few years ago, on Passover, you read some Torah portion about the evil son.”
“Oh, sweetheart, you think I remember every Torah portion I ever read?” He waved them away with his hand, signaling to Naama to keep reading.
Then Itamar, who had not uttered a word since the start of the evening, said, “I remember that, too.”
“What? What do you remember?” Shoshana urged him. She looked at Menachem, then back at Itamar, who adjusted the white yarmulke on his bald head and said, “I think it was something you heard from Minister Frisch, may he rest in peace—that the evil son is the one who challenges the father, and that’s his role. That sometimes the son has to be quote-unquote ‘evil’ and go against his father, in order to continue the father’s legacy in his own way.”
Menachem stared at his son-in-law and said, “Well, well, good.” He was turning the page when, from the end of the table, came Ethan’s voice.
“Just like what Dad said in the newspaper.”
Yoav, sitting across from Ethan, protested. “What does that have to do with anything? The newspaper? That’s nonsense.”
But Ethan insisted. “It isn’t nonsense, Dad. It’s exactly the same idea.” He turned to Shoshana. “Grandma, do you have the paper with Dad’s interview?”
Menachem lowered his eyes, fixing them on the crumbled matzah, then looked up at Shoshana, his gaze pleading with her to change the subject, to break into song, to serve the soup.
But Shoshana wouldn’t take the hint, and Ethan got up, walked to the living room, rummaged through the newspaper rack, and came up with the weekend supplement—Shoshana had sworn she’d thrown it in the trash without even reading it—which was folded open to the interview.
Ido and Yarden made space on the table, shifting aside plates and glasses and Haggadahs, and Ethan laid out the newspaper, knocking down a glass of wine, which stained Varshaviak’s stern portrait. Ethan scanned the interview for the relevant paragraph, read the question about the Religious-Zionist party, emphasizing the words “your father,” then went on to read Yoav’s response as the man himself fumbled through the Haggadah and Menachem buried his face in his hands. When Ethan finished reading, Menachem looked up. Yarden looked at Yoav and said, “So you’re the evil son.”
They rushed through the rest of Maggid. When they finally arrived at Shulhan Orech, the grandchildren got up to help Shoshana serve the food. She pointed out Grandpa’s meatballs. Abigail told the others how she’d been lucky enough to taste great-grandma’s meatballs in person, and Yael said the lemon was a really nice touch. Menachem ate the meatballs listlessly, and when he finished, he got up and said he was tired and going to bed, and everyone wished him a good night. He shot them a fatigued glance and said, “Nice to see everybody.” Then he went to his bedroom, put on his pajamas, and slipped under the covers.
Now, in the dining room of the kosher hotel in Golders Green, Menachem looked around and saw his closest friends standing in the buffet line, heaping their plates with delicacies, and all of a sudden his son’s political escapade seemed miniscule; the interview and the campaign distant and marginal. He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned around, and found Shabi, CEO of Skybound, white earbud in his ear and post-holiday stubble on his cheeks.
“All good, Menachem?” asked Shabi.
“Great, Shabi,” he replied. “Couldn’t be better.”
Shabi rubbed his stubble and said, “Good, good,” patting Menachem on the back before moving on.
Shoshana returned to the table with an overflowing plate and sat down beside him, and the two were soon joined by Naomi, who was a kindergarten teacher in Petah Tikva and an author of children’s books popular in the religious community. Then came Ozer and Drorit—he was a bank branch manager and she a dental hygienist. They’d been the Laufers’ neighbors for years before recently moving into a luxury housing development in Jerusalem to be closer to their grandchildren. Next were Shimon and Rebecca—a proctologist and a teacher who used to work with Shoshana, and whom Shoshana had disliked her for years until retirement softened her, making them good friends. Beside them, chewing on marinated chicken breasts, were Yitzhak and Aliza Naot—he a professor of education and an old friend of Menachem’s from back in the party days, she a patent editor. 
Here, among his friends, Menachem felt at home. They had a shared past, they’d dealt with the same crises and confronted the same conundrums. In recent years, they mainly focused on complaining about their municipalities; sharing discoveries made on obscure health websites and innovative diets promising to extend their life expectancy by a few years longer; and dishing about synagogue controversies involving treasurers and chairmen of boards.
Menachem relished these conversations, but liked it best when they discussed politics. It was as if on some invisible mark he would take hold of the gavel of knowledge, shower his friends with his wisdom and intelligence, and watch as they lapped up every word.
“Did you hear what I was telling them earlier?” Drorit asked him now, and went on to share a story about budget cuts and parental frictions at her granddaughter’s school.
Pouncing on the opportunity to speak to matters of education and administration, Menachem said that when he was head of the ministry, this kind of issue would have been investigated right away. “Listen here,” he said, looking at Drorit, “no way we would have ignored this kind of thing.”
“Oh, yeah?” Yitzhak Naot interjected, playing his regular role in fanning the flames of argument. “You think Frisch would have caused a scene?”
“I don’t think so, Yitzhak’leh,” said Menachem, “I know so.”  
Yitzhak leaned back in his seat, having fulfilled his destiny.
Menachem went on to describe the policy he’d implemented during his long years of service as deputy secretary of education. Then he moved on to discuss Frisch’s leadership, his book of Torah portions that Menachem had edited, and even—to Shoshana’s surprise—his own abandoned memoir. “And now?” Menachem challenged his friends. “Look at the situation now—it’s night and day. The party couldn’t care less about the Ministry of Education. I’m there almost every day, so I know. They don’t even want it. Even in the primary election—does anyone even mention education?” He stabbed his fork into the piece of veal cooling on his plate and tore it in half. “Even Shidlov isn’t talking about it. All he wants is religion, religion, religion. So now, Drorit,” he turned again to his friend across the table, “you see there’s no chance anyone would ever care about something like this, because the Ministry of Education doesn’t belong to us anymore, the party doesn’t belong to us anymore. How did the papers put it? We’re passé.”
A white glob of spittle now hung from Menachem’s bottom lip. He sensed it, and blotted it with his lips.
“I was thinking of voting for Yoav,” said Rebecca.
“Look,” Menachem countered right away, “don’t get me wrong. This is a great honor for us”—he motioned toward Shoshana—“to have Yoav running. But we’re allowed to have disagreements within the family, aren’t we?”
“Of course,” said Shimon. “You’re allowed. But Menachem, you’re saying important but also difficult things, yes, difficult things, so why aren’t you running for party leader as well? You aren’t that old.”
“Seventy-five,” said Shoshana, patting Menachem’s back.
“So?” Yitzhak interjected. “How old was Frisch the last time he was elected?”
“Seventy,” Menachem said without thinking.
“Exactly,” said Yitzhak. “And Arik Sharon was almost eighty. And Shimon Peres was two hundred years old.”
“In other words,” said Drorit, “you still have your strength, so why not? The public wants someone with experience, not another kid.”
Tears pooled in Menachem’s eyes, and he cut a piece of veal and slipped it into his mouth.
After a few moments of silence, Shimon began telling the group about the new all-meat diet he and Rebecca had been successfully maintaining for over a month. “Try it,” said Rebecca, “it’s healthy and delicious.”
Menachem nodded. The meat in his mouth was metallic and cold. 


Copyright © by Yardenne Greenspan and Keter Publishing House.
Published by arrangement with The Israeli Institute for Hebrew Literature. 

Ariel Horowitz was born in Jerusalem in 1990. His debut novel, Our Finest, was published with Keter Publishing House in 2021, and won critical acclaim. His second novel, The Ghost Editor, will be published in 2024 with Keter Publishing House. After working for many years as a journalist, editor, and cultural critic in Israel, Horowitz is currently a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He lives with his family in Palo Alto, and divides his time between California and Jerusalem.

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