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God’s Work


“What are you saying?” Rivki interrupts—she is not afraid of contradicting her husband, even in public, and he seems to enjoy it. “I would never take the bad apple, that’s crazy!”

Like believers in any faith that promises a joyful reward when the Messiah comes, Hasidim have well-developed mechanisms for ignoring, or even relishing, personal discomfort in deference to a greater mission. Perhaps it is a good feature of good works that they are exhausting, but to make a home in a Mumbai alley after growing up in Israel and Brooklyn is something more: a form of self-abnegation. Your stipend covers a respectable standard of living—but you have to raise the money yourself. You will not get rich being shluchim.

The issue of submission to fate is rendered moot that November, their first in the new Chabad House, when their third son is born. They name him Moshe. Perhaps they have him tested; in any case, by the time he is 6 months old, they know he does not have Tay-Sachs. He is their “miracle” child, their malach, or angel; when someone later says that he and Rivki seem like best friends, Rivki says Yes, my only friend.

Sandra is promoted to nanny. It is not just because she is low caste and poor that she is grateful for the job. The Holtzbergs are kind, and Moshe is an adorable baby, “very precious to me.” Her own two boys are, at 16 and 23, too old for mothering, but Sandra sleeps in Moshe’s room, itself a privilege. Hussain, whom everyone calls Jackie, sleeps on a mat under the stairwell and at one point must be gently told by Rivki to take down the pictures of naked women taped to the low ceiling above him.

The day breaks hot and humid, as usual, but Rivki is looking forward to it anyway. The air-conditioner works; there are no special events. Only a few visitors are expected that evening. Two rabbis—Bentzion Chorman and Leibish Teitelbaum—are in town to supervise Kosher certification for a mushroom-packing plant. Chorman likes breaded chicken, so Rivki will prepare it for dinner. Yocheved Orpaz, from Israel, is visiting her daughter and grandchildren; Olga Daniella Bakayeva—Daniella, they call her, a volunteer from Seattle—said she’d come back after enjoying her Shabbat meal last week. (Even now her Facebook page is bragging about the best cholent she’s eaten in ages.) And Norma Schwartzblatt-Rabinowitz, from Mexico, will be here on the way to making aliyah: immigrating to Israel. Rivki will bake her an apple cake.

But Rivki’s mind drifts from immediate matters. It’s Wednesday, November 26, 2008: Moshe’s 2nd birthday is on Saturday. Could two years have passed so quickly? He is thriving and, now that Sandra is with him, can finally sleep through the night without his ema—Hebrew for “mother”—at his side. Otherwise, how could Rivki be pregnant with his little brother or sister? She is five months along, expecting in April.

Taking a quick break from dinner preparations around 7:30, Rivki e-mails her friend Chani. With the baby coming, what color should they paint the upstairs?

Sandra grabs the baby without thinking and runs as fast as she can into the street. His clothes are spattered with his parents’ blood.

Four days earlier—at 8 a.m. on Saturday, November 22—ten men leave Karachi in a small boat. Soon they meet up with a larger ship, which takes them on another leg of their journey. Their leader is a 25-year-old Pakistani named Ismail Khan. Khan receives orders by satellite phone from handlers in Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Lahore-based terrorist group that seeks to establish Muslim rule throughout South Asia. In Urdu, the group’s name means Army of the Pure.

On Sunday, the men hijack an Indian fishing trawler, killing four crew members and eventually its captain. Another 550 nautical miles’ sail on the Arabian Sea brings them within sight of Mumbai. By now, it’s Wednesday afternoon. They wait for darkness. At about 8:30 p.m., they board a dinghy and head for land, leaving behind their shaving cream, laundry detergent, and a bottle of Mountain Dew. They disembark just south of the Gateway of India. Telling anyone who asks that they are students, they divide up into five teams and disperse into the night: to the central railway station, to the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, to the touristy Leopold Café, and to the house on Hormusji Street.

Chani, in Kathmandu, has an idea for what color Rivki should paint. She opens her Internet Messenger and waits for the ping.

Dinner is over, but the two rabbis and Gabi are still on the second floor, probably discussing Torah, as Gabi is wont to do late into the night. It has been a quiet evening. A few visitors dropped by but left. Norma and Yocheved are already upstairs. Sandra and Jackie are in the first-floor kitchen; perhaps Rivki is with them, helping to clean up. Or perhaps Rivki is with the men. It will be hard, in retrospect, to piece this information together. But Moshe is asleep in his blue fifth-floor bedroom.


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