Small Talk

In Israel, where fertile land is at a premium and there are no fields for grazing cattle, beef is a scarce commodity and must be imported from South America. Much of Israel’s beef comes in fact from Paraguay, and it was to that country that three Israeli rabbi-butchers regularly traveled. They worked there in an enormous slaughterhouse that allowed them to slaughter cattle according to Jewish law, thus providing Israel’s citizens with kosher meat. They had worked in the same slaughterhouse for three years, and despite the hazards of the place — its sheer size, the treacherous machinery, the formidable proportions of the cattle — they felt safe.

One day, however, something untoward happened. Inspecting some meat inside an enormous freezer, the rabbis were startled by the sound of a thunderous clang as the massive freezer door suddenly slammed shut behind them, imprisoning them inside.

They stared at each other in horror. They shouted for help. They pounded vigorously on the door. But no one responded. Neither their voices nor their noisy efforts seemed to be reaching a single ear.

“Surely someone will pass by soon and hear our banging and thumping,” one rabbi reassured the others.

“Of course!”, another answered heartily. “Someone is bound to find us soon enough.”

But no one did.

Hours passed. The rabbis had shouted and thumped and pounded endlessly, but not a soul had heard their cries.

Overcome by lack of oxygen and the freezing temperatures, the rabbis grew weak. Their voices became fainter as their energy slowly seeped away. Their initial optimism faded. Checking their watches, they realized it was closing time at the massive plant. With this realization, all hope died.

They talked sorrowfully about the wives and children they would be leaving behind. They pulled out the miniature Psalms they always carried in their pockets and began to prepare for the worst. A strange calm descended on them. They had already accepted their fate.

Outside the slaughterhouse, Emilio, the manager, was grappling with the padlock as he prepared to secure the building for the night. As was his custom, prior to locking up, he had walked through the plant to ensure that there were no stragglers left behind and seeing none he shut the facility down. Walking toward the parking lot he passed the security guard. Emilio was surprised to see Golya, the security guard, standing at his usual post.

“Golya!” he exclaimed, “Weren’t you supposed to be starting your vacation today?”

“Indeed I was, sir,” Golya replied, “but at the last minute, my temporary replacement called in sick. Personnel asked if I could do them a favor and stay one more day. The new guy will start tomorrow instead, and then I’m off!”

“Well, have a good one!” Emilio said heartily, as he waved good-bye and headed to his car.

“Sir!” the guard called after him uneasily, “you’re not leaving for the night, are you?” Emilio was startled by the query. Golya had never questioned him like this before.

“Why, yes, Golya,” he replied. “Of course I am locking up for the night. It’s way past closing time.”

“But Sir,” Golya said anxiously, “I’m quite sure that there are some people inside.”

“What are you’re talking about, Golya?” Emilio said. “I checked the plant myself, as I always do, every night. Everyone’s gone.”

“Please, Sir, I’m quite sure. Please check again.”

Emilio thought that Golya was acting strangely, but he was a conscientious, dependable man who had never given him pause or trouble. To humor him, Emilio backtracked to the slaughterhouse and checked it thoroughly a second time. And once again, he saw nothing and no one.

Returning to the security checkpoint, Emilio reassured Golya, “Everything’s fine. There’s no one inside.”

Golya, usually a timid man, was uncharacteristically forceful.

“Everything’s not fine, Sir. I am sure there are some people inside. Please check again.”

Emilio studied Golya with interest. Golya had never been so strong or assertive before, not in all the years he had known him. His behavior was so odd.

“Please, Sir!” Golya begged.

Once again, Emilio returned to the slaughterhouse, walked through it carefully, and reassured himself that despite Golya’s misgivings, nothing was amiss.

But such assurances did not soothe the by-now-intractable Golya.

“I am telling you there are people inside!” he insisted loudly.

Emilio was getting annoyed. What was the matter with the security guard? “Look, Golya, this is getting ridiculous! I’ve checked three times.”

“Then let me go with you, Sir, and help you check again!” Golya pressed.

Golya was acting so strangely that Emilio was at a loss as to what to do. Finally, he succumbed to Golya’s pleas. “Okay, come along,” he said.

Golya’s search was more thorough than Emilio’s. He inspected closets, checked the floors, hunched down next to massive machines to see if someone was trapped underneath. The manager was utterly baffled by the security guard’s strange behavior. Was he out of his mind?

Then they advanced toward the freezer, which Emilio has bypassed before.

“That’s it!” shouted Golya with conviction as he flung open the door in triumph. Inside, blue and unconscious, lay the three rabbis.

“But how did you know?” Emilio asked Golya later, long after the excitement had subsided and the rabbis had been rushed to the hospital, where they were resuscitated.

Golya explained, “These rabbis have been coming here for three years. Every time they come, they come over to talk with me. When they arrive in the morning, they always stop and say; ‘Hi, Golya, good morning, how are you, how’s your family, how’s work going, have a good day, see you later.’ When they leave in the evening, it’s the same thing. They always stop for a few last words. ‘So, Golya,’ they say, ‘how did your day go? Anything exciting happen? What’s for supper?’ and so on. They always make me feel like I’m important, like I count. And they’ve been doing this for three years straight. And even if I’m gone from my post for a minute just as they are about to leave, they wait until I’m back to say goodbye. All these years, it’s never happened once that they didn’t make sure to wish me good night before they left the plant.

“Sir,” Golya continued, “when you came out of the building and locked up for the night, I was worried. ‘Golya,’ I said to myself, ‘for three years those rabbis have stopped to say goodnight to you without fail. Why should tonight be different?’ So I knew that something must be terribly wrong,” he concluded, “and that they must be trapped somewhere inside.”

Reprinted from Small Miracles of Love and Friendship

Yitta Halberstam has been published in over 50 national newspapers and magazines, including Parade, Working Woman, and New York Magazine. She is currently employed as Director of Special Events and Programming for Emunah Women.

Judith Leventhal is a psychotherapist in private practice in Brooklyn. She runs a Resolve support group for infertile couples, and is the mother of two children.