Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 1 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday.
Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publications
Two o’clock p.m. The ringing phone cut into the baby’s loud wails.
“Hello? Is this the Cohen residence? Is Chagit home? Thank you.”
The man who had answered the phone covered the mouthpiece with his hand. “Chagit, telephone.”
The young woman hurried to the phone.
“Hello, Chagit? This is Mrs. Ostfeld. Remember me? We spoke two days ago, about the Feder girl.”
“Yes, of course,” Chagit replied as she jiggled the baby in her arms.
A moment’s silence.
“So, like this… We, uh, heard some very good things, and I appreciate the effort, but it’s not for us.”
“Oh…” Chagit was disappointed. “I understand. Oh, well. If I have any other ideas I’ll be in touch.”
The conversation ended.
“Is everything okay, Chagit?” her husband asked.
“Not at all. They’re not interested. How do people do this?” Chagit was irritated. She was sure that this time, her idea had been right on the mark! This mother thought far too highly of herself. So what if she had a top boy? Had she forgotten her background?
“Don’t take it to heart, Chagit. I warned you that it’s very hard to get past the inquiries stage with them. The Ostfelds are very thorough, and it’s their right. Shragi really is a star!”
“These descriptions get on my nerves,” Chagit whispered. The baby had finally fallen asleep. “How is it possible that all the twenty-one-year-old-plus bachurim in yeshivos suddenly become terrific lamdanim, have hearts of gold, and of course there isn’t a single fat one among them? They’re all just ‘full’. And they are so full of themselves… And their mothers? Forget it! Well,” she laughed bitterly, “if they’re all such stars, then they have all the reason in the world to feel like they’re in the sky!”
Mrs. Fixler cast an annoyed glance at the door. This was the fourth time during this lesson that someone was knocking at the classroom door. She tried to ignore the interruption for a moment and offered another sentence to clarify the general trend in Britain regarding the Eastern countries’ problems, but the girls’ eyes had all turned to the door, making it very clear to her that she’d be better off giving their tired hands a bit of a break from note-taking. With a sigh of resignation, she instructed the girl sitting on the left of the door to open it.
The girl who entered clutched a small note in her hand. Another message, typical of the end of the year.
“All Bnos leaders for sixth, seventh, and eight grades should go to the coordinator’s room at four thirty,” the girl said—in a tone that made it obvious that this was not the first or second time she had made this announcement.
The door closed once again, but the silence that had reigned previously in the classroom was gone.
“Simi!” A curly-haired girl poked her friend. “Do you have any idea what they want?”
“Nope,” Simi whispered back. “I already got the rest of the money I was allotted, and I signed the letter about the convention in the summer. So now what?”
“Now, please, girls, give me your attention!” Mrs. Fixler’s voice sliced into their conversation. Unfortunately for Simi and Rochel, they were seated in the front row. “Even if you are Bnos leaders, Sima and Rochel, and you have a million important things to deal with, I ask that you not forget the test that is fast approaching. The school will make the effort to add several extra study classes so that we can complete the material, so please, don’t make light of the situation!”
Rochel had an urge to murmur a few words of thanks for the school’s consideration, but remembered Mrs. Fixler’s sharp hearing and the fact that she was standing just opposite her desk.
The teacher glanced into her notebook for a moment, and all the girls picked up their pens in near-unison, bending over their open notebooks. The burning midday sun beamed through the open windows, as though trying to get a curious glimpse into the girls’ notebooks.
“But Mrs. Fixler,” one short girl sitting in the back called out, trying to gain another moment of reprieve. “They told us that the Eastern countries’ problems would not be on the test, and in the end it is!’
“That’s right,” the teacher concurred. “At first the plan was that this topic would be removed, but as you see, things have changed, and we have to learn this difficult topic at the end of the year, with all these disruptions.”
“And it’s so hot,” another girl chimed in and pulled the curtain closed with a grim face. “I don’t know why we have to sit here in this grill. Why isn’t the air conditioner on?”
“But the lights burned out!” two of her friends responded and stood up to open the curtain again. “What do you want us to do, write in the dark?”
“Dark…sure,” the first girl jeered, but sat down, the same thunderous expression still on her face. “These thin curtains don’t block the sun out anyway.”
“So then it doesn’t really matter either way, whether the curtains are opened or closed!”
“Why can’t we just turn on the air conditioner?”
“Girls…!” Mrs. Fixler tried to recapture the girls’ full attention. “Try to bear with me. We want to continue.”
“We don’t really…” Simi whispered to herself in a voice so low that even Rochel, right beside her, couldn’t hear. I just want to go home and sleep…and sleep…
The near silence returned to the classroom. Only the teacher’s loud voice cut through the thick, silent air, accompanied by the monotonous scratching of dozens of tired pens.
Forty minutes later, seven of the girls headed for the large room at the opposite end of the floor beneath their classroom. They were greeted by quite a tumult. The girls had gotten used to whispering here, because if each one spoke at a normal tone, the noise would be deafening. The coordinator tried to bang her Parker pen on the table, but even she didn’t hear the rapping, much less the Bnos leaders that surrounded her. So she switched to the unfailing clapping of her hands together with a loud, “Shhhhh…” (Well, as loud as it could be, of course.) It took another whole minute, but the longed-for quiet was finally attained.
“We have questionnaires here,” the coordinator began in a tired voice. “We want to get some responses summarizing your year as a Bnos leader. You’ll write down things that you think need to be changed or improved—you’ll see where to do that once I pass these out. As for next year–” A low murmur that rose from the girls was immediately silenced by the pleading look on her face. They all knew that another year meant being Bnos leaders for high school girls—a significant prestige.
“What? Girls who were Bnos leaders for fourth or fifth grade can’t move up to high school next year?” the girl standing right next to the coordinator asked as she took a pile of questionnaires and began passing them around. The normal whispers of “pass it around” were absent this time. The coordinator’s answer interested them all.
“Of course they can, and they will get a questionnaire just like you have,” her tired voice lilted a bit. “But how exactly do you expect them to fit into this room also right now?”
The questionnaires were distributed and filled out. The girls’ poses as they scrawled their responses were as original as they were varied. Some ten girls crowded around the coordinator’s already overloaded desk, while several others leaned their papers on every available patch of wall that was not taken up by shelves and cupboards. Most of the girls simply crouched on the floor and diligently filled in the sheets of paper. A few stragglers even went out into the corridor to find somewhere to write on. Simi was one of the latter. She put her paper up against the wall and filled in the lines with half-closed eyes.
When she got to the last question, she stopped: “Do you want to be a Bnos leader for high school girls next year?”
She scratched her cheek with her pen distractedly. After a minute of hesitation, she wrote her honest answer: “Right now, I don’t know.” She handed her form into the room, hoping that it would reach the coordinator’s desk after being passed through so many hands.
“Nu, Simi, what did you answer?” Rochel asked as they strolled down the street.
“Lots of things.” Simi absently followed a small kitten that tried to jump onto the fence in front of it. “I wrote that I enjoyed being a Bnos leader a lot, and that it gave me a lot, and that I formed close ties with my seventh grade class. I wrote about how I was able to help them improve certain things, like the jewelry issue, and that they should give the Bnos leaders more hours at the copy machine…”
“Why are you acting so dumb?” Rochel groused. “As though you don’t know that I mean the last question. Even though I think I know the answer.”
“And what do you think?”
“That you said yes. Being a Bnos leader for high school girls is tailor-made for you. Especially since you were so successful with your seventh graders. And just trust the people at the top to know exactly how successful each of us was.”
Simi murmured something noncommittal.
“Nu, am I right?” Rochel’s light eyes bored into hers.
“What did you answer?” Simi countered.
“I wrote yes, although I know I don’t have the chances you do. The truth is that it’s not all that important to me. If they pick me, I’ll be very happy, but even if they don’t, it won’t be the biggest tragedy. Worse come to worst, I’ll get to rest a bit more on Shabbos.”
“Yes,” Simi replied as her steps grew a bit smaller. “You’re right.”
“So, you also think you’ll get chosen?” Rochel slowed her pace as well.
“I don’t know. Meanwhile, I’m not so sure I want to.”
“Not sure you want to? So what did you write?”
“Exactly that. That I’m not sure yet.”
Now it was Rochel’s turn to be silent for a long moment. “Why?” she finally asked.
Simi bit her bottom lip and then finally uttered one word. “Yehudis.”
“Yehudis. I always used to watch her on Shabbos afternoon so my mother could rest. This year, my mother persuaded me that she was willing to give up her rest. She knew how much I wanted to be a Bnos leader. But I think that it was still very hard for her. I guess one year will have to be enough for me. Even though I’m sure that if they offer me the job next year, and my mother hears about it, she will push me to accept, but…”
Rochel couldn’t find the words to express a response, so she sufficed with a long “ohhh” and then fell silent.
“You’re going by bus?” she asked when she saw Simi pause at the bus stop.
“Yes, I’m too tired to go even another step. But don’t be jealous of me,” she said, wagging a finger in warning. “I still have that hill when I get off and you don’t!”
“I’m thrilled,” Rochel replied. Just then she noticed Leah, a classmate of theirs, who was also waiting at the bus stop. “Don’t tell me that there hasn’t been a bus for half an hour! You left much before us!”
“Yes, we did, and you don’t have to make such an effort to point it out. I know that the Bnos leaders had to stay late,” Leah said coldly. The tall, unfamiliar girl who stood with her took Simi and Rochel in from top to bottom, as Leah continued talking. “I got to the stop half an hour ago, but I met my cousin, and although we live in the same city, we meet only about once every three months. So we stood and chatted a little.”
The girl smiled slightly and said, “Okay, Leah, I’m going.”
“See you in three months!” Leah said jovially and turned to look at Simi, who was fidgeting nervously. Leah’s coldness jarred her. “Simi, do you know her?”
“No,” Simi said, turning instinctively to look at the girl’s receding figure.
“That’s my cousin, Malky Feder. Does the name ring a bell?”
“Not at all,” Simi replied and turned back to Leah. The cousin had disappeared from view in any case.
“Well, I thought you knew. She was suggested for your brother. My aunt called yesterday to find out about your family and it’s so funny that we met today, after we analyzed the idea from all angles yesterday.”
“How nice,” Simi said dryly. She didn’t think that there was anything more she had to say in response.
“How old is your brother?”
“Twenty-two, almost twenty-three,” Simi replied, glancing at the long row of cars. Where was the bus already?
“She told me that she heard that your mother is very, very picky. Interesting, because—”
Rochel, who had been standing on the side until now, interjected, “Okay, this is a topic that is totally not our business, don’t you think?”
“Maybe it’s not your business, but it is Simi’s and mine,” Leah said, without even turning her head.
“Actually, my brother’s shidduchim are not my business,” Simi said, choosing the least hostile-sounding words she could think of from the selection whirling in her brain. “And I don’t get involved in these things, so…”
“It’s not related to your brother’s shidduchim anymore,” Leah said. She pushed her hair behind her ear. “My uncle and aunt won’t be doing the shidduch anyway. But tell me: don’t you think it’s strange that your mother has so many demands?”