Divided Attention – Chapter 19

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications

We have to be at peace with our decision, Nava’s father said to himself as he turned the wheel. Especially since you’ve consulted the rav. Yael had been right after all. The child would learn here for the time being, and when he would advance, they could move him to a regular Talmud Torah. If we want to go far, we have to start at a slow pace, especially since his Torah knowledge was extremely scant for a child his age in a normal cheder. Here, at least, many of the children came from backgrounds similar to his.

The car stopped with a slight squeal. Manny turned his head to the back. “We’re here, Rafi,” he said. “You can open the seatbelt and get out.” The child didn’t move. He sat hunched into the back seat, reminding Manny of that first half an hour he had been in their home. His eyes were fixed on the window, scanning the school. “Is it too hard for you because of your hands?” Mr. Cohen asked, and got out of the car to open the back door. “Here, I opened it for you. Now you can come out.”

Rafi crept out, moving in almost slow motion. He kept glancing at the building warily, especially at the big tree in the yard. Something about this place was very familiar, but he wasn’t one hundred percent sure. There had been a yard, a tree and a small window there, too. How many details had he absorbed during those cold, dark nights? Almost nothing. Maybe it was just coincidentally similar.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Rafi. The principal here is a very, very nice man. I’ve spoken to him by phone. I’m sure you’re going to love it here. You just have to remember to behave nicely, like you know how.”

Manny knocked on the door of the office and pushed it open a little. Rafi’s muscles stiffened so tightly that they hurt. He followed Manny leadenly, feeling as though he was in a huge soap bubble. In another minute, the bubble would burst and the principal would remember him right away.

And maybe he wouldn’t? He looked very different now.
“Welcome,” the principal said from the other side of the desk and rose to shake Manny’s hand. He proffered his hand to the child as well; Rafi shook it limply. Their eyes met.

“Thank you,” Manny said as he sat down. Rafi stood beside him.

“Sit down, young man, sit down,” Reb Nechmiah Paksher said, studying the man before him. “Rabbi Cohen, yes?”

“Rabbi? Mr. is enough. Yes, that’s me.”

“Pleasure to meet you. And you?” The question was directed at Rafi, but he didn’t say a word.

“Rafi, are you shy because he’s the principal?” Manny finally broke the silence that had lasted several long seconds.

“Don’t worry. I allow him to be a bit shy, meanwhile. He’ll speak to me afterwards.” The principal opened one of the drawers in his desk and took out two typed papers. “Well, being that today I am my own secretary, let’s get the formal stuff out of the way first. Please read this, fill in the details and sign these forms.” He placed a pen on the table, folded his arms, and leaned forward, looking at Rafi. “So, your name is Rafi? Nice to meet you. I’m the principal of this great school. Are you happy to be joining us here to learn?”

A short shake of the head was the response. The only problem was that it was impossible to figure out if it indicated a “yes” or a “no.”

“I think we’ll put you in third grade. How old are you?”

“Almost nine,” the boy whispered. His eyebrows were drawn together, creating a look of intensity.

“Right, so then third grade is perfect for you. I hope you’ll be okay with the material. Have you ever learned in a religious school?”

This time the shake was clear: no.

“That’s fine. But you look like a very smart boy to me. You’re also going to have an excellent teacher, Rabbi Perlmutter. And the wonderful boys in the class will be happy to help you. I’m sure you’re going to be a good boy.” He eyes were focused on Rafi’s. “And you’ll listen to your teachers, right?”

Rafi nodded firmly, swallowing a long, long breath. This principal didn’t seem to recognize him, what with his short hair and yarmulke. What luck!

Manny finished signing the forms and gave them back to Rabbi Paksher, who rose from his chair and walked toward the door. “Please wait here a moment,” he said pleasantly. Rafi’s fingers clenched into fists; they were trembling a little. Had the principal recognized him after all? Was he going to call the police? Manny utilized the pause to peruse the room, from the speckled floor to the barred window. “Hey, Rafi, look!” he said suddenly. “Look at those pictures on the wall! What do you think those are?”

Rafi followed Mr. Cohen’s finger. There, near the closet, almost hidden behind it, were two large pictures. The top one was of the room they were sitting in, but it was in shambles. The floor was covered with paper and paint stains. The drawers were pulled out and the wall was scribbled up. The second picture was of a wall with an unidentifiable drawing in bright red.

“Interesting artwork, wouldn’t you say?” Reb Nechemiah’s voice came from behind him. Rafi spun around. No, there were no policemen with him.

But maybe they were on the way?

“Very interesting pictures indeed,” Mr. Cohen said and looked at the small tray in the principal’s hand. There were three glass mugs, tendrils of steam rising from them. “You didn’t have to bother.”

The man smiled. “These pictures were taken after the two break-ins we had.”

“Break-in? Who did it?”

“Some people who don’t like us, or perhaps their emissaries. They did a lot of damage—too much—but baruch Hashem, as you can see, we’ve gotten everything back in order.” Only now did Rafi notice the faces from that picture smiling at him from above the principal’s head. “In the corridor—if you want to look afterwards, there are still some red traces that we couldn’t clean off. They’ll wait until we paint before Pesach.”

“And why did you hang this up here?” Manny asked.

“Well,” the principal said, setting down the mugs on the desk, “we wanted to remind ourselves that despite all the disturbances by those who hate us—we are still able to continue.”

“That’s a nice reminder,” Manny said admiringly.

“Yes, I agree. And now, I don’t want to hear a word of objection to my tea. Every boy who comes to register here gets a cup of tea. And the tea I prepare, you know,” his eyes focused on Rafi, who continued to stare at the pictures, “is very good.”

***

Devoiry Katzenelbogen called Nava.

“Are you writing something, Nava?”

“Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it.” It had been impossible because of Rafi.

“Uch, our whole grade is so out of it,” she grumbled. “I haven’t found even one girl who’s seriously working on it!”

“Maybe we should have just left this to the tenth graders,” Nava dared voice her opinion of the sacred competition. “After all, we are busy enough with school work.”

Surprisingly enough, Devoiry did not get angry. Apparently, Nava was not the first one to have aired such traitorous views. “Maybe, but now we’re already in it, and we can’t tell the teacher we’re just backing out of everything. We’ll look like such fools. Nava, you’ve got to try and write something.”

“I can promise to try,” Nava replied. The contest didn’t interest her in the least. Rafi had brought with him a fresh breath of air into the house, and it was much more exciting now than any silly history competition that they were taking part in just to soothe their injured pride.

Today had been his first day at school. Abba had wanted him to go to class yesterday, right after the interview with the principal, but Rafi had refused. He hadn’t seemed so excited to go this morning either, and Abba had promised it would be for just two hours, and then Ima would pick him up. Poor kid; if he had had social problems before, like Rina had told them, it was no wonder he was so afraid of meeting new friends. Maybe he was also scared of the schoolwork.

Rina had told Ima one day that Rafi didn’t know how to read script. She told her about a note he had asked her to read for him. Nava didn’t know what was with the script, but it was pretty obvious that he had trouble with print words also. Until now, he had adamantly refused to play any game that involved reading, and when she let him look at books, it seemed as though he had no idea what was written there. She had wanted to look into it more carefully, but hadn’t had the time. Maybe he knew how to read, but just hated doing it?

He didn’t have homework today. He had come home after two hours with a neutral expression on his face and said that it had been “fine.” Aside for that, she hadn’t been able to get a word out of him.

“Nu, Nava, are you with me?”

“Sure, Devoiry,” I’m trying.

“Did you hear something about girls from tenth grade paying for a professional to help them with the writing?”

“No, and I think that’s really overdoing it. But it seems to me like they took this whole contest much more seriously than we did, so that rumor might be true.” Rafi signaled for her to come, and she lifted her finger to indicate she’d be there in a minute.

“Maybe we should find someone who’d be willing to do it for us for free.”

“Morah Ayala,” Nava replied automatically.

“Ha! I thought we’d be able to finish this conversation without you mentioning her name, but I see that’s impossible to expect such a thing from you. You don’t plan to ask the judge of the conversation for help, do you?”

Rafi’s motions became more impatient, and Nava quickly finished the conversation. “I’ll…try to think of something, Devoiry. We’ll see.”

She went back to Rafi and the play dough (it was good for his hands) and made him a horse, as per his request. He created some unidentified monster. “Put it on your shelf,” he said with the glee of a child giving a present. “I think that the purple will match that candle that you have there, right?” She placed the new decoration where Rafi wanted it. What would she do when one of her new friends came over? She’d have to find a way to persuade Rafi that such a precious gift rightfully belonged in her drawer of personal belongings.
Abba came home and summoned Rafi to the dining room. Nava followed, wondering if her father would be able to extract a little more information about how his day at school had gone.
“How are you, Rafi?”

“Fine.”

Baruch Hashem. How was the day?”

“Here? Very good.”

“I’m happy to hear that. And in school?”

“Also good.”

“How are the kids in your class?”

“I don’t now them.”

“And the teacher?”

Rafi wrinkled his forehead. “He looks nice,” he said finally. Nava moved a bit closer. Interesting; he hadn’t answered her questions, or her mother’s.

“What did you learn?” Her father sat down and put his arm on Rafi’s wrist. Nava liked to see them like this. She hoped he knew what to answer, and didn’t know for whom she was hoping: Rafi or Abba. That familiar pressure rose in her fingertips, and she realized that she had clenched them into fists. Halevai, Rafi should succeed in his studies so Abba will be happy.

“Chumash.”

“Which one?”

“The one you put in my briefcase.”

“Did you find where they were up to?” Manny smiled at Rafi.

“The boy next to me showed me,” Rafi returned a faint smile.

“And what did you learn?”

“About the father of Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife.”

“Yisro?”

The boy nodded.

“What did he do?”

“He heard that Bnei Yisrael had crossed the Yam Suf and he came to Moshe.”

“I see you listened very well,” Manny said as he took a Chumash Shemos from the shelf and sat down at the table. Nava stood at the door and didn’t know if the expression on Rafi’s face was closer to pleasure or hesitation. She thought it was a combination of the two. Suddenly her thoughts turned to Devoiry and the contest, although she kept half an ear tuned to what was going on in the dining room. It looked like Rafi was pleased. He knew the material reasonably well; here and there he stammered a bit, but he answered some of the questions right away. But he refused to read the pesukim.

Maybe she should sit down now and think a bit about the history report? Where was she supposed to start? Opening books? Devoiry had said some girls in tenth grade were getting professional help. Professional like…

Ima!

How had she not thought of it? Her mother could help her. Apparently the girls had not come to her mother, because no one knew she had once been a history professor. But she knew, and that was perfect.

Was it so perfect? Then why aren’t you gong to ask Ima right now—she’s standing three feet away from you—to help you with that history report? Why? Nava berated herself.

Because…Ima is listening to Abba and Rafi now.

And when they finish learning? Will you ask her then?

N-no. Because then she’ll be busy with Rafi. Maybe tomorrow.

Really? Tomorrow? Will you?

Yes. I’ll go over to her tomorrow and say, “Ima can you help me? We have a history contest in school.” And Ima would say: “A history contest? Wonderful. I have so much material for you.” And then we’ll go to the room and Ima will start looking in her tall, slim binders. “Ima it doesn’t make that much of a difference to me,” I’ll say when I’ll see the beginning of the familiar scenario. “I just need a short topic, something interesting, without too many dates.”

“Just a minute, Nava,” Ima would say gently. “I want you to have the best that you can.” And I’ll shift my weight from foot to foot, and after five minutes, I’ll say again, “Ima?” And she’ll say, “Nava, you need to have a bit more patience. I’m looking for suitable material. It takes me time.”

And when finally the topic would be found, Ima will call me over to the table to sit with a notebook and pen, and will even pour me a drink, just like we would do in the past when we studied for history tests together. Study is not such a good word. I would listen and she would teach. Teach? Lecture was more like it. She would lecture in her slow, calm pace, not skipping a single detail, despite my protestations that “I know that part.”  “This is very important to understand the subsequent events,” she would say, and continue her thorough coverage of the subject.

And that’s what bothered Nava about studying together, until she got used to studying with friends, and that’s why she didn’t want to ask for help now.

This competition doesn’t interest me enough to want to invest so much time and mental energy, which is what Ima—with genuine devotion—would do, Nava mused. It’s not my pace, it’s not my personality. Maybe those who said that I take things too lightly are right.

***

None of them thought they needed a name for their group except Eddie Newman.

“You read too many detective stories,” Ofer said, tearing off a leaf. “A name? What are we, babies?”

“Forget it; it’s totally unnecessary,” Ronny said, his gaze shifting from one face to another. Five; that was the perfect number. Not too many, not too few. He, freckle-faced Eddie, Ofer—who was also in their chemistry class; and Putty—who had introduced himself by another name when they first met in school, but the nickname had stuck to him and it was so perfect—and Ronny didn’t even remember why—that he had long forgotten his real name. The last one was Shai, who was the only one from the neighborhood that Ronny had decided to invite to join. He was one of Ronny’s biggest admirers – the strongest of them all – and strength was something they could certainly use.

“Fine, so forget the name,” Eddie conceded. “How and when do we start?”
“Tomorrow.”

They all looked at Ronny.

“Where?”

“At our neighbor—the school,” he said, his arms folded. “We let them have a month’s peace, and now, we’re going back.”

“But you said they put bars on that window,” Eddie countered.

“We wouldn’t have been going in that way anyway. We’re all too big.”

“Do you want me to break the door?” Shai asked cautiously. He knew that it wasn’t his abundance of wisdom or his pocket money that had made Ronny include him in their plans. If he wouldn’t prove himself and his muscles, he would be sent packing. And that would be too bad. But to break down a Mul-t-lock steel door?

“No, it’s a pretty serious door,” Ronny said with a wave of his hand. Shai breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “We’ll deal with the yard, without going in. What do you guys suggest?”

They tossed around a few ideas and decided to go ahead with all of them.

***

Rafi put his briefcase down on the green chair and turned to face his neighbor. “What?” he asked tonelessly.

“I said good morning,” the boy said.

“Oh,” Rafi said and opened the pencil case that Nava had bought him.

“Where do you live?”

“Now in Givat Shaul,” Rafi said and took out the purple pen.

“And before that?”

“What’s it your business?”

“You’re right, it’s not,” the boy said and took out his siddur. Rafi took his out as well. Mr. Cohen had explained to him what each one of the books that they put in his briefcase were for. Yesterday, and the day before, he hadn’t opened it at all. The teacher had come and opened it for him, and showed him what the other children were saying. He told him to put his finger on the place, like everyone, and Rafi had complied, but he left his finger there until everyone closed their siddurim.

He sat quietly most of the time, except for once, yesterday, when he had gone out to take a drink. The teacher asked him afterwards where he had gone, and when he heard that Rafi had been thirsty, he told him that next time he should ask permission, and he’d gladly let him go. Maybe it was a good idea, so they wouldn’t get angry at him. Maybe the regular punishment here was also being sent to the principal, and although in his other school he didn’t care about gong to the principal when he did what he wanted, he preferred it didn’t happen here. Meanwhile, the principal hadn’t figured out who his new student was, and the less they saw of each other the better, Rafi figured.

He understood the lessons well, when he wasn’t dreaming. Not everything, but a lot. Mr. Cohen was very happy when he knew things, and it was nice to know that he was pleased with him.

“Come down with me during recess and I’ll show you where our class plays, okay?” the boy suddenly asked. “Are you good at soccer?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to play with you,” Rafi snapped, looking at his seatmate properly for the first time. He had curly, short hair, and behind his ears, his hair was long, like Mr. Cohen’s. He had thick glasses, the type Rafi was always happy he didn’t have, because they would have just been a reason for his classmates to laugh at him.

But it didn’t seem like the kids here laughed at this boy. He heard him all the time during recess and he sounded fine.

“It’s great that you’re good at it!” the boy said. “You really should play with us. You can be on my team. We don’t play real soccer, but it’s almost the same. Wait! Maybe you want to be on Eldad Golani’s team?”

“It makes no difference,” Rafi said with a closed expression, and leafed through his siddur, looking for someplace where he could doodle with his purple pen.

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