Divided Attention – Chapter 21

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 21 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

Reb Nechemia patrolled the noisy yard, enjoying the sound of the children playing and the blowing breeze. He smiled when his eyes fell on the bearded man. “Oh, Reb Baruch. I wanted to speak to you quietly for a few minutes.”

“Quietly?” The cacophony around them hardly fit that description. Baruch Perlmutter smiled.

“Quiet, noise, it doesn’t really matter. As long as we can both speak, that’s fine.”

They moved closer to the wall of the building. Reb Baruch looked at the tree, which stood sentry beside them. “What do the police say, Rabbi Paksher?”

“The police? They say…all sorts of things. Nu, it’s not the police we trust. How’s your new student doing? Have you taken a look at his bruise?”

Perlmutter’s face grew serious. “You can’t miss it. I asked him about it, but he insisted that it was just a bump from the wall and nothing else.”

“Does that make sense to you?”

Reb Baruch mulled the question over for a minute. “I think so,” he said slowly. “It didn’t look like he was hiding anything. But that’s not all.”

“Meaning?” The principal stroked his beard.

His expression turned grim as he heard the rest of the story. “How did you react?” he asked the teacher.

“At first I was very surprised. After all, until now, he was such a quiet boy. I haven’t had any chutzpah or discipline problems with him, and except for a few normal spats with his classmates, things have been very smooth.”

“Spats? Including hitting?”

“Yes. And he sure is good at that.”

The principal folded his arms. “And what did you do this time?”

“I decided not to ignore it, of course, but not to make too big a deal of it either.”

“Smart move,” the principal said, his hand never leaving his beard.

“And I asked him to bring a note from his parents.”

“You mean his foster parents.”

“Yes, you’re right. The foster parents.”

With his left hand, the principal grabbed a small ball that flew through the air and smiled—part in rebuke, part mischievously—at a seventh grader who came to retrieve it. “Careful—teachers crossing!” he said cheerfully, and turned back to the rebbe. “Have you had any contact with Mr. Cohen yet?”

“He called me once, a few days after Rafi came into my class.”

“What kind of impression did he make on you?”

“Very devoted,” the teacher said. “Caring.”

The principal nodded.

“I think that I’m going to have to speak to him now if there’s no improvement in a couple of days,” the teacher added.

“In his conduct?”

“No, in his reading. I suspect that the boy simply does not know how to read.”

***

The chatter died down when Ita Blumenstock stood up near the wooden cupboard.

“Ladies,” she said, as a few teachers placed their sandwiches on the table in deference to the principal. “You all remember your green journals, don’t you?”

“Yes,” a few voices said in unison, while others reacted with a distressed, “Oy!”

Ayala smiled to herself, totally at peace. She had finally caught up, more or less, to the present, and she just had to write about the field trip they had taken at the end of last week and she’d be up to this week. It wasn’t that she felt pressured by Ita, because after all, they were old friends, but that’s just the way she was. She was the type who felt obligated to meet all her commitments, even non-mandatory ones like this one. There were likely teachers who hadn’t written at all, and didn’t intend to, and they felt just fine with that. This wasn’t an assignment directly connected to their performance and function in school, and not doing it did not mean that they were any less of an excellent teacher. But she could not ignore what she had dubbed “Ita assignments.” Over the years, Ayala had not been able to decide whether this trait of hers was one of her attributes or one of her drawbacks.

“So, ladies, are you listening?” Ita asked after patiently allowing them to air out their views. “The teachers’ meeting that I planned has been postponed over and over again, but the time has finally come. And as far as the journal is concerned, every week that’s passed means you’ve written more and more, which is beneficial to us all.”

She paused. “B’ezras Hashem, in two weeks from Wednesday, we’re going to have our meeting at seven in the evening. I’m going to ask Rikki to hang a reminder here somewhere.” Her eyes scanned the walls and the door. “Take out pens and I’ll tell you about a few more things you’re going to need.”

“The journals!” one teacher exclaimed. “But Ita, what do I do if I haven’t written anything except for a description of that first teachers’ meeting we had before school actually started?”

“Quickly write down whatever you do remember,” the teacher sitting next to her suggested in commiseration. “You have anther couple of weeks.”

“You’ll have to work a bit faster than that,” Ita said. “The reason I’m telling you all this now is because I want the journals the day after tomorrow, or by the end of the week at the latest.”

Miriam Gavriel turned to Ayala, who was stirring her coffee placidly. “What’s with you, Ayala? Where are you up to?” She herself never missed a week. She didn’t write anything lengthy, nor was her style very literary, but every Sunday, when she went through her roll book to tally latenesses and absences, she wrote in her green journal. She would write down a point or two briefly and hoped that this was what Ita had had in mind.

Baruch Hashem,” Ayala replied, bringing her cup of hot coffee to her lips. “I think you could say I’ve reached my goal.”

***

The paper was full of clumsily worded sentences. Devoiry certainly wouldn’t be happy. Rafi called her from his room, but just then, the telephone rang. The girl who was to volunteer at the Leibowitz family that day wanted to know if Nava would mind switching with her this week and coming today instead of tomorrow. Nava promised her an answer within a few minutes.

How many things could she do at once?! She threw the paper into the garbage and went to find her mother.

Sure enough, Ima agreed that she could go to Leibowitz, but Rafi was disappointed. “I wanted you to study with me, Nava,” he said quietly. “I already prepared my chumash.” It was open to Parshas Terumah.

“You’re up to Terumah?” Yael asked as she sat down on Rafi’s bed. “So fast?”

Rafi closed the chumash. “I don’t know where we’re up to,” he said, sounding somewhat offended. “I don’t know anything. Anything!”

“I’ll tell Etty to try and find someone else to go to Leibowitz,” Nava said, smiling at him. “You can open the chumash again, Rafi.”

“I don’t know where to open it to, anyway,” he said.

They sat down and studied like they usually did. Nava read the pesukim and tried to explain them like he learned them in class. He seemed to know the material pretty well.

“I can see you listen really well!” his big sister complimented him, and closed the chumash. Rafi kissed it lightly.

“Tell me,” Rafi said, “is it really bad if I tell my teacher that he’s not my father?”

Nava swallowed. “I think so. Really bad,” she said with some effort. Had he decided to suddenly behave the way Sarah had described him?

“Do you think your father will be angry at me?”

“I…don’t really know,” she said honestly. Would Abba be angry? It would get him angry; that was for sure. The question was if he would show Rafi he was mad. “You said that to your teacher?”

“Yes. He asked me a thousand times how I got this bruise.” His hand touched the purplish bruise whose edges were turning yellow. “He said that to him it didn’t look like just a bang from the wall, and maybe somebody hit me and I’m afraid to tell. I got sick of it and told him that he is not my father and shouldn’t worry so much about my bruises.”

“That’s really not a …respectful answer,” Nava said carefully. “And he sounds like he was really worried. It’s not like you, Rafi; you’re such a great kid!”

Rafi grimaced. “You think that your father is going to tell Sarah to take me away from here?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said firmly. Abba wouldn’t tell Sarah—that was for sure. Rafi had captured his heart, as he had charmed her and her mother.

But what would be if this was the turning point in Rafi’s behavior, if he would start being chutzpadik and fighting, and not listening to her parents? For how long would her father’s love hold out? He loved Shimon, with all his problems. He loved her despite her drawbacks, but Rafi had come here on probation! “If we see that it goes well, we’ll continue,” Abba had told Rina simply in the beginning. “We’re just trying it out.”

Would the trial end up in a failure?

And what would happen to Rafi?

“Would you tell him for me?” the would-be-nine-year-old-in-two-weeks asked.

“Tell him what?”

“What I just told you. I need a note from him for school.”

Nava sighed. “Rafi, listen to me. My father loves you, like we all do, but he’s really not going to like this story. You have to promise him—seriously—that it won’t happen again.” The boy listened to her, his gazed fixed on a stain on the table. “I want you to be a good boy. I don’t want my father to ever be angry at you.”

He continued staring at the stain.

***

The bowl of onion-flavored snacks was being emptied at a rapid pace. “These are really somethin’, Eddie,” Ronny said, and grabbed the last few pieces from the bowl. “Show me the package afterwards. Now, our next hit will be tomorrow, or the next day, depending on when I meet our little collaborator.”

“How are you planning to meet him?” Puti leaned back on the puffy pillow that was tossed haphazardly on the rug in Eddie’s room.

“I’ll wait for him outside our school.”

“How will you know when he gets dismissed?” Ofer asked.

“We hear their bells perfectly, don’t we? I’ll go out and see if he leaves.”

Shai sat cross-legged on the edge of the rug, his gaze flitting from one boy to the next.

“So we’re starting from that caravan that those religious guys plopped down on our block and made into a synagogue. Anyone have any special requests, anywhere they want us to take care of? My plan is to hit as many locations in the city as we can, but if someone has a preference for a certain place, no prob.”

“You remember that community center I told you about?” Eddie asked, standing up with the empty bowl and heading to the kitchen for a refill. “The one that a new girls’ school took over, around the corner?”

“Got it down,” Ronny said with a broad smile. “How ’bout you, Ofer? Anything?”

“Well, there’s one place that I don’t want us to touch.”

“Whazzat?”

“The caravan. The synagogue.”

“Ah, you traditional or something, Ofer?” Ronny’s voice oozed with scorn. “I didn’t know. I’m so sorry if I offended your sensitivities.”

“I don’t know myself what I am,” Ofer protested, “but you don’t touch a synagogue. It doesn’t only belong to religious people!”

“So you have two options,” Ronny said coolly, sticking his hand into the refilled bowl in the center of the rug. “Either the grandma who told you that stuff won’t know what her grandson is really doing, or her grandson will stay home when we go there. I’m not giving up on it, Ofer. It’s too perfect for what we want. It has a small window, the perfect size for Zimmer, and it’s in a really quiet spot. At twelve midnight it’s as deserted as a cemetery, and at three, it’s quieter than a grave.”

***

Nava was right.

“I’m happy to see that you realize that this was a very serious thing,” Mr. Cohen said in a solemn tone, and lifted Rafi’s face—which had filled out nicely over the past few weeks—to look at him. “And I’m sure you’re not going to do it again, right?”

“Right,” Rafi said in a small voice.

“You have to talk to teachers with derech eretz, with respect.”

“Like to Sarah.”

Manny smiled. “Like to Sarah, if not more. So, what would you like me to write, Rafi?” He held Rafi’s student calendar that Nava had bought him, a pen poised over the page.

“Write it here,” Rafi said, pointing to an empty box on the bottom of the page. “Write, ‘Rafi promises to behave with derech….’—what did you call it?”

Derech eretz, Rafi,” Yael said quietly and pinched his cheek. “We’re sure you’re going to stick to your word.”

“Okay, so write it,” Rafi said, suddenly lifting his gaze. “And do you let me hit a boy from sixth grade tomorrow?”

Nava looked up from her plate.

“Because I told him I would, and Mrs. Cohen, you just said that I have to stick to my word.”

“She meant good promises only, Rafi,” Manny said seriously, waving the pen. For some reason, he felt an urge to smile, but was relieved that he was able to quash it before it reached his lips. “Why do you want to hit him?”

“Because he started up with Meir Cooperman, and that’s not fair! He’s such a big kid picking on a little weakling! I promised Meir that I’ll get back at the kid for him.”

“Not worth it,” Mr. Cohen said in a measured tone. “Not a good idea at all. Tell Meir that we don’t want you to fight with other kids, okay?”

“Fine,” Rafi said obediently, taking his calendar and putting it back in his knapsack.

“Have you finished eating already?” Manny asked, not inquiring about the brachah even though the words were on the tip of his tongue. Reb Shlomo had told him to let the child learn from his surroundings.

“If he’ll be happy with you, he will want to imitate you and be like you,” he had said.

“But everything will be only external,” Manny had argued heatedly.

Mitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah,” the Rav had said. “From doing things for the wrong reasons, he will come to doing things for the right reasons. You will create the atmosphere, and Hashem will help that the boy will come around on his own.”

Now, Manny watched as Rafi nodded his head.

“Yes, I finished eating. I want to learn chumash with you!” he said cheerfully, glancing at the tray of cookies that Yael was pulling out of the oven. Rafi knew she would serve them as he learned with Mr. Cohen, with a cup of hot chocolate. “But one minute; I just have to bentsch.”

He took one of the bentschers from the shelf, opened it, swayed back and forth for a minute and then closed it. “I’m coming!”

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