Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 23 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
The sun dipped behind the tiled roofs. A wind whipped up scraps of paper into a macabre dance.
“I haven’t davened Minchah yet,” Nava suddenly remembered. “Is there a shul in the area?”
“There is, but I don’t think that the ladies’ section is open now,” Batya Schindler said and looked up. “I haven’t davened yet either. Do you have a siddur on you?”
“Yes,” Nava said, tightening her grip on her bag.
“Maybe we should go back to the seamstress,” Batya suggested. “Actually, we can go into one of these buildings and daven in the stairwell.”
“Okay,” Nava agreed. “Let’s go into this building. No, this one!” There was a trace of panic in her abrupt movements as she dragged Batya along with her, but the latter did not notice.
“Wait a minute.” Batya stopped her. “I think that girl is calling you, isn’t she?”
“Maybe,” Nava said, her expression inscrutable. She had no choice but to turn and wave to Rina, who was just slamming the car door and holding onto Danny’s mitten-clad hand. She approached them.
“Hi, Nava! What are you doing here?” Rina smiled at Nava and her friend. “You’ve come for a visit? How nice!”
Nava smiled back and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Batya, my sister-in-law, Rina,” she said tersely.
“Oh, nice to meet you!” Batya said, looking Rina up and down from head to toe; not a single detail evaded her gaze.
“So, are you coming up? Danny! You didn’t say hello to Nava! Have you forgotten her already?”
The child giggled at Nava through the knitted hat that covered most of his face.
“That’s a good idea, actually,” Batya said with relief. “Nava came with me to the seamstress and neither of us have davened Minchah yet. It’s going to be shkiah soon.”
Rina looked at them both. “So let’s go. There’s plenty of room in my house. But I’m not sure I have anything to serve you, Nava.”
“That’s fine,” her young sister-in-law answered, her face pale. “Is Shimon home?”
“No, he gets home very late today.”
Nava felt an incredible urge to bite her nails. She had dropped the habit over six years ago, but sometimes, when she felt uncertain, confused, or uncomfortable, that inexplicable urge rose again. What should she do now? At least Shimon wasn’t there, but Abba and Ima would be very unhappy to hear that she had visited her brother’s house—and had brought a friend with her, no less!
But there didn’t seem to be much of a choice. Batya was already chatting amiably with Rina, telling her about the Russian seamstress who was sewing her dress for her sister’s wedding for a laughable price. Well, Rina was an expert at making people feel comfortable, and Batya didn’t look like she had any inhibitions about talking too much. There was no choice. They’d go up, daven, and then leave right away.
“How’s Rafi?” Rina asked as the elevator began to ascend.
“Baruch Hashem. Where do you leave Danny on Tuesdays?” She smiled, somewhat woodenly, at her nephew.
“A nice girl comes to watch him. It’s probably better that way, no?”
Nava had no idea what she was referring to. Was it better that Danny and Nava didn’t see each other now? It had been more than a month already since that babysitting arrangement had ended. Was it better not to take Danny out of the house on cold days? Was it better that a strange girl should watch him? Why? Hadn’t Rina been happy with her? Or perhaps she simply meant that they had decided to stop the arrangement so as not to confuse Rafi with familiar figures from his past and not to direct their attention to another child who suddenly appeared. Is that what Rina meant?
They entered the house. “I have a siddur here,” Rina said to Batya. “Recognize it, Nava?”
Yes. Nava recognized the siddur that Abba and Ima had bought Rina as one of her engagement gifts. It was bound in light-colored—almost white—leather, and a pretty silver plate adorned the front cover. A kallah’s siddur. The question was how often this kallah had used it, if at all.
“It’s almost new,” Rina said as she proffered it to Batya. “I don’t get to use it often.”
Nava lowered her eyes to her own siddur.
“Can I offer you a cup of water?” Rina asked when the two girls took three steps back, almost in unison. She took down a package of disposable cups from a top cupboard.
“Okay,” Nava said meekly. Rina was really making an effort to get it right. But that just made things more complicated. If she would have been cold, or even hostile, things would have been so much simpler. Her friendly attitude was the cause of all the problems.
“So, are you girls classmates?”
“Yes,” Bayta said and quickly made a brachah on the drink.
“Amen!” Danny hollered as he leaped up onto his chair. “Right Nava says that whenever Savta Yael says words before she eats?”
Nava smiled at him, gulping down her water so fast she almost choked. She just wanted to finish and be out of there already.
“Did you also have a problem, like Nava, with the school that you applied to?” Rina asked as she sipped from her own cup. A cup just like theirs, clear, pliable, and half full of water. For Rina everything was so simple and easy. Even asking such confounding questions came easily to her.
One minute. Who said that was a confounding question? What do you know about Batya Schindler, anyway? You only know each other since the first day of school, and you haven’t become that close that you’ve shared such information with each other. Who knows why she’s in your class at this new school instead of in the big, old school?
Because. I just know.
They had all arrived on the first day of school, huddling around the three doors in an effort to find their names. Nava had scanned the faces that surrounded her on all sides and hoped that she’d find them to be pleasant classmates. There were only three girls from her elementary school class in this school, and none of them were on the list where she finally discovered her own name.
She entered her classroom, taking care not to step on countless pairs of shiny, squeaky new shoes as she went. She held just a small bag with a notebook and writing implements. Only six or seven girls were in the classroom already, chatting quietly to each other or busily arranging their things; they threw an occasional curious glance at the door. She smiled causally at all of them and deliberated whether to put her bag down on one of the empty desks—of which there were plenty—or to try and find a desk-mate. She chose the latter option.
Only two of the girls sitting down were alone. One sat in the first row, a seat Nava had never liked; she turned towards the girl sitting in the fourth row. “Sitting” wasn’t the most accurate term, because the girl was actually leaning on the edge of the desk as she gazed out into the schoolyard. She seemed startled when Nava stopped and smiled in greeting.
“Hello,” the girl replied causally.
“Can I sit here?” Nava placed her finger on the edge of the desk.
“There’s room,” the girl agreed expressionlessly and went back to the window.
Nava sat down, staring at the door and at a girl who was pontificating animatedly to some other girls in the hallway just outside the classroom. She hadn’t yet been introduced to Devoiry Katzenelenbogen.
“My name is Nava Cohen,” she said to the girl beside her, and hoped that she didn’t look too foolish, introducing herself without being asked.
“Nice to meet you,” the girl replied, and Nava was relieved to discover that she did have a semblance of manners. But she didn’t reply with her own name.
“And who are you?” Nava asked. If, in order to make conversation, she would have to extract answers like pulling teeth, so be it. She wouldn’t sit here quietly, smiling at the girls who came in. That would be equivalent to announcing that this was the only place that had accepted her and that she was relieved to be here.
That was it!
At that second, Nava knew it for a fact. All the girls sitting here in uncomfortable silence were doing so because this was their place—this was the only place where they were welcome. Those who belonged to another school, and felt that they had been forced to attend this new school by some unfathomable mistake, would enter the classroom at the last minute.
And that’s when Nava found out that her desk-mate’s name was Batya Schindler.
And she also knew from that moment on that Batya belonged to “her” half of the class.
“It’s a bit complicated,” Batya said blandly to Rina.
“I’m very sorry,” Rina said, and her voice truly sounded empathetic. “I didn’t realize that this subject was so loaded for you. You told me about it very casually, Nava.”
“It’s okay,” Batya said. “You…didn’t offend me. If you want to know, I was accepted at first.”
“Yes. I had no problems. My three older sisters already went to the school that I wanted to go to. My grades were also…uh…fine.”
“She’s very smart,” Nava said, putting her empty cup down. She didn’t want Batya to be afraid to say the words “talented” or “smart” in her presence. Really!
“Nu, whatever. But one of my good friends wasn’t accepted. She was…uh…a weak student and also…” Batya realized she was headed down an awkward road. “She had a sister who went off…er…and the school was very not happy about it. So they didn’t want to accept her.”
Rina nodded, her arms folded. Nava looked nervously at the clock, wishing she could nudge Batya to move on, but she didn’t want her to think that the oh-so-familiar description offended her.
But why in the world was Batya sharing all this with Rina?
“And my friend is a really great girl!” Batya continued, and Rina kept nodding, her expression attentive. If Shimon had been there, he surely would have interrupted with a sharp barb, but he wasn’t there.
Nava regretted that he wasn’t home. If he had been in the house, they wouldn’t be there now.
“So I decided that I had to get involved on her behalf. I went to the school’s acceptance committee, but they didn’t let me in. I tried to speak to them by phone to describe how special she is, but they barely listened to me. In the end…” She smiled wanly. “In the end, I wrote a letter to the registration supervisor that if the school wouldn’t accept my friend, then…there was nothing for me there either…”
Nava listened, open-mouthed. What a stupid thing for an eighth grader to do!
“And your parents agreed to this?” Rina queried.
Batya sighed. “Obviously they were not in on my plans, which was too bad. They didn’t know what I had done until my principal called, up in arms, to report that the high school was retracting.”
“Their acceptance of me. They informed her that I …didn’t seem to be suitable for them.” Batya fell silent.
“Look, I’m a guidance counselor by profession,” Rina said slowly, leaning her chin on her closed fist. “One of the things that you have to learn is that the basic solution to any problem is to share it with someone older. I understand that you didn’t speak about your feelings with anyone else, right?”
Batya shook her head from side to side.
“That’s a shame. If you would have found someone that you relied on enough, and would have described to this person how hard and uncomfortable it was for you that the high school had accepted you and not your friend, I imagine the person would have given you the tools to deal with the difficulty. Better tools than the ones you ended up using of your own initiative.”
“I know you’re right, but it’s too late for me anyway,” Bayta said with a forced smile and rose. “Thanks, in any case.”
“Yes, for the water and the siddur,” Rina agreed and winked as she walked the two girls to the door. “Take care. Send regards at home, Nava!”
“So now you know my story, Nava,” Batya said as they walked to the bus stop, a challenging tone in her voice. “Maybe it’s time I heard yours?”
Nava smiled calmly, but her muscles tensed to the point where they hurt. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was bothering her, but there was something there, for sure. “My story? Something like what happened with your friend,” she said and sat down on the yellow bench, shoving her freezing cold hands into her jacket pockets. “My marks, you know, more or less. I have no sisters, but I have a brother, whose lifestyle, unfortunately, you’ve just seen.”
“Do you ever ask your sister-in-law for advice?” Batya asked, as she toyed with the bag from the seamstress.
“Totally not.” Nava looked at the bus passing in the opposite direction. “I don’t think she’s the person to help me with my problems.”
“But she’s so eidel!”
“So what.” Nava bit her lip.
“Fine, so you must have this wonderful mother who you can share everything with!” Batya said bitterly. “My mother doesn’t take me seriously since this story. She thinks, apparently, that I’m still a baby. She’s always nosing around to make sure I don’t do any other foolish things.”
Nava bit her lip again. “By the way, what school did your friend go to in the end?”
Batya laughed. “After tons of pressure by her parents, she’s in the big high school. So at least I did something for her, as foolish as it was.” A suspicious gleam appeared in her eye.
“I gave her my slot; don’t you think that’s something?”
The water surrounded him on all sides. He tried to push it away, but except for a spray of drops that wet his face, he made no progress. He tried to walk, to get to the other side, the dry side, but the water was too strong.
“I need to get to the other side!” he screamed. “Let me pass!” The water laughed at him. On the other side, where there was no water, he saw Mrs. Cohen waving to him, motioning for him to join her.
“I can’t!” he screamed. “The water doesn’t let me go!”
Nava suddenly appeared, standing beside Mrs. Cohen. “Pick up your legs, high!” she screamed and held up a large bucket in a strange color. It was really white, but it had letters of all colors plastered all over it. “If you read what it says here, I’ll take all the water away!” she said loudly and pointed to the huge bucket.
“I don’t know how!” He squinted his eyes, which were hurting, and beat the water back angrily. “I don’t know how to read! Stop!” In the background, he could hear his old classmate Avi’s cackling laughter.
Nava threw the bucket down and turned away. Rabbi Perlmutter, his teacher, folded his arms and looked at him with narrowed eyes.
The water began to climb higher, wetting his shoulders, neck and face. “Mrs. Cohen!” he screamed. “Get me out of this water!”
Mrs. Cohen smiled and waved at him. Avi whistled loudly. The water kept rising.
Avi whistled again.
“Enough already with that whistling!” Rafi said and sat up in bed. “I can do it better than you!”
He heard the whistle again, very loudly this time. He opened his eyes wide and turned towards the door of his room. The house was quiet and dark. He got up with a sigh and walked over to the window, pulling the shade up slowly. He saw a figure on the sidewalk across the street, looking back at him.
Rafi turned back into the room and picked up the clothes that Mrs. Cohen had prepared on the chair for him, sighing again. Maybe he could just throw his coat over his pajamas? Did he really have to start getting dressed now? With the tzitzis, and all?
He sat down on the bed, rubbing his eyes vigorously. Yes; when someone wears tzitzis, Hashem watches over him, and he really wanted Hashem to watch over him now. Quickly—and clumsily—he dressed and left the room, turning towards Mr. and Mrs. Cohen’s room. He stood silently at the door and listened for a few seconds to their peaceful breathing. He then walked silently towards the front door, pausing for a moment at Nava’s door. She was also sleeping. He wished he could scream and wake them all up and tell them that Ronny was waiting for him outside and he didn’t want to go anywhere with him!
But he knew that he wouldn’t do it; no way. Ronny would catch up to him in the end.
He thought for another moment, and then hurried back to the door of his room. He pulled it closed and locked it with the key that was always in the door on the outside. He put the key in his pocket and tiptoed down the hall. If the Cohens would wake up and pass by his room, he would be better off if they saw a locked door than if they saw his empty bed. He would come up with an excuse in the morning if they asked him why he wanted to sleep with the door locked. Explaining where he had disappeared to would be a lot harder.
Nava’s eyes snapped open. Could she have heard the door to the house close?
Nonsense; it must have been part of her dream. She wasn’t a scaredy-cat—she never had been, and had no intentions of becoming one now. It never bothered her that her room was so close to the front door, and she wasn’t one to get up and see if the door was locked. She wouldn’t get up now, either, to see if her family’s silver was still in the china closet, because that would be a clear victory for fear.
Her vision cleared and she stopped squinting; she put her head back down on the pillow and closed her eyes, but sleep eluded her. She wasn’t like Rafi, who woke up from every little thing but fell asleep easily, too. When she woke up—which didn’t happen often—she had a hard time falling back asleep.
She hoped that she hadn’t caused any damage by going up to Rina’s apartment yesterday. Abba and Ima would be very unhappy if they learned that she and Batya had been there. But what could she have done under the circumstances? She didn’t convey Rina’s regards and hoped that Rina would never ask if they had received it. She probably wouldn’t. Since Danny had stopped coming, she and Rina had hardly had any opportunities to meet.
She turned over to the other side, trying to picture sheep gallivanting across the wall in herds, but not a single sheep appeared. She tried to remember the flowing waterfall she had photographed on their last school trip, but it refused to flow in her mind’s eye. The voice of Morah Ayala—who had turned out to be a very capable guidance advisor—blurred in her mind and then disappeared. The darkness in front of her eyes remained almost empty. All she could envision was Rafi’s smiling face, laughing at her quietly.
Well, it was clear that he had difficulty reading, and no one was surprised yesterday when his teacher had called. But until now, it had been something undefined and unproven that was almost never mentioned. When Rabbi Perlmutter called, the problem became official.
Abba said that perhaps she should practice reading with Rafi, and Ima asked if it wouldn’t be better for Rafi to go to a professional instead. Abba responded that the teacher had said that it didn’t seem to be a real problem; it was only because he hadn’t practiced when he had learned to read the first time—there had been no one to practice with him. Nava could be the perfect one for the job. If they would see that it didn’t work, they’d try something more serious.
“How do I teach him to read?” she had asked tentatively.
“You can ask Finkelstein from the third floor if he has worksheets or written material. I think he’s a cheder rebbi,” Ima had said, and Abba had agreed that it was a good idea.
Poor Abba and Ima, Nava thought. They had dreamed that this boy would realize their dreams, and he, too, was disappointing them, just like she had.
Little did she know that at that moment, “this boy” was sitting on a motorbike which darted down the darkened street, and he was grasping tightly and fearfully to the back of the older boy in front of him.
“No!” Rafi repeated.
“I said yes!” Ronny whispered fiercely. “And we’d better get a move on. They might be getting up soon there, in your house. How do you think they’re going to like finding out what a little criminal has been living with them?”
“No problem; take me back,” Rafi said quietly, grasping firmly onto one of the metal poles that protruded from the ground, part of the groundwork for a fence that was supposed to surround the caravan. They were enveloped in darkness. And silence.
“Very funny,” Ronny snapped impatiently. “Remind me to laugh, when I have time. You coming?”
One of the four boys who sat on the huge rocks scattered in the shul’s yard listened to the exchange with amusement. Another one stood up. “Maybe explain to us,” he said calmly, “instead of just muttering ‘no, no, no’ the whole time. Tell us: why not?”
“Because it’s a shul,” Rafi said vehemently and turned to look at the others. He recognized the fat kid sitting on the side; he was one of the two who came to take him to Ronny the first time. All the others were strangers.
“Ooh, our cute little religious kid,” one of the others said; even in the dark, Rafi could see his light-colored freckles and the funny color of his hair. “But you’re not really religious, right? It’s just a show! You’re one of us! Ronny told us that you helped him a lot the other times. Show us how you do it, okay?”
“And this thing,” Ronny said, lifting Rafi’s yarmulke up scornfully with two fingers, “keep it for your new house, got it? I don’t want to see that rag when we meet.”
“Give it to me!” Rafi muttered and stared at the ground. “Give it to me this second, or else—”
“Yeah? Or else what, exactly?”
“Come on, Ronny!” the freckled one said “Give the cute little religious boy his beanie. I don’t think we have time to waste on it. There’s something more important that we haven’t decided what to do about yet.”
Ofer, the only one who hadn’t yet said a word (except for Shai, who never got involved when he was with them), continued to sit silently. Ronny let the velvet yarmulke fall to the ground.
“Okay,” the black-haired, black-eyed fellow said. “Listen to me, Rafi. My name is Puti and I want to talk to you, you know, man to man. What are you suggesting we do? Remember, we are not asking you to ruin sefarim or anything like that. Just make a mess, like you did in your school. Is that so bad?”
Rafi put his yarmulke back on his head after shaking it out vigorously and nodded.
“Hashem is there. He will see me.”
“And when you went with me, He didn’t see?” Ronny snickered angrily.
“He saw,” Rafi said and pushed the metal pole back and forth, looking into the eyes of the silent boy. “But I didn’t know it then. Besides, you know very well that I didn’t have a choice.”
“Well, you don’t have a choice now either, idiot!” Ronny’s patience had snapped. “No problem. I’ll let you go in another minute, and we’ll go right over to your school and draw a huge red face with its tongue sticking out and we’ll write ‘Rafi Zimmer’ all over the walls. And then we put a letter into the Cohens’ mailbox; it’s gonna be a ree-aa-lly interesting letter. Is that what you want?”
Rafi tightened his grip on the pole with one hand and held onto his yarmulke with the other. A fierce wind was howling.
“Listen, Ronny,” Ofer said. “I have a suggestion.”
“Ah, I forgot about you,” Ronny sneered from between gritted teeth. “What do you suggest?”
“My brother was supposed to live here, in a new building on this block. It’s a huge building and they invested a fortune in it, and the contractor planned to sell it only to secular people. I’m not going into the details now, but in the end, my brother decided not to buy it at the last minute, and now the whole building, and I mean the whole thing, is full of Chareidim. What do you say we decorate the building a bit? Let’s do our bit to stop the spread of those Chareidim!”
Ronny didn’t let go of Rafi’s shoulder. “An apartment building is nothing,” he said, waving off the idea and glancing at his watch. “I wanted something more official, something that will make a lot of people really mad! Not a stupid building with a few families. Let’s go, Rafi, enough of your nonsense!”
Eddie Newman glanced at the boy’s face. Not a muscle moved. Neither did his legs.
“Listen, Ronny,” he said, clapping his friend on the shoulder amicably. “We don’t have much time left tonight anyway. Let’s do what Ofer suggests, and before the next time, we’ll do a bit more research on this young man’s preferences.”
Rafi cast him a fleeting look and then lowered his eyes again.
“So, no shuls, you say, little religious guy?”
“No,” Rafi whispered, slowly letting out his breath.
“Okay, so if you’re all for Ofer’s idea, I won’t be the one to stop it. Hold it a minute; who’s in favor of going to the building?”
Three fingers shot theatrically into the air: Ofer, Eddie, and Puti.
“Who thinks that we should stick to the original plan?”
Two fingers: Shai and Ronny, of course.
“Wait a minute! Our little boy here forgot to vote!” Eddie said, feigning surprise.
“Where do you want to go, Rafi?”