Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 32 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
Chapter Thirty Two
Manny entered the Rav’s room.
“How are you, Reb Manny?” the Rav asked with a warm smile. “How’s Rafi?”
“Baruch Hashem, he’s progressed very nicely,” Mr. Cohen replied. “We are very satisfied with him, but my wife says she thinks something has been bothering him lately. She tried to ask him if everything is alright, and he said it is, but she claims that she has the distinct feeling that he is very worried about something.”
The Rav’s forehead creased in concentration. “Do you also see it?”
“I’m not home most of the day,” Manny said, almost apologetically. “I try to speak to Rafi as much as I can when I do come home, though, and I didn’t notice anything unusual.”
“What do you talk about with him?”
Manny paused. “I ask him how his day went and tell him about interesting things that happened to me,” he said thoughtfully. “Sometimes we have deeper conversations, as deep as you can get with a child his age. Emunah, hashkafah, things like that.”
The Rav nodded. “Has your wife tried to ask him again about this?”
“No. She’s not the type to pressure. She says that she doesn’t want to forcibly extract anything from him, and if he wants to tell her, he’ll find the opportunity to do so.”
“And can you ask him?”
Manny fixed his gaze on the lace tablecloth that covered the wooden table.
“I’m not sure,” he said finally. “We have a good relationship, but if he didn’t answer my wife, I doubt he’ll prefer to tell me.”
“It’s not good for a child to keep such burdensome secrets,” the Rav said. Then he added, “And it’s not good that he doesn’t trust you enough, Reb Manny.”
“I know,” Mr. Cohen replied. “I’m not happy about it either.”
“In order for a child to trust his parents, he has to feel secure in their love,” the Rav said solemnly, “and unfortunately, in this generation, so many of our biological children have a problem with this, so how much more so with an adopted child, like your own. Does Rafi know that you love him?”
“I think so.” Manny raised his gaze. “Even if I don’t always find the way to express it, my wife and daughter tell it to him a lot.”
“Try to tell him this yourself, as well,” the Rav said, nodding slowly. “It’s very important. He’s adopted, right? Is it final?”
“Not exactly. He’s a foster child.”
“What does that mean?”
“That it’s not so permanent.”
“Who decides whether it becomes permanent or not?”
Manny folded his hands together. “Usually the Welfare Ministry and the biological family. In this case, though, it is contingent almost entirely on us.”
“That means that it’s permanent.” The Rav moved the pile of sefarim on the desk over a bit.
“I think so. We are very pleased with him, baruch Hashem.”
The Rav raised a piercing set of eyes and looked at Manny. “Is his permanence in your house dependent on your level of satisfaction?”
Manny was silent for a moment. “It’s natural to make sure that he is suitable for us, isn’t it?” he finally asked.
“Natural? Possibly, but how do you expect to bring up a child who knows that the bond between him and you, and your love for him, are dependent on his each and every action?” The Rav pressed his hand to his forehead. “Have you thought about what kind of terrible pressure the child must be under? And you expect him to be open with you and speak about what is bothering him?” He sighed. “Children need to be confident and secure in their parents’ love, Reb Manny. It is the basis of chinuch. A child cannot grow up in a healthy fashion if he knows that his father only loves him when he behaves nicely and brings home test papers with top marks.”
“We appreciate him and like him very much, irrespective of his grades,” Manny said meekly.
“It’s not enough,” the Rav said, and his usually gentle, soft voice suddenly took on a firm and assertive tone. “Speak to him. Tell him that you are keeping him for good, and it doesn’t matter what he will be or what he does.”
“But then he’ll be whatever he wants!”
The Rav smiled thinly. “True, but then you will know if you succeeded in getting him to be what you want him to be. If he only keeps Shabbos because he doesn’t want you to throw him out of the house, that’s not chinuch, Reb Manny; that’s training. You’ve trained him to do what you want, not more. I’m not saying that one doesn’t sometimes use this method in chinuch. It is necessary, especially at first, but one must not mistakenly think that this is what chinuch is.”
Manny nodded silently.
“I say this to regular parents, as well. Tell your children that you love them, not because they are good and not because they washed the dishes or went to sleep on time. You love them just because they are your children, nothing more. Do you know how much a child needs these words, especially a child who has so many good reasons to be afraid that everything he receives is contingent on his behavior?” There was a clear thread of rebuke in his words.
“And what about, ‘Ma’asecha yekarvucha, ma’asecha yerachakucha—your actions will bring you close and your actions will distance you’?” Manny asked cautiously.
“That is only when it comes from true love and from a desire to be mechanech, and it doesn’t mean physically distancing a child out of anger when he doesn’t listen to the parent. The child can’t get the message that you don’t want to see him now because of his behavior. You have to tell your son that he is yours now, and it doesn’t matter what the documents say. He has to know that you consider him yours, that you want him, and that there won’t be any changes. Without that, it will be very hard for you to gain his trust.”
Manny nodded again, slowly. His eyes remained fixed on the holes in the tablecloth.
“And I believe, Reb Manny,” the Rav said with an encouraging smile, sensing that the man needed him to evince a smile, “that you will succeed, b’ezras Hashem. You have a solid, warm, good home. I am sure that the child is truly being brought up well and not only trained. Just give him a bit more confidence to trust you, and Hashem will help all the problems be resolved.”
Manny wanted to say, “What problems? It’s just a feeling that Yael has. I didn’t even feel anything!” But when faced with the piercing gaze and equally piercing words of the Rav, he didn’t say another word on the subject.
Sarah came for her regular visit and discovered Rafi standing on a small stool and placing into the freezer the containers that Yael was handing him.
“Wonderful! I see that you’re being very helpful,” Sarah said with a smile and placed her huge leather bag down on the floor.
“Yes,” Rafi replied with the same frozen tone he always used when he spoke to her; it had nothing to do with the fact that he was standing next to an open freezer.
“I thought you’d come with me to visit your mother. Would you like to?”
Yael released the switch on the electric kettle. “I think that it would be better if you could inform us in advance of such a visit, don’t you think?” she asked carefully. “I don’t think you should take Rafi there without letting him know ahead of time.”
Sarah didn’t react at first. “I just raised the suggestion, Mrs. Cohen,” she said. “I wanted to see Rafi’s reaction. So, Rafi, what do you say?”
“A different time,” he said with pinched lips and closed the freezer door. “I have too much work to do here today.”
Yael focused her gaze on the kettle, which had begun to silently emit steam, and the box of crackers she was planning to serve her guest. She just hoped that Rafi wouldn’t start boasting about all he had done here the past week. He had helped happily, without even being asked, but there was always the possibility that the social worker would perceive it as though they were taking advantage of him, overworking him or who knew what else.
“I’m sure that if it’s too hard for you, Mrs. Cohen will let you stop,” Sarah said pleasantly. “Right, Mrs. Cohen?”
“Stu—…You don’t understand. I only clean when I want to, and I rest whenever I want. It has nothing to do with Mrs. Cohen. She always lets me do what I want.”
“Really? Do you like to take nighttime walks here, too?”
Rafi turned his back on her and jumped off the stool. “And now I’m going to play on my organ. You can talk as much as you like here, but don’t finish all the crackers.”
“How’s his mother doing?” Yael asked, setting down a glass plate of crackers and two Styrofoam cups on the kitchen table. What could she do? It was almost Pesach, but she couldn’t very well ask Sarah to eat on the folding table in the hallway.
“There’s no improvement. Since Rafi’s come here, she’s been hospitalized, released, and then hospitalized again. It’s a miracle we got him out of there in time, because her problems have only grown worse. People in her condition who have family sometimes manage to survive somehow, out there, in the normal world. She doesn’t have too many chances.”
“She has no parents? Siblings?”
“She has no parents. There’s a brother in South America somewhere, but they have no contact.”
Light knocking disrupted the conversation. Yael rose to open the door for Manny, who took off his jacket and hung it silently on the hook near the door. He looked dejected.
“Is everything okay?” his wife whispered.
“Baruch Hashem,” he replied and turned to the kitchen, greeting Sarah with a nod.
“I get the impression that Rafi is happy here,” Sarah noted with a smile and took a sip of her coffee.
“I’m happy to hear that,” Manny replied. He remained standing near the door, casting a questioning glance at his wife, who returned to her seat. “I wanted to know,” he began, turning for a second towards the dining room, where he could hear Rafi’s loud notes playing, “whether there is any way we can permanently adopt him.”
Sarah paused for a moment before she replied. “There’s a chance, yes, especially in light of the fact that no one else is claiming responsibility for him. The question is what advantages it will have over the current arrangement. In any case, most of the decisions regarding his upbringing are currently in your hands.”
“Right,” Manny said, looking at the doorway again, “but I think it will give him a more stable feeling.”
On Friday morning, Aharon Yaakovi arrived at the shul at the appointed time. The organization’s coordinator was very pleased at his active involvement, and told him that he was being appointed the “foreign secretary,” or rather, supervisor of all the children who were not from their neighborhood. Right now there was only one, and Aharon devoted himself to this one child with his characteristic energy.
They had decided to begin learning today at eleven, same time as yesterday, when they had first met. Aharon hoped he’d manage to extract more information from the child today without putting him under pressure. Aharon was fully aware that Rafi was a cautious, suspicious child, and he would need to be very careful and thoughtful in order to get him to share what he had been doing that night with those boys.
Rafi looked awful. His legs fidgeted nervously under the bench, and it was obvious that he wasn’t listening to a word Aharon was saying. Aharon continued for another moment, and then closed the Mishnayos. “Rafi,” he asked directly, “what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Rafi said and opened the sefer. “You can go on.”
“I can learn alone in my own house,” Aharon said and closed the sefer again.
Rafi didn’t grasp the barb. “And here you’re learning with me. What do you want?”
“I want you to tell me why you are so distracted.”
Rafi fixed him with a glare. “Continue,” was all he said, and reopened the sefer.
“No,” Aharon said and closed it, placing his hand on the cover. “I came to learn with you, Rafi, and I see that I’m learning myself. You’re not listening to me!”
Rafi leaned back on the bench, sizing Aharon up out of the corner of his eye. His fingers wriggled in his pockets uneasily.
“What’s making noise in your pocket?” Aharon asked.
“Nothing. Just a bag,” Rafi said and took out a wrinkled, white plastic bag with red letters. “If you want to learn with me and give me prizes, then let’s continue, and if not, then I’m going home.” Rafi stuffed the bag back into his pocket, crumpling it into a little ball.
“You want the prize? Sure,” Aharon said and took out a small flashlight keychain. “I can start with the prize if you like. Do you have a flashlight like this?”
“No,” Rafi said as his fingers closed around the keychain.
“I think it’s a very useful present,” Aharon said as he stood up and walked outside. Rafi followed him. “For example, you can use it on trips to caves, or when you go out at night.”
Rafi’s deep green eyes were fixed on him. “I don’t go out at night anywhere,” he said quickly. Too quickly.
“And on trips?”
“I sometimes take trips. But only when it’s light. Tell me, did Nava talk to you?”
“Nava?” Aharon was not faking it; he really was puzzled. “Who’s that?”
“Good; so she didn’t. Nava is my sister. I just wanted to know if she talked to you.”
“What would she talk to me about?”
“And how is that connected to flashlights and trips and walks at night?”
The silence continued.
“Nothing.” Rafi shook himself. “I’m going home. Thanks for the prize; it’s nice.”
“Wait a minute, Rafi!” Aharon said. “Today you didn’t have the patience to learn; it happens. The prize will be for the other times. But do you want to make up a time for Sunday?”
“I don’t want to learn with you anymore. Ever.”
Aharon was quiet for a moment, absorbing the latest piece of information. “What happened?” he asked finally, his mental gears turning at a frantic pace. Were the child’s senses so sharp that he had picked up on something?
“You ask so many annoying questions and I don’t like it,” Rafi said. He turned around.
“Come here a minute, Rafi,” Aharon said, grasping Rafi’s wrist. “Don’t go now. I think we should sit here for a few minutes and talk face to face. No games. I think that the conversation will do us both a lot of good.”
“Morah,” Nava said breathlessly into the phone. Ayala stopped mid-scrub. There were just a few hours and a million tasks left until the sun would set and herald in one of Ayala’s favorite Shabbosos of the year, Shabbos Hagadol.
“Yes, Nava,” she said quietly. There was no surprise in her voice.
“Morah, I need to speak to you urgently.”
“Did Sari call you?” She had no doubt about it.
“Yes, Morah, and I’m sorry I didn’t call back yesterday. The whole time…” She paused. “My brother was around the whole time, and so were my parents. Now he went out and I’m calling without him knowing, and I hope it’s okay. When I tried to ask if he agreed that I share it with someone else…he was furious. Yes, furious.”
Ayala held the mop and put a hand to her pounding head. “It’s your brother’s secret?”
“Yes, Morah.” Nava swallowed. Her throat hurt. “I have to speak to you because I don’t know what to do anymore. And…uh…Morah, please tell me… you won’t talk to anyone else about it?”
“At this point, I won’t,” Ayala said with a serious expression.
“That’s what I told Rafi,” Nava whispered. “And now, look, I’m telling.” Maybe she should tell her teacher about Batya and Rina also. Let her decide what to do about it. True, she didn’t want to be a tattletale, but she had tried to protect Rafi also, and it didn’t look like she was being very successful.
Ayala understood her very well, but decided not to respond. Nava was old enough to understand that it was probably too serious a matter to require just one conversation to solve, wasn’t she? But until she, Ayala, would hear the story, she wouldn’t speak to anyone. She hadn’t even told Ita about the sudden return of her journal.
“We’ll wait for Motza’ei Shabbos, Nava, okay?”
“Will you have time?”
“I’ll find time,” Ayala said.
The conversation ended, leaving Ayala with a half-cleaned kitchen and a throbbing headache. Her fears had been justified. Nava had known about the break-in, making it easy for her to “discover” the missing journals in the dumpster!
The thought made Ayala recoil, and she was assailed by waves of different sentiments; she could not decide which of them was more dominant: fury at Nava, fear, shock, or perhaps the pity and hesitation won out. What was her young student mixed up in? Was it just a secret between her and her younger brother, or were there others involved? How had Nava sunk into this mire, and how could she possibly be extracted?
It won’t be simple, Ayala told herself. Being a mechaneches was no simple matter, indeed.
Friday night. Manny slowly sang Shalom Aleichem and Rafi joined in from time to time. Manny did not comment on Rafi’s many silences in between words. Something was definitely bothering the boy—even Manny could see it now.
Rafi swung the chair he was standing behind, fixing his gaze on the wall opposite him. He had no choice. Tonight they would come, and for the first time in his life he would not be going out to them. He had no idea what Ronny would do about it, but already that morning, on the way to shul, when he saw the bag tied to the tree, he had decided that he didn’t have the strength for it. He wouldn’t go with them this time. Firstly, because it was Shabbos and he didn’t want to ride the motorbike, and besides, something within him had snapped. He was sick and tired of the whole story, and had not a drop of desire to go even one more time with Ronny and the others and to listen to their annoying chatter.
And the threats? And everything Ronny had told him that he would do if he didn’t cooperate? He didn’t even have the energy to think about it. He was afraid that he’d be discovered imminently in any case, that’s how bad things had gotten recently.
He didn’t even trust Nava one hundred percent. Yesterday she had begun telling him that perhaps they should speak to an adult. He regretted telling her, although it wasn’t like he’d had a choice at the time. He wouldn’t tell her anything more relating to Ronny and what was going on. He had also torn the bag off the tree quickly this morning, before she would have a chance to come down and see it herself. He didn’t want her to start nudging him again that he had no choice and that they had to tell someone.
And it wasn’t only her. That Aharon Yaakovi! Why had Rafi agreed to learn with him in the first place? Suddenly Aharon had begun asking so many questions and telling Rafi that he had seen him walking in the street with all types of teenagers. Why was it his business? Why was he sticking his nose in?
Rafi had just listened quietly, and in the end denied it all and shrugged off the accusations. It hadn’t been him and he didn’t know what Aharon was talking about, he had insisted. But it didn’t look like Aharon really believed him. Aharon had accompanied him home, told him goodbye very nicely, and said they would still talk. He’d just better not call Mr. Cohen and tell him anything!
“Rafi? Kiddush,” Nava’s father said quietly and unscrewed the wine bottle. The nine-year-old stood up straight and looked quietly at the dark liquid sloshing into the gleaming becher. Yael looked at him, perturbed. Nava’s look mirrored her mother’s.
“Everyone is so quiet tonight!” Yael said after she finished serving the fish. “Rafi? Is everything alright? Nava?”
“Baruch Hashem, yes,” Nava replied with a small smile, blinking rapidly. No, nothing was alright at all. She was going to talk to Morah Ayala on Motza’ei Shabbos and she felt awful about it. It wouldn’t stop there, she knew. What would Rafi say when he discovered that she had betrayed him? And what would Abba and Ima’s reaction be?
But she had no choice; that much she knew. She couldn’t let things go on this way. What would be if something happened and matters would continue to spiral out of control?
That night, when Ronny whistled under Rafi’s window, the shutters didn’t move and Rafi did not come scooting out of the building after a minute or two like he usually did. Ronny waited some more, whistled again, and still, the expected reaction was not forthcoming. After whistling a third time and still no Rafi, Ronny realized that his plans had gone awry, and that Rafi was not planning on coming out this time. He gritted his teeth and waited in total silence for a few more minutes, not wanting to arouse the ire of the neighbors. Only when five more minutes passed with no sign of Rafi did Ronny turn around and stalk back down the street.
He threw his leg over the seat of the motorbike and, with a squeal of the tires, pulled away from the parking spot. He didn’t care what these religious people said, and that it was Shabbos and this was their neighborhood. They wouldn’t stop him from driving where he wanted and when he wanted.
His friends noticed him approaching alone, with his lips pressed tightly together.
“He didn’t come?” Puti asked, lighting up his second cigarette for the evening.
“No, and I don’t plan on letting this pass quietly.” Ronny’s eyes were still, yet seething. Only Shai identified the fire beneath the veneer of calm.
“Hold it a minute; you’re getting carried away,” Ofer said, leaning on the fence. “Maybe his family heard you? Maybe they’re up so he couldn’t come out? Who said he heard but didn’t want to come out?”
“I just think so,” Ronny said in a low voice, resting his foot on the sidewalk. “It’s like him to do that.”
“Give him another chance,” Ofer said. “It’s not worth losing everything he gives us for one time.”
Shai was quiet.
Ronny wanted to say something, but he restrained himself. If Eddie would have been there, he would have said that most of the time, Rafi Zimmer didn’t even do anything for them, and that was really true. But Ronny’s other friends didn’t say anything of the sort. They just stood and watched as he kicked the ignition pedal of the motorbike.
“Okay,” Ronny said finally, considering his words. “We’re just gonna have to waste another night. Shai, ya coming with me to tie another bag to the tree in his yard?”
“Sure!” Shai stood up. “Where are we gettin’ a bag from?”
“We’ll find something,” Ronny said impatiently. “Nu, get on.”
The motorbike creaked under Shai’s considerable bulk. To his relief, Ronny didn’t say a thing.
The next evening, on Motza’ei Shabbos, when Rafi heard the familiar voice at the front door, he knew that it was all over; everything had been discovered. That Aharon Yaakovi had decided to come and talk to Mr. and Mrs. Cohen and tell them everything. Perhaps his decision to come was even connected to the fact that Nava had hurried out somewhere very urgently. Sure, it was urgent.
Rafi’s eyes darted between the walls of the room that seemed to be closing in around him, and then to the window—the window which Ronny would stand under in a few more hours and whistle. What would Rafi do then? Where would he be? He had quickly pulled down the bag hanging on the tree this morning, before anyone could see it. But Rafi had seen it, and that was enough. Maybe it was even forbidden to take bags down from trees on Shabbos. Was it like picking flowers?
Manny ushered Aharon into the dining room and offered him a seat.
“You have a very sweet child,” Aharon began uneasily. He didn’t know how the parents would react to the story he had to tell them, and, truth to be told, he wasn’t all that sure of himself either, at this point. The boy had been so insistent on Friday that it hadn’t been him! But Aharon had decided that the next and final stage, as far as he was concerned, was a direct conversation with the parents.
“You have to tell them,” his wife Shevy had agreed when he had told her everything two days earlier. “They can do what they want with the information. Either they’ll believe you, or they’ll believe their son. Maybe they’ll tell you that the boys were cousins with whom he had taken a walk?”
“At three-thirty in the morning?” Aharon queried, and smiled at the tiny baby lying in the cradle beside them. “In any case, Rafi claimed that it wasn’t him. Maybe the kid I saw doesn’t even live in that building? Maybe he’s older than what I imagined and is just short?”
“You tell them and let them decide,” Shevy had insisted, not knowing how much simpler it was to say her words than to carry them out.
Now, as Aharon faced Manny and Yael Cohen, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I…wanted to speak to both of you about Rafi,” he said “I wanted to tell you about something that’s bothering me.” He spoke in a whisper, unsure of what to say and how he would react if the nine-year-old would suddenly appear out of nowhere.
“That’s fine; he’s sleeping already,” Rafi’s father said, noticing his guest’s worried expression. “You can speak to us. What’s the issue?”
But Rafi wasn’t sleeping. He lay in his bed with his eyes open, his fists balled tightly under the blanket. He didn’t fall asleep easily, especially not on nights when he knew Ronny was supposed to come. And especially when he knew that tonight, once again, Ronny would leave his street very angry, because he didn’t plan to go out to him. Just like last night.
He’d heard Ronny whistle three times, each time sounding more and more annoyed. Even after a few minutes of silence after that, Rafi didn’t dare get up to peek from the window. He lay a long time under the blanket, his ears peeled as he listened for sounds of the front door being forced open by someone. To his relief, though, he heard nothing. Only an hour later did he get up and see that the street was empty and the door locked securely. Ronny had left, but he certainly didn’t forgive Rafi for what he’d done.
Perhaps he would be better off going with Ronny this time? After Aharon would tell the Cohens everything, they wouldn’t want him anyway. So why get in trouble with Ronny? If he needed to go back to Kiryat Yovel, it was better to be on good terms with Ronny. Perhaps he would even let him sleep in the little storage room, where they had met the first few times. True, he was very happy here with the Cohens, but if it was going to be all over, and he had to go back to his mother, who lived so close to Ronny, he would be in a better position if they were on good terms.
And maybe he should just leave now? He’d go out quietly, before they would have a chance to come and tell him that they didn’t want him anymore if that’s how he behaved. No, he wouldn’t wait for that moment. He’d just get up and go. Now.
Rafi sat up, feeling around in the dark for his shoes. From the open door, a dim shaft of light illuminated the room, and he could hear the conversation going on. He couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying because they were speaking rather quietly. But then he realized that there was no way he’d be able to pass by the dining room without them seeing him.
The shoe fell with a thud to the ground and Rafi hurriedly lay back down and covered himself with the blanket. If someone came because of the noise, let them think he was sleeping. But the sound of the falling shoe was not as loud as Rafi had thought it was, and no one in the dining room paid it the slightest bit of attention.
“Rafi? Are you sure it’s him?” Manny Cohen got up and began pacing the floor. “It’s very hard for me to believe.”
“At night?” Mrs. Cohen whispered in horror. “A week and a half ago? How did he leave without us knowing about it?”
“So that’s it. I’m not one hundred percent sure that it was him. You have to check that out,” Aharon said, trying to shrink back in his chair. The serious eyes of the man increased his discomfort. “I asked him and he said that it wasn’t him. If you rely on his word, then fine; I just felt I had to do my part.”
Mr. Cohen sat back down. “You don’t have to feel bad that you came to us. You did the right thing. It doesn’t look like it was him, but we’ll check out the matter thoroughly. Can you give us a few more details?”
Manny took a paper and pen and wrote every word that the young man had told him, including where he had first seen the group, a description of those involved (to the best of Aharon’s recollection), the kippah-clad boy, and the streets that they had passed on their way there.
“Here?” Mrs. Cohen cut him off. “Are you sure he entered this building?”
“Yes,” Aharon replied quietly. “Of that I am absolutely certain.”
Manny looked at what he’d written and then passed the paper to his wife. She folded the paper without looking at it and rose from her place on the couch. Manny rose as well, and Aharon realized that his role in this was over.
“Hatzlachah,” he said and smiled wanly. Mr. Cohen asked him to write his phone number down, and they parted. The air was heavy with tension.
At those exact moments, Nava was returning from Ayala’s house. The conversation she had just had hadn’t been easy, and she knew that the hardest part wasn’t yet over. It loomed ahead, towering tall and threatening above her.