Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication
Chani’s coffee cup was almost empty, yet she continued—absently—to stir the dregs of the pale liquid.
The slamming of the door shook her out of her tranquil musings.
“Simi?” she called out. Simi was the only one who could be coming in now. Yitzi and Yehudis, usually the first ones to come in, were home already. Shragi was in yeshivah, and Gershon wasn’t expected home for some time yet.
Yes, it was Simi. The tall girl entered the dining room, and the creases that wreathed her forehead indicated that she was angry. Furious, actually.
“Hi, Ima, what’s doing?”
“Everything’s fine, baruch Hashem.” Chani smiled, and then her gaze followed her daughter’s black bag, which had been flung onto the chair with a bang. “What’s doing by you? How did you manage the extra history lesson?”
“Oh, that? It was fine. My hand still hurts from writing so much, but aside from that, it was fine. Interesting, actually.”
“But…?” Chani probed gently.
“Tell me, Ima, are there people who are just born without tact, or does it get lost somewhere in life?”
Simi slumped down onto the sofa, looking at her mother. “I met someone who got me very angry. I don’t remember the last time I got so angry at someone.”
“And what did you do?” Chani asked quietly, motioning for her daughter to lower her voice as well. Faigy, one of the girls who volunteered to work with Yehudis, was in the house. True, the room she and Yehudis were working in was on the other side of the apartment, but loud voices would probably still carry.
“I was quiet, of course. I didn’t see any point in answering her, and believe me, even if I would have wanted to, I don’t know if I would have found the words to express myself.” Simi passed a hand over her forehead tiredly.
Chani smiled in admiration. “I hope you won’t meet too many people in life who don’t know how to choose the right words, but it’s good for you to learn that it may very likely happen. The world is made up of countless types of people, and not all of them are particularly likeable. Let’s go into the kitchen and I’ll warm you up something to eat, okay? Did you eat your sandwiches?”
“Yes, I did, but I only got to them two hours ago, so I’m really not hungry now.” Simi stood up.
“Will you go say hello to Yehudis and Yitzi?” Chani drank the last few drops of cold liquid from her cup.
“Yes. Yitzi is with them in the room?”
“As usual.” Chani chuckled. “The volunteers say he doesn’t bother them. And if he enjoys the attention and Yehudis enjoys the company in the room—then why not?”
Simi grimaced. “I should be a better sister. I really have to spend more time with my siblings.”
Chani shook her head from side to side. “You’re mistaken, Simi. You demand too much of yourself. You know very well that we spend most of the time with them. When these wonderful girls come to help us, you’re allowed to use your time for yourself.”
The phone rang. Simi, standing right near it, picked it up.
“Hello, may I please speak with Dr. Ostfeld?”
“Ima, someone wants to talk to you.” Simi began heading for Yehudis’ room, and then retreated to pick up her bag that she had flung onto the chair a few minutes earlier. How her mother’s calm demeanor influenced her!
She heard Ima answer the phone: “Yes, speaking.” A few seconds of silence. Then, “Of course, Rabbi Kilman. What can I help you with?” Simi took a step closer towards the hallway, her curiosity piqued. “I see. Of course that will be fine. Let him come to the clinic at nine—that’s the hour for emergencies. And you can also tell them that next time—let’s hope there won’t be a next time—they should contact me directly. I don’t mind waiting a bit longer.”
Simi stopped in her tracks. This conversation was totally different from the rest of her mother’s work-related calls. It wasn’t a worried mother making an appointment for her son because of a bad toothache. It was someone else.
“I understand,” Chani Ostfeld continued, not noticing her daughter standing there. “They are not allowed to know that you are paying. That’s fine. And by the way, you can take off twenty-five percent. The rest is sufficient.”
Simi approached her mother as she hung up the phone. “Who’s Rabbi Kilman, Ima?”
Chani was surprised to see her. “You’re here, Simi? I didn’t think you had heard.”
“I didn’t think it was a secret,” Simi said apologetically.
“Not a secret,” Ima answered tersely, “but…not really something I wanted you to hear. It was Rabbi Kilman, one of the heads of the Kupat Ha’ir tzedakah organization. There’s a family who had a large debt at the clinic and one of the children urgently needs treatment. Kupat Ha’ir is helping them pay off some serious debts, and Rabbi Kilman asked if I could see the boy tomorrow and they’ll take care of the payment in the next few days. That’s all.”
Simi nodded slowly.
“But of course, this can’t go any further, not to your friends, and not even to Rochel.”
“Of course,” Simi said, a bit miffed. “You don’t have to warn me so much, Ima. I don’t run to tell my friends everything that happens in this house.”
“That’s true,” Chani agreed and turned to the kitchen. The twenty minutes she had allotted herself to relax on the couch had long passed. “But I know how important friends are at this stage, so just to be safe…”
“Should I help you cut up vegetables for a salad?”
“No, darling. Go see what Yehudis and Yitzi are up to, and make sure that Yitzi isn’t bothering Faigy and Yehudis while they do homework. That was your original plan a few minutes ago, if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t it?”
“Right. I totally forgot,” the eighteen-year-old conceded with a smile and left the kitchen. She harbored a fervent wish that when she would be a mother, she would inherit some of Ima’s extraordinary character, the tranquility and joie-de-vivre that helped her manage her house in such an inimitable fashion.
Lots of my friends would want to have such a relationship with their mothers, even though no one would trade places with me because of other things in our family, she frequently thought. Now she suddenly remembered another question she had wanted to ask her mother, but first she would check up on her siblings.
The bus made a left at the intersection and joined a long row of cars waiting for the traffic light to change. Menuchi sat in the rear of the bus, looking tensely out the window. Once again, it would be almost dark when she’d arrive home. She toyed impatiently with the thick spiral notebook on her lap. She opened it and tried to review its contents. How many types of associations are there and what do they express? There is capacity association. For example, a cup of water. A pot of meat…
She stared at the notebook tiredly. Why was she studying now? She was pretty confident that she’d do well on the test, b’ezras Hashem, even without studying again. She was familiar with the material, but had tried to utilize her boring travel time, and what else did she have to do if not study some more? True, on some days, one or some of her sisters traveled home with her, but usually, if they didn’t stay to sleep at friends, they came home at other times. At least in the morning they all went together with her father when he went to yeshivah, and even if one of them started late for one reason or another, they usually preferred to leave early with the ride than travel later with the bus.
Whenever Menuchi tried to tell her classmates abut her long, exhausting trip home, they laughed. “You’re such a country girl—taking that gorgeous scenery for granted! Enjoy every field you see, every piece of greenery on the way. We wish we could go home on highways, looking at sheep and cows from the windows.” Of course, it was easy to talk, but if they would have been making the trip for almost fourteen years, no field or greenery would be able to excite them either.
Menuchi stuffed her notebooks into the bottom of her bag. Yes, they’d been living on the moshav for almost fourteen years. When she was in first grade at the Bais Yaakov in Bnei Brak, her grandfather, the rav of the moshav, had passed away. Her father—his son—received the job in his stead, so the family had moved there.
In any case, the era of her traveling to and from school was nearing an end more or less, but she didn’t see that as a reason to rejoice. This year, she would finish studying to be a teacher, and then what? Would she spend her days trudging from one school to the next in Bnei Brak with no success? Which principal would agree to accept a substitute who lived so much further away than all the others, especially when there would be so many other candidates—fresh seminary graduates who did live in the same city?
So what could she do? Teach in the school on the moshav? Abba would never agree, and she didn’t want to, either. The chinuch she and her sisters received at home made things very clear: Although they lived there, there was a clear distinction between their family and the rest of the religious residents of the moshav. She exchanged a few words with neighbors from time to time, but that was it.
And, all other reasons aside, she should become a teacher?! She?!
She’d had no intentions of being a teacher when she’d applied for the pedagogy track. She’d only done it because that’s what everyone else did, but she had really wanted to take the English track. Maybe she’d be a private tutor…
Menuchi walked thoughtfully towards the door of the bus and stepped off, inhaling the clear air. Despite all the difficulties, she liked the moshav. This is where she’d lived for most of her life; her home was here, and yet, her own home, she hoped, would be somewhere else.
Well, that’s pretty obvious, she thought, chuckling quietly to herself as she walked on the side of the road, kicking up the gravel as she went. No one would agree to live in this hole anyway. Not a single one of her married siblings had remained on the moshav. They all left to Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim, or Kiryat Sefer.
But what will be until then? Until I get married and leave this place? a persistent voice niggled in the back of her mind. I would want to find some type of work. I’m not interested in spending my mornings in a boring house with nothing to do.” A wry smile lit up the corners of her eyes. In the worst case, I can tell Sarah that she can save on babysitting fees for Yechiel. I’ll keep going to Bnei Brak and I’ll watch him in the mornings.
“That’s terrific, Yehudis! You’re doing great!” Simi looked at the worksheet her nine-year-old sister had painstakingly filled out.
“I also have one, see?” Yitzi proudly proffered a dog-eared sheet. It was just a picture of a sea and boats that the seven-year-old had colored by smearing oil pastels. “Faigy drew it for me.”
“Beautiful!” Simi announced. “You color so nicely and the colors are perfect.” She winked at Faigy. “When you were asked to volunteer for my sister, you didn’t think you’d have two kids to work with, did you?”
“Okay, kids, enjoy yourselves together,” Simi said with a huge yawn.
“You—tired?” Yehudis asked solemnly. “So g-go to s-sleeep!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Simi replied with a theatrical bow. “And tell Ima that I asked to be woken up at seven, okay? I don’t want to sleep for too long.”
But she didn’t go from there to her room.
“Ima?” she asked as she entered the kitchen and sat down. “Who’s Malky Feder?”
Chani turned around. “What…where did you hear that name?”
“Oh, my friend said that her cousin by that name was suggested for Shragi.”
“Nu?” There was no change in Chani’s external demeanor. She continued mixing the vegetable salad as she had been doing a moment earlier.
“If it was suggested, that means you said yes, right? Doesn’t the boy’s family make inquiries first?”
“You know that I don’t really like to discuss these matters with you.” There was no reason that Simi had to start worrying now already for herself. “But if you’re asking, you may as well know that there are many things that are accepted, and there isn’t one firm way of doing these things. Personally, when someone calls with a suggestion, I usually ask that they suggest it to the other side as well in the meantime.” She turned on the small flame under the frying pan and slid a small pat of margarine into the pan.
“Why?” Her eighteen-year-old daughter’s large eyes pleaded for an answer. Maybe it was better that she be made aware of the situation, so she could be prepared in advance for when it would be her turn in shidduchim. She was no fool, after all.
“I don’t like wasting time,” Chani said simply and broke an egg into a bowl. She examined the yolk and white through the clear glass. “I usually prefer that the other side is also presented with the suggestion, so that if they refuse, I won’t have to waste the little free time I have making inquiries that will go nowhere. After all, I get lots of calls about Shragi, and it’s a shame to invest time for nothing.”
“Okay, so I’ll save you some more time. No need to find out about Feder,” Simi’s voice was morose. “They’re not interested.”
“That’s fine. I also finished my inquiries, and I gave an answer at lunchtime.” Chani smiled a small smile as she scrambled the eggs slowly; bubbles danced in the skillet.
“You answered? What?” Simi took a step towards her mother almost in a plea, but Chani shook her head. An answer to this question would elicit another question of why, and she was not interested in revealing the two inquiries she had made. It was “real” lashon hara. The anonymous Chagit who had suggested the girl had received a polite answer, but she felt like screaming: “People! If you don’t know my son, don’t suggest anyone for him. He’s a special boy who needs someone no less special!” But now she pressed her lips together firmly and placed a small pile of forks in the middle of the table. “Why does it make a difference to you, anyway?”
Simi took the bread out of the bag and noticed that her fingers were suddenly trembling. “I…I just wanted to know what was going on, not because this specific suggestion interests me. I don’t even know her. But tell me, Ima, are we constantly being rejected? Why, is our family so bad?”
“We’re a wonderful family. And not everyone says no at all.”
“And those who do? What are they afraid of?”
Chani sat down on a chair near Simi and looked directly into her daughter’s eyes. “Simi, you’re not a little girl. People are afraid to enter a family that has health issues.”
“Yehudis is not a health issue.”
“She’s not, but she has health issues. And especially…” Chani stopped for a moment and then continued with effort. “And especially since she’s not the only one. In any case, wasn’t the only one.”
Simi wanted to kick herself when she lifted her eyes to her mother’s. Chani’s normally calm, loving eyes were now two pools of raw pain.
“I’m sorry, Ima. I didn’t mean…I didn’t want…”
Chani waved her apologies away and her eyes reverted—almost as though she had pressed a button—to their normal placidity. “It’s fine, Simi. You didn’t do anything wrong.” She swallowed a sigh. “Everything that Hashem does is for the best. Nu…go call Faigy and the children to come and eat.”
Yitzi and Yehudis entered with Faigy on their heels.
“Good evening, everyone! I’m leaving!”
“It’s not fair,” Simi protested with a smile. “Why are you running away before the food comes out? You’re also invited to eat!”
Faigy laughed. “I usually eat my supper much later in the evening, if at all…”
“Why you d-didn’t g-go sleep?” Yehudis asked worriedly. An observer may have had difficulty understanding her words, but for Simi, it was the simplest language in the world.
“I was talking to Ima,” she told her younger sister as she led her to the sink. “Don’t worry. I need so much more sleep that whatever I missed now won’t make much of a difference.”