Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 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
Dan was surprised to hear his mother’s footsteps.
“Mama, you’re home?” he asked even before he saw her woolly slippers. “I thought you are supposed to be at the committee dinner now!” His mother was a member of the European Women’s Organization for the Jews of Israel. “Is everything okay? I hope you didn’t catch the virus from me…”
If not for the silly virus that he had contracted, at the busiest time—the end of the semester—he would have been at the university instead of bundled up under two blankets and sipping countless cups of Chinese herbal tea that his devoted mother prepared for him. At least today he was feeling a bit better.
“You’re right. I lost track of the time!” his mother exclaimed. He suddenly noticed the bunch of pages she was clutching in her hand. “I received something in the mail today and was totally engrossed reading it. I really have to leave.”
“Engrossed in reading? Is it something interesting at least?”
“Very. But I’m not finished yet. When I finish I will give it to you. Are you bored?”
“Very.” He ran his fingers on the smooth mahogany buffet. “And I feel much better. I hope I’ll be able to go back to school tomorrow.”
She looked at him sternly. “Dan, what are you talking about? I think you have to stay home until the end of the week, at least. If you go back to your routine too quickly, your body will become very weak.”
“And maybe it’s just that you want me at home?” Dan asked with a sly smile. “Fine. Let’s see how I feel tomorrow.”
“Meanwhile, if you’re bored, you can take this.” His mother proffered the open envelope that was on top of the sheaf of papers in her hand.
“What is that?”
“A letter from Anne.”
“What does she say?”
“Oh, she talks about the children, work, the usual. According to the date, we’ve spoken at least three times on the phone since this was mailed, so I know everything that’s written here. She also sent some photos of the children, mainly of Yehudis and Yitzy.”
“What about Shragi?”
“Read. There’s nothing special here except for the fact that he’s doing very well in yeshivah and they hope to marry him off soon.”
Dan drew the pictures out of the envelope. “How old is he? Twenty-three?”
“Almost, old uncle that you are. And I must say that if twenty-three seems too young for you, thirty-one-and-a-half is just a tad too old for me.”
“Give me a bit more time to grow up and finish my studies, Mother. Then we’ll talk. You can be encouraged by the fact that at least your daughters in Israel are doing you proud, even if your baby here in Belgium is not.”
She grinned at him with mock anger. “You all do me proud!” she said firmly. “All of you. Now, Dan, it’s back to bed for you. You’re positively green!”
“It’s from the tea, Mother; the color had an effect…” he claimed with a smile, but scurried up the stairs to his room on the second floor nevertheless.
But instead of changing her slippers for her orthopedic shoes and getting ready to leave the house, his mother found herself once again reading the few words printed on the high-quality paper with a black embossed letterhead in the upper corner.
Samuel et Marson Ltd. Attorneys At Law
Dear Mrs. Lara (Leah) Weingarten,
On Tuesday, May 20, 2003, Diana Molis passed away at the age of ninety-seven at the Hertzfield Hospital in London, England. In her will she requested that these documents be relayed to you.
Lara folded the paper with a veiled look and straightened her hat. Diana Molis was no longer alive. When had she seen her last? Twenty-five years ago on one of her visits to London? What a shame; she would have wanted to thank her at least one last time.
The normal morning tumult was absent when Menuchi opened her eyes. The house was quiet and still. She turned over to the other side, yawning tiredly, knowing that even if she would spend the next few minutes languidly in bed, she wouldn’t be late for anything. She was on vacation today.
School was officially over. Now they just had to come to school for the final exams and to submit their reports. Tomorrow would be her psychology final. Sari Gross had invited her to come sleep over and use the day today to study, but Menuchi had declined.
“I don’t plan to study more than two or three hours for this test. We’ve already been tested on it all year and it’s not difficult material. Why should I spend the whole day on it?”
Sari had just laughed and shrugged at her friend’s refusal.
After her regular morning routine, Menuchi picked up her psychology notebook with an audible sigh. Maybe a friend will suddenly decide to call? The hope rose in her heart, and then was snuffed out right away. All of them—including Sari—were probably busy studying the secrets of the soul. Why should one of them suddenly remember Menuchi from the remote moshav? They would remember her only if they needed to clarify something regarding the psychology material.
That was the aspect of their living on the moshav that had always bothered her. Her social life was dismal. She couldn’t just run over to a friend because she had forgotten a notebook or wanted to have a pleasant chat. She preferred to study for tests by herself than to come home late because she had stayed to study with a friend. And to sleep in a strange house? The idea did not tempt her at all. Automatically, if the relationship with her classmates was limited to the morning hours spent together, the bonds had no way of strengthening.
But her family’s place of residence was apparently not the only problem; more than anything, it was her quiet personality that played a considerable role in her social status, or lack thereof. Her three younger sisters, two in high school and one in eighth grade, managed just fine in their classes—proven by the constant ringing of the telephone in their home with friends of theirs seeking them.
Menuchi was the one who hadn’t done as well. She didn’t remember the last time she had argued with a friend, but the whole situation sometimes made her heart twist in anguish. She was so bland and quiet, and was well on the sidelines of the class. At least at test time her popularity soared, to the extent that she didn’t even have time to eat something during recess, because girls were constantly asking her questions.
Menucha closed the door of the house behind her. Perhaps the psychology material would be better absorbed if she shared her studies with the sun’s rays? There was hardly any wind, just the sun beating down on her back. She opted for the shady grove that had a little playground. Once, years ago, she had played here, too. Not too much, because Abba and Ima didn’t want their children spending too much time with the moshav children, yet she remembered these toys well. The painted wooden seesaw, the crooked stainless-steel slide. “I can’t believe they haven’t changed these yet …” she mused aloud to herself as she settled onto one of the benches. At least the old wooden benches had been replaced with attractive metal ones.
She unfolded the first worksheet as her eyes skimmed the text. Why do I have to know all of this anyway? she thought suddenly, and that bitter, tight lump rose between her shoulders again. I have almost no chance of being a teacher. There are lots of girls as talented as I am, but principals want glamour, and I have none of that.
She continued scanning the words and leafed through the pages tiredly. She still felt weighed down by the rock in her shoulders, which had somehow slid into her heart. The metal armrest of the bench reflected her distorted face. That’s me, Menucha Feder. No spunk, nothing noteworthy about her. Just a plain girl without too much self-confidence.
Rabbi Feder navigated his way between the shtenders towards the entrance. He took a small paper out of his pocket and perused it for a moment. Miriam finished at two o’clock today, while Adina and Chayale finished at two twenty. And Menuchi had said she was staying home today. That meant he wasn’t taking any of them home. He needed to be in the shul at the moshav at two twenty, which meant that he had to leave right then. His presence at the daily shiur delivered by a young avreich from Yerushalayim was very important.
He felt a firm tap on his back. “Reb Shimon?” He turned around. It was Minzer, one of the avreichim in the kollel adjoining the yeshivah. “Can I speak to you for a few minutes?”
“If it’s quick, yes,” Rabbi Feder replied.
“I have a son who learns in Yerushalayim, in the Mir. He has a chavrusa, a top boy by the name of Ostfeld. He’s a lamdan, an ilui, and has wonderful middos. He lives in Bnei Brak. Have you ever heard the name?”
“No,” Reb Shimon replied. “Who’s the family?”
“The truth is, I have no idea. All I know is that they live in Bnei Brak, in the Rabi Akiva-Yerushalayim Street area. But my son was so enthusiastic about this bachur that I decided to first find out if you’d heard the name.”
Rabbi Feder glanced towards the door. “Okay. Listen, I’ll look into it. If you get me a bit more information, that would be very helpful.”
One of the maggidei shiur, Rabbi Kilman, suddenly appeared before them. “Did I hear right, Reb Shimon? Were you talking about Ostefeld from Yerushalayim Street? I’m sorry to interfere, but I thought I heard that named mentioned.” The two men turned towards Kilman.
“Yes, it must be the same people. Do you know the family?” Minzer asked Rabbi Kilman with interest.
“Sure, it’s a wonderful family. Such fine people, such chessed they do. The children are also special. Really, it’s an extraordinary family.”
“What do the parents do?” Reb Shimon Feder inquired.
“So, it’s like this,” Rabbi Kilman said thoughtfully. “If I’m not mistaken, the parents came from Belgium when they were young and became much more frum here. The father is a wonderful person with a warm heart. I actually met them through Kupat Ha’ir; they have a very generous, direct-debit, monthly donation there.”
“And what does he do?”
“If I’m not mistaken, he’s a university professor. The Tel Aviv University, perhaps. His profession is very interesting—he’s an astronomer.”
Rabbi Feder wrinkled his forehead doubtfully.
“No, no, Reb Shimon! Don’t react like that! He is a special person and is raising his children in a home of Torah and mitzvos. He’s just, you know, a foreigner, and he has a degree. I read a pamphlet about the times of zerichah and shekiah and he’s quoted there frequently. Believe me, if I had a daughter, I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s a very Torah’dige home!”
Rabbi Feder murmured something to himself. “And the mother?” he asked quietly.
“She’s also an academic. She has a dental clinic here. She’s a real tzaddeikes, always doing chessed. I know firsthand of cases where she waived her fee and even wrote off large debts.”
Rabbi Feder was hesitant. “Well, we’ll look into it….in any case, thanks for the information.”
“Find out more, Reb Shimon. The boy is a treasure, a real find. You should look seriously into this suggestion.”
Rabbi Feder eked out a smile of thanks and parted from Rabbi Kilman. Minzer accompanied him to his car. “Where do you live? Can I give you a ride?” Rabbi Feder offered.
Minzer stopped as they reached the car. “Thank you, Rabbi Feder, but I live right here.” He motioned with his hand to some nearby buildings. He deliberated whether to add something, but decided it would be better to hold his silence.
Menuchi’s father glanced at his watch. Ten to two. Oh, well, today he would be late to the shiur, and he felt bad. It was important to be there, but at least he’d be able to take Miriam.
The car meandered slowly through the narrow, busy Bnei Brak streets, where pedestrians outnumbered the vehicles. Another suggestion for Menuchi, and the way he knew Minzer and his suggestions, the man’s word could be relied upon. The bachur was probably as special as Minzer said he was.
But the family … He sighed quietly. Of course, he would look into it. But it was hard to say that he was thrilled at the prospect of such a background.
Although the truth was … if the boy really was so wonderful, perhaps he, Menuchi’s father, didn’t have to be quite so picky about the family. After all, a couple usually ends up spending more time with the wife’s family than with the husband’s side…