Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 7 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
From afar Shragi saw the vehicle growing smaller in the distance. He recognized Yehudis’s school bus and knew it was already twenty to eight. Within twenty minutes, he decided, he had to be on the 400 bus that would take him back to yeshivah. He didn’t want to be late to seder; it was enough he had missed davening in yeshivah.
He went up in the elevator and knocked lightly on the door before pushing it open wide. “Hello!” he called into the house.
His father greeted him in the kitchen. “Hello, Reb Shraga. Getting ready to leave?”
Shragi smiled. “That’s right, Abba. I want to be on the next bus.”
Gershon Ostfeld stood up. “Come, I’ll drive you to Rabi Akiva Street.”
“Oh, thanks, Abba! I hope it’s not too much trouble.”
“Trouble? For you, my dear son, it’s not a problem at all.”
Shragi hurried to his room and found that the carry-on he had arrived with yesterday was already packed up.
“Thanks a lot, Ima,” he said, smiling at his mother who walked in at that moment. “I see you packed my things for me.” He picked up the bag with his left hand and slid his tefillin bag into it.
“You’re leaving now?”
“Yes, Abba’s taking me to the bus stop.”
She stopped him near the door. “Shragi, just remember that the other side is waiting for us to get back to them. We spoke yesterday. I heard your concerns. That’s fine. But what do you want me to tell Rabbi Minzer? We can’t keep them waiting too long for an answer; it’s really not nice to the other side. You have to decide, one way or another.” She looked directly at him, waiting for his answer.
“I’ll tell you the truth, Ima: I really don’t know.” He smiled, but there was something in that smile that she could not decipher. “I had planned to think about it last night, but I was so tired that I fell asleep the second my head touched the pillow. I’ll think about it on the bus to Yerushalayim, and I’ll try to give you an answer by this evening. Is that okay?”
Chani acquiesced. “Okay, Shragi, this evening is reasonable. You’ve heard my opinion, you saw what you saw, and now, all you have to do is make the decision.”
“All I have to do…” he echoed her words. “Just the decision…”
Abba broke up the little tête-à-tête. “In any case, Shragi, don’t feel too pressured. No one is asking you to make a pivotal decision that will affect the rest of your life. It’s only a matter of deciding whether you want to meet again or not. That’s all.”
Shragi sighed slightly as he and his father turned to leave the house. His mother escorted them to the elevator.
“The problem is,” he said, entering the elevator, “that a second date is much more of a commitment than the first. In any case, Hashem will help me decide. Daven for me, Ima!”
“Do you think I need you to remind me to do that?” she chided.
And the elevator door slid closed with a faint swoosh.
The bus to Yerushalayim was mostly empty, as was to be expected at this time of the morning. Shragi chose a seat and rested his hand on the handle affixed to the back of the seat in front of him. His eyes focused on his clenched fist, as though the decision would suddenly appear there, written clearly in large letters.
“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you, young man?”
The large person did not wait for Shragi to answer and heaved himself into the empty seat beside him, ignoring the plethora of other unoccupied seats on the bus.
Shragi shrank further back towards the window, trying to regain his train of thought.
“On your way to yeshivah, huh?”
Shragi nodded with a faint smile.
“Very good, young man. Have a safe trip, and may you learn well. I also learned in yeshivah, but it was just for a few years. What a shame… Those were nice years. Take advantage of them, young man; I regret that I didn’t get to learn more.”
“You can always continue to learn,” Shragi heard himself say.
“Right, true.” The man placed his huge hand on Shragi’s shoulder. “But I’m already a bit too old to start afresh.” He fell silent for a moment.
“We’re taught that it is never too late,” Shragi pointed out in a friendly tone.
“You’re right, you know,” the man said and removed his hand. “So, what are you learning now in yeshivah?”
“So tell me what you learned. Let’s see if my head can still absorb any Germara.”
Surprised, Shragi hesitated. He had a lot to say, but he had to think about what would be suitable for his seatmate. “Actually, what comes to mind is a vort from this week’s parshah,” he said. “Does that sound good?”
“Let’s hear and we’ll see!” The man folded his arms. “Nu, I’m all ears!”
Shragi thought for another moment and then expounded on a difficulty he had found in a Ramban that he was learning over Shabbos. His listener nodded his head slowly the whole time, leaving Shragi wondering if he had chosen something apt.
“Nice, very good,” the man praised when Shragi finished. “But that’s from last week’s parshah!”
“Do you want to hear something davka from this coming week’s parshah?” Shragi smiled. “Okay…” He wrinkled his forehead in concentration and glanced outside the window. He suddenly noticed the planes in the distance. “Excuse me,” he told his fellow passenger. “We’re passing the airport. It’s time to say Tefillas Haderech.”
“Oh, yes, you’re right. Absolutely right,” the man agreed. He took a pair of reading glasses and a miniscule siddur out of his little satchel.
“And now let’s hear it!” he said when he was finished with his recitation, picking up right where he’d left off.
Shragi motioned for him to wait another minute as he slowly savored each word of the tefillah, adding a few more words with a personal request to Hakadosh Baruch Hu that He guide him on the right path at this crossroads in his life.
The two seatmates spent the rest of the ride to Yerushalayim discussing Shragi’s life in yeshivah, life away from home in general, and a host of other subjects.
“Very nice,” the man said as the bus slowed and joined the snaking row of vehicles at the entrance to the city. “I’m getting off soon. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you!”
“Likewise,” Shragi said with a smile, and rose to take his hat off the overhead shelf.
“But you look very worried about something. I hope I didn’t bother you.”
“Oh, no!” Shragi donned his hat. “It was no problem at all. I just have something on my mind.”
“Something sad?” the man probed.
“No, chalilah; just something a bit … bothersome; let’s call it that.”
“Bothersome? What do you mean?”
Shragi sighed and answered with his characteristic candor. “I have to decide something, that’s all. And I don’t know what to do.”
The man looked him up and down from his position in the aisle. Just then, the bus pulled up at the first stop. “I’m getting off now,” he said. “But listen to me—take some good advice from someone older than you. When you have to make a decision, you should always leave yourself the option of having to make another decision. Don’t cut things off, unless you’ve reached a point where you have no choice.”
The driver looked up in his mirror. “Hey, you there, are you planning to get off, or what?”
“Yes!” the man thundered back. “I’m getting off!” He proffered his hefty hand to Shragi. “Goodbye, young man, and I hope you make the right decision!”
“Amen,” Shragi replied warmly as his hand was swallowed by the huge fingers. “And thank you.”
Shragi spent the rest of the short trip to his stop vigorously massaging his sore fingers while deep in thought. That man’s advice was in essence not to decide: to choose the option that will give me the opportunity to make another decision at a later stage. The advice sounds logical; the problem is only that it will still be short-term, because ultimately the moment will arrive when I will have to make a decision one way or another. He sighed deeply, feeling like an eighty-year-old man, and stood up to get off the bus.
For the rest of the morning, Shragi made every effort to keep his mind off the subject, but on his way to the dining room, he slipped out to the nearest public phone and dialed his mother’s clinic in Bnei Brak. The whine of the dentist drill came through the line even before he heard his mother’s, “Hello?”
“Ima? It’s Shragi.”
“Hi, Shragi, how are you?”
He sighed. “Ima … I think that … fine. What do you say?”
“I also say fine.” She smiled, and he heard her smile through the phone lines, from as far away as he was in Yerushalayim. He knew that she couldn’t speak freely in the presence of her patients.
“Okay, then, goodbye,” he said, suddenly feeling drained of all his energy. “Uh … just a minute. Ima?”
“Yes, Shragi?” She was still on the line.
‘The minute you have … an answer for me, please let me know, okay?”
“Of course, Shragi. Have a nice day.”
Reb Shimon Feder closed his Gemara and raised his eyes to his wife.
“It’s late,” she whispered with a weary smile. “I’m so anxious to see her already.”
“And to hear her…” her husband picked up her thread of thought.
“That’s true, but it’s enough for me to see her to know what she’s thinking and feeling. Of course, I’m also very interested in all the details that will follow, but in order to know how things are going, I just need to see her expression when she walks through the door.” She walked over to the large window, casting searching glances into the darkness.
“It’s a good thing the girls happened to be away this evening,” Rabbi Feder said. “Did Menuchi say anything to them?”
“Only to Chaya’le, and very briefly. Miriam and Adina are too young.”
“There are only two years between Chaya’le and Adina.”
“Yes, but those are two very significant years. Chaya’le is already finishing eleventh grade; Adina is just finishing ninth. And there’s only one year between Adina and Miriam—so telling Adina might have meant telling Miriam, too…”
“There are homes where girls finishing eighth grade are old enough to be included in such matters, no?”
Minna shrugged. “Could be. Miriam might be old enough, but she’s also enough of a chatterbox.”
Shimon laughed. “Well, in any case, it’s not yet at a point where’s there’s anything to talk about. If it will proceed, I imagine we’ll leave it to Menuchi to decide which sisters she wants to tell and when.”
“I wasn’t very excited with this suggestion at first, Shimon,” Minna Feder said thoughtfully.
He put the Gemara back in its place on the shelf. “Me, too. I admit I was afraid it wasn’t such a Torahdik home. But then I heard so many good things about the boy himself, and we also discovered that the home is fine after all, so I think it really does look like an excellent suggestion, from all the angles.” He leveled his gaze at his wife. “You’ve spent a lot more time with Menuchi these past few days than I have. What does she have to say, in general?”
“She didn’t say too much about the subject. You know she’s a very thought-out, measured person, and she thinks seriously about everything. I think she needed to process everything in her head first.”
“Well, let’s see what she says now…”
The gentle knock at the front door stopped Rabbi Feder mid-sentence. Minna leaped for the door.
“Hello, Menuchi!” She peered at her daughter’s face. There was a mix of expressions on it, and Minna tried to break them down into individual sentiments, but was unsuccessful. Menuchi sat down on the edge of a chair, gratefully sipping from the glass of water her mother had handed her. She hadn’t yet said a word.
“Nu?” Reb Shimon finally asked. “How did it go?”
Menuchi smiled wanly. “Baruch Hashem, it was fine this time as well, I think.”
“Did you enjoy yourself?” That was Minna.
“I guess you could say so…” Menuchi spoke slowly.
“But there’s something bothering you.”
The thin smile crossed Menuchi’s face again. “That’s right. There is something that’s bothering me. And … Abba, Ima …” They fixed their eyes on her. She rose from her place. “I hope you don’t mind if I go to my room for a short while. It’s empty now, right?”
Minna nodded heavily.
Menuchi forced another smile. “Don’t worry; I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She walked down the hall to the girls’ room and switched on the light.
Her parents exchanged worried glances. “Well,” Reb Shimon finally said, turning towards the kitchen, “in a little while she’ll come out and tell us everything.”
The light in the girls’ room went off ten minutes later and Menuchi came back into the cozy kitchen. Her mother noticed that her eyes were calmer.
“What’s going on?” her parents asked in unison.
Menuchi sat down and rested her elbows on the table. “It’s like this. Overall, everything looks very positive, even more than last time. But then … he suddenly said, sort of by the way, something that made me realize that we haven’t really heard enough information from people who know the family.”
“What didn’t we find out?” Minna’s voice was taut with tension.
A small smile crossed Menuchi’s face. “But thinking it over for a few minutes, I’ve come to the realization that it might not be as bad as it seems the first time you hear it. That’s what … he also said.”
“What did he say?” Reb Shimon leaned forward, gazing piercingly at his daughter. “What did he say?”