Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 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
Half an hour later, a dark-haired figure walked through the entrance of the hotel. She went up to the third floor and knocked lightly at a door. Diana opened the door and proffered her hand. Lara scampered behind one of the armchairs.
“Lara,” Diana said sternly. The light-haired head shook behind the velour chair-back. “Lara, you’re not behaving politely. Miss Rosa only wants the best for you.”
Another movement from behind the chair was the only response. Diana sighed morosely.
“I’m sorry for the bother,” Rosa said, discomfited. “But if the child came back to you after having known you for all of half an hour, that says something. Children know how to recognize a warm heart.” She walked over to the velour armchair tentatively.
“Lara, it’s Rosa. I came to take you back.” She tried to make her voice sound smooth and soft, but a sudden hoarseness roughened it. “I’m waiting for you. Yesterday afternoon you played so nicely with Eva. If we get back early enough, you’ll have time to play some more.”
The child didn’t move.
Diana approached then. “This is not the way to treat guests, child,” she said very firmly, and pulled Lara in her floral dress out from behind the chair. “Miss Rosa is my guest. Tell her ‘hello’ with respect, please.”
The small back stiffened in defiance and the tightly pressed lips remained clamped shut.
“This is the way she’s been all week,” Rosa suddenly sobbed. “Since that dog left, she’s refused to speak to me or any other adult. She plays with the other children, but in almost complete silence.”
“She can stay here with me, until I return to London,” Diana said slowly, surprising even herself with the suggestion.
Rosa shook her head. “You’re really very kind and generous, Mrs. Mollis, but the child has to be among Jews. You understood that right away when you brought her to us. And besides,”—a small, crooked smile crossed her face—“Lara has an aunt. Someone from our office recognized the family name and was able to tell us that her mother had a sister who moved to Britain before the war. A few days ago, we sent a letter to her aunt and we are waiting for an answer. I wish all the children in our home would find relatives so easily.”
Rosa’s dark eyes rested pleadingly on Lara. “Won’t it be wonderful when your aunt comes to take you, Lara?”
The rigid shoulders loosened somewhat, as the seven-year-old’s fingers traced the pink flowers on her dress.
“You dress them nicely. She doesn’t look neglected,” Diana noted with satisfaction, her eyes thoughtfully following the path of Lara’s fingers. “Where are the clothes from?”
Rosa smiled softly. “Donations and money from people who care.”
“And is there enough?” Diana probed solicitously.
Rosa chuckled mirthlessly, her bun wobbling with the sudden movement. “Enough? It’s hard to say. But we try to manage.”
Diana took a small leather wallet out of the cupboard and pulled out a few bills.
“Oh, no,” Rosa tried to protest. “I really didn’t mean that. You asked, so I told you.”
The hand, adorned with several rings, did not put the bills back into the wallet. “Take it, Miss Rosa,” Diana said with the same firm courtesy with which she had spoken to Lara. “I’m one of those people who care.”
Her blue eyes turned to Lara. “Be a good girl; go with her. She will buy you a new dress, and I promise to try and come visit you, okay?”
The little eyes blinked rapidly. “And will you bring me food for him?”
“What? Oh, yes, I’ll bring food for him,” Diana promised. She smiled with satisfaction as Lara made her way slowly to the door and hesitantly proffered her hand to the older girl.
“Many thanks, Mrs. Mollis,” Rosa said, at a loss for words. “Lara, say ‘goodbye and thank you’ to this good woman.”
And they left.
Go to the Kosel. Simply get up, pack a small bag, and go to Yerushalayim.
The idea dawned on Menuchi just as dawn broke after a night of tossing and turning, whirling thoughts, endless pacing around the dining room table, gazing out the window—but without a moment’s sleep.
Should she just get up and go? It wasn’t so simple. The small moshav where they lived was not serviced by any of the direct buses to Yerushalayim. But Abba had a car, so it wasn’t all that complicated either. She could get a ride with him to Bnei Brak and then board the bus to Yerushalayim.
“Excellent idea. This way you won’t go mad from boredom here,” Mrs. Feder said when she heard Menuchi’s plan. Her hands busily rinsed a green apple, which she then tucked into her bag. “I’m running, Menuchi, so the bus doesn’t leave without me. The main thing is that the tefillos should be accepted.” And the door closed behind her.
“Why do you want to go to the Kosel all of a sudden?” Miriam, Menuchi’s eighth-grade sister, asked.
Chaya’le winked at her older sister. “Why not, Miriam? It’s a great way to start summer vacation!”
“Vacation…” Miriam echoed enviously. “On the first day of my vacation, when it starts, I’m going to want to sleep all day. Learning is so exhausting!”
“Learning?” Chaya’la laughed. “You mean, practice for graduation is exhausting, right? Do you learn anything?”
Their father emerged from the kitchen, preventing Miriam from retorting. “I’m leaving in five minutes, girls. Are you ready?”
On the bus to Yerushalayim, Menuchi did what she hadn’t done all night: she slept. Her dreams danced wildly; she saw a huge stage with dozens of chairs, and Miriam was striding across it, declaring, “Learning is so exhausting … exhausting … but it’s not genetic… What? The Kosel? Why now?” Chaya’le’s chuckle sounded dull when she suddenly peeked out from a narrow chair on which a bouquet was tossed precariously. “And it won’t harm future shidduchim? It won’t—? It won’t harm them?”
“Careful, you’re knocking over the bouquet!” Menuchi wanted to say, but instead she awoke to find the bus pulling into the first stop in Yerushalayim.
“One minute!” she cried hoarsely, hurrying to the door of the bus—thankfully remembering, even in her sleepy state, to check if she still had her pocketbook. There was a bus to the Kosel waiting at the bus stop a few yards away, and she hurried to board, hoping the driver wouldn’t close the door before she got there.
“Is he going to run away from me or not?” she murmured as she ran to the bus. “Run away? Won’t? Will? Won’t?” But the bus stayed put and she boarded, panting heavily.
The bus was pretty full, as was the Kosel Plaza, but Menuchi found herself a spot in front of the ancient stones.
She tried to listen for the flapping of the pigeons’ feathers, like the stories always described, and waited for a cool breeze to caress her face. But nothing happened. She stood with her siddur, facing the ancient moss, and for some reason, she felt so regular, as though she was sitting on a plain chair on a normal morning in school and tiredly leafing through her siddur. A small child wailed on one side of her. A broken chair tipped over with a crash behind her. Someone asked to pass by. Menuchi couldn’t concentrate.
One moment passed, and then another. Menuchi finished davening Shacharis and picked up a Tehillim. She recited pasuk after pasuk, one chapter after another, but Menuchi knew: this was just not it.
She turned to the exit, when suddenly, from a hidden corner of her brain, the story that Morah Kaplinsky—her teacher from last year—had loved to repeat, popped into her mind. The Kotzker story.
Kotzk did not adopt a policy of kiruv. The Kotzker Rebbe would closet himself in his room for long periods of time, and the elder chassidim were not always welcoming. Nevertheless, those who stayed were those who found that the emes that burned in Kotzk gave them no rest. There was one brilliant, talented yungerman who followed the light—yet he did not receive a warm welcome, as did no one. He didn’t despair, but when he would return home and see his brothers-in-law, who would travel to other rebbes, returning with their eyes alight from the experience, he felt a twinge in his heart. Once, he dared to present his question to the Kotzker Rebbe: “Has it been decreed that I will never feel elevation? Will the completion ever arrive?”
The Rebbe responded with a terse, typically Kotzker statement: “Who said that your elevation is wanted? Perhaps it is your broken heart that is desired?”
Menuchi could literally hear Morah Kaplinsky’s voice saying the words, and the faintest trace of a smile now spread across her face. Well, if it’s a broken heart that is wanted, then I have that—plenty of it.
She sat down on the yellow seat in the almost empty bus stop, and, using her own simple words, composed her personal tefillah.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
The speaker was a young teenaged girl with long hair that was gathered back, although several locks escaped from her ponytail holder. Her overall appearance did not indicate that she was Torah observant.
“Yes,” Menuchi replied, and smiled to herself, feeling a whit of satisfaction. If she had ever wondered why she had taken the English track in school if she had no plans to be a teacher, here was her answer. With a good command of the language, she could help other people. “Do you need help?”
The light eyes smiled bashfully. “I … um … my group left, and I wanted to stay a bit longer, but I forgot that in order to go on the bus, I need Israeli money. I only have this.” She showed Menuchi an unfamiliar bill. “Do you think there’s someone here who can change this to shekels for me?”
Menuchi hesitated. “We can try to ask people…” The roar of an approaching engine cut her off mid-sentence.
The girl looked at Menuchi helplessly and tentatively stepped onto the bus. Menuchi, who was right behind her, saw the driver look at the bill the girl proffered with obvious distaste.
“Euro, huh? Do you think I can take this? You’re mistaken, lady! I have no change for you. Do you have shekalim for me, or are you getting off?”
“I’ll pay for her,” Menuchi interjected hurriedly. “It’s fine.” She then turned to the uneasy girl and said, “You can go sit down.”
When Menuchi walked towards the back after paying, the foreign girl smiled at her. “I want to pay you back,” she said in a low tone.
“There’s no need,” Menuchi replied politely.
“Yes, of course, I want to. Please, give me your name and address,” the girl insisted.
The bus turned sharply and Menuchi almost tumbled to the floor. She grasped the back of the seat in front of her tightly.
“Sit down; why are you standing?” The girl pointed to the empty seat near her.
Menuchi sat down with obvious reluctance, hoping she wouldn’t stand out too much. She really didn’t want to be seen sitting next to such a girl.
“We’ll probably leave Jerusalem today,” the girl said. “We’re going to the Galilee. I don’t want to owe you money, so I’ll send you the fare as soon as I can.”
Menuchi tried to refuse again, but the girl took out a small pen and a pad, from which she tore off a creased piece of paper.
“Menuchi Feder,” Menuchi dictated uncomfortably. “Moshav Kerem Moshe, number 23.”
The girl pressed the pen into Menuchi’s hand. “Do you mind writing it for me? I’m sure I’ll get the spelling wrong.”
Menuchi wrote the address in English letters and returned the paper and pen to the girl. She tried to keep to herself, but it wasn’t so easy, at least not with the girl seated beside her. The girl gave a slight cough, and Menuchi raised her gaze to her with a questioning look. I paid for you, you wanted my address and got it, and I even wrote it down for you. What now?
Immediately Menuchi felt bad. Maybe you could be a bit more social? she admonished herself. A bit less self-centered? True, there’s no reason for you to become friendly with a foreign girl on the bus, especially since she’s not frum. But ignoring her is disgusting!
She replaced her disinterested look with a smile and asked, “Can I help you with something else?”
“Oh, yes, if you can,” the girl replied. “I need to get to…” She turned the small paper over and read slowly: “Mi-ah Shu-rim. Do you know when I get off?”
“Not really,” Menuchi admitted. “I’m not from around here, I mean not from Jerusalem. But I think you have some time until the bus gets to that area, and then we’ll ask someone.”
“Oh, thanks so much!” The girl’s smile was warm. “You see, I made up with my group to meet there. We have a short tour. I don’t know if they got there yet.” Her smile was so friendly that Menuchi began to feel downright comfortable in her company. The girl was obviously one of those people who easily befriended everything and everyone with whom she came in contact.
“Tourists?” Menuchi asked.
“Yes,” the girl replied. “We came to the Kotel. I read a lot about it and it really is … something special. But after five minutes, our counselor called us already. I told them that I was staying, and the rest of the group went up to the mountain.”
Menuchi opened her eyes wide. “Which mountain?” she asked nervously. She didn’t know how to say “Har Habayis” in English. “The mountain … behind the Kosel?”
“Yes,” the girl said simply. “I don’t mind having missed it. Mosques really don’t interest me. They belong to another religion, not mine.”
“But it’s forbidden!” Menuchi’s voice was tense. “We don’t go up there. It’s … totally forbidden! It’s a good thing you didn’t join them,” she added with a weak smile.
The girl nodded.