Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 10 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
“Jewish law and concepts have really begun to interest me in the recent past,” the foreign girl said slowly. “My fiancé comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. He himself does not observe Jewish law, but I would be interested in becoming a bit more familiar with his background. That is why I came for a visit here.”
“That’s a good idea,” Menuchi said, fumbling for what to say. “It really is.” She suddenly smiled. “I didn’t think you could be engaged already. You look so young!”
“I really am young…” The corners of the girl’s eyes crinkled when her broad smile crossed her face again. “I’m only twenty four. And you?”
The bus groaned as it chugged up the bottom of Shmuel Hanavi Street and Menuchi sought out someone who might be able to answer her question. “Excuse me,” she turned to a woman across the aisle. Something about the openness and self confidence emanating from the passenger on her left seemed to have rubbed off on her. “This girl needs to get to…” She peeked at the note the girl had given her, “Epstein’s Bakery in Meah Shearim. Could you tell me when she has to get off please?”
“I’m getting off there as well,” the woman replied. “She can get off with me.” Menuchi nodded her thanks and explained the woman’s response to her seatmate, who was busy perusing the second side of the note, which Menuchi had written. “I’m trying to figure out how to pronounce your name,” she tittered for a minute and then turned her eyes back to the paper. “M-menu…I can read the family name, Feder. But…”
“Menuchi.” Menuchi pronounced her name slowly and then sounded it out. “Me-nu-chi. Menuchi Feder. And you?” She rose from her seat as the bus stop to Bnei Brak came into view.
“Me? Dee. Diana Molis, from Belgium.” The girl proffered her hand. Menuchi thought this quite amusing, but her expression remained serious as she returned the handshake.
“Today’s the party, Ima, today! Are you coming?”
Chani smiled tiredly at Simi. “And even if, let’s say, I know what party you are talking about, I need a few more details to decide whether I’m coming or not, don’t you think? Place, time, how long it’s supposed to take…”
Simi laughed. “Nu, Ima, the seminary graduation! One of the twelfth grade classes is performing there. They will be doing the choir they prepared for our whole grade for next week!”
“And what do you have to do with this graduation?”
“Chantzy Malkiel from 12b wants me to come hear one of the songs to decide if it will be suitable for our Bnos group for the daycamp we’re making.”
“I really can’t keep up with you Simi, but if I understood correctly, you are going to the seminary graduation to hear a song that your friends from the parallel class prepared to decide if it will be good for the daycamp you are organizing for your seventh grade students? Did I get it right?” Simi nodded in affirmation and Chani laughed. “So go and have a good time. But I still don’t understand what all this has to do with me?”
“Ima. Feder! Nu, she’ll also be there. She’s in the graduating class in our school’s seminary, did you forget? Or maybe you don’t want to see her?”
Chani sighed and kicked off her shoes, examining the slight swelling in her legs. The doctor had told her to rest as much as possible. “Right now I want only one thing, Simi, and that is to lie down. If the shidduch will proceed, I’ll have more respectable opportunities to see her than sneaking into a graduation of a class I know no one in to try and figure out who she is from among two hundred girls and hope that I didn’t make a mistake in identifying her. I have forty minutes until Yehudis’ van comes, and I want to rest at least until then, okay?”
Simi sat down on the edge of her mother’s bed. “Should I stay here, Ima?”
“No. Go and listen to the choir, and if you want, you can also take a peek at Menuchi Feder. Just try not to get lost for too long, that’s all.”
The postal clerk in Tzefas shrugged his shoulders. “Money in the mail? It’s better to send stamps with a monetary value equal to the sum you’re interested in sending. Usually that’s safer than sending cash.” He was proud of his reasonably fluent English.
The girl nodded. “Thanks. So…I need stamps equivalent to a bus fare in Jerusalem.”
“A local intracity bus?”
He opened a small drawer and got busy with the sheets of stamps there. The two girls waited patiently. “Here.” He placed the stamps on the desk and she slid them into the envelope she was holding.
They walked out into the clear evening air, inhaling its freshness. “There’s something special about this air…” the taller one mused in a dreamy tone.
“Yes, it’s similar to the air in Jerusalem.”
“It’s a shame we were there for only three days, and we hardly visited the western side of the city.”
“You’re complaining about a half a day more or less, Dee? And then you gave up on that Temple Mount tour! I thought that would fascinate you the most!”
Dee laughed. “How’s the gold dome?” she suddenly asked, as though it was not related to anything. Her friend’s face wrinkled with distaste.
“Architecturally you mean? Very nice. There’s something special about the eastern style, but personally, I really wanted to stay outside. What do I have to do with Islam? But in the end I didn’t feel like staying behind myself.”
The rapid Flemish that the girls spoke between themselves attracted a few curious stares. Diana stopped in front of a flight of stairs. “So there you have it; mosques really don’t interest me. As for the Temple Mount itself—had I missed the visit to Yad Vashem I would have been more upset.”
“Yad Vashem?” Ruby fixed her with a puzzled look. “Why that? I wasn’t especially impressed. I mean, it was horrific and all, but…”
“But what?” Diana began to descend the steep stairs. She had to be careful. They were very shiny, making the chances of slipping and falling that much greater.
“The truth is I don’t really like the way that the Jews have commandeered the war as their personal tragedy. What, my grandparents in Antwerp didn’t suffer from hunger, food shortages and bombings?”
“Oh, please, how can you compare it at all!” Dee grumbled and firmly placed her foot on the bottom stop. They had successfully navigated the staircase and had reached a flat alley. Relatively flat, that is. “My grandfather and grandmother from London lost more than two thirds of their assets during the war. It wasn’t child’s play for anyone. But which other nation suffered such huge losses? Who else was killed so methodically, in such a systematic fashion?”
“The gypsies, Dee. Have you forgotten them? The Germans persecuted them personally also!”
“Yes, Ruby, but how many of them were there? A few thousand? I’m not making light of a single soul, but you can’t compare that to six million! In any case, no one will object if the descendents of the gypsies open a Yad Vashem of their own. But if they don’t do anything, does that mean the Jews have to ignore what was done to them?”
“Let’s stop this argument here,” Ruby said. Her smile was prickly. “I completely forgot that your children will probably be Jews, won’t they?”
“Probably…” Dee replied thoughtfully. “Unless under Jewish law the child’s religion is established by the mother.”
Ruby was quiet for a moment. She toyed with a leaf and suddenly said: “In such a case, do you know what kind of unenviable position your kids will be in?”
“Christianity will view them as Jews, according to the father, and Judaism will consider them as Christians, like their mother. What a joke!”
“Unless they’ll be baptized…” Diana murmured.
“If their father will agree,” Ruby said, her words laced with mockery. “By the way, are your parents happy?”
“They don’t care. You know I don’t come from such a conservative home. My mother only asked that we get married in a church. I don’t believe there will be any problems.”
“And his parents?”
A troubled look flashed across Dee’s face. “He only has a mother, and the way I understand it, he hasn’t told her anything meanwhile. He’s planning to, though.”
“So wait,” Ruby said, and Dee found herself disgusted by her smile. “His Jewish mother will ruin everything, you can be sure of that.”
“I won’t be sure of anything, Ruby dear,” Diana said with feigned calm. But a small, nervous tic began to twitch at her eye. “I’m sure he’ll manage to convince her that I don’t bite.”
“And if she agrees, but refuses to let you get married in a church?”
Diana took a deep breath. “So I won’t.”
“And your mother???”
“I’ll be able to persuade her to give up on it. What’s wrong with a civil marriage?”
“Just be careful,” Ruby said with a smile that looked more like a sneer. “In the end you’ll get married in a synagogue.”
“I know myself very well, Ruby. That, not. It won’t happen.” Ruby’s face contorted in doubt and she abruptly changed the subject. “And what did you write to that girl who you sent the stamps to? It looked pretty long, more than just a thank you note. Am I right?”
Dee tried to breathe the clear air, hoping it would prevent her cheeks from turning crimson, but it didn’t help. She felt the familiar warm blush and knew that she was turning beet red. “Oh, nothing!” she answered with a lightness she hardly felt. “Really, nothing special.”
Ruby perused her with curious eyes. Disbelief oozed out of her eyes like tears dropping down her cheeks.
Simi looked at the red writing on the mug. “Best Dad” it said. How tasteless, she thought to herself. How could we have liked those horrible letters as children? Her thoughts carried her to the small, dusty store. She and Shragi had gone to choose gifts for their parents’ anniversary. How old had they been? Shragi must have been eleven or twelve and she was seven. The salesgirl persuaded them that these two mugs would please their parents very much. So they bought the Best Dad in faded red and Best Mom in olive green. Abba and Ima had thanked them profusely, but had they been happy? That was another question.
Now the mug obediently accepted a generous two teaspoons of coffee and three Sweet and Lows into its innards. It was only after the electric kettle had boiled and her father picked it up, that Simi shook herself out of her thoughts. “Oh, Abba, I planned to make the coffee for you. I’m sorry; I didn’t realize you were doing it yourself. I was dreaming.”
“Good thing you planned on it, that’s also something,” her father replied with a smile and carried the mug to the table. “If you could take the milk out of the refrigerator…Thanks.” He at down, waiting near the table. Simi poured the milk into the wide-mouthed mug.
“What were you thinking so deeply about? Something interesting?”
She laughed. “I saw the mug and I remembered how I went with Shragi to buy the important present…”
“Who chose it?”
“Both of us together, I guess.”
“You did lots of things together.” His forehead creased into smiling lines.
“Yes. For lots of years—relatively speaking—it was just the two of us. Automatically that made us closer to each other.”
“Until Yehudis was born.”
“And Shragi went to yeshivah…”
He took a long sip and it seemed like he was the one wrapped up in his thoughts now. “Do you know this Feder girl who is being suggested for Shragi?”
Simi grimaced with disappointment. “No. I had planned to go see her tonight at the seminary graduation but Ima was so tired and I didn’t want to wake her up so I stayed home to be here when Yehudis came.”
“You can go now, if Yehudis is sleeping already.”
“There’s no point…By the time I’ll get myself together and go it’ll be over, if it’s not over yet.”
“Well,” he rose, placing his mug in the sink. “It’s not that important that you should go see her. I imagine that if the other side will give a positive answer, Ima will want to meet her herself.” He noticed a gleam of curiosity begin to twinkle in her eyes.
“Oh, so Shragi agrees to continue?”
Gershon Ostfeld was surprised. “Ima didn’t update you?” he asked.
Not yet…” Her words were laced with hurt.
“Well, I am not saying anything either, then. In these things, Ima decides.”
“Am I not mature enough to be trusted?” The hurt that had tinged the last sentence was greatly magnified now.
“It’s possible that you are, but trusting or not trusting you is not always the reason why you are or aren’t told something.”
“So why didn’t Ima tell me?”
“I don’t know. You saw that I wasn’t aware of it. But I can try and think of some reasons.” He pressed his lips together for a moment. “Perhaps Shragi asked that…it remain between us and him for now.” This sentence was a gentle way to say “Shragi asked Ima not to tell you.” And that was clear to Simi. Who else could Ima possibly tell? Seven year old Itzik? Yehudis?
“Shragi asked not to tell me anything?”
“I didn’t say that. I hope that you remember that I didn’t even know that you weren’t supposed to know. But it’s very possible. For example, in the event that the answer will be no, why does he have to want you to know that exactly? Maybe he prefers just to tell you that the shidduch isn’t relevant anymore and that’s it?”
She stood at the sink and squeezed a bit of dish soap onto a clean sponge. “And there’s no reason for you to get insulted, Simi. I understand it very well.” She nodded—now her lips were pressed together—and picked up the mug resting placidly in the sink.
“Have there been any phone calls, Gershon?” Chani appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Her red eyes suddenly rested on her daughter.
“You’re still here Simi? Aren’t you missing the graduation?”
“I missed it,” Simi admitted calmly and vigorously rubbed those horrible red letters on the mug. “But it doesn’t matter. Chantzy told me she’d record that song. As for Menuchi Feder, well, if you want you’ll get to see her already yourself, right?”
“It was really good that you stayed. I slept so well. Thank you.” She turned to her husband. “Nu?” He exited the kitchen and she followed him.
“You mean Rabbi….nu, what’s his name again?”
“Kilman. Rabbi Kilman.”
“No, he hasn’t called yet. When did you last speak to him?”
“Two nights ago.”
“So we can still wait patiently.”
“Yes…” She smiled, swallowing a huge yawn. “Still, it’s this kind of tension…”
He looked at her. “You look tired.”
“Yes. The past few days have been very draining.”
“You’re working too hard, Anne. I think that you have to take down your work hours.”
“How can I? These appointments have been made a month or more ago!”
“Maybe you can bring a substitute from now already for a few hours a day,” he sighed. “After all, it’s not only your health…”
The black phone began to jangle a tune. They exchanged glances. “You pick up. Maybe it’s Rabbi Kilman.”
“You pick up,” Chani replied and took a step back, as though trying to flee. Simi came out of the kitchen at that second, cast a concerned look at the phone and scurried off to her room.
“Looks like I’m on my own…” Gershon muttered. “Alright, alright, I’ll pick up.” He grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”
“Good evening. Is this Reb Gerson?”
“This is Baruch Kilman.”
Chani heard those three words through the receiver and retreated even further into the dining room. She didn’t want to hear anything yet. She preferred to hear later, from her husband.
Why are you so tense? What happened to you suddenly? She berated herself. Maybe it was because until now she had been the one to reject suggestions. She didn’t remember ever hearing a “no.” Betty, her sister from Yerushalayim, constantly reprimanded her. “You’re a bit too arrogant,” she would say candidly. “And a coward. Why do you say no so fast? Are you afraid that the other side might say “no” first?”
Chani didn’t think this was true. Her Shragi was truly special, and what could she do that the suggestions until now were not of a suitable caliber? Even if they made it through her initial vetting, Shragi would stop it. It was interesting that both he and she had never thought that someone quiet wouldn’t blend well into their family. There are people who were not bothered by contrasting personalities. In her opinion, variety was a terrific thing. It wouldn’t hurt to have someone quiet and refined in their exuberant family. But apparently it did bother the Feders. Well, b’ezras Hashem there would be other sug—Wait! Who said their answer was no?
She rose from the sofa where she suddenly found herself sitting and approached the entrance hall.
“Well, I’m happy to hear it,” she heard Jerry say. “But I think my wife would want to see her at this point. One minute.” He put the receiver down and covered the mouthpiece with his palm, speaking quietly. “Chani, they want to go on. When do you want….”
“Maybe before the next date I’ll come in for a few minutes. That will be enough for me,” she found herself saying. He continued speaking with Rabbi Kilman for two more minutes and then hung up.
“Nu?” She fixed him with an expectant look.
“What nu? Nu nu. They’ll probably meet again at the beginning of next week. Find out from Shragi when it works out for him.” He was practical.
“And you’re not even excited!” she teased him laughingly.
“I’ll be excited when I’m told about my son’s engagement. A date, no matter which number, doesn’t tell me anything.”