Beneath the Surface – Chapter 11

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 11 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

“Menuchi? Letter for you!” Miriam tossed the envelope onto the table. “Hey, it’s in English? Do you have a pen-pal from abroad?”

“If you would take a closer look, you would see that it’s not an international letter,” Menuchi said, glancing at the sender’s name. “It says here it was sent from Tzefas. The stamp is local and so is the postmark.”

“That’s all I need,” Miriam said, trying to sound plaintive, “to examine my sister’s mail…”

“I didn’t tell you to look at what’s inside,” Menuchi replied and tore the envelope open. A few stamps fell to the floor. “Just at the address on the envelope.” It was enough that by tomorrow morning four or five of Miriam’s friends would know that she had received a letter from Tzefas. She did not need them to know what it said. But what did it say? She extracted another sheet of paper from the envelope, forgetting about the stamps on the floor.

“And what’s this?” Miriam bent down. “Are you trading stamps with some anonymous person? I thought you’re too old for that. You gave me your collection, if you recall.”

“I didn’t forget,” Menuchi said as she folded the paper. She would read the note when she was alone in her room. “I didn’t forget at all. It shows, by the way, that I’m not such a bad sister, even if I don’t share every last one of my secrets with you, right?”

“Sure, but what about these stamps?”

Menuchi suppressed a sigh. She’d be better off giving an answer now if she wanted to get to her room in the next half an hour. “I lent someone money, and I guess she’s returning it.”

“Returning stamps? Very funny.”

“Not funny.” Menuchi fingered the paper in her pocket. “It’s a pretty accepted way to send money in the mail.”

Finally, she was sitting on the bed in the room she shared with Chaya’le and could read the letter. A dictionary rested on the bed near her, in case she wouldn’t understand something. But the words were quite simple.

Dear Menuchi,

English is not your mother tongue, nor is it my primary language, so I will be brief. I wanted to ask you something. If you remember, I mentioned on our trip (which I very much enjoyed in your company) that Judaism interests me recently and I have a lot of questions. Would you agree to answer me? If so, please send your letter to the address below. And before I forget, thanks for the bus fare. I hope the stamps arrived safely.

My questions are:

  1. How is Judaism determined—through the mother or father?
  2. Why, as you mentioned to me then, must a Jew not go into a church?
  3. May a non-Jew enter a synagogue?

 

Menuchi dropped the letter and her forehead creased. Diana wanted to learn and she, Menuchi, would be happy to teach her. Maybe she would even bring an errant Jew back to the fold.

But the first thing she had to do was show the letter to her father.

***

“Mrs. Lara, is it good clean here?” Polly asked in her broken Flemish.

Lara Weingarten closely studied the glass shelves. “Fine,” she said. “Now please do the armchairs.”

She left the dark-skinned woman to banish the bit of dust that had accumulated in the large living room. There wasn’t any real dirt there. Who was there to make it dirty? She? Dan, who hadn’t been home for two weeks already? The grandchildren from Israel whom she hardly knew?

She would tell Anne that she had to come visit in the summer. Actually, it would be very difficult for her daughter to leave the little ones, and even harder to travel with them. So let her send Simi! she thought suddenly. What’s wrong with her coming to visit her grandmother?

Five years had passed since Lara had last seen any of them. Then, at sixty-something years old, she had traveled to Israel to visit her daughters, Betty and Anne. The visit had been very enjoyable, but exhausting. She wasn’t used to Israeli life. Perhaps Betty would come visit her this year? But she really didn’t want to ask her. How would Betty leave ten children and take a trip? “I won’t let Dan go. At least he should stay with me in Belgium…!” she murmured to herself as she heavily climbed the two stairs to the kitchen. “It’s good to know that my daughters are happy there, but I hope that Dan doesn’t have such far-reaching plans. That is, if he has any long-term plans at all.”

She stopped for a minute and turned around to look at Polly, making sure she hadn’t heard her muttering. All I need is for people to say I’ve started talking to myself! she berated herself, silently this time. And then, without consciously deciding to do so, she sat down on the chair near the phone and began dialing the long number. One of the two phone numbers she loved so dearly.

“Hello?”

“Shraga’le!” Lara cried warmly, recognizing his voice right away. “It’s Savta! How are you, my dear oldest grandson?”

He smiled, and she could sense it across the ocean. “Baruch Hashem, great. And how are you feeling, Savta? You had a rheumatic infection last month, didn’t you?”

“Yes; I see you are up to date. But now I’m fine. I feel almost perfect.”

Baruch Hashem.”

“Right, baruch Hashem,” Lara added immediately, and then continued: “So you’re home? Wait, it’s two in the afternoon your time, isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to be in yeshivah now?”

“No…” He tittered for a minute, concealing his discomfort that threatened to spill over through the phone lines. “I came home for Shabbos, so … I stayed home today, too.”

“Good. You should rest,” she said solicitously. “But you’re feeling okay, right?”

Baruch Hashem, fine,” he said, peeking towards his parents’ room. He heard whispers from inside. “And how’s my uncle?”

“Studying. Studying really heard. It annoys me a bit that he doesn’t think about anything else. Every time I tell him the time has come for him to have his own home, he laughs.”

“I guess he feels that he’s too young, Savta.”

“But he’s not!”

“I know, but I don’t know what is acceptable over there. He probably wants to finish his degree or something, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Lara affirmed. “I think his degree is important, too, but he can complete it later also.”

“Could be.” Shragi stretched his left wrist, which had suddenly fallen asleep. “But the truth is, I really don’t understand these things.”

“Okay, dear, it was wonderful to hear your voice.”

“Yours, too, Savta.”

“Good, so let me speak to your mother. Can she come to the phone?”

He hesitated for a minute and glanced at the half-closed door again. “Ima?” he called cautiously. The feverish whispering stopped. “Savta’s on the phone. Can you speak to her now?”

Chani looked at her husband. “A mother’s heart, huh?” she said with a wan smile, but called, “Yes, Shragi. Can you bring me the phone, please?”

***

“Brush your teeth very well.”

“Enough, Chaya’le!”

“And smile nicely. Wait, not such a small smile. A wide, warm smile! No, you didn’t brush your teeth well enough. Come on, do it again.”

“Chaya’le, really, it’s enough!”

“Do you think she’ll bring a little flashlight like dentists use, so she can see you better?”

“Chaya’le,” Menuchi said with an amused expression, “next time I’m not telling you anything!”

“Next time?” Chaya’le asked with a gleam in her eye. “You mean for the fourth date?”

“If there will be one,” Menuchi said, opening her pocketbook. “And if not, then the next time in general, got it?”

Chaya’le nodded as she observed her sister put her blue wallet into the purse. “I’m sorry I got on your nerves. I’m just so tense. I mean, my big sister Menuchi is…”

You’re tense?” Menuchi cried. “How interesting that I also happen to be uptight today.”

“Why?” Chaya’la asked with mock innocence.

“Just because.” Then she became serious again. “Okay, I think I have to leave already.”

“Ready Menuchi?” Their mother appeared in the doorway. “Let me see you. Yes, everything looks fine. Oh, my, I can’t believe it. I’m actually starting to get a tiny bit excited!”

“Forget it, Ima—don’t bother.” Menuchi stopped in the middle of the hallway. Her mother and Chaya’le followed suit. “I’m not even daring to feel the least bit excited. I’m too afraid I’ll be disappointed.”

Minna looked at her daughter with an understanding smile. “Hashem will help, Menuchi, and if this is your bashert, hopefully He’ll let everything go easily. How are you coming home?”

“I think that if it will be too late, I’ll sleep over at Sarah’s, okay?”

***

Nearly an hour later, Menuchi found herself waiting on the Ramat Gan street, leaning on a stone wall that encircled a tall building. It was a minute to eight. Good. She was a bit early. A blond puppy led an elderly lady who was holding his leash; the puppy paused to study her for a moment and then walked on. Every taxi that passed made her heart skip a beat, but none of them stopped. Four minutes after eight. Nu? Where are you, Mrs. Ostfeld?

Her eyes studied the green leaves that peeked from behind the fence. The sprinklers were working full blast, spraying sparkling droplets in ever direction. Interesting. He had given the impression of being very punctual. Was his mother different? She moved a bit to the right when she noticed a bit too late that the sprinkler was working very hard to water her left shoulder.

Another moment passed, and then another, and then another. 8:09.

A white taxi stopped on the other side of the street, and Menuchi watched it out of the corner of her eye. A few seconds passed; the passenger inside must have been paying the driver. And then the front door opened and a black hat and suit emerged.

What? Eliyahu? What was he doing here?

Her oldest brother crossed the street and approached her.

“Menuchi?” He saw that she had noticed him. “I’m sorry. Are you waiting a long time?”

“Yes,” she answered without even trying to conceal her impatience. “Did something happen?” Have they suddenly decided that they don’t want to continue? His mother doesn’t want to meet me? Has she heard something she doesn’t like about me?

“Ima called twenty minutes ago, the second I walked in the door from kollel, and told me to take a taxi and bring you back. The shadchan called that they want to push off this meeting for another time.”

“Another time?” The wording didn’t find favor in Menuchi’s eyes. ‘Another time’ sounded too far off, abstract. “When, next year?”

Eliyahu laughed. “They apologized for not letting us know earlier. The shadchan said that Mrs. Ostfeld asked him to specifically apologize in her name; she had completely forgotten about the meeting. Her son reminded her and they hurried to call Rabbi Kilman so he could call you at home, but you’d already left and Abba’s cell phone was off.”

Menuchi wasn’t listening to what he was saying. All she heard were a few words. “Mrs. Ostfeld asked to tell me? In her name?” Something about this special attention sounded promising.

Or perhaps Mrs. Ostfeld was just a very polite woman.

She crossed the street and entered the waiting taxi. “Did she mention another date?” she asked her brother.

“No. In any case, it won’t be in the next few days.” Something in Eliyahu’s expression led Menuchi to believe that he hadn’t yet told her everything.

“Stop keeping me in suspense and tell me this minute everything you know!” she ordered, half-angry, half-joking. “This story is getting me nervous. What kind of strange cancellation is this? And what a weird excuse. Interesting; I wonder what would have happened if she would have come and I would have forgotten… How could she forget?”

“Are you done with the questions?”

“No. And when will there be another date? Not in the next few days? Don’t you think it’s just their way of trying to turn us down with silly excuses?”

“No, I don’t think so at all. All done with the questions?”

“No. Did Rabbi Kilman give Ima another, more justified reason from his mother besides the fact that she ‘just forgot’? Did Ima tell you?”

“Oh, finally, you’re giving me a chance to talk!” Eliyahu crowed. “Are you ready to listen yet?”

Nu, out with it!”

“The reason is very simple and will answer—I hope—all your questions. This afternoon…” He paused for effect. “This afternoon, the Ostfeld family…”

“Eliyahu!”

“…welcomed a new baby boy into their family!”

Belgium, 1945

Lara’s British aunt wrote a return letter saying that it was hard for her to come to Belgium to take Lara, and that it would be best if the child could be sent to London.

Two days after the letter arrived, Diana Mollis appeared in the large, airy room. She had fulfilled her promise and had come to visit seven-year-old Lara. When she heard from Rosa about the aunt’s response, she wrinkled her forehead, but didn’t say a word. The next day, she was back.

“We are returning home to London in three days,” she said in her quiet, firm tone. “Lara can join us.”

Rosa looked into Diana’s eyes. “Should I write to the aunt to wait for you at the train station? When exactly?”

“I’ll let you know what time when I know,” Diana replied with the hint of a smile. “Believe me, I would have taken her for myself, but too many injustices have been committed against the Jewish nation, and I don’t want to be the cause of another one. I know that this child must be raised as a Jew.”

Lara joined the Mollises on their return trip to London, but instead of her aunt, a dour-faced man awaited them at the train station. He informed them that his employer, Lara’s aunt, had been injured in a car accident the day before. So Lara ended up in the large, empty Mollis home. And suddenly, there was kosher food there, so that Lara would be able to eat. Bob Mollis would drive the little girl to a Jewish school each day, as there was no Jewish school in their neighborhood. The drive took almost an hour each way, but Lara had to learn in a Jewish setting.

Only a year after Lara arrived in Britain did her aunt recover enough for Lara to move in with her. But Lara never forgot the Mollis family, which, in time, grew to include four children, and she would visit them regularly. When Lara grew up, she married Kalman Weingarten, from Belgium, and returned with him to her homeland. They settled in the bustling city of Antwerp, and she became the mother of Anne, Betty, and Dan.

***

“Chani? Is that you calling yourself? I don’t believe it!” Betty, her sister, was surprised.

“Yes, it’s really me. Do I sound like someone else?”

“You sound wonderful, baruch Hashem. Mazel tov! How do you feel? How’s the little one?”

“He’s adorable, really, so sweet. He’s small, but not too bad. One kilo nine hundred thirty. But besides his low weight, everything is fine.”

“Yes, Gershon told us about the weight the first thing. I’m so glad everything’s good! What do your kids have to say?”

Chani leaned back. “They’re happy. Yitzi’s already started planning the vacht-nacht. He doesn’t realize yet that the bris is not going to be that soon. Yehudis promised to help a lot … and Simi’s managing things at home.”

“A daughter like Simi is a real brachah,” Betty said. She would know; she had six boys before her four girls.

“You just wait. In a few years, your Gitty will be old enough to help.” Chani lowered her voice in case her roommates were trying to sleep.

Nu? And have you spoken to Shragi? Did he call you from yeshivah?”

“Well, he was actually home before,” Chani said. “He hasn’t returned to yeshivah since Shabbos.”

“Oh.” Betty wisely absorbed the information silently. She knew her nephew was twenty-two-and-a-half already and she imagined that he sometimes had good reason to stay home.

“I’m sure you can imagine yourself what I’m referring to,” Chani continued. “Yes, there’s something on the table right now. And that’s actually why I called you. No, no,” she said as soon as she heard the excited gasp on the other end of the phone. “Don’t say mazel tov yet. We’re not up to that at all. I was actually supposed to go meet her last night…”

Nu, so go!” Betty joked.

Chani laughed. “Just a minute, I’m going. Now seriously, Betty. On the one hand I don’t want to hold everything up for nothing. On the other hand, I want to know who the girl is.”

“Perhaps this is from Shamayim, Chani. I mean, honestly, have you ever met anyone and said yes?”

Chani put on an injured tone. “Of course I have! What kind of question is that? Not that I’ve met too many prospective girls, but it’s happened. In any case, Betty, can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Simi told me that there’s a wedding tomorrow in Tamir that this girl is supposed to be going to. Will you go take a look at her for me?”

“I’m afraid of you, Chani. What will be if I decide something that you don’t like?”

Chani closed her eyes with a tired smile. “I promise not to smack you, dear sister. I trust your taste.”

“In that case, no problem. Which hall is it in and what’s the girl’s name?”

“I don’t know which of the three halls this wedding is in, but the kallah’s name is Shlomowitz, or something like that. You have to find Menuchah Feder. Will you remember the name?”

“Menuchah Feder. No problem at all. Tell me, where are you going on Wednesday? Not home, I hope.”

“No, I’m going to a convalescent home. I just haven’t decided which one.”

“And the children?” Betty asked hesitantly. Seven years earlier, when Chani’s Yitzi had been born, she had taken two-year-old Yehudis to stay with her family in Yerushalayim, while Shragi and Simi stayed in Bnei Brak with their father. But this time, she thought it would be a bit hard to offer to take Chani’s kids. Yehudis was older and needed more care, and Yitzi was quite a rambunctious character, and she had her own three-month-old baby.

“Betty, I know you’d want to help me if you could. You’re wonderful. But they’ll manage at home. Simi’s not a little girl anymore.”

“Are you sure it’s fine? Maybe Yitzi should come to me for Shabbos?” Betty asked worriedly. The close bond between her and her older sister didn’t only manifest itself in the way they read each others’ thoughts, but also in their deep devotion to each other.

“Maybe, Bet. Let’s see what Simi wants to do.”

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