Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 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
Back in Belgium, Diana Molis ascended the black marble stairs. She stuffed the white envelope into her pocket. She would look at it soon. Not now. Not here.
“What’s doing, Dee?” her mother asked.
“I have a hard exam tomorrow,” Diana replied tersely. “I have to finish studying.”
Her mother frowned. “I thought that since the university is so close to home, and that you’re even sleeping at home, I’d see you more than if you would be living elsewhere. As time goes on, though, I see that’s not exactly the case.”
“Well, you want her to take her studies seriously, don’t you?” Diana’s father interjected as he blew rings of smoke into the air.
“Yes, but she’s overdoing it. And when she finally has a few days of vacation, she flies off to Israel, instead of spending time with us here.”
“Well, soon she’ll be getting married and will be moving out for good, Dora,” Diana’s father remarked, tossing the evening newspaper onto the low wooden coffee table. “You know, Dee, we’re waiting for news from you.”
“News? Of what type?” She vigorously rubbed the glass face of her watch, determined to remove a nonexistent mark.
“Don’t play dumb!” her mother replied with a smile that did little to mask her irritation. “When’s the wedding?”
“What’s the rush, Mother? We’re not in any hurry, you know.”
“No, I don’t know. I have no idea why I haven’t had the opportunity to meet his family yet. I would have liked to host them for an evening, and to see their house. What’s the matter—he’s embarrassed about something?”
“He’s not embarrassed, Mother, but…”
“But apparently the time hasn’t yet come for that, Dora,” Diana’s father soothed, and then stood up to his full height of six foot, six inches. “But it wouldn’t do any harm for you to go to our family pastor and set a date. He doesn’t have too many evenings available. You’d be better off making sure he has the date you want open.”
Diana sighed. “Father, we haven’t gotten to that either.” She stared at the rug for a moment. “But, Mother, let’s say, let’s say, that he would prefer to be married by someone else. Would that make a difference to you?”
“Who? Their priest? That’s acceptable.”
“Oh, come on, Mother, he’s Jewish!”
“Oh, I forgot. Again.” Her mother wrinkled her nose. “So whom does he want to officiate at the wedding? A Jewish rabbi? That doesn’t even come into question, and I hope that’s very clear to you!”
“No Jewish rabbi would marry them, Dora.” Diana’s father winked at her. “Unless…”
“Unless Dee wants to convert. Do you want to, Dee?”
Mrs. Molis scowled. “Do me a favor, Roy, and don’t put any unintelligent ideas into Diana’s head.”
Diana smiled weakly at her father. “Don’t worry, Mother. I actually had a regular civil marriage in mind.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Why, Dora?” her husband queried. “Julian didn’t have more than that, and you didn’t mind!”
Dora Molis sighed bitterly. “We didn’t have these problems with Julian. Here, it’s important for this Jewish boy to clearly understand that Diana doesn’t belong to his religion. And that he better not even try to get her to join it.”
It was Diana’s turn to wrinkle her nose. “He has a name, Mother.”
“Yes, I remember.” Mrs. Molis sighed again. “Are you sure you want a family name that sounds so Jewish? Maybe you should persuade him to take on your family name? If he gets baptized, we’ll allow him to do so with pleasure.”
Diana looked hopefully at the staircase to her left. “Whatever he wants, Mother.”
Roy stood up and slowly made his way towards the stairs. “Don’t pressure her, Dora. Let him keep his name. My mother always said that every religion has to preserve its members and not drag members of other religions into it. Let him stay a Jew! What do you care?”
“But I don’t want him dragging Dee after him! That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“There’s no missionizing among the Jews, and you know that.”
“There’s no missionizing of strangers, but I’m sure he would prefer a Jewish wife.”
“I don’t really see that he so much prefers a Jewish wife,” Roy said placidly as he climbed the first two stairs. “I see that he wants Diana for his wife.”
“Who knows what kind of malicious intentions this young man has!” Mrs. Molis snapped, also rising from her seat. “I’m sure he has plans to make Diana convert to his religion. Therefore, I think it is imperative that we have a wedding the way we are used to. Let it be clear where everyone stands on this issue.”
“Well, soon I’ll be falling, not standing,” her husband replied jovially and continued climbing the stairs heavily. “In any case, I don’t think today’s young people have any religions inclinations whatsoever, be they Jewish or Christian, I’m afraid.”
Mrs. Molis yawned and began heading upstairs, too. Diana remained staring at the two pairs of tired legs until they disappeared at the top of the stairs, and only then did she slump into an armchair with a sigh and stick her hand into her pocket.
“Minna? Mazel tov!” The voice on the other end of the line was faintly familiar to Menuchi’s mother.
“Thank you…” she said hesitantly, afraid to admit that she hadn’t identified the caller.
“By the way, this is Aliza Feder,” the speaker introduced herself. Minna mentally scanned all the names of her husband’s large family, and quickly remembered that there was a Bnei Brak cousin named Aliza. Nice that she was taking the time to call and wish mazel tov.
“Thanks so much for calling,” Minna said warmly.
“Right. So I hope you have a lot of mazel and nachas. This Ostfeld is a real catch.”
“Really? Do you know them?” Minna asked interestedly.
“Not personally, but I’m familiar with the name. It was suggested for my Malky.”
“Well, im yirtzeh Hashem by you very soon,” Minna replied, glancing out the window at the blinding sun.
“Amen. We heard many good things about him at the time…but the family…is a bit…well…”
“That didn’t bother us,” Minna replied with a calm that she didn’t feel. She would have preferred to grit her teeth. She began to pull down the shutters.
“It didn’t bother you? Aren’t you afraid that it’s hereditary?”
“We understood that it is not.” Minna knew Aliza only superficially, and had never particularly liked her. Now she remembered why.
“They said so?”
Minna sufficed with a quick nod, and then remembered a split second later to murmur some type of agreement.
“Well, I’m sure that’s what they’re saying, but it doesn’t sound good to me. Two children in one family…I don’t know, it’s too many. But if it didn’t bother you, then that’s wonderful. You should have lots of mazel.”
Minna’s hand let go of the shutter in a flash. “Two children?” She didn’t recognize her voice. “Only one girl, not two children!”
“Two, Minna, two. And with the last one there were also lots of problems.”
Dread began to seep through Minna’s body. “I understood that he’s perfectly healthy, just a bit small.” She tried to conceal how clueless she was.
Aliza emitted a noise that could have been taken as a chuckle in commiseration with her cousin’s horror. “I imagined that you didn’t know the whole truth; otherwise you wouldn’t have done the shidduch in the first place. What did they tell you, that he’s in the hospital? The child died, Minna.”
“What?!” Minna pulled down the shutter forcefully, her thoughts escalating into a whirlwind. Menuchi was at the hospital now; she had gone with Shragi’s mother to meet her tiny brother-in-law. Poor girl; what a trauma she’d have!
A small voice of logic finally penetrated the maelstrom of her wild thoughts. But if that’s true, when did it happen? Menuchi only made up with her future mother-in-law to go visit the baby about three hours ago. Everything was certainly fine then. And if this all happened after that, how did Aliza know already? Had she been at the hospital?!
She felt something in her head shatter into tiny pieces. “I’m…stunned. Who told you? When did it happen?” Her voice was hoarse, like an old cassette whose ribbon was rubbed out from overuse.
Aliza emitted that horrible chuckle again. “What, you really don’t know? When we made our inquiries two months ago, we found out about it! My niece is in their daughter’s class. It’s a rather old story.”
Minna sat down on her bed, breathing heavily. “I don’t understand,” she said, her forehead wrinkling in confusion. “Maybe we’re not talking about the same family? Their baby wasn’t born two months ago. I don’t think he’s even three weeks old yet.”
Aliza wasn’t about to let anyone get the better of her. “Oh, so they had another baby, baruch Hashem. I’m sure it was a comfort to the mother. I heard she was so broken a year ago, poor woman.”
“What happened a year ago?” Minna asked. She suddenly felt a sense of relief. First of all, the Ostfeld baby was fine. Baruch Hashem.
“Nu, they had a sick baby, and a few months later he died. It was a very unfortunate story.” Aliza sounded sorrowful.
“We didn’t know that,” Minna said slowly.
“Nu, so like I told you, I knew you didn’t know everything; otherwise you wouldn’t have let your daughter join such a family. Look how bashert everything is—if the shidduch is meant to happen, it doesn’t help that half the city knows. You won’t!”
“We really didn’t know,” Minna repeated, and felt that shattering feeling in her brain again. Why hadn’t she made just a few more inquiries?
“Well, Minna, at least we see it was bashert. So lots of mazel, and I’m sorry if I scared you. I really didn’t mean to. Let’s just hope it’s not hereditary, like they say, even though it sounds rather strange. And if it is hereditary, let’s hope that at least your grandchildren will be healthy, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Amen,” Minna whispered. She couldn’t utter a “thank you.” Thank you for what? For sowing panic?
Small beads of sweat covered her forehead, despite the air conditioner that toiled valiantly to cool off the house. She hurriedly closed the window she was standing beside, all the while knowing that it wouldn’t help a bit.
Menuchi approached the house feeling elated. Her chassan’s mother was such a wonderful woman. She was doing everything she could to make Menuchi feel comfortable. And the baby was just adorable. He’d been released from the neonatal unit and was now in a special room under observation. As soon as he’d reach two kilos, 100 grams, they’d let him go home. It could even be in the next few days, b’ezras Hashem.
She opened the green bag for the umpteenth time, making sure the velvet roll was still there. She wondered what her mother would say about these watches. “I don’t like it when kallahs are given watches to choose from at the vort itself,” her future mother-in-law had said. “Personally, I’d never be able to choose if I was surrounded by ten women, each of whom has her own opinion. So I won’t do that to you. We’ll go to our house now and you can take the watches home and choose one there, okay?”
Menuchi had smiled and thanked her for her consideration. The truth was, she didn’t mind either way, but she was happy for the opportunity to see the house where her chassan had grown up. It was a nice house, furnished a bit too heavily for her taste, but it wasn’t too bad. The house was empty when they arrived. Yitzi was still in cheder, Yehudis was at the Ezer Mi’Tzion day camp, and Simi was at camp.
Menuchi felt a twinge of guilt when she realized she was rather pleased that Simi wasn’t home. They hadn’t seen each other since the l’chaim, and had only spoken once on the phone. And that hadn’t been the most successful of conversations. Yes, she knew there isn’t always what to talk about, especially when two people don’t know each other well. Still, their awkward relationship got her nervous. All she could do was daven and hope that things would improve in the future.
She opened the door and a dry wind swept into the house with her, carrying two crispy dried leaves. The house was quiet. “Chaya’le?” she called, glancing at her watch. It was a quarter to two already.
“She went to the pool with Miriam,” Adina informed her after lifting her eyes from her book.
“Wasn’t in the mood. Maybe tomorrow.”
“The vort is tomorrow.”
“Right. So not tomorrow,” Adina murmured, her eyes back in her book.
Menuchi entered the kitchen. Only a lone pot with some leftover orzo from the day before stood on the stove. A pile of letters lay on the table. “Ima?” Menuchi called loudly, her hands rifling through the envelopes.
“She’s in her room. She went to rest and closed the door,” Adina called back from the living room.
“She didn’t feel well?” Menuchi asked worriedly. Usually, her mother’s day off was characterized by delicious smells emanating from the kitchen and a sparkling floor in the dining room, complete with the chairs stacked on the dining room table. Today, the kitchen was empty and the floor in the dining room remained dirty.
“Dunno,” Adina said, walking into the kitchen. “She went into bed an hour ago and asked me to put the vegetables she peeled into the refrigerator. She said she has no energy to cook. By the way, there’s a letter for you.”
Menuchi, who had already discovered the envelope, put it down on the table. She took out a clean pot and threw in some potatoes. After covering them with water, she turned on the flame and put the pot on the stove. Diana had answered her letter pretty quickly. She had sent Diana answers less than two weeks ago, and here she had already received another letter from her. What now? Further discussion on the responses she’d written with her father’s help, or new questions?
In the refrigerator drawer, Menuchi discovered two onions and six peeled carrots, and chopped parsley in a bag. What had Ima planned to cook? There was a package of chicken defrosting on the counter. Had she wanted to make chicken soup? Well, it didn’t really matter, because everyone would be home soon and the chicken on the counter would not have enough time to cook in any case. Maybe Ima had wanted to make croquettes? There was no time for that either, anymore.
Menuchi hurriedly diced the onions and sautéed them. They’d add a good flavor to the mashed potatoes she would make. What else? Frankfurters. True, it wouldn’t be one of Ima’s delicious home-cooked meals, but at least it would be more than just bread and cold vegetables.
She spread the red tablecloth on the table, lowered the flame under the boiling potatoes, and sat down to read Diana’s letter.
As she tore the envelope open, she heard the clatter of chairs hitting the table from the dining room. Good; Adina had decided to abandon her book and pitch in also.
The letter from Diana was a bit longer than the previous one, and it had a more personal tone as well. It began by thanking Menuchi for her responses. Diana continued with a new question about the essence of the woman in Judaism and concluded with a description of her dilemmas:
Do you understand? I’m trying to think if I am able and if I want to be the wife of an Orthodox Jew, although, to tell you the truth, it seems to me that the description “Orthodox” doesn’t suit him for a long time already. There are no differences between us. Still, why should I ruin him more? If you were in my place, Menuchi (no problem writing your name, just pronouncing it!), what would you do?
Menuchi stood up to take the frozen hot dogs out of the freezer. What would she do? She knew, of course, that the best thing for Diana to do was to improve her ways and observe Torah and mitzvos. In other words, to become a baalas teshuvah. But something here wasn’t so clear. If her fiancé’s spiritual level was so low, unfortunately, then what did Diana find unsuitable? Menuchi turned off the flame under the potatoes, only to discover that she apparently hadn’t put in enough water, because it had all boiled out and the potatoes had begun to scorch. She placed the pot on a towel on the counter and began to mash the potatoes, adding a few tablespoons of oil. Ima couldn’t stand margarine, and it was not an ingredient one could ever find in her kitchen.
Diana must have felt the differences, and came to this conclusion after some heavy thinking, Menuchi surmised. Diana’s family, unfortunately, was completely assimilated, while her fiancé’s family did maintain a modicum of religious observance. Maybe Diana Molis was afraid to enter such a family? But she hadn’t said anything like that; instead, she had asked, “Why should I ruin him?” She, Menuchi, would have to respond that on the contrary, Diana could have a positive influence on him.
Menuchi nodded to herself in satisfaction. Yes, she would write to Diana that a good wife has the power to elevate her husband. Why was Diana only thinking about the negative effect she could have?