Beneath the Surface – Chapter 15

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 15 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

Belgium

Diana slowly walked past the rows of trees. Lights from homes behind the trees twinkled alternately as the foliage thickened and thinned. Small, unripe fruits that had fallen to the ground turned into sticky mush as she unintentionally stepped on them.

The words in Menuchi’s letter gnawed at her brain. It was obvious that Menuchi hadn’t realized that she was not Jewish, and, indeed, she had intentionally been trying to conceal this tidbit of information. She doubted the girl from Israel would continue to correspond with her if she would reveal the truth. And this correspondence was very important to her right now. Very.

Only when she was standing in front of the ornate door, looking at the elegant, carved, wooden nameplate hanging on it, did she begin to doubt the effectiveness of her plan.

Yes. Knock! Diana urged herself firmly.

Maybe not? the fearful side of her doubted.

Don’t do anything hastily. Think first! yet a third side of Diana said to her. It was actually her mother’s voice. Diana couldn’t listen to all the voices in her mind. But her firmness won out and she lifted her arm to knock at the door.

“Yes?” inquired the woman who opened the door.

Oh, no. Diana had hoped that perhaps it would be a maid who would open the door. But she knew for certainty that this was Mrs. Weingarten, Dan’s mother. The eyes were identical to his.

“Uh…I…” she stammered. Mrs. Weingarten looked at her cautiously.

“I’m Diana Molis,” she said finally, with far less confidence than she had planned. “I wanted to invite you to my engagement…”

Lara Weingarten took a step back and invited the girl to come inside with a flick of her wrist. With her European manners, she wouldn’t conduct such an emotionally charged conversation outside. But when the door closed behind the girl, she couldn’t control the high tone of her voice.

“Your engagement? To my son?!”

Diana nodded and tried to block everything out of her mind except for her responses to whatever Lara would say.

Lara breathed heavily. “I don’t think you understand the situation. This engagement will not take place.”

“I’m afraid you aren’t aware of how determined your son and I are,” Dian replied and suddenly felt a strange wave of compassion for the woman. “It’s a shame for you to leave Dan so alone. He will be very miserable.”

He will be miserable?” Lara felt the heat spreading to the palms of her hands, climbing to her shoulders, rising to her eyes and then beginning to drip from them in sizzling streams. “I will be miserable! He will, too, actually. But not in the way you mean. If this celebration takes place, I will not attend, as I made clear to him!”

“But why are you taking this so hard, Mrs. Weingarten?” Diana asked seriously. It was a well-known fact that since she was very young, Diana excelled at persuading people. A softhearted teacher would raise a low grade because of a few tears shed by Diana. The stubborn neighbor would receive a detailed explanation, complete with Diana’s brilliant smile, about why he should occasionally turn his sprinkler head to the Molises’ garden as well—and he would comply. The rigid secretary at the university could be convinced, with the girl’s logical words, that Diana could not wait until the next day to meet with the dean to discuss her scholarship. “Literally, a magician!” her father would say about her admiringly.

But this woman was a completely different story. Who didn’t understand whom here? Diana could not decide.

“You will never be able to understand me,” Lara said. She closed her eyes tightly. Don’t cry now! she tried to command her tear ducts. I can’t lose this opportunity! Perhaps through her, I can prevent Dan from taking this catastrophic step!

She swallowed hard and asked Diana to go into the living room. “Sit,” she offered. Diana hesitantly sat down on a couch.

“I want to ask you…” Lara’s voice cracked a few times as she spoke. “I will pay you as much as you want to cut off all ties with my son. I’ll pay for your schooling, whatever you want. I’ll…”

Diana sat up straighter in her seat. Her voice was frosty. “I am not looking for money, and I’m sorry that you see me that way. Money won’t convince me, Mrs. Weingarten.”

“So what will?” Lara’s voice rose again.

“Well, nothing. I came here to persuade you to accept your son’s way willingly and lovingly.”

“No love and no willingness!” Lara felt that the effort it took to say those words with relative calm was robbing her of the last remnants of concentration that she still had. She couldn’t think logically. How did one speak to this gentile girl? How could she explain herself?

Diana studied the embroidered curtain with clenched teeth.

“I…simply…” Lara closed her eyes. “I simply forbid you to marry my son. Is that clear?”

“Forbid?” A cold smile crossed Diana’s face. “You can’t forbid me to do anything, Mrs. Weingarten. And I believe that ability is very limited regarding your son as well. I’m trying to explain to you that I came here in a gesture of friendship. I wanted you to accept me, because nothing is going to change.”

“I will only accept you as the granddaughter of the woman who did so much good for me,” Lara said hoarsely. “Not as a daughter-in-law. I am begging you; it won’t be good for you, either—a Christian married to a Jew! How will your family accept what you did? And how will they accept Dan?”

“They will accept him very nicely,” Diana said, forcefully banishing the image of her mother from her mind. “He will integrate beautifully into our family and they will treat him very nicely. But if you, Mrs. Weingarten, don’t give him your blessings, he will not be able to be completely happy. I believe that you want your son’s happiness, don’t you?”

***

“It was an awful conversation, just awful!” Lara cried to Chani on the phone. “At that point, I just exploded and told her that if they get married, then I’d rather that he be miserable and have a hard, bad life and not succeed at anything! She responded by simply standing up and leaving the house. If only I had known that she was coming, I could have planned how to convince her, how to explain to her how bad it is. She didn’t seem completely closed. But now I ruined everything. Or whatever chances there still were.”

“Have you heard anything from Dan?” Chani asked, biting her lip as she picked up Yehuda Kalman, who didn’t stop wailing.

“No, nothing.”

“We don’t have much of a chance through him,” Chani said thoughtfully. “He won’t listen to me or to you.”

“No,” Lara agreed. “He won’t.”

“And you say she looked like someone who could be spoken to?”

“Maybe…” Lara tried to stabilize her voice. “But now she won’t even want to look at me, of that I am sure.”

“But maybe she’ll look at me,” Chani said in the same thoughtful tone.

“You?” Even the miles of phone wires could not dull Lara’s shock. “But you’re in Israel!”

“Now I am,” Chani said calmly, and jiggled the baby’s bassinet lightly as he finally dozed off. “But there are planes, Mother.”

Menuchi’s perspective:

My future mother-in-law went to Belgium very suddenly. She called two days ago to say goodbye and said there were some issues with her mother, who wasn’t feeling well. I hope she gets better quickly.

Ima raised an eyebrow when she took the phone to say goodbye to her future mechuteinista. Ever since Aliza Feder’s phone call, Ima’s begun to be a bit suspicious about my chassan’s family. To this day, it’s still not clear if the information Aliza Feder imparted is true or if it’s just a rumor. Did my soon-to-be in-laws really have a baby who died? If so, why isn’t that baby ever mentioned at home? Are there no pictures of him? Well, it is possible that they don’t mention him in my presence.

Still, I am not asking anything, of course. After the wedding, I’ll learn more details. Even if the information is true, it doesn’t make me nervous at all. They stressed before the engagement, when we inquired about Yehudis’s issues, that there is no problem of genetics here.

The main thing is that I like the family. Or rather, most of the family. When will you, Simi, join the category of the family members I like? When you begin to like me? Just tell me what I have to do for that to happen. I promise to try very hard to meet the demands, if only I would know what they are!

***

The creaking metal grated on Shragi’s ears for a long moment after he turned over onto his other side. The large clock hanging over his bed was almost invisible in the dark room. Only a dim ray of moonlight cast its beam on the long minute hand, which was just touching the nine. A quarter to…what? Two? Three? How much time had passed since they had switched off the light?

A very long time, that much was certain.

The words he had written to his uncle Dan in Belgium floated around in his head. What would Dan say when Ima would give him the letter? Would she even see him? Would he read the letter? Throw it out? Scream?

A cool Yerushalmi wind blew into the room, causing Shragi to shiver. He hoped Dan would discern his good intentions, the true message, and understand the depth and significance of the words. Shragi hoped he wouldn’t scorn the issue…

A sudden light caused Shragi to squint. “Ostfeld! Seven minutes to davening!” his roommate, Blau, shouted into his ear. “What happened to you today?”

“So I must have fallen asleep eventually…” Shragi said slowly. As he bent over to wash his hands, the room began to spin wildly.

“Apparently, you sure did fall asleep!” Blau laughed. “I was trying to shake awake a sleeping person for at least five minutes. It happened to have been you, in case you’re wondering. So it is very possible that you fell asleep.”

“Well, I didn’t fall asleep last night until very late,” Shragi said, standing up. The spinning intensified and he immediately sat down again.

“Careful, Shraga! Take care of yourself! You’re a chassan!” Blau said with a grin. “Is everything okay?” he asked, on a more serious note.

“Um…yes,” Shragi replied. He would have wanted to share the contents of the letter with Blau, and maybe even someone else. But Ima had told him it was better not to discuss the whole subject. “Who knows what kind of harm it could do to us,” she had said decisively. So he had sat by himself and worked to get the right words to express his thoughts, and he hoped that the translation into Flemish would not dilute their deep meaning.

“Come on, Ostfeld!” Blau shouted from the hallway, and disappeared. Shragi opened his cabinet to take out his tefillin. His black velvet yarmulke that fell to the ground from the upper shelf indicated that he was still wearing his sleeping yarmulke. He bent over, picked it up, straightened, and struck his head hard on the cabinet door that he had left open.

What a morning. What a night.

That evening, Shragi stopped next to the public phone and lifted the gray receiver. The recording told him to enter his PIN code. He dialed.

“Yes?” A warm, deep voice.

“Abba? It’s Shragi.”

Gershon Ostfeld folded the newspaper he was holding and placed it in the corner of the table. “Hello, Shragi. How are you?”

Baruch Hashem, the usual. What’s doing by you? How are things going without Ima there?”

“We’re managing fine here at home.”

Shragi feigned offense. “What? Without me?”

His father laughed. “Without me, either. This morning I dressed Yehudis myself and asked Simi a thousand questions about what goes first and what to put on next. By the time it came to Yitzi, she preferred to dress him herself. When I arrived home this evening, both kids were sleeping and the house was in its usual order. You can trust your sister, you know. By the way, Shragi, I ended up translating your letter to Dan.”

“Oh, really?” The receiver suddenly felt very heavy. Shragi shifted his position, puzzled as to why the receiver felt this way. So what if Abba had translated the letter? He had probably done it with the same Yiddishe flavor as Ima would have.

Yes, but Ima would have sat on it even for three hours if necessary, checking seven hundred times if all the emotions had been fully conveyed and if the spirit of the letter had remained the same. Her Hebrew was also better than Abba’s.

So what?

So she would have understood it better and translated it better.

“You wrote very nicely, Shragi, and I hope you don’t mind that I took the letter to Rav Shteisman.”

“Reb Shlomo?” Shragi was stunned.

“Yes, Ima wanted me to ask for a brachah that she should succeed. So I utilized the opportunity to show him the letter.” His voice took on an apologetic note. “I hope you’re not angry, Shragi. It’s just that you’re only a young man, and even I am not the right authority to decide whether or not this letter was suitable. And this is a matter of someone’s life, literally.”

Shragi nodded. “And what did he say?”

“He said that it’s an excellent letter, and he gave me a brachah that we should see a lot of nachas from you.”

The apologetic tone was replaced by one of undisguised pride, and Shragi was pleased. Why did Abba always sound apologetic when it came to matters of Yiddishkeit? “I’m very…surprised, Abba,” he finally said. “Surprised and happy. Thank you for asking the Rav about the letter. Now I really am much calmer. I was a bit nervous about it.”

“I hope that the translation came out good,” Gershon murmured, and once again the apologetic note tinged his words. “I worked on it until three o’clock in the morning.”

“I’m sure that it came out fine,” Shragi reassured him, really sure that it had.

“Ima called when she arrived. She had arranged a meeting with the girl, without identifying herself.”

Shragi smiled. That was like his mother. “What did she tell her?”

“I don’t know. And she hasn’t met Dan yet. Savta told her that he might come home for the weekend.” Gershon stood up. “Shragi, I’m in a bit of a hurry. My shiur will be starting soon.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for keeping you, Abba. Thanks for the update!”

Shragi replaced the receiver into its rusting metal cradle. He, baruch Hashem, had completed his foray into the world of shidduchim. Simi was going to begin, sooner or later, and he knew what was in store for her.

The bachurim wanted a serious Torah home. They all wanted the daughter of a talmid chacham. He understood them very well, for sure. He had also wanted that. Wanted that—and gotten it. But he wanted to shout to all those in the shidduchim stage: Don’t turn down anything right off the bat! Look into what’s really behind the dry stereotypes!

To him it was clear that a large part of his success in learning was to his father’s credit. It was due to all those hours that his father had sat beside him and urged: “Review, Shragi. I’m listening.” And he had reviewed, and his father had listened. That had been the sum total of their learning together.

Someone tapped him on the back. “Shraga? Where’ve you run off to?” his chavrusa queried.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said with a smile. “And you should know, that everything is because of my father.”

His chavrusa smiled back indulgently. “Sure, one hundred percent. Whatever you say. Are you coming now?”

“Of course,” Shragi Ostefeld said, turning away from the phone and heading into the beis medrash.

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