Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 17 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
“It’s been three weeks since your engagement, Diana, and for some reason, you don’t look happy at all,” Maria, Diana’s sister-in-law, remarked as she pushed the stroller with her two-year-old son.
“I am happy,” Diana said, raising her eyes to the pale blue sky. The summer sun stood high in the sky, surrounded by a lighter halo, but the sky was still not as blue as Diana had ever seen a sky. “The sky in Israel is so blue,” she grumbled, following her sister-in-law as Maria turned left onto a small side street.
“He wants to live in Israel?” Maria queried.
“Dan? No, of course not!”
“So what’s the connection between what I asked and what you answered?”
“I didn’t mean that there was any connection,” Diana replied as she stroked her nephew’s hair. He sat in the stroller, taking in everything around him with wide open eyes.
“Here’s the store. Come,” Maria said as she pulled open the wide glass door. Diana followed her inside the carpeted store and sat down on a velour bench, glancing around at the tastefully designed interior.
“So, what do you say? Are they nice?” Maria asked, holding a tiny pair of shoes.
“Very nice. Really cute,” Diana murmured, taking the right shoe. It was made of blue suede and had light blue laces, with green embroidered flowers on the side. She hadn’t heard how much they cost, but Maria’s wrinkled nose told her enough.
“Julian will be angry,” Maria said as she fit one shoe onto her son’s foot. “He always says that he can’t keep up with the prices I pay for things. But aren’t they sweet?” She put the second shoe on. “I can’t let my son walk around in rags.”
Diana opted to remain silent.
Maria took her son out of the carriage and allowed him to walk across the thick carpet. “And these are the most comfortable for him. This is an excellent brand and every euro I spend on them is worth it.”
Diana nodded noncommittally and chose to maintain her silence.
“The truth is that we tried to solve the problem by opening two separate bank accounts, but it’s not working. The bank clerk won’t let me withdraw any more money, and Julian has a big balance. So I always carry one of his checkbooks on me. Why, isn’t it his son also? Now he wants us to switch to separate credit cards…”
Diana smiled sympathetically. A smile was noncommittal as well.
“Okay, I want these,” Maria told the salesgirl. “Please pack them up for me.” The salesgirl closed the box, placed it in a bag, and added a business card and a small plastic clown.
The baby was thrilled. He was so cute in his new shoes, but Diana noted to herself that the display shelves on either side of her had dozens of other styles that were no less nice and were much cheaper based on their price tags.
She was different than Maria. She was more similar to her brother, Julian. Would she also need to open a separate bank account after her wedding to keep her savings from getting wasted? It didn’t sound particularly ideal at all.
But it’s safe to assume that Dan’s sister only said those things about him to dissuade me from marrying him. Who says that I have to believe her?
“Diana!” Maria pulled Diana out of her musings. “We’re going!”
“Gi-ana! Gi-ana!” the two-year-old parroted and tugged at her hand. They left the cool store and stepped into the hot sunlight outside.
“You can say what you want,” Maria said suddenly. “But what can I tell you? You really don’t look happy.”
“I told you already, I am,” Diana repeated laconically. Then she added hesitantly, “But the truth is that I do have some reservations.”
“I told you that his sister from Israel came to meet me. She…she told me some things about Dan. At the time, I ignored what she had to say. I pushed it all into a corner in my brain and preferred not to think about it. But the truth is, here and there, it keeps popping up.”
“If she tried to present Dan in a negative light, you don’t have to believe her. Her words were obviously lies.”
Diana felt a tug of encouragement. “Do you think so?”
“Of course. After all, her entire objective was to prevent you from joining their family, and she tried to do it in any way possible. Even if it meant besmirching her brother.”
“They are taking it so hard! I know that Judaism forbids it. The question is what that means for me.”
“I don’t think you have to pay any attention to their rules.”
“And let’s say I’m taking a risk?”
“A risk that what?”
Diana took a deep breath, as she prepared to reveal the issue that had been perturbing her for three weeks already. It was the one thing she hadn’t been able to push into that dark corner in her mind for even a second. “I know that…G-d loves the Jews. I don’t really want Him to get angry at me.”
Maria looked at Diana out of the corner of her eye. “I have a few things to tell you, but I’ll leave it to those more experienced than me. Go to your family’s priest.”
“I went already.”
“He can’t talk for ten minutes without contradicting himself.” Diana’s tone was scornful.
“What should I do, Maria, if that’s the way it is? I never particularly enjoyed his Sunday sermons, on those few occasions that I went to them. But this was the first time I saw how he handles questions. I would have laughed if I wouldn’t have been so shocked at his lack of clarity. At first he said that it could pose a problem, then he began bringing proofs that it is very good, excellent, actually, and then to top it off, he said I should come to him with Dan and he would arrange everything. What can I tell you? I came out of there totally confused. One of us is senile—either it’s him or me.”
Maria withheld the words of rebuke that were on the tip of her tongue. “So speak to someone else.”
“Someone on a higher rank.”
Maria continued walking. Diana remained standing in her place. “I think that everyone gives different answers, based on his own understanding. The rules aren’t sharp and clear, like in Judaism.”
“So speak to a Jewish rabbi!” Maria smiled as she looked at her sister-in-law. “Why are you looking at me like that? I mean it! But don’t go to an old-fashioned Orthodox rabbi. I have a Jewish friend; I’ll ask her. I’m sure she’ll have an address for you to go to.”
Diana continued to look at Maria for a long moment, with an expression reserved for those occasions when she was deep in thought. Then the inscrutable expression cleared, to be replaced by a broad smile on her face. “That’s a good idea, Maria.”
“Father, are you sure he’s not going to throw us down the stairs or something?” Diana asked timorously as Rabbi Kaufman’s secretary showed them the way to his office.
“I’m absolutely positive. That’s why I’m here, aren’t I? To watch over you.”
Roy Molis rang the bell, and a pleasant chime echoed through the corridor. The door opened with a slight metallic buzz. After they shook hands and exchanged some polite niceties, Diana and her father sat down across from the rabbi. He was short and slim, and had a trimmed dark beard.
“So, you’ve made this appointment,” the rabbi said with a half-smile and cleared his throat. “How can I help you today?”
Diana’s father pressed his fingertips together. “Well, it’s like this. My daughter Diana is going to marry Dan Weingarten, a Jewish boy. I want to make it clear that we are not Jewish. We are Catholic, rather conservative ones if I may add.”
Diana looked at her father, and he hurried to add, “Diana is less conservative, though, as is most of the young generation.”
“I understand,” Rabbi Kaufman said, coughing lightly. “And therefore?”
“I just want to know what Judaism has to say on the subject, about me.” It was Diana’s turn to continue. “As far as my fiancé is concerned—well, I know that it is considered a problem for you. The question is what is with me.” She paused for a moment. “Will I be punished for doing such a thing?”
The rabbi’s half-smile broadened into a full-fledged grin. “You might want to know, Miss Molis, that since the Jewish Temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, there is no authority among Jews to punish anyone.”
“She means in the World to Come,” Roy clarified solemnly.
The smile dimmed somewhat. “Regarding life after death, I’d rather not discuss the issue with you right now. I personally haven’t worked through the subject completely myself. But I don’t see, Miss Molis, that you have anything to worry about.”
“Judaism doesn’t perceive this to be a sin?” Diana’s father asked.
“On the contrary!” The rabbi rose and his smile widened again. “Let me take this opportunity to wish you a lot of success on your path, Miss Molis. Welcome to the Jewish nation.”
“I have no plans to convert,” Diana said sharply.
“There’s no need, and I didn’t mean that at all. Reform Judaism promotes all the nations drawing closer together in peace and love. This is the end of the days. Each person who fosters cooperation and unity will be blessed.”
Diana and her father looked at each other, both feeling that they had exhausted the issue.
“Thank you very much, Rabbi,” Roy said politely. Diana echoed his words.
“Glad I could help. Good luck.” The rabbi’s small mustache trembled a bit as the door closed behind them.
“So, are you satisfied?” Roy asked his daughter.
“Compared to what I heard from our priest, yes. At least he didn’t change his mind three times.”
“So what didn’t you like?”
“I don’t know.” Diana suppressed a sigh. “He sounded a bit…vague. Like he himself wasn’t all that convinced about what he was saying.”
“But is it enough for you to calm down?” Roy looked closely at his daughter. One of the most important things in the world to him was that she should be happy.
“Yes. I think so.” Diana nodded to herself, at first slowly, and then with more conviction. Enough wallowing in disturbing thoughts; she had to start moving forward, to the joy that her future held!
The metal gate rose with a clang as Roy Molis maneuvered the car into the small parking spot. Diana opened the door and exited into the courtyard. On the other end, near the gate, the mailman was slipping the day’s mail through the slot. One of the envelopes was small and white; it was becoming familiar already. Diana slammed the car door and hurried to get the mail.
Yes, she had guessed right. It was Menuchi from Israel, answering her question from three weeks ago, when Diana had sat down to write to her after the meeting she’d had with Dan’s sister. It wasn’t that Diana had believed his sister, but the fears that Dan did indeed plan to pressure her to join his religion had motivated her to sit down and write Menuchi a well-thought-out question about the fundamental beliefs in Judaism on the subject. If there would be arguments between her and Dan in the future, she wanted to be prepared. She made sure not to mention her Catholicism at all in any way in the letter, and noted only that “there are people who think that…” and asked how Judaism perceived the issue.
She would be able to prepare convincing arguments for Dan ahead of time. It was safe to assume that his Jewish knowledge was far weaker than what this letter contained, so that when she would quote things to him, he would not be able to contradict her. And that was the whole point.
This time, Menuchi wrote, I’m not the one answering the question. My father is. I’ve just translated it. You asked a very deep, broad question, and don’t get me wrong—the truth is clear to me. But in order to explain it to others, I needed someone on a higher level than me. My father answered, I translated, and I hope that only the right thing will come out of it.
My father says that you should go learn in an organized way instead of relying on occasional letters. I agree with him fully. You asked about my preparations for the wedding. Baruch Hashem, things are moving very nicely. We rented an apartment in Bnei Brak (did you visit there? I don’t think so), and we hope to buy there as well. The hall and dress are taken care of, but we haven’t done invitations yet. When they’ll arrive, I’ll send you one. The wedding is in six weeks. Any chance you’ll come? I would be very happy to see you there. How are your preparations going?
Four white pages with crowded writing were attached to the first page. Diana began to read.
Half an hour later, she heard a firm knock at the door. She raised her eyes from the pages, slightly confused. “Yes?” she called out.
“Diana? What are you doing in there?” her mother asked impatiently.
“Um, nothing special,” she replied, stuffing the pages into her pillowcase.
“Lola wants to clean your room now,” her mother said as she entered with the cleaning lady.
Diana slipped outside to the yard. She plucked a small blossom with needlelike leaves and began to tear it apart. She did not yet know how to answer Menuchi’s father’s piercing questions, but one thing was clear: he was also a rabbi. He knew a lot about Judaism, and that was what she needed. She would write to Menuchi with her biggest question, just to dispel her final doubts.
Once again, she walked down the hall to her room to take a pen and paper. The muffled noise of the vacuum cleaner became much clearer as soon as she opened the door, but she hardly heard it. She would have to come up with a good cover story for herself if she wanted a real answer.
Outside again, she sat at the oval garden table and wrote:
First of all, please give a special thank you to your father for taking the time to answer my letter. And of course, thank you as well. I have not yet had a chance to read the letter in detail, as it is quite long. But another urgent question has come up. I have a very good friend, and she’s not Jewish. She is getting married to a Jew in a few more months. For him, it is certainly a sin, isn’t it? My question is: what about her? Does Judaism dictate codes of behavior for non-Jews also? Does a non-Jewish woman who marries a Jew transgress a G-dly edict? Will she be punished for it?
If you could answer me quickly, it is rather important (you know, perhaps I can dissuade her from going through with it).
I was happy to hear your wedding preparations are going nicely. Here, nothing serious is happening yet. We customarily wait at least a year, if not more, to get married, so I’m not at all under pressure with preparations. We haven’t even decided where we’re getting married.
Thanks for the answers until now, and in advance for the future ones.