Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 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
Shimon Feder strained to read the English words and then raised his eyes.
“I’m happy I asked you to show me every letter she sends you,” he said slowly. “She lives in a world whose concepts are, baruch Hashem, very foreign to you. I really do prefer that this correspondence be supervised.”
He pondered for a moment, and then added jovially, “But I’m only heading the kashrus agency temporarily. From the first of Cheshvan, b’ezras Hashem, the responsibility will be transferred to your husband. And personally, I suggest that you slowly cut off ties with her. Stress again that she should go learn in a serious place and not suffice with our responses. In any case, if Shragi won’t want you to correspond with her—and I’ll understand if he doesn’t—then you can give her some addresses where she can send her questions. There are plenty of places that can help her.”
“Or we can leave our address and you will answer her, without her even knowing that it’s not me.” Menuchi folded the paper into four.
“But someone will have to translate the letters into English.” Rabbi Feder’s forehead creased. “So why not direct her to the people who can answer her, and who speak English? That can also prevent mistakes that might happen in the translation.”
“And what about her question in this letter?”
“The question is what she means by ‘sin.’ Does a gentile girl who marries a Jew fall into the category of one who serves avodah zarah or violates any of the other seven mitzvos of Bnei Noach? I have to find out. But one thing is clear: nothing good can come out of causing a Jew to sin.”
“Do you think we can sit on this tonight?”
“Tonight? I’m afraid not.” He picked up his hat. “I have to run out, and I doubt I’ll be home before eleven. We have to find an evening when I’m free and not too tired.”
“Will there be such a night before my wedding?”
Reb Shimon donned his hat. “We’ll have to find one. Maybe tomorrow. The question seems urgent. We might be able to save someone there from doing a serious aveirah.”
Menuchi nodded in agreement and bid her father goodbye as he hurried out of the house. She put the paper on the table as her eyes fell on the last page of the newspaper that lay nearby. Small black words against a grayish background: Help Wanted. At once, her thoughts switched direction.
She picked up the newspaper and sat down on the couch. Maybe something would pan out from the “Help Wanted” column?
Nonsense; what am I going to find here? ‘Seeking cook for children’s institution’…? No. They’ll want experience, anyway, and I don’t have it. I mean, I can roast some chicken and make orzo or potatoes, but that’s about it.
Menuchi sighed like a cook with forty years of experience and an aching back, and looked again. “Seeking driver with van to transport…” No, that wouldn’t do. Next.
“Seeking experienced saleswoman to promote…” No, not that either.
“Seeking experienced teacher for seventh-grade Talmud Torah boys…” Seventh grade? Not for her. She wouldn’t take higher than fifth grade. Oh, this was a boys’ cheder; it didn’t apply in any case.
“Seeking salesgirl for jewelry store in Bnei Brak…” Perhaps that would be suitable? If it was a clothing store, she wouldn’t consider it. Standing behind customers modeling in front of the mirror and exclaiming excitedly about the garment and the fit was not for her at all. But jewelry was something else. Why not? Glittering gold against dark velvet, muffled footsteps on the carpet, the hum of the air conditioner… Why, she could even speak English to foreign customers!
Don’t get so excited. No one’s hired you yet. First call and find out some more details.
But she didn’t approach the phone. A salesgirl in a jewelry store? Really? Simi wouldn’t be a salesgirl, not of pastries and not of rings. She would be a dynamic, highly in-demand teacher who would direct the schools’ extracurricular program and be in charge of decorating the hallways. Students would send delegations to the principal to ask that she teach them. She would come to the school during summer vacation to fill her name into the notebook of substitutes, and even though there would already be two hundred and seventeen names in the book, somehow, her name would jump to the top of the list. She wouldn’t have to do much for this to happen. She would just flash a few of her brilliant and impressive words and present her diploma and letters of recommendation from her teachers and…
Menuchi suddenly put a forceful stop to the gush of thoughts.
You’re jealous! That’s all! A twenty-year-old girl envious of someone who hasn’t even started seminary! What happened to you? And worse, it’s only because it’s her! You wouldn’t think that about any one of your friends. You’d wish them lots of success, and it’s no big deal not to be envious of something you don’t want to do. You don’t want to be a teacher. You are not up to standing in front of a class of rambunctious girls. Not that you mind their natural cheer, but not when you’re the one who has to make sure they stay seated in their places so you can teach them.
You’re more suited to a different type of job, something more personal. In the teaching field, this could mean private lessons; alternatively, you could be a secretary in an office, or a salesgirl.
That would be wonderful for me as Menuchi Feder. But not as Menuchi Ostfeld, Simi’s sister-in-law. What Simi? What a strange question. Simi from school, with the wavy brown hair, the ninth grade class’s Bnos leader. You know, the one who organized the performance at the overnight last year. What? The salesgirl is her sister-in-law?
Simi would never be a salesgirl in a jewelry store.
A bit more than a month later.
Lara Weingarten thanked the driver and climbed out of the taxi. The driver hurriedly took her luggage out, while she looked around, relieved to see her Volkswagen where she had left it.
A huge yawn stretched her facial muscles. She hadn’t really expected Dan to come meet her at the airport, but still, when she had exited into the arrivals area and seen the crowds waiting for passengers, her eyes had also scanned the faces, to see if he was there. But, as she had convinced herself earlier, no one was waiting for her. He hadn’t come.
At home, she found herself wandering around aimlessly. The flight had exhausted her to the extent that she found it hard to focus on any one thing for more than a short period of time. The wedding had been beautiful; Shragi was as wonderful as ever, and his kallah, Menuchi, was so refined.
It was a shame that Dan had refused to attend. Perhaps it would have helped had he seen such a wedding. Maybe he would have come if he hadn’t been so angry at Chani. They had sent him a separate invitation, and Chani had told her that Shragi had written a warm inscription to Dan, but Dan had refused to even open it.
“You can put that invitation there, on the shelf, together with his letter,” he had said scornfully when he had popped in one evening to pick up a few things. “He and his family don’t interest me.”
She had placed the envelope on the high shelf with a trembling hand. Now she looked up, and did not know why the envelopes peeking down at her calmed the jittery anxiety in her heart. And what of it if Shragi’s letters were there? How could they help if Dan had absolutely no intention of looking at them?
As she went up to her room to get ready for bed, hoping to have an early night, she heard two short chimes echo through the house. She gaped for a moment at the small vase on her night-table, and then hurried downstairs.
“Dan!” she exclaimed. “You came!” The rav in Eretz Yisrael whom she had gone to with Gershon and Chani had told her to continue treating Dan normally, and not to cut off ties with him. Meanwhile, at least.
“Right, I came,” he said in his toneless voice. She hadn’t heard his regular, cheerful voice in a long time.
“Do you know that I only came home about two hours ago?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said tersely and went upstairs.
“Do you want to drink something hot?”
He stopped. “Yes, thanks. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
“No, of course not. Coffee.” His mother looked cautiously in his direction. Something in his voice reminded her of the regular Dan, of the old Dan.
He came back down just as she was carrying the two mugs and saucers to the breakfast nook.
“I don’t have anything sweet to go with it right now,” she said apologetically. “I had planned to go shopping before I left. I didn’t get around to it, so I’ll have to go tomorrow.”
“I can do it for you.”
She looked at him, open-mouthed.
“What’s the matter? Haven’t I gone shopping for you dozens of times?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, “but that was a long time ago, ages ago, before I became a bad mother who wants only to ruin her son’s life.”
He averted his gaze, his eyes settling on the heavy velvet drapes in the other room. “You’re not a bad mother; you just don’t understand me, that’s all.”
“Well, now that calmed me down completely,” Lara said, trying to inject some humor into her tone. “I’m not a bad mother. How did you put it? I just don’t understand you. Very encouraging.”
“Yes. You used to understand me,” he said, his voice bitter and hard, like an unripe tomato. “But something changed in you. Maybe Anne had an influence on you.”
“Something changed in me?” Finally she managed a laugh, but it was hollow. “I’m not the one who’s about to betray my religion; I’m not the one leaving, kicking away my nation. Who changed here, exactly?”
Surprisingly, Dan was silent. There was something very calm and mellow about him this evening, giving her the courage to forge ahead. “In retrospect, I know that I made mistakes in the past. I made a lot of mistakes bringing you up. I didn’t send you to schools that were religious enough. If you would have grown up in an environment that was more positive about our religion, perhaps you would have turned out a bit differently than how you are today.”
“Am I so bad?”
“Have I said anything new about the way I perceive your future plans?”
“Let’s not get into that.” His voice was dry again. Like a tree. Like straw. “I wanted to talk about the bond between me and you tonight. Not about anything else; not about anything that cannot be changed.”
Lara sighed and sipped her tea. Her thoughts raced.
“How was Israel?” Dan asked suddenly.
Lara was surprised. “Very nice. The wedding was beautiful. Shraga’le is a darling boy.”
“And you’re a darling grandmother.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I do, but I’m not objective either.”
She fixed him with a long gaze. “So you still have some positive feelings about your nephew? Even after he tried to mix into your life?” Her voice was tired; there wasn’t a shred of mirth or joviality in it.
“What does that have to do with anything? He’s a cute nephew, but I’m not interested in accepting his opinions.”
“He didn’t ask you to accept anything, just to listen.”
“We’re finally sitting here and having a nice, easy conversation. Please don’t stir up the storm all over again.” He tapped the spoon onto his mug.
“You call this a nice, easy conversation?” She smiled bitterly. “And what’s a loaded conversation, in your opinion?”
He picked up the two mugs. “Good night, Mother. I think you should go to sleep. I haven’t decided yet whether I’m sleeping here tonight or not, but I could tell that you’re very tired from everything.”
“Good night, Dan,” she said tiredly. She was out of energy.
Once she was upstairs, with her door locked, she hurried to dial.
“So what do you say about our conversation, Chani?”
“Yitzi! Leave her alone! Alone, I said! What did you say, Mother?”
Lara repeated herself.
Chani was quiet for a moment. “In my opinion, and I wish I would be right, something’s up over there.”
“What does that mean?” Her mother glanced at the closed door.
“Why is he suddenly being so nice to you? I’m sure something’s happened. He’s beginning to realize that it is important for him to maintain a good relationship with his mother. That’s how I see it.”
“Maybe you’re right, but on the other hand, he keeps emphasizing that the topic is not even up for discussion.”
“Well, he’s trying to persuade himself as much as he’s trying to convince you.”
Lara sighed and yawned together, but the yawn overwhelmed the sigh, and that was all Chani heard. “You’re tired, Mother. I don’t want to keep you. Let’s keep davening; there isn’t much else we can do.”
“How do you suggest I act towards him if he stays until tomorrow?”
“Just act normally. The only thing you can do is try and persuade him to read what Shragi wrote.”
Lara suddenly remembered her grandson. “How’s the young couple?”
“Very cute, baruch Hashem. They’ll be here for lunch tomorrow.”
“Very nice, Anne. I’m happy. Well, we’ll see what will be with Dan. Hashem will help.”
Chani hung up the phone and hurried to Yehudis. Yitzi was getting wild, Yehudah Kalman was screeching…and Simi appeared that second like a rescuing angel at the door.
“Yitzi! Do you know what time it is? You won’t be able to get up tomorrow morning! The rebbi will be very angry at you!” Simi chided her younger brother.
“So what?” Yitzi retorted and stuck out his tongue.
Chani motioned to Simi to ignore him. “You know that he’s usually such a good boy. But the last few weeks have confused him. Yehudis needs her special care, Yehudah Kalman is very demanding, and what with the simchah of the wedding and all, somehow, he feels like he’s falling between the cracks.”
Simi nodded tiredly.
“How was it?” Chani remembered to ask.
“Very nice. I’m getting 9B. I heard they’re a lively bunch. Baruch Hashem. You know that’s what I like.”
“You’ll do well with them, I’m sure, b’ezras Hashem,” Chani said with a yawn.
“You’re tired, Ima,” Simi said, repeating what her own mother had just told her grandmother a few moments before. “You go to sleep. I’ll put the little ones in. Don’t worry about them.”
“Okay, Simi, thanks. I’m not worried at all.” Chani smiled. Yes. When her Simi was involved, she wasn’t worried at all.