Beneath the Surface – Chapter 21

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 21 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’s perspective, continued:

“Hey!” the girl said. “Hello!”

I turned around. “Hello,” I answered cautiously and looked at her expectantly. What would she think of my negligence? Had she noticed that the key was in the door—outside?

She had noticed. She took it out of the keyhole and placed it—

In her bag.

“I think…I think that that’s my neighborhood’s key, um, Chasya’s,” I said, stammering badly. All of my English flew out of my mind and I had to scramble for each word to form a coherent sentence. “She…gave it to me…and I think…that I forgot it outside.” I knew that I was blushing furiously. I could feel it.

The girl took the key out, looked at it for a minute and then at me, and then stuck her hand into her bag and pulled out another key.

“Oh, you’re right!” she exclaimed. “I’m always the last to leave and almost always leave the key in the keyhole. I thought it was mine!”

I smiled at her, my forehead and cheeks burning, and studied her with interest. She wasn’t tall, although she was still taller than me, and she had dark hair gathered into a curly bun.

“So Chasya gave you the key?” she asked, and I wondered if I should continue sweeping.

“Yes. She doesn’t feel well. She pulled something in her back.”

I went into the kitchen to put the broom away. She followed me. “Wow! You set the table yourself? So nice of you!” She had a pleasant laugh. “But you really didn’t have to bother. We usually just put a stack of each thing in the middle and the girls take for themselves. What’s your name?”

“Menuchi Ostfeld,” I said as I picked up the broom that had decided to fall. “And yours?”

“Adina Baumel, fromMiami.” We exchanged a few more sentences when I suddenly remembered about the lasagna. I dashed towards the oven. It was completely cold. Of course, Madame Ostfeld. If you don’t turn on the oven, it doesn’t usually turn itself on.

Once again the door to the apartment opened, and more voices filled the kitchen. I heard rapid-fire talking as I concentrated on the oven knobs. “This is Menuchi,” I heard Adina say. “Chasya hurt her back. She’s her neighbor.”

A few people suddenly stood behind me. I had no choice anymore. I pasted my broadest smile on my face and turned around. There were five or six girls there. They all said it was so nice to meet me and shared their names before disappearing into their rooms, still chattering loudly. 

I sat down on the chair, and knew for a fact that I was superfluous. Superfluous in a way that I hadn’t been for a long, long time.

The scene repeated itself several times over. Voices of varying volumes bounced off the walls as more smiley girls came into the kitchen, said “shalom” in heavily-accented Hebrew, and then disappeared.

Had they all returned? How was I to know? Maybe they were hungry already? I glanced at my watch—a quarter to seven. Do they come when they’re hungry or do I have to call them? How? Is there a bell of sorts that I’m supposed to ring? I rose to leave a dozen times, but then sat back down again each time, unsure of whether I could go before the girls came to eat. Then I remembered that Mrs. Ehrentreau said I had to prepare a shopping list after the meal. Obedient as always, I got out a paper and leaned forward in my chair, ready to begin my list.

“Why are you sitting here by yourself…?” I didn’t understand the end of the sentence. It wasn’t Adina; it was another one of the girls.

“I’m waiting for seven o’clock,” I replied seriously.

The girl looked at me. “What’s at seven?”

“Supper,” I said, wondering what she thought of me.

She laughed. “We can eat now also.”

“Okay, so…tell your friends to come,” I said and rose to the oven.

Within two minutes they were all in the kitchen. I stood close to the counter and observed them out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly I realized what was bothering me. They were older, all of them. I don’t know if they were older than me, but it was obvious that these girls were not seventeen or eighteen, as I had thought.

“Are you from the first year of the seminary?” I asked the first one who passed me on the way to the sink.

“Yes,” she replied, stopping and smiling kindly.

“So you’re eighteen now?” I asked naively.

She laughed. “I’m twenty-three, and there are a few other ages here. Why do you think we’re eighteen?”

“Because in the seminary I studied at,” I said, confused but making a conscious effort not to stammer, “the first class is eighteen-years-olds, more or less.”

“Oh.” The girl who joined us had a gentle smile. “But here, age is not the factor. We come for two years of Jewish studies. Whenever you come, you join the first class, no matter how old you are.”

“Oh, I see.”

“I wish the program was more than two years,” the girl added.

The twenty-three-year-old chimed in her agreement. “We would love that, but there’s hardly enough money for what we have already.”

“What subjects do you learn?” I asked with interest, but noticed just then that all the others had already washed. “Forget it; it’s not for now,” I said. “I don’t want you not to eat because of me.” You won’t have any salad left, I said to myself and glanced cautiously at the green bowl in the center of the table. Meanwhile, it remained untouched.

The two girls I had been talking with joined their friends. I placed slices of Chasya’s lasagna on a large plate, and the girls passed the plate around to each other.

Nu, Menuchi, come!” That was Adina. She pointed to a chair beside her. “You’re not supposed to stand there and serve us. You also have to eat!”

“No thanks. I’m not hungry,” I replied. At this point all the voices quieted down and their gazes turned to me. Thirty-four eyes!

“Yes, wash!” the twenty-three-year-old urged. “Come and sit next to me and we’ll keep talking. We were in the middle of a conversation!”

“Don’t be embarrassed,” someone suddenly added. “Chasya always eats with us.”

I smiled but shook my head.

“Daniella, put some lasagna on her plate; the tray is near you!” Adina called and passed her an empty plate. “Okay, Menuchi, so don’t wash, but you have to taste something!” she told me. “We might get offended!”

“Pass that plate over here afterwards. I’ll give her some salad,” a girl sitting at the center of the table—near the green bowl—called.

“No, no salad,” I almost groaned. I would never take from the already paltry salad. But before I could say any more, the plate was placed back in front of me with a large piece of lasagna and a colorful pile of vegetables beside it.

Nu, sit!” the girls urged. I slowly approached the chair and sat.

“Make a brachah loud so we can say ‘amen,’” Adina instructed. “We always try to answer ‘amen’ when someone makes a brachah, but we don’t always notice. Now everyone happens to be quiet, so it’s a good time, and you have to make a brachah anyway.”

I took a deep, deep breath and made a brachah. My voice echoed through the large kitchen for a few seconds, and then seventeen “amens” resounded through the room. The rustle of plastic cutlery resumed. I chewed one noodle in polite silence. I wanted to go home.

“How old are you, Menuchi?” Adina asked.

“Twenty.” I smiled and speared a cube of tomato—which I didn’t even like—with my fork.

“Nice. I’m nineteen.”

I nodded and moved a small piece of cucumber with my fork. We were quiet. “What do you do in the afternoon?” I asked after a long moment of silence. I hate embarrassing gaps in conversations.

“We work, take walks, shop, study; each person does something else,” the girl to my left answered. “By the way, I’m Sandy,” she introduced herself.

“Work? Doing what?”

I got a few answers from girls around me.

“I baby-sit for a family three times a week.”

“I’m a secretary at a lawyer’s office.”

“I work at the Rapaport travel agency.”

“I’m at a center that has homework groups. I help girls with English studies.”

It was nice to see how when each girl answered, the girls sitting around all listened patiently to her. Suddenly someone asked loudly, from the other end of the table, “What do you do, Menuchi?”

Oops! Almost total silence reigned. It must have really interested everyone.

“I finished seminary last year,” I said and took a deep breath. “And now I’m looking for a job. Maybe you can suggest something? I see you girls are all organized doing something.”

“The seminary tries to arrange our jobs for us,” one girl, Chaya, answered. “The salaries aren’t much. What did you study?”

I couldn’t take the silence. Seventeen pairs of ears listened closely. “English, as you can see.” A wave of compliments ensued. “Thanks. And I also studied to be a teacher.”

“So, why can’t you teach?” Chaya asked.

“First of all, there are almost no teaching jobs,” I replied slowly. “And I also don’t think that I would like to be a teacher. I don’t have the patience to scream at girls to listen to me instead of chatting. I…” Here, I got stuck. Maybe you can all stop listening to me? Haven’t I blushed enough today? It was a good thing Simi wasn’t there. She would have been checking how much my hands were shaking.

“The lasagna’s delicious,” Adina said suddenly beside me, and drew another wave of enthusiastic responses.

“I’ll give over your compliments to Mrs. Ehrentreau,” I said, glancing fiercely at the pile of vegetables on my plate. It hardly seemed impressed. “She made it.” I kept glancing nervously at the green bowl in the middle of the table. No one seemed to have eaten much. Why? Was something not good? Was there too little and they wanted to leave some for each other?

I got the impression that the meal was winding down. The forks had all been put down, and mouths were busy talking, not eating.

“Chasya always tells us something in Hebrew,” someone suddenly said. “She says it’s important for us to learn the language.” At once, everyone fell silent again and looked at me.

“What kind of things does she say?” I asked meekly.

“Something else every time. Sometimes a phrase that she explains, sometimes a short game,” Adina said. Then she added quickly, “But you don’t have to. You’re so nice for agreeing to come.” Dear Adina!

“Nonsense. You could have managed fine without me,” I said with an unhappy smile.

“Oh, no!” the girls cried and reverted to listening mode. I looked left and right, and then said in Hebrew the question that was bothering me so much: “Why aren’t you eating the salad?”

***

Joyce, Diana Molis’s British aunt, diagonally snipped the stem of the last flower and added it to the vase.

“They’re so pretty,Dee,” she said, and took a step back to view the roses from another angle. “Thanks so much. But you don’t have to buy me flowers every time the old ones wilt. I enjoy having you here even without the flowers.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Diana said cheerfully and sat down at the dinette table.

“I’m almost, almost happy about what’s happening to you. It’s been a long time since I had guests.”

“At least you got something out of this, didn’t you?” Diana chuckled mirthlessly. “You know who this Weingarten is, don’t you, Joyce?”

Her aunt shrugged. “Am I supposed to know a young Belgian Jewish man? I barely know my neighbors. Everyone’s new here; the old ones have long disappeared.”

Diana moved the plant a bit to the right. “You really have no way of knowing him, but you know his mother. Her name is Lara Weingarten, nee Fuchs.”

“Really!” Joyce’s eyes widened. “That little girl that Mother and Father raised before we were born?”

“They really raised her? She lived with them?”

“She was with them for a long time, relatively speaking. I think almost a year. Even later, as a teenager, she would come to visit. I remember the candies that she would bring us each time she visited. It’s funny how I can feel their tart taste on my tongue now. She would also play tag with us around the house, and she would spend a long time talking to my mother—your grandmother.”

“When did she move toBelgium?”

“When she got married. Her husband was from there. He’s not alive anymore, right?”

“I see that you know details about the later years also. It didn’t happen that long ago.”

“True. She would write to your grandmother. I read the last few letters aloud to Grandma because she didn’t see so well anymore.” Joyce smiled nostalgically to herself and returned the plant to its precise location. “I think I still have those letters in one of my top cupboards somewhere. There should be some photos there as well.”

Diana followed her aunt up the stone stairs, gazing at the old paintings that hung on the walls. She hadn’t visited this house in years—Grandma Diana’s house.

The brown carton was carefully lowered from the high shelf on which it rested. “Yes, this is it,” Joyce said, and sat down on the patterned bedspread. “My mother kept all of Lara’s letters.”

“I see there are a lot of them,” Diana said, sitting down next to her aunt.

Joyce glanced at the pages. “They’re in order. The first letter is from 1959. There’s a photo here, too.” She turned it over. “That’s exactly how I remember her,” she said, pointing to the serious bride in the picture.

Diana tried to compare the Lara from the picture to the Lara Weingarten of today. The determination in the eyes had grown more intense, she concluded to herself, and stuck her hand into the box, seeking more pictures.

A couple and a baby. This must be Anne, the oldest.

Two little girls in velvet dresses sitting on the grass in front of a house; Diana knew they were Anne and Betty.

And another family photo: a father, mother, the girls, who were older than in the previous photo, and a baby.

“Very nice,” Diana said tonelessly, closing the last envelope.

“There really isn’t anything here that should interest you,” Joyce said and stood on her tiptoes to put the box back on its perch. “This stage of your life is over. Nothing happened. It will be good, Diana.”

“I’m not worried,” Diana protested and laughed, although she did not know what the promise of “it will be good” held for her. She had no idea where she would go when she would leave her aunt’s house. She wondered what had drawn her to see the photos; after all, she had moved to Britain to continue her studies in a place where she could sever her ties with the Weingartens.

But Diana Molis felt that she could not forget Anne so fast. There was something too powerful about that woman.

***

“They simply extracted a promise from me that if I came to them again, I won’t make any salad!” Menuchi placed the last napkin in a glass. Shabbos morning. Shabbos at home. Ahh!

Minna Feder stopped mashing the eggs and looked lovingly at her daughter.

“Just a minute; I don’t get it.” That was Miriam. “If they don’t like salad, why does your neighbor always make it for them?”

“Do I know? It’s healthy, it’s nutritious…”

“I once read somewhere,” Minna added, “that here, they serve vegetable salad much more than anywhere else in the world. The Israelis apparently like vegetable salad.”

“How else can you eat raw vegetables?” Chaya’le wrinkled her nose. She, like Menuchi and her other sisters, was not fond of raw vegetables, to put it mildly.

Menuchi shrugged. “There are all sorts of ways. Slices, strips, cubes; I really have no idea.”

“So what difference does it make if you eat strips from a plate or little cubes that are mixed with oil and spices and called ‘salad’?” Miriam pressed, her voice laced with scorn. “Really, people make such a big deal about the food they eat!”

“How, really?” Minna asked. “I’m asking because I know—a bit too well—certain people who make a very big deal about what they eat. Raw vegetables, for example, will never appear on their plates. Do you know people like that, Miriam?”

Her daughter laughed. “I’ll have to serve my husband vegetables, right?” she queried, almost in horror. “Menuchi, do you make salad for Shragi?”

“Sometimes.”

“And do you eat it?”

Menuchi grimaced in response.

“I hope Shragi’s having an influence on you to eat a bit,” her mother said worriedly. “Don’t give up on the vegetables just because I’m not there to chase you about it. The vitamins are very important!”

“I can eat vegetables that are not raw,” Menuchi said defensively. “I’ll eat letcho, stir-fry, and those types of things.”

“Most of the vitamins get lost in the cooking,” Minna said. “Truthfully, Menuchi, when’s the last time you ate a pepper?”

“Two days ago, in the dorm,” Menuchi said, sinking onto the gray couch. “A tiny cube. Like this big.”

“A cube of pepper?” Adina, who had entered at that minute, asked. “Since when do you eat pepper, Menuchi?”

“Since Thursday,” Menuchi said, sighing heavily. “When I was at the Netiv Rivka dorm.”

“Why did you take pepper?”

“You missed out the beginning of the story, Adina,” Chaya’le offered to explain. “Menuchi didn’t take; the girls gave her.”

“Why didn’t you tell them you don’t want?”

“I did.”

“And it didn’t help?”

“You could sort of say they forced me.”

“With a gun to your head?” her sister asked.

“No threats, no gun. Adina.”

“What?”

“I wasn’t calling you. Her name was Adina.”

“Who?”

“One of the seventeen girls who persuaded me.” Menuchi scanned the smiling faces in her mind. “One of the really nice girls.”

***

The phone call came on Motza’ei Shabbos. It was for Menuchi.

“Hello, Menuchi, it’s Chasya.”

“Oh, gut voch,” Menuchi said as she slipped her Shabbos shoes into her bag.

“It wasn’t easy to get your parents’ number, but baruch Hashem, I see that I succeeded.” Menuchi knew that it would be proper for her to ask how her neighbor’s back was doing, but she wasn’t given a chance. “I spoke to the girls before Shabbos. They said you’re very nice and that everything went well. I haven’t had a chance to tell you thank you yet, so I’m telling you now. As for Friday, you probably realized yourself that there was no need for anyone to come, because the job relates only to supper. The girls deal with breakfast themselves, and for lunch, they get a hot, catered meal in the school building. On Shabbos they are hosted by families, so on Friday and Shabbos I’m off. As for tomorrow, I don’t think I can go yet, so you’ll go instead of me, okay?

“Buy whatever is missing there and keep the receipts; I’ll pay for whatever expenses you incur. You can buy basics, not expensive stuff—the seminary is in dire financial straits as it is—and prepare the supper at home. I always try to have at least one hot or baked dish—fish balls, a quiche or kugel, blintzes, whatever you want. It doesn’t make a difference, really, as long as they get a bit of a homey feeling. You know that inAmerica, they eat the main meal at night? Perhaps it’s the same in England; I don’t know. You still have the key, right?”

Menuchi murmured softly. She didn’t try to say anything more, because she knew she wouldn’t be given the chance and it would be fruitless anyway.

“So it’s all the same; go in, get it organized, cut the salad, heat whatever you have to heat up. You’re with me, yes? You can also fold some of the blankets of the girls who forgot, and then tell them that you did it, although I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t always help, because usually the mess belongs to the same few girls. Don’t forget to ask how their day was, and tell them that I miss them. I think that’s it; I’ve told you everything, right?”

***

It began with a few isolated drops that fell to the ground slowly, having intruded unexpectedly through the sun’s rays. People raised questioning eyes to the sky. True, it was mid-Kislev, but the clear morning sun had lulled everyone into thinking that it wouldn’t rain today. People seemed to have forgotten that there are clouds that can come very suddenly, drop their contents, and then disappear as quickly as they came.

Menuchi’s umbrella was tucked safely into a drawer at home. She quickly finished paying at the supermarket and then hesitated, wondering what she should do next.

“Menuchi?”

She turned around. “How nice to meet you here, Simi!” Nice. Really?

“I finished early today, so my mother asked me to pick up a few things. Are you done?”

“Yes, I just finished,” Menuchi answered, praying that Simi would have to wait on line now.

“Great, so did I. Do you have an umbrella?”

“No.”

“Me neither. You think it’s worth buying one?”

“Maybe,” Menuchi said, shifting her shopping bag to her other hand. It was a quarter to twelve already. Shragi returned a little after one, and she still wanted to cook for the girls and make their own lunch—chicken that was defrosting—before he arrived. “An umbrella would be very useful in this kind of rain.”

“Should I buy you one, too?” Simi asked amiably as she took her wallet out again.

Menuchi switched the bag back to the first hand. “I don’t think I’ll wait anymore. I think I’m going to go.”

“In this rain?”

She nodded. “It’ll stop soon, I’m sure, and I’m in a bit of a hurry. I…” She wouldn’t speak about the strange substituting job she had to do this afternoon. Not to Simi.

Her sister-in-law smiled in puzzlement, and Menuchi took leave of her and of the protective awning.

The pouring rain turned her into a dripping rag doll in a matter of seconds. She tried to dodge the gushing downpour, but discovered it to be an effort in futility. Her sheitel, the bag, and her woolen jacket all dripped rivulets of water, and she fled into the first stairwell that she could find.

“Hello, Menucha.”

She knew that deep voice very well from the past two years. Morah Golda Yavniel, the coordinator of the seminary classes, was standing near the mailboxes, smiling behind her large glasses.

“Hello, Morah,” Menuchi said, setting her bag down on the stairs. Pretend you just walked in from a sunny street where the cheerful birds were chirping in your ear. Pretend you’re just wearing a blouse and skirt—it doesn’t matter which ones—as long as it’s not your dripping wet, brown velour skirt and gray woolen jacket. Pretend there isn’t a bag full of wet groceries that’s dripping all over the stairs and—oh, no!

Menuchi quickly moved her shopping bag to the other side of the step, but Morah Yavniel’s khaki-colored briefcase, which had been hiding on the step, beyond the railing, was already wet.

“How are you, Menucha?”

Boom. A zucchini fell out of the bag.

Baruch Hashem,” Menuchi replied, bending over to catch the errant vegetable.

“What do you do, Menucha? Are you working?”

Her former student smiled faintly. “Not exactly.”

“That’s the way it is at the beginning. It will get easier to manage. For those who want to, of course.”

Menuchi smiled politely and looked at her wet, reddened fingers. In the books she read, characters were always breathing on fingers like these to warm them, but those books never said what to do if you were standing in front of Morah Yavniel.

“But believe me when I tell you, Menucha, that sometimes, it’s better this way. What’s better on a rainy day like today than a hot zucchini soup that warms the body?”

“It’s actually not for soup,” Menuchi replied. The wind, rain, and wet clothes that made her tremble with cold made her utter a sentence she never dreamed she’d say to the venerable teacher. Is that how one spoke to Morah Yavniel?

But the teacher actually sounded interested. “Not for soup? Then what are you doing with it?”

“Um…a kugel.”

“Kugel? Sounds interesting. What else do you put in it?”

Oh, no. What else did that paper she had copied from her mother’s recipe book yesterday say? “I think, um…flour, eggs, water…” The teacher nodded vigorously, her face completely focused, as Menuchi continued to think. “And….salt, maybe.”

“Nice, nice, really sounds good. Tell me, Menucha, what’s doing with the other girls in your class? Do you know who’s settled down with a job?” As usual, Morah Yavniel did not favor any form of linkage between different topics of conversation. She always just dived into the topic at hand without being too verbal about it, didn’t she?

“I think that…” Menuchi found herself repeating the beginning of her earlier answer, and then getting stuck again. Even the question about the kugel was easier. “I haven’t really met any friends in the last month, so I’m not so up to date,” she finally whispered, and glanced at the sky outside. Was the rain easing up?

“Don’t take any chances, Menucha,” the teacher said, following her gaze. “It’s always better to remain wherever you are for a few more minutes than to get wet.”

“Well, it won’t help me anymore…” There was a bit of laughter in Menuchi’s voice. She picked up her bag. 12:05. The chicken was waiting!

“It’s a shame, Menucha,” the teacher said with a warm smile. “The zucchini kugel will wait. You shouldn’t get sick, chalilah.”

Menuchi didn’t reply. Her gaze was fixed on the entrance to the building. Someone was walking towards it, a blue and red umbrella over her head and a smile on her lips that left no doubt as to its meaning.


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