Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 26 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.
“Yehudis and Tzippy! Sit down nicely! Baruch! I’m closing the window; you’re sticking your hand out!” The boy looked at Adina with interest. He asked her something, but she didn’t understand.
“What?” she asked.
“Say ‘yeladim’!” he said in an almost clear voice. She laughed.
“Yeladim! Everyone sit down nicely!” She glanced out the window. The gray day was cold and windy; pieces of paper and dry leaves blew every which way.
“Children, look out the windows. There’s a big, big tree. It’s so big!” She stretched her arm towards the ceiling of the van. “And it’s so, so sad! So very sad! Why? Because all the leaves went so far away. The leaves are its sweater. And now it’s cold because it doesn’t have a sweater. What should we say to make it happy?” She pretended to act chilly and shivered.
The children didn’t respond. They were riveted to her little performance and didn’t even consider looking out the window.
Adina continued in her pidgin Hebrew. “Let’s tell the tree: Don’t be sad, tree. Don’t be crying!” She covered her face with her eyes and pretended to weep. A few children tittered. The rest gaped at her in fascination.
The driver stopped the van. “What happened?” Adina panicked for a minute. “Everyone’s sitting so nicely!”
“They are sitting very nicely,” the driver said, leaning back in his seat. He took a crumpled newspaper out of his gray satchel and opened it up. “We’re at the Shlomowitzes’ house.” At that moment, Adina noticed a young boy running down the path.
“Sorry I’m late,” Baruch Shlomowitz’s brother apologized. “Is Baruch here?”
Adina nodded. She understood his question. “Bye, Baruch, have a good day!”
Baruch stopped at the van’s open door but didn’t get off.
“Do you need help?” Adina offered.
“No…” he answered quietly. “Say…‘yeladim.’”
She laughed and bent over to him. “Yeladim.”
“Again,” he said.
“Yeladim.” She smiled at him.
“Enough, Baruch,” his brother interjected. “They have to go. Let’s go home!”
The rest of the children in the van were indeed losing patience. Adina grew uneasy. “Yeladim!” she called. “No standing! Say ‘bye’ to Baruch; we’re going! Yeladim!!” Then she turned back to Baruch.
“Shalom!” Baruch said before she could say anything. “That was good!” And he got off the van.
When most of the children had gotten off, the bearded driver suddenly spoke up. “This is where the regular teacher gets off,” he said. Only Yehudis Ostfeld and one other child, a little boy, remained. “These two children sit here nicely until they get off. You can go down now if you want.”
All Adina understood was the last sentence. “No, that’s okay,” she said calmly and smiled at Yehudis. “I’ll get off soon. Who goes down now?” She hoped the driver understood her.
The boy got off first. Now only Adina and Yehudis were left.
Three more minutes passed, and then the van stopped in front of a tall, older-looking building.
“Come, Yehudis. Is someone waiting, or do you know how to go in yourself?”
“Or Ima or Simi or Yitzi,” Yehudis declared. “And once…” she whispered conspiratorially, “Menuchi came to get me! Menuchi is my good friend. She had a wedding and now she is the mommy and Shragi is the tatty. They have a tiny little house with a blue rug at the door.”
Adina smiled and hoped that Menuchi wouldn’t be the one to meet Yehudis this time. She really wanted to meet Menuchi’s sister-in-law, the one whom Menuchi—unintentionally—mentioned so frequently. The wind whipped at them as she and Yehudis debarked from the van. The electric door slid closed behind them and the vehicle disappeared with a squeal of wet tires.
“Here’s Simi!” Yehudis cried excitedly and tried to run toward the building’s entrance. She hadn’t taken more than two steps before she fell with a wail into a muddy puddle on the path. Simi ran toward Yehudis, but by the time she reached her, Adina had already helped the sobbing nine-year-old up and was cleaning her muddied hands with a wet wipe from the package she always carried in her purse.
“It’s okay, Yehudis, darling; don’t cry,” Simi pleaded and rummaged in the pocket of her robe, looking for something with which to wipe Yehudis’s muddy tears.
“I have,” Adina said, and took out another wet wipe.
“How did you know what I was looking for?”
Simi repeated herself slowly. Adina smiled. “That’s what it seemed like,” she said tersely. Yehudis was still crying. Adina rummaged in her purse again. “I don’t have any treats,” she said regretfully.
“It’s fine, really. Thanks so much!” Simi said. “We’ll find something at home, okay, Yehudis?” She took the child’s hand. “Are you the new monitor on the van?” she asked Adina.
“Sort of. And a few other things.”
“Very nice. Good luck. What’s your name?”
Adina paused for a split second to think, and then replied slowly, “Adina.”
“Nice to meet you!” Simi smiled one of her warm, confident grins. “I’m Simi, Yehudis’s sister.”
And Menuchi’s sister-in-law, Adina added to herself with a smile. “Bye, Simi and Yehudis,” she said. “Don’t cry, Yehudis. It’s sad when you cry!”
She walked off toward the street, taking care to avoid the leaves. She had never liked the noise when they crunched underfoot. “It sounds like they’re crying,” she once explained to a friend at the tender age of six.
“Crying? What are you talking about? Leaves don’t cry, Adina!” her friend replied with realistic logic.
“They do!” young Adina had insisted. “They do cry! Don’t you hear?”
Did she always, to this day, hear weeping even when it wasn’t there? Had she been mistaken regarding Simi? She looked so nice and pleasant, and didn’t seem like she could possibly insult anyone. Why did she have such a strong sense that Menuchi was really, tangibly afraid of her sister-in-law?
It wasn’t just a feeling. Menuchi had also made enough comments here and there. Just yesterday, when they had talked about Shabbos and hosting, Menuchi had remarked that she didn’t go to her mother-in-law often. “She’s really, really nice,” she declared emphatically to Adina. “And I get along very well with her. But…” She suddenly fell silent, hesitating to reveal any more.
Adina wasn’t basing her hunches only on this single remark. There were a few other sentences to the effect of “my sister-in-law says we should…” or a whisper to Adina at the end of one lesson, “Were the girls bored? I can take activities from my sister-in-law, if you think they’re more suited.” No. The crunchy fallen leaves really did moan. It wasn’t only her imagination.
Adina walked briskly toward the dorm. The past few days, she had been arriving before Menuchi. The new volunteer job finished relatively early. Menuchi didn’t ask her anything about her change of schedule; she was too refined to probe like that. She had never asked what Adina did and when, which was good, because Adina had no intentions of sharing any information with her. What was there to tell? That she had gone to volunteer at Givol because she wanted to meet Simi and see what could be done to help ease the pressure Menuchi obviously felt from her intimidating sister-in-law, who looked anything but intimidating? It was such a complex situation, and truth to be told, not clear at all.
The sun suddenly broke out and began to shine mightily, making Adina’s umbrella heavy and superfluous. She slowed her pace, enjoying the bright rays that warmed her face.
Even as a child she had been like this. She liked to stick her head—just a bit—into other places, to help. Was it a nice attribute? It could be. It all depended on how it was done.
“Adina Aharon,” Blumi had called her, after she found out that the new eraser she had found in her pencil case did not come from Leah—who had borrowed her original eraser and then lost it—but rather from Adina, her friend who sat behind her.
“This must be from Adina Baumel,” the teacher said to the substitute who was holding an apology note from the class, in which was written how sorry all the girls were for their wild behavior the previous week. The words written in childish handwriting were warm.
“Nu, Adina Aharon…” Adina’s friends said when she would undertake the problematic tasks that always caused discord, and, without talking a lot, execute them effectively.
Perhaps that would happen again now?
Quiet had been restored to the Ostfeld home. Yehudis had completely calmed down and was engrossed in her small packet of Bamba.
Simi sat beside her, holding a bundle of papers and perusing them with pursed lips.
“You can sit down with Menuchi and she’ll translate them for you,” her mother said casually.
Simi swallowed. She wouldn’t do that, even if she would never understand what these pages said. She would sit with her dictionary, long forgotten in one of the drawers in her room, and would exert her eyes and her brain as much as she could.
But she wouldn’t ask Menuchi for help. That much she knew for sure.
“I was born in a big, nice house. I remember every detail. I even remember a bit of the way to kindergarten—the large, high steps that reached almost as high as my knee. It must be a very early memory. I remember friends, games, studies…” The woman sighed. “Nostalgia colors everything pink, but I don’t think I was such an easy child. I didn’t like to learn, I wasn’t disciplined, and I received—rightfully so—a lot of punishments.”
Diana listened with a serious expression.
“When the war was over and I came back to our street, I saw that everything was destroyed completely. I didn’t even try to find a memento in the ruins. I didn’t want to take anything with me any further. But a former friend—a girl who had been in my class in the public school—met me and gave me my math notebook that she had borrowed and that had remained in her possession ever since then. Ironically, math was my worst subject, and I detested the strict, and, pardon me, anti-Semitic teacher as much as I hated the subject. Yet that math notebook was the only item I took with me from the past.”
“And what happened here?”
“Here I married my husband, of blessed memory. He came toIsraela few years before the war. At first we lived in Haifa in a one-and-a-half-room apartment, where my oldest daughter was born. And then we were offered to join this kibbutz. There were less than ten families here when we arrived! The kibbutz had been established almost fifteen years earlier, but the management was awful. It fell apart countless times. When we came, with another few families, the whole enterprise stabilized and began to prosper.”
She closed her eyes but opened them right away. “I’m so funny. Talking and talking like this without even introducing myself! My name is Golda.”
Diana chuckled. “And I’m Diana.”
“Yes, I heard that already.” The woman rose suddenly. “Nu, which youngsters today are even interested in this kibbutz’s history? Sometimes, when you look at them, you say to yourself: all that effort, all that work, the struggles—was it all in vain? Just so that the next generation, our children, could get up and leave the town? Nothing interests them. I’m telling you. Nothing. And you’re so nice; you came here from so far just to help us out…to volunteer. I give you so much credit!”
Diana didn’t say anything aloud about the fact that her volunteer job was only an excuse to come back to this land. And it helped that it had smoothed down many of the technical obstacles in her path, including obtaining a visa, accommodations, and a source of sustenance. She smiled. “It’s really interesting, Golda. I once read a book from that time and it really impressed me. What fascinated me were the descriptions of the children’s homes. As a child, I always dreamed of living with my friends in one house.”
Golda shook her head. “It’s all nonsense. In the books, everything is nice and rosy, but the reality was much harsher. We worked like slaves. At first we saw no nachas from our children because we never saw them, and then we didn’t see nachas because they barely wanted to look at us.” She walked slowly down the path. Diana walked alongside her in silence until they reached the entrance of the old house. Golda stuck a key in the creaky lock. “What did you want from me?” she suddenly asked, recoiling. Why had she begun to talk to this foreign girl?
“I just wanted to hear you,” Diana said. “And actually, if you really want, you can even do me a small favor.”
The woman’s softness was suddenly replaced by rigidity. If her Arnon would have heard her speak about the kibbutz and his fruits and the other things he worked so hard on, he would get very angry. And she really hated when he got into one of his furious fits.
“My Hebrew vocabulary is almost nonexistent,” Diana said, undeterred by the sudden closed expression she saw on Golda’s face. “And I need to get a phone number.”
“There’s a phone book in the office.”
“Right.” Diana smiled one of her sweetest smiles, reserved for occasions when she needed to be most persuasive. “But it’s in Hebrew. Maybe you could find the number for me?”
Golda scratched her forehead. “What number? Whose?”
“A family called Feder from…um…Moshav Keremoshe.”
“Kerem Moshe? I think that’s a religious moshav.”
“You’re…going to volunteer over there?”
“Oh, no! I have a friend there and I want to get in touch with her.”
The woman took a deep breath, and then—almost in resignation—sighed. “Alright, come in and we’ll ask 144.”
“144. Directory assistance.” With a trembling hand, she rummaged in a black box and extracted a large sheet of paper and a pen.
“But do me a favor, Diana,” she suddenly said in mid-dial, pressing on the button to disconnect the line. “Don’t tell my son I helped you find a number of a family on that moshav, okay?”
Diana raised a pair of questioning eyebrows, but nodded with characteristic European politeness. “Certainly,” she replied. “Of course I won’t tell him if you don’t want me to.”
That’s the way it always was. The phone always rang in the other room the minute you finished washing the floor. Minna Feder sighed. She had just hung out the rag on the laundry line, the hallway floor was still wet, and the phone in her bedroom was ringing off the hook.
She quickly calculated the advantages and drawbacks, and decided to walk as fast as she could (as though it made a difference) and with as few steps as possible. But by the time she got to it, the phone had stopped ringing.
She didn’t know whether to be happy, or to regret the fact that she hadn’t picked up earlier (perhaps Dovi had gotten a positive response from yeshivah gedolah; perhaps someone wanted to offer Menuchi a better job than the one she had now; perhaps Miriam wanted to tell her that she was finishing school early and could go shopping for her?). And then the phone began to ring again.
Minna walked swiftly, not turning back to see the marks her slippers made on the floor, and entered the bedroom. The phone was still ringing.
“Hello, Feder family.”
“Hello.” A foreign accent. “Um…Menuchi?”
“No, it’s her mother,” Minna replied, wondering who could be seeking out Menuchi in such a friendly tone, while not even realizing that Menuchi had married and no longer lived at home.
The person fell silent for two long seconds and then switched to English, a language that Minna Feder despised. Not that she didn’t know it well, but the way it sounded always got on her nerves. That did not contradict the fact that she had encouraged Menuchi—who liked the language and had learned it well—to continue to invest her efforts in her studies. Minna’s dislike of English was a personal thing, left over from the time she and her family had gone to live in the United States for two years when she was a young girl.
“I imagine Menuchi has gotten married meanwhile, right?” the woman asked.
“Right,” Minna replied, wondering what “meanwhile” meant. Since when?
“Can I have her address, please?”
There was something in her voice that disturbed Minna. She didn’t know if it was only the English or just a gut feeling she had, “Who is this, please?” she asked cautiously.
“Diana Molis. Her…pen pal.”
Oh! Minna didn’t know yet what Shragi’s opinion was of Menuchi’s correspondence with this girl, or if he had even heard anything about it. But she—and her husband—did have a very clear opinion on the matter. They did not like it at all.
“We were wrong to have agreed to it,” Shimon said after Menuchi had shown him one of Diana’s letters. “I’ve asked Menuchi to show me every letter she gets. But it would have been better if the whole correspondence wouldn’t have started to begin with.” Minna had also thought that they should have referred the girl to a better address to answer her questions. Menuchi was not the address for such serious questions. For a young girl, even one whose faith was firm, it was dangerous to be exposed to such questions and doubts. That’s what the professionals in the field were for.
To their relief, no more letters arrived before the wedding. And now? This Diana wanted to renew ties with Menuchi? She wanted Menuchi’s address?
“I’m sorry,” Minna said pleasantly. “I…um…don’t have it written down in front of me and I can’t go and get it now.” That was the truth. The floor in the hallway was wet.
Diana, standing in her room in the kibbutz, frowned with disappointment. She had finally gotten the phone number and called! Besides, what kind of mother didn’t know her daughter’s address by heart?
Your mother doesn’t know your current address either right now! a voice scorned at her from deep in her mind. But Menuchi’s relationship with her mother was nothing like the relationship Diana had with her own mother!
“Should I call later?” she asked.
“Um…I think I’ll have to be out.” To take out the garbage.
“When will you be home again to be able to give me an answer?” Diana queried persistently. She knew how to be a nuisance.
“When will I be home and able to give you an answer?” Minna echoed, quickly writing down the number that had appeared on the caller ID. “Perhaps tomorrow, or the next day. Try next week…”
She hung up the phone and attached the small piece of notepaper to her night table with a piece of tape. “Don’t answer this number!!!” she wrote with a thick marker above the digits. And if Diana Molis would try calling from other phones? She took another piece of paper and added: “Don’t answer any stranger who asks for Menuchi’s address!” She taped this paper on the night table as well, and then her eyes fell on the phone number she had recorded. She took a closer look to make sure there was no mistake. But the number was still on the screen, and the area code was 04. NotAntwerp, notBelgium. Diana Molis was here. Close by.
Let her not get to here.