Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 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.
“Here’s Simi!” Yehudis cried when the van stopped. She clumsily stumbled down the steps, Adina Baumel right on her heels. There was no reason to rush back to the dorm today; Menuchi would not be giving her regular lesson. No one had seen her since the day before yesterday, the day of the trip. “I have the flu…” she had croaked hoarsely into the phone. “We’ll continue next week, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Hello!” Adina smiled at Simi. They were almost friends already. “We were happy to see Yehudis back with strong, white teeth! Right, Yehudis?”
The child giggled happily. “Morah Z-zahavah told m-me to enj-joy my new fillings! That’s what she s-said.” She grasped Adina’s hand. “Co-me! Come!”
“Where to?” Adina asked, trying gently to extricate her hand from Yehudis’ grasp.
“Home! See the nice p-pre-sents I got! F-from the doc-doctor and Ab-b-ba and Ima and Simi and Menuchi. And Yitzy gave m-me-me a c-crayon!”
Adina pounced on the last sentence.
“I know who Simi is. Who are Yitzy and Menuchi?”
In lieu of a reply Yehudis began to tug Adina towards the house. Simi placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Yitzy is my younger brother. Menuchi is our sister-in-law.”
Adina nodded in understanding.
“Come inside, really,” Simi continued warmly. “My mother would be pleased to meet you. Yehudis really likes you and talks about you all the time.”
Adina wasn’t sure she understood all of Simi’s rapid fire Hebrew, but she hoped the message was a positive one. Apparently it wasn’t too bad, because otherwise Simi wouldn’t be saying her mother would be happy to meet her. She also really wanted to meet Menuchi’s mother-in-law. But she couldn’t go inside. What if Menuchi was there?
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” she said with a small smile, releasing her hand from the nine-year-old’s for the second time. No, not today. Oh, but just a minute, Menuchi isn’t there now. She’s at home, in bed with the flu.
Yehudis hung onto Adina’s arm again.
“Yehudis leave her alone,” Simi instructed patiently. “She’s in a hurry. Maybe she’ll come to us another time.”
Perhaps it could be a good opportunity to befriend Simi? “I…um…am not in a hurry…” Adina retracted, trying to find a way down the proverbial tree. “It’s…I just…”
“You’re embarrassed? If that’s the problem, then you really don’t have to feel uncomfortable,” Simi soothed with a smile. “It’s just my mother and us at home. Come in, it will be nice.”
Yehudis began dragging Adina towards the stairs. She grasped her hand tightly and Adina felt each and every one of the child’s fingernails cutting into her skin.
“Ima! Here’s A-dina! Ima! Here’s A-dina! Ima! Here’s A-dina!” Yehudis sang out loudly. Chani Ostfeld appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Hello Yehudis!” she cried warmly. “Nice to meet you, Adina. We’ve heard a lot about you.”
“I hope only good things,” Adina said, returning the smile.
“Of course!” Chani exclaimed, and withdrew into the kitchen as she called over her shoulder, “I’m just preparing some hot drinks. What do you like?” She was speaking English! After hours of breaking her teeth in Hebrew, the sound of her native language was such a relief!
“I’ll have coffee, thanks, but a light one.”
“Excellent,” Chani said with satisfaction. “We love having guests.”
They sat down beside the small kitchen table. There were no initial moments of uncomfortable silence, because between Chani, Adina and Simi, none of them had any problem with introductions and quickly bonding with new people. They chatted about Bnei Brak, about Givol, about Yehudis’ terrific teacher, and about her recent dental treatment. Adina only hoped that Chani wouldn’t ask her too many personal details, such as her current address or where she went to school. She kept diverting the conversation to topics that applied to everyone else except her.
“The main thing is it didn’t hurt you, Yehudis’l,” she said, as she hugged the mug between her cupped hands, trying to warm them.
“I slept the whole t-t-time.” Yehudis brandished her spoon in the air. “C-c-ome see what I have! Men-nuchi wanted to c-c-come to the hosp-pital but she’s very s-s-sick, so Shragi bought me her p-p-present!”
Adina immediately recognized Menuchi’s Sculpey clay doll. Someone had punctured a small hole and threaded a keychain through it.
“And this is from Yitzy!” Yehudis waved around a battered looking yellow crayon. “And Simi bo-bought me a book!” She stopped and listened to the light knocking at the door. “Miriam’s here!” she exulted and zoomed out of the kitchen. “Miriam is my b-bestest b-b-ig friend!”
Chani’s cup was empty by then and she excused herself apologetically. Adina rose to go. “No one knew why Yehudis wasn’t in school,” she told Simi. “It was sudden, wasn’t it?”
“Very sudden.” Simi shuddered. “What a night that was; you have no idea! We didn’t know what to do with her. We barely passed the hours until 5:30, and then my parents took her.”
Adina understood the general gist of what Simi was saying. “And you stayed here yourself?” she asked sympathetically.
“With my two little brothers.”
“And were you able to go to school?”
“I went and came home at lunchtime. Actually, I finished later that day.”
Adina tried to maintain the same casual tone as before. “So who watched them till you came?” She knew the answer. And how she knew! Menuchi had told her the morning of the trip that she couldn’t join because she had to watch her two little brothers-in-law. Was Simi aware of what Menuchi had given up that day?
“The neighbor,” Simi repeated, in English this time, assuming Adina didn’t know the word.
Adina fell silent, studying the floral pattern on her mug. Could it have just been an excuse? Menuchi didn’t have to tell them what her real reasons for skipping the trip were.
But for some reason, Adina was sure that Menuchi didn’t just evade the trip for no reason. It was clear that that morning, it had been arranged that Menuchi would watch the children, and that was why she hadn’t come along.
“But …you have a sister-in-law…Why didn’t she come? Why a neighbor?”
“She couldn’t,” Simi replied tonelessly, wondering a bit about the slightly nosy question. And then to be fair she added, “Actually, she said yes, but I realized that it would be very hard for her so I found a different arrangement.”
Adina didn’t understand the rapid Hebrew. She understood only one thing: something had gone very wrong with Menuchi’s sincere good intentions.
“I have a new assignment for you Golda,” Diana said. “If you don’t mind of course,” she added hastily.
“Let’s hear,” Golda chuckled. Every time Diana knocked at the door she felt her blood begin to flow more quickly through her veins, and a bit of vibrancy colored her grey, monotonous life.
“I want you to callBelgium, on my account, of course, and ask a woman what her daughter’s address here inIsraelis. Okay?”
“Maybe she won’t know either, like this other mother.”
“She’ll know, she’ll know,” Diana reassured her. “I’m almost positive.”
The idea had come to her suddenly the night before. If she couldn’t speak to Menuchi, then she had Anne, Dan’s sister, another person she knew inIsrael. True, the only conversation they had ever had wasn’t overly pleasant or friendly; rather it had left a bitter taste in their mouths. Still, now everything was all ironed out. On the contrary, perhaps Anne would want to thank her? After all, she had, ultimately, fulfilled her request.
And Anne was also someone who could help her with some of her questions. Menuchi wasn’t the only one; she couldn’t get a hold of her anyway. After all, who was it if not Anne who had brought up the topic of reward and punishment for the first time, and had been the catalyst for a lot of Diana’s doubts? That long, detailed response that had bothered her so much had come as a result of that question.
But in order to know where Anne lived someone would have to call Lara, her mother, and she didn’t want to speak to Lara herself. There was too much of a risk that she would recognize her voice. True, they had hardly spoken, but she was conscious of the fact that Dan’s mother remembered her very well. Her and her voice.
She read the number out to Golda slowly. “Ask for Anne’s address and ask what her last name is please.”
Lara picked up the phone in far offAntwerp.
“Anne’s address?” she asked. “Sure. But I see that you speak Flemish. Can I dictate it to you in Hebrew?”
“Sure,” Golda replied a bit huffily. “I live inIsrael!”
Lara didn’t ask who was speaking, she just wondered who this Israeli was who couldn’t find an easier way to get her daughter’s address than by calling her. She also didn’t comment that the woman’s accent sounded decidedly European. But none of these things were her business. She just gave over the address and the phone number with her characteristic politeness, and concluded the conversation.
“Don’t tell me now that you want me to call the daughter,” Golda said, sliding the phone over to the other end of the table.
“No.” Diana glanced at the paper, pleased. “I really hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you, Golda.”
“No problem at all, dear, but that’s it. I really don’t have the strength or patience to call Bnei Brak.”
Diana glanced at the paper again. “Bnei Brak?”
“Yes, that’s where the daughter lives. That means she’s ultra-orthodox.”
“I know that.” Diana nodded and took the piece of paper. Golda transliterated the address and wrote it out in English. “Thanks again, Golda.”
“And what are your plans now, if I may ask?”
“I want to take a day off.”
Golda sat down cautiously on the armchair. “Let me give you a piece of advice Diana. Don’t say what you need it for.”
“I shouldn’t say I’m going on a trip?”
“You can say that.”
“So what shouldn’t I say?”
“Where you’re going. Don’t mention Bnei Brak.”
Diana shrugged. “If you say so, I’ll listen to you of course. You know the people’s mindsets here much better than I do.”
“If they even have minds,” Golda mumbled quietly. Her words, however, reached the ears of the Belgian girl.
Finally, quiet reigned among the girls. The coordinator looked around and began: “Listen, dear counselors. Yesterday there was a teachers’ meeting at the school. I won’t reveal any ‘insider secrets’ to you, but we reached one conclusion that I can tell you about. There is a lot of school pressure on your girls right now, and I assume you know that.”
“I hope they won’t cancel the activities!” Mira whispered.
“But is that what the girls want?” Simi asked in the same low tone. “We can make things a bit easier for them.”
“What? We make it easier for them by having the activities. Do we have to take this bit of enjoyment they have away, and leave them just with the mountains of tests and reports?”
The problem was now that every little cluster of counselors had their own opinion, which they didn’t deem important enough to say aloud after raising their hands. But they were important enough to whisper to the girls sitting around them. Within just a few seconds the room abuzz with frenzied whispers.
“Don’t worry,” the coordinator said with a smile. “And I’m saying that both to the girls who are worried that the activities will be canceled for the next two months, and to those who are worried that perhaps the activities will continue despite the workload.” She paused for a moment until quiet was restored again and then continued.
“The girls have to learn to handle the different things they are tasked with. True, test season isn’t easy, but it is bearable. In any case, there won’t be regular Shabbos activities for the two weeks of tests, as every year, but that’s something you know and there wouldn’t be any reason to call a meeting to tell you that. The principal and staff have already begun thinking about a program or activity that will take place at the end of the month. The winter is long, and the impressions of the Chanukah chagigah are long forgotten and there’s still a long time until the Purim events. We need something refreshing in between.”
This time there was no whispering, just vigorous nodding.
“The program will be part of the school’s events, so I won’t be the one organizing it,” the coordinator stressed. “The events coordinator of ninth and tenth grades, Mrs. Ella Fein will be in charge. She asked me to meet with you to hear ideas, and most importantly to hear what each girl is willing to do to pitch in. A lot of help is going to be needed.”
“What kind of help?” one of the counselors asked.
“Practice, typing, organizing the girls, dealing with details and more.”
“What’s the theme?” Simi asked.
“That’s also open for your suggestions.”
“A performance?” Malky queried.
“We thought about that as well, and maybe we’ll have a few days of activities that will open or close with a serious performance. That’s always nice, and the benefits will be twofold because some of the girls will also enjoy a period of practice, which can be fun, relaxing and a change of pace.”
“Relaxing?” Rivka Miller, the counselor of 10D raised an eyebrow. “Practice is relaxing? Just the opposite.”
“Of course it is. The girls love it!” other counselors insisted.
“Love it? Have you forgotten what they look like on practice days? They complain, they’re tired, edgy and couldn’t care less if we canceled the whole performance. I still remember the practice for the Chanukah performance too well, thank you!”
“They like it, Rivky, they do,” Simi said in a low voice. “But they also like to complain. Why is it a contradiction?”
“And besides, so what? Should the whole concept of performances be canceled because of their attitude towards practice?”
“No, but it doesn’t have to be called fun and relaxing.”
“They will relax! After the pressure of the tests they’ll learn to enjoy the pressure of practice.”
“Girls, please,” the coordinator stopped the heated debate. “The first thing I want to do is reassure all those counselors whose classes were involved in the Chanukah performance that this time other classes will be chosen to go up on stage. In any case, if you have any ideas for a program and the opening or closing performance, volunteers to write a theme song, or to write the performance script itself, we’d be happy to hear from you.”
Some fingers went up in the air, but Simi’s wasn’t one of them. She leaned back in her chair, her eyes scanning the floor tiles with feigned interest. To write? A script? On…
Savta’s story! That would make a fantastic play! She listened with half an ear to the other suggestions. She knew more or less what the story was, but was lacking the details. She didn’t want to ask her mother for help translating it because she wouldn’t get it. Ima just briefly outlined the story for her and that was it. “If it’s hard for you,” she pointed out gently as the pages got passed around the family, “this is a good opportunity to improve your English. If you want, Menuchi can help you. Besides the improvement in your skills, you’ll also gain an improvement in your relationship with her.”
“We’re not in a fight,” Simi had said lightly. “What’s to improve?”
Ima had sighed. “You know yourself what, Simi. Things aren’t so smooth.”
“Because we’re so different,” Simi protested. “It’s hard to broadcast at the same frequency when each one is better at different things.”
“It’s possible; everything’s possible,” her mother had replied. “You just need to invest a drop of effort and decide that you accept even those who are not exactly like you. How does that sound?”
She had nodded in agreement but had never asked Menuchi for help. Maybe it was really worth it? It wouldn’t be terrible; she’d have to admit the fact that her English was far from the best in the world. She’s never been embarrassed about it, but next to Menuchi…compared to Menuchi it did bother her.
But it was obvious that this was not the source of the coldness between them. Already at the vort, before she even knew just how successful and talented her sister-in-law was, as her mother would want her to be, things were shaky between them. Already then she had sensed, in every muscle and bone and tissue that she possessed, that Menuchi and her were drastically, and obviously, very different.
“So let’s summarize,” the coordinator brought Simi back to the present. What? Girls had presented ideas? Had they settled on a theme?
“What did they decide?” she quietly asked Malky, sitting next to her. She smiled and pointed at the coordinator.
“That each girl will write all her various ideas on a paper and submit it by Tuesday to the counselors’ box on the first floor. Okay?”
Simi rose slowly; her head ached. Yes, she would try to cautiously ask for Menuchi’s help, and would ignore the issue that always irritated her—her mother’s enthusiasm about Menuchi’s excellent English. It wasn’t like she neglected her studies; she was a very good student, but wasn’t interested in devoting endless hours studying for some test or another, like her darling sister-in-law. And English? That was the worst of all…and how much it had bothered her mother over the years! “English is a very important language to know, it’s a shame you don’t devote one fifth of the amount of time you devote to your friends, to your English…You could ask Menuchi…Maybe there’ll be a reason for you to improve your English now…” All the familiar, annoying sentences, some of which she had been hearing since sixth grade, and others (those applying to Menuchi) in the past few months, suddenly rose in Simi’s mind as she walked tiredly towards her classroom. No, she wasn’t jealous. She didn’t think her mother preferred Menuchi over her because Menuchi took her studies seriously and she did not. But this issue had become—despite Simi’s best efforts to make sure it wouldn’t—a very sensitive topic for her. What could she do? That’s just the way it was.
Nevertheless, she had already decided. Nothing would happen if she’d ask for Menuchi’s help with the translation so she could write the script that was coming together in her mind. She’d see what kind of response she’d get. She was familiar enough with the circumstances to know that the response was very unpredictable.