Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 32 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.
The door to Mrs. Deutschlander’s office was only partially closed. Adina Baumel put her gray bag down on the old counter in the kitchen and switched on the kettle.
Mrs. Deutschlander’s voice wafted out of the office; she sounded tense, and it was no wonder that her high-pitched tone came through the rather flimsy door. “So what should I do, fire the teachers? Reduce the hours that the girls learn?”
Adina took out a glass cup from the cabinet along with a small saucer. She opened the sugar container and rummaged around for a clean spoon. She didn’t really intend to eavesdrop on the conversation, but it didn’t sound by their tones like anyone was trying to keep matters a secret.
It was quiet in the rest of the apartment cum school building. The girls had already left. Only she was still there, making coffee for the principal, something that had become a habit after spending her long afternoons in conversation with her as the principal tried finding a suitable job for Adina. This was the third or fourth cup for the day.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to take much more drastic steps,” Adina heard Rabbi Fogel, the seminary administrator, reply. His voice was lower, but also reached Adina’s trying-not-to-listen ears.
“I hope you don’t mean to let them out for Pesach vacation too early, like we did two years ago for lack of any other choice. We have a lot of material to cover and programs to implement until then, and besides, there are girls for whom it would just be a shame. Every extra day spent in their homes can be harmful.”
Adina paused with the steaming mug in front of the door. Should she prepare another cup? Perhaps Rabbi Fogel was fleishig? Her deliberations were cut off by the decision to knock.
“Are you still here, Adina? Thank you.” The principal rose, took the cup from her, and set it down beside the administrator.
“I wanted to ask if Rabbi Fogel wants tea or coffee,” Adina said pleasantly.
“No thanks; I’m on my way out.” He collected a few papers and slid them into a large blue briefcase.
Mrs. Deutschlander was pale. “Are you going to the school, Adina?”
“Yes, I’m on my way,” Adina said, catching the hint.
She returned to the kitchen. “I’m going,” she told Suri, the secretary, who was standing there tugging the teabag out of her mug. “I see that the hot drinks are very popular around here.”
“Why, do you have something else to offer?” Suri asked, walking back to her desk with her tea.
Adina followed her, ignoring the uptight voices coming from the small office. “Aren’t there crackers or something? There always used to be.”
“Used to be,” Suri said, sitting down. “Your lunches, for example, used to be much more generous and filling. But there’s no money, bubbala, just no money.”
“That’s what it looks like,” Adina said dismally, returning to the kitchen for her bag. “Bye, Suri. Besuros tovos.” Suri had heard the worrisome conversation as well as she had, apparently. She was probably worried about her job. Poor girl.
And Menuchi! What would be with Menuchi? Would she also be fired? Adina walked morosely towards the bus stop. Yes. Menuchi’s wonderful shiurim were also in jeopardy. And what about the other lessons? Were they also not in danger?
Twenty minutes later, Adina found herself at the entrance to the school. She wouldn’t see Yehudis Ostfeld today, to the best of her recollection. Her class finished early today and she’d probably gone home already. How many more times would she get to see the dark-haired, giggly child? And what about Menuchi, her special sister-in-law? When would Menuchi find out about what was happening at the seminary?
Dismal thoughts flitted through her mind as she entered the fourth-grade classroom. Someone ran over to her and threw his arms around her. “Chezky!” she exclaimed, hugging him back. “How are you?” He laughed in response.
For the next two hours, Adina kept busy, running from the classroom to the office, and from there to the occupational therapy room, and then to the speech therapist, not allowing herself to dwell on what she had heard in the seminary. Only once she was sitting on the van did the most pressing question of all take up a position in the front of her mind: Was her beloved seminary in danger of closing? And if yes, was it only a temporary measure—such as beginning Pesach vacation early, as the principal had mentioned—or would it close down completely?
She, in any case, had not particularly succeeded in achieving what she had set out to do when she had taken on this volunteer position. She still hadn’t had the opportunity to convey any messages from Simi to Menuchi or vice versa. Except for this past Shabbos. Ditza had reported that they had spoken about the trip, as she had asked. And was that successful? Had Madame Simi deigned to display any signs of admiration?
Suddenly, her plan seemed foolish and somewhat gossipy. Why, for goodness’s sake, did she always have to get involved in people’s relationships? Wouldn’t she be much better off just sitting on the sidelines?
“Adina,” Esty, the Monday bus monitor, called to her. “Don’t you have to get off?”
“Um, yes…” The screech of the brakes shook her out of her reverie. “Thanks, Esty.”
“Uh, hello,” Simi said with a slight smile to the girl standing in the doorway.
The girl mumbled something in Flemish, a language that Simi was familiar with, but did not know well enough to understand. When the guest received no response, she switched to English. Simi preferred to stop her at this point.
“One minute,” she motioned. “Come in.” She waved the guest inside as she went to call her mother.
Meanwhile, Diana remained at the kitchen door, scanning the room with curious interest. Two sinks? For what? Did they like to wash pots separately from dishes? Or cutlery apart from cups? Maybe they liked to put fragile dishes in a separate sink?
She suddenly noticed another discovery—a small wall of granite separated the two sinks. What was that all about?
“I’m sorry about the mess,” she heard Anne’s voice behind her. “I see that it interests you.”
“I actually didn’t see it,” Diana replied, turning around. Anne was holding a baby who seemed to be a few months old. “He doesn’t look like you,” she added.
“Who, the mess?”
“No, this cutie pie.”
Anne chuckled. “Yes, most of my children resemble my husband, more or less. The third is the only one who looks like me. How’s your hand?”
“Much better, thank you.”
Chani brought her into the kitchen. “I hope that you don’t mind sitting here instead of in the living room. I just want to wash the dishes while we speak.” She had no particular interest or desire in being an especially polite hostess. She would be courteous and pleasant, but would not go out of her way.
“Nonsense; I didn’t come for a visit. I just came to get my bag,” Diana lied, sitting down on the first chair. “I would like to meet your children,” she said.
“My children?” Chani, already holding the soap bottle in her hand, turned around at once. She replaced the bottle on the counter and went over to the second chair. She would wash the dishes later; there was something more pressing now. She had to discuss this issue openly.
“I would be happy to show them to you, Diana,” she said, “but first, I’d like to know, honestly, what it is you really want. Did you just miss me?”
Diana didn’t lower her eyes. “And what will happen if I tell you and you don’t believe me?”
“I can’t promise to believe you, but I do promise to try, at least.”
“Okay. So I told you already and you didn’t believe me.”
“You told me?”
“Yes, in the minute and a half that we spoke before we went to the hospital. I told you there are two things I want to find out.”
“Regarding Judaism?” Chani clearly recalled the exchange, but what could she do? As Diana had said, she wasn’t convinced she could be sure that the young woman was speaking the truth.
Diana sufficed with a nod of affirmation.
“And that’s why you came all the way here? Was there no one left inAntwerpfor you to ask?”
“There are many places in the world, but what can I do if this particular place draws me?”
The Belgian guest laughed. “I actually meant this country, but the truth is that you also have an interesting house.”
“What’s interesting about it, for example?”
“These two sinks. Is that also a Jewish thing, or is it just a personal preference?”
“You reminded me that the dishes are waiting very impatiently for me.” Chani rose. “You know that Jews are forbidden from eating milk and meat together, right?”
“I remember hearing something of the sort.”
“This law includes many aspects besides the actual eating. One of the basic laws that stems from that one is that we must have separate dishes for meat and milk foods, and that’s why we also like to have two separate sinks.”
“Is that one of the laws that does have an explanation? You have some laws that you don’t know why they were commanded, right?”
“I see that you’ve learned some of the concepts!” Chani was surprised. “Don’t tell me that my brother took the time to teach you these things!”
“He knows something?”
“Sure he does. He grew up in an observant home and went to the Tachkemoni School, which is officially called a Jewish school. The fact that he changed is his problem, and it is one that many youngsters experience.”
“There are complaints among us as well about youngsters becoming less conservative.”
Chani didn’t take pains to conceal the grimace that made her opinion on the comparison very clear. Her back was facing Diana in any case.
The girl continued: “But I’m surprised at Dan. It’s one thing among us; anyone who invests a drop of time into thinking into things realizes right away that it’s all nonsense. But you? The more you probe, the more you discover that,” she paused, searching for the right term, “that these are deep and serious issues, I mean…” She fumbled around in the side pocket of her huge tote bag . Where were those pages from Menuchi? “I told you. I’m not looking into this to change myself. It’s just a matter of interest. But I asked around in a few places, and what should I tell you? The conclusion I reached, in the first stage, is that members of the Christian religion—at least those whom I asked—talk without understanding what they are talking about.”
Chani didn’t know how to react to this declaration. Was Ms. Molis serious about what she was saying, or was she a great actress whose true motives were as yet unclear?
“That’s a very sharp conclusion to hear from someone who was brought up in a Catholic environment,” she said cautiously.
“Yes. I believe that you’re convinced of that even without listening to me,” Diana said with a sigh.
Chani nodded. “Definitely.”
“Maybe I really have come to a sharp conclusion, but I didn’t need a lot to reach it. A few hours of philosophical questions and answers that had no foundation brought me to this conclusion rather quickly. You know, I never really thought of seriously researching my own religion, but when you raised those simple questions to me and I delved into them a bit deeper, expecting simple, clear answers, I was stunned. There wasn’t a single answer that satisfied me! And they…” Here, she sighed again. “They take everything from Judaism. That is the source. They took everything from there, and made minor changes.”
“That’s a well-known fact. They take and then distort,” Chani said placidly. “That’s not news to me, but which clergyman admitted that to you?”
“No clergyman did. A friend of mine told me; she’s Orthodox and from Israel.”
“Yes, she’s Jewish.”
Chani carried two steaming mugs to the table. “What do you say! Truth to be told, I never suspected you were friendly with Orthodox girls…and fromIsraelto boot. Where did you find such a friend?”
“On my last visit here, we rode the bus together. Then we exchanged letters, and she’s the one who convinced me that you were right, that it didn’t pay for me to marry Dan. I listened to her.”
“I-ma!!! Sari’s g-g-going!!! Simi!! Come say go-goodb-bye! And walk her out!! Like Av-v-vrahm Avinu!! Get offfff the phone, S-simmmi!!”
A quiet voice was heard from the dining room.
“Excuse me, Diana, I must go out for minute,” Chani apologized.
She left the kitchen. “Goodbye, Sari! Thanks loads. Yehudis, please stop screaming. Don’t you see Simi’s on the phone now?”
“So sh-sh-she should wave g-g-oodbye!”
Simi waved at the embarrassed volunteer.
“Here,” Chani said firmly. “She waved goodbye. Now calm down and come to the kitchen. We have a guest and no one likes to hear you shrieking.”
“A g-guest?” Yehudis ran to the kitchen. Simi, who hung up the phone at that moment, followed her. Diana was sipping her coffee, and put the cup down politely, smiling at the girls.
“A g-guest! A g-g-uest!” Yehudis sang as she bounced around. “G-guest, do you know tha-that I’m Yehudis? Do you know me? I d-d-don’t know you!!”
Diana stared, wide-eyed. Simi hated that expression. She saw it so often on the street, on curious faces of people who turned to look at Yehudis when she screamed, stamped her feet, or just skipped around in a strange way.
“Dan didn’t tell you about her?” Chani asked naturally, switching on another light. She didn’t like the house flooded with lights, but when the sun set, she had to turn more on. The few times she had forgotten, Yehudis had gotten hysterical that the kitchen was dark, and didn’t enter the room for the rest of the evening.
“What didn’t he tell me?” Diana was puzzled. She continued staring at Yehudis. “I’m just shocked at the way she looks! She’s a carbon copy of Dan!”
Simi didn’t understand a word. She just stood in the kitchen doorway, casting hostile glances at Diana.
“A carbon copy?” Chani looked at her daughter as though seeing her for the first time. “Could be. I haven’t heard anyone else say that, but now that I think of it, there are very few people who know both her and him, so that doesn’t mean much. I thought you were looking at her because…”
“No, no,” Diana said hastily. “Now I see that she’s a bit, er, jumpy…”
“A nice way to put it.” Chani smiled and sat down, gently drawing Yehudis to her. “This is our Yehudis. Complications at her birth caused her some brain damage. Did Dan forget to tell you about his special niece?”
“Forgot or not, he didn’t tell me.”
Chani almost wanted to say, “It’s not hereditary,” but decided, to be on the safe side, not to inform Diana of that fact. Let her have another reason to keep her distance from their family.