Beneath the Surface – Chapter 33

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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.

Ten minutes after the Orchos Tzaddikim lesson ended and Menuchi left, Mrs. Deutschlander, the principal, appeared at the apartment. The girls crowded around her.

“How are you girls?” she asked warmly, casting glances around her. “I haven’t visited you here in quite some time. I think the last time was…”

“On the first day of school?” Millie filled in for her.

“Right. On the first day of school. Are you managing?”

Adina perused the older woman’s face closely. Was that a fresh crease in her forehead? Perhaps.

“Will you join us for supper?” Chasya Ehrentreau asked, suddenly emerging from the kitchen. “And how are you? You don’t look so good.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” the guest replied, entering the large kitchen. “I didn’t come to eat. I came to speak to you, girls.”

The girls all took their places, chattering as they usually did, not worried in the least. Adina scanned their faces in surprise. How could they maintain such a calm demeanor in such a strange situation? Or perhaps it wasn’t so strange that the principal had suddenly shown up to speak to them, and she was the only tense one because of the snatches of conversation she had overhead.

The aroma of omelets wafted through the kitchen. “It smells delicious, Chasya,” Mrs. Deutschlander said. “Come, girls, let’s get to the point. Unfortunately, I don’t have especially good news for you.”

The chatter died down at once. Chasya also turned from the stove to face them.

The principal fixed her gaze on an abstract point on the wall above the narrow window. “We made a decision this afternoon, just a few hours ago, and I decided to tell you about it. Immediately.” She fiddled with her fingers and leaned back in her chair. “There have been problems recently. Serious financial problems.”

The silence was heavy and thick.

“You know that our seminary is funded by a frum foundation inNew York.”

“And our tuition payments, right?” one of the girls at the end of the table asked.

The principal smiled thinly. “Yes, but the organization subsidized your payments. The tuition you pay is about ten to fifteen percent of the operating budget, and even someone who doesn’t understand much about economics can imagine that if we were to be left only with the tuition payments as our income, then that’s in essence nothing.” She fell silent and scanned the attentive expressions. “And that’s what happened. The foundation ran into severe difficulties in recent months, as you may have realized, and has now collapsed completely. There are a few people who have agreed to pay specific sums, but it’s barely enough to cover the shortfalls, and certainly not sufficient for our regular needs. To be very honest about the outlook for the next few months, we have no idea how we will fund the school.”

“Loans,” someone suggested.

“You’re very sweet,” the principal said, “but you can imagine that Rabbi Fogel has already considered all the options. How can he take loans without knowing with confidence that he will find a source from which he can pay back the money? Or worse, knowing with near certainty that there will most likely be no such source…” She returned her eyes to that point over the window.

“So…?” Ditza asked quietly.

“So that’s it. The way things look now, your Pesach vacation will begin earlier than scheduled, in two weeks, and regarding your return dates, you’ll receive notification.”

The dropping of jaws had been expected.

“Will there be such a date?” someone asked with a forced smile, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“I really hope so,” Mrs. Deutschlander said, unsmiling.

“We’re going home in two weeks? In the middle of Shevat?”

“Can’t you arrange something? Is there no other solution?”

“And what am I supposed to do for over a month at home?” Marilla, a British girl, queried. She was the only one of them who was from a completely unobservant home.

“It’s more than two months. And that’s if we come back in time, of course,” Helen whispered.

Chasya, standing at the counter, silently pressed the “on” button of the food processor. The information wasn’t news to her; two weeks ago, Mrs. Deutschlander had confided in her that there were serious fiscal issues. But to such an extent? She hadn’t dreamed the crisis would escalate so rapidly.

The principal looked at all the girls sitting around her. Some of them had compassionate expressions; others seemed to be in shock. There were those who looked very concerned. She sighed. “Dear girls, regretfully, I don’t have answers to your questions. Right now, I’ve told you all I know. When I learn more details, I won’t keep them a secret. What can I tell you? May Hashem help everything turn out all right.”

“Can we offer suggestions?” Adina Baumel asked. Her fingers were opening and closing rapidly into fists.

“Of course; I’d be happy to listen.” The principal wore a sad smile now. “But take into account that we’ve already thought of lots of possible solutions and rejected them for various reasons. Do you have something specific in mind, Adina?”

“No, but I have to think.” Adina leaned her palm on the table. Her eyes focused on the corner of the table, and a deep crease bridged them. “Maybe we’ll come up with something.”

“Adina always has the best ideas,” someone offered.

“Of course, you can all think,” the principal said, but her smile remained morose. “Who knows? Perhaps you’ll come up with something we haven’t thought of.”

“We’ll think,” Chaya promised.

“Yes, Hashem will help,” Shifi added.

“We love this place!” Sandy exclaimed. “It can’t close! Think, girls, think!”

Adina didn’t say a word. She wasn’t there anymore. She was at the window in her room, opening and closing it. It was inconceivable for the seminary to close down. There were too many girls who came from weak homes, and this place was literally a lifeline for them. It just couldn’t close!

Onwards. B’ezras Hashem, a solution would be found. It just had to be.

***

Gershon Ostfeld approached the house and was surprised to find a familiar figure standing idly in front of the glass door.

“Hello!” he said. “Are you waiting for Shragi?”

Menuchi started uneasily. “Um…no, thanks. I just thought…” Not exactly. There was another hour and a half until Shragi would arrive, as they had arranged, but when she had come two minutes earlier, she realized she really didn’t want to go upstairs.  She didn’t have the strength to endure another hour of her every word and expression needing to be carefully considered a hundred times. Suddenly, all she wanted was a few minutes of peace in the cool evening breeze before she would enter the warm home, literally and figuratively, and start posturing. Literally play-acting. She had to calculate her every word and smile, wondering whether it was acceptable to Simi, and if she had or hadn’t said the wrong thing. Usually, because of the many thoughts whirling in her brain, she’d begin to stammer.

But now she had no choice but to smile politely and go into the building. All she needed was for her father-in-law to go upstairs and tell them that she was waiting downstairs. For whom? Why? Simi would wrinkle her nose at her sister-in-law’s “strange” acts. Her wonderful mother-in-law would surely silence her daughter, but that wouldn’t change Simi’s opinions. She would continue to stew quietly.

And emotions that are heated when they are covered up—like in a pot—come to a boil very, very quickly.

Menuchi was still in the middle of the staircase when her father-in-law opened the door to his apartment. His “good evening” resonated in the stairwell. He glanced behind him, saw Menuchi climbing the stairs slowly, and left the door open.

“Hi,” Chani said, emerging from the kitchen. “We have a guest.”

“Oh, you knew already that she’s here? She’s on her way up,” her husband said as he took off his coat and put his hands near the vent from where warm air was blowing.

“Who?” Chani looked into the stairwell in confusion. Just then, Menuchi appeared at the entrance to the apartment.

“Oh, Menuchi!” Chani said with a broad smile. “Hello! Come in! I’m so happy to see you. Here, Simi and Yehudis are here.” She returned to the kitchen, followed by her husband; their daughter-in-law brought up the rear.

“Meet Diana Molis,” Chani said to her husband, switching to Flemish. “She’s inquiring regarding a few subjects relating to Judaism.”

“Good evening,” Gershon said with a nod and turned to his wife. “Questions? Perhaps Shragi can help her. Is he expected this evening?”

“Who said he’ll be interested in getting involved?” Chani asked in Hebrew, nonchalantly turning to Menuchi so it would seem as though she were addressing her. “Menuchi, meet Diana Molis. Have you heard that name in our family’s history? I don’t think we’ve mentioned it much, but it does appear in my mother’s memoir.”

Menuchi’s perspective:

Right at the beginning, when my mother-in-law spoke to my father-in-law in Flemish, I thought I heard the word “Molis” but I wasn’t sure. I was busy with Yehudis, who had accosted me when I came in the door, but between one hug and the next, I peeked at the only seated figure in the kitchen. Everyone else was standing, but it didn’t seem to bother her in the least.

I knew that face from the past, and I think I also knew exactly from where. But why should I have thought that it was really her? Just because she also spoke Flemish? Of all the Flemish-speaking girls in the world, my mother-in-law hadn’t found another guest besides Diana Molis, my former pen-pal?

But then she introduced me to the guest, and all my doubts fell away. “Of course I know her,” I said in a confident tone in English and smiled at Diana. Simi, standing on the side, opened her eyes wide. “We corresponded a bit a while back. Right, Diana? How do you get here?”

“I thought you looked familiar!” Diana rose from her chair, her satchel falling to the floor. “So it’s you, Menuchi! What are you doing here, in Anne Ostfeld’s home?”

I turned to the right to smile at my mother-in-law, and I was almost able to see my own reflection in her wide-open eyes. She stared at me in shocked silence. Shragi’s father, mother, Simi, and Yehudis were all gaping at me. The latter two were silent because they didn’t understand a word of Diana’s excited reaction, but why were my in-laws looking at me so strangely? What was so amazing about us knowing each other? Yes, it was interesting that specifically my pen-pal was their guest, and I still didn’t know what she was looking for there, but it wasn’t so far-fetched from reality. Why the shock?

“You wrote to each other?” Shragi’s mother coughed.

“Yes,” I replied naturally. “A few letters. This is my mother-in-law, Diana. My husband’s mother.”

“Really!” Diana exclaimed. “This is not a small world, like they say—it’s a tiny world! How many people do I know inIsrael? Just a few. And of those few, you two are so closely tied!”

She returned to her chair and her satchel. “I even brought your letters with me,” she said with a smile, while I wondered what was so amusing. “Even though the last letter really annoyed me, and I mean really.” She raised a finger and wagged it at me in jest. “You brought me to this country, Menuchi, and so did you, Anne. You could say that you’re both to blame.”

She suddenly sat straight in her chair and her cheerful smile froze on her face. Her hands clutched the sheaf of familiar papers, but she didn’t look at them. “Or…or is this all a conspiracy that you worked on together?” she asked coldly.

“Together on what?” I asked cautiously. I didn’t know what I was being cautious about, but I knew something major was unfolding. Diana’s question was blatantly accusatory.

She didn’t directly respond to my question. “Yes, that’s the truth, right? You both planned this—together—to persuade me…to…” She kept pausing between the words, and then left the sentence hanging. She handed me—or almost threw at me—the bundle of letters, and shouldered her bag. It was only then that I noticed her hand in the cast.

“Take that,” she said scornfully. “I’m going back toBelgium. I have a few things I need to think about again. You tricksters!”

I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my mother-in-law seemed to be coming out of her frozen state. Something about Diana’s words—which were of no signficance to me—had obviously touched her.

“What’s the matter, Diana?” I asked firmly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Tricksters? Who? What kind of conspiracy? If you don’t mind my saying, I met you before I knew my mother-in-law. And besides, if you will recall, I wasn’t the one who asked you to write to me!”

“Um, right…” she said thoughtfully, and proffered her hand. “So give me back the letters.”

I hesitated for a moment and then complied.

“I had no idea about the connection between you two, until this second!” Shragi’s mother said, and I was happy to hear that she had regained her power of speech. She turned to me. “You corresponded with Diana, Menuchi? She told me about you before, and showed me a few lines from your letter. It’s written beautifully!”

“Thanks, but the wording is my father’s,” I replied. Now it was Diana’s turn to fix us with a puzzling look.

“And you know what her connection is to us, don’t you?” my mother-in-law asked quietly. I heard the sounds of chairs being dragged across the dining room floor. Suddenly we all noticed that Yehudis wasn’t there. Simi hurried out of the room.

“She was going to marry my brother, Dan. That’s her.” Shragi’s mother choked, as though she had swallowed too big a bite of something. “Your letters, according to what she says, are what persuaded her not to do so.”

I looked at Diana, who nodded vigorously, at my father-in-law, who was leaning on the counter with a creased forehead, and at my mother-in-law, whose face slowly broke into a broad, understanding grin.

But this time, I was the one left in the dark. Diana? How could that be?

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