Beneath the Surface – Chapter 34

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 34 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 bottom line is that you have to prepare the questions at home. You can’t just come to class, call a girl’s name, and then begin to quickly scan the Chumash or Navi. Precious time is wasted, important details are omitted, and the test becomes ineffective.” As Mrs. Deutsch, the didactics teacher for limudei kodesh studies, completed her sentence, the bell rang—if its hoarse buzz could be called a ring. She put her spiral notebook back into her briefcase.

“That bell has got to get fixed,” Simi remarked to Rachel as she hurried to the door.

“Hey, where are you going? Aren’t you washing?” Rachel asked in surprise when she saw Simi turning right.

“Not now.”

“So when will you eat?”

“Later.”

Rachel shrugged and joined the stream of girls heading toward the sinks. Simi must be hurrying to the Bnos leaders’ room again. She liked her friend very much and it never entered her mind to envy her, but Simi being a leader meant that she, Rachel, was sometimes left out in the cold, and such moments generated a bitter, unexplained taste in her mouth. Or maybe it was explainable. It was only natural to feel this way, wasn’t it?

“Running there again, isn’t she?”

Rachel whirled around in annoyance. She found it strange that some girls still behaved so babyishly despite being in seminary. But that’s the way things are. Childishness doesn’t always disappear as people grow older. On the contrary, it often becomes more pronounced.

“Who’s running?” she asked, as though not understanding Lakey, the girl standing right behind her, who had made the comment.

“Simi. Did they call all the leaders to go? I heard there’s a new program being planned.”

“It’s not for us; it’s for the lower grades,” Rachel clarified.

“I didn’t think that it was for us. Really, who, at our age, is interested in recycled activities or anything else for that matter? We have more important things to be busy with.”

“True, there are other things we’re busy with, but who said they need to conflict with extracurricular activities?” Rachel objected. “We can do both—invest in the important things,” namely, schoolwork and shidduchim, “and also enjoy the programs.”

“Personally, choirs and silly high-school get-togethers don’t interest me. The truth is, they didn’t interest me much in earlier years either,” Lakey remarked, and looked morosely out of the window. A warm morning sun reflected brightly off the windowsill. “The only purpose they served was getting us out of class.”

“That’s a shame,” Rachel, ever goodhearted, replied. “It’s too bad you didn’t enjoy them then, either. I don’t think it would hurt us, even now, to have something to break up the monotony of the constant schoolwork. But no one’s giving us that choice—so we’re just learning.”

“You want to ease off on the schoolwork?” Lakey’s tone was as surprised as if Rachel had suggested they climb the tree visible from the window they were standing near. “In the lower grades you need the variation. But us? We should be getting used to having heavy workloads already now, without looking for ways out. Are you planning to be the type of woman who’s always looking to get out of routine for a break? I’m not.”

“Neither am I,” Rachel replied candidly. “But I’m not a woman yet. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of the time I have left without the responsibility of a house and a job? Why shouldn’t I enjoy this time? Do I have to pressure myself now because, b’ezras Hashem, I hope, within two years, I won’t be able to go out wherever I want, whenever I want?”

“Sorry, you two, but this is a silly argument.” Someone stuck her head in between the two girls. “You’re standing in line to wash, and when it’s your turn, you don’t even pick up the cup, because you’re too busy arguing and discussing the crucial question of whether a time-out activity during school is good or not. Why, did someone tell you about a change in the schedule in the next month? Our test schedule doesn’t show me any time for extracurricular activities!”

“Maybe the test schedule is not enough for them!” Orit snickered from the back of the line. “Maybe we should ask the principal to give us another few hours of enlightening class time? And another test or two?”

“Come on, get moving over there! How long does it take to wash?” another girl called from the back.

Rachel hastily washed her hands and hurried back to the classroom, feeling a bit guilty. What exactly had Lakey wanted? What had been the point of their foolish argument? Lakey was generally the bitter type, but recently, it had become much worse. It was almost impossible to carry on a normal conversation with her! She was tense as a spring and as sharp as its pointed end.

She heard a light cough behind her. Rachel turned around to find Simi, whose face was a peculiar shade of red. Rachel didn’t see Simi blush often, and wondered what the cause was. Had someone angered her over in the leaders’ room? Had she been embarrassed?

Maybe both.

“The bell’s in less than ten minutes,” Rachel remarked, glancing at her watch. “You didn’t eat yet, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.” Simi sat down on the nearest empty chair.

Rachel set her bread down on the desk. “You’re not planning to eat today?”

“Not right now,” Simi replied tersely, her eyes pools of fury.

“Did you forget your food?” her devoted friend probed.

“No. I’m uptight right now.”

“Oh… Someone got me upset before, too, when I went to wash.”

“Who?”

Lashon hara. Someone.”

“You’re right.” Simi raised her eyes to her friend. “I hope it wasn’t me…?”

“I told you, it happened at the sinks,” Rachel said, picking up her bread again. “You weren’t there, right? One girl drew me into a strange fight and a lot of other girls started to laugh. You know I hate that feeling.”

“No one can stand being laughed at,” Simi said. “Try to forgive the girl.”

“I forgave her already. She was so confused…”

“Well, maybe we’ll be seeing her name in the paper tomorrow, in the right-hand column on the front page, where the engagements are listed,” Simi said seriously. “If that happens, remember not to tell me that she’s the one who annoyed you today. You know I get upset at anyone who bothers my good friend.”

“Thanks for the backing. By the way, I don’t like it when people get my friend angry, either.”

“Who told you that someone got me angry?”

Rachel swallowed her bite quickly and replied, “Your face. Don’t you know I have a degree in reading people’s faces? Especially your face.”

They both laughed, but Simi’s laugh lasted exactly one second before she grew serious again. “They didn’t accept my suggestion.”

“What?”

“Like you heard. I really have no idea why I was so convinced that they would want it.”

“Wait a minute—did they read it yet?”

“Just the synopsis that I gave them on Tuesday. I sat over it on Monday night with Menuchi, after Diana left. Why was I so stupid to be so busy with it before I got the school’s okay? I spent hours translating it with Menuchi, and then a whole day yesterday writing more than half the script, all for nothing! The coordinator said it doesn’t really go with the theme.”

“So let her read everything you wrote already.”

“I offered, but she said it wouldn’t change the decision. They already decided on a different idea.”

Rachel crumpled up her sandwich bag and rose to throw it out. Simi observed her every move.

“It’s an amazing story, that correspondence between your sister-in-law and that girl. Did you put that part in?”

“I did, but I changed things a little. I didn’t write anything about my uncle, and I basically made up a whole new ending.”

“What did you write?”

“That Diana the granddaughter wants to become a giyores, and she meets Menuchi here—all with different names of course. Menuchi—like in real life—doesn’t know that Diana is not Jewish, until they meet somewhere—and that’s the last scene, which I didn’t finish yet; I hadn’t decided where and how exactly it will take place.”

“Does she convert at the end?”

“Dunno. It’s a bit too much of a happy ending, don’t you think?” Simi grimaced, and the bell rang, as if to complete the dismal picture. “Actually,” she continued, “it’s obvious that Diana won’t become a giyores, because the last scene won’t get written. I have no reason to put any more work into this now.”

Rachel fixed her with a piercing look. “Don’t be such a defeatist; it’s not like you! You think our school is the only one that can put on a play?”

“What are you suggesting, that I sell it?”

Rachel glanced toward the door; the teacher hadn’t arrived yet. “Maybe. Other schools might want to use it for their graduation plays, for example. I think it’s a really great story, and the fact that it really happened adds a lot…”

“Almost all of it really happened,” Simi corrected.

“What difference does it make? The part about Menuchi—there’s so much siyata d’Shmaya there! I think that it shows a lot about her. After all, megalgelin zechus—good things happen through good people. She’s very special, isn’t she? Refined, you know what I mean?”

“Right, she’s very refined,” Simi replied, looking at her friend closely. She had never shared with Rachel her dissatisfaction over her poor relationship with Menuchi, but she was sure Rachel had picked up on the situation between the lines.

“I wonder what she’ll say when you tell her that the play wasn’t accepted. One thing’s for sure: she won’t complain that you made her work for nothing.”

Simi deliberated whether to tell Rachel that she had no intention of saying anything to Menuchi right now. Menuchi certainly wouldn’t ask on her own initiative, as usual, and if the topic would come up again, she, Simi, would quickly explain that the plans didn’t end up materializing.

The Navi teacher who entered at that moment resolved her dilemma. Simi sufficed with a small, noncommittal smile and quickly took her seat.

***

“Are you coming today, Menuchi?” Adina Baumel asked on the phone.

“What for?” Menuchi asked tiredly. Yesterday morning, as she was preparing her daily lesson, the phone rang. The principal was on the line. It was the first time Menuchi had spoken to her, because until then, everything had gone through her neighbor, Chasya. Menuchi didn’t know if the principal’s personal call was something to be happy about or not. She had a feeling that the latter was the case, and indeed, she was on the mark. In a few plain words, the principal explained that the administration was very grateful for her efforts, but they had no choice but to suspend her lessons.

“They’re stopping everything, you see,” Chasya had explained later. “The school is about to close. The girls are all going back home and that’s it. Isn’t it a shame?”

A shame? Was that the only word Chasya could come up with to define the situation? Just ‘a shame’?

“It’s terrible! So frustrating! We’re in such shock!” the girls who Menuchi spoke to told her, and she shared their sentiments.

Now, on the phone line, Adina sounded a touch impatient. “What for? For a party!” she said. “And don’t sound so down. I have much better reasons to be in a bad mood. You’re not the one coming home in the middle of the school year to people’s ‘I told you so’ looks. You’re not the one stuck without knowing where you’re going to continue your schooling and what will be in the future. This job of yours came to an end, and people find new jobs every day. But which school is going to accept me now, on a few days’ notice, without any guarantee from me that I’ll continue there if things here do work out?”

“First of all,” Menuchi replied, “if jobs are things that people find every day, then you’re invited to find me a new one. Second, the loss of the actual job doesn’t bother me as much. The little bit of money that I made, forgive me for saying this, didn’t make much of a dent either way. I was planning to look for a morning job anyway. I’m just feeling so bad about the school, and about the fact that I won’t be seeing you girls every day. I liked it, you know? But I really don’t have to sound like it’s the end of the world. You’re right.”

“As usual…”

“Not as usual, but like a lot of times. By the way, are there girls who are planning to go somewhere else and not come back, even if matters here get sorted out?”

“Sure there are. We’re not yo-yos. We can’t be constantly moving from one school to another.”

“It sounds like you’re angry at the school.”

Adina chose her words carefully. “Not angry, exactly, but disappointed. You tell me, do you really think this is the right way, to just cave in and send home dozens of girls?” She was referring to the second class, too. Menuchi had almost forgotten that the school consisted of more students than just “her” seventeen.

“I really don’t know,” she replied cautiously. “But I imagine they know what they are doing. They must not have had a choice.”

“The question is what you call a choice. I think that they had other options that they didn’t want to take advantage of. Did you know, for example, that some of the fathers of girls here offered to give long-term loans?”

“And?”

“The administrator is such an organized, straight guy, he doesn’t take loans unless he is one hundred—no, one thousand—percent sure that he will have from where to pay them back. Meanwhile, no one’s found the person willing to give a donation of thousands of dollars to pay back that loan when it’s due, if need be.”

“I don’t know why you sound so accusatory.” Menuchi was still treading carefully, aware that Adina was very wound up. “It’s actually a very good habit. Do you know that it says that someone who borrows money with no intentions of paying it back is called a rasha?”

Adina huffed angrily. “What’s with you, Menuchi? Who’s talking about not paying? No one thinks he won’t pay. The question is where he will take the money from, and if he doesn’t have a clear-cut answer to that question, he won’t take a cent. Chasya always says that people don’t know enough about our school, not here and not inAmerica. If they would know more about it, people would give more money. By the way, is five shekel for a six-pack of crayons considered expensive?”

“You can find cheaper. Where are you calling from?”

“One of those everything stores. I want to buy goodbye presents.” Adina fell silent and looked at the loaded shelves. She would tell Menuchi before she left about her volunteer work at Givol, and her desire to help out, which didn’t exactly unfold as she had planned. But not on the phone, and surely not during such a testy conversation.

“Okay, then I won’t bother you,” Menuchi said as she pulled her wallet out of the drawer. Goodbye presents! How had she forgotten about those? She had to find something small for each girl who was leaving. Maybe a keychain with tefillas haderech on it? But that was so trite! What could she buy that would be nice, inexpensive, original, and a real memento from her?

She had to think.

She could also consult Simi. Today she was more open to the idea of a direct conversation with her sister-in-law. Things had changed a bit between them. And after such a long time in the freezer, any thaw in their relationship was a welcome sign.

But she still wasn’t sure enough about herself. She certainly didn’t want to share the latest developments. Even without this, she thought she knew what Simi’s opinion was on her lessons in the seminary. Each time—in the few times they had spoken about it—Simi had probed, “And you enjoy it there? Are they interested? But they hardly pay you anything! And the mentality is so different…”

Perhaps the mentality is different, but that doesn’t bother us. You don’t have to come from the United States or England to be different from me, so different that we’re worlds apart. We could live in the same country, in the same city, and even have the same family name—yet feel like strangers with each other.

So should she tell Simi that she couldn’t even hold on to this job?

But she couldn’t ignore the progress in their relationship. Since Diana Molis had met her there in the house, Simi now looked at her with admiration. Admiration for what, Menuchi was not sure. Was it for the letters she had written? The idea to write hadn’t even been hers. Diana had asked if she could send questions and get answers. And who had formed the answers? Her father.

But that’s the way the world turns. People like full circles in life, and if she was the one who tied the loose ends of the circle together and brought about the change—then she was perceived as deserving the credit. Not that she objected to the new way she was being appreciated; it was a nice feeling—especially when it came from Simi. And there were also the humorous aspects. For example, after the whole story became known, Shragi’s Aunt Betty had called her, so excited that Menuchi could almost feel the phone tremble. “You know that I’m the one who gave the ‘yes’ on you? My sister was in the hospital with Yehudah Kalman and I went to the Tamir Hall to see you at a friend’s wedding. Did anyone tell you that?”

Menuchi had reassured her that yes, of course, they had told her. That story always bothered her. Who knows, if her mother-in-law would have been able to go herself to see her… Enough, why do you let these inferior thoughts get the better of you? Why does it make a difference how exactly it happened? Everything is from Above; what’s important is that your mother-in-law like you now, and about that you have (almost) no doubt.

“So I knew then that you were something special. I told my sister, ‘Listen, Chani, you won’t regret listening to me on this one. She makes a wonderful impression!’ Nu, I was right, wasn’t I? She never regretted it!”

Shragi’s grandmother from Belgium had also called, and with Menuchi’s poor Yiddish, and Savta’s broken Hebrew, the conversation was somewhat stilted at first, until they remembered that they both spoke English. Although the kisses could not be sent through the phone, Savta had promised to come visit soon, maybe before Pesach, to kiss her directly. Menuchi had closed her eyes in trepidation at the thought of all those promises being realized.

And if Simi was among the admirers, then what was there to be afraid of? But Menuchi sensed that there was something to be afraid of. Perhaps all that enthusiasm would dissipate soon, especially when Simi would hear that her sister-in-law hadn’t even managed to hold on to the strange job that she had.

But it wasn’t Menuchi’s fault. She could explain that, couldn’t she? She hadn’t been fired because of a personal shortcoming. The school was closing down. On that Friday night, when Ditza, Sandy and Chaya had visited her at her in-laws’ home, Simi had seemed curious, not snide. Perhaps she had discovered that the girls were “with it” and “normal”? But what had she thought before that?

She’d try to call, Menuchi resolved. What time was it? Two o’clock. Either Simi was home, or she wasn’t. It couldn’t hurt to try, could it?

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