Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 36 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 mirror back on the kibbutz reflected exactly the image that Diana wanted to see: a refined-looking girl, with her hair gathered in a yellow rubber band, wearing a flowing skirt that almost reached the floor. Her thick socks weren’t visible in any case, but she didn’t want to skip even a single detail in her appearance. This was excellent.
She straightened up, smiled at her reflection, and walked out to the gray gravel path, pulling the wooden door closed behind her with her good hand. Her regular clothes were buried deep inside her suitcase in the room. She had an hour until she would have to go out to the highway to catch the bus to Haifa, and decided to spend it at the cowshed. She hadn’t been there since yesterday morning. She had been minimizing her work hours since she had come back from her two-day vacation with her hand in a cast.
“She’s living here on our account,” Arnon fumed at one of the small kibbutz meetings, “and she hardly shows up at the cowshed. Who needed this whole thing in the first place?”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s still pretty worthwhile for us,” one of the senior kibbutz officials said, taking a handful of peanuts from the dish in the middle of the table. Arnon nodded. Yes, sure it was worthwhile, taking into account the volunteer situation today.
Now Diana walked toward the paved path between the metal fences that cordoned off the cows. She held her skirt carefully, ensuring that the hem didn’t touch the floor, which was covered with trash. She was amused at the way she was walking; it reminded her of a play she had participated in as an eleven-year-old schoolgirl. She had played the role of the queen. Then, too, she had worn a long dress and had taken care with every step not to trip.
“Hey, what happened?” She reached the milking building just as Noga, Arnon’s wife, was walking out. Noga looked at Diana almost threateningly. “What’s with the costume?”
“Excuse me?” Diana raised a conciliatory eyebrow. “I did think that I had the right to dress as I please. I don’t think it’s within your domain. Please take care of things that are relevant to you, such as Golda, your mother-in-law, who’s been in bed with the flu for two days. Have you visited her?” And without waiting for a response, Diana continued walking to the milking machine. She made the rounds of the cows for a few minutes, and then hurried to the Haifa-bound bus. Noga’s constant supervision was beginning to irk her deeply.
Just yesterday, Noga had tried to convey the message that Diana’s frequent visits to Golda did not find favor in her and Arnon’s eyes. “We are afraid that you just feel obligated to go there. There are enough people here your own age, and you don’t have to be friends specifically with her. She’s not someone who represents Israeli society in the right way, and it’s a shame that you should get a distorted picture.”
“First of all,” Diana had shot back, “you’re mistaken if you say there are a lot of people here my age. Where are they all? And secondly, who told you what kind of perspective I came to see?” She didn’t make any effort to conceal her disgust. Really! They thought they could dictate to her who to be friends with! Didn’t they realize that she had come to see exactly the different aspect that they were trying to conceal? She had come to see the differences, and on the kibbutz it was hard to find them. And that’s why she had traveled to Bnei Brak. And that was why she was now on her way toHaifa.
Through a bit of research she had done with Golda’s help, she had discovered that there was a small synagogue, not far from theHaifaport, where there were lectures in English for young people interested in learning about Judaism. She definitely wanted to hear what they had to say.
“But it’s for Jews,” Golda had tried to explain. “Do you think you would get in? It’s obvious that you’re not…” The strange friendship that had developed between them enabled Golda to state things as openly as they were.
“That, too,” Golda had replied. “But not only your clothes. I think that if you speak to a rabbi, he’ll realize right away who you are.”
What would her mother say if she would have heard that her daughter was looking for ways to look Jewish! “Well, I’m not up to talking to any rabbis quite yet,” Diana said, a bit irritated. “Should I change my clothes a bit?”
“Maybe that will help,” Golda said doubtfully. “If you’ll be dressed like a girl who’s already started taking an interest in religion, it will definitely affect the overall impression you’ll make.”
So Diana had gone toHaifato buy a few articles of clothing that would lend her the appearance she was trying to adopt. She needed two nights to come to terms with her own decision—and for Wednesday to come, when the lectures were given.
And now she was on her way. Menuchi Ostfeld had hesitantly suggested when they had met that she find someone who was an expert at answering questions such as hers. “But what do you need it for…?” she had asked quietly. “It’s enough that you’re doing what you have to do. You really don’t have to get into any new obligations.”
“I’m not getting into anything,” she had answered Menuchi lightly. “And that’s exactly what I want—to hear what I’m obligated to do.”
She had taken Anne’s phone number in order to maintain contact. Anne wasn’t too enthusiastic, but she had been cordial and polite. “Tell us what’s happening with you,” she had said. “We’ll be happy to help if we can.”
The bus began to climb the steep, winding roads on theCarmelmountainside. Diana took a deep breath and gazed at the expansive, square-shaped fields spread out at the foot of the mountain and at the sea, reflecting the twinkling sun. She closed her eyes and let the sun’s rays warm her face. She had a distinct, unequivocal feeling that what she was doing now was absolutely the right thing for her.
One more sentence…that was it.
Menuchi shook her hand and put the little electronic translator back into her bag. The translation of the last scene was now complete, and the seminary principal would surely be happy. The principal had called yesterday specifically to ask Menuchi to translate the rest of the play as soon as possible.
“We’re all very grateful for your excellent idea,” she had said. “The play is really written well and the director was most impressed. She wanted to know when she can get the ending. Time is short. We’ve set a date for the end of Adar, before the girls go home for Pesach.”
Menuchi didn’t dare ask if the girls would be returning after the vacation. She hoped they would be. Chasya had told her that it looked like the seminary had decided to battle for its existence. “Now people will have finally heard about them. First of all, there will be revenues from the performance, and if it will be successful, maybe they will perform again in other places. Besides, in order to be able to cover the expenses of the play itself, which are quite significant, they decided to try—Oh, why am I blabbing on about other people’s business? It’s really not right of me.”
The upholstered chair squeaked. Menuchi rose and went into the other room, pushing open the door. She didn’t hear the humming of the machinery, but rather her mother-in-law’s soothing tone.
“Um…” Menuchi said, using her usual form of addressing her mother-in-law to get her attention.
Shragi’s mother turned around.
“I finished translating the last few pages. How do I send a fax? The principal asked me to send it straight to her office.”
“I’ll do it in a few minutes,” Chani replied. “The fax machine is a bit temperamental and is always jamming. I doubt you’ll manage with it.”
Menuchi nodded. “Is there something special that has to be done now?”
“No,” Chani said with a chuckle. “Rest.”
Menuchi smiled and returned to the waiting room. Rest? No way. The night was just over! Apparently, the work here really was quiet and placid. Being a secretary in a school, on the other hand, was a completely different story. That job was always interesting and fast-paced, especially if there was another pleasant secretary sharing the office. But here it was really quiet, even boring.
Two days earlier, her mother-in-law had asked her to substitute again. And Menuchi had agreed—like the previous time—after quickly thinking it over. The amazing thing was that she now wholeheartedly agreed with Simi’s words that, in the past, had made her so angry. ‘Boring work’? Yes, Simi had been right. ‘There’s nothing to do there’? That was also true. ‘I need something else; it’s not for me’?.Yes, Simi had been right there as well. Menuchi could not imagine energetic Simi sitting here and dreaming, like her sister-in-law was doing right now.
And what about you, Menuchi? Do you like this kind of work?
Well, there are advantages and drawbacks to it. I’m suited to steady, simple work without too much excitement and emotion. Simi feels differently? So what! Maybe it’s not good enough for her, but for me it’s fine!
Menuchi doodled with a pencil on the play script she had sitting in front of her on the desk. She would also be one of the parts in this play. She wondered who would act that part. Simi had incorporated her into the story, with a few minor changes. The exchange of letters between Diana, interested in Judaism, and Menuchi, played a prominent role, and in the end it emerged, before Diana’s conversion (Simi had decided that the end would be flat without it), that “Ruchama Cohen” (Menuchi in the play) was the direct granddaughter of Lara “Gold,” instead of by marriage. (When their grandmother had given them permission to perform some of her life story, she had said two things, Simi had told Menuchi: First, she wanted to come and see the play, and second, they shouldn’t use her real name. She allowed them to keep her first name, Lara, but absolutely forbade them to use her family name.) Dan and his whole role were totally omitted from the story. Menuchi wasn’t sure that the plot was rich enough, but had decided to keep her thoughts to herself. Who was she to express an opinion on things that were so distant from her?
“Menuchi?” Her mother-in-law emerged from the inner room, wearing her white lab coat. “Do you know who just called my cell phone?” As she spoke, she began fiddling with the fax machine. “Diana.”
“Really? What did she say?”
“She’s been traveling to Haifato hear some shiurim from a rav there. I don’t remember his name, Ritterman or Biderman, something like that.”
“Did she tell him who she is?”
“From what I understood, no. But she’s become friends with a girl—Jewish, who is also becoming religious, and she told her. That girl advised her to leave the kibbutz and come live with her. In any case, I hope I convinced her that if she wants to really make any progress, she has to do it in the most direct, simple way.”
“Dr. Ostfeld!” a call came from the inner room. “You can come! I pinched my cheek and didn’t feel it!”
Chani smiled at Menuchi and retreated toward the room where her patient sat. “I couldn’t speak for long, but I really hope she’ll take what I said seriously. Otherwise, I’ll have to find this Rabbi Ritterman and let him know.”
“It’s very unhealthy for her to present herself as a baalas teshuvah. You know what kind of problems can crop up? For example, she might go live with a family inHaifa, and…”
“But she told her friend the truth.”
Chani chose her words carefully. “Either she did or she didn’t. To tell you that I trust her one hundred percent? I don’t. She makes a serious impression and her intentions are positive, I think, at least the way she’s presenting them. But if she continues hiding her identify, that will definitely raise very serious suspicions on my part.”
“Sandy, go over that last piece again, if you don’t mind, and try to live what you are saying.” The director, Mrs. Schick, looked fresh and vibrant as ever, even after two straight hours of rehearsals. She didn’t miss a single mistake that an actress made, or overlook any lines recited without the proper emphasis or inflection.Sandy, playing Bob Molis, grimaced.
“No, not like that. Bob is supposed to look defeated, not hostile.”
“I wasn’t Bob Molis now; that was my own face,” Sandy said. “I was just wondering how many more times I’d have to say these few sentences.”
“As many times as I ask you to,” Mrs. Schick replied. “Let’s go!”
Sandyturned to Helen, playing Diana Molis fromEngland. “Everything’s gone…” she said tiredly and slumped down on the nearby bed. “Or rather, almost everything. We’ll have to invest all over again from scratch.”
“At least you knew what to expect,” “Diana” said in an encouraging tone. “You didn’t have any illusions. You prepared yourself, more or less, for what you have to do now.”
“Do now?”Sandyasked morosely. “I certainly do know what I have to do now. I have to sleep.”
“Excellent, Sandy. That was wonderful. The tone was very genuine,” the director complimented her.
“It really was real!”Sandy replied, as she turned to “Diana.” “Are you going out now?”
“Yes, do you mind?”
“Not at all. I’m planning to spend the next few hours sleeping anyway. Will you be back for dinner?”
“Certainly. Should I wake you up?”
“Whatever you want.” AndSandyturned her head to the wall.
“What a dry conversation,” Helen said dolefully and looked at Sandy, who kept her gaze pinned to the wall. “And this has been going on for the past two days already. Bob seems on the verge of—”
“Face the audience, Helen.”
“—collapse. And me? I’m not too far off from that either. One of us has to shake this off, and pull the other one out. Nothing will come from grieving. The world doesn’t begin or end with chemical factories that have collapsed into nothingness.”
“Don’t stand in one place, Helen. Turn a bit. It gives the scene a more realistic look.”
“True, my heart is telling me to stay here, beside him,” she nodded toward Sandy, who lay motionless on the bed, “but my mind is telling me to go out, to breathe, to air out a bit. And it’s not only for me. It’s mainly for him.”
The director clapped her hands sharply, and “Bob” jumped up from the bed.
“You were wonderful, girls. I have no words! I’m going now. Continue practicing yourselves whenever you have time. The principal will give me the last scene tonight, and I’ll be here tomorrow for rehearsal. Tell the girls who have parts that I need all of them here—no being late and no excuses!”
“Yes, Menuchi told me yesterday that she planned to finish today,” Adina remarked from her perch in the corner of the room where she had been watching. Yay, Menuchi; she must have gotten it done!
There were a few questions, as usual. Rabbi Biderman answered them all with alacrity and then closed his sefer and turned to go.
“Excuse me, Rabbi, I have a question,” someone spoke up.
The rabbi stopped.
“I came here from Belgium, and I’m a bit interested in Judaism…”
Rabbi Biderman nodded.
“But I have a problem. I’m…um…not Jewish.” How had Anne put it, when she’d spoken to her on the phone? Truth cannot be obtained through lies, only through truth.
His forehead creased; she noticed. “Right now I don’t have any specific questions,” she hurried to add. “I just wanted to know if you object to my attending your lectures.”
“I have to look into it,” he said seriously. “Judaism does not seek out new people. Why do you want to convert?”
“I don’t…I’m not yet sure that I really want to actually become Jewish.” Her tone was cautious. “But I’m rather convinced that the Jewish religion has it right. I want to find out and see what you have to say regarding me, as a non-Jew.”
Rabbi Biderman kept his eyes on a plant standing in the corner of the shul’s foyer. “Gentiles have the seven Noahide laws, in principle,” he replied. “It’s enough for you to just know those. You don’t have to learn the rest.”
“But I want to learn,” she replied. “I want to be convinced, before I commit to anything, that your Torah is the truth.”
He smiled and moved his black hat back a little. “For that you don’t have to come here each week. Twenty minutes, perhaps a bit more, is enough for that, depending on how much you already know. In any case, I will give you an answer at the next lecture regarding your participation.”
She nodded and returned to her place. Limor, her new friend, was waiting. “Did he agree?” she asked.
Diana repeated what the rabbi had said. “So be it,” she concluded. “I couldn’t have hoped for more.”