Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 38 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 minute darkness fell on the hall with the upholstered seats, the audience quieted down.
“Good luck, Menuchi,” Simi said as she squeezed Menuchi’s arm.
Menuchi eked out a smile. “Thanks, and good luck to you, too,” she murmured, without shifting her gaze from the screen in front of her. Adina had repeatedly explained what she had to do, and it was really very simple; nevertheless, as she usually was during tense times, Menuchi was overcome with uncertainty. What if the slide show got stuck? What if part of the translations wouldn’t appear suddenly? And if…
“And if and if and if!” Adina had exclaimed impatiently. “Why do you always have to think about the worst-case scenario? This program is so simple, even a five-year-old could operate it.”
“Well, I’m not a five-year-old,” Menuchi had replied. “So maybe you should find someone more age-appropriate?”
“Who knows English and Hebrew fluently, and who is familiar with the play, and who will know exactly what will happen and when so that she can change the slides with the translations? No, I don’t think I’ll find someone like that,” Adina had explained calmly. “Besides, you can relax. I’ll be next to you every free minute that I have, and the technician will also help you if there are any problems, which I hope there won’t be.”
Without wanting to, Menuchi’s eyes came to rest on her right hand, which was gripping the mouse tightly, afraid to move. Was the trembling discernible, or was it just a feeling inside? Simi was completely calm. Well, this wasn’t the first time she was taking part in organizing a performance. But for Menuchi, this place on stage was completely unfamiliar. Even at her elementary school graduation, she hadn’t stayed on the stage for a moment longer than she’d had to. After the main choir, she had fled the stage and watched her friends performing from the safety of the audience. Had she been jealous? At the time, she hadn’t thought so. Today, she knew that she had been. She’d swallowed their every move with wide eyes, and had tried to imagine herself up there, but knew that there was no chance it would ever happen. She just wasn’t cut out for blinding spotlights whose color changed every few minutes and caused her to see stars. No, she preferred the darkness.
Menuchi looked around her. Yes, she was sitting in the dark now, yet she was still on the stage. But even now, if given the choice, she would flee. How wonderful it would be to sit in the audience, who had just come to observe, without the burden of making sure the performance was a success!
“Menuchi, the principal’s on the stage!” Simi whispered in her ear.
Mrs. Deutschlander’s words reverberated through the large room. She didn’t speak for long; she just thanked the audience and all those who had worked behind the scenes to make the evening a success.
“To our wonderful director, Mrs. Ariella Schick, whose days and nights of effort will become obvious tonight!”
“To the teachers at our seminary, who devoted their hearts, souls, and talents to the success of this evening!”
The applause continued.
“To our dear secretary, Mrs. Suri Rosenblum, who worked endless hours toward helping with the production!”
The applause crested again after it had almost died down.
“To our devoted house-mothers, Mrs. Nechama Kushelevsky and Mrs. Chasya Ehretreau, for their warmth, lovingness, and help, we have no words, simply no words!”
The clapping continued.
“To the writer of this unique play, who invested her all, with outstanding results—as you will see very shortly—thank you, Sima Ostfeld!”
The clapping increased. Many of Simi’s friends and Bnos girls were in the audience.
“And last, but not at all least—” Mrs. Deutschlander turned over the sheaf of papers in her hands. Where was the next page? Had she flipped two pages mistakenly?
“And last but not least,” she continued by heart (what a shame she couldn’t yawn in front of everyone), “thank you to the one who the girls wait for every afternoon, the one who spearheaded the whole idea and translated the script…” And here, the exhausted principal got a bit mixed up as she announced, “Mrs. Sima Ostfeld!”
She didn’t notice her mistake. She thanked the audience with a nod and descended from the stage. Oh, she was so tired!
The clapping was enthusiastic on the one hand, and confused on the other. Why had the principal mentioned the same person twice, separately? And why did this teacher/organizer/translator get the title of “Mrs.” only the second time around instead of both times?
Menuchi had hardly been listening in the wings, but toward the end of the list, her ears naturally perked up. At first, she thought she hadn’t heard right. Then she realized that it hadn’t been her mistake, but rather Mrs. Deutschlander’s. And Simi’s “It’s not fair! I’m going to tell them to apologize and correct the mistake right now!” was also fairly loud.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Menuchi whispered back. “It makes no difference to me!”
Then a thought crept into her heart. Even if you are right, Menuchi, and it doesn’t matter to you at all that Mrs. Deutschlander made a mistake, doesn’t your mother deserve to have the correction made? She was surely waiting to hear her daughter’s name mentioned, and was probably quite disappointed.
Yes, her mother was no fool. Anyone who had been remotely involved in Menuchi Ostfeld’s life in the past two months would realize right away that it was a mistake, that Mrs. Deutschlander had said Simi’s name again instead of hers. Still, was she allowed to withhold this nachas from her mother? And what about her mother-in-law? Shragi’s mother was surely thrilled to hear her daughter’s name, but she had certainly expected to hear praises about her daughter-in-law as well. Didn’t the two mothers deserve it?
But Menuchi didn’t say a word. The forgiving smile remained unchanged, despite her racing thoughts, and, like anyone else who found themselves in such a situation, she remained seated. What could she say? “Actually, yes, go and say that they meant me, not you.” That was all she needed. Perhaps she should get on the stage herself, take the mike, and announce, “Honored guests, take note of the serious mistake that just occurred. Instead of praising me, they praised my sister-in-law. Tell me, dear guests, is that not a dreadful mistake? My sister-in-law’s name has graced enough stages in the past; why is it that the first time that this pleasure was supposed to be mine, I didn’t get it, and it once again fell into Simi’s hands like a ripe apple, like…” Menuchi’s ruminations stopped as soon as she saw Adina appear on the darkened screen in front of her.
“Turn the spot onto me,” she said quietly to the lighting technician, and immediately, all eyes turned toward the figure in the spotlight on the stage.
“First of all, thank you all for coming to see us tonight,” she said in a charming, American-accented Hebrew. “I wanted to say a special thank you, in the name of all my friends, to our special principal, Mrs. Deutschlander…” A polite round of applause filled the hall. Adina waited patiently, then added, “All the thanks in the world would not be sufficient to express our hakaras hatov to her.” Once again there was applause, and once again she paused. “I also just want to add that there was a small mistake. Our wonderful afternoon teacher, who is also our friend, and who helps us with everything, and who translated the play, is Mrs. Menucha Ostfeld!”
Another round of applause, as polite as the previous one, could be heard, although it was beginning to sound a touch impatient. Really, who cared about these lists of credits? Did they come to a professional performance or an elementary school play?
Adina disappeared into the darkness, and music filled the hall. The heavy velvet curtain parted slowly, revealing the dim stage. Small lights danced in circles on the floor of the stage. A voice could be heard from deep in the wings, and written words began flowing across the screen suspended over the stage.
“Antwerp,Belgium. 1945. European Jewry was drowning in the heavy ashes that the flames of fury had left behind. The smoke was still hovering in the atmosphere, coloring the sky in dark shades of black and gray. The darkness was as thick as a moonless night. No one knew what each day would bring, what tomorrow would hold.
“And from within the deep darkness that enveloped everything, and which seemed endless, stars began to appear. Stars of illumination, of hashgachah. Little sparks that glowed brightly, symbolizing—more than anything—the tremendous hand of Hashem, and the constant eye that He keeps on the world.”
All the muscles in Menuchi’s neck and arm were tense. She couldn’t miss a single word, a single second. She didn’t look at the stage, which was growing steadily lighter. Her eyes were fixed on the small screen before her, and the only place she allowed her eyes to stray to was the large screen over the stage. She could hardly see the actresses, but she could hear their voices clearly.
“I don’t believe what I am hearing. How can a normal woman even think of doing such a thing? She belongs to the Jews, to the Jewish nation. You have to give her back to them!” Diana/Helen.
Laughter. “I have to? Interesting; I didn’t feel that. I have no intentions of changing my decision. If you want—take her and take care of her!” The woman who had raised Lara. Millie.
Then, “Come, dear. I’m sure it will be wonderful for you with all of us, and it will be wonderful for us to have you.”Rosatrying to persuade “Lara”—who was being played by Chasya Ehrentreau’s adorable granddaughter.
“No, we’re not Jews, but she is. I imagine you’ll accept her without any problems.” Bob Molis (Sandy), in a commanding tone, to the principal of the Jewish school inLondon.
“Hmmm…can I see her documents?” A bit of suspicion in the voice of the principal, or rather, Chaya.
“I came to invite you to the wedding,” Lara said (after growing up several years in half an hour, and now being played by Miriam Fass, from the first-year seminary class) to Bob and Diana Molis, who had remained unchanged save for a few more wrinkles in their faces and some white hairs that had been added to Bob’s head. (Sandy had poured a bit too much talcum powder on her wig. That was okay; the audience would think that the financially difficult years had sped up Bob’s aging process…)
“Grandma, we got a letter! Grandma!” A new Diana Molis, another Ehrentreau grandchild, about seven years old, came onto the stage. “It’s fromBelgium, Grandma, where we live. Who do you have there besides us?”
“A lot of people,” the elder Diana Molis said, opening the envelope with trembling hands. “Oh, I can’t believe it! Her Susie (Simi had changed the names, of course) had another boy! You know,Dee? Once, long, long before you were born, I went toBelgium. There, I met a girl, a Jewish girl…”
“A Jewish girl?” the young grandchild asked, eyes wide with admiration. “Like Jenny, in my class?”
“A Jewish girl,” Diana/Helen affirmed. “I helped her go back to her nation, and I think I did a great thing.”
Leah’le, Mrs. Ehrentreau’s English-speaking granddaughter, was only playing Diana in this scene. By the next scene, Diana had grown up already and was being played by Karen.
“I don’t…money, bus,” Karen said in Hebrew; it was the only Hebrew sentence in the whole play, and for a second, Menuchi lifted her hand from the mouse, before quickly putting it back. She, Menuchi, was now being played on the stage, responding to Diana the tourist, who was at a loss.
“I speak English; would that help?” she heard Adina’s voice. Adina had decided that she would play Menuchi, who had been renamed “Ruchama.”
“Ruchama?” Karen asked. “That’s a bit of a hard name to pronounce. Could you give me your address? I want to return the bus fare to you.”
“Oh, there’s no need,” Adina said easily. “Don’t worry about it.” Unlike the real Menuchi, Ruchama in the story was a direct grandchild of the grown-up Lara, not only by marriage.
The next scene took place inBelgium, in the large living room of the Molis home. It took time to rearrange the stage, and while the props girls worked on it, Menuchi sat quietly and stared dreamily into the small lamp standing on the table beside her. Simi wasn’t there. She had gone to help place a few things on the stage.
“Nu, what do you say?” Simi asked, returning to her post. “It’s going well, baruch Hashem, isn’t it?”
“Fantastic!” Menuchi smiled, her eyes still fixed on the lamp.
“I’m just thinking how emotional Savta must be, sitting there in the audience. Seeing part of her life being played out on stage must be something really special, don’t you think?”
“I agree, speaking from personal experience.” Someone took the small lamp because it was needed on stage. Now it was dark, and Menuchi could not stare at the lamp anymore, so she sufficed with gazing at the small red letters on the bottom of the laptop screen in front of her.
“Right, you’re also starring here.” Simi chuckled. “I forgot. But Ruchama came out a bit different than the real Menuchi. She’s a bit too extroverted. I didn’t mean that the character should have such a personality; I actually wanted something softer.”
“Well, the one who is acting me has quite an effect on the character, doesn’t she?” Menuchi said, raising her eyes to Simi, grateful for the darkness. She didn’t know why, but she felt a blush beginning to rise in her cheeks. “Don’t forget that this is Adina, and I don’t think we have much in common.”
“You don’t have to have things in common,” Simi said casually. “You’re both special. The fact that you’re different doesn’t…” She didn’t finish the sentence because the stagehand waved at them just then, calling, “Menuchi, we’re continuing!” Menuchi sat up straight in her chair, feeling her muscles tighten again.
Relax. Why are you so tense? Who’s attacking you? a little voice inside her chided. This tenseness is very uncharacteristic of the calm, almost apathetic Menuchi who, even before the biggest finals, sat and ate her sandwich tranquilly, without being fazed by the hysteria around her!
Yes, but in school I was confident enough in myself to feel calm. In other areas, that is much less the case; that’s the first thing. Besides, then, Simi wasn’t right there next to me. I didn’t feel threatened.
Enough with Simi! What do you want from Simi all the time? How long are you going to let your imagination run your life? She’s not even looking at you now. You’re the one who has decided to sit here like a wound-up spring, and instead of enjoying this beautiful evening, you’re trembling like a leaf. Come on—it’s enough already!
The screen shifted again, and the stage lights focused on Karen, who was sitting in a leather recliner, closely perusing a sheet of paper.
“Miss Diana, I clean here now. Good?” Zahava, the Molis family’s “housekeeper,” asked.
Karen rose and walked over to the window, reading the paper in her hand in deep concentration. “I have to get toIsrael,” she said in a dreamy voice, placing her hand on the windowsill. “I have to speak to her face-to-face… To see the beautiful blue evening sky, and the twinkling stars of nighttime… I need to inhale the atmosphere of that country.”
Almost three hours later, Menuchi was standing outside, gazing at those twinkling nighttime stars Karen had been referring to. She had managed to slip out from a back door of the auditorium. She needed to be with herself in order to digest the joy. The excited reactions and hugs inside the auditorium were too much for her. It wasn’t like anyone had forgotten about her, but she didn’t feel comfortable there. That’s the way she was, and that’s the way she would remain.
“Menuchi! How dare you run away!” she suddenly heard a voice at her side. It was Adina; who else? “They’re looking for you inside! You’re the star of the night! The whole success is because of your idea! And how did I play you? I was good, wasn’t I?”
“Stop, Adina, please,” Menuchi said, partly demanding, partly pleading. “Go continue playing me, okay? Just tell anyone who’s looking for me that you are me. You’re great at that! All those lights just blind me. I’m happy here, in the dark.”
Adina gaped at her. “Should I bring you a chair?” she suddenly asked, and Menuchi couldn’t figure out if she was serious or not.
“No, thanks,” she answered hesitantly. “I’m not planning to stay here for long—just two or three minutes more. My mother will probably start looking for me, and so will my sisters and my mother-in-law. But I wanted a few minutes of down time, to breathe the quiet and see the stars.”
“I thought you liked the dark,” Adina said pointedly.
“Yes, I do, and it’s the darkness that gives the stars their power. The fact is that we don’t see them during the day, right?”
“Right, right,” Adina replied, not taking her eyes off Menuchi, as though fearing she would run away from her. “And now, would you be so kind as to come inside?”
Menuchi sufficed with a small smile as they opened the back door. She needed to squint for just a minute as she got used to the blinding lights inside, and seconds later, she was surrounded by an overwhelming, excited wave of chattering girls.
Almost like a star.