Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 15 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
The kiruv center in Tel Aviv was a fascinating place, no doubt, but the figure that entered just as Eliyahu finished learning with Ronny was probably the most unusual one that had ever crossed the threshold, to the best of Eliyahu’s recollection. The man’s long, graying hair was gathering into a sloppy ponytail at the nape of his neck, posing a sharp contrast to his elegant, tailored suit. He didn’t have earrings—not even one—but a hole on his right lobe indicated that something had once hung there. The man walked into the small hall with a confident step, and stopped in front of the bulletin board. Rabbi Bograd, the director, exchanged glances with Eliyahu, who had just closed his Gemara, and almost imperceptibly motioned for him to go over to the man.
Eliyahu stood up and accompanied Ronny to the door.
“Hello,” he said to the man, who was reading something from a scrap of paper hanging on the edge of the bulletin board. “Can I help you?”
The man spun around. “Sure!” he replied with a friendly grin. There was something strange about his voice, and Eliyahu tried to guess where he was originally from. “Who can I speak to here?”
“All sorts of people,” Eliyahu answered. “Me, for example.”
“Oh, excellent!” The long-haired man looked at the brightly lit room full of long tables. “Good. So, I want to be religious, but the minimum possible. How do I do that?”
The question was so surprising that Eliyahu found himself smiling. “Let’s sit down, okay?” he suggested, and without waiting for an answer, he turned to the nearest table. There were two padded wooden chairs near the wall, and Eliyahu dragged them over to the table. The man sat down after him, and something about the glitter in his eye made Eliyahu skeptical about how serious he was. The strange question actually turned out to be a good starting point.
“I’m Eliyahu Katz,” he said. “And you?” He looked at the man’s gold cufflinks peeking out of the sleeves of his suit.
“Arthur. Actually, when I was born, I was named Aharon, but my parents weren’t religious.”
Eliyahu nodded. “Maybe tell me what exactly you’re looking for here,” he said. “To be the ‘minimum religious’ is a very interesting classification. What do you mean by it?”
“Okay.” The man nodded agreeably. “Listen to my story. For my part, I could continue living in Germany for another twenty years without stepping foot here, in this country that spit me out at such a young age, but Tissa—she’s my wife—claims she refuses to live with a wanton Israel-hater like me.”
“It means that someone put some ideas into my German wife’s head and she converted to Judaism. I was able to manage with that, you understand, but then she began taking Judaism really seriously—Shabbos, kashrus, and all that. She even went to a rabbi to marry us again, like it says in the Torah, and I didn’t object to that either, even though it cost me a new ring.” He coughed. “But Tissa is getting stricter even with me! She says she refuses to be married to someone like me.”
Eliyahu rocked in his chair from side to side. “So, Arthur, what is it you would like to know?”
“Whatever I need to do to make Tissa happy, that’s all.”
The last time Shevi’s mother had come to visit, she had brought a gift she had made—two orange hair pins for her granddaughter, made of an unidentifiable material. The next day, when Shevi had brought Miri to her regular babysitter—her mother-in-law—the latter had been horrified at the heavy weights on the child’s head and had hurriedly removed the clips, adding some choice words of rebuke. Shevi had never brought Miri back with the pins again. But this evening, she took her baby out to the park with Miri’s soft hair once more pulled to the sides with the two orange pins. The baby looked up and smiled sweetly as Shevi focused the camera on her.
“Hi, Shevi. What’s this? Miri isn’t sleeping yet?”
Shevi smiled at Chasida, motioning for her to wait a minute, and the flash illuminated the evening for the sixth time. “That’s it,” she said. “I think my teacher at the course will like these pictures. I have to give in a portfolio on some of the subjects we’ve covered, and I was having the most trouble with nighttime pictures. Now I’ve done it, baruch Hashem.” She closed the lens and put the camera back into its leather case.
“How did you keep the baby up until now?”
“She fell asleep in the afternoon. I hadn’t planned it, but when I saw that she had no intentions of going to sleep this evening, I decided to come out here and photograph her.”
“Why didn’t you do it in our yard?” They began walking toward the house.
“It’s too dark there now,” Shevi replied. “I wanted a bit of light.”
“There’s a strong light on the left side,” Chasida pointed out. “But I guess the shadow of the trees would get in your way.”
Shevi nodded, remembering the Dresnicks’ window bars partially illuminated, and the figure hanging from them. Chasida hadn’t forgotten either; in fact, she began to talk about it. “Were you also there when my nephew got stuck?”
Shevi bit her lip. “No. My husband was.”
“You know, I never spoke to Zevi about what happened, because I imagine he’d rather we don’t find out about the story, but you told me that his shoe fell into the house, right? And that his sock had gotten snagged and pulled off, too? And that your husband reached in to get his shoe back for him?”
“And your husband didn’t tell you anything after that?”
Shevi didn’t know what to reply. “What do you mean, he didn’t tell me anything? Of course we talked about the whole thing afterward!”
“Yes, but nothing more than what you told me, right?”
“Right,” Shevi replied, unsure what Chasida was getting at.
“Good, I see your husband knows what to do with other people’s secrets. Perhaps it was the right shoe and sock that fell off, and then your husband wouldn’t have had anything fascinating to report, but because Zevi didn’t even tell us that he slept in the house that night, I imagine it was the left ones.” She looked at Shevi pensively, and Shevi had the distinct feeling that the whole babble had been just to organize Chasida’s thoughts in her mind, not to clarify them to Shevi. When Chasida wanted to clarify something to someone else, she knew how to do it—and it wasn’t with esoteric, ambiguous comments, like she was spouting now.
Chasida opened the gate to the yard. Suddenly, the weight of all the years was visible on her face. “You didn’t understand anything I just said, Shevi, I know. Zevi just wanted to hide something, and I think that something went wrong for him that evening. But if it was only your husband who was there, then I can tell Zevi that he could relax. You aren’t people who like to roll others’ lives around on your kitchen table.”
Shevi still didn’t understand what Chasida was talking about. Her nephew was trying to hide something? What, exactly? A sack of stolen goods?
“Yes, it’s a horrible thing that people talk too much, you know,” Chasida said with a chuckle, but it wasn’t her normal, warm laugh. “And with a role model like me, Zevi must really be horrified at the idea of being stuck unmarried until he’s old and gray.”
Twenty ideas of what she could answer to this flew around in Shevi’s mind, but none of them gelled into something coherent and appropriate. Only after a few long seconds of silence did Shevi decide that whatever she would say would be better than this foolish silence. “You’re so smooth, so calm…” Nice. That would surely win her first place in the silly sentence contest.
“Thank you.” Chasida did not seem aware of her neighbor’s discomfort. “Calm? Nu, well, it’s good that at least that’s the way it looks. Maybe because I’ve already given up.”
Miri gurgled something from in the carriage. Perhaps she had a better idea than her mother of what to say. Shevi pretended she was looking for the pacifier in the sand beside her. It made no difference that the pacifier was on the sofa at home; it made no difference that Miri wasn’t crying just then; it made no difference that Shevi was usually against stuffing children with pacifiers. Nothing made a difference.
In the end, Shevi straightened up and looked at Chasida. Maybe it wasn’t so accepted or nice to say it, but she would. Anything was better than being quiet and letting Chasida’s last words be the final ones of this conversation. “Someone asked me about you last week,” she said quickly, and then blushed furiously. “Someone with an English or American accent. I gave you lots of compliments.”
Only after Shevi had gone upstairs, hauling the heavy carriage in her arms, with Chasida’s none-too-cheerful words of thanks resonating in her ears, did she remember that her husband had not been the only one in the yard when Chasida’s nephew had gotten stuck. Gavriel’s rav, Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, had also been there. It was okay, though; the Dresnick family surely wouldn’t care that some stranger had been there, too. They could still be calm.
It would be interesting to know more about this huge secret that they harbored so carefully.
Shevi’s arms and legs were trembling, as they always did after a fast. She drank a cup of water, thinking about how Gavriel, who would soon be back from Maariv, would want to break his fast on something light. But she had no energy to prepare anything. Last year, when they had still lived in Haifa, not far from her parents, they had been surprised when a pizza was delivered to their house after the fast. Her mother, knowing that Shevi was one of those who needed two days to recover after a fast, had thought about her.
Gavriel had hardly been thrilled. “Motza’ei Tishah B’Av is not a time for celebrations,” he said when he saw the fragrant, hot pizza pie. “The fire was still burning now, Shevi, and the Beis Hamikdash is still far off.” But when she called to thank her mother for the gesture, he also took the phone. Liking what you get is one thing, but hakaroas hatov is another, and he would not confuse the two.
Now Gavriel would be happy, Shevi mused as she rose weakly to the refrigerator to find some vegetables for a salad. No one was thinking of sending them pizza, and if his mother would do so, she certainly wouldn’t bother to check if it was a hechsher that was acceptable to them.
But there was nothing to worry about. She wouldn’t send anything.
The screaming that grew louder as it drew nearer to the house reminded Shevi of Miri. She stood up quickly, but the room began to spin, so she sat down again, and then rose slowly and stumbled toward the door.
Chasida stood there, hugging the shrieking baby. “Do you have another container of formula?” she asked. “There wasn’t much left in the one you gave me.”
Shevi put her hands out to her baby, but Chasida had other plans. “No, I’m not giving her back yet. I just came to ask for the formula and I took her with me because my mother couldn’t handle the crying.” Miri had begun teething—and the timing had coincided with Tishah B’Av. She had shrieked the whole morning, and at one o’clock Chasida had come upstairs after her mother had sent her to inquire what had happened to the baby. She met two pairs of red eyes.
“Now she’s coming to me!” Chasida said to Shevi, who gaped at her with eyes as wide as the baby’s. “And you have no veto power over that decision. I fast very easily. Give me three diapers and her food.” Shevi had no strength to argue. She gave over the screaming baby and scurried back into the house to bring the other paraphernalia.
“Say bye-bye to Mommy, Miri!” Chasida said as she turned to go. “We’ll see you this evening!”
Now it was evening, but Chasida was still holding Miri. Without another word, Shevi turned around and went into the kitchen. She opened a cabinet and took out a new container of formula.
Ten minutes after the quiet was restored to the Dresnick household, there was another knock at the door. All Shevi had managed to do in the interim was take out the vegetables and the eggs, but she hadn’t started converting them into supper. She felt bad that Gavriel had arrived and he still had nothing to eat. But it wasn’t Gavriel; it was Chasida again, without Miri. She was holding a tray with a large covered bowl, and another smaller plate.
“She’s sleeping now,” Chasida said, her eyes sparkling. “And here you have some salad and omelets that my mother made. She heard from me how pale you looked, and hurried me upstairs with this.”
Shevi didn’t know what to say. The Dresnicks were such wonderful neighbors. In her heart, she wished them all the blessings she could think of. But…
Wasn’t she taking too much advantage of them? Perhaps she should now be refusing politely and telling Chasida that she was preparing her own food. What did every other young woman, who had been born and bred in Bnei Brak, and who knew what was expected of her, do?
But the vegetables and eggs in her kitchen were cold, and Chasida’s tray emanated an enticing aroma. So Shevi took the tray with a wan smile, thanked Chasida with all her heart, and asked her to convey her gratitude to her mother.
Zevi switched off the light in the room and turned once again to bid it farewell. Next time he’d be back there, he’d be in the next shiur. He heard the last of the footfalls in the hallway, and then they, too, faded, along with the noise of the other bachurim. This was it; bein hazmanim had begun and everyone was going home. But he wasn’t going now, or even tomorrow. A lot of his things were at his grandparents’ house, and Savta had said that she needed at least another day to get his laundry finished properly.
He walked slowly down the stairs, returning waves from other boys. In fifteen minutes, he would be at Saba and Savta’s house, and he could leave behind Yehuda Levy and all the others who were so sure they were looking out for his best interests.
Someone was standing in the courtyard, staring at the entrance with great concentration. He smiled as he saw Zevi approach. Yehuda.
“Good to see you! I’m waiting a few minutes already,” he said, giving Zevi a friendly pat on the back. “So what did we decide?”
“Decide?” Zevi asked. Yehuda’s hand was light, which was why Zevi could shrug it off easily.
“Your father’s coming back the day after tomorrow. Fine, I understand you want to be home. What about next week?”
“Won’t the bus leave without you?” Zevi asked.
Yehuda smiled. “My friend, you’ve forgotten that I live a fifteen-minute walk from here. Nu, Zevi’le, without the shtick. When are you coming on a trip with me?”
Zevi smiled, and then was upset at himself. “I don’t know.” He sighed. “We’ll speak on the phone, okay?”
“On the phone? When?”
“Zevi’le, there are five more days until next week. In that time we could have traveled up north and back twice! I’ll call you at the end of this week, okay?”
Zevi tightened his fingers around the plastic handle of his tote bag. He wanted to go with Yehuda, but at the same time, he really didn’t want to. Two days together with his roommate could be great fun, but they could also be very irritating. Yehuda stood beside him, waiting for a response.
“Okay. Or I’ll call you,” Zevi finally answered. Did he have a choice?
Yehuda smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. “Great, we’ll be in touch. Have a safe trip to Yerucham!”
The sun setting behind the buildings found Ilana Auerbach leaning on the fence, holding roly-poly Miri. Her son, approaching from the path, seemed preoccupied. “Hello, Ima,” he said, as he met up with her. “Did something happen to Shevi?”
“How did you know?” she asked him as she placed her granddaughter into the carriage. “She didn’t go to the course today. She wasn’t feeling well.”
“Her ear?” Gavriel pushed the carriage into the building and toward the elevator. “She mentioned it in the morning.”
“The ear,” Ilana confirmed. “She brought Miri and left, but a few minutes later, she was back to say she just couldn’t go. I made the bed in your room for her. Gavriel, you have to go to a good ear, nose, and throat doctor and finish with this once and for all. It’s the second infection in two months!”
“Could be. I mean, could be we have to go.” The elevator door slid open. “But we’ve been given to understand that it’s not something that finishes once and for all. Her ear is sensitive, and I’m not sure there’s something that can be done for it.”
“There’s no such thing as nothing can be done!” his mother snapped. “I don’t know who her doctor is, but he’s just an amateur if that’s his conclusion. Nothing to do for recurring ear infections? Who’s ever heard of such a thing?”
Gavriel didn’t reply. The elevator had reached the second floor, and they stepped out toward the apartment. “We should be quiet,” his mother said. “It’s important for Shevi to sleep now. That’s why I went down with Miri. She was squealing, and I didn’t want there to be any noise.”
But Shevi was up already. She greeted them in the kitchen, pale.
“Some Tylenol, Shevi?” Ilana suggested.
“No, thanks. Maybe some tea.”
“Sure,” her mother-in-law said, already taking out a mug from the cabinet. “Did Devorah Blum call you?”
“Yes, she did,” Shevi answered weakly.
“She’s a wonderful lady, really special. You were nice to her, Shevi, weren’t you?”
“Of course,” Shevi whispered, smiling tiredly at Miri, who was squirming in the carriage harness.
“Shevi’s always nice to everyone, Ima,” Gavriel remarked.
“I know, I know.” Ilana pulled the tea bag out of the mug. “What’s wrong? Can’t I ask? Here, Shevi, take this. Maybe you should ask your neighbor if there’s something natural that can help the ears.”
Shevi raised her head from the steaming glass. “Chasida’s drops actually helped last time,” she said, partially to herself. “But they’re finished.”
“So buy new ones!” her ever-practical mother-in-law replied as she plucked Miri out of the carriage. “Gabi, can I give her a banana? I bought them downstairs, at the fruit store. It’s kosher there, right?”
“Yes,” Gavriel replied. He’d already told his mother ten times that her fruit-and-vegetable man was kosher. Why did she like asking him every time again? He sighed.
His mother fixed him with a look. “You’re looking very miserable,” she said sharply. “Is it because of your wife’s ear infection?”
He sufficed with a smile.
When they got out of the car in front of their house, Gavriel’s mother stuck her head out of the window again. “Go down to the neighbors, even if it’s not during store hours. Tell them about Shevi’s infection and that you need something for her. We’ll see if they’re as nice as the stories you tell me about them.”
“I don’t really want to go down to Chasida, even if you pay me,” Shevi said at home. The pain had receded somewhat after she’d eventually given in and taken the painkiller. “We’re friends again, but not enough for me to ask her for more favors. They helped me so much on Tishah B’Av.”
“I have no intentions of paying you,” her husband replied, his face serious. “It’s a waste of money.”
“You think that I do have to go?”
“I think that you have to do what’s comfortable for you. When you took the drops last time, you said you weren’t sure that that was what helped you.”
“But then later, I thought about how the infection had passed so quickly, much quicker than usual, and maybe it was because of her medicine.”
“And maybe that’s the reason it came back so fast?”
She wrinkled her forehead. A tree opposite the window swayed slowly. “I don’t think so,” she said finally. “What she gave me was natural, wasn’t it?”
“Oleander is also natural, and that’s poison!” Gavriel laughed.
“I can ask Chasida,” Shevi said. The indirect implication against her neighbor made her bristle. “I’m sure she didn’t give me anything bad!”
“If you can ask, no problem.” Gavriel peeled one of the bananas that his mother had sent along. “I just thought that you don’t want to go down even if I pay you.”
“Now I do.” Shevi’s lips were pursed as she put on the shoes she had just kicked off. She didn’t know what had suddenly come over her that she found herself standing in front of the door she had avoided for so many days. Yes, she’d spoken to Chasida downstairs, at the store. Each one had explained herself, and since then, everything between them had gone back to the way it was. Well, not exactly.
First impressions are not always right, Eliyahu concluded to himself. There are some people who don’t look serious at all, and then prove later to be diligent and persistent in achieving the goals they set for themselves. Like Arthur, for example, the ophthalmologist from Germany.
Two days after appearing for the first time at the kiruv center, he showed up again. “Tissa says that it’s not enough,” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. Eliyahu was still a good yard away from him. “Really! I thought I could trust you religious folks!”
“Hello, Arthur.” Eliyahu smiled.
“Hello, Rabbi Eliyahu. So, what do we do now?”
“We start learning the laws seriously,” Eliyahu replied, “and we begin to understand what’s behind them.”
Arthur pulled up a chair and sat down. “I’m not sure that’s what Tissa means, so it’s a shame to waste your time and mine.”
Eliyahu also sat down. “First of all, let me understand, Arthur. How long are you here for?”
“A month and a half. I had a series of lectures at Bar Ilan, and this week, I’m starting another series, down south. Then we’ll go back to Germany.”
“I think that if you really want to start taking life seriously, you’ll have to find someone to guide you.”
“I don’t want to take life seriously,” he protested, and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s what Tissa wants. Maybe you can talk to her, Rabbi?”
“Me? Why me? You told me she has a mentor, a Rebbetzin Düsseldorf who she’s close to, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and they talk enough, believe me. Now I want you to try and take this bug out of her head.”
Eliyahu normally considered himself to be intelligent, but now he was really stumped. “What am I supposed to take out?” he pressed.
“You know, Rabbi Eliyahu, how much you make in plastic? A fortune, an absolute fortune. And Tissa’s very much in demand. She doesn’t like to talk about it a lot, certainly not lately, but I know that people wait months for her to do surgery on them.”
“Oh, so she’s also a doctor…” Eliyahu murmured. “Also an eye doctor?”
“No, Rabbi, she leaves that to me. I told you, she’s a plastic surgeon.”
“And now she wants to leave it all.”