Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Elchanan arrived home at one-thirty punctually, as usual. Sophie had only just recently left. He was greeted by a delicious aroma, one screaming baby, and one tired, confused wife.
“I don’t know what she wants from me,” Yaffa said. She put the bread down on the table and brushed invisible crumbs off her housecoat. “Do you think it’s so terrible to leave school when you’re doing so poorly there anyway?”
“It’s a very good, smart move,” her teacher had told her at the time, when she had come to school the day after the vort, walking straight into a classroom full of excited, albeit slightly uncomfortable, girls. “I wouldn’t be telling this to a lot of girls, but you, Yaffa, really are very mature.”
It was nice to get the compliment, which had helped drown out the wave of whispers that had exploded the minute her engagement had become public knowledge. She was so young, only at the end of eleventh grade, and not a soul had known it was going to happen.
“I don’t ask friends for information,” Elchanan’s mother had said with her strong French accent. “What do girls know at this age? Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Her friends, almost all of them, really wouldn’t have been able to give information about Yaffa. They simply knew nothing about her. During lessons and oral tests, Yaffa’s voice went silent. During recess, the girls also hardly heard her. Was it because she was refined?
She seemed to take written tests, but no one had ever seen her grades, not even the one or two girls who were considered her real friends. Was it because she was a poor student?
The girls knew that she had lots of nieces and nephews in Elad and Yerushalayim, that she was the youngest at home, and that she helped out her married sisters a lot. Did that mean that she had a good heart?
One minute—there was also the time she had volunteered—or her services had been volunteered—for that annoying job of collecting money for a teacher’s gift, but she’d delegated the reminders and the nudging and the actual purchase of the gift to someone else. So did that mean that she was or wasn’t responsible?
What was she?
But Elchanan’s mother had managed to learn whatever she had wanted to know about Yaffa without asking a single friend. She had her own ways of finding out about the young girl who had been suggested to her almost-twenty-one-year-old son.
Her classmates had turned out in full force to the vort, and Elchanan’s mother had smiled graciously at all those who came over to tell her that, “You got such a wonderful kallah; we all really love her!” The girls had gazed wide-eyed at Yaffa’s gold watch and glittering ring, and then had gone to eat some cake and talk about the strict substitute they’d had that morning; the English club that had opened in school; and the unforgettable madrichah from last year who had promised to prepare a special Shabbos for them in honor of the end of the year, even though they were almost in twelfth grade.
When Yaffa had moved to Yerushalayim, the ties with her classmates had naturally weakened, compounded by the fact that the few friends that she had were very busy with their schooling. But there were the occasional phone calls, and as the two years passed, she began to receive invitations to weddings, and enjoyed traveling to attend, when she could, and meeting up with old friends. Three girls had called to invite her to their graduation, which was nice of them, but she hadn’t gone. Her real graduation had taken place two and a half years earlier.
She had managed to maintain ties with one teacher, her eleventh-grade teacher, Morah Elka Stern. They weren’t especially close, but they talked from time to time on the phone. The idea of keeping up had been suggested when Yaffa had come to school to say good-bye to everyone before her wedding.
“What will I do during Yahadus lessons without your attentive eyes, Yaffa?” the teacher had asked. “I’m sure I’ll miss you very much.”
“You know,” Yaffa had said, “in all honesty, I’ll miss the lessons as well.” She thought about the lessons she’d really enjoyed, despite the fact that she never wrote down a word, instead just sitting and gazing at the teacher’s gentle hands as they moved to the rhythm of the words Morah Stern spoke.
“We can continue,” Morah Stern had replied. “When I have a really good lesson prepared, I’ll be happy to call you and tell it to you over the phone. Call me, too, Yaffa, okay?”
Yaffa had promised to try, not knowing if she’d have the courage to actually do it. But surprisingly, she had picked up the phone and called Morah Stern, sometimes.
Chaya Shuck’s husband noticed that she wasn’t sleeping calmly. She turned over, murmured a few incoherent words over and over again, and then turned to the other side. He hesitated whether to wake her or not, wondering if she’d fall into a more solid sleep if she woke up and then tried to fall asleep again. Maybe she should take some more Tylenol?
“Chaya?” he asked in a low voice. “Are you up?”
“Yeah,” she said and sat up in her bed. “What time is it, Binyamin?”
“Eleven at night. Do you think your fever came back again?”
“No,” she said, her feet groping for her slippers. “It’s Yaffa who’s torturing me.”
“Yaffa—torturing you?” That sounded strange. There were many ways to define the relationship between Chaya and her younger sister: Yaffa sometimes annoyed Chaya, she frustrated her, bothered her from time to time—but torture?
“Not her. The thoughts about her.”
“Oh…” That made more sense. “Did something happen?”
“Yes. We talked today, and she said that they haven’t bought detergent yet. You know when she ran out of detergent? When I helped her sort the last load, four days ago!” She rubbed her forehead. “And I have no idea what will be with Shabbos. I feel so sick. Maybe my mother can host them, but I’m not sure she’s up to it. She’s had some pretty strong bouts of weakness lately.”
He went out to prepare a cup of tea for her, knowing there was no point in trying to answer. He was very supportive of helping those who needed help, but he didn’t think his sister-in-law was incapable of washing her laundry by herself. Making Shabbos was on a larger scale, but would it be so terrible to expect a couple married for two-and-a-half years to prepare three Shabbos meals for themselves? Not that he minded hosting his wife’s sister and her family. Yaffa’s husband, Elchanan, was very friendly, and Binyamin enjoyed having him over. Chaya, though, was undertaking too much by insisting on doing everything for the couple like this.
But he’d long learned that there was no point in saying anything to Chaya. She claimed that it was much easier to do Yaffa’s laundry, or at least sort the clothes for her, than to see Elchanan wearing a shirt on Shabbos that had clearly been washed with black socks. “She was the youngest and very spoiled,” Chaya always said. “And it’s taking her a long time to get into real life.”
The water boiled in the kettle, and Binyamin poured a bit of the ready tea essence from the small metal jug into a mug. Nu, how does one help little people grow up? According to Chaya, it was by doing the laundry, cooking, and doing everything else possible for those little people, instead of having them do those things by themselves.
“She doesn’t work either,” Chaya said to her husband when he returned to the room with the tea. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, her chin leaning on her elbow. Her eyes were shiny, and he didn’t know if it was because of her rising fever or because of Yaffa. “She has no job, and that’s terrible.”
“Terrible? You’re using very harsh terms today,” Binyamin objected. “What will be if your sister continues to be a housewife and doesn’t get a job? Elchanan works in the afternoon, so they have a source of income that many at their stage of life don’t have.”
“It’s not the money.” Chaya wrapped her hands around the steaming mug of tea, gazing at the tendrils of steam that curled up from it. “That girl has to get out, not be closed up all day at home with herself and her four walls. It’s not normal, Binyamin.”
“What’s not normal?”
“She could live for days as though there was no telephone in the world. If I wouldn’t call, she wouldn’t call me, or anyone else for that matter. When she was in school, she was social, but today, she could wander around her house for hours, just singing songs to the baby, until her husband comes home.”
“What’s so bad about that?”
Chaya looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “You’re not serious now, Binyamin, are you?”
“Right,” Binyamin had to admit. “Partially right. I understand that it’s better and healthier to form ties with other people and share with them, but on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to me that—”
She cut him off. “The truth is that a discussion about work for Yaffa is completely moot,” she said morosely. “And it makes no difference what you or I think about it. My sister has no skills, so I may as well drink my tea now and have you go back to whatever you were doing. She can’t do anything anyway.”
“Maybe she can learn something.”
“Yes, but what?” Chaya put the mug down on the little night table. “She’s not made out to be a kindergarten teacher, or a regular teacher, or an interior designer, or a graphic artist, or even a seamstress or a wig stylist—because she has two left hands, or so she claims, and I believe she’s right.”
“What about a secretary?”
“I once showed her a ‘help wanted’ ad for such a position, but we both figured that in our times, being a secretary requires the knowledge of numerous computer programs, which she doesn’t have.” She looked closely at her fingers. “I thought of maybe a playgroup or day care, but it’s hard enough for her to take care of Bentzy. How could she start taking care of another five or six screaming babies, too?”
Dina Emanuel, Shuli’s mother, asked the Romanian for the fifth time to take the empty boxes out of the produce department. The large fan worked tirelessly in an attempt to banish the flies from the stacks of fruits and vegetables. The air conditioner had malfunctioned that morning, and the electrician hadn’t come yet, angering the customers, the two cashiers who were there, and Shuli’s mother, who had to serve as a cashier herself in place of the third who hadn’t shown up.
“It’s hot,” she said, taking a piece of paper from near the cash register and fanning herself with it. “Yes, who’s next?”
“Me,” someone said, placing a few large bags on the counter.
Dina raised her eyes for a moment; something about the woman was familiar. No, she could not keep track of all the women who came to this branch, baruch Hashem, but something about this face told her that they had met before, more than once. Perhaps it wasn’t even here in the store?
“Shuli’s mother?” the woman asked quietly. “Is that right?”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Emanuel replied. “You look familiar, but I don’t remember where I know you from.”
“I’m Shuli’s mechaneches, Gita Pollack.”
“Oh, yes! Now I remember.” Dina placed the bag of onions on the scale. “Do you live in this area?”
“No, but I was visiting my grandmother who lives not far from here, and I decided to do some shopping while I was out.”
“Very nice.” The conveyer belt moved along, carrying eight yogurts and two containers of milk. “So, how’s Shuli?”
“She’s such a sweet girl,” the teacher replied.
“Yes, I know. And besides that?”
The teacher smiled but didn’t respond. There were other customers behind her, waiting their turns.
“Avner!” Dina called. “Avner!!!”
A young man wiping his forehead with his t-shirt sleeve appeared.
“Avner, I’m going to finish checking out this woman, and I want you to come take me over for a few minutes. You’ve done it a few times, right?”
Avner didn’t look overly excited to serve as a cashier, but Shuli’s mother didn’t really care.
“Okay, I’m finished!” she called as she put the bills Morah Pollack gave her into the cash register and counted out the change. “Avner? Avner, are you coming? People are waiting!” She stood up from her seat and turned to Morah Pollack. “Come, let’s go talk outside. It’s been two months since PTA, hasn’t it? The year is almost over. It’s a shame they don’t have another parent-teacher conference.”
The teacher gathered her bags. No, she never liked these spontaneous meetings with parents in the middle of the day. She felt much more confident sitting at her desk with her notebook of comments about students in front of her. This way it was always clear which teacher had said what and exactly what the student’s grades were.
“So, how’s my daughter?” Dina Emanuel leaned against the wall of the supermarket, keeping an eye on Avner out of the corner of her vision.
“She’s very sweet and does very well in school. The teachers are very pleased with her work, and it’s apparent that she invests effort into it, which is every important. The seventh-grade report card is crucial for high school applications.” Gita took a deep breath.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” Mrs. Emanuel said. “And behavior? Do you find her difficult at all?”
“No, chalilah, not at all,” the teacher replied. “She’s a bit high-strung, sometimes a bit more than usual, but other than that, she’s really wonderful and pays attention beautifully in class.”
“Well, you told me all these things at PTA. At both meetings, I believe,” Mrs. Emanuel said disappointedly.
“That’s right.” Morah Pollack nodded her head. She was not the one who had asked for this third meeting today.
“Okay, then, thank you for the entire year. I’ll send Shulamis regards from you; I’m sure she’ll be very happy.” Mrs. Emanuel raised her hand in farewell and went back into the main office of the store. If Avner was managing so nicely there at the cash register, there was no reason she had to be a cashier. She had enough work with the suppliers’ receipts, which Shmuel, bless him, was very particular about.
Outside the store, Gita bent over to her heavy bags resting on the sidewalk, and began to walk. Just yesterday, Shuli had approached her at recess and asked if she had any chances of getting the top grade in derech eretz. “Ummm…” Gita had replied. “I’m actually deliberating about it. What do you say, Shuli? Maybe you can help me. Is your derech eretz worthy of an excellent?”
“Of course not,” Shuli had replied.
“So why are you asking?”
“Because maybe to the teachers, it looks like it’s excellent,” the girl had answered solemnly. “I was hoping so.”
Gita sighed. “No, Shuli. I think every teacher who enters our classroom likes you very much, but I don’t think there’s a single one who thinks that you have nothing to improve in your behavior.”
Shuli hadn’t asked for more details. She’d just smiled politely, said, “Thank you, Morah,” and had run out of the classroom.
Gita had collected her things and wondered about her thirteen-year-old student. Sometimes Shuli acted like she was thirty, and sometimes, her behavior was more fitting for a three-year-old. As she walked toward the teachers’ room, Gita mused that, after fourteen years of being a seventh-grade mechaneches, she had become quite familiar with this complex age. Nevertheless, she didn’t remember ever having a student like Shuli Emanuel before.
To be continued…