Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 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.
The moon had already sunk behind the buildings, and faint rays of light began to glow on the horizon. Bentzy had been screaming for more than an hour, and Yaffa really had nothing left to do but cry with him. She sat on a kitchen chair so that Elchanan wouldn’t wake up, and hugged Bentzy. The windows were closed; the neighbors weren’t to blame for the fact that her baby had decided to give a concert tonight. He’d drank his bottle, had been changed from head to toe because she thought perhaps he was hot, and then had been changed again ten minutes later because she worried that maybe he was cold. They’d paced up and down the kitchen floor, the porch—where there was almost no room to move, the short hallway, and even the bathroom. She’d almost decided to give him a bath, but trembled in fear at the thought of doing it without Chaya or Elchanan. In the end, both she and the baby fell asleep on the chair in the kitchen.
“Yaffa?” Elchanan was standing in the doorway, squinting his eyes. “He’s going to fall in a second. You should put him into bed.”
“What?” She opened her eyes in alarm when she saw the pale light coming through the window, and immediately realized that Bentzy was sleeping on her lap. “Oy!” she cried, grabbing him tightly. “Oh my goodness!”
“Did he cry a lot last night?” Elchanan asked, entering the kitchen. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I know you have to get up early,” Yaffa replied weakly and stood up shakily from the chair. Bentzy continued sleeping on her shoulder, enjoying that deep, sweet sleep that only happens in the morning.
Elchanan looked at her for a long minute, as if deliberating whether to say something, and then walked out of the kitchen and followed her into the bedroom. “Okay, I’m going to daven. Try to get some sleep, okay?”
“I’ll try.” Yaffa was very pale. “Tell Bentzy he should also try.”
She lay the baby in his bed, and he continued to sleep; she covered him, and he continued to sleep; she pulled down the shutters, and he slept on; but as soon as she put her head on her pillow—he decided he was finished sleeping.
“This is unbelievable!” Elchanan exclaimed, coming back into the room when he heard the cries. “That is very naughty, Bentzy! What do you care if Ima sleeps a bit?”
“He doesn’t care.” Yaffa smiled as her eyes drooped sleepily. “I think he’s hungry now.”
“I’m making him a bottle, and you’re going to sleep now.” Elchanan put his tallis bag down on the dresser.
“I’ll prepare the bottle,” Yaffa said tiredly. “You go daven now. If you go to a later minyan, you won’t get to your shiur on time, and that’s not good.”
Again, Elchanan looked at her with that same expression as before, but he didn’t say a word. He picked up the tallis bag again, wished her hatzlachah with the baby, and left.
“What’s with you, Bentzy?” Yaffa asked, placing the screaming baby in the carriage and pushing it toward the kitchen. “Don’t you think you overdid it last night?”
She prepared Bentzy’s bottle, picked him up again, and began to feed him. The three-month-old quietly guzzled his bottle, gazing at his mother.
“Soon you’re going back into the carriage, Ima is going to daven, and then we’ll prepare Abba’s sandwich for kollel,” Yaffa said. “This way it will be ready when he gets back from the shiur. Then we’ll go to sleep together and we’re not getting up before ten o’clock, okay?”
But she was just beginning Yishtabach when the key turned in the lock and the door opened. Elchanan entered the tiny, messy dining room.
“Mmm….” Yaffa said, feeling both alarmed and guilty as she looked at her watch. He had gone to davening and his shiur; why was he back already? Had she not calculated the time correctly?
“No, I’m early today,” Elchanan said when he saw her eyes. He put his tallis bag down on the table, took off his jacket, which had grown two sizes too big since he’d gotten married, and went into the kitchen.
Yaffa heard the dishes clattering around, and her confusion grew. She couldn’t remember the last time her husband hadn’t gone to Rabbi Farbstein’s shiur. Actually, she did remember one time, when he had been sick and had returned early. Then, too, he had come home when she was in the middle of davening, but he had gone straight to bed, not into the kitchen.
She finished davening and went into the kitchen, where she found Elchanan at the counter, smearing two thick slices of bread with butter and sprinkling some scallions over them.
“Oh, hi, Yaffa,” he said, turning to the sink to wash his hands and noticing her just then. “Did you finish davening? Should I make you a sandwich also?”
“Are you not feeling well?” she asked in response, staring at the plate on the table. “Do you want to eat at home today?”
“I’m feeling fine, baruch Hashem,” he replied and then washed.
Slowly, Yaffa walked over to the table and sat down, glancing at the kettle that was boiling. Elchanan must have switched it on. “I’ll make you some coffee,” she said, but remained sitting.
“Thanks,” he said after swallowing the first bite. “I’m actually in a bit of a hurry.”
“To get to the shiur?” She looked at her watch again in surprise. Rabbi Farbstein had begun at least ten minutes ago.
Elchanan didn’t reply. Of course not; her husband had excellent manners and wouldn’t speak with food in his mouth. Only she, forgetful as she was, always needed to be reminded about that.
“No,” he said after a few long seconds—longer than he needed to finish a normal bite of bread. “To get to Dvir. He’s supposed to get a delivery of fifteen Friedman Shulchan Aruch sets, and he asked me to be there early.”
“Dvir?” she echoed. “From the store?”
“But you only work there in the afternoon!”
“I did only work there in the afternoon,” he replied, and rose to make himself a coffee. “But now it’s a busy season, and he offered me a full day’s work for the next few weeks. He really needs the manpower, and I’m happy to do it…” Some coffee granules scattered on the counter. “I don’t mind a bit more income. It’s hard like this, Yaffa.”
It certainly was hard like this, and if the morning wasn’t going badly enough, Sophie called from the well-baby clinic and asked Yaffa to bring Bentzy in to be weighed again. “I didn’t fill in his weight last week,” she said pleasantly. Incidentally, it was true. Mrs. Levinsky herself had interested her at the time much more than the baby’s weight, and she had simply forgotten to record it in his chart. “I don’t like to leave open files on my computer. So will you come?”
Yaffa cleared her throat and said that she would. She had absolutely no interest in going anywhere this morning, but she also didn’t want to get into trouble with the sharp-eyed nurse again. Why did she always get into trouble with nurses? When she had received a vaccination in third grade, there had been such a nice nurse in the clinic, but Yaffa had to have a different, cantankerous one who had poked her twice because the nurse hadn’t done it right the first time. Even now, years later, the memory made Yaffa shudder.
And then there were the nurses in the hospital, when her mother had been hospitalized after her first heart attack. Perhaps they had been pleasant—she’d had no idea—but for her, a six-year-old girl, everything was so full of tubes and scary people in white uniforms that all she wanted to do was get home as soon as possible.
Yaffa slowly dressed Bentzy and walked out into the sun. “At least there’s no shot today,” she told him, raising her eyes to the blue sky. Maybe the sun would dry the remnants of her tears, even though it wouldn’t help her swollen eyes. So Sophie would see she’d cried that morning. Who cared? The nurse had seen worse things during that miserable home visit.
Elchanan had tried to explain himself, but he was in a hurry. He had talked a bit, and she was quiet, and then Dvir had called to see why he was running late on the first morning of their new arrangement. Elchanan had headed out to the store, leaving her at home with wet eyes. “It’s just for a few months, really,” he said, sounding tense, as he stood by the front door. “It’s only a trial period, Yaffa. Don’t take it so hard.”
But she knew that with such things, at least with Elchanan, there was no “only a trial.” She had a wonderful, talented husband, but even before they’d gotten engaged she’d known he wouldn’t sit and learn all day. That much had been clear. At first she hadn’t wanted to even consider the shidduch, but Binyamin and Chaya, who had come over the evening that Abba had told her about Elchanan, refused to hear a word of rejection from her.
“You can’t be so spoiled! You have to try, at least,” Chaya had declared firmly. “You should be jumping at this great suggestion and grabbing it with two hands and two feet—you hear me, Yaffa?”
Yes, Yaffa had heard her.
Elchanan had turned out to be a truly good boy, at least compared to all the suggestions that had preceded him. Right after their wedding, he began working for three hours each afternoon in the office of the yeshivah where he learned. Soon enough, those work hours expanded to the entire afternoon, but he still had a whole morning for learning, which he was very pleased about, and an evening shiur at eight.
Then he had gotten a job at Dvir’s sefarim store and had left the yeshivah office—and the evening shiur. Dvir’s store closed late, much later than eight o’clock. Then, too, Elchanan had told her disappointed eyes, “It’s only for a trial.” But the trial had been so successful, at least for Elchanan, that she was afraid that this new trial would be just as successful.
A garbage truck honked and two overall-clad workers jumped off. Yaffa moved back a bit. If she were an accountant or a graphic artist or even a kindergarten teacher—would her salary suffice for Elchanan? It probably would. But she had no job and was not bringing in any income. Did that mean that his working full time was, in essence, her fault?
She stopped on the street corner, gazing at the sidewalk. How could she complain about her husband? He wasn’t to blame. It was her. Eyes burning, she waited for the garbage truck to pull away and clear the crosswalk for her.
Sophie was waiting for her at the clinic. “Is everything okay, Yaffa?” she asked, looking closely at the young mother. The house she had seen had been very messy, almost bordering on neglect, but that still wasn’t an incriminating sign. It could happen here and there even to the best housekeepers, especially when they had little advance warning of a guest’s visit.
Yaffa nodded distractedly. She didn’t have to be a teacher. She could also be….a babysitter, let’s say.
Yes, why not?
“Have you forgotten that we leave the carriages outside?” Sophie asked. “Please take it out, pick Ben Tzion up, and come back in.” If Mrs. Levinsky would leave her deliberating about her doubts, she would refer the case to Edna from the Health Ministry. Edna would know how to check if it was something that needed intervention, perhaps even that of the Welfare Ministry, or if it was just a case of a sloppy mother.
Yaffa did as she was told. A babysitter? The subject had been mentioned once when she’d been talking to Chaya. They thought then that Bentzy was sapping enough of her energy, but recently, despite last night, he’d improved quite a bit. It could be a good idea, if she would only know how to persuade mothers to send their babies to her. In any case, it would only be relevant after they moved, which might not happen for two years. There were already two babysitters in her building, and from a casual conversation with the neighbors she’d learned that there was a lot of tension between them. She certainly did not want to get entangled in that.
“How is he at night?” Sophie was asking her.
“Not so good, but there are better nights.” The bottom line was that it was impossible to expect Elchanan, who was used to living in a home with two incomes, to manage without at least one. She had no right to ask such a thing of him. If she wanted him not to work all day, she’d have to undertake some of the parnassah burden herself.
“So come, let’s weigh him,” Sophie said, and then, in a sticky-sweet voice, leaned toward the baby and cooed, “Should we weigh you, Ben Tzion?”
Yaffa stood up and put her son on the high counter behind her. The nurse observed her every move. Bentzy, as usual, clenched his fists and didn’t let her take off his tiny shirt.
“Gently, Yaffa, gently,” Sophie coached from behind her.
Bentzy, in contrast to his mother, was very active and energetic. He kicked his feet and refused to lie still on the scale. “Okay, okay,” Yaffa said tiredly. “We’re almost finished, Bentzy, and then we can go home to sleep.”
“You didn’t sleep a lot last night, or what?” Sophie looked at the number on the scale’s display. “Are you having a hard time with Ben Tzion, Yaffa?”
“No,” Yaffa said, grasping her son’s little fingers. Her mother had once tasted her salads and had suggested she open a catering business. She should look into whether that was just a compliment or if her mother had been serious.
But catering of what? Salads? Because people certainly wouldn’t want to order her jaggedly cut chicken and burnt fish.
“You look very preoccupied, Yaffa. Is something bothering you?” Sophie lifted her eyes from the computer.
“It’s fine,” the young lady responded, blushing, and took Bentzy back to the counter to dress him.
Now Sophie wasn’t standing there, watching her like a hawk. Perhaps that was why it all went much more smoothly.
“Do you want to pool your money with ours and buy something big?” Baruch asked.
“You can buy your nonsense with your money. I’m not wasting my money on another Gameboy game or silly comic book.” Shuli folded the last towel. “Come here, Eli and Baruch. You promised me something!”
“What?” her brothers looked at her innocently.
“What a short memory…” Shuli muttered miserably. “Okay, that cheesecake that I made and just put into the oven because my brothers asked me for it—I guess I’ll have to give that to someone else. Let’s think who would want to get it…”
“Abba and Ima don’t like cheesecake,” Eli said with a triumphant smile. “And you won’t eat the whole thing yourself, because then you’ll gain too much weight.”
“Oh, you’re right,” she said with feigned disappointment, but her face immediately reverted to its normally strict expression. “In any case, my dear brothers, if you don’t put this laundry away right now, you’re not going to get a morsel of cake, got it? I’ll find who to give it to. Don’t worry; it won’t go to the garbage.”
“No, no!” Nine-year-old Eli hurried to the pile of socks. “We’ll put the stuff away, okay? And tell Ima tonight that we helped you.”
“Great; good boy.” Shuli smiled and stretched out on the bed with her science notebook. “A deal is a deal. Whoever puts clean clothes away gets cake. Whoever doesn’t, can enjoy the delicious smell of it.” She focused on the lines discussing the effect of the distance of an object from a light source on the size of its shadow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Baruch heading for the stack of towels.
“If only I had a sister,” Shuli said to the notebook. “It could be really nice, no?”
“That’s all we need,” Baruch dared to taunt from afar. “Another one of you.”
Shuli didn’t even hear him. She was deeply engrossed in her notebook. So, true, a sister who wasn’t a twin wouldn’t be able to study with her for tests. But her very presence at home during the long, boring hours could make studying so much more pleasant.
If at least her friends would come over willingly, it could help, but they were so lazy, they did her a huge favor if they came once a month by bus from Yerushalayim to Maaleh Adumim. When the store was small, Ima was home and would serve lunch to her and the boys each day. Now, the job was Shuli’s, and so even spending the afternoon at a friend’s house after school was not an option.