Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Elchanan wrinkled his forehead. “So why do you need me?” he asked. “Did you forget where the bank is or something?” Dvir’s store was bustling with the normal pre-closing-hour rush; the last few customers were loitering at the shelves when Yaffa had burst in with her bizarre request.
“I didn’t forget.” Yaffa took a deep breath. Only then did her husband notice the brown envelope in her hand. “But I want you to come with me there. I won’t know where to go and who to speak to.”
“Well, it’s about time you learned,” Elchanan said. He retreated into the store, looking for his wallet in the drawer under the cash register. It was true that Yaffa was only twenty, but if he wasn’t mistaken, he had taken care of banks transactions for his father from the age of fourteen. Well, his father hated big banks because of the Israeli tellers and clerks who had no patience for his heavy accent. And Yaffa? Yaffa couldn’t stand the bank, or the National Insurance office, and she could barely handle the doctor’s office because… Well, why? Now that he thought about it, he realized he had no idea.
“I don’t know,” Yaffa said as they stood in the bank between the chain link dividers and plastic plants. “These huge, cold places get me nervous.” When it was Elchanan’s turn, she watched him walk up to the teller and slide the brown envelope under the glass partition. “The account number is on the envelope,” he informed the clerk. Then he looked at Yaffa, standing to his right. “You see how simple it is?”
“Apparently, it’s not for someone who didn’t finish high school,” his wife said quietly as they walked out of the bank.
“That’s not true!” Elchanan exclaimed, looking in either direction before they crossed the street. “That has nothing to do with it. You would think I was at the top of my class. That I didn’t get my tests back with a red fifty or sixty in a circle at the top. That I didn’t try to get out of class in eighth grade as much as I could to help the custodian, while my friends sat and learned for yeshivah entrance exams.”
This was the first time Yaffa had heard Elchanan speak about it. “And you didn’t take a yeshivah entrance test?”
“I took one test, and that’s where I was accepted and where I was for three years. But I was just there. Like the tables and the chairs were there, so was chubby Elchanan Levinsky.”
“And how did you get into yeshivah gedolah?”
“Because I was a very good, obedient boy,” Elchanan replied with a bitter smile.
“I was also a good girl.”
“Nu, so you were accepted to high school, right?”
“Just barely,” Yaffa whispered.
“So I also just barely got accepted, and it was basically because Rafi Rimstein is my rosh yeshivah’s close friend.” Elchanan was still bitter, and his wife didn’t understand why.
“A friend?” she asked curiously. “Rafi, your uncle?”
The bus arrived.
Elchanan pulled his wallet out of his pocket and fanned it in front of his face, as if it was a piece of carton on a sultry day. “Sure, my Uncle Rafi is the rosh yeshivah’s friend. A certain type of friend,” he said, and then opened the wallet to take out his bus card.
The woman on the phone asked to speak to Ms. Yaffa, and Yaffa automatically remembered how she herself had asked for Ms. Shuli a bit more than two weeks earlier. Somehow, the title “Ms.” seemed to fit Shuli more than it did her, but in any case, they were not competing for the rights to use the term. And it was most likely that the caller had nothing to do with Shuli Emmanuel.
But she actually did. “I’m Shuli’s mother,” the woman said, and Yaffa replied with a surprised, “Uh-huh.” Elchanan motioned to her from the kitchen doorway that he could not find the fleishig tablecloth, and she motioned back that it was on top of the refrigerator.
“I wanted to know, you’re the woman who came to our house to clean, right?”
It was only when Mrs. Emmanuel put it in those words that Yaffa suddenly heard how humiliating it sounded and realized how right Elchanan was to insist that she quit the job immediately. “Yes,” she replied quietly.
“Shuli looked for your phone number for a long time today until she finally found it. Tell me, why don’t you want to come anymore? Did my daughter do or say something to offend you?”
“No, of course not!” Yaffa hurried to reassure her. “It’s just that…” How should she put into words the reason why she had quit? That it was due to family considerations? Educational reasons? Environmental concerns? What should she say to Mrs. Emmanuel, who was wondering where her not-very-efficient cleaning lady had disappeared to?
“Please understand,” Mrs. Emmanuel continued, “we had no idea that Shuli had even hired you, and she was soundly rebuked for it. But we didn’t realize how much she likes you…we see how disappointed she is that you decided to stop coming. Now, my husband and I don’t really believe in bringing in outside cleaning help. The girl needs to learn to do whatever she’s told to do around the house, don’t you think?”
Yaffa swallowed, a bit overcome by the barrage. “No…” she replied, nodding her head. “I mean, yes, of course.”
“So, like this. We were wondering if you would consider coming back, and we’d even add some money, because Shuli really enjoyed your company and I think you were a good influence on her. You would just be there to help her do the things she really hates, like folding laundry and ironing and things like that…” The woman fell silent, but Yaffa realized she had nothing to say in response. Why had she been the one to pick up the phone and not Elchanan?
“I have to think about the whole…idea,” Yaffa finally answered. “I’ll try to get back to you soon, Mrs. Emmanuel.”
“Why didn’t you say no right away?” Elchanan demanded as soon as the phone was back in its cradle. “You don’t plan to say yes, do you?”
“I wasn’t able to say anything.” Yaffa sighed. “And don’t ask me why. She spoke so quickly that she didn’t give me a second to think. I’ll call her later. Or you will. Or maybe I should just go once more to say goodbye to Shuli. She’s a cute kid.”
“That makes sense,” Elchanan said. He stuck his hand in his shirt pocket, then reconsidered and took it back out. Yaffa couldn’t stand watching him smoke, and he knew it. And while he felt the urge for a cigarette right now, he knew that after the commotion at Dvir’s and the mad rush to make it to the bank before closing time, it wouldn’t be so fair to his wife to have a smoke at this point. In any case, he tried not to exceed two cigarettes a day, and he’d already smoked one cigarette that morning. It wouldn’t hurt to keep the second and last one for later in the day, when he’d be out of the house. He didn’t have to do his smoking in front of Yaffa’s face.
Someone else was smoking at that very moment, blowing out a plume of smoke that was accompanied by a burst of coughing. It was Shuli’s father. “Why didn’t you speak to her directly about Shuli getting into high school?” he complained to his wife.
“Oh, you’re so undiplomatic!” Dina Emmanuel responded with a wave of her hand. She put the slip of paper with Yaffa’s phone number into her jewelry drawer. “A bit of patience, Shmuel, and it will all work out.”
“How can it work out if you also stuck in that idea about the ironing? Which school secretary is going to want to come to do that?”
“The fact that she’s a secretary doesn’t mean she’s a millionaire, Shmuel,” Dina replied as she slammed the jewelry drawer closed. “Ironing is much more respectable than washing dishes and floors. Go lie down, Shmuel, and get rid of that cigarette. You finally came home early one day, and it was wasted on nonsense. Shuli, what are you doing over there, saying Tehillim?”
Her daughter didn’t answer for several long moments. “I’m davening, Ima,” she said solemnly as she finished the perek. “I’m davening that she should agree to come back.” She turned to the Tehillim again while her parents exchanged glances.
“So, are you listening to me, Tzippy?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Despite the triple declaration, twelve-year-old Tzippy was slightly distracted that morning as she spoke to her mother on the phone. Ima had only been gone since yesterday, but already the house was upside down. If things would continue at this rate, who knew if their home would still be standing by tomorrow night! Well, when Mimi would come back, she would certainly take things in hand, so there was really nothing for Tzippy to worry about.
“Savta’s coming to the Overnight this afternoon,” her mother was saying. “Do me a favor, Tzippy. Please run over to her with my eye drops, so she can bring them here for me. My eyes are so dry, I can barely concentrate on anything.” Malka was desperately tired, mostly because of the huge burden of responsibility she felt. How could Yael be strolling calmly on the lawn over there, calling out merrily to the girls lounging under the tree?
“I should take a bus to Savta’s house now?”
“No, she’s in school,” Malka said, waving to Yael who was now passing by in a jog. This woman was a million times more involved in the nitty-gritty details of the Overnight than she was, and she had a million times more practical responsibility, but she seemed to be enjoying every minute. How didn’t she just collapse and melt away from all the pressure?
“You want me to go to the school?” Tzippy frowned. Malka knew, even from afar, exactly what her daughter’s face looked like at that moment. But if the tidbit of parenting advice, “don’t pay attention to every face your child makes,” applied when she could see her child’s face, it was certainly the case when she couldn’t see Tzippy’s grimace and was just imagining it, based on plenty of other experiences she’d had with her daughter.
“Uch,” Tzippy continued to grouse. “Why did Mimi have to go shopping today, of all days?”
“The bottle is on my night table,” Malka said quietly. Why did Tzippy have to make a big deal out of every little thing? What about all those stories of the wonderful girls who jumped from joy when they heard their mothers asking for something from afar? It was too bad Mimi wasn’t around; everything would have been much simpler.
“And please hurry,” Malka added, her thoughts infusing a trace of irritation into her tone. “Savta is leaving by taxi at two o’clock. Make sure it gets to her by then.”
Cell phone in hand, she hurried toward Yael and the three madrichos who were standing on the grass and arguing heatedly about something. She couldn’t even find out what the fuss what about, because just then, her phone began vibrating again. The house. What did Tzippy want now?
“Ima, Mimi’s back. Do you mind if she goes to Savta instead of me?”
“No, I don’t mind,” Malka said hastily, but something deep inside her wanted to cry that yes, she minded, and very much. Why couldn’t Tzippy just do what was asked of her? But she had no energy to argue from afar. Chinuch isn’t so easy when you’re on site, let alone when you’re not. “How does the house look, Tzippy?”
The twelve-year-old hesitated for a moment. “So-so,” she said. “So-so,” she repeated a few seconds later.
“I see. So let Mimi go, and you straighten up a bit, okay?”
Tzippy murmured something in lieu of a response, and Malka snapped the phone closed with a sigh, knowing that the house wouldn’t look all that dazzling even after Tzippy was finished with it. It was a good thing that Mimi, her oldest girl, was back to take things into her capable hands once again.
“Is everything okay, Yaffa?” the principal asked, raising her eyes. “You look tired. Should I make you a cup of coffee?”
Yaffa recoiled at the very thought. “N-no, of c-course not,” she stammered. “Do you want one, though?”
“Two cups,” Adina Kotzker requested. “One for me, one for you. Bring them in here and we’ll chat. It hasn’t been quiet enough around here for us to get to know each other a little better.” And today, it was blessedly silent. Aside from Mrs. Kotzker, Yaffa, and the custodian who was wandering around, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The seminary girls were in the middle of an assembly about the professional tracks they had chosen to take, but they were all on the top floor and had no reason to visit the office. One secretary had joined the Overnight team at the campus, and the other one had woken up that morning with high fever.
“You’ll be instead of her,” Mrs. Kotzker had told Yaffa in the morning. “Basically, you’ll just have to answer the phones. There isn’t much else going on.”
There really wasn’t. Yaffa turned on the computer, but did nothing more with it; the principal told her shortly afterward that there wasn’t any computer work to be done that day, anyway. Two seminary girls asked to make a phone call, and all Yaffa had to do was hand them the phone and show them where to put the money for the call. One of the assembly lecturers arrived and didn’t know where to go, so Yaffa walked her to the staircase she needed, and three urgent phone calls regarding the Overnight came through for the principal; all Yaffa had to do was transfer the calls to the principal’s private line. It was all so amazingly easy and simple that Yaffa almost began to enjoy sitting in front of the overcrowded desk.
“Sit down, Yaffa,” Adina suggested to the young woman who had returned with the little tray. Her head was hammering dully. What she wanted to do right now, after the marathon week she’d just had, was to go to sleep, not travel to any campus for any Overnight. But obligations come before desires. Today she had to stop by at the Overnight for a bit, before turning around and coming back home. Then, tomorrow, she had to attend the annual board meeting with the lawyer, and she still had to buy a few things for that. According to the plan, Chana was supposed to have purchased some standard refreshments for the meeting, but based on the way her voice had sounded that morning, it didn’t seem as though she had any plans of emerging from her bed for at least two days.
“Tell me, Yaffa,” Adina said to the young, new “secretary,” who was still standing, “would you mind running over to the grocery? I need you to buy a few things. We’re having a board meeting here tomorrow, and I want a few packages of cookies and soft drinks.”
“Whatever you want; just make sure there are two seltzers. First sit down and drink your coffee, and I’ll prepare you a short list in the meantime.”
Yaffa sat down on the edge of the chair, as though something toxic had spilled on it. She took tiny sips of her coffee, to the point where it was almost rude, and watched Adina, who looked like a mother preparing to send her child to the grocery.
“Six bottles of soda,” the principal murmured. “And I told you that two of them should be seltzer, right? Three packages of cookies… If my Malky was here, I would have asked her to buy some bourekas at the bakery that she lives near. Bourekas are a respectable thing to serve.”
“We can buy frozen ones in the grocery and bake them,” Yaffa whispered.
“True, but I won’t be able to do it today.”
“I meant me,” Yaffa said, a bit louder now. “I can take them home and bake them.”
“Really?” Adina asked, and immediately regretted saying that. Her question was so innocent and spontaneous; it was what she would have responded to any of her other secretaries who would have made such a suggestion, but something in Yaffa’s shoulders seemed to cringe at what Adina had said.
“If so, that would be excellent,” the principal said hastily, and went back to her list. She didn’t know much about frozen, half-baked bourekas, but she wasn’t about to inquire now. If it was Malky, she could have naturally asked how many came in a package and at what temperature they needed to be baked. But this wasn’t Malky.
Yaffa went to the grocery, armed with a list and an open check. Adina tried to keep fighting her exhaustion, but she felt like it was a losing battle. She promised herself that after all this was over, she would go on a quiet vacation. Just her and Nachum—and no cell phones.
“Savta!” She heard the voice before she saw Mimi appear in the doorway. “Hi, Savta!”
“Hello, Mimi!” Adina raised her eyes to her granddaughter. She was quiet for a long moment and then forced herself to smile. “How are you doing, running the house and all?”
“Great.” Mimi plopped herself into the empty chair and put a small bag on her grandmother’s desk. “These are Ima’s eye drops. She forgot them at home and asked if you could bring them to the Overnight.”
“Yes, she told me something about them this morning.” Mrs. Kotzker took a deep breath, and the second hand on the clock over her head ticked six times before she continued. “How did you come?”
“On the bus. There was tons of traffic. And now I’ve got to get home, because I don’t think Tzippy’s done a thing since I left and there’s lots to be done at home.” Mimi chuckled, but something in her grandmother’s stern expression stopped her.
Savta was playing with her pen and looked so principal-like that Mimi felt like she was sitting in front of her own principal, waiting to be scolded for something. Why was Savta so serious? True, that hadn’t been so nice, what she’d said about Tzippy, but it looked like something else was bothering Savta, from the minute she came in.
“Is everything okay, Savta?”
“Everything? A lot is okay, baruch Hashem, but some things are not.”
Adina sighed. “Your skirt,” she said. “And your top.” And the strange ponytail. And those earrings. Where was Malky? Did this only happen when she wasn’t at home?
Her granddaughter blushed a deep red. Here was the scolding. But why did she deserve it? She’d been so focused on making sure her mother wasn’t left without her eye drops that she’d forgotten to change her clothes before coming. Not that she felt they weren’t okay, but she should have imagined that Savta would have comments about them. Why, oh, why, couldn’t Tzippy have come instead?
“I don’t understand you, Malky.”
When her mother was angry, her tone went very low. Malka, in the far-off campus up in the north, wrinkled her forehead, puzzled as to why her mother sounded like this. All the girls were in the auditorium waving flags in assorted colors, and she had run outside when her cell phone had vibrated. The lawns were still and silent, and Malka had an urge to lie down on the grass; obviously, though, she wouldn’t dare. There were always the tired girls who came half an hour late to a program, or girls who decided to go take a nap in the middle of something. She couldn’t risk being caught lounging on the grass, even though last night at midnight she’d spotted Yael sitting on the grass with one of the madrichos. Actually, sitting was a stretch; Yael had been leaning on her side, as though she was about to drift off to sleep. All that was missing was a picnic blanket.
“Are you upset about something, Ima?” Malka asked.
“Disappointed.” Mimi had gone, leaving the eye drops on Adina’s desk. “I don’t understand you, Malky. I just don’t understand you. How could you let her walk around in that skirt? And don’t tell me it meets the school rules, because it doesn’t.”
Malka swallowed. “I didn’t measure it with a tape measure,” she conceded. “Are you sure it was so bad, Ima? At worst, the length is borderline. It’s not so terrible.” How many times had she spoken to Mimi about this!
“Borderline is a problem,” her mother said severely. “And this isn’t even borderline, Malky. It’s short. And those earrings…”
Malka bit her lip. Had she gone shopping with Mimi, the purchase of that skirt would have never happened; that much was clear. But with all the end-of-the-year pressure, and the planning of the Overnight—how could she have included Mimi’s new skirt onto her endless list of things to do? And Mimi deserved to buy a new skirt, she really did.
“She went with friends when she bought that skirt, Ima,” Malka said finally. “And it really didn’t look so bad to me. The earrings? She got them as a gift from a friend. She doesn’t wear them often.”
“And her hair? How do you let her wear it swept up like that? She looks…I don’t know how to tell you this, Malky. Do you know one girl in our school who walks around like that?”
“She’s not in high school yet, Ima. She’s only going into eighth grade.”
“Going into eighth grade. Right. Just take into account, Malky, that girls of this kind do not get accepted to our school.”
Silence reigned on the line for a minute, and then Malka’s tired laugh came through. “You don’t mean that you won’t accept her, Ima, do you?”
“I don’t mean that, because you know very well that that’s not an option, but it will be very sad for me to accept my granddaughter only because I have no choice. It may not be so wise to be discussing this when we’re so far away from each other, Malky, but I have to tell you that although Mimi really is a sweet and charming girl, who’s a good student, too, you have to watch out to make sure that she doesn’t become one of the complicated cases we have to deal with. You know what I’m saying?”
Malka had heard a lot about the flag activity before the Overnight had begun, and if there was one thing on the program that interested her, it was this activity. But now she stayed outside, with her phone switched off, listening to the muted sounds of applause from inside and not remembering a bit of what had gone on there before she’d left.
Her Mimi. Complicated case. And if she’d hoped that at least until high school she’d have a reprieve before having to deal with such problems, reality had come to prove to her that her mother had no intention of waiting until then. She wanted to see a different granddaughter, and now.
Did she also want a different child? Chalilah. Or rather, she wanted very much for Mimi to change, to be different. Not totally different, because she had some very sweet qualities, but that she should be like the Greenbaum girls, or the Levys, or the Yudkowskys, or… Was there a lack of good girls? The high school was full of wonderful girls, each a blade of fresh green grass. And then there were always those dried-out, yellow blades that marred the scene just because they looked different, out of place. Was that what Mimi was planning to do when she came into the school? Catch everyone’s attention as an eyesore?
Scholastics wouldn’t be a problem, Malka knew. Neither would discipline in class. Mimi would sit nicely and listen to her lessons, and would fill in her worksheets and test papers with her small, close writing, and would likely get excellent grades. But she would be on the border regarding her selections of friends, jewelry, and clothing styles, and it would make no difference whatsoever to her that her mother was one of the members who sat on the committee that drafted the school tznius regulations, working tirelessly until everyone agreed on every single word.
What had Yael Braun wondered aloud at the beginning of that year, when Malka had mentioned something about the downside of having too many tznius rules? “What’s this all about, Malky? Is that all you have to say about tznius?”
“Tznius isn’t a list of rules,” Malka had responded firmly. “It’s something much bigger. The regulations are there to help, but we have to make sure not to get confused between the two.”
She still believed that, but on the morning when she’d made that statement, she’d been experiencing an acute fury at lists of rules: it was a mere twelve hours after she’d received a call from Mimi’s teacher, who’d asked her gently but firmly to make sure that Mimi came to school only in the required-length socks, and without the endless tales about laundry and shrinking socks and rashes and what not.
What was in for her at the school’s tznius committee meeting in just over a year? Ima had been very tired today, and that was probably the only reason why she’d allowed herself to bring up a topic that, until now, had been taboo. But there was no denying the facts: Ima was afraid that Mimi would be a source of shame, to herself, to her grandmother, to them all. As if she, Malka, Mimi’s mother, wasn’t afraid. Shame. Shame. Shame.
And then, a year after Mimi would enter high school, Tzippy would come along. She’d be fine in the area of tznius, because Tzippy hardly cared about what she wore. But there’d be complaints about her, too, because she could hardly be called studious. Yes, she would sit quietly during lessons, but not because she was paying close attention to the lessons at all. And if she did utter a few words here and there, they would be unrelated to the subject at hand.
Homework? Either she wouldn’t do it, or she’d do it in such a sloppy fashion that her teachers would go out of their minds. And her dismal report cards would bear the signature of “A. Kotzker,” the proud grandmother.
And two years after that would come Suri, who was finishing fourth grade now. Her homework and report card would probably be fine, and as far as clothing was concerned, it was hard to know at this point. But if she continued to be unable to control her behavior, and still bounced around during lessons and spoke to teachers the way she did, it would be terrible. Just terrible.
These were the three daughters of Mrs. Malka Mann, the darling daughter of principal Mrs. Adina Kotzker. Pleased to meet you, too.