Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 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.
They were simply not compatible.
You didn’t just discover that now, the chair in the corner, with the rickety right leg, jeered at her. Since when did you think that you were? Remember your first trip to the supermarket, when he put products into the cart with hechsherim that you never even considered using in your parents’ home, not to mention the spend-thriftiness that stunned you? And the first Shabbos you spent at his parents’ house, when he was so unfazed by the fact that he’d left his hatbox at home, and went to davening on Friday night wearing just a suit—no hat? And the day he left his afternoon learning seder for good? And the day, a year later, when he left learning in the morning, as well?
Bentzy continued sleeping as his mother put him in his bed and angrily swiped at the newspaper from Tuesday that was covering the phone. Colorful squares and rectangles and pictures with green, grassy lawns tried to attract her attention, but she didn’t deign to give them a look. She didn’t want a trip to the Czech Republic; she didn’t want to go to remote places full of non-Jewish faces; she didn’t want to take Bentzy out of Eretz Yisrael for no reason, even if his grandmother and young aunts would love to have him there. The grandmother and aunts were really not part of the story at all. In fact, the whole issue of whether to take a vacation in a Czech hotel or in a bungalow up north in Israel was just a grain, one of many, that had accumulated in her throat over time, making it hard for her to breathe. The issue here wasn’t what to do during the time that school would be closed or before she found another job. The issue was Elchanan and herself.
“Compatibility is not everything,” Morah Elka Stern had told her a short time after she’d gotten engaged to Elchanan. His parents were foreign, and their families were so different in every way. “I can show you couples that are amazingly similar and don’t get along all that well. It depends on good middos. There are those who are polar opposites, and things go very smoothly for them.”
No, she and Elchanan weren’t polar opposites, and yes, they both had good middos— but things were not going smoothly at all.
Adina Kotzker had been a teacher for many years before Netiv Binah High School opened up and she became the principal. She did her job very well, as she did most things, and was an excellent principal for the school. She enjoyed what she did, and was also happy that she was able to provide her daughter with a good job. When Adina had become principal, Malka, who had recently gotten married, had just finished her teaching studies and was actively looking for a job. To her delight, her mother announced that there was a good chance she could give her a job in the new high school.
For two years Malka taught physics, chemistry, and any other subject that needed a teacher. Before her third year of teaching, her mother deliberated if Malka was mature enough to be a mechaneches for the tenth grade. And just then, Yael Braun had finished her own pedagogic studies and joined the school staff.
Yael was the daughter of Rabbi Sindler, one of the respected board members, and she hadn’t had even one sleepless moment wondering where she’d be working. Long before Yael had finished her studies—or rather the minute she’d started them—she already knew that a job was guaranteed for her. Her father had asked that she be slotted as the extracurricular activities coordinator, in addition to the subjects she would teach, and Adina Kotzker, who wasn’t completely confident of her own daughter’s abilities, had agreed.
Agreed? Had been forced to agree? The exact terminology didn’t change the facts much, but by the first teachers’ meeting graced by Yael’s presence, when Yael had spoken about her plans for the extracurricular activities for that year, she’d already gotten on Malka’s nerves. Malka had been young then, just twenty-two, and hadn’t ended up getting the position of mechaneches, because in the end, a different, much older, and more experienced teacher had applied and gotten the job. But it was Yael, and not Malka, who had walked off with the prestigious job of extracurricular activities coordinator. The feelings of envy that had eaten Malka up then had waned over the years that had passed and the ties that had been forged, but that memory was still alive and kicking, rearing its head mightily from time to time.
Fifteen years had passed since that time. Malka and Yael had become friends, even good friends, but the embers of the resentment that had festered in Malka’s heart still burned. Today, Malka had a more senior position than Yael, as the accounting coordinator of the school. But there was still enough about Yael that caused thirty-seven-year-old Malka to get annoyed, to swallow, and to have to force herself to plod on despite her feelings. Sometimes, the thoughts and feelings she had about Yael were so petty that Malka didn’t even allow them to formulate in her own mind, but even feelings without defined words take up a presence, perhaps even more so than those that are defined.
“Malky?” Yael addressed her friend. Their real end-of-the-year party was currently being held, now that the Overnight was finally behind them. Just the three of them were in attendance at this party: Malka, her mother, and Yael. Now, four weeks before the new school year, their vacation was beginning. True, it was a truncated vacation, but it was still vacation nonetheless.
“Can you imagine that we’re actually going to have some peace and quiet from now until the opening assembly on the first day of school?” Yael sighed as she leaned back in the comfortable armchair in the principal’s house. “And even then, I just have to help out with things; I don’t have to be the chief organizer.”
“You always say that,” Malka jibed good-naturedly. “But there are some things that are just in the blood, Yael Braun, and whoever organizes all the time, just can’t help but organize these other types of things, too.”
“The opening assembly has nothing to do with the extracurricular activities coordinator,” Yael protested, helping herself to a small triangle of pizza from the tray on the table. “You and your mother are a great team. This time you don’t need me. I’m on the sidelines. Just the thought of it makes me smile! Microphones, organizing the chairs before and after, getting the auditorium quiet—and that’s it for me!”
“You can leave those things for the other teachers, Yael,” Adina Kotzker interjected. “I need you for more important things than microphones. Who do you think we should invite to speak?”
“We agreed that there would be no talk about the subject until the last week of vacation,” Yael complained with a small smile, and Malka raised her eyes to Yael from her perch on the sofa. No one had ever spoken to her mother like that; certainly no one on the school staff. But Ima didn’t seem affronted by Yael, despite what she’d said.
“We agreed on many things,” Adina said with a smile. “I, for example, wanted absolute silence from the minute you all went up north for the Overnight. I didn’t think I’d be getting three days of plumbing work on the pipes instead. Just ask your father.”
“Yes, he told me that the board meeting didn’t end up being timed so well.”
“Oh, the board meeting was timed just fine. You could say that the burst pipes weren’t timed so well,” Adina corrected her. “Nu, baruch Hashem it’s behind us now.”
The small pizzas that Malka had arranged soon disappeared, along with Adina’s simple cheesecake, and Yael’s mushroom quiche. Now all that remained on the table were two disposal trays, a few cups, and a pile of crumpled napkins. The two younger women leaned forward to clear the table and bring the pleasant evening to a close, but Adina stopped them.
“One minute,” she said, and Malka and Yael sat back again. “You know that I usually plan a program for the teachers’ parties.”
“You never did that for the parties that are made up of just us!” Yael took on a look of feigned insult.
“So I’m correcting that today.” Adina rose and walked over to the large table in the room. “After all, how can I make a party for two such devoted teachers on the staff, with just food and talking on the program, right?”
Malka and Yael nodded in unison.
“Excellent.” Mrs. Kotzker placed two sheets of paper and two pens on the coffee table in front of them. “Now, each of you take a paper and a pen.”
Mechanically, Malka pulled the paper toward her. Her mother didn’t plan to play tic-tac-toe or hangman with them. This was going to be something else, and she was wasn’t at all sure that whatever it was, she was going to like it.
“Yes, Morah,” Yael chirped. “What should we write?”
“I don’t know how good I am at preparing such programs,” Adina said after a long moment of silence. “But we’re going to try.”
“Is it a game?” Malka queried.
Her mother was quiet again. “I wanted to do it like this.” She shook her head and put her pen back on the table. “But suddenly, I’m getting cold feet. You’re both too mature for me to organize your lives with notes and drawings, aren’t you?”
Both young women nodded again, and a chill spiraled down Yael’s spine. It couldn’t be; their wise principal did not expect them to put everything on the table now. That was impossible.
“So maybe you can organize it yourselves. At first I thought I’d help you with it, but now I decided to give you the honors of dealing with this complex issue and we’ll see how you manage with it yourselves.”
“Complex issue?” Yael echoed. So it was happening, despite all the wisdom and discretion over the years. Yael had never felt so furious at her principal. It wasn’t fair for Mrs. Kotzker to set her up for a confrontation with her daughter! It just wasn’t fair!
Malka noticed only her mother’s calm voice and the half smile she had on her face, and her anger also felt like it was going to choke her. Was her mother expecting to oversee the two women shaking each other’s hands and making peace with one another? Yael certainly would agree to anything the principal requested. And Malka, if only not to be the rebellious daughter, would have to agree to it as well.
“So I’m leaving it up to you to prepare next year’s schedule.” Adina smiled, and two mouths opened wide in response.
“What?” Yael asked, thrown off kilter. Was that all?
“I was looking for a fun way to inform you of your new job, but in the end, old lady that I am, I am hereby announcing it in the most boring fashion possible. What can I do? I’m not cut out for these kinds of fun activities that you two are so used to planning and executing.”
“Plan the schedule?” Malka also allowed herself to breathe easier. No handshaking? Her imagination was in overdrive again… “I have no problem with it,” she said hurriedly.
“It’s fine with me, too,” said Yael, who for years already had been elegantly evading the principal’s overt hints as to her intentions to give her this complicated and sensitive task: preparing the teaching schedule at the high school. Now, it all seemed so easy and fun, literally child’s play.
Adina let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Excellent!” she exclaimed, clearly pleased. “You know that for years I’ve wanted help with this, and in the end I always give in and do it myself. But this year, I feel like I just don’t have the strength for it, not even to start. It’s so nice of the two of you to accept the job so willingly.”
The teachers’ schedules. To make sure Mrs. Plotnick would be satisfied, and that Mrs. Aronson would only get the highest level groups, and that Mrs. Shachar should never finish after two, and that Mrs. Greenberg shouldn’t ever begin before nine; that Mrs. Abrahams should only get the classes she favored, and Mrs. Karelitz should get the day she took advanced courses as her day off, and Mrs. Levy shouldn’t ever have to teach the class she used to be mechaneches for… It went on and on.
But it’s always easier to arrange other people’s lives for them than to make changes in one’s own life.
The supper was served hot, as usual, but Rabbi Yeshayahu Weinstock was so preoccupied with his thoughts that the meal turned cold, like it often did.
His wife sighed. “You don’t eat during bein hazemanim either?”
He moved his potatoes from side to side on the plate, and then said, “I just met the father of one of our students, a very prominent Yid.”
“He claimed that…one of the boys in his son’s shiur left his phone number for all the boys in the shiur before bein hazemanim, and what’s happening now is a marathon of phone calls to America.”
“To America?” his wife murmured, trying to remember if she should be aware of the boy he was referring to. “Oh, that one, from Ezra Street.”
“His sister is from Ezra Street,” Rabbi Weinstock corrected her. “He’s from Manhattan. He’s a good boy, and very diligent, but it’s too bad that I didn’t stick to the rule I set for myself, that we don’t have boys who board, even if it’s with a family member. A good student of this age has to leave his parents’ house in the morning and return there in the evening. But I was pressured to accept him.”
Mrs. Weinstock tried again to dredge up the hazy memory of who the boy was. Failing to do so, she used the little bit of information her husband had provided to respond, “But you said he’s a good boy.”
“That’s right. He learns very well, he’s a masmid, and his mashgichim and maggidei shiur like him very much. He made lots of friends, too.” The chunks of potatoes were torn into numerous tiny pieces that more closely resembled crumbs, but Rabbi Weinstock had not yet begun to eat. “And that’s the problem.”
“His friends.” Rabbi Weinstock finally took the first bite of his cold food.
“He’s being a negative influence on them?”
“Well, that’s the problem. It’s hard to call it a negative influence, because he really isn’t a bad kid. The problem is the different mentality that sometimes draws the other boys. I wouldn’t be pleased, either, if my fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy would start imitating the American accent of some friend and telling wondrous fairy tales about America and the school this boy went to, which is so different from the style of our yeshivah.”
“And you still accepted him.”
“Yes. Mrs. Kotzker pressured, and truthfully, she was right, because he’s a good boy, and, after everything is said and done, he draws others into the strong learning atmosphere. But go explain all that to the other parents. From their point of view, they’re right.”
“And what did Mrs. Kotzker say about the fact that he’s a foreign resident, and that you don’t usually accept them?” Mrs. Weinstock queried.
“That’s just the problem,” her husband replied. “His parents sent him here because they’re also planning to move here. It’s an American family that came to live in Eretz Yisrael. Then the father signed a contract with an American company and they went back. But the contract is up in two months and then they’re returning to Eretz Yisrael. He’s a serious person, the father, and he didn’t want to switch his son between yeshivos. And so he was looking for a yeshivah here in Israel where his son could learn even during the time that the rest of the family would be back in America.”
“So then the boy won’t be boarding at his sister’s house anymore—he’ll be living with his parents here in Israel like all the rest of the boys—and the other students’ parents can’t really have any tainos on you for taking the boy in,” his wife remarked. “Did you tell that to the father who you met today?”
“Not exactly,” Rabbi Weinstock said, sighing. “I don’t think it would have made much of a difference to him…”
Dovi Brim finished polishing the mouthpiece of his flute with his thumb and put it into the case. Practice time was over, and in three minutes, his father would pick him up to go to shul. He darted down the stairs into the kitchen, looking for his mother. “Mom!” he called. “I’m going!”
“You played beautifully, Dovi.” His mother smiled, revealing crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. “I really enjoyed it. When will you be back?”
“Minchah and then two hours to learn,” he replied. “Okay?”
“Did you want anything special for supper?”
“If there’s any goulash left from yesterday, then yes, I’ll take that.”
His mother wrinkled her nose. “Meat from yesterday…Where did you learn to eat food that isn’t fresh?”
“By Naama. She comes home every day from school at two, and she can’t start cooking then. I discovered that when the meat sits in the fridge, it gets tastier. But it makes no difference, Mom. Whatever you cook will be great.”
His mother smiled again, and the creases around her eyes deepened. “You won’t get old meat from me,” she declared. “Here you’ll get good food that will put that weight you lost right back on you. Daddy’s honking, Dovi. Run along.”
When Dovi and his father returned, the aroma of delicious food permeated the whole house.
“It’s hot,” Dovi groaned as he entered and rubbed the lenses of his glasses. As he’d gone from the air-conditioned car to the steamy street, his glasses had become clouded with vapor. “It’s hotter than Bnei Brak.”
“By next summer, you’ll be a permanent resident there,” his father said, setting his hat on the table near the door. “B’ezras Hashem. And this phone call must be for you, too. I just hope that your friends’ parents don’t expect me to cover the cost of all these calls.”
Dovi smiled and picked up the phone. “Yes?” he said in Hebrew. “You’ve reached the right place. How are you, and who is this?”
“Dovi, is that you?” Dovi heard a chuckle on the line, but the man spoke English. “How like you to answer the phone like that. How are you, my talented lad?”
“Excellent, baruch Hashem.”
“Not forgetting your flute, are you?”
“Not for a minute.”
“And in Israel?” Menachem Aberfort sounded apprehensive.
“I can’t tell you that I practiced every day, but I practiced plenty.”
“Fantastic. I’m organizing a top-notch ensemble for a serious concert, two weeks from today exactly. I want you to pop over and we’ll hear where you’re holding, and based on that we’ll decide whether to include you or not.” Menachem was direct and to the point, as usual.
Dovi was quiet for a long moment. “How did you know I was home?”
“Yaakov Menkis told me. Is tomorrow at ten good for you, Dov?”
Dovi covered the mouthpiece. “It’s Menachem,” he whispered to his mother.
“Aberfort, the music teacher?” She paused. “What does he want?”
“He’s arranging a concert…”
“And wants you to work like a horse for the next two weeks? No, Dovi. You came home to rest up.”
“My mother wants me to relax at home these two weeks,” Dovi said to Menachem, with a resigned laugh. “And my father won’t be too thrilled about me being involved in a concert now, either, I imagine.”
“You can’t do this to me, Dovi.” Menachem the music teacher was clearly disappointed. “I was so thrilled to hear that you’d be home and not running off to the mountains, like lots of the other guys… Maybe think it over? I’m missing a good flutist.”
Dovi looked at his mother, who was gazing at him closely. “We’ll see,” he said to Menachem. “I’ll get back to you later, okay?”
“Hold it a minute!” His music teacher added frantically, sounding like a pedestrian trying to chase down a taxi. “Listen to me, Dovi. If you agree, and I see that you’re what I need, I’ll arrange your diploma on the spot, okay? You’ve reached that level, right?”
“That sounds like a different story,” Dovi said politely. “But I have to speak to my parents. We’ll talk in an hour or so.”
After Menachem’s offer, the whole situation did look very different, as Menachem had imagined it would. The bribe offer he had made, as Mr. Brim called it, was very attractive to Dovi’s mother.
“He always liked you,” she told her son. “And you have to take advantage of the opportunity that he needs you, because he doesn’t usually give diplomas out so easily.”
“Why is he so desperate all of a sudden?” Mr. Brim asked, not so sure about the whole thing.
“Most of his regulars—the kids who usually play for him—aren’t here now,” Dovi replied, stirring his compote thoughtfully. “If not for your work, Dad, we wouldn’t be here either. I would be in camp, and you and Mom would have gone to the mountains.”
“If not for my work, we would be in Eretz Yisrael now,” his father replied. And then, as though it had nothing to do with it, he asked, “And what would your rosh yeshivah say, Dovi, if you would ask him about this concert?”
“He knows I know how to play.” Dovi poured the syrup from his compote into his glass. “I played at the yeshivah’s Purim mesibah.”
“Yes, I remember.” His mother glowed with pride. “Your maggid shiur called to give us a nachas report about you, and in the conversation he mentioned that as well.”
“And what would your maggid shiur, Rabbi Newman, say if he would hear about this concert?” his father repeated the question with a minor variation.
“I don’t know,” Dovi replied.
“Menachem’s concerts go along with singing, don’t they? Who’s going to sing?”
“I don’t know.”
“And who else is part of the ensemble?”
“I don’t know.” By now, Dovi was feeling foolish. “But what’s the difference between this time and other times? I’ve performed with Menachem at least five times already, since I’m seven years old.”
His mother nodded with a smile, and offered him a napkin for the drops of syrup that had dribbled onto the table.
“The difference is that now you are a yeshivah bachur, if you ask me,” Mr. Brim said. “And I don’t know if Rabbi Weinstock considers concert appearances suitable for the boys in his very reputable yeshivah.”
“I’ll stay a yeshivah bachur even on the stage,” Dovi hurriedly said. His mother was quiet.
“How will you do that?”
“I’ll…” Dovi mulled it over, remembering Menachem’s previous ensembles that he had been part of. He remembered once wearing a red bowtie and a black velvet suit, and another time shiny gray pants with sharply pressed cuffs and a navy v-neck sweater. It was all based on Menachem Aberfort’s taste.
“I’ll…” he repeated, and then pounced on the answer. “I’ll tell him I can only perform in a suit and hat.”
Mr. Brim looked at him for a long time and then smiled. “You have a good head on your shoulders, son,” he noted. “Okay. If he agrees to accept you like that, I agree as well.”
Elchanan’s uncle spared himself the expense of the ticket he wanted to pay for, because Elchanan and his wife didn’t join the family trip.
“They went to a small place up north in Israel,” Rochelle, Elchanan’s mother, said as she and her brother sat in the spacious Czech hotel’s lobby, leaning back in comfortable leather armchairs. “Some nice guesthouse. I hope they’re having a good time. I haven’t spoken to them yet.”
Rafi Rimstein shrugged. “You’ve got to respect a person’s wishes,” he said lightly. “Though I’m a bit surprised at Elchanan. I would have expected him to realize how important this trip was for Grandma, but it makes no difference.”
His elderly mother, who was sitting in an upholstered armchair alongside them, waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Elchananushka is a good boy, and if he said he couldn’t come, then he couldn’t come. Rochelle, could you please bring me a glass of seltzer?” And with this sharp change of topic, the conversation was over.
Rafi opened his laptop, and Elchanan’s mother tried to get back into the book she was reading. Her phone began to vibrate on the arm of the chair, and she glanced at the caller’s number.
“Oh, look, it’s Elchanan,” she said with a laugh, picking up the phone. “How are you, Elchanan? How is it there?”
“It’s really nice,” he replied. “The food is good, and there are people here like us, more or less. To say the room is amazing and equipped with every amenity? Not exactly. But it doesn’t matter.” He smiled and then added in Hebrew, “The main thing is that Yaffa’s happy.”
“And what are you doing there?” his mother asked.
“I wanted to join a jeeping trip, but Yaffa isn’t interested. Today we went boating, and now we’re back here, just trying to enjoy.”
Yaffa sat next to the folded blanket on the floor and patted Bentzy’s back. No one in the hotel had bothered to prepare a crib for them, and there didn’t seem to be a single one left in the storage rooms either. During the day, the baby could sleep in the carriage, but at night, he really needed a proper bed.
They had gone kayaking that afternoon. Elchanan had worked hard to persuade her, because she didn’t usually get excited about shaky boats; the whole idea of it just did not appeal to her. But she had finally capitulated and, leaving Bentzy with the hotel’s babysitter, had gone along with Elchanan on the boat. She had carefully strapped on her life vest—and had ended up really enjoyed herself.
“It was nice,” she told Elchanan when the kayak returned safely to the dock.
“I’m happy you enjoyed it,” he said candidly, and observed with a smile as she hugged her son as though she’d parted from him for two weeks. “You really didn’t want to go at first.”
“Right,” she said.
She didn’t reply.
Her husband shrugged. “Well,” he began. But then he desisted, and merely remarked, “You know what, Yaffa? Take half of the determination you have when you don’t want to do certain things, and keep it for the nurses at the Well-Baby Clinic and all the other types of people like that. I’m sure they’ll be most impressed.”