Dance of the Puppet – Chapter 14

purple bookIsrael Book Shop presents Chapter 14 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 curtain began to rise, revealing uniformly dressed figures sitting motionlessly. A small beam of light went on at the edge of the stage, slowly growing larger until it encompassed all of the performers.

“So, are we ready to start?” one of them whispered, clutching a large xylophone in his arms.

“One moment,” the pianist sitting next to him whispered back. “Menachem’s not here yet.”

“He’s here, he’s here,” the violin player interjected, glancing behind him.

The musicians began to applaud, and were quickly joined by the audience. Menachem appeared, nattily dressed, on the edge of the stage, smiling broadly. He bowed lightly to the hundreds of viewers, and without saying a word to them, he turned to those on the stage. “Ready, my friends?”

Then he glanced at his watch, and added, “I might have a surprise tonight…Well, we won’t wait now. Let’s begin.”

Soft notes flooded the hall, but they lasted just one minute before being interrupted by a shout.

“One minute, one minute!”

A young boy in a suit and black hat ran down the aisle between the rows of audience seats toward the stage. He clutched an instrument case in his right hand, and with his left hand, he dragged a massive suitcase. Breathless, he reached the stairs to the stage and climbed them, beaming from ear to ear. The instruments stopped playing at once.

“Dovi!” All the members of the ensemble exclaimed in unison. Three of them approached Dovi, and Menachem followed them, thoroughly satisfied.

“How did you get here?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be across the ocean now?”

“Is that you? Really you?”

Dovi smiled, dropping the suitcase with a loud thud. He bent over his flute case and opened the zipper. “Yes, I’m here. From Eretz Yisrael. From my yeshivah,” he said.

The dramatic performance had been prepared and practiced. Someone ran to bring Dovi a glass of water that had been waiting in the wings for just this moment. Dovi politely turned it down. “Did I miss something?” he asked, almost tremulously, as he swallowed a smile.

“No, you didn’t miss a thing.” Menachem Aberfort strode to the front of the stage, bowing again to the crowd. “Friends, do not take this lightly!” he said, laying a hand on Dovi’s shoulder. “Anyone who doesn’t remember Dovi Brim, the young, talented musician who has been with us since he was seven, can meet him now. Please welcome our yeshivah bachur, Dov Brim!”

He waited for the applause to subside and then continued. “The boy standing before you today has been learning diligently in Bnei Brak in the…which yeshivah, Dovi?”

“Shaarei Aharon,” the boy replied. He took off his hat and fanned himself with it to cool down a bit, and then donned it again.

“Shaarei Aharon. Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon has the privilege of having one of our top musicians as its student, and I’m sure that they enjoy his talents. Do you play for them sometimes, Dovi?”

“I did on Purim,” the boy replied into the mike affixed to his lapel.

“We would have invited them here to enjoy this performance together with us; I’m sure that if the staff of your yeshivah would be here now, they would reap much nachas from you. Will you join us now, Dovi?”

“I’ll try,” he replied modestly, and of course, did not mention to the audience that he had spent the past two weeks practicing along with the entire ensemble. In fact, he could probably play the pieces in his sleep.

“Alright, then, let’s start again,” the conductor called, and with a wave of his hand, the musicians each returned to their places. Only Dovi stood for another long moment until Menachem ostensibly showed him where to stand. “And if there’s someone who has a connection to Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon in Bnei Brak,” Menachem continued announcing to the audience, “please convey your admiration to them for their student. And now, the first number!” He turned back to face the ensemble that was waiting for his hand to instruct them to begin.

As the performers played, the applause of the audience blended with the music. Dovi gripped his flute, swaying along with the rhythm of the pieces.

There seemed to be only one person in the audience who was clearly displeased with Dovi’s little performance. His father had never been a big fan of Menachem Aberfort.

***

While the concert was taking place in New York, the clocks in Israel showed three a.m. But just about fourteen hours later, as Eliezer, the secretary of Shaarei Aharon, sat down in the quiet yeshivah office and switched on his computer, his inbox began beeping as incessant emails kept coming in. All the emails, Eliezer noticed, came from America.

“You missed your student. He was great!”

“So pleased to meet Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon. Do you have others like Brim?”

“My son learns in a little yeshivah in Lakewood, and they don’t allow participation in such events. Is it different in Eretz Yisrael?”

“What’s that performer looking for in your yeshivah?”

“We enjoyed Brim’s music very much. Lots of nachas!”

“It was nice to discover that yeshivos in Israel also allow their bachurim to pursue their hobbies.”

“To the rebbeim of the Brim boy: He played beautifully! Ask him to play for you at least once a week, not just on Purim.”

Eliezer was so confused; he didn’t know which of the emails were cynical and which were genuine. They were all about Dovi Brim and his concert performance, but it was hard to figure out what exactly they were referring to. Two hours and numerous emails later, things were much clearer. Dovi Brim, a talmid in the yeshivah, had played at a prestigious concert for an audience of several hundred.

Eliezer Morgan’s excellent connections served him very well now. He sent out a few requests, and within twenty minutes, he had all the details, along with video clips and photos. He gazed wide-eyed at the boy he knew so well running down the aisles, and then felt a twinge of pride when he saw the admiration with which Dovi was welcomed to the stage. He also admired the natural way that Dovi played. After hearing the name of their yeshivah being broadcast from the stage so many times, he also understood how everyone knew exactly to where they should direct their reactions.

“The rosh yeshivah has got to see this,” Eliezer murmured to himself, looking at Dovi’s red, exhilarated face as he blew into his flute, his body leaning forward slightly and his foot tapping on the stage floor to the rhythm. Rabbi Weinstock would not like the distasteful, staged publicity that the boy had given him, there was no doubt about that—but it was still his responsibility to tell him.

The phone call brought Rabbi Yeshayahu Weinstock racing to the office.

“I don’t believe it…” he said in shock when he saw the image of his talmid on the screen. “Turn it off, turn it off. I don’t want to look at it.” He read the emails that the secretary had printed out, and his face turned an angry pink. “What did that no-goodnick say over there?” he grilled Eliezer.

“He didn’t really speak. The conductor and organizer of the evening spoke.” Eliezer smiled with irony. “He said that our yeshivah should be proud of this special talmid, who travels so far to learn Torah, and who’s a real yeshivah bachur, and don’t ask what other pearls of wisdom. They mentioned us a lot of times.”

“At least he shouldn’t have made himself stick out with his black suit and hat.” Rabbi Weinstock sighed. “Why did he have to do all his nonsense under our name?”

Eliezer shrugged. He had no answer to that.

“Where do you have these clips from?” the rosh yeshivah asked.

“Someone downloaded them off the website of the conductor, Aberfort.”

“What, he has a website on the internet?”

“And how.”

“That means that the whole world can see Dovi like this.”

“And hear about Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon that has cultivated such a gem.”

Rabbi Weinstock sank into a chair, his head resting in his hands. He was quiet for several long moments. “He’s a good boy,” he finally said quietly, more to himself than to Eliezer. “But I shouldn’t have accepted him. All I need is for the parents of the other boys to hear about this concert, or for him to say something about it to his friends. As it is, I’m not always so happy with him. No, I shouldn’t have accepted him. It was a big mistake.” He shook his head from left to right, and then straightened up. “But mistakes can be rectified,” he declared resolutely. “And the sooner the better. Eliezer, can you get me the student list, please?”

When Dovi was five years old, his parents received an interesting type of telephone as a gift. The phone had an antique design, and no one in the house liked it except for Dovi. “It’s an elephant,” he said over and over. “A cute elephant. The decorations on the side are the ears and these circles are the eyes and this fat cord leading to the receiver is the trunk.”

Now the “elephant” buzzed, and Dovi hurriedly picked up the trunk-receiver. His father was at work, and his mother was taking her regular pre-lunch nap.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this the Brim residence?”

The unmistakable voice was very familiar, and the boy’s heart skipped a beat. His rosh yeshivah wasn’t calling to see how he was doing. What had happened?

“Yes,” Dovi said hesitantly.

“Dov, yes?”

“Y-yes.”

“Good afternoon, Dov. This is Rabbi Weinstock calling. How is bein hazemanim going for you?”

“Fine, baruch Hashem.”

“Are your friends from yeshivah calling you at all?”

Despite his tension, Dovi smiled. “Yes,” he said.

“A lot?”

“So-so.”

“And what else are you doing this summer?” Rabbi Weinstock continued his questioning.

“Learning, taking some trips with my parents, resting…”

“And playing in concerts.”

Dovi swallowed. The rosh yeshivah’s voice was hard. “Yes…also that,” he finally said.

“I see. Is your father home?”

“No.”

“Your mother?”

“She’s resting.”

“I see. Please tell your father I’d like to speak to him.”

Dovi swallowed again. “Rebbi, I…”

“Yes…?”

“I was there with a suit and hat and…”

“Yes, I know that very well.” Rabbi Weinstock smiled bitterly. “Let your father call me as quickly as possible, Brim, okay?”

“Yes,” Dovi whispered hoarsely. He heavily returned the receiver to its cradle. The “trunk” got all tangled between his fingers, and the piece he always imagined to be the “elephant’s” mouth suddenly looked like it was jeering at him mockingly. The “elephant” had never appeared as ugly to Dovi as it did at that moment.

***

Adina Kotzker rose from her seat to open the curtain. Was it suddenly cloudy outside on this mid-August day, or was she just imagining things? Malka’s children were jumping around, and the men were bentching and getting ready to go out to Minchah on Shabbos afternoon. She observed the family scene as though she was detached, offering a small smile to Mimi, who was sitting on the side and reading a book. Since their little run-in when Mimi had come to the high school, their relationship had become rather strained. Mimi tried to avoid her grandmother’s gaze, but today, she didn’t have to work too hard to evade being scrutinized. Even on vacation, her grandmother was a very busy person.

Adina became confused for a minute. Why were the men going to Minchah now? Her husband usually went to Minchah about an hour before shkiyah, because he had his Hilchos Shabbos shiur first. Why was he going now, right after the seudah?

“Nachum?” she called.

He was already at the door and came back. “Yes?”

“Why now?”

“Why now what?”

“Why are you going to Minchah now?”

“I always go now,” he said, somewhat taken aback.

Adina swallowed. “Now’s the shiur?”

Suddenly, she noticed Malka. The fact that Mimi was wearing weekday clothes was one thing. Adina didn’t even pretend to understand the differences between what girls these days deemed as Shabbos clothes and weekday clothes. But why was Malka wearing her gray suit that she often wore to school during the week?

“What shiur?” Nachum asked, now even more bewildered.

“No, sorry,” Adina said, suddenly feeling weak. “I got conf…used for a minute. I made a mistake. Forget it.”

Her husband paused for a minute, staring at the floor. “Okay, then, goodbye,” he said finally and left with his son-in-law. Just plain goodbye, no “good Shabbos”…

That was it! It wasn’t Shabbos now!

Had she fallen asleep?

Around her, the family picture began to come into focus. Malka and her family had come for a lunch because it was vacation, and…one minute. Where was Yael?

“Where’s Yael?” Adina asked.

Malka turned around to her. “Yael?” she echoed in surprise. “I don’t know exactly. She went with her family to Haifa, I think.”

“She…” Adina swallowed again. Something strange was happening here; why was she feeling so clueless? “She…” she tried again.

“Ima?” Malka let the tray clatter to the table, suddenly deeply concerned. What was happening to her mother?

The children continued playing and laughing around her, but Adina didn’t hear them at all. “Yaffa,” she strained to whisper. “Is she here? Tell her…” And then her words were cut off.

“Drink something, Ima,” Malka urged, her worry growing. “Did you swallow something the wrong way? What did you just eat?” The color of her mother’s skin worried her, but aside from that, she looked normal. Adina didn’t stretch her hand out for the cup of seltzer that Mimi hurriedly poured for her. She just sat on her chair and breathed deeply.

“What happened, Ima?” Malka bent over to her mother, looking tense.

Adina wanted to tell her that everything was fine, but she couldn’t get the words out of her mouth, and she knew that everything was not fine at all. Alzheimer’s didn’t set in all at once, did it? She had gotten confused for a minute a bit earlier, but besides for that, her memory seemed to be working just fine, baruch Hashem. The recent headaches she’d been experiencing? Just the day before yesterday, she’d gone to the doctor, who said that it was the result of unstable blood pressure. Perhaps her difficulty speaking also came from the blood pressure?

“Ima, please, answer me!” Malka pleaded.

Yes, she would, in a minute. She’d breathe deeply and then she’d answer her daughter. Adina leaned back in the chair, pleased to discover that she could breathe normally. She was breathing, her heart was beating normally, and everything was fine. She motioned with her hand. Another minute, another second.

But Malka refused to wait. “Run and call Abba and Saba!” she shrieked hysterically at the children. Adina tried to motion to her that there was no need to call them, but now her hand also refused to obey her, like her mouth. She lowered her eyes to the fingers on the table. Why wouldn’t they move? They were hers, weren’t they?

No.

Nothing was hers.

She continued listening to her deep breaths, covertly checking if her left hand worked. It moved easily. Her left leg also kicked forward with no protestations. Her right one refused, however.

How much time would it take for her left hand and leg to join her body’s rebellion, too?

And how much time would it take for the breathing to give out also?

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the children stop playing. Two of them burst out of the door. Mimi sat the rest of them down on the sofa, perhaps to recite Tehillim. What were they so uptight about? How many seconds had passed since she’d been like this?

The breathing continued regularly, baruch Hashem, smooth and deep. But Adina wasn’t calm. Where had Malka gone? She had a few important things to tell her. On second thought, she had nothing to say.

Her grandchildren sat across the room, saying the Shir Hamaalos. On her right, the door burst open, and on her left, Malka stood tensely, the phone pressed to her ear.

“I should ask her to say a coherent sentence?” Malka was saying. “She won’t say a word! One minute, what?” She took a deep breath and turned to her mother. “Ima, please raise your right hand.”

Adina gaped at the fingers on the table.

“She’s not raising it!” Malka said into the phone, and then turned to her mother again. “Ima, smile!”

Smile? How could she smile? A distorted grimace, closer to a sob, crossed Adina’s face.

“There was something,” Malka reported in a hysterical tone to the ambulance operator on the line. “Are you sending help?”

Adina stopped listening. Help. Sending. You.

She was breathing again, gazing at her husband, who was striding over to her quickly. He was clearly alarmed; that much was obvious. He was afraid of losing his wife. She was also afraid of losing her…oh, so afraid…

Was it possible for someone to die so quietly, so suddenly?

***

The string of hysterical phone calls began less than an hour later.

“It’s urgent: daven for Adina Aidel bas Malka Bracha. Did you hear what happened to her?”

“Who? Who is it?”

“Mrs. Kotzker. She’s in critical condition!”

“What?!” The shrieks that ensued with each phone call varied in accordance with the listener’s personality. The teachers and students—those who were not away for bein hazemanim and were available—were all stunned. “What happened to her?!”

“She had a major stroke. She’s unconscious, on a respirator, and no one knows what the prognosis is yet.”

Many sifrei Tehillim were opened; countless tefillos were recited as tears streamed down faces. No one could envision their principal in critical condition, lying silently in the Intensive Care Unit, with her family huddled anxiously by her bedside.

Yaffa Levinsky, who received the news from her sister that evening, was also shocked and shaken to the core. “No…” she whispered, white-lipped, into the phone. “She spoke to me this morning! She was normal, so nice, and told me to come back to work at school in three days. They’re starting to get ready for the new school year.”

“You didn’t tell me,” Chaya said, resentment creeping into her voice. “But that makes no difference now. You go to school when she told you to come, and if nothing’s changed by then, we’ll see what to do.”

Mrs. Kotzker… Yaffa hung up the phone with a shaking hand and sat down on the floor, because the nearest chair was six feet away and she had no energy to walk over to it. Mrs. Kotzker! A stroke! Critical condition! Yaffa sat on the floor and wept. Bentzy tried to grasp the hem of her robe from his position on his play mat, but she was just out of his reach.

Elchanan was alarmed to find her like that, and was even more dismayed to hear the reason for it. “Oy vey!” he said. “But you know what? I thought someone had died, the way you’re reacting. That kind of hysterical crying isn’t going to help your principal. You’d be better off asking for rachamim from the One Who can really heal her.”

“I wasn’t just crying. I was also davening,” Yaffa protested. With great effort, she got to her feet. “I…I don’t know if you know what Mrs. Kotzker is to me. She’s so wonderful; she treats everyone so nicely… I just can’t imagine the school without her.”

Elchanan stretched his arms out to his son. “Okay, don’t eulogize her now,” he said calmly and then added magnanimously, “I’ll take care of Bentzy now. Do you want to go down to the hospital?”

“What?!” Yaffa almost shouted. “Me?! Why on earth?”

“I’m sure that lots of people from the staff are going to see her. In such times, whoever feels close to the person goes. I remember that when my father was in the ICU after his heart attack, at least five of his close friends from work came and sat outside the ward with us.”

“Well, I’m not among the five closest people to her,” Yaffa said, looking for her sefer Tehillim in the bookshelf. “And not from the ten closest either. I’m just a secretary who the principal treated really nicely, just like she treats everyone else in the world.”

“Really? She treats everyone else exactly the same as she treats you?”

“Well, maybe she liked me a bit more, but…” She went back to the couch. “But however you look at it, we didn’t form such a close bond that I have to wait near her room with her family and with Malka her daughter, and Yael, and all the others who may or may not come.”

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