Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 16 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.
“Can I speak to the princ—er, to Mrs. Yael Braun, please?”
Yaffa put down the receiver and walked over to the principal’s office. The board members were seated around the large desk with Malka Mann and Yael Braun, while Mrs. Kotzker’s chair remained empty. Yaffa knocked lightly, and all heads turned in her direction.
“I’m sorry to disturb,” she said in a near whisper. “Mrs. Braun, you have a phone call.”
Chana, the second secretary, walked into the office at that moment. “You shouldn’t bother them there, Yaffa,” she said to the younger woman’s back. “Is it urgent for now?”
“I told her to transfer all calls to me. They could be important,” Yael said as she emerged from the principal’s office and picked up the receiver. Yaffa returned to her desk and went back to the student roster, comparing the written information with the entries in the computer.
“Are you managing there, Yaffa?” Yael asked when she finished her conversation and headed back to the principal’s office. “How’s the computer program? Is it easy to work with?”
“Yes, and thanks for the explanations. Now I see that it’s not as complicated as I thought.”
“It’s not complicated at all,” Chana remarked from her seat, following Yael with her eyes as she returned to the board meeting. She could see that the discussion in the inner office was getting more intense; the atmosphere there was clearly loaded.
“It may just be a substituting position, but it is still significant,” Rabbi Weinstock was saying.
“The question is who will take it on themselves,” Rabbi Sindler, Yael’s father, interjected. “Rav Mishkovsky, what about you?”
“Oh, no,” the man sitting toward the corner of the room replied. “I can’t possibly add the high school to my schedule.”
“No, no.” The woman seated beside Malka and Yael smiled slightly, but added nothing more.
“Actually, maybe it would be enough for one of the teachers to handle the day-to-day affairs,” one member suggested, “which, in reality, is how things are being managed now.”
“It’s not enough at all.” Avraham Weissman, the lawyer, rejected the suggestion. “The high school cannot be run like this long-term.” He didn’t glance in Malka Mann’s direction. “B’ezras Hashem, when Mrs. Kotzker recovers—it will take time until she can take over the reins again. In the meantime, the school needs a guiding hand, not just a temporary substitute, especially as the situation is complex now because—”
He paused. What should he say? That as long as Mrs. Kotzker was alive, the situation, from a legal standpoint, was very complicated? When a person passes away, his responsibilities are transferred to the next person in the hierarchy, no questions asked. However, when a person is alive, but not functional, it’s much more complicated to transfer his authority.
Malka hardly heard the exchange. In her mind’s eye, she saw her mother, small, shrunken, and pale, in her hospital bed. Was it really just four days since this had all begun?
“Mrs. Mann, will you be able to do the job?” Rabbi Sindler asked gently.
Malka’s response was a just-barely-perceptible shake of the head from side to side. No, she could not inherit her mother’s position now. It was out of the question.
Rabbi Weinstock, the rosh yeshivah of Shaarei Aharon, stroked his beard and looked to his left, to Rabbi Sindler. “And your daughter?” he asked. His words seemed to send a jolt of electricity through Malka Mann, but she continued to look down, examining the pattern of her skirt. Yael sat just inches away from her, and it was impossible to see her expression.
“I prefer not to,” Yael said, glancing quickly at her friend. Now, for the first time, she saw how similar Malka was to her mother. She and Malka both knew very well that if one of them was capable of taking the reins of the school in hand at this sensitive time, it was her. But she wouldn’t do it to Malka. Not now.
Rabbi Sindler looked at his daughter and her friend. “I don’t think we have to decide on this right now,” he said hastily. “Mrs. Mann and my daughter are currently managing things very well, so—”
“Rabbi Sindler, forgive me for being so blunt, but you’re not very familiar with the legal aspect of all this.” Attorney Weissman was tired and a bit irritated. How many times did he have to explain what he deemed as such a simple thing? “Please find me a teacher or someone else who can serve as a suitable substitute for the principal—even if it’s just for official purposes. The government needs to see that the school has an official principal who’s in charge of administering government-required tests, making sure that all the legalities of running an official school are being met, doing all those kinds of things. Otherwise, the Ministry of Education won’t recognize the school as an official school, and we won’t receive any funding from them.
“Believe me, even like this we’re going to have more paperwork to fill out than you can possibly imagine. But leaving things as they are now, with no official principal in place, is the worst thing we can do, however you look at it.”
“The school needs a principal,” one member mused aloud, and a huge lump settled in Malka’s throat. The school needed a principal. She needed a mother. Her children and nieces and nephews needed a grandmother. What could be simpler than that?
“How about a mechaneches from one of the higher grades?” Rabbi Weinstock attempted. “Is there anyone suitable there?”
“Malka?” Yael whispered. “What do you think about having one of the twelfth-grade teachers do it?”
“They’re not suited for the job.”
“And Mrs. Kopschitz?”
“I don’t want to think about anyone right now.”
Silence fell for a minute.
“Mrs. Mann,” Avraham Weissman began. “Excuse me for saying this, but there’s no need to weigh down this issue with excessive emotion. This is primarily a technical issue, a procedural matter, and I’m asking you—”
“Enough, enough,” Rabbi Weinstock cut him off. An abundance of tact was never one of Weissman’s attributes, but there had to be some limit to how far he could go, even if Mrs. Kotzker’s daughter’s refusal to cooperate was complicating matters for the rest of them. “Mrs. Braun and Mrs. Mann, will you be able to provide us with a suitable name?”
“Mrs. Plotnick,” Yael said quietly.
“Plotnick? That would be the last name I would choose. Mrs. Aronson, maybe.” Malka raised her eyes.
“Aronson?” Yael wanted to say something sharp. What was happening to her friend’s reasoning? Had she left it in the hospital, intubated and sedated? “No, Malky, really, it’s not a good idea.”
“Why not? Maybe because you prefer that…” Malka stopped her quiet retort, suddenly becoming aware of the presence of the others in the room.
“Can I have a cup?” one of the board members asked aloud, but his distraction failed to mitigate the effect of the feverish whispers going on between Yael Braun and Malka Mann. The cup was passed, cold water was poured, but it all failed to cool the heat of the moment.
Yael tried not to meet her father’s eyes. From time to time, she had shared tidbits that gave him a general idea of the complex relationship she had with Malka Mann, but he certainly hadn’t expected the tensions to rise to the surface in such a blatant way.
“Okay, let us put the question of the management aside for now,” Rabbi Weinstock said, casting a pointed look at Weissman. “We’ll come back to it at the end of this meeting. We have a few other matters to discuss right now. Regarding the bank accounts….”
In the outer office, Chana checked the photocopy machine. “Making problems again,” she grumbled. “I’m calling a technician. Yaffa, can you please open the first drawer next to you?”
Yaffa tried to comply. “It’s locked,” she replied.
“Sure it’s locked. My key ring is on the shelf behind you. It’s the key with the orange sticker. Got it?”
Yaffa rifled through the key ring and then tried to open the drawer. But the key didn’t seem to work, and she struggled with it, hoping Chana was duly distracted.
“It doesn’t open,” she said finally, in a quiet tone.
“So try the key with the green sticker. Does that work? Good. I told you. Do you see a checkbook there?”
“Nope.” Yaffa looked further into the drawer.
“Oh no…” Chana sighed. “What do we do now? No checks and no cash. How do we pay the technician? If I would have known before, I would have passed by the bank, but…” She sounded like she was scolding.
Yaffa kept her eyes glued to the computer screen. What had she done wrong this time? True, lots of things were not going smoothly these days, with the principal being absent, like the fact that Yaffa had to spend so much time in the same room as Chana, who reminded her of the girl Yaffa’s teacher had seated beside Yaffa in ninth grade. The teacher had probably asked the girl to help Yaffa with her lessons; her patronizing expression and do-good attitude revealed it all. The girl had asked why Yaffa wasn’t taking notes, and then explained how important good notes were for the test. She’d inquired why Yaffa didn’t answer when the teacher called on her, and had warned her that the teacher might perceive it as chutzpah.
Next to that classmate, Yaffa always felt like a nebbach case who could never get anything right. Strangely enough, during those days, things happened to her that underscored the self-image she had of herself as a good-for-nothing: her bottle of juice spilled on the desk they shared; her shirt got horribly stained with avocado; and she’d even fallen once in the aisle between the desks. Her scraped knee looked like it belonged on a four-year-old, not a fourteen-year-old.
“Go and ask the board members, please, what to do if the checkbooks are finished,” Chana instructed. “I have lots of work to do here.”
Yaffa checked the last two lines on the screen and rose. You’d think she liked the job of the resident nudnik, knocking on the door every other minute, but she had no choice. Apparently, that was the difference between the main secretary and the secretary’s assistant. She put a hand on the doorknob and turned it.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said quietly, trying to raise her voice. Now she wasn’t only addressing Yael, who was sitting near the door. She was speaking to them all. “Chana wants to know what to do. We need to withdraw cash from the bank and to order new checkbooks.” She swallowed. “I mean, I can go, but…”
Rabbi Sindler wrinkled his forehead. “One minute. The last time we were here, something similar happened, if I’m not mistaken.”
“You gave her an authorization to withdraw funds, I believe,” Rabbi Weinstock added. “Well, let her go again and use it.”
“You have a bank authorization?” Attorney Weissman inquired.
“An authorization?” Yaffa stood in the doorway, trying to make sure no one would see her trembling hands. She hated standing there, alone, facing so many people. “Yes, the principal wrote one out then. It was…um…a…”
“An authorization,” Weissman filled in for her. “Do you have it? If it’s valid, you can use it to go to the bank now and leave us here to attend to our business.”
Yaffa fled back into the main office and rummaged around in her bag. Here was the new wallet Elchanan had bought for her, and here was the paper that the principal had hastily typed up on Chana’s computer.
“Are you going to the bank? Excellent.” Chana looked pleased. “We have to order at least four checkbooks and withdraw cash. Let’s see, we need…no, why am I deciding? Let Malka or Yael decide. Someone in that room should tell you how much money to withdraw from the bank.”
Yaffa took her bag and approached the inner office again. The board members fell silent when they noticed her. The woman with the wrinkles on her face that Yaffa remembered from the last meeting smiled at her.
“I have it here,” Yaffa said, toying with her wallet. She didn’t ask how much money she was supposed to withdraw. She, minor lackey that she was, was not going to stick her nose into important business.
“Let me see if it’s valid.” Weissman stretched his hand out.
It took Yaffa a second to realize that he meant the authorization. She quickly pulled it out of her wallet and placed it on the table. “Here,” she said, almost inaudibly.
Weissman opened the many folds of the page, humming under his breath. He quickly scanned the few typed lines on the paper, and then raised his eyes to the door as he passed the paper to Rabbi Sindler. “You signed on this not-normally-worded authorization?” he growled.
Rabbi Sindler looked at him reprovingly, but the lawyer did not back down. “Who wrote this thing?” he demanded. “Not me! What kind of authorization is this?!”
“But you’re signed here, together with me and Mrs. Kotzker,” Rabbi Sindler pointed out. He didn’t read the words; he just glanced at the signature on the bottom of the page.
“Me? Yes, now I remember that Mrs. Kotzker hurried to type up something on the computer that time. Believe me, I didn’t read it before I signed. Do you know what it says here?” He cast a questioning glance around the room and proffered his hand to Rabbi Sindler to get the paper back. “I don’t mean to speak badly of the principal, may she be well, but I’ve never seen such a letter in my life. I mean, if the bank accepted it, then there’s no problem, but…” He paused again, reading the short lines.
Then he nodded thoughtfully. “But you know, now that I’m thinking about it, this letter may be our solution. This can take care of lots of problems and all sorts of annoying procedures. Listen.” He cleared his throat and read off the paper. “‘Mrs. Yaffa Levinsky’…is that you? Well, then, it says that she is a proxy of the Poalim L’Torah association, ID number 449876, and is hereby authorized to withdraw, inspect, and make any monetary decision and the like…” He wrinkled his forehead, continuing to read, and then raised his eyes.
“Listen, as far as I’m concerned, this all worked out for the best. Mrs. Kotzker has already chosen, has appointed and transferred the authority to, the substitute of her choice.” He smiled like a Cheshire cat, which made Rabbi Mishkovsky fix him with a reproving glare. “Now things have gotten much simpler. As far as procedural matters are concerned, we now have a principal. She got a full authorization from Mrs. Kotzker, and it’s all legal and in writing.” He sipped from his cup of water and cracked his knuckles.
Yaffa didn’t know who to look at first—at Rabbi Weinstock, who tried the whole time to say something, unsuccessfully; at Yael Braun, who sat leaning forward, her eyes narrowed; or at Malka Mann, who remained frozen and distant in her seat.
It was a shame there was no mirror there. The best thing for her to do right then would have been to look at herself and see if she looked particularly silly, standing at the door of the room and not understanding a word of what was being said to her.
Mimi was trying desperately to reach her mother. There was no change in the situation, Uncle Shaul had said when he called, but the doctors wanted to summon the family for an important meeting, and she should tell her mother to get to the hospital within the hour at the latest.
But Malka’s cell phone was switched off. Mimi had already left seven messages, and a second before leaving the eighth, she changed her mind and hung up. Her mother would call her back the minute she heard the first message; it was needless to speak into thin air when no one would be listening later anyway. It was strange that Ima had turned off her phone; wasn’t she nervous that someone would be trying to reach her?
Mimi looked around her. The house was clean, the way Ima liked it. Mimi had been trying very hard the last few days to keep up with the housework, but her mother saw nothing of it. She left in the morning and came back in the evening, and it was a good thing that Tzippy was good with the kids, even if she wasn’t good at keeping things tidy. She, Mimi, didn’t have a drop of patience for anyone, not even for herself.
Abba had sent her yesterday to buy a new briefcase, to replace her old one that had become irreparably ripped. Apparently, Ima had remembered, despite everything, that Mimi needed a new briefcase, and had reminded Abba about it. But Mimi just wasn’t in the mood of going shopping right now. A briefcase for eighth grade was a big deal, and she had no patience at this time to browse in stores, see the selection, and then consult with her mother and her friends, before finally settling on something.
Abba didn’t understand why it was such a complicated thing. “Find something good and strong, and if you like it, buy it,” he’d said, puzzled. “What’s the problem, Mimi? I don’t understand.”
That was it. There was no problem. She just wasn’t in the mood. Nothing would happen if she’d go to school for two days with a shopping bag, unless her mechaneches was one of those kinds of teachers who was very fussy about girls coming to school with briefcases.
“Mimi?” Finally! Her mother had called back. And she sounded tense and nervous. “I didn’t understand your message. What did you say?”
“There’s no change, but the doctors want to talk to you, so Uncle Shaul said you should go to the hospital right away.”
“Okay, I’m leaving right now. I forgot my phone in the secretary’s office in a bag and it was on vibrate. Now I came out for a few minutes, and I found it here.”
“Should I make some rice for supper, Ima?”
“Whatever you want. Did you buy a briefcase?” Malka quickly checked her bag to make sure she had everything, and was rather distracted.
“No,” Mimi said, realizing that it was useless to explain right now why she had not done so. Her mother’s head was not with her, even if her ears were.
“Okay, Mimi, sweetie, I have to say goodbye to the others here and then I’m going to leave. We’ll talk later.” Malka hung up and stuck the phone back into her bag. Then she walked back to the inner office door. “I’m sorry, I have to get to the hospital right now,” she said, looking only at Yael.
“Is everything okay?” Yael asked tremulously.
“No change.” Malka shook her head toward the others.
“Well, we’re just about finished here,” Rabbi Sindler, Yael’s father, said. He clicked his pen closed and stuck it into his pocket. “Is everything that was said here accepted by all?”
“What about the management position, you know, the substitute principal?” someone asked. Not Yael.
“It’s all organized.” Attorney Weissman raised his eyes from a small pad he was busily writing in. “At least in my records it is. As far as I’m concerned, someone else can sit in this chair here, but legally, let’s leave Levinsky as the one. It will be the best thing, believe me.”
“Accepted by all?” Rabbi Sindler asked a bit heavily. The board members all exchanged glances, but no one said anything in affirmation. No one rejected the motion either.
“I’m going out to the main office to explain a few things to her. You can sit here until dawn for all I care, and continue to argue over a different substitute for Mrs. Kotzker.”
A substitute for Mrs. Kotzker.
Malka, standing at the door, bit her bottom lip as she stepped aside so the lawyer could walk into the outer office, to Yaffa Levinsky, who’d gone to the bank and returned by now. Who would replace her mother? Who would be the surrogate principal?
“Yael, I’m running,” she said hastily. “For my part, you can leave it like this until my mother comes back.”
“What’s ‘like this’?” Yael asked, ignoring the rest of the members of the board. “With Yaffa Levinsky as principal?!”
Malka looked at her directly. “Do you have a better idea? Do you want one of the other staff members there?” she asked.
Rebbetzin Shick, the eldest member of the board, eyed both women. “You can also take an educational figure who isn’t part of the school’s staff,” she said calmly. “We can come up with a few names, but we all hope that Mrs. Kotzker will recover quickly, b’ezras Hashem, so that it will be needless to bother an outsider for just a few weeks.”
“Someone from inside is the best option,” Rabbi Weinstock said tiredly.
“I’m not filling my mother’s place now,” Malka said in a quiet yet firm tone as she looked at her watch.
Rabbi Sindler looked at his daughter.
“Neither am I,” Yael hurried to say.
So who would it be? Mrs. Plotnick? Mrs. Aronson? Chana the secretary? Sima Kagan? Each of them would be just too principal-like.
Malka was still standing on tenterhooks at the door when her and Yael’s eyes met. How strange. The same thoughts seemed to be running through both of their minds.
Rebbetzin Shick looked at them both. “So perhaps,” she said, “leave Levinsky as the substitute principal, officially, while you two help her. She makes a good impression.”
“The principal also liked her very much,” Yael suddenly said alertly. “Remember, Malky? We talked about her the day before the Overnight.”
Malka nodded slowly. “Ima spoke about her in very complimentary terms, that’s true.”
“But if you leave it like this,” Rabbi Sindler said somberly, “you’ll have to make sure she gets the respect she deserves in the full sense of the word. We don’t want a situation where the students will learn in a school without a firm guiding hand—not for even one day.”
“Of course,” Malka said, just one beat after Yael, and then she hurried out, nodding farewell to all those present.
“Okay, so let’s leave things as they are now,” Rabbi Weinstock said, and Yael rose to follow her friend who had run out. Perhaps she could still catch up with her and walk her to the taxi.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the impatient lawyer sitting across the secretary’s desk. “Don’t interfere, please, Chana,” he was saying, waving his hand at the main secretary. “These things are too important to allow ourselves distractions.” He leaned back in his seat as he animatedly pontificated to the pale-faced, newly installed principal.