Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Faigy Krauss, the assistant secretary of the high school, listened in silence to the tirade coming through the phone.
“It’s totally crazy, I’m telling you,” Chana raged repeatedly on the other end of the line. “And then he kept explaining to me how I have to give her all the backing and authority to make sure the job is done effectively and that there is continuity, blah blah blah.” She paused for a second. “Isn’t it ridiculous, Faigy? I’m asking you, is this normal? Principal! If Malka or Yael didn’t want to take on the job for whatever reason, couldn’t they have given it to one of us?”
“Why?” Faigy asked.
“Why? Because you and I at least have a vague idea of how the school runs, which this little girl does not!”
“That’s exactly what they wanted, Chana.” Faigy was calm. “They would never have given you the job of running the school, precisely because you know how to do it too well.”
“I would never take such a thing on myself.”
“So what do they want? Someone to run the place without knowing how?”
“No.” Only as Faigy said the words did she grasp how true they were. “They want someone to sign all their forms and to be presentable enough, but they will manage everything through her.”
“Presentable?” Chana huffed into the phone; it sounded almost like a snort. “Come on, Faigy.”
“Presentable from a legal standpoint, I meant, not that she’s going to speak at parents’ evenings or anything.”
“But why—” Chana wasn’t ready to give up so fast.
“Chana, let’s imagine that you were the one who got that authorization notice from Mrs. Kotzker, and now you became the temporary principal. Yael Braun comes to you to approve an idea that you don’t like. What would you do?”
“I’d explain why I don’t like it.”
“And if she tells you that that’s very nice, but she’s been the extracurricular coordinator for years now, so would you please give her a free hand in these things?”
Somehow, this elicited a smile from Chana. She was honest enough with herself. “I would tell her to please think it over again, because a school that is operating with such a tight budget cannot afford to waste resources on whatever nonsense it is that she’s asking about.”
“So there’s your answer!” Faigy was almost triumphant. “Yael and Malka don’t want to be the principal, each one for her own reasons. But they also won’t give up the position—or their authority—so fast. So having someone like Yaffa Levinsky hold the title ‘substitute principal’ is ideal for them. She’ll be the empty hanger that they want—you know what I mean?”
“Yes.” Chana’s voice was much quieter now. “Or the clothespin to hold things up for now. Not that I’m excited about serving under a twenty-five-year-old whippersnapper, mind you.”
“She’s twenty,” Faigy corrected her. “I filled out her details on the employment form.”
A new brown, red, and black briefcase stood in the corner of the room. Shuli glanced at it with a half-closed eye. “If that Yaffa doesn’t answer the phone today, I don’t envy her,” she informed the four walls. She turned over onto the other side. “School starts in five days, and then the party’s over! Ugh!”
She’d been trying to reach Yaffa for three days already, but there had been no answer at Yaffa’s home, despite the messages she’d left for her. In the end, Shuli had gone to buy a briefcase with a different girl, and hadn’t reached Yaffa since then either.
“Shuli, I’m leaving,” her mother informed her from the doorway of her room. “Don’t forget to do the kitchen.”
“And don’t ask that lady to come and clean for you!” Baruch called from behind his mother, and then ran away to escape his sister’s wrath.
“Grrrr….” Shuli said as she washed her hands. She heard the front door slam. “That Baruch! And I do plan on calling Yaffa, and if she won’t come, at least we can talk!”
But the person who picked up the phone in the Levinsky home was Chaya. She’d come to take Bentzy so that Yaffa could go to school. All of Yaffa’s protests about how she had a wonderful babysitter right in her building had fallen on deaf ears. Yaffa knew that Chaya wanted to have a word with her and that watching Bentzy was just an excuse.
“Hello?” Chaya said as she rocked Bentzy with one arm.
“No, it’s Chaya.”
“And where is Yaffa? I’m Shuli, by the way, and Yaffa knows me very well.”
“She’s busy right now. Oh, here she is…” Chaya smiled at Yaffa, who emerged from the bedroom dressed and ready to leave. Yaffa’s face was even paler than usual. “Yaffa, phone’s for you. She said her name is Shuli and that you know her very well.”
Yaffa paused. “Tell her that I can’t come to the phone,” she whispered. “I don’t have the energy for her now, Chaya.”
Chaya raised an eyebrow. “Yaffa can’t come to the phone right now,” she said into the phone.
“It’s not only right now,” the person on the other end replied. “She also couldn’t come to the phone the entire yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and whenever else she wasn’t able to. Well, tell her that I want her to call me back as soon as she can.”
Chaya hung up the phone and looked at the caller ID. “Look, this Shuli has called you…one second, let me check…sixteen times in the last three days! Yaffa, are you normal?”
“I’m not so sure.”
Chaya didn’t bat an eyelash at her sister’s queer response. “I don’t believe it. Yaffa, you’ve become such a snob! Is that how it is now that you have a new job?”
“I’m not a snob,” Yaffa said, playing with her pocketbook. “I just need tons of energy for her, and I don’t have any to spare right now, okay?”
“What does she want from you?” Chaya seated Bentzy in the carriage.
“Is she your friend?”
Yaffa smiled crookedly. “Let’s call it that.” And then she bent down to find her shoes under the couch. Only the right one was there.
“Don’t tell me you’re still wearing those hideous shoes!” Chaya gasped. “You’re a principal, Yaffa. A principal!” Chaya felt like it was the craziest sentence she had ever uttered in her life, but that was why she forced herself to say it. Yaffa—a high school principal! What had the world come to?!
“Mrs. Kotzker’s shoes are a thousand years older,” Yaffa protested as she stuck her right foot into the shoe. “So mine are just fine.”
“Hmm. Who are those flowers from?”
“My mother-in-law.” Oh, there was the left shoe!
“That was sweet of her. Can I read the card?”
“She didn’t write anything.” Yaffa shrugged. “She just stuck on one of those singing cards that says, ‘Good luck!’ on it. She didn’t notice that inside the card is a picture of a test paper with a big red 100 on the top. I hope that whatever lies ahead doesn’t remind me of tests, because I’m not good at tests at all.”
Chaya was quiet for a minute. “Well, you’re going to have to work very hard,” she said finally. “Diving into such a job without any background is a very big deal. You’re going to have to learn how to be assertive, and to remember that you can’t daydream for even one minute. It won’t be good if they see you drifting off with your thoughts in the middle of some important meeting. And you have all the technical and financial details on your head, as well. Malka Mann is the one officially responsible for those kinds of things over there, but you’ll have plenty to do, too, especially since she’s very distracted now with her mother. In any case, I’ll ask her to be considerate and help you as much as she can.”
“Thanks,” Yaffa said, rinsing Bentzy’s bottle from his early morning feeding.
“No problem. So what’s the deal with this Shuli? You’ll call her back, right?”
“As soon as I have energy for her.”
“When did you last speak to her?”
“Five days ago.”
“Then two minutes won’t be enough for her. Be nicer to her, Yaffa. It makes no difference—”
“We spoke for forty-six minutes last time. The phone rang at eight o’clock on the nose, and we hung up at eight-forty-six. Besides, we spoke every evening last week for at least twenty minutes. Doesn’t that sound like enough to you?”
“Who is this person? What do you talk about?”
Yaffa ignored the first half of the question. “We talk about the briefcase that she really doesn’t need to buy, and about the music that she likes and I don’t, and how to deal with Baruch and other people, and how to try not to get angry, and how to clean the house quickly and easily, and how to hang laundry so that it creases as little as possible, and…”
Chaya nodded slowly. So Yaffa must have contacted a therapist or life coach of sorts. That was smart. It was just strange to Chaya that there were entire parts of her sister’s life that she was unaware of. “Briefcase? Cleaning the house? And who’s Baruch?”
“Baruch is Shuli’s brother,” Yaffa replied, glancing nervously at her watch. She was starting her new job today. She had no idea what to expect; she didn’t even know what kind of salary she would be getting. But she did know that she had to be on time.
Yael Braun had called her at least twice yesterday, asking both times for “Mrs. Levinsky, the principal.” Yaffa had felt a chill tingle down her spine each time, and she’d replied, “No, don’t say that,” but Yael had insisted that, “Yes, I will.”
Then there had been quiet on the line, until Yael had begun to speak about the issue she had called about. Once it was about the opening assembly of the first day of school; she mentioned details such as location and time and some other things. Yaffa had listened and nodded, all the while gazing out the window. Every so often she’d remembered to murmur in agreement and insert an “of course” or “absolutely.” The second call was about the ninth-grade opening assembly and the division of the classes, which was not yet complete.
Oh, and now she remembered, Yael had called a third time, too! The third phone call had been about the teachers’ schedules. That conversation had included many things that Yaffa was clueless about. But she’d remained quiet, simply murmuring in agreement and nodding her head to whatever Yael Braun said.
“Did Mommy send you anything?” Chaya was asking her now.
“Yes, some delicious cheese danishes. There are few left in a box in the refrigerator, if you want.”
“Mommy made them?”
“No, she ordered them.”
Yaffa quickly stuck Bentzy’s pacifier into his diaper bag. Elchanan’s sandwich was ready on the counter, wrapped in cling wrap. She looked around one last time at the little apartment. Next time she’d see it, she’d be something else.
“Abba, there’s a bachur at the door who wants to speak to you.”
“Abba” was Rabbi Chaim Noy, the maggid shiur of the second shiur at Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon. He abandoned the pot he was tending to. A bachur? Which bachur could be showing up at his door so urgently after less than a week in yeshivah? In any case, it was the hardest hour of the day for him. On Tuesdays, his wife finished working at four and his oldest daughter finished school at three. It was his job to feed the younger ones lunch. He wiped his hands on a towel and stepped out of the kitchen.
“Dov!” he exclaimed in surprise. “You’re here in Israel?” The fact that Dovi was expelled was common knowledge among all the rebbeim in the yeshivah. The hanhalah hadn’t seemed too concerned about where Dovi would go next. Someone had said that Dovi would fit perfectly in a yeshivah in America, and it was safe to assume that that’s what would happen. Dovi Brim was a star talmid, a serious learner with a captivating personality. Surely he would be an asset to any yeshivah he’d join, as long as he’d be sure to stay out of trouble there.
“I’m here,” the boy said without the trace of a smile. “Can I speak to Rebbi?”
“Ummm…” Reb Chaim blinked rapidly. If they went into the dining room and closed the door, Dovi might not see the hullaballoo around him. But what would happen in the kitchen in the meantime? The potatoes would burn. The chicken sauce would boil away, and Yanky would howl that he wasn’t eating chicken without sauce. Tamar would spill the juice out of the pitcher and onto the floor, and Shloimy would scream for no good reason.
“Ummm…” he said again, knowing that it was all just an excuse. He didn’t want to bring Dovi Brim inside, because if the rosh yeshivah wasn’t interested in having him as a talmid, the maggid shiur could not put on an act of drawing the former student closer.
“We’ll speak here, Dov,” he said gently. “What’s doing with you?”
“Nothing,” Dovi replied. “One big nothing.”
“Are you learning in a different yeshivah?”
“No, I didn’t leave Shaarei Aharon.”
Obstinacy, Reb Chaim knew, was one of Dovi’s character traits. “You didn’t leave,” he echoed, listening with half an ear to the suspicious noises coming from the kitchen. “But…”
“But I was sent away. Yes, I know.” Dovi took a deep breath. “Rebbi, can you…can you help me come back?”
Reb Chaim Noy bit his lip and shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Dov,” he said. “You did something very serious, something that’s not so easily forgiven in the yeshivah world here in Eretz Yisrael. I don’t think the rosh yeshivah has any intention of letting you back in.”
“Will Rebbi ask for me?”
“Me?” He could hear the chicken sauce bubbling loudly. “If I see that the subject comes up for discussion, I can try and apologize in your name and say…what should I say, Dov?”
“That I didn’t think it was such a terrible thing,” the boy replied. “And that even on the stage, I remained a yeshivah bachur. I didn’t dress like the others. That was my father’s condition for allowing me to be in the concert.”
And that was also what made the whole thing so problematic, Rabbi Noy thought to himself. If you would have blended in more, and somehow gotten lost in the group and caused less talk about our yeshivah, maybe you would have had a chance. But because you stuck out over there like the shamash still burning in a Chanukah menorah whose flames have long been extinguished, there’s no chance Rabbi Weinstock will want to even hear about you anymore.
“So Rebbi will speak for me?”
“If,” Reb Chaim repeated, “if I see that the subject comes up for discussion. And Dovi, it doesn’t look to me like that’s going to happen so fast.” He put a hand on the doorknob, a clear sign that the conversation was over. But the boy didn’t move.
“Abba!” Tamar squealed behind him. “Should I turn off the fire?”
“Absolutely not!” Reb Chaim exclaimed and darted back into the kitchen. He switched off the flame, dished the food onto four plates, and sat the children down at their seats. After making sure they were busy eating, he went back to the door, hoping that perhaps Dovi had gone already. But no. The boy was still standing there, staring down at the little welcome mat that was worn out from years of being trampled on by wet, muddy shoes in the winter and dusty, sandy shoes in the summer.
“Oh, Dov, I’m sorry you had to wait so long,” Rabbi Noy said, looking compassionately at his former student. “What should I tell you? I wish you the best in finding your path in life, and I’m sure that there are many wonderful yeshivos…” His hand, which he had proffered by way of farewell, froze midway when he saw tears begin to roll down the fifteen-year-old’s face.
“But I want to stay in this yeshivah, in Shaarei Aharon,” Dovi choked out. “I left America, and I finally got used to it here, and my parents are moving here, too, and I wanted…”
Small heads began peering around the kitchen doorway to see what the commotion was about. The children’s eyes grew wide when they saw their father’s grown student crying. Crying!
“So tell me, Dov,” Reb Chaim said, as he banished the kids back into the kitchen with a wave of his hand. “How can a boy like you do such a foolish thing? Don’t you realize that concerts in front of an audience are something that is very, very far from our mindset? Didn’t you think that Rabbi Weinstock would be shocked at such a thing? And didn’t you know that today, the world is very small and that you cannot hide anything from anyone?” He didn’t know why he suddenly felt so irritated. Why did people go and ruin their lives with their own two hands? Where were this boy’s parents? The boy was still young; where was his father? His family? How had they let him do such a thing? Was it only a matter of them having a different mentality than the yeshivah world in Eretz Yisrael?
Dovi wiped his tears. “I didn’t think it was so bad,” he repeated. “And I didn’t change at all, Rebbi. I learned so much during bein hazmanim, and I didn’t think that because of such a minor thing they would tell me that I’m not suited for a yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael anymore.”
“That’s the whole point.” Reb Chaim sighed, gazing at Dovi. “It’s not a minor thing, like you thought it was. Have you spoken to Rabbi Weinstock?”
“I was there yesterday with my father.”
“He said I should find myself a good yeshivah in America, and he agrees to give me a letter of recommendation.” Dovi took a step back, suddenly embarrassed by his blubbering. “Well…” he whispered. “Thanks, and kol tuv.”
“Kol tuv to you, too, Dov. We’ll daven for you,” Reb Chaim replied, trying to sound encouraging. “And if the rosh yeshivah mentions you, I’ll remind him of all your wonderful attributes, I promise you that.”
“Thank you,” Dovi said again, and then pushed the button to call the elevator.
“And call me when you know where you’re headed, alright?” Reb Chaim followed him into the stairwell. “I’m also ready to give a warm recommendation to any yeshivah that you choose.” Let them just want to accept you, he didn’t add.
There was something on Dovi’s face that didn’t let him close the door until he saw that the elevator had already reached the ground floor. Was it any wonder that he soon found himself at the kitchen table, telling his children a story about a gray teddy bear that fell into a black pit, and there was no rope to send down so he could grasp it and be pulled back up?
In the end, four-year-old Tamar provided a happy ending to the story. “The teddy bear davened very hard, and a dove came,” she said. “A small dove that pulled him with her beak until she got him out.”
Her father did not bother to point out the virtual impossibility of her story. In any case, the whole story didn’t have much logic to it in the first place.