Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 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.
Yaffa was gratified to find the hallways empty. What if they would have been teeming with students just then? What would she have been expected to say, do, respond? She walked with smaller steps than she had taken on her first day at the school, but at least now she knew where the office was.
Three pairs of eyes turned to her as she appeared in the doorway: Yael, Chana, the head secretary, and Faigy, her assistant.
“Good morning, Mrs. Levinsky,” Yael said naturally, lifting her head from a large sheet of paper spread out before her on the table. She took the page and stepped into the inner office, switching on the light as she did.
Yaffa hesitated for a moment. “Good morning,” she finally replied, forcing herself to smile at the secretaries, who were clearly sizing her up. She followed Yael into the other room.
Yael was already sitting on the black chair, the same kind that the teachers’ room had to offer, and was continuing to peruse the paper she was holding. She raised her eyes after a few seconds. “Why aren’t you sitting down?” she asked Yaffa, pointing to the brown leather chair on the other side of the desk. “These are the class lists for the ninth grade, and I want you to look them over to see if they’re okay.” She pushed the page toward the empty brown chair and then turned to the door, where Yaffa was standing.
“Nu?” she said with a smile.
“This is very hard for me, Yael,” Yaffa said, a blush rising in her cheeks. “If I have to look at that paper, you can give it to me here.”
“Absolutely not,” Yael said, sounding like she was trying to suppress a smile. “That’s your chair for now, and there’s no reason for you to stand.”
The situation was so comical that even Yaffa’s lips curved upward in a smile. “Is that how you usually talk to the principal?” she asked.
Yael chuckled. “Now you sound like a real principal,” she declared. “Good for you, Yaf—em, Mrs. Levinsky. You’ll go far, b’ezras Hashem.”
By now Yaffa was standing directly behind the brown chair. “But it’s still delusional,” she said quietly, not realizing that she was quoting her sister Chaya’s exact words. “It’s unbelievable to think that I’ll be sitting in this chair, at this desk, and will tell you if the class divisions look alright. I don’t understand anything about these things, and I…”
“Oh, you’ll understand plenty, b’ezras Hashem,” Yael said, wrinkling her forehead as she looked down at the page again. “And now, please, Mrs. Levinsky, can you sit down already? Do you know how many things I need you for today?”
The leather chair was a bit too straight-backed for Yaffa, and she realized that it would take some getting used to before she found it comfortable. The chairs in the front office were much softer. She leaned her chin on her palm and took the page that Yael had set before her, scanning the three crowded columns without reading a single word. When she reached the bottom of the third column, she raised her eyes.
“Does it look okay?” Yael asked.
“Looks fine,” Yaffa said, with effort. She looked at the pen Yael had pulled out of the little stand full of pens. “What should I do now?”
“Sign it, and Chana will get those last changes into the computer right away. It’s very late for these things, but that’s the way things are right now, I guess. Chana?”
The tall secretary’s head appeared in the doorway.
“Here are the approved changes, marked in blue.”
Chana didn’t say a word; apparently she knew what she had to do. She folded the paper and left the room as silently as she had entered.
“Now, about the opening assembly on the first day of school.” Yael pushed the pen away. “Who’s going to speak?”
“So who will?”
If Chaya would have been there, she would have repeated her command that Yaffa be assertive. Make herself understood. Be decisive. But Yaffa just sat and gaped at Yael. “Who will?” she asked finally. “You. Why not?”
“The speaker is not usually a member of our staff. At the opening assembly, usually the principal speaks, and then we have a guest speaker, a rav or an educational figure.”
Yaffa fingered the edge of her belt, which was worn down from her habit of doing so.
Yael looked at her patiently and then, after a few seconds, said, “Have you heard of Menucha Klein? She’s a well-known parenting counselor. They say she’s a fantastic speaker.”
“And you’re not planning to speak?”
“So maybe, as a figure of authority, we’ll bring Rabbi Weinstock, one of the board members. He’s the rosh yeshivah of a mesivta, so that’s very appropriate.”
“Great,” Yael said, her face serious. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. Everything was working out beautifully. “Here’s Mrs. Klein’s phone number.” She scrawled the digits onto a slip of paper, and then scrolled down the screen of her phone. “And this is the office number of Yeshivas Shaarei Aharon, Rabbi Weinstock’s yeshivah.”
And at that moment, Malka Mann walked into the office.
“If you don’t want to speak, you should at least be there,” Malka said as she leaned both elbows on the desk. Yael had left, and now it was Malka who was seated on the black chair facing Yaffa. “You’re the principal now, and that has to be clear to everyone on the very first day.”
Yaffa shifted uneasily in her seat, her elbow covering the paper with the silly caricature she’d drawn in the seconds before Malka had sat down to talk to her. “Do I have to?”
“I can’t force you to do anything. You’re the principal.” Malka tried to sound light, as though she hadn’t just spent seven hours at her mother’s bedside. “But I don’t think it makes sense for you not to be there.”
“And what will I do there?”
“You’ll sit on the stage with the guest speaker when Rabbi Weinstock speaks.”
“The guest speaker…you mean Mrs. Klein?”
Malka seemed to squirm. “Whoever it may be. I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea to bring her in. She’s a parenting counselor, right? So let her speak to parents. What does she have to do with the girls?”
Yaffa wanted to say that if Mrs. Klein was a parenting counselor, maybe she also understood chinuch issues and knew how to speak to high-school-aged girls. But she didn’t dare say that. “Oh,” she said, her eyes wandering around the room.
“I actually think that Mrs. Gewirtz, the ninth-grade mechaneches, is an excellent choice. And if we pressure her, she’ll agree to speak.”
“Yes…” Yaffa waited for her to continue.
“So will you speak to her?”
“Me?” Yaffa shifted in her seat again. “Let’s see what happens with Yael’s phone calls. She’s trying to reach both Rabbi Weinstock and this Menucha Klein.”
“Rabbi Weinstock is one thing; it makes sense for him to speak, even though I’m not so sure about it. But Menucha Klein? What’s the connection? Tell Yael that she shouldn’t even try to call her.”
Yaffa tried to imagine herself summoning Yael back to the office and instructing her to “not even to try to call Mrs. Klein.” She smiled to herself at the thought. “We’ll see,” she said. Objecting now to what Malka was saying didn’t come into question, either. She leaned back on the broad chair. Yael had also wanted her, Yaffa, to be the one to call these people, and she’d had to make it clear that that was not an option.
“So should I call Mrs. Gewirtz? Or will you?”
“Let’s first see what Yael says,” Yaffa replied meekly.
“Alright,” Malka said in submission. “And you’ll come to the assembly, of course, right? If my mother hadn’t had her stroke, she would probably be arranging a beginning-of-the-year gathering for the teachers at this time, but let’s just say it’s not urgent right now, at least not with all the other things that have fallen on our shoulders. We’ll send the teachers the pertinent details they have to know in the mail.” She rose and looked at the neat, almost empty desk. There was just one slip of paper peeking out from under the new principal’s sleeve; there wasn’t a trace of any of her mother’s datebooks and papers.
Later, as Malka and Yael busily attended to their regular jobs in the office, with Yaffa too embarrassed to ask if they’d decided who would speak at the assembly, Chaya called. She was Bentzy’s babysitter for the day, and she couldn’t find his pacifier.
Yaffa suggested various places where the pacifier might be: the inside, outside, or middle zipper pockets of the diaper bag; in the carriage basket; in the pocket of the carriage’s hood; between the folds of the hood… Where else could it be? She was so scatterbrained, she could have stuck the pacifier anywhere!
In the end, the pacifier was found underneath Bentzy’s right foot, and Yaffa suddenly felt an urge to talk to her little son. Chaya smiled as she heard her sister’s strange request, but she put the receiver to the baby’s ear.
Yaffa, in the principal’s office, got up and closed the door. “Bentzy?” she almost whispered into the phone.
“You’re sweet, and I love you. Very, very, very, very much.”
“Do you love me, too?”
This time, she heard a thump, as Bentzy got tired of the receiver, which was emitting a voice that sounded like his mother’s but wasn’t doing anything to bring her in real life, and tossed it to the floor. The conversation was cut off, but Yaffa was pleased. From all the conversations she’d had that day, this was the most pleasant one of them all.
Going back to school after two months of quiet was too much for Shuli. She got off the bus and looked up and down the empty street. There weren’t too many girls who came to school at six minutes to eight on the first day back, but she’d missed the first bus into Yerushalayim, and until the next one had come by… Well, Chavi had probably given up on saving her a seat by now. But it really made no difference who she sat next to. If Yaffa Levinsky would have been her classmate, it would have been nice to sit next to her, but due to the fact that Yaffa was about five years older than her, Shuli was left with the familiar pool of girls to choose from, and it really didn’t matter which girl became her seatmate. They were all nice, more or less.
From afar, the familiar schoolyard came into view; the odd girl crossed it here and there every few seconds, before being swallowed up into the large building.
Someone suddenly panted next to her. “Wow!” the girl exclaimed. “I thought I was the only who would be almost late on the first day of school.”
Shuli turned around and looked at the girl who was talking to her. It was Mimi Mann, from the parallel class. “Yeah,” she said with a sigh. “I missed the bus from Maaleh Adumim.” She smiled at Mimi and tossed her chocolate-bar wrapper into the garbage can. “And why are you coming now?” she asked. “You live in the neighborhood, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Mimi sighed back. “But my mother was with my grandmother, and I had to take my little sister to kindergarten, and she just screamed that she wanted to come with me.”
“You should have just brought her along to class,” Shuli advised. “What’s wrong with your grandmother?”
“She had a stroke,” Mimi said tiredly. “And she’s in bad shape. There was even a notice in the newspaper to daven for her, and at today’s opening assembly in the high school they completed a hundred sifrei Tehillim. And we’re just hoping…”
“The high school?”
“Yes, Shaarei Binah. My grandmother is the principal there.”
“Wow.” Shuli was clearly impressed and began to look at Mimi from a new angle. “Your grandmother is the principal of the high school? I would never have believed it by looking at you. Well, good for you; at least you know where you’re going next year.”
“I’m not even thinking about it right now.” Mimi looked and sounded exhausted. “You have no idea what I’m going through. My mother is an only daughter and spends tons of time in the hospital, and I’m the oldest, so the whole house is on my shoulders.”
“I can come help you if you want,” Shuli volunteered. They didn’t even notice that they’d reached the doorway of the building, and weren’t walking towards their classrooms. “I do tons at home. I’m an only daughter and my mother’s out at work most of the day.”
The bell suddenly came to life after a two-month hiatus, and the two of them glanced towards the door of the teachers’ room, from which a stream of people suddenly began to emerge. “Well, we better go up,” Mimi said dully. “Not that I have any interest or patience for my friends’ annoying questions, a new seat and the preaching of a new teacher. But I’m even less in the mood of being late on the first day. So I better move it.”
“It’ll be fine,” Shuli reassured her as she took the stairs two at a time. She’d heard that Mrs. Gold was their teacher this year, and she saw her briskly walking towards the stairs. “Talk to you later. I’ll be happy to come and help you and I won’t ask annoying questions.”
It took Shuli just seventeen seconds to skip up six flights of stairs, and she arrived at the doorway of the classroom marked 8A.
From the corner of the room, Chavi waved to her, and Shuli was surprised to see that the seat next to her was empty. “I saved it for you,” Chavi whispered and pointed to the chair. “Where were you till now?”
“I was busy with someone,” Shuli replied, unloading her briefcase onto the chair. “Ugh. School again.”
Chavi smiled curiously, hoping Shuli would share more, but Shuli suddenly stood up with a somber expression on her face. She folded her arms and faced forward, her eyes fixed on the door that opened and on the new teacher, Mrs. Gold, who entered the room with a smile on her face.
Yaffa paced back and forth in the little room. The office was quiet, save for that get-on-your-nerves noise of Chana tapping on the keyboard in the outer office. Everyone was assembled in the auditorium, listening to… Yaffa didn’t even remember the name of the speaker who had been scheduled to address the girls before Rabbi Weinstock. She wasn’t even sure that they’d agreed on a speaker. She, in any case, hadn’t called or invited anyone. Yael had done everything.
Had it been the right thing to do not to accede to her request? Yaffa paused, looking at the little note on the desk.
“To Mrs. Levinsky,” Yael had written. “We’re starting in a few minutes. Please reconsider your decision.”
The note had arrived half an hour earlier with a curious-eyed girl wearing a sharply-pressed uniform shirt. “Morah Braun sent this to the principal urgently,” she’d said. Yaffa had murmured her thanks and taken the folded, stapled note. Yes, she’d reconsidered her decision and decided a second time that she had nothing to do at the assembly. She had nothing to say to the girls, and to just sit there like a wax figure so the girls would have whom to look at and whom to talk about seemed very foolish to her.
Yaffa went back to her chair, but only for a brief reprieve, because once again, a student appeared in the doorway. Yael sure knew how to nudge! This time, the note was larger. Yaffa smiled at the young courier, and was about to thank her, but Chana’s voice stopped the girl. “Wait here,” she instructed. “Mrs. Levinsky might want to send a reply to Morah Braun.”
Yaffa couldn’t ignore the logic behind Chana’s words. She opened the note and read the large, hurriedly scrawled message. “To Mrs. Levinsky: Don’t think that I’m trying to annoy you, but Menucha Klein finished speaking earlier than expected and Malka left because her mother is undergoing an unexpected procedure. Meanwhile, they girls are all saying Tehillim for Mrs. Kotzker. Perhaps you should come and speak for a few minutes after Rabbi Weinstock? It doesn’t need to be more than a few words. You don’t have to sit next to me on the stage if you don’t want to, even though I would be very, very happy if you would.”
Yaffa read the note a second time. She tore a page off the large pad on her table and wrote back her own message. “What do you want me to say? I really don’t think I can do it.” She stapled the note and sent it back with the student.
The response came just six minutes later with the same student. “Introduce yourself, and say that you hope that your time here will be productive for them.”
“We’ll see,” Yaffa wrote. “Maybe in a few minutes.”
She sent the note off with the girl and closed the door, hoping that the secretary in the front office did not suspect that she was going to rummage around in the locked drawers and loot hidden treasures. She stood up, cleared her throat, and in a quiet voice said, “Hello, girls. My name is Mrs. Yaffa Levinsky, and I will be the principal here…your principal…for the next few weeks. Again. Hello, girls, my name is Mrs. Yaffa Levinsky and I will be your principal for the…near future. I hope to be able to contribute to the school. I hope to succeed…no, I hope that we will have a productive period together, without any um…problems. Let’s try that again. I hope we will have a productive time together without any problems.”
She would have to say all that into a microphone, she was sure. She was familiar with the school’s amplification system; she’d checked to make sure it was working in the supply room at some time in what seemed to be the distant past. She’d spoken into it then and listened, amused, to the echo of her voice bouncing off the four walls. Well, the door had been closed then, and she wasn’t facing hundreds of girls, at least some of whom recognized her as the nice assistant secretary who couldn’t even figure out how to work the copy machine.
Perhaps she should simply get up and go to the auditorium right now? Obviously that would mean jumping into the cold water—frozen water was more like it. But perhaps if she didn’t think about the girls facing her, and just imagined she was in the supply room testing the microphone, it wouldn’t be so bad. She just had to practice the little speech again to make sure she could say it clearly and coherently.
Yaffa glanced at the closed door, clenched her fist into a mock mike and said, “Hello, girls. My name is Mrs. Yaffa Levinsky and I will be your principal for the near future. I hope that we will have a productive time together, without any problems.” Perhaps she should add something personal? With her eyes closed, she smiled at the walls and the binders that lined the bookshelves and added, “You all look very sweet, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you personally.”
Really? Would she be happy to get to know them personally?
Could she say that to hundreds of faces? She knew better than anyone how she had absolutely no interest in getting to know them better. Those girls in eleventh and twelfth grade would spend the year feverishly studying for state-administered tests—something she’d never dreamed of doing as a student. And what about all those girls who had darted to and fro in the days preceding the Overnight as she’d stood on the side observing them, completely overwhelmed? Why would she want to get to know them?
And what about the older ones, the fifth- and sixth-year seminary girls? She hadn’t even thought of them. Were they at the assembly? How would she know?
And they would all be sitting there and staring at her with a look of…
A look of what?
It would be very foolish of her to go there and think she could survive the experience unscathed, because there was no way it would happen. She could not allow the leather chair and the office to confuse her. She was not Mrs. Adina Kotzker, the sixty-year-old principal. She was the almost twenty-year-old Yaffa Levinsky, Elchanan’s wife, Bentzy’s mother, Chaya’s sister. The one who the lawyer had decided to appoint as a technical substitute for the principal, and all the others had agreed with him, for some strange reason. But she wasn’t a real principal. It was all a farce. She didn’t want to go into a packed auditorium, she didn’t want to climb onto the stage, and she certainly didn’t want to speak into a microphone.
She didn’t want to do it!
There was a knock at the door, heralding the arrival of yet another note. Yaffa scanned it quickly, but didn’t bother wasting another piece of paper for the reply. She scribbled the word “no” on the bottom of the page, stapled it and sent it back with the student, this time sans the smile.
She closed the door again, not in order to speak into an imaginary microphone, but rather to slump down into the chair, drained. Her cell phone began to ring, and Yaffa hoped it was not Yael. She didn’t want to be like a piece of chocolate, which, when pressed together for a few minutes, begins to melt.
No, it was Chaya, from work. “Is Bentzy okay at the babysitter?” she asked worriedly. “And what about you? Was there an assembly today? Were you there?”
“There is an assembly, and I’m not there,” Yaffa replied. “And I’m going home in a few minutes. I’ll tell Elchanan to call that lawyer and tell him that he may have the power to decide for the board, but not for me. This game is so stupid, and I have no intention of being part of it for even one more minute.”
Chaya was quiet. “Are you finding this very hard?” she asked. “They wanted you to come to the assembly?”
“Yes, and that I should speak there.”
“They really are very funny,” Chaya replied. “It’s nice that they’re treating you with so much respect, but they can’t ignore the fact that you’re not a regular principal. What were they thinking, that you’d speak about chinuch? Tzniyus? Elul?”
“I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m going home.” Yaffa felt her whole body trembling. Perhaps she was coming down with fever from this whole ridiculous business, or maybe she was also on the verge of having a stroke. Could something about sitting in this chair be contagious?
“Oh, you poor thing. How did you, of all people, get into this mess? Should I speak to Malka Mann?”
“No; she’s not the right person to go to. Elchanan will call the school’s lawyer this evening. Let them break their heads. I don’t have to be the solution to their problems.”
“Right,” Chaya said slowly. “Should I send you over some supper?”
“No, thanks,” Yaffa murmured as she stuck her hand into the sleeve of her light jacket. “See you.”
“Bye. And Yaffa?”
“Don’t take it to heart. After all, what really happened? They tried to dress you in a comical job that is many sizes too big for you—and you saw that it didn’t fit. You can just treat the whole thing like an amusing joke.”
“Right,” Yaffa said, fumbling for the light switch. “Bye.”
She turned off the light and walked to the door. She wouldn’t say a word to Chana now, other than that she had to leave. She straightened her collar, stuck her cell phone into the new pocketbook Elchanan had bought her, and opened the door. Outside, in front of Chana’s desk, stood two people, a clean-shaven, graying man speaking in a low voice and a young teenager who was taking in his surroundings.
“The principal?” Chana said. “Uh…em…here she is.”
They turned around to face her. “Oh, I’m sorry, is the principal leaving? We wanted to speak to her,” the man said, looking clearly surprised. “Should we come back tomorrow?”
Yaffa bit her lip. “It’s okay. I’m not…in a very big hurry,” she replied, and stepped back into the office. She switched the light back on. “Please,” she said politely, “come in.”