Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
The last time they’d visited Elchanan’s parents, his mother had asked Yaffa to “keep an eye on him because he’s gaining an awful lot of weight.” Yaffa didn’t know how exactly she was supposed to watch her husband’s eating. She rarely joined his monthly shopping expedition to the supermarket. On the odd occasion that she did, if she saw him toss four bags of potato chips into the cart, was she supposed to take them out and declare unequivocally that they were fattening and that his mother didn’t allow him to eat it? Or when he smeared his eighth slice of bread with butter, was she supposed to grab the knife out of his hand and say, “That’s enough now”?
In any case, Chaya had once told her, incidentally or not, that she and her husband went out each evening for a brisk walk. Yaffa had liked the idea. Elchanan, except for the times that he was tired after an exhausting day at work, didn’t object, and their thrice-weekly evening walk became almost routine—if the two weeks they’d been doing it for could be called “routine.”
“You’re thoughtful tonight,” Elchanan said, as he kicked away a small stone that had gotten stuck between the wheels of Bentzy’s carriage.
“Right,” Yaffa answered, looking at the stone that rolled to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk. She bent over and moved it near the fence running along the sidewalk.
“Is something bothering you?”
“I don’t know. I hope I didn’t do anything wrong today when I spoke to Rabbi Weinstock.”
“You?” Elchanan chuckled. “What makes you think so?”
“I don’t know.” There were too many things she didn’t know recently. “Perhaps it was uncomfortable for him that I spoke in front of those people, and he had to refuse in their presence.”
“I don’t think men are so sensitive about such things,” Elchanan said as he stopped at the traffic light. “It’s very possible that he already spoke to them directly. Sometimes there’s no choice, and there is just no way to do these things elegantly.”
“Yes,” she remembered. “The father told me that they’d been to Rabbi Weinstock’s house and while he had received them very cordially, he wasn’t convinced. Poor boy.”
“He’ll find a new yeshivah.”
“You think it’s so easy?”
“I know it’s not easy, from experience, but what else can he do? Not everything in life is going to be easy. He may as well get used to it now.”
They turned down a small side street that was bisected by a wide path lined with benches. “Sit,” Elchanan said, buttoning the light sweater he was wearing. He crossed his legs and leaned back on the bench, taking a deep breath.
“Ah…what wonderful air…” he said. “I just love Yerushalayim. So what else happened at school today?”
Yaffa was bent over the carriage, busy trying to stick a pacifier into Bentzy’s mouth; when that was accomplished, she sat down. Two figures appeared at the end of the path, looking curiously in their direction. It was a mother and her teenage daughter walking briskly, apparently getting their daily dose of exercise.
“Hello, Mrs. Levinsky. Ima, this is our new principal,” the girl said, stopping suddenly in front of them and taking in the scene.
“Your principal?” her mother asked in surprise, looking at the thin young woman dressed in a beige suit. “Oh, good evening. So nice to meet you. I’m Dina Cohen’s mother.” She pointed towards her daughter. “She’s in twelfth grade.”
“Oh, yes.” Yaffa smiled slightly, one hand rocking the carriage, although Bentzy had no intentions of waking up. “Nice to meet you.”
“I wish you lots of hatzlachah,” Dina’s mother said warmly. “Your work is so important, you know.”
“Thank you very much,” Yaffa replied from her perch on the bench, looking at the teenager who was just how much younger than her? Two years? Two and a half years? Less? More?
The two moved off into the distance.
“Wow…” Elchanan said. “Listen to that. Mrs. Levinsky. It’s just beginning to dawn on me that this is serious business.”
“It hasn’t dawned on me yet, believe me. Tell me, how bad did I sound?”
“Not bad at all. You were very distinguished. Quiet and bit distant.”
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t trembling, and that it’s too dark to see how red I’m sure my face is. You know, today, while everyone was at the assembly, I decided that I’m going home and that’s it.” Somehow, in the comfort of the darkness, Yaffa found it easier to open up and express herself.
“As in game over?”
“Yes, permanently. Everything suddenly got me so scared. You know how strange this is for someone like me, how totally unsuited I am… It’s…I don’t know…”
“I actually don’t think so,” Elchanan said sincerely. “But what happened in the meantime? I mean, with all those phone calls this afternoon from Mrs. Braun, I didn’t get the impression that you’re resigning so fast.”
“Meanwhile not. I put off the decision for a bit.”
Elchanan smiled. “You sound like a real principal! And what weighty consideration brought you to postpone your final decision?”
Yaffa hesitated. “You won’t laugh at me, right?” She looked at her husband, who shook his head solemnly. “I…when that boy came with his father, I listened, totally confused, to their story… I suddenly thought that maybe Hashem put me in this bizarre position just to be able to help them.”
“L’eis kazos…” Elchanan hummed the tune of Megillas Esther under his breath. A frightened bird came rustling out of the bushes behind them in alarm and flew off into the darkness. “Higaat lamalchus… As in that?”
“Something like that. Hashem doesn’t do things for no reason, right? So I thought that if He sent me there, and this boy showed up just today, maybe the two things have something to do with each other.”
Elchanan nodded. “It reminds me of the mashal of the king for a day. Have you heard it? People who were made king for a specified amount of time, and only the wise man knew how to utilize the time properly.”
“Yes, like that…” She smiled, scraping at the edge of the bench.
“But…” he started, and fell silent right away.
“Yes, I didn’t help Brim in the end,” Yaffa sighed. “I know.”
“Everything’s going fine at school, Ima; you can be calm about it. No, no, I mean, nothing’s fine at all. How can it all be fine when you’re not there? What I meant to say is that things are managing, somehow, without any major hitches. I have given up most of my hours for now, and I’m only teaching physics in four classes. The rest of the time, I’m here, with you. Yael Braun is taking care of the practical things, and you know who’s dealing with all the bureaucracy and technical things? Yaffa Levinsky, that new assistant secretary, Chaya Shuck’s sister. You said that you think she’s excellent, and it’s true. I marvel at it, because she sometimes gives a very weak impression, you know, the type that just doesn’t manage, but I was wrong. I’m sure you don’t mind, Ima, that she’s sitting in your office. The board insisted on it, like they insisted on a few other things, and I decided not to object because I prefer that it’s her and not Chana, for example, or Yael. It may make no difference to you, Ima, because you’re the type to fargin; you’re so goodhearted and gracious, and you would be pleased with whoever took your place. I’m probably just grudging about it. Maybe you would have preferred that Yael be principal and not me, because even when we argued—as much as you tried not to get involved—you usually sided more with her than with me. Her chinuch outlook is rather similar to yours, while mine isn’t. Not that I’m the compromising type; I just think that a lot of her opinions are posturing as she tries to find favor in your eyes.
“In the end, I didn’t take on the management because I just don’t have the head for it right now. I can’t sit there, in your seat, while you’re here. For strangers, as much as they care, it is less emotional. Yael’s probably breathing a sigh of relief that it’s not me there, in the principal’s office. Yaffa’s very easy to get along with. There’s no need for major persuading or cajoling. Yael, or I, present the matter, the few times it happened, and Yaffa signs or approves it or says, “Oh.” And this arrangement is working fine for us both—as strange as it is that we actually agree on something so significant.
“Well, all these things aren’t really important now. Now it’s important that you rest, and get well, and start breathing on your own. The doctors are actually more optimistic than they were at the beginning, and we’re all constantly davening for you. Ima, my Mimi is such a darling. She’s literally taken over the house. She works very hard, and I don’t know if it’s good or not, but I have no choice. I don’t even point things out to her these days, even though there is what to say here and there. What will be when she comes to high school, Ima? What will be?
“Meanwhile, Tzippy is trying a bit to help, but it’s not really working out too well. Actually, I called home a little while ago and Mimi said she was going out soon to a friend and Tzippy would be at home to watch the little ones. I’m happy for Mimi; she needs a bit of fresh air. How will Tzippy manage? I have no idea. Worse comes to worst, the kids will eat plain bread and drink milk—if Mimi bought milk this morning, that is. Because if she didn’t, no one else will dream of doing it.
“The children also need me now, I know. They are confused and afraid and need to get some stability back in their lives. But I’m the last one who can do that right now. They need the mother that I was, not the one I am today. But I don’t have that mother to give them. I just don’t have it in me, Ima. Do you think I’m very bad? I hope that you’re happy that I’m here, near you. But the truth? I don’t know who I’m here more for, you or maybe me, the confused, frightened child who needs to find stability in her life again.”
Minna Cohen took a deep breath. When the secretary had called her this morning and asked her to substitute in 10B, she’d suppressed a sigh. This year’s 10B meant it was last year’s 9B, and she remembered them well as being among her unsuccessful substituting experiences. Baruch Hashem, she’d had some good days, but she’d never managed to get a handle on this particular class.
All the hopes she’d mustered up that perhaps things had changed dissipated as soon as she entered the classroom. The girls hadn’t matured, and the fact that school had started a mere three days ago didn’t have any effect on them, and even the month of Elul, and the impending Rosh Hashanah, seemed to have flown out of their minds.
“You, in the back!” What a shame she didn’t have a good memory for names. “What’s your name?”
The girl in the back muttered something unintelligible, while a few other girls looked at her with mock surprise. “Does Morah mean me?” a choir of at least four voices asked.
“The one I’m talking to is fully aware of it,” Minna snapped impatiently. “What’s your name? Repeat yourself, please!”
“Sure,” the girl said. “Chana Zingerevitz.”
Minna fixed her with a long stare. “Well, Chana Zingerevitz,” she said finally. “Please go to the principal and bring me a note from her at the end of the lesson that she knows you sang, ate and spoke with chutzpah in class.”
“From the principal?” A few girls gave her a strange look; others burst out laughing. “Don’t you know that the principal…”
Suddenly, it dawned on Minna. Of course! Mrs. Kotzker was in the hospital after her stroke. So to whom should she send this girl? Her daughter, Malka Mann? Who was the ultimate authority in the school right now?
“Okay, I’ll go,” Chana piped up. “You know, Morah, the principal also has a substitute.” She almost skipped out of the classroom. Minna looked at the rest of the class.
“A substitute?” she asked.
“Yes,” someone offered an explanation. “Her name is Mrs. Levinsky. She worked for a few days in the office, and when the principal got sick, she got the job.”
“I heard that she came here pretending to be a secretary, but really she wanted to spy on a few girls without them realizing it,” another girl piped up.
“Nonsense!” a third girl cried from the other side of the room. “Did she also plan Kotzker’s stroke, and that she would be hired as a substitute principal?”
“Mrs. Kotzker,” Minna corrected her, and looked down at her desk nervously. It was one thing with Mrs. Kotzker; she knew her strengths and weaknesses, and always backed her up. But a new principal? Too bad she’d sent Chana. It wasn’t worth showing right at the beginning of a relationship that she didn’t always manage to control the class.
She deliberated whether to send another student to call the girl back, but decided that that would make things much worse. What was, was, and Hashem would help that she wouldn’t do any further harm to herself and her image in the principal’s eyes even before they’d ever met.
Yaffa sat in the office perusing the forms that had arrived that morning from the Health Ministry. Yesterday, the Education Ministry had visited and they were displeased by a number of things. Yael and Malka had said that it wasn’t her fault at all, but she had to be the one to sit and listen to all the complaints, even though she hardly understood what they were talking about.
Now, the Health Ministry was about to conduct its annual inspection, and Chana said that all the forms had to be filled out before they came. To Chana’s credit, she had filed all the relevant papers together in one folder.
“When are they coming?” Chana had asked, standing near the desk. Yaffa glanced at the official letter that topped the stack and closed the sefer Shaarei Teshuvah that she’d been reading until then. Too bad; she’d wanted to take advantage of those few free minutes, but apparently they weren’t free after all.
“The fourteenth of September. That’s Monday, the twenty-fifth of Elul, another…”
“Another week and a half. Should I send them a confirmation?”
“Confirmation of what?”
“That they can come then.”
“Um…yes, why not?” Malka and Yael would have to coach her regarding the things she had to know. “The Rosh Hashanah assembly will be on…” Yaffa quickly leafed through the datebook that her sister-in-law Ruth had bought her. “Wednesday. So it looks fine.”
“Okay, so I’ll send them a confirmation fax,” Chana said. “Make sure you see all the places you have to sign, Mrs. Levinsky. There are at least four.”
“I understand,” Yaffa said, and was about to delve back into the forms. How boring. The required cleanliness standards, necessary equipment, drainage openings of different types, and hygiene lessons in class. This was a high school, wasn’t it? Did the teachers have to remind the girls that they had to wash their hands before eating?
A knock sounded at the door. Yaffa raised her eyes. When a student appeared in the middle of the lessons, it was usually a sign that either Yael or Malka were sending her an urgent message. Malka wasn’t in school today, she knew, so it must be from Yael. What was it now? Had she already heard somehow about the date that the Health Ministry wanted to do their inspection and wasn’t happy about it?
“My teacher sent me,” the girl said, stepping forward.
“No. Morah…I don’t remember her name. I think it’s Cohen or Kahan or something. She’s a substitute.”
Yaffa nodded. It was one thing for Yael to send an urgent message. What did this substitute want in the middle of first period? And she hadn’t noticed a note in the girl’s hand. Maybe she’d given over the message orally.
“About what?” she asked.
The girl took another step forward and lowered her voice. “She said that I talked and ate and was chutzpahdig. I have to bring a note signed by the principal.”
Yaffa had never been sent to the principal. Only once, in eighth grade, had the Pirkei Avos teacher gotten angry that the girls were not taking the subject seriously, and when fifteen girls got below an eighty on the first test, she’d sent them all to the principal. When the teacher had read out the list of girls, and had reached Yaffa’s name, she paused for a moment. Yaffa knew what she was thinking; she’d also gotten under an eighty. But it wasn’t because she was lax. The test had really been hard for her.
In any case, the teacher apparently decided not to differentiate and sent Yaffa along with the other girls.
What had the principal said? How had she reacted? Yaffa could not recall. Somehow, it did not stand out in her mind as an especially traumatic incident, perhaps because when the principal had rebuked them she’d hardly looked at Yaffa and had focused mostly on the other girls. What did principals do when girls spoke with chutzpah or ate during class? That was worse than not studying for a test.
“Why did you eat?” Yaffa asked. “Were you hungry?”
“A little. I didn’t have time to eat at home.”
“And why did you talk?”
The girl shifted uneasily. “I just whispered something to my neighbor; it was very important.”
“And why did you speak with chutzpah? Chutzpah is a very serious thing.”
“I wasn’t chutzpahdig, really. I just said that…”
Oh, no. They wouldn’t make her decide what was chutzpah and what wasn’t. There was a limit to what she could do.
“No, don’t tell me what you said; it makes no difference. If the teacher thinks you were chutzpahdig, she has reason to think so.” She fixed her eyes on the student standing in front of her. What should she say now? How should she finish with this? She wondered who the teacher who had sent her was. She must be someone who didn’t manage a class well if she’d had no choice but to throw the girl out.
“What’s your name?”
“Which class are you in?”
“Well, I’m writing that down.” She slowly opened her datebook. She’d have to ask Yael what the customary reaction was in such a case. Or she could call Morah Elka. She wondered how she’d react to the recent developments.
The girl watched Yaffa writing, clearly disturbed. Mrs. Kotzker only wrote you down in her black book if you were sent to her more than once. “This is only the first time…” she murmured. “This year, I mean.”
“And I hope it’s the last,” the pale-faced principal said without raising her eyes from the page. She wished Chana would just leave. As far as she was concerned, she’d finished dealing with the issue because she had no idea what to do now.
But Chana didn’t move.
“You can go back to class,” Yaffa said, closing her datebook.
“But the teacher wants a note,” she said quietly.
“A note,” Yaffa echoed, and her eyes caught sight of the closed sefer on her desk. Shaarei Teshuvah. It was strange; she had always, already as a girl, been a bit afraid of this time of year, and of the approaching Rosh Hashanah. The parables about kings and trials always made her quiver inside. Were there no Yahadus lessons in this school? Didn’t the girls learn about the extra special care they needed to have with interpersonal relationships during these days?
“Have you learned about Chodesh Elul yet?” she asked. The girl nodded. “And about doing teshuvah?”
“So you haven’t learned enough yet, I see.” She opened the sefer to the passage she was in the middle of. “I think you should sit down in the office and learn this page. Then come back and we’ll hear how you explain it,” Yaffa instructed. “It’s very important for you to do teshuvah. In two weeks you’ll be sent for trial, not to the principal, but before Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” She proffered the sefer to Chana.“And I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to tell Him you were a bit hungry and you spoke only something urgent and that what you told the teacher wasn’t chutzpah.”
The girl silently took the sefer and walked out while Yaffa went back to the paperwork from the Health Ministry.
The note that was handed to Minna Cohen about an hour and a half later stated the following:
Good morning. Chana has read from the sefer Shaarei Teshuvah about the shame of aveiros, as it says in Yirmiyahu: “I was shamed and embarrassed,” and she has understood the message and is embarrassed by what she did. She promises to try and improve her behavior.
With all due respect, (that’s how Yaffa’s father used to sign off on all notes to teachers)