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She really despised going to the Well-Baby Clinic, but it wasn’t like she had a choice; Bentzy needed to get his vaccinations. Yaffa felt wound up as tight as a spring as she walked into the clinic and surveyed the line.
“You’re here for Sophie, right?” the secretary asked affably. “You can go in. The woman ahead of you is finished already.”
There were two people in the room; Sophie, poking around as usual on the computer keyboard, and another strange woman who gazed expectantly at the doorway.
“Sophie, the next in line is here,” she said, smiling at Yaffa.
Sophie raised her eyes. “Oh, Yaffa, come in. This is Edna from the Health Ministry,” she introduced the stranger. “She does inspections at the clinics every so often. Is it okay with you if she’s here now?”
Yaffa nodded and took Bentzy out of the carriage. He squirmed restlessly, like he’d been doing for much of the past few days. The babysitter had told Yaffa she thought he was teething.
“Your sister’s not here with you today, I see,” Sophie remarked, her eyes on the screen.
“No.” Yaffa felt the spring wind even tighter, if that was possible. She was on the verge of snapping.
“Let’s see…Bentzion’s already a big boy. I see he’s…five months already. It’s been two months since we’ve seen him. How’s he been?”
“Does he cry a lot?” Edna asked.
“So-so,” Yaffa replied, trying to speak over her son’s cries. “My babysitter says she thinks he’s teething.”
“Very possible,” Sophie said. “Do you have a pacifier for him?”
“Yes.” Yaffa took the pacifier out of the bag. Thankfully, Bentzy calmed down right away.
“First child?” Edna inquired.
“So at first you used to come with your sister, I hear. Does she help you at home also?”
“When she can.”
“Can she, usually?”
Yaffa lowered her gaze to Bentzy, whose clear eyes gazed at the woman talking to his mother, from his position on the exam table. It didn’t look like he had any particular affinity for her. Yaffa didn’t either. What was the problem; the pressure from Sophie wasn’t enough that she needed someone else meddling and asking nosy questions?
“Recently not so much.”
“So what do you do?”
“Baruch Hashem, I manage,” Yaffa said quietly, and the spring unwound a drop. At least she was standing and they were sitting; it would have been much worse if she had been sitting facing the two women, like a meek student in the principal’s office.
“You don’t work outside of the house, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” Yaffa said, blushing slightly.
Bentzy was quiet, looking at his mother with wet eyes as she tried to press the pacifier into his mouth for the sixth time. “I’m a substitute,” she said.
“A substitute?” Edna turned around to Sophie with a questioning glance. Sophie, in turn, peered closely at the computer screen to see what it said. “Teaching?”
“No, in an office.”
“I’m principal of the ShaareiBinahHigh School for girls.”
Edna looked questioningly at Sophie again. “I didn’t know,” the nurse said, and stood up, trying to conceal her shock. “Since when is this?”
“Since the beginning of the school year.”
“Before that you were a stay-at-home mom?” Edna asked, rummaging in her pocketbook for her glasses, so she, too, could read what the computer screen had to say. “I see that’s what we have written here.”
“I was a secretary,” Yaffa said quietly. “And before that, I was home.”
“And afterwards?” Edna asked pointedly, returning her reading glasses to her large tote, and sticking her binder inside as well. “How long is this substituting position for?”
“The regular principal had a stroke.” Yaffa tried to hold down her screaming baby as Sophie struggled to measure his height. “So we can’t really know. The situation is serious, but we’re all hoping for the best, b’ezras Hashem.”
Edna looked at her watch and straightened up. “I have to run, Sophie,” she said. “I have a meeting. We’ll talk by phone later, but already now I can tell you that everything looks great around here.” She walked over to the door. “Thanks for letting me stay here,” she said, smiling at Yaffa. “Firsthand encounters with mothers at the clinics always enlighten me so much more than any written material can.”
“I have three more days of doing this before Rosh Hashanah,” Chana Zingerevitz said as she hurried down the stairs.
“And how is it going?” her friends asked curiously.
“Nice.” She shifted the small sefer Shaarei Teshuvah she’d brought from home from her right hand to the left. “I read and explain and she listens quietly and sometimes asks questions to see if I understand what I’m saying.”
“Not at all. But most of the time she’s quiet and she just looks at me, as though she’s trying to read what’s going through my mind.”
“And do you talk about other things?” someone asked.
“No. She just says ‘nice to see you’ when I come, and when I finish she says, ‘excellent, thank you’ and writes me a late note. That’s it.” She straightened her skirt and hurried down the stairs. The bell was going to ring in a minute and she had to be on time to the principal.
“How old is she anyway?” one girl asked.
“I didn’t ask her,” Chana called back from the bottom of the stairs and disappeared into the office.
“Well, she looks really young,” one girl said. “And my mother says she must be really something if they chose her at such a young age to be principal. They say Mrs. Kotzker is in serious condition, so Mrs. Levinsky might take over for her permanently.”
“Don’t talk like that!” her friends chided her, and one added, “How am I supposed to know if she’s special if she doesn’t give us any lessons or speeches and barely comes out of the office all day? She looks disconnected to me, you know, the genius type that they chose because of her brains. Mrs. Kotzker was much more involved in the day-to-day stuff going on around here.”
“Come on, we all know that there’s no one like Mrs. Kotzker,” someone replied and added, “but say what you want, disconnected or not, she’s starting to form ties with Chani and we don’t know who else.”
“Oh, no thanks,” the girl who had claimed that the new principal was disconnected hurried to demur. “I prefer that she stay distant. I didn’t like it when Mrs. Kotzker called my mother twice last year as though she was the mechaneches.”
The others laughed, and someone tried to say something, but the bell sent them all scampering into their classes. They had seen Morah Mann this morning, which meant that she would come out of the teachers’ room any second and glare at anyone who dared still be in the hallways after the bell.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Kotzker!” Chaviva, the nurse, strode quickly into the room. “What’s doing, Malka?” she asked the patient’s daughter, who was sitting on the side.
“Baruch Hashem,” Malka sighed. “Do you have any idea when Dr. Amar will be here?”
“I think I heard his voice before in the coffee room, but I didn’t have a second to look.” She went over to the bed and inspected the intravenous bag. “Are you feeling good, Mrs. Kotzker?” The machines continued clicking and beeping away, as Chaviva picked up the clipboard with Mrs. Kotzker’s medical file. “So, we have some signs of wakefulness, don’t we?” she asked as she marked something down. “Have you seen anything, Malka?”
“My mother tried to open her eyes a bit this morning,” the daughter replied as she stood up and walked toward the bed. “It happened when my brother was here. They’ve been lowering her sedatives. Dr. Amar promised to come in this evening to see what’s doing. If you meet him, remind him, please, Chaviva. Okay?”
“It’s hard to remind Dr. Amar of anything,” Chaviva declared. “But he remembers what he wants to very well.” She hung the clipboard back on its hook at the foot of the bed and got ready to leave when Malka asked, “Tell me, Chaviva, would they allow someone who is not a family member to come into the ICU?”
“Depends,” Chaviva said with her face toward the corridor.
“My mother has a very good friend, a rebbetzin, who wants to come and visit. Do you think she’ll be able to?”
“When your mother is like this?”
“It depends when she comes. If it will be rather calm here, and I’ll be the one on duty, then she will be able to. If she comes at a pressured time, it won’t work. Let her try.”
Malka nodded and looked at her watch. Rebbetzin Miriam Schick had called an hour ago that she wanted to come. It was good to know that Chaviva was on shift now; the question is who the Rebbetzin would meet at the entrance to the ward.
Ten minutes passed, and a light knock brought Malka to her feet. Rebbetzin Schick’s wrinkled face smiled at her from the door. “May I?” she asked as she entered slowly.
“Yes,” Malka replied and closed the door behind the visitor. “Thank you for coming, Rebbetzin. It’s good to see a familiar face here.”
“I just had to,” Rebbetzin Schick replied as she approached the bed. “Adina?” she said. “How are you, Adina? It’s Miriam. How do you feel?”
“My mother sort of opened her eyes this morning,” Malka said, walking over to stand near Rebbetzin Schick. “But it’s hard for her now. She’s very weak.”
“She’ll get stronger, b’ezras Hashem. The school is waiting for you, Adina, do you hear? What do the doctors say?” Despite her facing Mrs. Kotzker, Malka understood that the question was directed to her.
“B’ezras Hashem,” she said carefully; that’s what she was supposed to answer in her mother’s presence. She didn’t really believe that it was possible that her mother heard every word and was aware of what was happening around her, but that’s what the doctors had told her, so she wasn’t taking chances. “She has to get over the trauma and get stronger. We had a real miracle, but it’s hard to estimate how much time it will take. They’re optimistic these past few days. The doctor said he hopes that it’s a matter of a few weeks.”
“And what about rehab? Is that going to be necessary? Where will she go?” She held Mrs. Kotzker’s hand in her own.
Malka frowned and shrugged. What rehab? She was nowhere near up to that yet. She was here, with her mother, who had hardly opened her eyes this morning and needed strength to open them wide and keep them that way, even before they talked about some type of recovery.
“Listen, Adina. The girls at school are davening for you every day. Yael Braun told me. She was here and told you that, didn’t she?”
“She was here,” Malka confirmed. Told her? No, Yael hadn’t said anything when she’d visited. She’d somehow managed to slip in during those first, difficult days, and aside for weeping a little, she hadn’t said a word.
“Wonderful; so you can be calm, Adina, that the school is waiting for you and in the meantime it is in good hands. Yael is managing lots of things, as is that nice Levinsky girl. Everything is going smoothly and when you come back you’ll find it was well taken care of.”
“Sure,” Malka said, unable to help herself. Rebbetzin Schick turned to look at her. “I want to speak to you a minute. Can you step outside? I don’t want to disturb your mother.”
“I need to be here with her,” Malka said, her sense of responsibility taking over. “We try not to leave her alone even for a minute.”
“Fine, then we’ll speak here. You know, Malka, that we would be happy to give you the position if you only want it.”
“Mr. Weissman won’t give it so happily.”
“He is not the one to decide for the board.”
“But I don’t want it.”
“Right, so I understood that. And as long as you don’t want it, Yael doesn’t either.”
“Smart,” Malka said tiredly and went back to her chair, firmly signaling that the conversation was over. Impolite? Very possible, but she didn’t have a drop of energy to hear even one more word about Yael.
“It’s not worth it to bring someone else for a few weeks, or even a bit longer than that,” Rabbi Moshe Sindler said. “I was there yesterday during the Health Ministry inspection. The school is running smoothly in all areas, or at least that’s how it appears. At the beginning of the year there was that unfortunate inspection by the Education Ministry, but the fallout wasn’t too serious.” This time, the board had convened in his house. Attorney Weissman wasn’t present, and Rebbetzin Schick had arrived a few minutes late.
“I was visiting Adina at the hospital,” she related to Mrs. Sindler at the door to the dining room, clearly distraught. “She looks terrible, but the doctors are encouraging the family.”
“Her husband said she’s starting to emerge from the coma,” Rabbi Weinstock added. “Let’s hope that everything will go well, and quickly. So, Reb Moshe, you say things are going fine at the school?”
“Under the circumstances, yes. My daughter asked me to be there when the inspectors from the Health Ministry came, so I complied.”
“How’s Mrs. Levinsky?”
“She looks fine. They didn’t really need me there.”
“And from a chinuch perspective?”
“I think that’s going very well also. She isn’t alone on the front; Mrs. Mann and my daughter help out when necessary and the teachers each contribute their bit. There are no special problems.”
“Yael told me,” Rebbetzin Schick remarked after a moment’s thought, “that Mrs. Levinsky actually dealt quite well with a chutzpah issue that cropped up. She’s very young, but maybe because of that, she’ll be successful.”
“The question is how much time this whole story will take.” Rabbi Weinstock was clearly uneasy. “With all due respect to Mrs. Levinsky, she’s a bit young to manage a high school for an entire year.”
“Not an entire year,” Rabbi Sindler hurried to correct him. “B’ezras Hashem, we hope this will all be over long before that, and with the best outcome.”
“The thing is, and pardon me for saying this,” Rebbetzin Schick interjected, “that the main problem is the tension between the two women who would naturally have taken over—Malka Mann and Yael Braun. They are constantly competing with one another, and neither one wants to see a strange person in the principal’s chair. On the other hand, it will be impossible to give only one of them the job.”
“They don’t want it,” Rabbi Sindler replied quickly.
“True, and that’s why I see the balance that Mrs. Levinsky’s appointment brought about as a big brachah. Right now, they are both practically serving as principal together with her—minus the tension between them.”
“Is Mrs. Mann even in school at all or does she spend most of her time at the hospital?” Rabbi Weinstock queried.
“Over the past few days she’s started coming to school more,” Moshe Sindler knew to report. “And she spends the later part of the day with her mother.”
They made up to meet in three weeks’ time, hoping to have good news to share at that point.
Elchanan signed the delivery form and escorted the agent out of the store with a friendly arm around his shoulder. Then he stuck the paper in the drawer. Somehow, since he’d gotten that phone call from the public relations firm with a job offer, he’d lost a bit of his enthusiasm for working in Dvir’s store. It was a hard job. Dvir was a fair, honest employer who treated him well, but it was clear that working at an advertising agency was far more prestigious than a job whose primary qualification was physical work. An office job could be a major step up for him. Ruth had elegantly told him that she would not ask why he had refused to even come for an interview, but only that he should know that it had been utter foolishness because the terms were excellent and that really good, fine people worked at the office.
He was quiet, obviously not interested in sharing with her that he’d been on the verge of accepting the interview invitation, if not for his wife. Yaffa had heard what Ruth said, but didn’t react. Only later, at home, did she say casually, “If you want to go work in an advertising agency, there are Chareidi places as well.”
“I’m not looking for a new job,” he’d shrugged. “It was offered to me so I thought about it. Ruth is quite happy there.”
“It really is too bad,” she said and sat down with Bentzy. “About Ruth, I mean. Don’t you think so?” He’d preferred not to reply. But only as the days passed did he discover that he really was looking for a new job. Maybe it was the little genie inside of him that didn’t let him sit and learn calmly at the age of eight, and in yeshivah, made him look for any job or way to keep himself useful and productive—as long as it wasn’t in front of the shtender.
“I’m the type who needs variation in my life,” he said to himself now, and without changing his amiable expression, he went to help Dvir unload the new merchandise into the storage room.
“You have to decide, Dovi,” his father said. “My job is waiting for me there, and I’ve given you all the time I possibly can. Mommy will come for Yom Kippur and Sukkos and then you have to decide whether you want to come back with us to Manhattan or you want to stay here.”
“In another yeshivah, of course.”
His father sighed. “You’re more stubborn than a mule, Dov,” he said morosely. “And every day that passes with you out of yeshivah takes you further away from the best possibilities. You have to find a place where you will be able to settle down into a routine right at the beginning of the new zman.”
Dovi sat in his sister Naama’s living room, looking at the silent walls around him. His nephews had gone to cheder, brimming with the news that their grandfather and uncle had come from America and were staying for a long visit.
“I’m not out of routine,” he insisted. “Soon it will be nine thirty, and I’ll start to learn, like I do every day, until one o’clock. Then at three I’ll go to another shul until the evening. Dad, all my friends are in Shaarei Aharon, my mashgiach is in Shaarei Aharon, and so is my maggid shiur. That’s all.”
“Your friends have a new maggid shiur that you don’t even know,” Mr. Brim said in desperation. He hadn’t worked hard enough when Dovi was younger to uproot this useless stubborn trait of his. But—how do they say it?—the child is older now and he eats the fruits of his actions.
“Maybe I’ll still get to know him, b’ezras Hashem.”
“It’s a shame, Dovi,” his father said quietly. “But I understand your mood. This whole thing hasn’t been easy for you, just like it’s been very difficult for me. So we’ll stay until after Yom Tov and then you’ll decide.”
“Maybe I should go to the mashgiach now?”
“I think he is very much in agreement with Rabbi Weinstock, but if it makes you feel better, why not?”
Mr. Brim left the house, leaving Dovi with himself and his plans. Dovi didn’t know where the mashgiach lived. Actually, it didn’t make a difference because he surely wasn’t home now. Where was he? The boy knew very well where he was, but he didn’t dare go there. He couldn’t meet his friends, who had very abruptly stopped calling him. He didn’t want to see their pitying glances or furtive attempts to evade him.
He glanced at his watch. It was almost 9:20. He rose, walked out of the house, and locked the door with the key Naama had given him two years earlier, when he’d first arrived. In two weeks, would he have to say goodbye and thank you and give her back the key permanently?