Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 24 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.
“I’m sorry, Dvir,” Elchanan said. “I have to leave a few minutes early today.”
The employer frowned. “Again?” he asked tersely.
“Nu, what should I tell you? Go. Is everyone okay?”
“Baruch Hashem.” Except for the restlessness that had suddenly overtaken him and was giving him no rest. His sister Ruth was right. He could be a lot more than a bookstore employee. And if he could, then he had to try.
The interview, the sixth one since he’d begun looking for a new job two weeks earlier, was on the other side of Yerushalayim. Elchanan, who was using the buses to get around the city, had decided that the time had come for him to get a car. Why had his parents sent him for driving lessons? So he could observe the bus driver traveling so slowly and struggling to traverse the congested streets?
This time, he was interviewed by three people. The one on the right had glasses and a balding pate, and he seemed to be the boss; to his left were two others who stared Elchanan up and down but didn’t say a word.
“What’s your family status?”
“Where have you worked in the last year?”
“What was your salary?”
“Do you know how to drive?”
“What is the maximum number of hours you are able to work?”
Elchanan answered the questions calmly, surveying the sleek, elegant office. The interviewers looked at each other.
“Look,” the boss said. “Our company has garnered a very reliable reputation as an antiques dealer in the religious and Chareidi sectors, and we’re trying to break in even more. In order to work here, you’ll need to develop a range of abilities and invest a lot of effort and time. Do you think that is possible for you?”
“Certainly,” Elchanan said confidently.
The interviewers exchanged looks again, and after a moment, the man on the right said, “Thank you. We will examine your candidacy, and if we find you suitable, you’ll receive notice in the next few days.”
“I see,” Elchanan said, suppressing his disappointment. “Thank you,” he added as he left. It looked like he was destined to remain at the bookstore for the time being. In that case, he’d better stop with the frequent absences and early departures that were making Dvir wonder; his normally congenial employer was liable to lose his patience, and then Elchanan would be left out in the cold. It was not a risk worth taking.
But two days later, the phone rang. Yaffa answered the call and listened as the unfamiliar caller asked to speak to her husband.
“Elchanan?” she said, surprised. “Someone named Mati Bar-On is looking for you.”
Elchanan hurried to the phone. “Hello?” he said.
“Hello, this is Mati Bar-On, the CEO of Antiqua.”
“If you can come in to the office this evening, we’ll be able to finalize the terms and details of your employment.”
“This evening? When?”
“That’s fine. I’ll be there, b’ezras Hashem.”
“See you then.” The boss’s voice warmed a bit. “Good luck.”
Elchanan hung up and went to find Yaffa. He found her in the kitchen, humming an unintelligible song to Bentzy.
“Yaffa,” he said. “It looks like I’ll be leaving Dvir.”
She raised a pair of surprised eyes to him. “What?” she asked. “As of when?”
“As of now. I’ve been offered a very good job somewhere else. A good place, frum. I was there for an interview, but I didn’t want to talk about it, because I didn’t know if they’d hire me.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Yaffa said quietly, remembering very well why he had most likely kept it from her until now. “Where is this new job? What kind of work is it?”
“It’s an antiques company. They buy from collectors and sell further. In short, they’re agents. They need a new contact person, because they want to break a bit more into the Chareidi market.”
“It sounds unique,” Yaffa said. “And how will you understand antiques? Is it something you can learn?”
“There are details that can be learned, and I imagine that usually, this kind of thing is not an exact science. In any case, from what I understand, my job will not be assessing the value of items, but rather serving as the agent.”
Yaffa didn’t understand how one could be an antiques agent if he didn’t understand antiques, but she was completely ignorant on the subject and was fully aware of that.
“Well, lots of hatzlachah,” she said. “It really does sound more interesting than the bookstore. Are you going to tell Dvir right away?”
“Not yet. Let’s see when they want me to start working; then I’ll hand in my resignation.”
They went back to their supper, which had been cut off by the phone call. Elchanan tried to explain to Yaffa, as much as he could, everything he knew about the global trade of ancient items and manuscripts. “Maybe in the end I’ll become a collector myself,” he said with a smile, donning his hat and getting ready to bentch. “They say that people who get involved in the field, and like it, find that collecting becomes a bug they can’t shake. It’s also usually good money.”
“Nice,” Yaffa said thoughtfully. Just as a trial, Elchanan had told her in the summer when he’d left that first morning to work at Dvir’s.
And now the trial was over.
The evening for the mothers of eighth grade students concluded after the principal’s speech. The mothers of the three classes rose from their seats and approached their daughters’ new teachers. Malka Mann, who had come toward the end, searched for at least one familiar face, and noticed a group of mothers of girls from Mimi’s class. She walked over to them and greeted them.
“Hello,” they replied in unison, and warmly asked after her mother. Until the middle of Mimi’s year in seventh grade, she’d been treated like any other mother, but since the middle of last year, things had changed. Suddenly, she was identified not only as “Mimi Mann’s mother,” but also as the assistant principal in Shaarei Binah High School and the daughter of the principal there. For mothers of girls on the cusp of finishing elementary school, even those who weren’t considering that particular school, Malka’s place in the high school hierarchy was most significant.
She responded politely and asked where she could find the mechaneches.
“She’s there, near the microphone,” one mother replied.
Malka looked in the direction the mother had pointed to and saw a group of women crowding around a figure who was concealed from view. Who knew how long it would take to be able to speak to the teacher… Perhaps she should just do an about-face and go home? But Mimi might be disappointed. It was enough that her mother hadn’t heard the principal’s speech; how could she leave before meeting the teacher?
Malka joined the mothers trying to reach the teacher, Penina Myerson. It took a few long moments until she found a spot in the circle of women near the teacher, and another minute or two for the teacher to finish shaking the hands of all the women.
“Nice to meet you.” Malka smiled. “I’m Mimi Mann’s mother.”
“Oh!” the teacher turned to look at her. They’d met in the past, usually regarding high school matters. “How are you, Mrs. Mann? Mimi is a very capable girl, and I like her very much.”
“Baruch Hashem, baruch Hashem,” Malka replied. “She likes the mechaneches very much also.” Only after they spoke did she suddenly try to remember if she’d heard the name of the teacher mentioned at all other than on the first day of school, when Mimi had told her on the phone that, “We have a great teacher,” and this afternoon, when her oldest daughter had remembered to tell her about the orientation that night.
“I understand she’s very helpful at home right now,” the teacher continued.
“That’s right; she’s the oldest,” Malka said. Only the fact that other mothers were standing in earshot prevented her from asking if this was affecting Mimi’s schoolwork at all. Apparently not. Mrs. Myerson had clearly said that Mimi was very capable.
She wanted to say something before leaving, but just then, her phone began to vibrate. She pulled it out of her pocketbook and recoiled when she saw her father’s number on the screen. Her father was in the hospital now! They’d started steadily reducing her mother’s sedatives. Had something happened?
“Nothing happened,” her father said tiredly.
Malka looked around her at the place where she’d found a quiet corner to talk—on the staircase to the school’s bomb shelter. She had better keep an ear out for the noise upstairs to make sure she didn’t get locked in here. In any case, it did not seem that the women would be dispersing quite so quickly. “So what’s the matter?” she asked worriedly.
“The doctor spoke to me about partially weaning Ima off the respirator. She is showing signs of wakefulness, and they want to give her an opportunity to speak. But it’s a bit of a risk, and I want to talk to you about it. Do you think Michoel will be able to go see Gardner from Refuah V’Lev?”
“Very possibly, Abba. He’s home now. You can reach him there.”
“Did I disturb you in the middle of something important? Are you in school?” The noise from upstairs spilled down the staircase and into the phone.
“No, nothing too important. A mothers’ evening at Mimi’s school.”
“Very nice. What do they say about her? A gem, isn’t she?”
Malka chuckled. “It wasn’t individual PTA meetings; it was more like an orientation for the mothers of the eighth graders,” she said. “They spoke to the mothers about high schools and the efforts that have to be made this year to minimize the problems.”
“Well, there are no problems with Mimi, baruch Hashem,” the proud grandfather said wearily. “I’m hanging up now and going back into Ima’s room.”
No problems? Because Mimi was in the unfamiliar elementary school, her father wasn’t aware of anything. What would be next year? Malka stood leaning against the stone wall for another long moment. The iridescent yellow stripes that lined each stair shone in the darkness, and she knew it was time to climb back to the top and head home. The voices from upstairs were growing quieter, a sign that the evening was coming to an end.
Two other teachers were still speaking to mothers; only Mimi’s teacher was ready to leave the auditorium, by herself, and had noticed her.
“Are you going to the bus stop?”
“Yes,” Mimi’s mother replied, and slipped her cell phone back into her pocketbook. She hoped that the teacher wasn’t going to start lobbying for her to accept someone who was on the verge of being rejected. This year, this issue was likely to be especially difficult for her, as the girls were from Mimi’s grade and she would have to work harder than usual to withstand the pressure. Perhaps the best solution would be to wash her hands of the subject as much as possible, and leave it all to Baila, the registrar. She would leave Yaffa Levinsky to handle the official matters on her own, while she, Malka, would make sure to stay on the sidelines.
“I wanted to speak to you about Mimi,” the teacher said.
“Yes. When I received reports from the seventh grade teacher, I heard that she was an excellent girl.”
“Excellent,” Malka echoed.
“Yes. There is one specific subject she has a hard time with, and that is her dress, as I’m sure you are aware. And the truth is, recently, it’s become even more problematic. But that’s not what I wanted to speak to you about.” She stopped at the bus stop, and Malka felt an urge to tell her she was planning to walk home, despite how far away she lived from there.
“Yes?” she said, keeping her tone polite but distant.
“Recently, Mimi has hardly been friendly with the girls in the class. She spends most of her recesses with a girl from a parallel class; the same seems to be true for the after-school hours.”
“Shuli Emmanuel,” Malka said quietly. “A good girl.”
“Yes. I don’t know her personally, but I’m afraid that this friendship is having a negative effect on your daughter, Mrs. Mann.”
“I actually think that it’s very beneficial for her, Mrs. Myerson,” Malka said, feeling something wake up inside her. “You know what my daughter has been going through these past two-and-a-half months? Do you know that the whole house is on her shoulders, and that she’s been functioning in a remarkable way? My husband’s learning is almost undisturbed, because she’s taken everything on herself, everything. I am so happy that she has this new friendship that gives her a lot, both emotionally and socially.”
“There is no doubt that Mimi is a wonderful girl,” the teacher said cautiously. “And it is possible that this friendship contributes a lot to her in the short term, but I’m not sure about it, and certainly not for the long term. Mimi failed in the placement test for English levels and was almost put down a level, Mrs. Mann, and I heard her casually telling someone in the class that the day before she’d spent the afternoon at Shuli’s and had hardly studied at all.”
“I believe Shuli is also in the top level.” While Mimi didn’t talk much about her teacher, she chattered endlessly about Shuli.
“Could be. But Mimi seems like the type that cares about her studies, and it would be very sad indeed if she would stop doing that.”
“Well, a decline in her schoolwork at this time is rather natural,” Malka said a bit impatiently. Come on, bus, where are you?
“That’s true, but it’s a shame. It’s eighth grade, after all.”
“I don’t think she’ll have a problem getting into high school,” Malka replied with a slight smile, hoping she didn’t sound too haughty. And if she did, well, that was the teacher’s problem, what with her catching mothers late in the evening and preaching to them about trivialities when she knew where they had spent most of their waking hours.
“Clearly,” the teacher agreed, regretting having initiated this conversation. It would not be pleasant to begin the year with a misunderstanding with Mrs. Mann, when the school needed a lot of good will on the part of Shaarei Binah throughout the year. “I trust you, Mrs. Mann; I just wanted you to be aware of the matter and to keep an eye on it.”
“Thank you for noticing,” Malka said, trying to sound friendly. Thankfully, the bus was pulling in—not hers, Mrs. Myerson’s, but it made no difference.
Mati Bar-On was a pleasant-faced man in his fifties. “Your job will be,” he was telling Elchanan, “to mediate between us and members of the Chareidi community who are interested in selling valuable antique items. Your salary will be monthly, plus bonuses for every deal you close.”
“Sounds good,” Elchanan Levinsky said, leaning back in his seat. “How do I get to the people?”
“We will refer you to some of them, but you’ll have to contact others on your own.”
“Okay.” Elchanan wrinkled his forehead for the first time since the meeting began. “And are there any methods to reach potential sellers? As long as I don’t know the business well yet, it is hard for me to understand how this works.”
“Obviously,” his new boss said. “So, first of all, the best and simplest method is to regularly advertise in the Chareidi media, getting out the word that you are interested in purchasing antique documents or artifacts.”
“Will I be tied down to the office for when I make phone calls to clients?”
“Not at all. Your work is field work, not office based.” The CEO moved his empty, gleaming ashtray from the right side of the desk to the left. “You’ll get a cell phone, and that’s the number that you’ll place in the ad. A number that someone can call at all hours is the simplest way to do it. You can also approach relatives of people who pass away, and who are handling bequests, and suggest that they look out for any valuable antiques. If you would know what people throw out…” He smiled. “I personally got into the business because of a 180-year-old letter that I found tossed on the sidewalk near the garbage dumpster by my home.”
“Really!” Elchanan exclaimed.
“Yes. That’s a story for another time.” Mati rubbed his hands together. “So you’ll start at the beginning of next month? In two weeks?”
“Excellent. We’ll arrange that cell phone. Which name should we register it in? If it primarily serves you for work, obviously the expenses will be covered by the company.”
“Great.” Elchanan felt the energy begin to flow through his veins as they moved on to the practical angle. “I have a phone that I will use for my private calls.”
“Very good. So you’ll get another one from us. What code name do you want to use for it?”
The CEO smiled and spread out a sheet of paper before him. “Our agents get code names. Personally, I like biblical names. You can choose whatever name you like. There are a few that are already taken by our veteran agents, if you notice.”
Elchanan glanced in surprise at the page that had a long list written on it in poor- quality print. He was able to see that the names Avraham, Yaakov, David, Binyamin, and Nechemiah were marked with a check, and dozens of other names were listed in alphabetical order. Of the Avos, only Yitzchak was left, and that was his father’s name, so although it was only a code name, Elchanan was disinclined to take it.
The boss hummed something to himself, observing him from the side. “Okay, it’s really an insignificant nonsense,” he said with a smile and took back the page. “I’m registering you as Ehud, mentioned in sefer Shoftim. Is that alright?”
“The one who killed Eglon the king of Moav?” Elchanan tried.
“You got it.” Mati Bar-On smiled and checked off the name Ehud. “Come in on the first of the month, at eight in the morning, okay? You’ll get final instructions then, and you can start working.”
“No problem.” Elchanan rose and shook the CEO’s hand.
“I’m coming to visit you tomorrow,” Chaya told Yaffa.
“Tomorrow, first thing in the morning. I have to meet with Malka Mann about the school’s accounts.”
“Very nice.” Yaffa grimaced, tiredly doodling on the page in front of her. By the time she’d come home from school today, it was almost four-thirty, and she still had a few phone calls to make. It was hard, running a high school, especially when one didn’t really know exactly how to do it.
“So, I’ll finally get to see my sister in action. You’re not going to embarrass me, are you?”
“I hope not.” Yaffa’s grimace deepened, as she examined the phone book to see if she could discern the ninth grade teacher’s phone number beneath her doodles. The class had come to her office today to complain about the way the math groups had been split up, and Yaffa had to verify if the teacher was aware of all the problems.
She finished talking to Chaya and dialed the teacher’s number.
The teacher sounded surprised. Today was her day off, and she knew nothing about what was going on. “The girls came to you to complain?” she asked.
“Yes,” Yaffa replied slowly. “They said that there are lots of girls who were in the highest group in elementary school and they’re now in the second group, and vice versa. I wasn’t able to reach the math coordinator, so I thought perhaps you would know what to say to them tomorrow.”
The teacher was quiet for a minute. Then she asked gently, “Can I say something, Mrs. Levinsky?”
“Of course.” Despite the calm go-ahead, any orthopedist would have discerned the rising tension in her muscles.
“I imagine that they didn’t come in an organized fashion, sending representatives or something like that…”
“No, not exactly.” Yaffa chuckled as she recalled the gaggle of girls pouring into the office. They hadn’t come into her room, but spoke to her as she stood in the doorway. If Chana wouldn’t have chased them out of there, she had no idea how she would have handled them.
“You have a very sweet personality, Mrs. Levinsky. The girls are realizing this, and that’s why they come to you.” The teacher did not mention what another teacher had told her two days earlier. The second teacher had severely punished a student for a misdemeanor the girl had done. The girl had then gone crying to Mrs. Levinsky. While the young principal had not justified the girl’s behavior, she’d had pity on her and gave her a lot of encouragement. A bit too much, even. “But students also need a stick, not only the carrot.”
“I understand,” Yaffa said heavily. “The principal…Mrs. Kotzker…would not have listened to them?”
The teacher laughed. “They wouldn’t have come to her,” she said. “And not because she was too strict. She knew how to be very soft when necessary. But it was clear to them that such an onslaught of complaints would not get anywhere with her.”
“And with me, it was clear that it would,” Yaffa continued somberly. “So what, in your opinion, should I do?”
The teacher, who was almost thirty years older than Yaffa, smiled. “Be a bit firm,” she said simply. “That’s all.”
That’s all? Was the teacher serious? Yaffa hung up, feeling a heaviness inside her, but decided not to let the teacher’s words get her down. Chaya’s impending visit to school the next day was bothering her enough, and truth to be told, the teacher was right.
The conversation rose in her mind the next day, when the bell rang at eight o’clock. The girls walked calmly in the stretch of corridor she could see from her small office, as though there was at least another minute to the bell, and Yaffa, who had never seen Mrs. Kotzker at eight o’clock on a school morning, knew for sure that this wouldn’t be happening under the venerable principal’s watch. Well, she didn’t purport to be Mrs. Kotzker, if only for the simple fact that she had no chance of matching up. But why were the girls walking so slowly? And soon, Chaya would arrive to see this mess.
Yaffa walked out of her room, nodded to Chana in greeting, and emerged from the office.
“Good morning, Mrs. Levinsky,” two cheerful girls greeted her.
“Good morning,” Yaffa replied without a trace of a smile. Really, Chaya would be here soon and would see these girls chatting with her when they were supposed to be in class already! That teacher was right. She, Yaffa, was too soft, but there was nothing she could do about it. The girls didn’t really consider her an authoritative figure. Not that she’d ever tried to be authoritative to them, but at least Chaya should see it.
The two girls exchanged glances for a fraction of a second and then sped up their pace and disappeared down the stairs. Yaffa continued to stand and glare straight ahead. She didn’t say a word to the next few girls who passed her, but wondrously enough, everyone who walked past her suddenly began to hurry until they disappeared from her view. Within two minutes, the entry hall was empty, except for one seminary student who walked calmly and greeted her with a polite nod. Well, the seminary girls only began at 8:30; this one was actually early.
Half a minute later, Chaya appeared. “Good morning,” she called cheerfully to her sister. “What’s doing, Yaffa? Is Malka Mann here yet?”
“Not yet,” Yaffa said. “And good morning to you, too, Chaya.”