Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 25 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.
Malka sat up, alert. Ima was calling her; of that there was no doubt.
“Yes, Ima,” she said brightly, as though it was five o’clock in the afternoon and not in middle of the night. Ima had spoken several times yesterday, just a little and very weakly, but she was talking, baruch Hashem. Real words. “How do you feel?”
“Baruch Hashem, okay.” Every word rolled heavily off Adina Kotzker’s tongue. “And how…are you?”
“When I hear you speaking, I’m wonderful. Should I straighten your pillow, Ima?”
Her mother waved her hand. “No…” she said with difficulty. “How are the children? You…are here a lot.”
“They’re managing. Mimi helps Michoel at home, and in the end they’re going to discover that they manage much better without me.”
“Mimi’s a good girl,” Adina said slowly. “And she’ll continue to be good, if…you give her the right guidance. How…is school, Malky?”
“Baruch Hashem.” Malka swallowed. “It looks like Yaffa Levinsky is doing fine, and things are running pretty smoothly.”
“Yes, she’s…” Adina paused, groping for a word. “Wonderful,” she finally completed her sentence. “And you and Yael?”
A flush rose quickly up Malka’s neck and settled in her cheeks. “Okay. Normal. Yael does more of the hands-on work than I do, but recently I’ve also started to get back into things.”
“What time is it…Malky?”
Malka glanced at her watch. “Four in the morning,” she replied. “Four-oh-six, to be exact.”
“So sleep, sleep,” Adina said, closing her eyes again. “You need energy.”
Elchanan arose for the neitz minyan, and pondered the idea that he would have to get used to going to sleep early if this was the hour he’d have to wake up.
When he got back, his breakfast was ready on the table. Yaffa wished him hatzlachah. “It’s exciting to start something new,” she said understandingly. “I’m sure you’ll do well, and they’ll see that it was a good idea to hire you.”
“I hope so,” he said tensely. He smiled at Bentzy, who was in his carriage, ready to go out to the babysitter. “Have a good day, Yaffa.”
As Elchanan ate, he scanned the paper, as he did every morning. Soon, he was sure, he would stop automatically turning to the “Help Wanted” ads and would focus on the “Cars For Sale” ones. Based on the salary he’d been told he’d be getting, within a month or two he would be able to get a loan with good terms to be able to buy a car. Now that was called moving up in life.
And what was this?
Elchanan was about to get up and clear his plate from the table when his eye caught a small ad; the notice took up less place than an engagement announcement:
Interested in selling antiques/old letters/old documents? A Moreshet representative will give you a good estimate. Call Ehud at …
He suppressed a chuckle. So there’s your new cell phone, Ehud. Nice to meet you.
And what would happen if someone called right now, before he even got the phone?
Elchanan hurried out of the kitchen toward the hallway telephone, with the newspaper tucked under his arm. He dialed the number that was listed in the ad, but was greeted with many rings before the voice mail picked up. Indeed, he’d better hurry to the office to pick up his new phone, as well as an answer to his question: Moreshet? What was that? Wasn’t their name Antiqua?
Mati Bar-On greeted him with a broad smile. Another one of the interviewers was also there. “Remember him, Elchanan?” Mati asked. “This is Menashe.”
They shook hands, and Menashe, who was in charge of customer relations, asked what Elchanan’s plans for the day were.
“Let’s first see who calls from the ad,” Elchanan replied. “And by the way, what’s Moreshet?”
“Moreshet is our commercial name for our Chareidi branch,” Mati replied. “Chareidim will identify better with a name like that than Antiqua, don’t you think? It was Menashe’s idea.”
“Right,” Elchanan said thoughtfully. When Yaffa had heard the name Antiqua, she’d hardly been enthusiastic. Moreshet was a more conservative name, and it would “speak” better to the Chareidi sector.
“One more thing,” Mati said as Elchanan was about to leave. “You don’t know yet how unbelievably competitive this business is. Today you offer someone an attractive estimate, and the next day he tells you that a different antiques dealer bought the item off him for two hundred dollars more. In these things, it’s best to keep quiet, so try to minimize talking about work-related issues, alright?”
“Of course,” Elchanan replied. He hadn’t even finished uttering those words when his new phone began to tinkle with a resonant ringtone.
“Go ahead, pick up,” Menashe said, and Elchanan felt like he was back in fourth grade, standing before the rebbi who was giving him an oral test, and trying to prove how much of the material he’d grasped. But then, he was intimidated and overcome, while now, he could handle this.
“Good morning,” he said, trying to sound official. It wasn’t easy; despite his bravado, he didn’t feel comfortable under the two pairs of eyes scrutinizing him. Mati was more polite, and after a few seconds, turned back to the keyboard in front of him, leaving only his ears tuned in to the conversation. Menashe, by contrast, remained in place, staring at Elchanan and listening carefully to every word he uttered.
“Good morning, is this Ehud?”
“I saw your ad. What is Moreshet? Are you a serious company?”
“Very serious,” Elchanan replied.
“Good, so I want you to take a look at a letter that I have at home. My grandfather gave it to me a few years ago, and I want to sell it.”
“I see. Where can we meet?”
“Do you think it’s worth a lot of money?”
“It’s hard to say without seeing it,” Elchanan said, and Menashe scrawled on a piece of paper, What is it, from who and from when?
“When is the letter from?” Elchanan inquired.
“Something like 150 years ago. The dayan of Wurzburg sent a gift to my great-grandfather’s grandfather in honor of his bar mitzvah, and this is the letter he sent with it.”
“Sounds interesting,” “Ehud” said slowly, quickly writing down the man’s reply. What would he do when he had to answer calls without Menashe and Mati standing at his side?
“Who wrote it?” he asked after a pause, scanning Menashe’s crooked scrawl. “Was it the dayan himself, or did someone write it for him and he only signed?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, then, I’ll have to see it.”
When the conversation ended, Elchanan noticed how his two superiors exchanged pleased looks. He glanced at the address he’d jotted down and asked the two, “So… can you tell me how I’m supposed to know if the letter from Wurzburg is worth something or not?”
“It probably is worth something,” Menashe said. “We’ll give you a few parameters to help you figure it out. Besides, that’s why your phone has a camera feature. Send us a photo and you’ll get an answer.”
“And how do you know it’s not forged?”
“Right from the start, you make it clear to the sellers that you are not independent, but rather an agent for a company, and any deal is contingent upon the approval of the office. Leave it to us to confirm the authenticity of the item, unless you have a reason to suspect something.” Menashe rubbed his thumb against his forefinger and grimaced. “And then we’ll get into the picture earlier. Also, always remember to write down every single transaction. We issue a receipt later and send it by mail to whoever wants one, okay?”
Elchanan nodded. “And if they don’t ask for a receipt?”
“It makes no difference. You should still write everything down. It’s very important to us that everything be official and recorded, for income tax purposes and all that.”
Dovi Brim emerged form the shiur room more slowly than usual. Three weeks had already passed since he’d returned to the yeshivah, and the initial discomfort of that first day or two had quickly dissipated. But now, he was feeling a bit dejected.
“Dovi?” Reb Chaim Noy waved at him from the door of the large hall. Dovi nodded. Reb Chaim hurried over to him. “Something’s wrong,” he said worriedly. “What’s the matter? Are you homesick?”
“A little,” the boy replied. “But that’s not the problem.”
“So what is?”
“I don’t know.” Dovi sighed. “Maybe after I waited so long and wanted so badly to come back to yeshivah, I’m suddenly feeling a letdown of sorts.”
“Why? Aren’t you happy here?”
“Of course, I’m very happy here! But it’s like a person who constantly dreams about getting something, and when he finally gets it, he says, ‘Oh, is that it?’” He looked at Reb Chaim somberly and quickly added, “Again, I don’t mean to say, ‘Is that it?’ about the yeshivah. It’s wonderful here, and I’m thrilled that the rosh yeshivah let me come back. But when I get into the routine, my mood suddenly goes gloomy. I know I’m not really explaining myself very well.”
“Actually, you did an excellent job of describing how you feel.” Rabbi Noy leaned against the wall. “With material desires, there really is never a complete satisfaction. When a person wants something materialistic very, very much, and that desire is fulfilled—then the sentiments you just described usually set in.” He paused for a moment. “Like a person who decides that his life’s dream is to reach the peak of Mount Everest, and after extraordinary efforts, he finds himself standing there, and then he says to himself, ‘Okay, now what?’”
“So you’re saying my motivation to come back wasn’t only for the sake of learning?”
“Well, it was for the sake of learning, too, but not only. And this is your sign.”
“I know I wanted specifically this yeshivah because of its good reputation and my friends, and because I’m valued here and I’m happy,” Dovi said with a sigh. “And I knew that in any other place, I’d be considered second rate, because I came after being thrown out of a yeshivah. But I think that even so, I had a…spiritual desire, if I can call it that.”
“I’m sure,” his former rebbi said to Dovi and patted him on the shoulder encouragingly.
That evening, Rabbi Noy met Rabbi Weinstock at the door of the beis medrash. The rosh yeshivah had been observing Dovi from afar. The boy was learning with his chavrusah, but every few minutes, his gaze wandered to the walls and around the room.
Rabbi Weinstock sensed Reb Chaim Noy behind him and turned around. “I’m afraid something’s not right with Dovi Brim,” he said morosely. “Have you seen him recently?”
“I have, and I spoke to him, too.”
“Nu? His new rebbi was duly impressed in the first few days, but over this past week, there’s been a decline. What did you talk about with him?”
“All the other talmidim already experienced the mini-crisis of the beginning of the zman and getting into routine. He’s doing it now, himself, which is why it is so obvious.”
The rosh yeshivah continued observing the other boys. Reb Chaim Noy stood quietly beside him. At one point, Dovi must have sensed that their eyes were on him, because he buried his head in the Gemara and hardly lifted it again. But it seemed as though the chavrusa was doing most of the talking.
“Last year, during seder, he shouted so loud that I once had to scold him,” Rabbi Weinstock said dismally. “I’m not going to say that I regret taking him back. At most, I have a reason to regret distancing him, and I hope I didn’t do any damage.” He folded his arms and turned from the door, looking at Reb Chaim, who was nodding quietly. “I also have nothing to do about it now,” he added in a low voice. “I have no intention of calling his father. You know what?” he suddenly said, brightening. “I’ll talk to Mrs. Levinsky. That might be a good idea.”
“The young, new principal of Shaarei Binah. She’s the one who got me to take him back, and I can call her and ask her to deal with the issue. That can work well, for more than one reason.”
From day to day, Yaffa learned to appreciate Chana, the tall, aloof secretary who loyally did her work, and without whom it would have been impossible to manage. She had never smiled much at Yaffa, and the latter imagined that it wasn’t easy for her to see a secretary, whose skills she had been skeptical about, suddenly become her boss. But to Chana’s credit, from the minute the lawyer had validated Yaffa’s authorization notice, Chana had accepted it as an undisputable fact. Perhaps in other places, she did protest, and Yaffa had no way of knowing that. But in school, she treated the new principal with all due respect.
Chana was shouldering a lot of new responsibilities now, along with Yael, and Faigy, the second secretary, was left with the regular office work. How had Mrs. Kotzker been able to do so much by herself? Yaffa had no idea. If not for the help she got from Chana, Yael, and Malka—who had begun coming to school more often—she would never finish all the day’s tasks, even if she stayed until seven in the evening every day.
“Mrs. Levinsky,” Chana said one morning. “I think we need another secretary. That’s exactly what Mrs. Kotzker wanted at the end of the summer.”
“You’re right,” Yaffa said thoughtfully. The principal had thought they needed another secretary, and hired her. But she’d left her post very quickly for the leather chair in the inner office, and the front office was left with the same two secretaries as before, one of whom was getting less secretarial work done, because she was doing more principal work.
“Chana’s right,” Yael said during the break that day. “We’ll manage to find the funds somehow; now we just have to find the right person for the job.”
“How do you look for a secretary?” Yaffa asked.
“We’ll take one of our graduates from last year,” Yael declared. “Mrs. Kotzer always likes to employ former students.”
Yaffa wondered, if so, when they’d needed a secretary in the summer, why they’d asked her sister Chaya if she knew of anyone instead of turning straight to their list of graduates. But she didn’t voice her question. “You know the girls,” she said. “You suggest who you think is good.”
“We’ll ask Faigy for a printout of the list of girls who took office management, and I’ll talk to the teacher from last year, and we’ll decide,” Yael said, and then raised her voice. “Faigy?”
A few seconds later, Faigy was there, and it took no time to get the teacher on the line. Three minutes later, they had a list of three names.
“Excellent,” Yael said. “Faigy, please call them and invite them in for an interview.”
“I was hired without an interview,” Yaffa said.
“That’s right.” Yael did not know what was behind the selection of Yaffa for the job in the summer. Malka never talked to her about it. “The principal was probably under such pressure to get the position filled, that she hired you without waiting even another day. Now we’ll interview these girls so you can get an idea of who would be best for the job. When’s a good time for you?”
“Why me? If we need to see what kind of secretaries they’ll make, let Chana interview them.”
“You have to understand, Mrs. Levinsky,” Yael said, almost softly, “they’re our graduates. They learned here for all their years of high school and seminary, and they saw Mrs. Kotzker in this office almost every day. That’s why I think they should get to know you as their current boss.”
“Uh-huh.” Yaffa closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them. “I see.”
The interviews the next day were short, about three minutes each. When they were over, Yaffa left Malka in the little office and went out to the front office. “Chana?” she asked.
The head secretary raised her head. “Yes?” she asked courteously.
“Did you see the three?”
“And who looks like the best choice to you? To me they all look the same.”
Chana smiled. The simplicity with which she was asked was an unintended compliment. “If you ask me,” she said thoughtfully, “the middle one, Schreibman.”
“Great, thank you,” Yaffa said and returned to the principal’s office, where she waited for Malka to finish with her long phone conversation. Finally it was over and Malka raised her head.
“So, what do we decide?” Malka asked, disconnecting herself from whatever the call was about.
“Chana says to take the Schreibman girl.”
“Yes. She’s the head secretary, and I figured she understands this the most, no? It’s important for her to work with someone she considers suited for the job.”
If Malka had any comments about the hasty choice, she didn’t voice them. “Okay,” she said. “So let her tell the girl she can start next week. Honestly, to me they were all the same.”
Yaffa breathed a sigh of relief. Malka hadn’t been spending much time in the office lately, but from the time she was there, Yaffa had learned that it was important to respect her opinion. Apparently the phone call had really distracted her.
“How’s your mother?” Yaffa asked.
“Baruch Hashem. She might be moved out of ICU down to a regular ward tomorrow, and from there, maybe to rehab next week.”
“Will it be possible to visit her once she’s in a regular ward?” Help. She hated hospitals. Did she really have to visit Mrs. Kotzker?
“Good.” Right. Very good.
“I’m sure that when my mother recovers, she’ll be happy to see you.”
No, it was not only her fear of hospitals. It was the feeling that she was, ostensibly, taking Mrs. Kotzker’s place. And maybe it was also the fear of seeing someone who she’d known as active and energetic, looking like a shell of her former self. Whatever the case, Yaffa felt an icy fear thinking of visiting Mrs. Kotzker, but she knew that she’d be obligated to do it the moment it would become medically possible.
The man from Pisgat Zev turned out to be a nuisance and a distrustful person, but after a lengthy negotiation and a telephone approval from Menashe, the ancient letter changed hands. Elchanan placed it in a large envelope and headed out back to the office. It was nice to show he’d accomplished something on his second day on the job.
Mati was pleased. “Wonderful,” he said happily as he saw the envelope. “Put it right here in the drawer. Menashe will be here soon to check the letter from Ginsburg.”
“From Wurzburg,” Elchanan corrected.
“Ginsburg, Wurzburg, what difference does it make? The main thing is to do good business, right?” The boss chuckled, and Elchanan turned the small key to open the drawer he’d been directed to. “There are three such keys. You have one, I have one, and Menashe has one. You understand the responsibility of this, don’t you?” Not waiting for a reply, he continued, “So, how much did you buy it for?”
“Seven hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Excellent. And Menashe expects that the value will rise and we’ll be able to turn a nice profit on it?”
“Apparently,” Elchanan replied. “I’m still pretty new at this, but he approved that price, so I guess he’s thinking about the future profits, right?”
“Right, right,” the boss agreed and went back to his computer without another word.
Just then, Elchanan’s personal cell phone rang, so he walked out of the office.
“What’s doing, Yaffa?” he asked.
“Baruch Hashem, everything’s fine. I just got back from school half an hour ago.”
“Fine. He’s getting a third tooth. Listen, Elchanan. Rabbi Weinstock from the yeshivah in Bnei Brak called about Dovi Brim. Remember him?”
“Sure,” Elchanan said. He’d been the one to handle that visit with Dovi and his father. Yaffa had spent most of the time serving cake left over from Sukkos. Toward the end of the meeting, she’d taken out the paper the rosh yeshivah had faxed her and gently asked Dovi to read and sign it.
“And to really fulfill what it says here,” she’d said with a firmness that made Elchanan want to smile. The boy and his father had read the “contract” closely. Dovi had signed, and with gracious words of thanks they had risen and left. What now?
“Dovi Brim is very preoccupied and unfocused lately,” Yaffa said. “The rosh yeshivah says that I’m kind of responsible for him. He wants us to talk to him.”
“Don’t know. I guess about how important it is to focus on his learning.”
“Who’ll speak to him?”
“Who else, me?”
Elchanan sighed, rolling his eyes. “What do they think, that I’m a psychologist? Well, you have his sister’s number, right? Invite him and we’ll talk. But don’t expect me to give him a mashgiach shmuess.”
“Fine,” his wife replied with a smile.
They hung up, and Elchanan went back into the office. There were no messages waiting for “Ehud,” and he wondered what he was supposed to do now.