Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 27 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 late to school the next morning. Chaya had been urging her to go to the National Insurance Office for ages, and she’d finally gone to take care of it. It was pleasant to walk in the winter sun and remember the days when she’d been able to stroll for as long as she pleased. Strange; she hadn’t even appreciated it at the time.
She arrived at school at 11:05, quickly greeted the secretaries, and hurried into the principal’s office to call Mr. Shazar. She had a feeling he would deny his promise from the day before, but surprisingly, she was mistaken. A few long moments passed after the secretary’s “please wait and I’ll ask him,” and suddenly, Shazar’s hoarse voice was on the line.
“Yes, Mrs. Levinsky, good morning.”
“Good morning. I’m calling regarding those history tests for the twelfth grade at Shaarei Binah.”
He sighed deeply, and she could hear some noises through the line. Yaffa wondered if he was looking up some information on the computer, rifling through paperwork, or just eating something.
“I see…” he said finally. “Your school did not receive a formal announcement of the changes. Well, that is a different story entirely.”
Yaffa remained silent. It was nice of Shazar to finally check into the details of their case.
“Well, let’s see how your school does on the tests next year.”
She wasn’t sure she understood. “Are you speaking now about next year’s twelfth grade? That they should take the tests?”
“Yes, let them take the test in the new format, of course, with no tricks. If the school passes with good marks, then we will exempt the previous grade.”
“Thank you so very much,” Yaffa said, scrawling his exact words down in her calendar. She hoped that it would all be clear to Naomi Bergsas. “This will…make everyone here very happy.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll ask the secretary to send you a cancellation notice by fax.”
A few minutes later, the fax machine in the main office spit out a page, and Yaffa went to get it. Chana looked at her questioningly, but Yaffa just read the page and said, “As soon as the bell rings, Faigy, please call Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Braun, and Mrs. Bergsas to the office, alright?”
She had hardly finished the sentence when she heard far-off shrieking from the floor above them. It was impossible to make out the words being shouted, but it sounded like a class had just been informed of some earthshaking news. Yaffa looked in surprise at the door and hurried toward the hall, but Chana stopped her.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Levinsky,” she said in her tranquil voice. “I imagine that Naomi Bergsas has just delivered the news of the retests to the twelfth grade classes.”
“She was planning to do it today?”
Faigy raised her head. “She and Yael spoke here this morning at recess and decided to tell the girls.”
“Too bad,” Yaffa said tersely, and returned to her office. “Chana,” she said from the doorway. “Please don’t forget to call Yael, Malka, and Naomi Bergsas as soon as their next break begins.”
The two men shook hands, and Elchanan hurried out to the car to get the things he’d brought from Beer Sheva. “Wonderful, wonderful,” Mati Bar-On said as he rubbed his hands with glee. “Menashe will be here soon. He’ll be very pleased, I’m sure. Drink something.”
Elchanan went over to the small urn at the side of the room and made himself a cup of coffee, looking at his boss from the corner of his eye. Mati was bent over the impressive pile of sefarim, a satisfied expression on his face.
“I would never have believed that that shabby-looking house could contain such treasures,” Elchanan said, cupping his hands around his Styrofoam cup. “But the man who passed away was a big collector, apparently. A few volumes of Slavita Shas, machzorim from Breslau in good condition, dated 1870, and three engraved bechers. Oh, and a wall clock that Menashe got really excited about when I called to tell him what I’d found there. I’ll go out and get it from the car.”
“How much did you spend?” Mati inquired.
“Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and fifty.” He smiled apologetically. “Menashe approved the cost overrun.”
“Obviously,” the boss said. “Elchanan, you’re amazing. You’re moving on to the next thing, yes?”
“Of course. I received two phone calls this morning, and I’m going to return them now. I also wanted to ask your opinion; Menashe said it’s fine. One of the callers wants to buy, not sell. What do I do?”
“Listen, Elchanan,” Bar-On declared with a flourish. “Everything that we do here has one objective, to earn money. You are authorized on our behalf to deal with your community however you want—buy, sell, go, come. All I want to see are nice numbers on the accounting sheets.”
“Sure!” Elchanan laughed. He sipped his coffee as he went to the car to get the clock.
Menashe pulled up just as Elchanan opened the door to the car. He smiled at the young employee and walked into the office.
“Menashe!” Mati exclaimed and rose from his seat. “Look at these beautiful things. This Ehud is a real businessman. Would you have believed that he got all this for less than thirty-four thousand shekel?”
“I believe it,” Menashe said, extracting his hand from Mati’s vise-like handshake. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with him, so I knew exactly what we were getting.”
“Nice sums, nice sums,” Mati murmured, his eyes quickly scanning the column of numbers on the receipt that Elchanan had placed on his desk a few minutes earlier.
Naama, Dovi Brim’s sister, lined the garbage can with a clean bag and went into the laundry room to transfer the load from the washing machine to the dryer. She noticed that Dovi’s flute case had been tossed onto the utility cupboard in the laundry room. Who had put it there? She certainly hadn’t, and none of her children could reach that high, even if they climbed on a chair. So who had done it?
Why had Dovi put his flute so high up? What was wrong with its place under his bed?
Naama didn’t know, but she was sure it was somehow connected to Dovi’s dismal mood. Perhaps his stubborn insistence to go back to the yeshivah had been a mistake, after all. Yes, he’d succeeding in getting his way. But had it been worth it? He’d promised not to “waste his time” practicing the flute—that was what the paper he’d signed said. At the time, he hadn’t seemed bitter or hesitant about this condition. What did this new home for the flute mean? Was he having a hard time keeping to his commitment? Was he unable to look at the flute without playing it? Was this an expression of his frustration?
Naama decided to take the case down. She wiped off the dust that had accumulated on it and put it back in its regular place in Dovi’s room, under the bed. She would have to speak to him before he went to Yerushalayim that evening to talk to the Levinskys. She had to encourage him that if he was being sent by the yeshivah to Yerushalayim “for some chizuk,” as his last year’s maggid shiur had put it, then he should talk with the Levinskys about his difficulties and sacrifices. If he wanted them to help him overcome his challenges, he had to reveal that he was facing challenges, and shouldn’t pretend he was a martyr who was sacrificing everything but was happy and thrilled about it.
Naama agreed that it wasn’t worthwhile for her brother to waste time on the flute, but Dovi didn’t play all that much to begin with, and the blanket ban he had imposed on himself—not to even look at the instrument—didn’t seem effective to her. It really didn’t seem to be serving any purpose at all.
“It’s very hard for them,” Yael said, entering the room at a brisk pace. She was followed by Malka, and Naomi Bergsas appeared a few seconds later. “The girls took it so hard, and I understand them. So what can we do? Stop all the other lessons and launch a history marathon?”
“I actually tried to do something,” Yaffa said, looking at Yael. “I found the phone number of the guy in Raanana, at home, I mean, and I called him last night.”
“Who?” Naomi asked.
“Professor Shazar. I called him at home.”
Yael turned to Malka, who had already turned to face Yael. They looked at each other knowingly, and Naomi Bergsas wrinkled her forehead from her perch near the door. “He got very angry and hung up the phone on you,” Yael said understandingly. “That was to be expected.”
“They let you speak to him?” Malka inquired curiously.
“Yes, and he didn’t hang up the phone. I spoke to him a bit, and he asked me to call him at his office today.”
“They don’t transfer any calls to him; I just tried before I came in here,” Yael said, and glanced briefly at Malka Mann again. “So what do we do, Mrs. Levinsky? Should we start giving supplemental history lessons, and that kind of headache?”
“They transferred me to him,” Yaffa replied and rummaged for the fax that she had stuck into a drawer. “He told me last night that I should tell his secretary that it was me, and he would speak to me. He agrees to cancel the test for now, if next year’s class does well on the new format of the exam when they take it next year.”
“He agrees—to what???”
“To cancel the retest,” Yaffa said, finally finding the fax. “Here, he sent me the cancellation in writing; he also included the condition.”
Malka almost grabbed the paper from Yaffa’s hand, and the three teachers huddled around it to see what it said. The handwriting was very clear.
“I don’t believe it!” Yael cried. Chana hurried over from the outside office and pulled the door closed. “Yaff—Mrs. Levinsky, you did it! I can’t believe that you did it! How? Tell me how you did it!”
“This is unbelievable!” Malka’s eyes shone. She couldn’t imagine how she would have arranged a whole new schedule, which is certainly what she would have had to do if they’d had to add history lessons for the twelfth grade.
“Mrs. Levinsky, I have no words to thank you. This is such a huge relief for me, you have no idea!” Mrs. Bergsas said as she read the letter yet again.
“But how, how?” Yael asked again, grasping Yaffa’s hand and pumping it warmly. She was on the verge of enveloping her in a hug and kiss, as well, but Yaffa took a step back.
“I told you exactly how,” Yaffa said, smiling slightly at the three teachers’ open display of jubilation. “I called him at home, he told me to call the office, I called his office, and he agreed.”
“Yes, I got that, but what did you tell him?”
“I just explained the situation as it was, plain and simple.”
“You explained the situation…” Yael murmured. “Plain and simple.”
The music from the band was deafening, and it was only after someone pounded her so hard on the back that her shoulders were almost dislocated, that Sari Schreibman turned around.
“Ayala!” she exclaimed upon seeing her sister-in-law from Petach Tivka, who had just traveled in to Yerushalayim for their cousin’s wedding. “How are you? Why did you nearly knock my shoulders out of place?”
“To get to your ears,” Ayala replied, smiling broadly and pointing to her lips. “Couldn’t you find a more normal place to sit than right under the amplifiers?”
“They weren’t here at the beginning,” Sari replied, trying to also speak as clearly as possible. “Then they moved them here, but I had no patience to switch seats. Did you wash yet?”
“No, I don’t feel like eating so soon after getting off the bus. How’s everything?”
“Great,” Sari said. She got up and moved with her sister-in-law toward the circle of dancers, away from the grating speakers. “I got a job, by the way. I don’t know if it’s permanent or not. For now, it’s till Pesach.”
“In my old school.”
“A job in your school? Wow!”
“Yes. I’m a secretary. It’s nice. I’d almost given up on finding a job after sending in so many resumés and showing up to I-don’t-know-how-many interviews that led to nowhere. But then they called me from the school. Real siyata d’Shmaya.”
“I’m so happy for you!” Ayala Schreibman replied warmly. “And how is it to meet all your teachers and the principal when you’re not a student?”
“I actually didn’t meet the principal.” Sari’s expression grew somber. “I told you when we met on Sukkos about her stroke?”
“Yes, I remember now. You even gave me her name so I could daven for her.”
“Right. So she has a substitute, a really young one. She’s unbelievably successful. Oh, you know something? I just remembered, I think she’s from Petach Tivka.”
“A young woman from Petach Tivka? What’s her name?”
“Yaffa Levinsky. I don’t think she’s too much older than me.”
“Levinsky…” Ayala murmured. “That name sounds so familiar. Yaffa Levinsky…What does she look like?”
“Light, with gray eyes, not tall, and she speaks really softly.” Sari lowered her voice and slowed the pace of her words to illustrate how her new boss spoke. “She does everything quietly and calmly.”
“Wait a minute!” Ayala gaped at her sister-in-law’s little act and her eyes widened. “Don’t tell me her maiden name is Sofer…”
“I won’t tell you because I have no idea. Do you know her?”
“I don’t think it can possibly be her, but the details match so perfectly. If it’s her—I’m in total shock, Sari, total shock!”
“I had a friend, Yaffa Sofer, who got married very young and left school. I’m almost sure her name today is Levinsky and that she lives in Yerushalayim. And she talked exactly the way you just demonstrated, and she has gray eyes, is of medium height, and has a really light complexion.”
“So it must be her, because she’s really very young. It makes sense that she’s your age.”
“But it can’t be her!” Ayala exclaimed, and although they were standing near the speakers again, Sari heard her perfectly.
“Because she’s the last person in the world for that kind of job.”
“I don’t know. The one I’m talking about does the job very well. You can see she’s young and that she’s a substitute, because she doesn’t act exactly like a regular principal, but come into the teachers’ room for two minutes and listen to the way the assistant principal, Mrs. Braun, talks about her.”
Ayala Schreibman was quiet. Maybe it wasn’t Yaffa Sofer-Levinsky, but it very possibly was. But how could it be her? Yaffa hadn’t taken the teaching track, probably because her grades had been too low, so how had she become a principal? She’d been the classic outcast, spending most of her school hours on the sidelines. Unfortunately, there are one or two such girls in almost every class.
Ayala’s mother-in-law tapped her on the shoulder at that moment, and Ayala became so busy exchanging polite “mazel-tovs” with the extended family that she had little time to think about Yaffa.
Who said that Yaffa had low grades, anyway? She never showed a single test to a friend, nor did she ever speak about her grades. Did she give the impression that she did poorly in school because she hardly participated in class? So what? She could have had a thousand other reasons why she kept silent during lessons.
Strange; you could be in the same class as a girl for eleven years, and you could know nothing about her.
Ayala wondered if Leah’le, who had kept up with Yaffa, knew what Yaffa was doing today. She wondered if Leah’le had known what Yaffa was up to then, and which talents Yaffa had that no one knew about.
In a burst of magnanimity, Elchanan offered to wait for Dovi at the bus stop in his car. For a boy who wasn’t familiar with Yerushalayim, searching for a house he’d been to once at night could become complicated. Elchanan switched on the heat and waited for the bus from Bnei Brak to arrive. There; he chalked up another chessed he could do with a car. Yaffa hadn’t been particularly excited about the idea of him buying a car, just like she hadn’t been pleased with the “Ehud” business. But she was so busy that she hadn’t had time to dwell on it and express her displeasure.
“Dovi?” He immediately recognized the boy who hopped off the bus, and opened the window to call out to him. “Dovi Brim, right?”
“Right,” the teenager replied and offered his hand for a shake.
“Get in,” Elchanan said and opened the door.
“It’s cold here,” Dovi remarked. He was wearing a short jacket, and he shivered as he slipped into the front seat.
“So, how are you doing?” Elchanan asked, easing into the flow of traffic.
“Is everything okay?”
“Sort of. Not everything. A few things are not so great.”
“Like what, for example?”
“Like my flute. My sister said I should talk to you about it.” He seemed a bit embarrassed at the idea.
“So come on, out with it.”
“Yes, why not?”
Dovi hesitated. “Wouldn’t it be better if the principal would also hear?”
“It’s okay, I’ll tell her everything. She’s very busy this evening, and gave me the authority to speak to you. You can start.” Elchanan was in an excellent mood. The deal he’d closed today had pleased his bosses, and had lifted his spirits. Yaffa wondered a bit how everything went so quickly and easily there, but he believed that there are types of people who just get things done quickly, and if so, this place was tailor-made for him. He had no patience for weeks’ worth of inquiries in order to buy a few odd items.
“It’s hard for me,” Dovi said simply.
“That much is clear. That’s why your rosh yeshivah called my wife.” Elchanan paused. How long ago had it been since he had stood in the doorway of his dormitory with his mashgiach and told him, “I’m having a hard time”? It felt like yesterday; maybe last week. “What exactly are you finding hard?”
“I was so overjoyed when they took me back, that I didn’t think how much it would demand of me. They welcomed me nicely, no one mentioned the zman that I wasn’t there, but I feel a bit…disappointed by the routine. It’s like after my big, fancy bar mitzvah, when I woke up the next morning and felt so strange getting up to a normal day.”
“Bachurim often experience lows like that.” He sure knew a lot about them. “But talented boys, who are able to learn and enjoy learning…they have the best chances of pulling themselves up and moving forward. You’re talented, aren’t you?”
Dovi chuckled, but didn’t reply.
“You can sit and learn, right? You sometimes also enjoy it, am I right?” Elchanan focused his gaze on the traffic light ahead.
“Even more than sometimes.”
“Excellent. So first of all, chin up. You’ve got great chances.” Unlike me.
Dovi smiled. “But chances don’t help me. All of a sudden, the flute that I was so angry at for getting me into that mess looks like the most attractive thing in the world.”
“And do you play it?”
Dovi recoiled. “The rosh yeshivah doesn’t let me.”
Elchanan parked the car near his house. “That’s not exactly true,” he noted. “I also saw what it said on that paper that you signed. You promised not to waste time on it. I don’t think that playing for a few minutes in the evening is called wasting time.” He hoped that he was saying the right thing, because he really had no idea what he was expected to say.
“I don’t know…”
“Before the summer, did you have the flute here in Eretz Yisrael with you?”
“And did you play it a lot, on a regular day?”
They had climbed out of the car, and Elchanan locked it. Dovi shivered in the cold again and quickly climbed the stairs behind his host. Elchanan knocked lightly on the first-floor door, and when there was no answer, he took out his key and opened the door. As expected, Yaffa was nowhere to be seen, but on the table in the darkened kitchen he could see a plate of cookies, two mugs, and a thermos of coffee. It was a good thing she’d warned him ahead of time that she planned to disappear from the house because she had nothing to tell the bachur. She’d probably gone to her sister Chaya.
“My wife couldn’t be here with us,” he said and switched on the kitchen light. “It’s okay. I told you that I’m her substitute.” He filled the two mugs almost to the top and motioned for Dovi to sit down.
“Anyway, if you want to know what I think, it’s pretty obvious that the flute is attracting you because you aren’t allowing yourself to play it.” Wasn’t this all very amusing? His wife had become a principal, while he was playing psychologist.
“So what should I do?” Dovi asked, taking a cookie from the plate.
“You have to play.”
“I’ll feel very bad about it.”
“Because you decided that it is bad. Look, on Purim you played for the yeshivah, right? Did someone get upset at you? No. No one has a problem with you playing from time to time if you enjoy it; the problem is when it leads to concerts and auditoriums and audiences and money—when it becomes a dominant focus in your life. That’s where I think the problem is.”
How had his own mashgiach put it? If you feel good spending some time in the office every so often, helping out with typing and technical things—no one has a problem with that. The problem is when it becomes entire days spent there, on account of your sedarim and shiurim and all sorts of other things; when it becomes too important a part of your life. That’s where the problems begin.
“You have to play, and feel fulfilled by it, I believe,” Elchanan said. This psychology stuff was interesting, wasn’t it? His own mashgiach had also sent him to do things that made him feel fulfilled. Elchanan had been a counselor for Ezer Mitzion, he’d lit Chanukah candles for patients in the hospital, and he’d helped elderly people build their sukkos. The problem was that we light candles and build sukkos for a very short amount of time each year, and Ezer Mitzion’s camp was only during bein hazmanim. So Elchanan was always left with the frustration of seeing everyone else progressing, while he, because of some unseen springs that he felt inside of him, kept jumping in place and falling constantly, without ever moving forward.
But Dovi could advance; of that Elchanan was sure. Wouldn’t it be a shame if he didn’t?
Thank you. I’m really enjoying this story. It’s my Erev/Motzei Shabbos treat.