Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 29 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.
Rivi, from Team Mayim, was holding court backstage. “It’s a bit annoying to be the first to perform,” she declared. “After the three other teams finish, everyone will forget what we did.”
“No one will forget,” Morah Yael Braun said, suddenly appearing out of nowhere. “Don’t worry, Rivi, okay? We’re keeping track. Hurry up, girls, please. We want to start the program.”
Malka opened the chagigah by delivering a brachah from her mother to her beloved students. Yael was to close the program after the winning group would be announced. Yaffa, as expected, refused to even come up to the stage.
“I complained to Mrs. Levinsky this morning about us being drawn to go first,” Zehava whispered as she pinned the waistband of her costume skirt with a large safety pin. “She listened to me very seriously and promised to try not to forget anything. Can I tell you I think that’s going to help much?”
“Well, at least she’s fair,” Rivi grumbled, checking her gold vest in the mirror. “And there really is nothing to do about it. A goral is a goral.”
Shira, from 10a, walked into the backstage area just then. “Mayim!” she shouted angrily. “I want you at the door to the stage in one minute—is that clear? The audience is losing patience.”
“The audience will be fine,” Rivi muttered with two bobby pins stuck between her lips. “We’ll be there in a minute. No pressure, Shira, dear, okay? Your dance will start as soon as we’re all ready. Take it easy.”
Yaffa was sitting in the first row with the teachers, madrichos, Malka, and Yael. The performance was most impressive. Yaffa felt very old; although only a few years had passed since she herself had been in high school, she’d forgotten how much girls put into their performances. Still, things must have really advanced since her high school days, because what she was observing was on a completely different scale from what she remembered. The playbacks, the lighting, the costumes—it all came together to form an unbelievably spectacular and unique presentation.
When Mayim completed their performance, Yaffa joined the resounding applause that filled the school auditorium. The girls walked off the stage beaming. They seemed pleased with their execution.
One brunette passed by her. “Mrs. Levinsky,” she said, “please remember not to forget our performance.”
“You were wonderful,” Yaffa said. “And I’m not forgetting anything.”
“Thank you.” The girl dimpled and went arm-in-arm with a friend to sit down in the audience.
“Now it’s Eish’s turn,” Yael said, but didn’t stand up. “And the heads there are balls of fire, literally; they don’t need me to hurry them up.”
This group also captivated Yaffa, and she was happy that she was not the sole judge who would have to decide on the winning group. There were very talented girls in this school—that much was becoming clear.
Yael tried to goad the Afar girls onto the stage and came back laughing. “They’re not letting me backstage,” she said as she flopped down onto her chair. “They posted two girls to guard the door and are claiming that no one is allowed in to see their scenery.”
Malka’s forehead creased in concern. “What is it?” she asked.
“I have no idea.” Yael poured herself a cup of juice from the bottle she’d brought along with her.
“Didn’t they tell you about it during rehearsals?”
“We gave them free reign,” Yael replied with a smile. “But if they don’t open the curtains soon, I’m going to force my way onto the stage. I have no intentions of getting home to light the menorah with just minutes to spare.”
“What do you mean, force your way onto the stage?” Malka rose and straightened her skirt. “Are you a teacher or their friend? If they need to be hurried, you just go in and do it!”
“Sit down and take it easy, Malka,” Yael said, putting her empty cup on the floor next to her feet. “Enjoy the break. Did you come to a Chanukah chagigah or to teach?”
“There has to be discipline at the chagigah, too,” Malka said, but sat down. The argument was superfluous, because at that moment, they heard a thunderous noise from the microphones, sounding much like a siren, and a metallic voice announced, “Sandstorm! Sandstorm!”
With this announcement, the curtain lifted, and huge fans blew a forceful wind that scattered sand all over the auditorium in no time. The Afar girls were considerate enough to direct the fans to the sides of the auditorium, so except for those girls sitting right at the edges, no one had to inhale the clouds of sand and dust that floated through the air.
None of the teachers knew how to react to the coughing that began at the ends of the rows of seats. Meanwhile, on the stage, a group of girls burst onto the scene, dressed as Bedouins in brown cloaks that reached the floor, which was also covered in a generous layer of sand. The girls began their dance.
“Where did they get all this from?” one teacher wondered aloud as she stood up to see if any of the girls who were coughing needed help. But the coughing seemed to be dying down.
“They tied bags of sand to the fans, look!” the mechaneches from 10C said, laughing. A heavy, loud Bedouin tune blared from the speakers, and a huge cardboard camel inched its way across the stage, carrying a small Bedouin child, who waved to the audience, on its back.
“Sandstorm! Sandstorm!” the loudspeaker shouted again, and the music stopped at once. The “Bedouins” froze in place, on the ground, and the fans began blowing again, but this time, the bags of sand had been emptied, and the girls sitting on the ground were covered with a soft, light brown fabric that rolled out from somewhere, leaving only some bumpy figures on the stage.
Yaffa was looking at the stage, but something about the hall niggled at her brain. Was it only her imagination, or was the audience less focused? It wasn’t as quiet as when the previous two groups had performed.
“Deep in the Sahara Desert,” said a low and dramatic voice through the microphone, “a convoy of dozens of Bedoiuns is swallowed up in a massive sandstorm and disappears forever, without leaving a trace.” A mournful tune played in the background now. “Years and years pass, and new, fresh hot sand covers the old tracks.” The voice rose. “New generations come and go, and no one knows the secrets of those buried beneath the sand.”
Malka turned to Yael. “Tell me, how are they planning to clean up all this sand from here?” she hissed, shaking out her skirt.
“Coincidentally, all our wildest girls are part of this group, did you notice?” Yael smiled without shifting her eyes away from the stage. “Ten minutes, a bunch of brooms, and lots of pairs of hands, and everything will be good as new. Let them give off some positive energy; what’s the matter? Don’t be so uptight, Malka.”
A group of “archeologists” appeared on the stage, and began to dig in the mounds of fabric.
“I found a papyrus!” one of them cried, and all the others came crowding around “him” as “he” read the words written on it:
“To Mahmouda: you didn’t lend me your algebra scroll, so I don’t think I have an extra pencil for you.” The “archeologist” tossed the note into the air derisively, as the others snickered scornfully.
“I also found something!” another one announced, and opened a wrapped package. Inside was a golden narghile. The “archeologist” read what was written on it: “Belongs to Ahmed only. Anyone who uses this without permission is invited to a duel!” The narghile was also scornfully tossed aside.
“To my daughter, Fatima,” another ”archeologist” read from a note that was tied to a heavy necklace made of huge colored beads. “You were so jealous of your friend’s necklace, so I bought you the same one.”
Different objects kept turning up in the sand, reflecting the corrupt character traits of those who owned them: envy, hatred, revenge, and competition.
Behind Yaffa, the whispers grew louder. Yael turned around, also uncomfortable now. “Something’s going on over there,” she said finally, starting to see what it was. “A whole bunch of girls have left the room. Strange.”
“Girls who already performed?” Yaffa whispered.
“It’s hard for me to see.”
“Maybe someone’s not feeling well? Could the sand have done it?” Yaffa wondered.
“I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like there’s any panic there.”
“So what is it?”
In the last few rows, a full-blown storm was raging, and it had nothing to do with sand.
“The girls are angry about something,” Yael said finally. “It looks to me like they are from Ruach.”
On the right side of the stage, a pile of objects grew, apparently symbolizing worthier character traits. Yaffa turned back around in time to hear the final “archeologist” exclaim in an impressed tone: “To my oldest sister, Zohria: thank you for helping me all these years.” The copper bracelet was also placed on the side, and the “archeologists” all vigorously clapped their hands.
“Yael, can you go out and see what’s going on there?” Malka asked, noticing what was going on, too. “They’re not being right. I’m going to take off points for interrupting their friends’ performance.”
“I’ll go out to see what’s happening, I just saw girls from my class leaving,” the mechaneches of 9C said and hurried down the aisle.
Yaffa, completely distracted, looked at the sand-covered stage. The “dead Bedouins” suddenly came to life and rose from the reams of fabric, joining the other girls in the group. Together, they all began to sing:
“Years will pass, sand covering each one,
With no one to tell all that was done.
But one day, the layers will be peeled,
And the souls beneath them will be revealed.
From a mass, only footprints in the sand will remain,
Only they will testify about yesterday’s domain…”
Again and again, the sound of the door slamming resonated through the hall. What was going on there in the back?
“Fix your middos before the digging begins,
Because over there, facing the truth, nothing is hidden.
Fix them quickly before that day will come,
And your soul will be cleansed and shine like the sun.”
Yaffa applauded together with the rest of the audience, but as soon as she finished, she looked urgently at Yael. “It was really very, very special, but what should we do about Ruach?”
She had to thank Hashem; was there even the slightest doubt of that? Her brain worked, her eyes could see, and her heart pounded. So her hands and legs didn’t work so well? That was a problem, but b’ezras Hashem, it would be resolved. The doctors had become very optimistic. How had Dr. Amar put it yesterday? “Give it another month or two, three, four, or five, and you’ll be running, Mrs. Kotzker.”
On Wednesday she’d be moving to the SternRehabilitationCenter in Petach Tikva. They had a lot of experience with post-stroke patients, Shaul had said. He’d conducted an extremely thorough investigation on the facility and had been very impressed with the level of care given there. “When you leave there, b’ezras Hashem,” he had reassured her, “aside from memories, no remnants of this stroke will be left.”
Amen! But in the meantime, it was hard for her, and her sweet thoughts of that distant, healthy future didn’t seem all that realistic right now. Now she was here, experiencing the effects of the powerful stroke she’d suffered. She was so dependent on others, and found it hard to express what she wanted. It was difficult for her to see everyone going out of their way to do whatever they could for her.
She needed help with even the simplest acts, the things a person does not remember to be grateful for when he can do them naturally, by himself. Did she remember, in the past, when she ate, to thank Hashem for allowing the food to slip easily down her throat? And when she wrote countless lines and signed her name tens of thousands of times—did she remember to thank Him for her hand, the hand that was now lying limply on the blanket?
Everyone was so devoted, so solicitous. It was uncomfortable for her to see it, and she was relieved that none of her staff members had come to visit. That would be more than she could bear, to have them see her like this. Yaffa Levinsky had called twice; once she’d spoken only to Malka, and the other time, she, Adina, had spoken to her. Adina hadn’t had the strength to talk much, but she’d listened attentively to what Yaffa had said. Yaffa was so sweet, really, a doll; there was something so easy about her. Malka said she was managing quite nicely with the job that had suddenly landed on her not-overly-confident shoulders, and that was gratifying to hear. It was encouraging to hear about people growing in life.
She was also discovering another angle to Mimi, her devoted granddaughter who came three times a week to sit with her. Yes, Mimi didn’t always dress the way Adina would have liked, but she had exceptionally fine middos. Mimi did all that she could to make her grandmother happy and comfortable, although, of course, the things that would truly make Adina happy could not be provided by a human being. It was really too bad about the way Mimi dressed; she was such a good girl.
Shuli, Mimi’s friend, had actually surprised Adina for the good. Not that she thought that the friendship was beneficial for the pair; she wondered if it wouldn’t be better to separate them. But Shuli had certainly surprised her. She was so accepting, so easy and flexible. Adina, who was known for her keen perception of people, was very impressed.
“No, Morah, we’re never going to forgive them, ever!” Batya’s tears rolled down her cheeks, and Yaffa observed her from the side with disbelief. The girl seemed unfazed by the crowd that had gathered and was watching her histrionics. “The idea of the fans was ours! Ruchama suggested it to us, and then they went and upgraded it with their sand and all that other stuff, and now we’ll look so stupid, like we’re copying them.”
“Well, of course!” Devoiry Weiss, the narrator of the Bedouin scene, shouted. “Ruach knows that whatever they will do now will pale in comparison to what we did, so they found a dumb reason to ruin the whole thing!”
A few girls from Ruach bristled angrily and surrounded her. “Dumb? Who took whose idea, huh? Who?”
“We didn’t take anything from anyone,” Devoiry insisted defensively. “Ruchama told you about it? What are you talking about? When?”
“Girls, quiet.” Yael raised her hand, but the girls were in an uproar now and they ignored her. “Which Ruchama are you talking about? Ruchama Epstein?”
“Yes, the madrichah of 10b!”
“Well, we’ll find that out later,” Malka intervened, her voice calm and quiet. “It’s really a very unfortunate incident, and we will look into what exactly happened here. Now, though, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Ruach, can you get yourselves ready to go onstage?”
“Who?” one girl from Ruach asked bitterly. “Morah, half of our group went home!”
“We’re not putting our fans on the stage now. We’re dropping out!” another one declared. “There’s no point in it anyway!”
“Talk about taking the wind out of their sails…”
A few girls tittered at the quip, but most continued to glower angrily.
“Girls, be reasonable,” Yael said. “Let’s finish the chagigah on a positive note, and we’ll have to look into what happened. We’ll pretend that your fans are the first ones we’re seeing today.”
“We’re not babies,” one girl said, and marched off to the side of the hall.
“Positive note?” someone wearing a Bedouin cloak shouted. “These babies already destroyed anything positive about this chagigiah. And all of that because—”
“Please, let’s not start with name-calling,” one teacher called out stridently. “Like Morah Mann and Morah Braun said, we will have to deal with this later, on an individual basis.”
“Well, we’re going home, now,” two more girls whispered, and the door slammed for the umpteenth time that hour.
“So are we!” the Bedouin-cloaked girl cried, and a few more girls—who were not in costume, so it was impossible to tell which team they were from—nodded in agreement.
Girls from the other groups also had what to say. The circle around the teachers and the tearful, screaming girls grew steadily. Yaffa listened to them all in silence, not believing what was unfolding here. How could a beautiful high school chagigah get girls so riled up like this?
Yael forged her way out of the circle to the bottom of the stage, leaving all the screaming, crying, arguing girls behind her. She took the microphone in her hand, and shook it lightly. “Girls,” she said. And then a minute later, “Girls!” And then louder, “Girls!!”
Gradually, the hubbub quieted down.
“I’m asking the Ruach group to please come over to me,” she said calmly, although her voice sounded scratchy. An angry murmur rippled through the large crowd of girls, and then about fifteen girls broke off and approached the stage. “Where are your teammates?” Yael queried in shock.
“They left,” one girl said quietly. “They’ve gone home.”
The hand holding the microphone dropped to her side as Yael stood in deep thought. “I see,” she said finally. “Okay. All teachers and girls, please return to your seats. Mrs. Levinsky, Morah Mann, can I have a word with you?”
Somehow, the flames, water cannons, sandstorms, and gusts of wind settled down in their seats.
“What do we do?” Yael whispered to Malka and Yaffa at the foot of the stage. “Malka, should we just tally the points and announce a winner so we can finish things up?”
“That would be very foolish,” Malka replied. “We can’t ignore the fact that four teams prepared and only three performed.”
“So should we end the chagigah here? What do you say?” Yael turned to Yaffa, knocking on the microphone. “This mike is full of sand,” she grumbled.
“We’re all going to be left with a bitter taste,” Yaffa replied quietly. “Maybe we should just praise the performances we saw without actually tallying points and picking a winner.”
“I’m not in the mood of praising anyone right now,” Malka snapped. “Yael, the chagigah is ruined; accept it as a fact.”
“Right, but still, let’s try to finish it off in as best a manner as we can, under the circumstances.” She switched the microphone back on and blew into it.
“Look, girls,” she said candidly. “Our chagigah stopped under very unpleasant circumstances, which we will deal with, b’ezras Hashem. We’re going to stop here, and we’ll tally the points after Chanukah.
“I’m asking the girls who were appointed as usherettes not to forget their jobs, and the girls from Afar—see what you can do to make sure this hall doesn’t resemble the Sahara Desert.”
Yael glanced at the door. “Malka, Yaffa, candle-lighting is in less than an hour and a half. We need to finish up here quickly so that we can all make our buses.” The other teachers stayed for a few extra minutes to try to calm the girls, and then left.
“I won’t clean up all this sand that those girls left here,” one of the usherettes standing next to Yaffa announced loudly. “Mrs. Levinsky, it’s not fair! It’s just not fair!”
“What happened really is too bad,” Yaffa sympathized with her. She unplugged the microphones and sent one of the girls to call the custodian to take the equipment back to the supply room. Dozens of brooms suddenly appeared, and although a lot of girls had left, there were still enough industrious ones remaining who grabbed a broom and began to clean up.
“Which group are you from?” Yaffa asked one short girl who seemed to move around like a whiz.
“I’m from Eish, but I don’t mind cleaning up. The girls from Afar prepared tons of brooms ahead of time so that everyone could help afterward.”
“Very responsible of them,” Yaffa said, unaware of the flood she was unleashing with her comment.
“Sure, very responsible—for themselves!”
“They don’t even realize how much their ridiculous sand covers everything.”
“Mrs. Levinsky, don’t you think what they did was mean?”
Now she couldn’t differentiate between the girls anymore, because they were all back to their regular clothes. “Are you from Ruach?” Yaffa asked a girl she thought she remembered being a soloist for that team.
“No, I’m from Mayim, but I have lots of good friends in Ruach, and I think they are absolutely right!”
“Right?” another broom-wielding girl hollered from across the room. “Jealous babies who ruined everything for everyone else!”
Malka and Yael were nowhere in sight, and Yaffa found herself left alone to battle the wave of complaints that had exploded again.
“But there were lots of nice things here as well,” she said honestly, and suddenly felt uneasy with the silence that had fallen. “The Eish group was very quick and efficient, and Mayim’s message was very strong and clear, and throughout the practice sessions, Ruach gave up the bomb shelter practice space many times to other groups, and…” Hashem, what would she say about Afar? That their idea was unique and original? All the Ruach girls would want to swallow her alive.
“And the Afar girls,” someone concluded for her, “are now showing us how much energy they have, and within the hour there isn’t going to be a trace of any of this sand here anymore, right?”
Half an hour later, with the much-awaited chagigah having long since fizzled to its dismal end, the auditorium looked dusty and tired, with a few exhausted girls and a brigade of brooms struggling to handle the huge job still ahead of them.
Reb Chaim Noy arrived late, as usual, to the family’s Chanukah party in his parents’ house, but he could be forgiven. He sat down and ate a donut, carrying on a conversation with his two brothers and one brother-in-law at the same time. His children danced around him, proudly showing off the Chanukah gifts they’d received from their grandmother.
“Tell me, Chaim, do you have a few talmidim you could lend us?” Baruch, his younger brother, suddenly asked.
“Refuah V’simchah. We’re organizing a party in the Seivah Tovah nursing home on the last night of Chanukah and we need more of a chevrah.”
“Could be. I wonder what the Rosh Yeshivah will say about the idea, but it is possible that we do have some boys for what you need.” Names ran through his mind. Bentzy Solomon. Meir Sharabi. Dovi Brim. Shmuel Cohen. It might even be a good idea for them, especially for Dovi Brim. Just two days ago, Rabbi Weinstock had told Rabbi Noy that someone who was in contact with Brim had called him and recommended that the boy be allowed to play his flute within clear and defined parameters, in a positive setting.
Rabbi Weinstock had asked him what he thought, but Rabbi Noy couldn’t decide. For Dovi to volunteer to play for people? On a regular weekday? That could be good for Brim, but it had its drawbacks, too. Now that there was a practical solution at hand, though, the idea suddenly sounded like an excellent one. Yes, his talmidim could go and cheer up the elderly residents of the nursing home, and Dovi could play a bit, and perhaps it would help him release some tension. Why not?
That very night, Rabbi Noy spoke to Reb Yeshayahu by phone. Rabbi Weinstock was not very enthusiastic, but he agreed that there were talmidim who could gain a lot from such an evening. Yes, Dovi, too.
Three evenings later, the boys headed for the nursing home. Dovi was carrying his flute case. At the entrance, a tall man waited for them; he reminded Dovi of his rebbi from last year.
“I’m Baruch Noy,” the man said with a grin and quickly shook hands all around. “Welcome, and thank you for coming. Let’s go; I want to show you around and introduce you to the residents.”
For the first time in his life, Dovi had to really exert himself playing his flute. He was used to playing and practicing for long periods of time, but playing for hours before an audience was another story. He played with another volunteer who accompanied him on the keyboard, and although the two had never met before they began, the results were quite satisfactory. His friends and the other volunteers from Refuah V’simchah danced, sang, and spoke to the older people, while the two musicians played for a long time in the recreation room where the party was taking place. Then they moved from room to room in the wing where patients were bedridden, and played for those patients, as well. It was a sad place, but the sadness was somewhat concealed by the dreidels, balloons, and songs that surrounded them all.
After two hours of running from room to room and from floor to floor, Dovi lowered the flute from his lips for the umpteenth time. He wiped his forehead and put the instrument back into its case.
“Thank you so much!” an elderly, white-haired man, who reminded Dovi of his late grandfather, said. “You played beautifully!”
“It was really great to play with you,” the second volunteer musician, an older bachur named Yossi, added as he rolled up the extension cord of his keyboard. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” Dovi said, breathless, his face the color of a ripe red pepper. His friends suddenly appeared, all sweaty and smiling, and the director of the nursing home approached the group, together with Baruch Noy, to thank them.
“The music was exceptional,” the director said. “The songs, the dancing, everything. Thank you all for making the effort. May you merit long, healthy, and sweet lives!”
“Amen,” the boys replied in unison.
Baruch Noy shook the boys’ hands again. When he came to Dovi, he stopped. “I’m going to tell my brother,” he said, patting Dovi on the shoulder, “that I don’t need you only on Chanukah. You’d be a huge asset to our organization. We go to all sorts of such places, and you play beautifully.”
“I’d be happy to help you out with my music—if the Rosh Yeshivah agrees,” Dovi said with cautious politeness. He was not about to take any risks.