Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 32 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.
“Sounds nice,” Yael said reservedly the next day, “but from a chinuch perspective, I’m not so sure about it. I mean, this group of girls really deserves a dressing down, and instead, you invite them over for an evening of fun?”
“It wasn’t all fun,” Yaffa noted. “There were awkward silences and some unpleasant moments.”
“I don’t know, but I’m not sure it was in place,” her deputy insisted. “Such a thing can really cause jealousy. What will you tell the other girls on Ruach and Afar? That because they didn’t kick up a fuss, they weren’t invited to you? They don’t deserve compensation?”
Yaffa mulled this over. “If so,” she said, “then ask about the other two teams; their chagigah was also ruined. Don’t they deserve compensation, too?”
“Yes, and so?”
“I guess you’re right,” Yaffa said wearily. “I didn’t think of it.”
But when, during the first recess of the day, the teachers of those classes—every single one of them—reported that the atmosphere had significantly improved, Yael didn’t say a word. She just wrinkled her nose quietly. The recess itself was also much quieter in the corridors, and it seemed as though peace had finally been restored to the school, after weeks of tension and fighting.
During the twelve o’clock break, two girls entered Yaffa’s office. She recognized them as two of the girls who’d been at her home the night before; one was the accordion player, and one was the girl who’d lugged down the huge garbage bag at the end of the evening.
“Mrs. Levinsky,” they said, smiling. “We’re from Team Ruach, and no one saw our performance. Can we perform it one day for the other teams? And then we’ll find out who the winner is.”
“I don’t think we’re going to do that,” Yaffa said, studying their faces. “After all, you don’t deserve a prize.”
The two girls looked at each other uncomfortably, murmured something, and shuffled out of the office. Yaffa wondered if Yael would agree with her judgment this time. Whatever the case, it was probably impossible to please everyone.
The phone in her office rang.
“Yaffa?” Elchanan was on the line. “Can you check if my planner landed in your briefcase by mistake? I don’t see it here.”
Yaffa chuckled and quickly rummaged through the paperwork in her briefcase. A few weeks after Elchanan had begun his new job, he’d decided to write down all the deals he was involved in, upon the advice of his sister, Ruth. “Don’t be so naïve,” Ruth had told him. “They promise you a percentage, and you don’t even know exactly how much is supposed to be coming to you?” He listened to her and bought himself a planner very similar to Yaffa’s. Because of his disorganized nature, it was hard to decipher his notes, but what counted was that he wrote down everything scrupulously. And because Yaffa was not the most organized person either, and because their planners were very similar to each other, it had happened more than once that she had stuck her husband’s planner into her briefcase during the morning rush.
Now Yaffa pulled Elchanan’s planner out of her briefcase with a triumphant smile. “Yes,” she informed him. “It’s here. Should I read something to you, or write something down?”
“Both. First, please open to today’s day and write down: ‘revenue of five thousand shekel, rental contracts in the Jewish Quarter from 1890, from Shlomo Trill.’ Then…” He paused for a minute. “Look back a little; I wrote something down about a menorah I sold to Korman, sometime before Chanukah.”
“Yes,” Yaffa said, squinting to read his chicken scratch. “There’s a whole list. You want to know only about the menorah?”
“Yes, how much did he pay for it?”
“Three thousand two hundred and fifty shekel, if I read this right.”
He was quiet for a long time. “Oh,” he said finally. “Okay. Thanks.”
“What is it, Elchanan?”
“Whatever.” In the car parked outside Antiqua’s office, Elchanan leaned his arms on the steering wheel. “I just saw a mistake in their computer.”
“A mistake? What kind?”
“They wrote that we received for the menorah…,” he glanced nervously at the modest door on the side of the building, “twelve thousand shekel.”
“That’s a strange mistake,” Yaffa remarked. “The numbers aren’t even similar. You should correct them.”
“Yes,” he said heavily. “We’ll see.” If this would be their first mistake, that would be one thing. But he was pretty sure he’d seen another price entered as higher than what he’d sold the item in question for. Was the repeated mistake just a fluke? If not, why did they have to declare a higher income than what they were really making? It was one thing if they would be doing the opposite and reducing the prices; then he could suspect that they were trying to evade taxes. But like this, it just did not make any sense!
“Okay, whatever, it’s all nonsense,” he said to himself aloud, and started the car. “Simply nonsense.”
“Wow—you came all the way to Petach Tikva,” Adina Kotzker said warmly and wrapped Mimi’s hand in her two hands, forcing herself not to focus on the details. She glanced at Shuli, standing on the side. “Welcome to you, too,” she said. “I’m so impressed that you came along with Mimi.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Shuli said, tittering with awkward politeness as she looked around the room. There was only one chair, right near the bed. It was obvious that the room had been designed to be as pleasant as possible.
“Sit,” Adina said. “How was the trip?”
“Fine. And Ima sent this.” She took her grandmother’s hand cream, which Adina had been using for as long as anyone could remember, out of the bag. “Should I put some on for you, Savta?”
“Not now, thank you,” Adina replied. “You can put it here in the drawer. How’s school?”
“Fine, baruch Hashem.”
“You two are not in the same class, right?”
“No,” they replied in unison, and Mimi put her bag down on the lone chair.
“I’ll go bring another chair,” Shuli offered. She stepped out into the corridor.
“Your friend is very nice, Mimi,” Adina remarked. “She makes a good impression. Are you comfortable with her?”
“I’m not sure it would be wise for you to be in high school together.”
Mimi quickly glanced behind her. “Does that mean you won’t accept her, Savta?” she asked warily. “She’s my good friend, and I really do want to be with her.”
“I didn’t say anything about accepting.” Adina kept her eye on the door. “I’m not involved in that this year. But there are certain criteria for every high school. Perhaps there is a girl who is confident that serious ‘pull’ will pave her path into a school, but if it was only possible, I would suggest that she go elsewhere.”
Are you talking about my friend? Mimi wanted to ask. But at that moment, Shuli entered the room with a chair, preventing Mimi from asking the question aloud. In any case, she wasn’t sure her grandmother would answer such a direct question.
“You’re so lucky to have your grandmother as the high school principal,” her friends often said with undisguised envy. But Mimi wasn’t so sure about that. True, Savta loved her and she loved Savta, but something in their communication wasn’t always as smooth as it had been when she was a little girl. She had grown up, Savta had gotten busy, and then she’d gotten even bigger and Savta even busier. Sometimes, Mimi felt a bit strange when speaking to Savta, as though Savta was a stranger, just a principal, and not at all her grandmother. Mimi had never voiced these sentiments, and certainly wouldn’t do so here, near Shuli.
They sat and chatted and told Adina stories from school and about Mimi’s younger siblings. After an hour, they got up, said their goodbyes, and left; they needed to catch the bus back to Yerushalayim.
Just then, a nurse popped her head into the room. “Mrs. Kotzker, do you have visitors now? There’s another visitor who would like to come in, if you’re up to it.”
Yaffa, standing at the nurses’ station, smiled when she heard the nurse’s words. Did she really want to come in? Hardly. But once she’d been to visit her parents in Petach Tivka, she felt it would be the right thing to stop in here. That’s what Elchanan had told her, as had Chaya and Yael. Only Malka hadn’t said anything—and that was because Yaffa hadn’t even told her that she was going today.
“No one’s here anymore; they left. Who’s the visitor?” Adina asked tiredly. She’d hardly spoken to her granddaughter, but even listening attentively to the two girls had sapped her energy. She didn’t really have the patience now for old friends from Petach Tikva or teachers from school, loving and concerned as they might be. Yael spoke to her at least twice a week by phone, and it was hard to believe she’d come unannounced. So who could this visitor be?
The nurse returned a few moments later with a reply. “A woman named Yaffa Levinsky. Should I let her in, or tell her you’re too tired?”
“Both,” Adina said, trying to shift onto her side. “Let her in. She won’t be here for long; it’s fine.” At least it wasn’t someone exhausting by any means.
“Mrs. Kotzker?” Yaffa whispered from the door.
“Hello, Mrs. Levinsky,” Adina said with a smile. “I’m hearing wonderful regards from you.”
“Baruch Hashem,” her bashful guest said, and took a few steps forward. “I was visiting my parents and…I missed you. How do you feel?”
“Baruch Hashem. I’m trying to be a good girl. And how is it going with you? How’s the job?”
“Huge,” Yaffa said with a small smile and stopped, remaining standing near the chair.
“But you must be growing into it,” Adina said, her neck aching. “You seem to be managing very well.”
“I have a lot of help,” Yaffa said, forcing herself not to look at the tall, aluminum railing along the bed and the creased turban Mrs. Kotzker wore. She tried to focus on the familiar face in the unfamiliar setting. “Malky and Yael do an enormous amount, and so does Chana. Without them, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Malky and Yael,” the principal replied with a thoughtful smile. “And Chana… That’s a sign that you’ve grown. When I was around, I didn’t think you even knew their first names, and certainly not nicknames.”
“Sit down, Yaffa,” Adina requested.
“I was told you are tired.”
“And do you think that when you stand, I’m less tired?”
“So should I go?” Yaffa hesitated, but then saw the gentle smile again.
“Sit, Yaffa…for a few minutes. What’s new in school?”
“Baruch Hashem. There were a few crises that I’m sure you would have resolved in a minute, but we got over them somehow.”
“Like what, for example?”
“An inspection from the Health Ministry that put us under a lot of pressure; they had a lot of complaints.”
“An issue with the state tests that got resolved, baruch Hashem.”
“You resolved it. Malky told me.”
“Yes.” She smiled bashfully again, giving Adina a glimpse of the old Yaffa. “And there was a major fight at the Chanukah chagigah, and only this week did it finally settle down.”
“I didn’t hear about that,” Adina admitted. “My Malky isn’t so plugged in to what’s going on in school lately, is she? But soon, ninth grade registration will start and you’ll all need to…work very hard together.”
“Yes. Mainly you. Why not? The fact that the principal has changed is a real brachah.”
“Not at all, chalilah!” Yaffa protested instinctively, and then immediately blushed at her chutzpah.
“I didn’t mean the change from me to you…” Adina said with effort, looking at her swollen fingers. “Even though that’s also a good thing, ultimately. There are pieces of life that we see and don’t…understand a thing, and there are those that we see and understand a slight bit.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “But I was mainly talking now about the change between you and yourself.”
All year, Baila Samuelson was “just a tenth-grade mechaneches.” But when the beginning of the year was over, and the “middle-of-the-year” months began, Mrs. Samuelson took a deep breath, knowing that the next month or two would mean a lot of frozen schnitzel, hot dogs, and macaroni in her house, with perhaps some instant soup thrown in for variety. Her sisters-in-law also knew that it was a waste of time to try and call during those weeks, because she hardly answered the phone, and when she did, she sounded hurried and pressured. Her children best loved the hours from six to eight, when she unplugged the phone and didn’t answer the door. The other twenty-two hours of her day she spent serving as the high school’s registrar. She had to verify the backgrounds of all the eighth-grade girls applying to Shaarei Binah, keeping up-to-date lists, making complicated phone calls, and attending important meetings. In short, she ate registration, drank registration, and dreamed about it at night.
After these two months, the pressure level usually eased, with only pockets of tension still remaining to resolve. True, she only had to take care of the preliminary work, while the major decision-making was carried out by the more senior staff and committees, but somehow, she found that the pressure in her life didn’t disappear completely until the new school year started.
Registration was in full swing now. She’d received the neatly organized lists from Chana, the high school secretary. The first thing she did was circle the names she was familiar with already: sisters, daughters, or families that were affiliated with the school. Then she began making inquires by phone. Then it was time to schedule the first meeting.
“We can do it here, this evening,” Yaffa suggested when Baila came into her office one morning and described what had to be done. It was pretty apparent that Yaffa was hearing about the gargantuan task ahead of them for the first time. “A few parents have already come in to ask when and where we’ll be sitting over the lists.”
“That’s just it,” Baila said. “That’s exactly why we don’t usually meet here in school. This is just a preliminary meeting that takes a few hours, and there are always those people who find out about it and try to get in and say their piece.”
“That’s good; it’s important to hear them out.”
“Maybe, but at a later stage. The first thing we have to do is the initial vetting, which is very important. We won’t be able to make any progress if we have constant, lengthy interruptions.” What exactly this young, nearly-childlike principal would do, Baila wasn’t sure. It was a joke for her to sit and express her opinion on matters that she did not understand. But Yael Braun insisted that it was important. Well, let Mrs. Levinsky sit at the prelim vetting. The hard work would be done by the vetting committee at a later stage in any case.
Yaffa was quiet for a moment. “I understand,” she said. “So what should we do?”
“Usually, the principal, the two assistants, and I meet. Malka told me we should start without her, because she’s not available this week. But she’ll join for the parts that need more serious consideration.”
“I understand,” Yaffa repeated, fearing that she did not really understand anything.
“After we go over the lists, we’ll meet with the various eighth-grade teachers to see what they have to say about the girls. But the principal didn’t always sit in on those meetings. I did it with one of the assistants, usually Malka.”
“Oh.” Baila was remarkably efficient, and Yaffa found herself feeling somewhat intimidated. “So where do you want to meet to go over the lists?”
“It’s not a good idea to meet in any of our houses, because this can go on for hours. It’s best to find a quiet cafeteria or something, even if it means going out of Yerushalayim. We can start at six and hope to finish by eleven.”
“That’s a lot of time.”
Baila’s serious face broke into a smile. “People think that over the years, this job has desensitized me, and I see neshamos as just an endless list of names. Go and explain to them how much we invest in every name before we decide one way or another.”
“Yes,” Yaffa said meekly. She should go explain? She herself didn’t know how much was invested in every name. She wasn’t very familiar with the high school acceptance and rejection process.
Naama Engel took her two-year-old out of the bathtub and hurriedly made sure the radiator in his bedroom was switched on.
The front door opened and closed, and her brother Dovi appeared. “A gutten Erev Shabbos,” he said, and put his flute case down on the dresser.
“Hi, how are you? It took you longer today than last time.”
“Did you need my help?” Dovi asked worriedly and opened the closet door. “Should I bring you clothes for the baby?”
“No thanks, I prepared everything before the bath. I just noticed that today’s volunteering took longer than usual.”
“You’re right. I guess it’s a good thing I finished my preparations for Shabbos early,” Dovi said. He took off his sweater, exposing his pristine white shirt and neatly knotted tie. “The truth is that I left early today. The other volunteers only got to Petach Tikva about an hour after I did.”
“Why did you leave early?”
“I wanted to know who that patient from two weeks ago is.”
“The one who knew your rosh yeshivah’s name? She must have heard someone mention that you’re from Shaarei Aharon, and your rosh yeshivah’s name is not exactly a secret.”
“No,” Dovi said firmly and sat down on the bed, smiling at his little nephew. “She knew my name.”
“Her name is Mrs. Adina Kotzker.”
Naama turned around to look at him. “Are you serious?” She ran a brush through her son’s sparse hair. “The principal of Shaarei Binah High School? She’s there?”
“She’s recovering from a stroke. She remembered me.”
“Poor woman. She was so active and energetic.”
“She doesn’t look like such a poor thing,” her brother said thoughtfully. “She actually seemed okay. Where do you know her from?”
“A few months before you came to learn here, they invited me to perform for a teachers’ evening at their school. Then, when Daddy wanted you to go to Shaarei Aharon, and we heard that she has connections there, I called her up.”
“And that was enough for her?”
“Oh, she grilled me a lot, believe me.”
“Well, she asked me lots of questions today, also,” Dovi said, clasping his knees with his hands. “I told her what happened in the summer and how we came to meet her substitute.”
“And what did she say?”
“She didn’t say much. She just asked questions and listened, and in the end, she gave me a brachah that I should do well in my learning and my ruchniyus.”
“I hope she wasn’t upset when she heard how things were managed without her.”
“I don’t think so,” Dovi said. “She said that she always knew that Mrs. Levinsky was very smart.”
“What else did you talk about?”
“I don’t remember. You can call her and ask her if you really want to know.”
“I can also run and get a broom and mop and clean the kitchen floor,” Naama said, thrusting the baby into his uncle’s arms and bustling out of the room. “Otherwise Shabbos will come to a dirty kitchen, and I’ll be very embarrassed.”