Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“I thought about the esrog box you saw. Don’t buy it. The old lady is asking much more money than it’s worth.”
“Even though it’s almost two hundred years old?”
“Even so. It’s not worth the money.”
“Whatever you say,” Elchanan said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. If he would have enough money, he would have gone to buy the esrog box from Mrs. Wolkovsky himself, and used it to form his own antiques collection. But he didn’t have enough money, surely not with the new car.
“Something else, Ehud.”
“Yes?” Elchanan asked. Menashe did not usually call before eleven in the morning, unless it was very urgent.
“We’re upgrading all our employees’ cell phones. I want you to come into the office today to get your new phone.”
Elchanan raised an eyebrow. “I have a trip to Tel Aviv scheduled for today.”
“Okay, so make a detour and come in anyway. Why shouldn’t you have the better model today already?”
“So do it. We need to cut off the old phones to get a discount from Cell-com.”
So the cat was out of the bag. It had nothing to do with the employees’ comfort; it was just about a better deal from another provider. “I see.”
On the way out of the office, Ehud examined the new phone he’d been given. It was a more sophisticated toy, sure, but the truth was that it made no difference to him what he used to speak to customers with. As long as Menashe was making sure to put a message on his old voice mail directing customers to his new number, he didn’t care.
Yaffa was the first one he called to report the change. She quickly wrote down his new number in a place where she could easily see it. “And how will people find you now?” she asked a moment later. “Even when you change phones and providers, you don’t usually have to change the number.”
“Are you worried I’ll lose business?” he asked with a laugh.
“No, I just think there are some weird things going on over there.”
“Like their strange mistakes with the numbers, and like this new phone with the new number, and like the conversation you heard behind the door with that antiques dealer.”
“Well, you know,” he said a tad impatiently, regretting now that he’d told her all those things. Fretful women could really take things out of proportion. “Those are all small, insignificant things that just seem like a lot when you lump them together. They’re fine people, the staff at this office, and you don’t have to worry. They are very strict about recording all the revenue and expenses.”
“And this business of calling themselves both Antiqua and Moreshet,” Yaffa continued, “and that they want you known as Ehud…”
Malka passed by Yaffa’s door, and Yaffa quickly turned her face away. What had Malka heard from yesterday’s meeting, if anything?
“I’m telling you, Yaffa,” Elchanan said as he turned right, “it’s all fine. Trust me. Just because it’s not a kollel doesn’t mean it’s a bad place with skeletons in the closet.”
She was quiet, absorbing what he had said—and what he hadn’t. “That’s irrelevant,” she said a second later, sounding like an ostrich shouting warnings from deep in the sand. “I didn’t say any such things about Dvir.”
“Because Dvir’s whole business was just a simple little store, and this is a serious company that has branched out into several fields, and those on the outside can’t understand every detail about how it’s managed,” Elchanan said, hardly even trying to conceal his impatience anymore. “That’s all. And Dvir doesn’t give bonuses like they do, either.”
Malka Mann raced breathlessly into the teachers’ room, and only after she had slumped into a chair did she realize that her rushing had all been for naught, because she had a free period next.
A younger teacher offered to prepare a cup of coffee for her in the minute left before the bell would ring, signaling the end of recess. “You look worse than in the days when things were very critical,” she remarked, setting down the foam cup. “Is everything okay with your mother?”
“Baruch Hashem. But the days in rehab are much more tiring,” Malka said as she wrapped her fingers around the cup. “It’s hard for my mother, and as the only daughter, I sometimes feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“It’s not easy,” the other teachers murmured sympathetically.
Just then the bell rang. Yael entered and sat down next to Malka. “What’s doing?” she asked as her eyes traveled around the room.
“Baruch Hashem,” Malka replied. “I came home last night after eleven, and don’t ask when I got up today.”
“I’m not asking.”
“You sat over the registration lists yesterday?”
“Well, what kind of incoming class does it look like we’ll be getting?”
“We hope it will be good. There are lots of inquiries to make. There’s a big percentage of question marks this year.”
“Really? From my Mimi’s class, too? I thought it was actually quite a good class.”
“That may be so, but I suspect that too many girls relied on the fact that they are Mimi’s friends and registered with us, even though they are really not our school’s type.”
“Well,” Malka said, taking a sip of her drink, “we’ll have to sit more seriously over the lists and see who I know and who I don’t. Yaffa was with you?”
“Sure. Your mother asked that she should be.”
“Okay. Why are you so angry?”
Malka looked at her. “You answered me in this aggressive tone, as if I touched on a sore point.”
You sure did. “No sore point. I said that Yaffa was with us.”
“Did she participate?”
“Here and there.” And even that was too much.
“She knows girls from Yerushalayim?”
Malka looked at her again. “You’re acting strange today, Yael,” she said. “Are you counting words or something? You’re not usually so terse.”
Except when I don’t know what to do and what not to do. “Right. Maybe I’m tired. We got home very late. It was also after eleven.” And then I spent half an hour on the phone with Baila, trying to figure out with her how we could put Yaffa in her place without offending her.
“Abba, who can sit with us this year at committee meetings?”
Yael’s father knitted his eyebrows. “It doesn’t usually make much of a difference to you,” he replied. “Why do you sound so uptight about it?”
“Because now it matters very much to me.”
“That same old story with you and Mrs. Kotzker’s daughter?” He didn’t want to sound like he was reprimanding her, but that’s the way it came out, and she almost got insulted.
“It really does have to do with her, Abba,” Yael explained. “But…about a different story.”
“What’s going on?”
“We need someone with lots of tact and common sense on the vetting committee, preferably someone as neutral as possible.”
“I don’t understand, Yael.”
She sighed. “The principal asked us to include Yaffa Levinsky in the registration proceedings a little bit, and we did, but that little bit has gotten us into deep trouble.”
“Trouble?” Rabbi Sindler asked in surprise.
“She…” Yael smiled uncomfortably. “She doesn’t want us to accept Malka Mann’s daughter for next year.”
“Oh, really now,” her father said dismissively. “Just make it clear that that’s out of the question; there’s nothing to talk about.”
“We tried to do that yesterday, a lot. It’s…not so simple, Abba.”
Her father was quiet for several long moments. “I’ll try to speak to her, even though I usually try to stay out of this whole vetting and acceptance process. I’ll also ask Reb Shlomo Kaniel to sit in on the committee meetings. Mrs. Kotzker relies on his discretion thoroughly, so in case of a problem, that can be used as a comeback for Mrs. Levinsky.”
Yael flipped her phone shut and looked around again. No one had heard her conversation—which she found difficult to believe she had actually had. Most importantly, Malka hadn’t heard it.
Earlier, when Yael was in the main office, Malka had gone into Yaffa’s office to speak to her about something. Yaffa was clearly ill at ease and had hardly spoken. Perhaps she was afraid that Malka had already heard about her opinion of Mimi. But Yaffa was mistaken, because neither Yael nor Baila were planning to say a word to Malka about the problems Yaffa was creating. Yaffa would have to repeat her opinion at the next meeting all by herself, and it remained to be seen if she would do it when Malka was present.
Perhaps it would not be necessary to bother Rabbi Kaniel. It wasn’t fair to make him take part in the decisions every year. It was enough that they should meet again, with Malka this time, and go over the list a second time. They would see what Yaffa would say then about Mimi Mann, a few seconds after she had (possibly) warmly praised the anonymous Shuli Emmanuel.
“It can’t be,” Fania Wolkovsky moaned. “Police officers in my house?”
“It’s not a police officer, Ima,” Nosson soothed. “It’s my friend Moishe Berman. Remember him? He’s the one with the good ideas. Police don’t make such an effort to chase down thieves every time a robbery happens; they file a complaint, and you can forget about your esrog box. But we don’t want to forget it.”
“Okay,” his mother said resignedly, and glared at the tall person standing next to the youngest of her children.
Moishe Berman turned to Nosson. “There were two people who gave an estimate for the esrog box?”
“Who were they?”
“I don’t know exactly. My mother didn’t tell us about it until afterward. Ima, how could we locate the two people who you had here to give an estimate for the esrog box?”
Zahava, Fania’s daughter, stood up. “Ima gave me their numbers. Neither one’s phone is on.”
Moishe Berman frowned. “Doesn’t smell good,” he said. “Can I see the names?” He looked at the slip of paper. “Who was here the day before the break-in?” he asked Fania. “Erez Brutney or Ehud?”
“Brutney, Brutney,” she replied.
“And how did you get to him?”
“His number was in the Yellow Pages. He’s a collector, but he pays very little.”
“I see. And Ehud?”
“He always has an ad in Tuesday’s paper. He’s an agent for a big company. A very nice guy.”
“And when was he here?”
She thought for a minute. “About a week earlier.”
“I have his ad from last week’s paper,” Zahava said as she placed the small clipping on the table. Moishe took it as well.
“Let’s start with the one who was here first,” Moishe said. “You mentioned that neither cellular phone is on? Let’s try them again.”
“Are you sure they are connected to all this?” Nosson asked.
“Nothing is sure, Nosson, but when a valuable item is stolen a week after it became public knowledge, then those who learned of it might be connected to its disappearance. It’s been here in the house for years, right?”
“And this week, something happened.”
Fania and her children nodded.
“So in my opinion, there’s clearly a connection. I’m trying Ehud. Do you know his last name, Mrs. Wolkovsky?”
She shook her head, following Moishe’s finger on the keypad.
A few long seconds passed, until he got a voice recording that the cellular subscriber was not available. “So,” Berman said with an inscrutable expression. “Let’s see what happens with the other one.”
“He’s also not connected. My sister tried a few times,” Nosson said as Moishe Berman punched in the number. Even before he finished the sentence, Erez Brutney was on the phone.
“Not a very nice guy,” Fania said darkly when she heard his voice.
“Good evening, Mr. Brutney,” Moishe said. “I’m calling for the Wolkovsky family. You were here two days ago regarding an estimate for an esrog box.”
“Yes,” Erez said. “I remember.”
“The woman did not reach a deal with you.”
“I don’t remember anymore how much she asked for, but it was an exorbitant sum, way more than what such a box is worth.”
“Really? And if we go down in price, is there a chance you would buy it?”
“Sure, but only if it’s a big reduction.”
“It’s a very valuable Judaica item, sir.”
“So you understand we won’t be going down too much.”
“Okay, listen,” Brutney said shortly. “What do you want from me? I know what I can afford. If you mean that your mother will knock a hundred off the price, then keep your box. Goodbye.”
Berman was thoughtful. “Maybe we should ask the police to summon him for an interrogation,” he said. “And we’ll see. If we find that he’s not connected to the break-in, we’ll start working on locating Ehud.”
“Today is Monday. Let’s see tomorrow if he advertises a new number. If not, then we can try to find him through the phone company. It belongs to Pelephone.”
“They won’t give you any information,” Nosson said flatly.
“They will; I have my connections.” Moishe smiled. “But first let’s wait for tomorrow to see if there’s an ad.”
But the next day, for the first time in two months, there was no ad.
“There are other equally effective ways to get leads,” Mati said. “A regular ad on the front page is working out too expensive for us. I’m seeing it as a waste of money.”
“But it’s such a shame,” Elchanan argued. “Just now, when I changed my number? People won’t be able to locate me with the old number. Let’s advertise for two more weeks with the new number, and then we’ll stop.”
“I said that there will be a voice mail on your old number,” Mati replied patiently. “In any case, in the meantime, you have five addresses of small sales locations. I want you to get to all of them in the coming week, alright?”
“Fine.” When all was said and done, Elchanan realized, he was just an agent, and it was important to remember that. It was easy to rack up expenses when they didn’t come out of his pocket. It was Mati’s right to reduce certain expenses, especially when they were not any more effective in generating revenue than other ways. Elchanan tried to think quickly and remembered that most of his acquisitions took place after he’d collected the information independently, or after Menashe and Mati had sent him to specific addresses. Only a few transactions—albeit lucrative ones—had come about through the newspaper ad. It really wasn’t worth it to advertise week after week just for that.
Yaffa, of course, thought differently. “These stories are getting stranger by the day,” she said as she untied her apron and lowered the gas under the small pot. Lately they’d been eating their main meal in the evening; neither of them was home at lunchtime. “I just don’t like this whole company.”
“Because they aren’t Chareidi?”
“No.” She spread the fleishig tablecloth on the table without looking at him. “Because strange things happen there.”
“Very normal things.”
“If that’s what a normal company looks like, then it really doesn’t pay to work for any company at all.”
“So what does pay?” He hadn’t meant to sound confrontational, but that’s how it came out.
“Maybe become independent,” she said in a low voice. “Or go back to Dvir.”
“Dov!” Rabbi Weinstock exclaimed in surprise at the door of the room in the SternRehabilitationCenter. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim,” the boy said as he stood up and quickly slid his flute into its case.
Naama, his sister, rose after him. “Shall we go, Dovi?” she asked. “We have lots to do at home.”
“Thank you so much for coming,” Adina Kotzker said from the armchair. “And the music…really cheered me up.”
“It was our pleasure.” Naama Engel smiled as she and her brother left the room, and Rabbi and Mrs. Weinstock entered.
“Wow!” Dovi breathed. “I really wasn’t planning on meeting my rosh yeshivah here.”
“But he knows that you sometimes come here to play, doesn’t he?”
“Sure, he gave me permission,” Dovi said with a shrug. “I just hope he won’t regret it.”
“You’re doing it on your free time,” Naama protested. “Of course it’s fine. That’s exactly what he agreed to.”
In the room upstairs, the Weinstocks sat on the hard plastic chairs and inquired about Mrs. Kotzker’s health.
“Baruch Hashem,” she replied. “Slowly, slowly, I’m trying to get back to myself.”
“We hope to see you very soon in school, b’ezras Hashem,” Rabbi Weinstock said.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to be so fast.” Adina smiled sadly. “As long as my arms and legs aren’t…okay, I’m staying here.”
“Nu, you can manage things from here as well,” Mrs. Weinstock pointed out.
“I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“It is,” Rabbi Weinstock said. “There’s no substitute for professionals.”
Adina’s ears, which remained sharp as ever, picked up the underlying tone of his words. “Why?” she asked, panting slightly between words. “Are there problems?”
“Yes,” the rosh yeshivah replied. “Regarding registration.”
Adina raised her eyes.
“Mrs. Levinsky, despite the fact that her overall function is satisfactory, does not really understand how these things work. If we have no choice, we will tell Weissman to somehow bypass the problems that have arisen, but it will be very unpleasant for all.”
“It’s hard for me to believe…that she has…,” Adina swallowed, “…a problem understanding.”
“She doesn’t, but as far as accepted practice,” Mrs. Weinstock explained, “she has no experience. We think there’s a bit of…uh…naïveté, let’s call it that.”
“You mean integrity,” Adina immediately corrected her. “What’s going on?”
Rabbi Weinstock and his wife exchanged glances. “She thinks that Miriam Mann is not suited for our school,” Rabbi Weinstock said awkwardly. “Which, of course, puts us all in a very uncomfortable position. Your daughter doesn’t know anything about this right now. Yael Braun tried to speak to Mrs. Levinsky, to explain to her how the accepted practice works, but she was not particularly successful.”
Adina was quiet for a long moment, as she tried to find a more comfortable position in the armchair.
“We want to ask,” Rabbi Weinstock said, pleased that he had finally been understood, “that you get a bit more involved, just so that it should be clear that the decisions rest in your hands and not in hers.”
“When my hands are tired, decisions cannot rest in them,” Adina said quietly. “And I leave the right to decide to Mrs. Levinsky…in all areas.”
“Even in this case?!”
“Even though her understanding of the subject is rather meager?”
“It’s not at all meager.” Adina’s face was reddening from the effort, but her voice was as determined as it had been in the old days. “Dovi Brim was here before, and I am happy that you let him do this volunteer work. If I understood correctly, Yaffa Levinsky had a hand in his…progress this year…and her discretion was very successful, in my opinion.” Her throat was so very dry, but no one knew that, and thus no one offered her a drink.
“She was right with Dovi Brim, that’s true,” Rabbi Weinstock said desperately. “But that doesn’t help the fact that she is refusing to accept the principal’s own granddaughter!”
“It helps,” the grandmother replied, “when you know that it’s not coming from a lack of understanding, but from an important chinuch decision.”
“So you are backing her up on this decision?!” Mrs. Weinstock asked with barely concealed shock.
“I back her up in any decision that…she makes, that’s all,” Adina said, her eyes almost closed by now.