Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 35 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.
Only at the last second did Malka grab the door and prevent it from slamming behind her. In the principal’s office, the vetting committee, which had gathered that morning to discuss the registration issues, remained silent.
At first, Malka hadn’t understood why they had done it in the school. Usually, one of the committee members offered his or her home, and the location of the meeting remained a guarded secret until it began, so that there would not be any outside disturbances. As it was, they were all working under a lot of constant pressure.
Now everything was clear to her. All of them were apparently aware that this would not be just another meeting, and none of them wanted his or her dining room to be the venue for the tense confrontation. Only she, naïve that she was, had come this morning with no prior knowledge, to hear some names that she perhaps was familiar with and maybe to offer some recommendations for Mimi’s friends.
She stalked into the main office, passing Chana, Faigy, and Sari without giving them a glance, and walked out into the yard. The fury and hurt roiled together in her stomach, forming a hard knot. Now she was standing outside here like a girl who’d gotten thrown out of class and had fled from the corridor so that the principal—or even worse, Mrs. Mann—wouldn’t discover her.
And here she was, Malka Mann in person, not knowing what to do with herself. No, she hadn’t been thrown out. But they were trying to throw her Mimi out before they even accepted her! How had they all remained silent in there? When Mimi’s name had come up and Yaffa Levinsky had said in a quiet voice, “Here we have a question mark,” how had they all remained silent? No one had said a word!
After a moment, Rabbi Kaniel had queried, “Why is it a question mark?” And Yaffa had replied, blushing furiously, that, “She doesn’t…look like our kind of students.” Our kind of students? Did you hear that? Our? The students were already hers. The whole school was in her back pocket now, wasn’t it! What kind of joke was this? Yaffa Levinsky wasn’t supposed to have enough power to harm Mimi’s chances of being accepted, even if she’d stand on her head!
And just a few minutes earlier, Malka had gotten upset over another one of Yaffa Levinsky’s recommendations. When they’d gone over the names of the girls in one of the parallel classes, Yaffa had said that she knew Shuli Emmanuel and that she deemed her suitable for the school. Now, Shuli Emanuel was a very nice girl, but her family background was really not in tune with their school.
And to think that she, Malka, had been the one to allow Chaya Shuck to bring her sister here in the first place! How dare Yaffa!
Malka took a deep breath, glaring at a girl who was strolling through the yard like it was Shabbos afternoon. The student quickened her pace and disappeared into the building. Had they expected Malka to get up and defend her daughter? And then what would Yaffa do—tell her directly that Mimi did not seem suitable for the school? Malka knew enough about the existing problems without needing others to tell her them, thank you very much, and certainly not in the presence of the other committee members.
Why had Yael remained silent? And what about Rabbi Weinstock? And where was Baila; why hadn’t she said a word?
She, Malka, hadn’t uttered a word either. She’d just listened in astonishment to the exchange between Yaffa and Rabbi Kaniel. And then she’d asked, perhaps because she couldn’t believe she’d heard right: “Mimi? Are you talking about my Mimi?” And the silence was her answer.
She wondered what was happening inside the principal’s office now. She really hoped they were trying to neutralize Yaffa Levinsky a little; that they did not expect her to face this humiliation herself. If they would leave it to her, she would not go and plead for her daughter. She would speak directly to her mother and Weissman, and she’d have no need to speak to Yaffa at all, directly or indirectly.
“Mrs. Levinsky, please understand that this is no simple matter.”
“I understand,” Yaffa said, pressing her fingers together. “I certainly understand.”
“We have to think of a suitable solution.” Rabbi Kaniel shook his head. “It’s impossible to do this. What kind of ‘type’ is this girl? What do you mean that she doesn’t look like our kind of students?”
“Yael, you are familiar with the situation.” Yaffa folded the cuff of her sleeve, lowering her gaze. “You think she’s okay for our school?”
“Well, she’ll change,” Yael said uneasily. She really did not want to get involved in this conundrum.
“You think so?” Yaffa asked quietly, ignoring all the others in the room. “I don’t know her that well. But if she wasn’t the daughter of Malka, no one here would give her a second glance.”
“We can make her sign a commitment to keep to the rules,” Rabbi Weinstock suggested as he stroked his beard. “We can’t not accept her; it’s out of the question.”
“Her grandmother did not want to accept her like this,” Yaffa said, almost inaudibly. Was this her? Was she daring to speak up in front of everyone and create such waves? Yes, it was her. Only she had been there on that summer day when Mimi had come to her grandmother, and only she, Yaffa, had heard the harsh exchange. Only she had spoken to Mrs. Kotzker about it four days ago, during her most recent visit to Petach Tikva, and had heard her opinion.
“Malka won’t understand,” Mrs. Kotzker had said weakly. “But in the end…she’ll be happy. It will spare her a whole slew of problems that can crop up if Mimi is in our school, even if she’s not thinking of the long term right now.”
For a moment, Yaffa felt a twinge of anger at the principal. If she would be sitting here now, she wouldn’t dare say anything against her granddaughter. She was happy for someone else to have the chance to serve as her loudspeaker and say the “no” that no one else wanted to say. “You’re very honest, Yaffa,” Mrs. Kotzker had told her, “and I’m happy you raised this point. I permit you to act however you see fit.”
No, she wasn’t angry at Mrs. Kotzker. After all, Yaffa knew that she had been the one to actually raise the objection to accepting Mimi, and she had no one to blame for the backlash but herself. True, it was very unpleasant to be here, facing everyone else who did not seem to agree with what she thought, but at least she knew she was doing the right thing, what Mrs. Kotzker, deep down, wanted done. Did no one else understand? Yael and Baila had seen Mimi several times. Did they really have no idea what she was talking about?
“We’ve already heard that Mrs. Kotzker is not going to apply any pressure here,” Rabbi Kaniel said. “Still, Mrs. Levinsky, we would want to think of a compromise.”
“There are always a percentage of girls who walk the fine line,” Rabbi Weinstock said. “So if Mimi Mann doesn’t change from how she is now, she will regretfully be one of those.”
“She’s a relative,” Rabbi Kaniel reminded him. “And that makes it far less simple.”
“Does she really cross red lines?” Rabbi Weinstock took off his glasses and looked around for something to polish them with.
“What?” Rabbi Weinstock could hardly hear the words that were uttered so quietly.
“She sometimes crosses red lines,” Yaffa repeated, blushing again.
“Playing in a concert for thousands of people is also crossing a red line,” Rabbi Weinstock remarked causally. No one understood him, except for Yaffa, who reddened even more, if that was possible.
“True,” she said. “But that was a one-time incident.”
Yael remained silent, and looked at Baila, who didn’t say a word either. In essence, Yaffa was one hundred percent right. Any other girl like Mimi wouldn’t even register in their school. But there was nothing they could do. Mimi would most likely attend Shaarei Binah, and no mechaneches would want to get her class.
“Who will want to have Mimi Mann’s ninth grade?” Yael whispered to Baila. “Every time the teacher will point something out to the class, the rest of the girls will look at the one girl who plays with the rules as she pleases. It’s really going to be quite a mess.”
Baila raised her eyes. “Is that what you’re worried about now, Yael?” she asked. “What about how we’re going to be able to look Malka in the eye when we walk out of here? Aren’t you worried about that? At this point, we’re worrying whether Mimi will get into one of the classes, not who’s going to be the mechaneches of that class!”
Yael wanted to say something, but stopped herself. She didn’t want to speak lashon hara, but her concern was warranted. Yaffa would ultimately capitulate, sooner or later, and then the school would be left with the problem of Mimi on its hands. Until now, she hadn’t thought about it at all, but it looked like it would be a serious issue, unless Malka succeeded in doing in two months what she had failed to do in the past two years. Yaffa was right; that was the truth. Mrs. Kotzker was right. But there was little they could do with those truths, except remain silent. That’s what everyone was doing earlier, when Yaffa had dropped her bombshell in Malka’s presence. Rabbi Weinstock had apparently apprised everyone before the meeting of his conversation with Mrs. Kotzker.
What were they supposed to do now?
“I don’t believe it…” Chanan Weiner said in shock. “How much do you want for this letter?”
“Why is it worth so much?”
“It’s an original, handwritten piece from Harav Binyamin Traub of Lissa, more than 200 years old. His manuscripts are very rare.”
Weiner stood with his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the yellowing paper on the other side of the glass. “Psshhh….” he said. “And that thief gave me, with everything together, twenty thousand shekel for it.”
“Oh, it was yours?” Meiri, the dealer, asked.
“Yes, that and a few other things that are also probably worth a lot of money. True, I was a bit under pressure and didn’t verify enough if he was honest, but…”
“That’s the problem with these things,” the seller said knowingly. “Those who don’t understand the business run to sell to every fly-by-night good-for-nothing.”
“He didn’t look like a good-for-nothing at all,” Weiner said, somewhat surprised. “Ehud, I don’t know his family name, serious guy, frum, belongs to a company.”
“That’s what he said,” the dealer remarked.
“Who did you buy it from?” Weiner wanted to know.
“From a rather well-known antiques dealer,” the seller replied, not interested in offering too many details. “Micky Schon.”
“Don’t know him.” Weiner frowned. “My swindler’s name was Ehud. How much did they sell it to you for?”
“Whatever, an amount,” the dealer said with a sour smile. “Not much less than what I’m asking for it now.”
Weiner finally tore his eyes away from the lost letter and placed his leather briefcase on the narrow desk. “Okay,” he said. “It’s a good thing I didn’t see his ad in the paper, because I was about to call him again. I found another box of stamps at home, and I wanted to sell it.”
“I don’t deal with stamps,” the dealer said politely. “But I can give you the name of a reliable guy who does.”
“Is he honest?”
“Very. You really don’t want to fall in again with someone.”
“Do you think I have a chance of getting some more money from that guy?”
“I doubt it,” Meiri said. “Even if you locate the man, it will be very hard to argue with him. As soon as you agreed to the sum he offered, it’s, you know, your problem.” He looked at the man in his sixties standing before him. “Hashem should replace your loss,” he added, in an attempt at consolation.
Shuli was in high spirits that afternoon. “Registration is early this year,” she said cheerfully as she sipped her pea soup. “It would be really nice to be interviewed by your mother or her friend.”
“My mother doesn’t do interviews.”
“Well, whoever does them is probably her friend.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no.”
“My class’s mechaneches told us she’d tell each girl where she should register, and where she has the best chances of getting accepted.”
“To tell you the truth, Shuli?” Mimi turned around so sharply that her chair squeaked in protest. “Don’t rely too much on getting into my grandmother’s school. It’s not so clear what’s going to be there this year.”
“I’m not relying on it at all.” Shuli looked hurt, but smiled again a minute later. “Do you think that’s why I’m your friend?”
“I don’t think anything of the sort, but I just wanted to tell you not to rely too much on anything, because it might not work.”
“What’s the matter with you today?” Shuli tried to laugh to cover up her confusion.
“I’m just not sure myself what’s going to be—even with me.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Shuli scoffed and went back to her soup. “If you don’t want to recommend me, Mimi, just say so, but don’t try to hide behind weird excuses.”
“I’m not hiding behind anything.” Mimi played with her spoon, noticing that it was very quiet from the children’s room. “I’m just telling you what I know. If things sound strange, it’s not my fault.”
“Okay,” Shuli retreated. “I was just kidding. I’m not relying on you too much. My mechaneches told me I’m probably getting the top grade for behavior on my report card, and that everything looks very good for me. So I hope it will work out, even without you having to mix in for me.” She studied her friend. “But I’m still not sure I understand what you said before.”
“Neither am I sure that I understand,” Mimi said bitterly. “Maybe you should ask Mrs. Levinsky.”
“My grandmother’s substitute. She’s this young lady who…whatever, it doesn’t matter, she decided that I am not suitable for the school.” Mimi’s eyes glistened. “Did you hear that? She decided that, and is convincing everyone else about it, too!”
“Do you know what I would do?”
“I’d go to a different school.”
“I’m not going to any other school,” Mimi said, and stirred her soup, which was long cold already. “I’m going to my grandmother’s school, and whoever doesn’t understand that now will realize it later.”
“Yeah….” Shuli said thoughtfully.
“And I forgot to tell you, Shuli, but obviously, not a word about this to anyone else.”
It had been a mistake, chinuch-wise, to tell Mimi at this point about what was going on. Malka was pretty certain about that, but she hadn’t been able to control herself. She had shared the brutal facts, though she’d forced herself to suppress the criticism that was waiting to explode. Now was not the time to berate; now was the time to act. But although she had shared just the facts with Mimi, almost dryly, without saying a word about her feelings on the subject, she could clearly see how hurt and insulted Mimi was. Her daughter’s feelings largely mirrored her own. The anger and frustration were there, too, simmering just beneath the hurt.
Malka’s husband didn’t think it was so bad that she’d told Mimi; according to him, it was actually a good thing. Maybe now, something would finally move Mimi to change. But Malka was doubtful. Did anger get a person to change? Did hurt and frustration ever achieve anything?
For two days, Malka didn’t say anything on the subject to anyone other than her husband and daughter. She didn’t say a word to Baila or Yael, but that wasn’t hard. Her busy schedule precluded her from meeting either of them very often. It was harder not to say anything to her mother. But both her pride and her pain silenced the bubble ready to burst inside her when she was at the rehabilitation center.
Today, though, while she was visiting her mother, she felt like she couldn’t control herself any longer.
“Ima,” she began.
“Yes?” Adina said from the armchair.
“I…whatever.” She sighed. These past two days, she’d wanted to ask her mother if she ever spoke to the members of the board and if Yaffa Levinsky ever came to visit. Ima had never told her about any visits she received. Did they really refrain from coming, as her mother wished, or did her mother simply not tell her about it?
She went out of the room for a few moments and punched her brother Shaul’s number into her cell phone.
“Is everything okay?” Shaul asked upon answering the call.
“With Ima? Baruch Hashem, yes. With your sister? Baruch Hashem…much less so.”
“Why?” He was taken aback.
“I’m having some problems lately with…one of the children. But Hashem will help. Tell me, has anyone been to visit Ima lately?”
“Aside from you and Mimi? Yes, me and Gitty and my Menachem. And my mother–in-law was there at the beginning of the week.”
“Anyone from school?”
“I don’t think so. Three times, on Fridays, there was a bachur, a volunteer who plays the flute. Ima said that she knows his family from somewhere and enjoys his playing.”
“Ima? Since when does she like music?”
“Since she has time on her hands,” her brother said simply. “Did you want something else, Malka? I’m just in a bit of a hurry…”
“No, that’s all I wanted to know,” Malka said, swallowing her insult. She couldn’t stand it when people hung up the phone on her, even if they did it elegantly. “Thanks, Shaul.”
She went back to her mother’s room. Should she say something? Keep quiet? Ask? Ignore?
The supper that arrived resolved the dilemma for her. There was so much to be busy with now. Sometimes it seemed as though Ima was further away than she’d ever been. True, if someone would ask her to say something to Yaffa Levinsky, she would do it, but lately, she looked so…out of things.
Malka recoiled at her own description. But it was true. Yes, Ima really was a bit disconnected from her regular world. Her days were filled with struggling to hold the fork and spear the chicken, and working on legs that refused to straighten and with a left hand that refused to move at all. These were significant struggles indeed, and everything else that had been focal points in her mother’s life until then, be it school, registrations, or rejections, receded into tiny specks on the horizon. Her mother seemed caged into a small box that dealt only with her immediate needs. The school didn’t interest her now. She didn’t ask about plans, about the staff, or about anything else school-related. The stroke, despite leaving Ima the same person she’d been, had also changed her a lot. Could one compare the Ima from before to the Ima after?
Two winters ago, Malka remembered, Ima had had pneumonia. For a week and a half she’d been in hospital, but even when she’d had the highest fever, she’d called the school every day for an update and to offer advice. Now? Nothing. It was as though the school had been erased from her mind.
And the whole story with Mimi along with it. It tore Malka to pieces, but she knew that she really had no one to talk to about this.
And then, in the middle of this whole mess, came the School Shabbos.
“I’m not going,” Malka told her husband, her lips pursed. “Let them manage without me.”
“I’m not going,” Yaffa told Elchanan. “As it is, it’s very unpleasant for me to be around Malka in school. But to be together with her for a whole Shabbos? That’s too much for me. Besides, what will be with you?”
But Yaffa hadn’t taken Yael into account.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” Yael informed Yaffa. “Principals have to go to the School Shabbos. Period.” And then she added, “And Malka’s not coming, if you’re interested to know.”
Yaffa made a face, as if to say, “That’s not what will make the difference to me,” but then, half an hour later, she announced a change in her plans. She would join.
And Elchanan? “I’ll go to my parents,” he said. “Or I’ll stay home with Bentzy. The neighbor can watch him during davening.”
“Stay home alone?” Yaffa was horrified. “Out of the question. What kind of Shabbos will you have?”
“I’ll reminisce about my yeshivah days, in the dorm,” Elchanan said, a bit longingly. “There, I ate challah and fish and then Bissli and chips and chocolate.”
“I can prepare that every Shabbos, too, if you’d like,” Yaffa retorted, pretending to be miffed, “if that’s the food you yearn for so much. But seriously, you can’t be home alone, Elchanan!”
“Fine, so I’ll go to my parents.”
“Why not? I’m sure they’ll be happy to have both of us.”
So Yaffa went to the School Shabbos at Yad Binyamin.
None of the other teachers knew about the tempest, but Yaffa was sure she felt everyone’s looks following her the whole Shabbos nevertheless. Yael mentioned the topic in passing with a few words just before Shabbos began, while Baila didn’t talk about it at all. But from the minute they bentched licht, it was as though the three had rendered the subject taboo. Only when a teacher mentioned Malka Mann in passing did Yaffa cringe. She was stronger than what she had been, that was true, but she still wasn’t made of steel. If everyone thought she had to capitulate despite the fact that truth was on her side—how much longer could she stand up to them? It was a heavier burden to carry than she’d thought. She, with foolish naïveté, had been sure that she’d just call the attention of those involved to the truth, and they would agree with her immediately. But that’s not what was happening.
On Motza’ei Shabbos, Baila came into Yael and Yaffa’s room while all the girls were cleaning up their rooms and getting ready to go home.
“So, how do you think it went?” she asked. “I think it was fantastic, no?”
“Sure was,” Yael said. “School Shabbos is way calmer than the regular Overnight. There isn’t that constant race to the next program and to get things done. Shabbos is Shabbos, with its own pace. How was your class, Baila?”
“They got along beautifully.” She sat down on Yael’s exposed mattress. “What do we do?” she asked directly. Yaffa was busy with her suitcase, her back to them.
“About what?” Yael asked innocently.
“About Malka Mann. I just spoke to her. She was literally crying, I’m telling you.”
Yaffa closed her suitcase. “And mothers of other girls who are rejected—they don’t cry?” she asked, still not turning around.
“Really, Yaffa.” Her tone was reproachful, and Yaffa almost shuddered. Baila was old enough to be her teacher. How had she dared insist on her refusal to accept Mimi? Who was wrong, she or they? “We weren’t born today, and we are fully aware how much pain each rejection causes. But we’re talking about something else now.”
About what? Yaffa wanted to ask, but didn’t dare.
“We have to think of a way to climb down from the tree,” Baila said firmly. “Yaffa, with all due respect to you, you’re really managing the school very well, but there are places that I don’t think you belong getting involved.”
A frozen silence hung in the air after this declaration, and Yael felt the urgent need to intervene.
“Yaffa is the principal’s substitute in all areas,” she hurriedly said, studying the younger woman’s profile as she did. “The power to sign is hers, and the principal is supporting her, and all the members of the board know it.” True, at first they hadn’t thought Yaffa would become so hands-on, and indeed, in most areas, she had taken a back seat, at least at first. But Baila was being too blunt, and Yael had no time or energy for fireworks right now. She also thought Yaffa was right, to a certain extent, but she could not get too involved—not as Malka’s good friend, and not as her longtime nemesis.
Yaffa turned to them, a fierce blush rising in her cheeks. “Okay, I accept that,” she said quietly. “I’ll speak to the principal and we’ll see.”
“Of course,” Baila said hastily, “I know how much you contribute to the school, really, but we’ve simply reached a very complicated point here.” She stammered for a minute, ignoring Yael’s pointed looks. “I just want you to understand that there is no scenario in which Malka’s daughter won’t be in our school. If you want to make her sign something, if you want us to call her down for some serious conversations, or if you want to speak to Malka clearly and explicitly, then say so. But that has to be the type of solution. Not accepting her ‘because she’s not our school’s type’ is not one of the solutions.”
Yaffa nodded wordlessly.
Baila rose. “Okay,” she said. “I’m sorry I was so blunt, Yaffa. But Malka’s cries are still echoing in my ears, and I thought that someone has to clarify the issue for you as quickly as possible. When will the buses be here, Yael?”
Yael looked at her watch and gasped. “Twenty more minutes!” she said. “I can’t believe a single madrichah hasn’t come to ask something.”
“I’m going to send the girls out onto the main lawn,” Baila said and left.
“You can call your father now,” Yaffa said, very pale. “And tell him that Baila’s right. I overdid it, and Weissman should formally arrange to transfer my authorities to you or Baila or Malka, or even Mimi, for that matter. I must really not be suited for this job.”
“Please, Yaffa, don’t say such things,” Yael soothed. “Without the games. You’ll be our principal until Mrs. Kotzker comes back, b’ezras Hashem. You’ve been very successful, and you know it.”
“Even when I think that we shouldn’t be accepting Mimi Mann?”
“Well, that really comes from a lack of understanding.”
“On my part?”
“I don’t know… Where is the justice, Yael? Tell me!” Yaffa’s eyes were wide and large. “Shuli Emanuel, a very sweet, receptive girl, we can’t accept, and Mimi Mann we have to accept? Not that I was offended by Baila, but I simply don’t know how such a thing is supposed to be handled.”
“First of all, you did get offended,” Yael said in that gentle tone that Yaffa detested. “And you have every right to. I’ll give Baila a piece of my mind about that. As for justice, and whether or not it exists?” She leveled her gaze at Yaffa, sitting on the bed with her suitcase at her feet. “It’s an olam hasheker, Yaffa, a world of lies. Have you ever heard of that?”
Yaffa did not respond.
“We’re all people who came to this world to fill a certain task, and we have a lot of obstacles in the way—jealousy, competition, honor—and somehow, we need to forge a path between it all. It isn’t always easy. Until now in life, was it always clear to you what you had to do? What you should be choosing?”
“Of course not,” Yaffa said, immediately thinking about Elchanan. Once she thought she knew for sure what a wife’s role was—to work so her husband could learn. Today, she knew that it wasn’t so clear-cut and easy. The choice was his, not hers, and it was certainly not her job to change him. Beforehand, she had a lot of work to do on herself, and now, too, she saw how much room for improvement there was in her. Enough to keep her busy at least for another 120 years. How old would she be then? One hundred and forty something. Nice.
Perhaps at that point, Elchanan would sit and lean a whole day, hopefully having left the bizarre job in those strange offices with their idiosyncrasies. And she, a withered old woman, would serve him a cup of tea with a few cookies that Bentzy’s granddaughters would bake and bring over on their weekly visit…
But the truth was that even now, Elchanan learned Daf Yomi every evening. True, he didn’t like tea, at least not at this point in his life, but that didn’t mean he had to be 143 for her to serve him a cup of steaming coffee with some store-bought cookies, or anything else, because she didn’t have time to bake.
But maybe, starting from tomorrow, she would have time to serve him. Because she just could not see herself intentionally becoming an accomplice to the olam hasheker that Yael had just described. So goodbye, Shaarei Binah; goodbye, Yael, Malka, and everyone else. It was nice knowing you, except for the few times that it wasn’t.