Dance of the Puppet – Chapter 39

purple bookIsrael Book Shop presents Chapter 39 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. 

The Zol Lakol supermarket was advertising one of its big sale bashes. Yaffa didn’t know exactly how it happened, but somehow, Yael Braun managed to drag her there at the end of a long workday. Towers of cans and packages of pasta were a bit of a strange backdrop for a conversation between them, and Yaffa suspected that Yael’s goal was to speak to her informally, out of the confines of the school. The two of them walked around with a single cart, which Yael had succeeded in finagling at the entrance with difficulty, as dozens of customers vied for every available cart. So far, all it contained was a package of microwave French fries for Elchanan and two bottles of oil that Yael had taken.

“These prices are really good,” Yael remarked. Then, casually, she added, “You know that Malka spoke to me today?”

“Wow, how unusual.” Yaffa chuckled.

“Actually it is a bit unusual, because we haven’t been talking much lately.”

“Why?” Yaffa grew serious. “Is she upset at you? It’s one thing if she’s angry at me, but at you?”

“I don’t know if it’s anger or discomfort. It’s clear that she suspects that I had a part in the whole thing with Mimi, and even if the idea wasn’t mine, that I actively supported it.”

“That’s not true.”

“Try telling her that.” Yael sighed and rummaged around in a huge bin of plastic plates.

“I just might,” Yaffa said. “It would be a shame for the relationship between you to go sour. You’ve got lots of good, productive years ahead of you together.”

“And you?”

“I’m just a substitute anyway. At some point, I’ll be leaving.”

“Is that why you dared try to reject Mimi?”

“I guess that was part of the cheshbon, but not the only reason for it. It’s…whatever, I’ve matured about a few things as the result of this job. How much are those plates, by the way? Are they on sale?”

“Yes,” Yael replied, answering only Yaffa’s second question. “I took two packages. You should also; they’re really cheap.” She smiled at two students shopping in the store who seemed to find it very amusing to find their principal and extracurricular coordinator shopping together. “In any case,” she continued, returning to the previous subject, “we spoke today.”

Yaffa was quiet, waiting for Yael to say more.

“Malka probably won’t be sending Mimi to our school.”

What?!” This was a real bombshell. “So where will she be going?”

“Maybe Rabbi Spiegel’s school. It’s an excellent place, and they work wonders with their girls.”

“So suddenly it’s not so terrible if Mimi goes to another school? Suddenly it’s a reasonable idea to think about?” So what did everyone want from her? What had the whole uproar been about? Look, ultimately, Malka was agreeing with her! Couldn’t she have done this in the first place? Why did everyone have to give her the feeling that she didn’t understand anything and that she should please leave the vetting issues to those older and more experienced than her, if Malka herself was conceding to Yaffa’s decision?

“When it comes from them, Yaffa,” Yael said softly, “everything can come into consideration. This way, their dignity is preserved, and they’re the ones making the decision, and even if someone thinks they made a strange decision, it’s not humiliating for them. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Yaffa replied solemnly.

She was surprised to feel a twinge in her heart, and shook her head to try to rid herself of it. No, the world really wasn’t only the dominant black and white; gray played a very prominent role, too. Here she had thought that she’d been acting out of pure truth and justice, to fight the dismal blackness, and what did she find out? It wasn’t that she was wrong, but that honor games were also important to her, Yaffa Levinsky! Ultimately, Mimi wouldn’t be attending their school—exactly as Yaffa had demanded in the name of justice. So why wasn’t she happy now, like she thought she’d be? Because she’d given in, and the one who had decided had been Malka—not Yaffa. There it was, plain and simple: a kavod-flavored salad with a dressing of arrogance. That was all.

Apparently, she, too, had lots of room for improvement.

***

Rabbi Weinstock opened the door and invited Elchanan inside. “So, we finally get to meet,” he said with a smile, leading his guest to the dining room table. “We’re very pleased with your wife, baruch Hashem.”

“And with Brim?” Elchanan dared to ask.

“Yes, with siyata d’Shmaya, we’re very happy with him, too. The boy is doing well, and a large part of the credit goes to you. Now, please, sit down. Can I offer you a drink?”

“No, thank you.” Elchanan was tired already. The meeting with Moishe Berman had taken longer than expected, and it had drained him. It was hardly pleasant to be presented with a thousand and one proofs that you had been led by the nose for so long, and you had naively allowed it to happen. He didn’t regret the meeting, though. It had been the right thing to go and meet Berman, in order to dispel some doubts and to see how it was possible to help the Wolkovsky family, but now, after visiting the philanthropist from Givatayim, he was exhausted.

“So, you know my son-in-law, Menachem Cohen?”

“Yes,” Elchanan said. Hastily he added, “He’s a very special person.” Menachem Cohen was a very friendly, jovial guy; why not give him some points in his father-in-law’s book?

“Yes, he’s very successful at what he does, baruch Hashem.” Rabbi Weinstock left the room and returned a moment later. “This is what I promised your gabbai.” He proffered a sealed envelope.

Shkoyach,” Elchanan said and placed the envelope in his pocket. “They’ll send you a receipt by mail.”

“No problem. And if we’re already talking, Rabbi Levinsky, I wanted to ask, are you also involved in chinuch?”

Was teaching Bentzy not to cry at night called chinuch? “Not exactly.”

“Because I know of a place that’s looking for someone, and after I saw the way you handled the Brim issue, I think that you would be very suited for the job.”

Without waiting for a response, Reb Yeshayahu continued. “A friend of mine is the rosh yeshivah of a place for boys who are a bit…weak. I think that they’re called ‘high maintenance.’ We’re talking about boys who either come from broken homes or have other family issues, boys who were never taught solid learning skills, that kind of thing. My friend is looking for a good mashgiach for the yeshivah, and I think that your chinuch approach might be very appropriate for this place, Reb Elchanan.”

Elchanan didn’t know what to say. Mashgiach? Him? Maybe they should offer him the position of maggid shiur, once they were at it already. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing for me.”

“Let me give you my friend’s phone number and the address of the yeshivah. It’s in Yerushalayim. I think you should drop in for a look; you’ll probably be very impressed. They’re nice boys there, despite their problems. I’ve been there in the past.”

Elchanan had no idea why he was taking the address. He hadn’t yet started looking for a new job, but when he thought of a job search, this was not the direction he had in mind at all. So, true, the conversation with Dovi Brim had gone well, and Dovi had called him a few times after that to speak about general things. But to deal with twenty or thirty or forty boys? Was that for him? It sounded like a joke.

But when he returned to Yerushalayim and glanced at the note with the yeshivah’s address, he realized he was not far from it. It wouldn’t hurt to drop in for a look, would it? He’d never heard of a yeshivah called Mevakshei Panav, but Yerushalayim was full of yeshivos that he had never heard of.

The building was small and modest, situated on a corner. Elchanan parked the car and got out to look around. On the first floor was what he assumed was the beis midrash, identifiable by the large windows that looked out onto the street. He heard a babble of voices and suddenly wondered if he had made a mistake; perhaps it was the dining room.

He walked along the fence, trying to catch a better glimpse of the building, until he reached the corner. There, right next to where he was standing, sat a boy on the fence, his back to Elchanan. He was small and thin, and looked to be about twelve years old, at the most.

“Hello,” the boy said, without turning around.

Elchanan waited for a long moment, and when no one replied, he asked, “Do you mean me?”

“Yes,” the boy’s back replied. “There’s no one here besides you.”

“That’s what I was checking out.” Elchanan smiled. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.” The boy finally turned around. His face was lit up by the nearby streetlight, and his blue eyes gleamed in the dimness of the evening.

“Do you learn in the yeshivah here?” Elchanan asked him.

“Yes.”

“What is everyone doing at this time of the day?”

“Some bachurim learn, and some can’t, so they go sit on the fence and look at the beis midrash and their friends from the outside.”

“Oh, so is that the beis midrash?” Elchanan pointed to the windows.

“What did you think?”

Elchanan didn’t reply. “And when is supper?” he asked.

“Another half an hour.”

“What do they give you to eat?”

The boy smiled. “Listen, you’re a strange guy,” he said. “But I don’t mind answering you. Today we’ll have bread, eggs, tuna, vegetables, and chocolate milk or coffee for those who want. Should I save you a portion?”

“No, thanks. I eat at home. What’s your name?”

The boy stuck out his hand. “Elchanan Reichenberg,” he said amiably. “And you?”

“Elchanan Levinsky,” the older man answered, shaking the boy’s hand. “How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

Elchanan almost thought Reichenberg would ask how old he was, but the boy was quiet.

“How are you learning here?”

“So-so. There are better days,” the boy replied and turned his gaze to the large windows and then back to Levinsky, who still stood behind the gate, on the sidewalk.

The two Elchanans exchanged glances, and in the blue eyes, Levinsky suddenly saw himself several years back. He had never sat on the fence of his yeshivah, to the best of his recollection. But he had other places. And he had never met another Elchanan, an older one, who had taken an interest in how he was faring.

“Okay,” he said. “I want to ask your rosh yeshivah, Rav Shulman, something. Is he there now?”

“He’s here almost the whole day,” Reichenberg replied. “He’ll probably come out to look for me in a few minutes, and then you can talk to him.”

***

It was the first time she had brought a cleaning lady into her house. Chaya had made it clear that it was urgent, and although Yaffa didn’t appreciate her sister’s pressure, she had to admit that Chaya was right. Her sister hardly came to visit these days, but when she’d dropped by last week, she’d been truly horrified.

“Yaffa!” she’d cried reproachfully. It was a good thing Elchanan hadn’t been home. “What is this row of garbage bags near the door? Have you opened a garbage dump or something?”

Yaffa explained that when a garbage bag became full, she tied it with the intention of taking it downstairs later, but neither she nor Elchanan enjoyed the nighttime trek to the garbage dumpster behind their building.

“So what about taking it out in the morning, on your way to work?” Chaya had demanded. Her sister had grown up this past year, a lot, but it was amazing how sometimes she was still such a baby.

“I hardly see my way to the door during the hectic mornings; you want me to see the garbage also?” Yaffa had retorted.

Chaya had smiled. “So there should be a Mount Everest of bags by now, no? How is it that there are only three bags here?”

“Well, every so often, you have to overcome the discomfort and just do it,” her sister had replied and entered the kitchen, abandoning both the trash bags and the discussion about them.

But the row of garbage bags was just the beginning. Chaya didn’t like seeing her sister bending over with effort to dust under the sofa or climbing on a ladder to clean the top parts of the windows.

“You need some household help,” she declared. “You can’t do everything yourself. This is something that every mother normally tells her daughter, but Ima never comes here, so I’m doing it instead of her.”

“Did you ask Ima if she appointed you as her proxy?” Yaffa joked as she sliced a piece of cake for Chaya. At least her sister was pleased with the cake and noted that Yaffa was a good baker.

Before she left, Chaya dictated to Yaffa a telephone number. “It’s a cleaning lady agency,” she explained. “They have great workers.”

Yaffa looked at the number she’d written down. “Yes,” she said with a faint smile. “Although I imagine that it depends how much you’re ready to pay.” It would be interesting to call the agency, this time on the other end—seeking a cleaning lady. It was a good thing she hadn’t identified herself by name last time…

The agency had sent her Catherine, who worked quickly and did a lot, and in the last ten minutes before the three hours were up, she used the time to scrub the messy cabinet under the kitchen sinks until it was squeaky clean and fresh smelling. If Chaya would visit today, she would certainly be pleased, and Sophie the nurse would probably also calm down. But it was more important that she, Yaffa, was pleased. It really was much more pleasant like this at home.

A minute after Catherine left, the phone rang.

“Hello?” Yaffa said quietly, afraid to wake up Bentzy, who had finally fallen asleep for the night.

“Hello.” Someone coughed on the other end of the line. “Is this Mrs. Levinsky?”

“Yes, it is.”

“This is Weissman.”

“Oh, hello,” Yaffa said uneasily. Conversations with Weissman always made her feel uncomfortable. Either he was razor sharp, like when he’d dumped this whole load on her shoulders, or he scolded her soundly for not understanding his instructions. Whatever the case, when Yaffa heard his voice, she always tensed.

“I spoke to Mrs. Kotzker’s husband earlier this evening,” Weissman said, skipping the needless introductions. “He asked that she begin to take the reins back. That means, Mrs. Levinsky, that you will continue working this coming month with a full salary, but you are preparing for the possibility that Mrs. Kotzker will be running things by remote control from Petach Tikva, alright?”

“Yes.”

“And I’d like you to be in touch with her as much as possible. Any documents that can be faxed to her should be, and let her make any phone calls she can. Try to bring her back into things, quickly. I don’t mind if you even take a weekly day off, if you want. Am I making myself clear, Mrs. Levinsky?”

“Yes.”

“And after this coming month,” the lawyer continued, “I imagine that you will finish your substituting position, although that’s not finalized yet. Perhaps you will continue until Pesach; we’ll see how things unfold. In any case, I have to note that, aside from a few isolated incidents, the school ran in a satisfactory fashion with you as the substitute principal.”

“Thank you,” Yaffa said, and couldn’t restrain herself from asking, “Does Yael Braun know about this? What about Malka Mann? Do they know the principal is returning to work?”

“She’s not coming back yet, Mrs. Levinsky,” Weissman said sharply. “And whether they know or not is not my department. Mr. Nachum Kotzker spoke to me a few minutes ago, and I am just carrying out what is relevant to me. Have a good night.”

When Elchanan walked into the house half an hour later, his face an inscrutable mix of expressions, Yaffa was sitting and writing something on a paper torn out of her datebook.

“Hello!” she said as she put down her pen. “What’s doing?”

Baruch Hashem,” Elchanan replied. “Sorry I’m so late. It took me longer than I thought.”

“You met that guy from Bnei Brak, no?”

“About a million years ago.” He looked around him. “Smells good!” he said with a smile.

Yaffa folded the page. If she guessed correctly, he also had a lot to tell her. Her news would wait.

“So,” Elchanan said as he tossed his hat onto the couch that Catherine had vacuumed clean of dust. “You dreamed of having a husband who was a rosh yeshivah. Will a mashgiach be enough?”

“What?”

He laughed. “Well, nothing’s final yet. The rosh yeshivah and I met for the first time today. We’ll both have to decide if we want a trial period. But take into account that this is not a mashgiach position that comes with a frock and hat. Even if there will be a mashgiach in the house, it will still be just me.”

“Could you please explain what you are talking about?” Yaffa asked.

And he did.

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