Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 10 of a new online serial novel, Night Flower, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Yoel and Shifra arrived late in the evening for a visit.
“Ima isn’t very excited about the idea of someone coming to live with you.” Yoel got right to the point as Chaiky boiled water for coffee. She was happy that the kitchen was in reasonable shape. “But even she thinks that it’s something to be seriously considered.”
“She’s not excited because of Anna,” Chaiky said. “And she’s aware of it. Shifra, when you have a cold, you prefer tea, right?”
“Yes, thanks,” her sister-in-law replied.
Yoel leaned on the counter, his legs crossed in front of him. “Anna left the house when I was very little, and I remember nothing about that time,” he said. “You do remember something?”
“Sure,” Chaiky said as she took the milk out of the refrigerator. “I was six at the time.”
“And what do you remember?”
“I remember someone older than me, spoiling me, taking me to her friends’ houses, and playing with my hair. I also remember her having these endless conversations with Ima, though I understood almost nothing about what they were saying… You know how I was your big sister as you were growing up? That’s exactly what she was for me.”
Yoel stuck his hands in his pockets. “But what do you remember about her leaving?” he asked.
“Well, over the years she always had cordial ties with her uncle and aunt, who came to take her on trips. I also remember them giving her lots of pocket money, based on the amount of prizes and presents she bought for me. She must have been in about seventh grade when that relationship got a bit closer.”
“And throughout that time Abba and Ima didn’t know the truth about her?”
“No. Ima told me that when they got to know her, they asked to see the documents. And everything looked fine.”
Anna’s short visits soon grew longer and longer. Anna would wait for Mira at lunchtime, and naturally walk into the house with her, and then spend the rest of the day, until late evening, with her. At some point, Binyamin and Mira would escort her home. Some days, she refused to go home, claiming that she was too tired to walk. Mira would call her aunt’s house, using the number Anna provided, and would immediately get permission for Anna to spend the night with them. All sides were pleased with this arrangement, it seemed.
When Anna was at the end of first grade, she confided to Mira that she was sick of baby formula, and that her aunt wasn’t happy about that. “She says that you ruined me,” she said, “just like you are ruining me by making me wash my hands in the morning and not traveling on Shabbos.”
When Mira told Binyamin about that conversation the same night, he was the one who presented the idea of inviting Anna to live with them. “It doesn’t look like anyone in that house cares two bits about her,” he said bluntly. “It will be good for her, it will be good for her aunt and uncle, and most important—it will be good for you, and I will be happy.”
They thought about it for two days. On Tuesday they asked Anna, and, not surprisingly, received a positive answer. On Wednesday, when Mira called the aunt’s house to set up a meeting so that she and Binyamin could make their proposal, the aunt icily asked what the meeting was about. When she heard what Mira wanted, she immediately replied, “Oh, with you? Alright, fine.”
Mira stared at the phone in disbelief. What? Was this really happening? “You…agree? Is it really okay with you that she should come live with us?”
“Yes. That’s what I just said.”
“But you realize that we will send her to a religious school and she won’t be able to continue in the school she’s attending now?”
“Listen, Mrs. Brodsky. I told you it’s fine. Why are you wasting my time?”
Mira didn’t even have a chance to tell Binyamin the results of the bizarre conversation, because even before he came home that evening, Anna was already knocking at the door. Her face was shining, and she had a huge suitcase at her side.
“My aunt said she’s happy for me,” she said as she skipped inside. “And for herself, because now she’ll finally have some quiet. Wow, so the red mattress in the room is now going to be mine? Always?”
The mattress became hers, as did the bed that was purchased in her honor, followed by a new desk. A week after she arrived at their home, she began first grade in the Bais Yaakov in Be’er Sheva. In those years, she wasn’t the only Russian immigrant who attended the school, but she had a stronger support system than the others. She didn’t come from an anonymous family that had just arrived from the Soviet Union; rather, she lived with a couple who was well known in the frum community—Binyamin and Mira Brodsky. He was a mashgiach in the yeshivah ketanah, and she was a rotating preschool teacher. In short, a good family by any standards.
The aunt and uncle who were happy to get rid of the burden didn’t care, it appeared, that their niece was becoming chareidi in every sense. They maintained minimal contact, which consisted mostly of short visits in the yard of the building, gifts, and pocket money. At one point, and no one knew exactly when, they moved to Tel Aviv. After one visit, when Anna came upstairs with a huge box of Lego, she casually remarked to Mira, “And now they will only come visit me once every six months. But it’s okay. My aunt said that they can send me the gifts from my grandfather in the mail.”
The grandfather, like Anna’s parents, was a mysterious figure that Mira and Binyamin knew nothing about. They had only seen the ID cards of the aunt and uncle and the certificate from the Chief Rabbinate affirming that the child was a kosher Jew.
Almost a year after Anna became a member of the Brodsky home, Chaiky was born. Anna displayed no signs of envy when she saw the joy that the new baby brought to Binyamin and Mira. On the contrary, she happily joined the excitement around the baby and declared, “Wow! I’ve never had my own sister!” She spent lots of her money (which Mira kept for her; she didn’t like the fact that a girl who wasn’t even eight years old had fifty-shekel bills in her wallet) on presents for her “sister.”
Anna and Chaiky grew up together, like sisters. But then, when Anna was in eighth grade, the big change happened.
“Ima told me years later,” Chaiky said thoughtfully, “that the aunt’s visits began to take longer each time. She no longer sufficed with standing downstairs near the car for a few minutes. Rather, she invited Anna to join them on their drives. Most times Anna refused, but once, she traveled with them to their home in Tel Aviv and came back a few hours later. Abba went down to them that very evening and told them that he and Ima objected to this, and they just laughed. He told them that it violated the agreement between them, and they said that the agreement didn’t interest them.”
“There was an agreement?” Yoel asked.
“There was something. Then one day, out of the blue, Anna informed Abba and Ima that she was deeply appreciative of the beautiful years she had spent in their house, but she was leaving. I remember that evening. I was six or seven years old. I was in bed already, but I wasn’t sleeping. I heard every word.”
“She dropped it on them like that? It sounds awful,” Shifra said, and then coughed.
“It really was awful. She said that she wanted to study a serious profession and to advance in life, and she didn’t see herself continuing in a chareidi high school. And when Ima, who was stunned, tried to cautiously probe as to what had suddenly happened…”
“Anna revealed to her that she actually was not Jewish,” Yoel finished the sentence.
“Right.” Chaiky stirred her coffee, looking into the ripples that her stirring generated. “To this day I remember Ima’s shocked wails. Abba was silent. Then Anna explained politely that she didn’t know this all the years, and that her aunt had just revealed to her that all the documents—which the Chief Rabbinate had based their decision upon to issue her certification of Jewish identity—were forged.”
“You heard that from your bed also?”
“No. Ima told me this years later, one Friday night.”
“It sounds awful,” Shifra repeated. “It must have been such a shock for your parents.”
“It was shocking to them both.” Chaiky looked at her. “When Abba and Ima heard this, they fell silent, and didn’t even try any further to persuade her to stay. At that point, I think, I got out of bed and stood in the doorway to peek into the dining room. I remember seeing Abba talking on the phone. I think he had more than one conversation. He must have been finding out how much he could rely on what Anna was saying.”
“Why, because it was impossible to accept what she was saying about herself?”
“Maybe.” Chaiky raised her eyes. She desperately needed to clear those cobwebs from the kitchen ceiling! One of them was swaying dangerously over Yoel’s head, and Chaiky hoped it wouldn’t land directly on his carefully coiffed hairdo. “You can ask Abba that yourself. I remember Ima being very quiet, and Anna standing in front of them both. Then she turned and entered our room. She took all of her things out of the drawers and off the shelves and put them into her suitcase, the one that always lay unused under her bed.” She sipped her coffee. “She packed her things without paying any attention to my questions, and went out to the dining room. Then Abba finished his phone conversation, went over to his jacket, took money out of his wallet, and put it on the table. Ima stood on the side, very pale, and Anna took the money. She thanked them politely again and left the house.”
“It must have been seriously traumatic for you.” Shifra’s arms were folded.
“Yes. I was very confused.”
Yoel was still standing near the counter, his cup of coffee resting near him. “Not to mention for Abba and Ima…”
“Yes. Abba was broken by the fact that for years, they had allowed a gentile to live in their house without knowing. The wine, the bishul akum, you know… And besides that, Ima was also broken by the betrayal.”
“True, but she wouldn’t have wanted Anna to stay with them once the truth had come out, right?”
“Right.” Chaiky didn’t like Shifra’s cold analysis. “But this bombshell was still really painful for her. She would have wanted that Anna shouldn’t give up so fast on all the beautiful things she had learned from them over the years. That she should have argued with her aunt and uncle, and tried to find proof that they were lying, to insist that she really was a Jew… That she shouldn’t just get up and walk out like that.”
“Why should they lie about this?” Shifra was asking such annoying questions.
“Because if they suddenly took an interest in her and wanted her to get a higher education and whatever else she said, the simplest way to bring her back to them without any war with Abba and Ima would be to say that she was a gentile, and that would be it.”
“So why did they give her to them in the first place?” Now it was Yoel asking.
“Because when she was a little girl, it was very convenient for them that someone else should be busy with the exhausting job of raising her, right? And when she was big and could be more independent, then what was the problem?”
A depressing silence descended on the kitchen. Yoel silently finished his coffee and put the empty cup back on the counter. “In any case, Chaiky, let’s move on,” he said, passing his hand over his forehead. “The fact that a non-Jew lived in Abba and Ima’s house for seven years, and that it was very painful, doesn’t mean that anyone who comes to live in another person’s house for whatever reason, will suddenly be revealed as a non-Jew.”
“Of course,” Chaiky agreed.
“So as far as you are concerned, you can think about the idea of someone coming to live here with you and the children?”
“In theory, yes. We just need to check out who it is.”
At night, Chaiky dreamed of herself hanging a huge notice on the door of her office: “Seeking someone to live with me.” A moment later, Elka entered, dragging Noa and laughing gleefully. “Here!” she announced. “We found your person, Chaiky! Noa will be very happy to live with you!”
Elka cackling in her dreams woke Chaiky up, and she needed a few minutes to shake off the strange dream. Where did Noa live, come to think of it? Since she’d become more observant, she’d left her parents’ home, she’d related. This girl’s entire background was very murky, including details of her family and her current address. Apparently only Elka knew everything about her.
But as for the dream, she could relax. It was not going to come true. Noa wouldn’t want to come live with her, and she didn’t want Noa.
Having Noa at the community center was by far enough for her.