Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 6 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“Nosson’s parents called me the other day,” Ariella told her mother, when they both sat down after licht bentching.
“They called?” Her mother started. “What did they want?”
“To invite me for Shabbos.”
Shoshi, seated a short distance away and studying from her Navi, raised her eyes. There was quiet in the large room.
“Nu?” her mother finally said.
“I didn’t want to, of course,” Ariella said lightly. “Last time I was there, last year, his mother tried to suggest a shidduch for me… But that’s not why I declined this time.”
“So what was the reason?”
“I need to rest,” her daughter replied. “I was very tense all week. Thinking about Osher, starting work again…I just wasn’t up to going away for Shabbos.”
“You wouldn’t have been able to rest there?” Shoshi dared to interject. “They probably don’t let you lift a finger when you’re there. Or do you mean that you’d have to bring them a cake or something?”
“If I would have gone, I would have asked you to bake something for me,” her oldest sister said with a smile. “No, it’s not the cake or the kugel that bothered me. When I’m there, Shoshi, I work the whole time.”
“You work? You serve and wash dishes? I guess they’re really trying to make you feel very at home there…”
“They don’t let me touch a thing. The problem is that I have to work constantly to be nice, to speak to Nosson’s mother and cheer her up, and to listen attentively to everything she says…” She looked out the window for a moment.
“Oh, you mean you just have to be super nice,” Shoshi concluded. “But being so nice comes naturally to you, Ariella!”
“If I don’t have the strength to be so nice, then I just can’t do it.” Ariella looked at her. “But let’s not talk about me now. Ima, you’re so tired. You worked really hard this week, didn’t you?”
“Worrying is work.” Their mother sat on the end of the couch, clutching her closed sefer Tehillim.
“You mean, worrying about Osher?”
“I wonder what his Shabbos is like,” Shoshi mused from her seat at the table.
“Based on my last conversation with him,” Ariella remarked, “he’s learning by some rav. Maybe it’s a kiruv yeshivah or something like that.” She stared at the peach flower printed on the couch cover.
“Do you think it’s a normal place?” Shoshi asked. “You know, so I can tell my friends something like, ‘My brother’s in yeshivah’…or is it just some strange hole-in-the-wall?”
“And a dubious one at that,” their mother said.
Ariella glanced at her. “Osher sounded quite normal to me, I would say,” she said slowly. “He didn’t sound like he was in a strange place. Shoshi, what did you tell your friends when he was learning in Daas Torah? That’s not exactly your run-of-the-mill yeshivah either.”
“At least I could say that he was in yeshivah…” Shoshi sighed. “But if they ask me now…”
“Why should they ask you? Has your class run out of every other topic to talk about, that you have to discuss the fascinating subject of where Shoshi Erenbaum’s brother learns?”
“How many years has it been since you were in ninth grade?” Shoshi fingered the edge of the plastic tablecloth. “How many years has it been since you were excited by new friends?”
“Lots of years,” Ariella replied, “but not that many that I don’t remember when I was at that stage. I clearly remember all the questions and comments I got, and I can tell you that I was never afraid to tell people that my parents are ba’alei teshuvah, just like I didn’t care about telling them that I had been diagnosed with ADHD. It just made my life easier.”
“It’s a miracle that I don’t have ADHD,” Shoshi muttered.
“Shoshi!” her mother chided.
“I’m not offended. And she’s right, Ima,” Ariella said. “Hakadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t test a person with something he would not be able to withstand. Imagine Shoshi Erenbaum standing in class and telling her very interested and important friends bad things about herself. I mean, it would take them at least a week and a half to calm down!”
Shoshi glared at her witheringly. “Talk about your problems as much as you want, and I can even give you a microphone to do it,” she said. “If it helps you.”
“You hit it on the nose,” Ariella said, and the smile that had played on her lips until then disappeared. “I don’t speak to anyone about my real problems, the ones that no one can help me with. But things that I can get help for? Why shouldn’t I tell others, to make things easier for myself?!”
“What did it help you to tell your new friends in ninth grade that it was hard for you to keep your notebooks organized?”
“Very simple. I didn’t want them to think I was lazy when they saw my empty, scribbled-up notebooks. I knew the material just fine, but Ima didn’t organize my notebooks and stuff for me like she did when I was in elementary school.” She looked at her mother. “Remember?”
“Only in the lower grades,” her mother clarified. “You would bring Devora’le Cohen’s notebooks home, and I would copy everything clearly in the right place, paste in the sheets, and then write the answers to the questions that you told me by heart as you jumped on and off the kitchen chair.”
Shoshi looked at her sister. “Jumped on and off the kitchen chair?” she asked. “What was that about?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. Ima sat on a chair at the table. I stood on another chair, and I would answer the question and at the same time I jumped. Then I climbed up again, and jumped again. Every answer took about five jumps.”
“And you had long, thought-out answers, with lots of ideas!” Ima added in.
“What about math?”
“I wrote my math work. Problems were easy and short in elementary school. But Ima took care of my sheets for me. Those were too much.”
Shoshi got up to put the Navi sefer back in its place. “It just doesn’t make sense about you, Ariella. I mean…sorry, but I know that you don’t manage so well with keeping things organized and cooking, but…imagining you as a little girl who couldn’t sit still for a minute? What did you do all day in school?”
“Can we change the subject?” Ariella asked. “When should we set the table? Should we wait for Lakey to come back from her Kabbalas Shabbos group, or should we start now?”
Shoshi chuckled and stood up. “Ima, I think you should go rest now. You, too, Ariella. I’ll take care of things here.”
“I’ll help you.” Ariella rose as well. “These days I don’t need to jump from the chair to the floor when I want to concentrate. On the other hand, I don’t like resting too much either.”
“You said you were tired.” Shoshi seemed to be assailed by guilt after the last few moments of conversation.
Ariella laughed. “What happened? You decided to have pity on me because I once had a hard time in school? It’s okay; I learned to manage, baruch Hashem.”
In the kitchen, Shoshi placed the Shabbos cutlery on the counter. “So which notebooks did you show off to Savta when she came to visit?”
“Whatever I had when she came. Messy, or organized.”
“And what did she say? That the Chareidim don’t put effort into their studies at all? That their kids grow up wild?”
“She didn’t say that, because I wasn’t a wild girl.”
“Of course not; there was someone else who took that pl—forget it. Why talk about that?”
Ariella opened the container of fish and sniffed the slices. “If I remember correctly, I was a sweet, sociable girl, and Savta liked me despite my jumpiness. And besides, there you were, a calm, lovely, smiley, black-haired baby who lay in her carriage and offered smiles to everyone. You captivated Savta’s heart right away. Already then it was clear that your notebooks and schoolwork would be picture-perfect.”
“They are not.”
“Of course, of course; at the end of the year you’re missing a quarter of a page in your history notes, right?” She elbowed her sister. “Seriously, Shoshi, get used to the idea that everyone in the family has their place, and you are our model student.”
“And you’re our politician.”
“No thanks. That’s derogatory, in my opinion.”
“I mean that you always know what to say, when to say it, who to smile at, and when to smile…”
“And what’s Lakey?” said a voice from the kitchen doorway. Their eighth-grade sister, sweaty and breathless, walked in and pulled off her sweater. “It’s so hot outside!” she complained. “I can’t believe it’s gonna be Kislev soon!”
“You’re our muzhinik, the baby of the family,” Ariella replied fondly. “And that’s a very important role. Don’t make light of it.”
“I’m not making light of it. Okay, and what’s Osher?”
“Hmmm… He’s the only son,” Shoshi suggested cautiously. “That’s a very important role, too, you know.”
“If Osher was here, he’d say that he is something else,” Ariella murmured from her spot near the counter.
“What would he say?” Lakey asked.
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” I told Reb Eliezer, as I draped my sweater over the rocking chair. It was cold in Acco, but the Reiness kitchen was warm.
And I told the Rav about the black sheep.