Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 57 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.
It was so strange to be standing at the doorway of the building on Rabi Akiva Street, as if it hadn’t been months since she was last here. Ariella took a deep breath and went inside, turning her round keychain in the lock. The last time she’d returned, after a relatively long absence, Osher had washed the floor for her, put a cheesecake down with a note—and then disappeared to Acco. Now, none of that was waiting for her, and probably nothing else either. No one knew that she was back. Or perhaps “back” was not the right way to put it.
Ariella opened the door of her little house and thought about her parents, who had been paying her rent these past two months without saying a word. Without noting that they had rented this place so that she could be close to them; without saying how much they missed her, and that this was not what they’d had in mind when they had sent her in pursuit of Osher.
She put her little pocketbook down on the floor of the hallway and glanced around. Someone had swept the floor in her absence; that much was obvious. Ima must have sent Shoshi or Laiky once every couple of weeks, or something like that. It was nice of them. She hoped that the pitifully few pictures in the camera they had bought her would not disappoint them too much; she hadn’t had much spare time to take photos.
The decision to come had been spontaneous, after she’d spoken to Ima yesterday. “We’re hurt,” Ima had whispered into the phone. Ariella realized that the girls were home, but Ima had to unload. “Especially Abba. The evaluation hurt us a bit. We tried so hard to raise you well; we made such an effort for Osher… And then we read all about frustrations, and a lack of understanding of his struggles, and…” She sighed. “Nu, what can I do? At least he’s being treated now, and he calls every Friday.”
“Ima…” Ariella had said, and then she’d become quiet. What should she say? She didn’t know what the evaluation said. She didn’t know what Ima and Abba had said when they’d read it. She knew so little about them in recent weeks, despite the regular phone calls. She’d been so far away from them for so long…
The thought alarmed her.
“You’ll go to your parents for Pesach,” Sarah had told her when she’d heard Ariella’s worried tone on the phone. “Don’t worry, Bassi won’t give you up so easily. But once the children are on vacation from school anyway, I actually think it would be good for them to come to Haifa, to be with their parents.”
“How would that work out?” Ariella had asked.
“Well, as you know, a wonderful family gave Bassi their guest apartment for however long she needs it, but Bassi told me that they were recently offered a real apartment, and they are thinking of renting it for a little while, for Pesach. They want to be with the children for Yom Tov.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ariella had agreed, and a wave of sadness suddenly flooded her. “I mean, they are their children.”
“I’m sure they will have a very hard time managing without you,” Sarah had said. “Maybe you’ll come visit them on Chol Hamoed and lend a hand—if you want to, of course. Maybe they will come to us for part of the time… We’ll manage, Ariella. Now I think that helping your parents is more important.”
“Oh, I’m not very good at housework,” Ariella had said with a laugh. “I don’t think my mother is counting on me.”
“She’s definitely counting on the good cheer that you’ll bring to the house. You should go, Ariella. I’ll talk to Bassi, and we’ll organize what needs to be done.”
And she’d gone.
Aryeh Berg came home to be with his children until the larger apartment in Haifa would become available, and someone in the yishuv took Kreindy to her house. Ariella hoped that everyone would manage somehow. Gadi still had one more day of cheder before vacation, and he had a Navi test tomorrow. He had probably forgotten to study and wouldn’t be able to concentrate without someone sitting down to study with him. She would call in the afternoon to remind him.
Oy, and she hadn’t told anyone about that pimple that had appeared on Malka’s elbow; it looked a bit infected to her. If they were going to Haifa anyway, a doctor should probably take a look at it. And if so, they should also take Daniel along; he was very pale. He and his twin Eli usually looked so much alike, and that’s why it was so obvious that he was pale as of late. He needs a blood test, her mother had said when she’d heard her description last week. How old is he? Four? Sometimes they develop anemia at that age, especially if it’s a vegan family and the child doesn’t eat a lot.
Ariella went over to the drawer in her kitchen, which was waiting as if she’d just closed it the day before. She pulled out a dry-erase marker. On the board she’d stuck on the fridge she wrote in large letters: Reminders. She underlined it and then wrote: Gadi: test. Doctor’s office in Haifa: Malka, pimple. Daniel: pale. She capped the marker and put it on the table. There would be other things she’d remember soon, and then she’d call the Bergs or Sarah to deal with them all at once.
But now, she’d just have a drink of water and she’d go out. She wondered what they would say at home when she’d knock on the door and announce that she was there.
The Bnei Brak air was clouded by the early summer haze, typical for the end of Nissan.
“So, you’re going back to the far away Galilee.” Ariella’s mother’s voice was tinged with sadness. “Honestly, I had hoped that if you came for Pesach, perhaps you’d just stay.”
Ariella looked at her mother, and then stuck the clean sheet into her suitcase. “I’ll come more often, Ima, maybe even every Shabbos. I think it’s good for the children to be with their parents in Haifa for Shabbos. But tomorrow they are going back to school, and to routine, and they need me there.” She bit her lip. “I…is it very hard for you? I’m sorry, Ima. Maybe I’ll come back in four days, for Shabbos.”
“It’s alright,” Irit said hastily. “Don’t feel bad. If you’re happy there, then we’re also happy.” She bit her bottom lip, almost mirroring her daughter. “I mean, yes, the fact that Osher didn’t even come home for the Seder hurt us, but…at least he’s happy with his Rav. I just thought that with you…”
“What did you think with me?”
“I’m wondering if you’re not stagnating a little bit, if you know what I mean. Time is passing, Ariella. Please, don’t let it pass without any change.”
Ariella took a deep breath. “And there’s nothing about me that’s changed, even a little bit, Ima?”
“I sometimes dare to hope that there is,” her mother said, after a long moment. “And I hope even more that it’s not fata morgana, a mirage that seems to appear because I am so desperate for water.”
Ariella laughed. “Nice imagery there, Ima, but I also think I’ve changed. It’s not fata morgana.”
“Are you going for therapy?”
“No. It’s enough for me to talk fifty times a week to Sarah Reiness and her sister Bassi. They are both so like me, yet so different from me, that it teaches me a lot about myself.” She smiled and zipped her suitcase closed. “And the constant race to keep up with the house and the kids…I think I’m becoming very grounded, Ima. At the end of all this, you won’t even recognize me.”
“Oy, no!” Irit grinned. “Stay who you are, Ariella. We love you just like this.”
“Just like this?” Ariella’s hand remained on the suitcase as she glanced at her mother, who was sitting at the table peeling potatoes. “I…” She swallowed hard. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that, Ima. In any case, you don’t need to worry. Transforming myself into something totally different will take me about forty years, like it took the Yidden to cross the desert. And I have no intention of staying away for such a long time.”
“How long do you plan to stay?” The peeler rose and fell, and the peels dropped onto the bag she’d spread out on the table. Ariella went over to the fleishig drawer and took out a second peeler. Her heart suddenly went out to her mother, and she felt an urge to promise her that everything would be fine.
“I can’t promise you anything, Ima. Oops.” A potato slipped out from her hand and rolled under the table. She bent down to pick it up. “I had so many plans in the past, and then my life veered in a totally different direction. But what I can tell you, with certainty, is that without the tefillos and love that you and Abba have given me, I don’t know where I’d be today.” She glanced under the table, and from that strange position, she declared, “And b’ezras Hashem, I will stay there for much less than forty years.”
“Where are we going now?” I asked Reb Elazar.
“To keep a promise that is a month and a half old.” Rabbi Reiness smiled at me. “Before Purim I told you that I want to take you to my friend in Haifa, remember? The one from the atzei chaim factory? Today it finally works out for me and for him, so off we go.”
“Okay, thanks.” I leaned back in the seat and stared at my right palm for a few long moments. There were three burns there, from the torch, and another small scratch from the saw. “I appreciate…very much the effort you make for me.”
Reb Elazar looked at me through the mirror. Wow, was he surprised! “Thank you, Osher. It feels good to hear you say that.”
“I chose you,” I told him.
“Chose me for what?”
“I chose you to be the one I speak to politely.” I looked out the window. “Didn’t you notice over Pesach? Those were Dr. Kreisman’s instructions from last time. To choose someone and implement the tools I’m learning on him.” I was quiet, and so was Reb Elazar. “I think I’ve learned these kinds of things already in my life, but now it’s different.”
“Maybe because you are different,” he said gently.
“Dunno,” I said. “You don’t mind that I’m trying the tools out on you, right?”
“Very right.” He smiled.
“He called it the ‘trial bunny,’ but he also said that if I choose someone who I don’t have much to do with, I shouldn’t use that expression with him. Only if it’s someone close to me.”
Reb Elazar was quiet for a minute. “I’m very moved, Osher,” he said.
“That you chose me as someone close.”
I played with my seatbelt, not really knowing what to answer. “That’s not the only reason I can tell you about the nickname.”
“What’s the other reason?”
I smiled. “He said that I can only tell it to someone who understands jokes.”
Reb Elazar laughed so hard that I didn’t even have to wonder if it had been the right thing to tell him. He understood the joke very well. We didn’t speak anymore until we pulled into the parking lot of the factory.
If I’d imagined a huge factory full of noisy machines, then you could say I was rather disappointed. The place was even smaller than our carpentry shop in Acco. It was just a private apartment, with a large enclosed porch that had been converted to a workshop. It was interesting, I won’t deny that. But I’d expected something more impressive.
Reb Elazar’s friend showed me the tools that he worked with, but it didn’t look like he had too much patience for it. He might have been in a hurry for something, or he just wasn’t the type of personality that likes to explain things too much. Then he and Rabbi Reiness started talking about all kinds of things, and got deep into conversation. That proved to me that my second thought was right: he did have time, but he just wasn’t cut out to be a teacher of these kinds of things.
As the men spoke, I walked around the room, and carefully picked up the tablecloth that covered something resting on a table on the side. It was a sefer Torah that was already connected to the atzei chaim on one side, but not on the other side.
“Careful, Osher,” the man called from the other side of the room. “Please don’t touch anything over there, alright?”
I moved aside.
On another lower table, there were a few pieces of parchment rolled up next to a closed bottle. I didn’t dare touch anything; I just looked at the parchment from up close. I hadn’t seen parchment from up close since third grade, when our rebbi, who was also a sofer sta”m, brought pieces to cheder and gave them out to the boys who learned well. I never got a piece, of course, but I looked at the pieces my classmates got. When I learned in Daas Torah, they also once showed us a presentation on writing sifrei Torah. It had been fascinating to see the sofer’s hand forming the letters.
“Are you getting bored, Osher?” the man asked me. “Do you want to try and write something yourself?” He chuckled. I don’t usually like it when people laugh at their own jokes, because the jokes are usually silly. But this time, I liked what he was saying; it was a good idea. “I just want to talk to your rebbi a little longer,” he told me. “Do you know how long it’s been since I last saw him? And do you know what a special person he is? I’m not letting him leave so fast, now that he’s finally here! You can take whichever piece of parchment you want from over there; they are remnants.”
“Is there something I need to know?” I asked, as I found the writing tools, a special pen with a feather stuck into the top.
“What do you mean?”
‘When you write sta”m, is there something special you need to know?”
He burst out laughing. “Of course. There are lots of halachos. But you are not writing sta”m; you’re writing stam. Do you understand the difference?”
“I think so,” I said quietly.
“The only rule that you need to remember is to be careful about your clothes.”
Reb Elazar said something quietly, maybe that I didn’t like it when people laughed at me. But this time, I ignored the scorn, and the man as well. Let’s say I was now a sofer sta”m. I would begin with Chumash Bereishis, and I’d imitate the hand of that sofer I had seen during that presentation. He’d held the quill on a slant, at a certain angle. Oh, good, there were even lines already scored into these pieces of parchment, so I could start writing.
I wrote the whole first pasuk: Bereishis bara… Then I moved onto the second pasuk, and they were still talking. In the middle of “vavohu,” the ink spread into an ugly stain. It was alright. There were lots of pieces of parchment.
I stretched and shook my hand, careful not to splatter the black liquid anywhere. Then I took another piece of parchment. This time I decided to write “Reiness Family” in nice lettering. I once saw a nameplate made from parchment on a door. Maybe Rabbi Reiness would want one like that.
“Nu, are you enjoying the writing?”
They were both standing behind me. Reb Elazar’s friend took the first piece of parchment, which was on the edge of the table. “Wait a minute, what’s this? Where does this belong?” he murmured, looking around. Then he looked back at me. “So what did you write? Oh, are you beginning the letter mem? Nice, very nice! What did you write until now? From far it looked like you were working hard.”
“This,” I said. I was still busy with my work, so I just nodded my head toward the parchment he was holding.
“What?” Reb Elazar asked.
“I don’t see anything here,” his friend said.
“This,” I said, and pointed to the first piece, with the pasuk from Bereishis.
“You wrote this?!” The man picked up the piece and looked at me, and then at it, and then at me again. “No!”
“Yes!” I said. I hoped that it wasn’t chutzpah. But after all, he was not supposed to be my trial bunny. And I wasn’t sorry about that.