Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 34 of a new online serial novel, Outside the Bubble, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Would they not let him finish this book?! First the knocking and ringing at the door, now the phone… Martin set aside The Revelation with a sigh and picked up his phone. “Yes?”
“Hello, this is Yeruchem Goldberg, from the Kletzkin Yeshivah in Netivot. My talmid dropped by this week, and you gave him this number for me to call?”
“Oh, that’s right,” Martin said slowly. “Mr. Perl hasn’t been feeling so well lately, and I’m handling his affairs. How can I help you?”
“He hired a secretary?”
“Yes.” Martin kept it terse.
“Nice. It’s really about time. It sometimes seemed to me like it was all too much for him… Anyway, do you know about the connection that our yeshivah has with his organization?”
Martin sufficed with a slight murmur, which could be interpreted as the caller wished.
“A long-time talmid of ours was married to Mr. Perl’s niece. After he passed away, Mr. Perl began to contribute to the yeshivah in his memory. He does it regularly now, every year.”
“You don’t need to tell me the whole story,” Martin said drily. “Just tell me how much he usually gives you.”
“Between twenty and forty thousand.”
Between twenty and forty thousand?! He had no idea how much Perl had in his account, certainly not after he’d paid for the chicken and the clothing and all that. “I don’t know…” he replied. “The organization is struggling right now. He won’t be able to give you such an amount.”
“Oh,” Goldberg said, clearly disappointed. “Is there any amount that is possible? Even ten thousand shekel would help us plug up some big holes.”
Ten thousand shekel! This guy was going too far. And what was this yeshivah, anyway?
“I need to look into it,” he said politely. “Right now, I really don’t think that it will be possible.”
“When will it be possible to speak with Mr. Perl himself?”
“Not in the next two weeks.” It was one thing to give to poor children who reminded him of himself. It was one thing to give to disadvantaged families, so that their kids wouldn’t fall into crime and street gangs. But this yeshivah?
Well, when—if—Mr. Perl came back, he’d give to these people himself—if he so chose.
“Supporting Torah is a major zechus,” the caller said, as if reading his mind. “And Mr. Perl knows that. He always gave us very generously, and accumulated tremendous zechusim for himself like that. You can’t imagine how valuable such zechusim are.”
“He always gave to you?”
“Yes. Can you try to communicate with him? To try to remind him about our yeshivah…”
“Okay, I’ll try talking to him about it, and he’ll probably give you something. Not twenty, but maybe ten.”
“Thank you, thanks so much. Should I call you back to hear the answer?”
Martin looked at the phone. “I’ll call you after I speak to him.”
He hung up and went downstairs to the kitchen. What was this? An envelope on the floor, under the door. It was open, and there were two papers inside. One paper looked official and important. The second was torn out of a notebook of some type, and there was a message written on it. The handwriting wasn’t so clear. As it was, he still struggled with Hebrew writing, and this was even worse. Who was the writer? Could he figure it out? He glanced at the signature on the bottom.
Oh, no. She had come back?
But he didn’t see anyone through the window, and the irritating knocking, which he had tried to ignore as he’d read the last four pages of the book, had fallen silent.
“Ima…” Mali said, and then fell silent. She had no idea how to continue. They were standing at the gate, facing the street, and it looked like her mother was focused only on her inner voices, which her daughter had no part in. “Ima, maybe you should come up to my room in the dorm. It’s nearby. You’ll have something hot to drink, and we can talk.”
Hinda raised her eyes to her daughter, who was a head taller than her. “No, Mali,” she said quietly. “I want to stay here. But thanks,” she added.
Had she been asked a few months ago if she wanted to speak to Mali, she would have accepted happily. Recently, without her even noticing how it was happening, their short conversations had become a normal part of her week—but she’d never dreamed of receiving an invitation from Mali to have a real talk. And now, when it came, she just couldn’t take her up on it.
Because of Michoel.
“But why stay here?” Mali persisted, confused. Her mother had left Michoel’s house without speaking, and then she’d just stopped here, on the sidewalk nearby, as if she couldn’t bring herself to leave his street.
“You’re right.” Hinda’s voice was strangely steely. “There’s actually no reason for me to stay here. Maybe what I need to do is contact the police.”
“The police?” Mali raised an eyebrow.
“There’s something strange about what is going on.”
“But Ima, if he really suspects that…that you took money from the organization or something, then that’s why he’s not opening the door. Or answering the phone for you. Is…is that so strange?”
“This strange disconnect began even before these accusations, Mali.” Hinda’s voice was a bit calmer, as if the logical analysis of the situation had done her good. “He didn’t answer my calls. But the strange thing is that at one point, I did get a message from him that made sense, and had no accusations or complaints or anything else. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Maybe before you call the police, we should stay here a bit.”
“Here?” Hinda was puzzled.
“Yes, here,” Mali repeated. “Behind his gate. Let’s watch the house a bit. Maybe you’ll catch him leaving from there—like to shul or something.”
“But what if he’s not home now?”
“Maybe we’ll see him coming back. But…” She glanced toward the gate. “The air conditioners on the second floor are on, Ima.”
Hinda mulled this over. “You know what? Let’s give your idea a chance. This bench is pretty much out of sight, and we can see his gate from it. Should we sit here?”
“I think it’s worth a try.”
“You can get back to whatever it is that you’d be doing now, if you want,” her mother offered, as she put her large bag down on the bench. “It’s a great idea, and I’m going to do it, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay with me.”
“I know I don’t have to, but…” Mali blushed. “It’s fine. I’m happy to stay with you.”
She couldn’t believe it herself, but it was true. She, Mali, really was happy to sit next to her mother, even with her big bag. She wasn’t afraid that her mother might suddenly stick her hand out to passersby and ask for money for Ohr Naftali and Leah.
Not that Ima had ever done that, but it had happened, a few times, that Michoel had called and said that he was urgently short of a thousand or two thousand shekels for one of his families, and Ima had gotten up and gone to certain stores and asked the salespeople and customers for donations for the organization. They weren’t strangers; most of them knew Ima, and perhaps also admired her.
Mali had never been with Ima at those times. But later, she would get regards from friends who had met Ima then, and she couldn’t stand it. Just like she couldn’t stand the regards she’d get from Ima’s monthly visits to people’s homes. She was always afraid that her friends thought that every new thing she ever bought was purchased with the tzedakah money that Ima collected.
Once, when she was in seventh grade, her teacher had told them about the wife of the Vilna Gaon, and that in the merit of her efforts to collect tzedakah, she was zocheh to a special reward. Mali’s classmates had turned to look at her, and someone had said, “Morah, Mali’s mother is also a gabba’is tzedakah.” Then, Mali had felt a frisson of pride in her mother. But it had quickly faded out. The Vilna Gaon’s wife did not collect for her own home, right? And no one suspected that she did. But Ima… Mali herself never knew, to this day, whether or not the money, or at least part of it, went to them. The nice girls had called her mother a “gabba’is tzedakah,” while the less kindly ones would say that her mother “collected money from people’s houses.” She’d even heard one or two girls mutter something about her mother being “a beggar.”
And that was all before everything they said about Yosef.
“Ima,” Mali said suddenly, lowering her eyes to the bag that she so disliked. “Ima, I wanted to ask you if…”
Hinda looked at her from over her still-closed sefer Tehillim. “Yes, Mali?”
“You…” She swallowed. “Do you want something to eat?”
Hinda smiled. “Thanks, but not here.”
Mali nodded, and Hinda glanced again at the gate to Michoel’s yard. Then she opened the Tehillim on her lap and began to whisper Perek Chaf-Zayin, which was where her bookmark was placed. Mali sat and waited for her to finish.
“Ima,” she began again, when Hinda finished.
“The…the money that you collected over the years… Was it…sometimes also for us?”
“No, Mali.” Hinda looked for a moment at Michoel’s gate again, and then turned to face her daughter. “I never collected for us. There were two times, at the beginning, when finances were a bit hard. Then I borrowed money from the organization, with Michoel’s permission. As soon as I could, though, I repaid it all.”
“From what?” Mali’s eyes were restless.
“I started working.”
Hinda smiled. “Mali, you don’t know what I do for a living?” she asked softly.
“Right. And baruch Hashem, it’s pretty lucrative work.”
“But how busy were you with it?” Although her words held a slightly accusatory tone, there was also an undertone of pleading, and that was all Hinda heard.
“Enough to make a living.” She looked into her daughter’s eyes, but Mali wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Everything is alright, Mali.”
Mali looked at the furry keychain that hung on her small handbag, and wanted to burst out crying. She didn’t know why. But at that moment, Hinda stood up. “Someone just went into Michoel’s yard. Let’s see what’s going on there, and if the door opens.”
Mali sat up and dropped her keychain—and her tears. She had better vision than her mother, and when she peered through the trees that made up the fence, she reported that the man who had entered the yard was wearing a gray shirt, had wild hair, and looked like he could be homeless. “He’s getting near the steps… Hey!” She squinted suddenly. “The envelope isn’t under the door! He took it!”
“Who, the guy that just went in?” Hinda asked.
“No, he’s just getting close to the steps now. Michoel, apparently.”
“Michoel took the envelope?”
“Well, it’s not there, where you left it.” Mali turned her head.
“So he’s at home.” Hinda slung her bag over her shoulder. “What do you say, Mali? Should we go back and knock again?”
“Maybe we’ll wait to see if he opens the door for this man,” her daughter suggested. “If you get there before he answers the door for him, he may not open it at all.”
“True,” Hinda said. Just then her phone started to ring. “Hi, Dov,” she said quietly into it, her voice trembling slightly with tension. “How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem. How are things in Yerushalayim? How are you doing?”
“Conducting surveillance,” she answered with a chuckle.
“Did he open the door for you?” His voice dropped, perhaps due to the heavy weight his words carried.
“Even though you weren’t with me?”
It took Hinda a moment to catch on. “What do you mean, Dov?” she protested. “I told you that it has nothing to do with you. You saw how angry he was at me, and he didn’t even mention you at all!”
“So what’s happening now?” There was something weighing on his voice, making it sound heavy, and she wondered what it was.
“Someone just walked into his yard. We’re waiting to see if he’ll open the door for him.”
“He’s not opening the door,” Mali reported from her position.
Hinda repeated the report to her husband.
“How long are you going to wait there?”
“I don’t know if there’s anything for me to wait for… Anyway, tell me, what’s doing at home?”
“Baruch Hashem, everything’s fine. Nothing new…” He hesitated a moment before continuing. “Hinda, do you think you’d be up to welcoming another guest, after the wonderful treatment you gave to Penina?”
“Yes. Simi,” he answered, with the passion of a father. “See, it’s very full at the mother-baby home where she went, and they’re not managing. They keep calling her to the nursery, because her baby is a real screamer, and she’s really not getting any rest.” He fell silent. The heaviness in his voice didn’t allow him to ask what he so wanted to ask.
“I once promised you, Dov,” she said softly, moving away from the fence, from Mali, from Michoel, if he was there, “that our home will always be open to all of your girls. Remember?”
“Even for Simi?”
So he did realize that there were differences between his daughters.
“For Simi, and for any of the other ones,” she said. She didn’t ask how she was supposed to help take care of a screaming baby when she had two jobs that she’d promised to finish by the end of the week. Simi would come, and she’d be warmly welcomed, and if she’d choose to be distant, as usual—well, that would be her choice. But she’d still be respected and treated warmly. Just like Mali would be warmly and respectfully welcomed if she’d decide suddenly to come home for Shabbos.