By Esther Rapaport
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.
Esther Rapaport is a prolific author whose novels include Diamond in the Rough, Divided Attention, Behind the Scenes, Without a Trace, Dance of the Puppet, Blood Brothers, and The Kenya Conspiracy. She resides in Israel.