By Esther Rapaport
Chaiky awoke in the middle of the night feeling tense. That wasn’t particularly surprising, because she spent a lot of nights tossing and turning sleeplessly. Still, the feeling that was disturbing her now was almost tangible. Something was choking her throat, her neck, her shoulders, and her head, and she knew that it was the thoughts.
She washed her hands and went to the kitchen, checking on the way that the door to the house was locked, the porch door was locked, and the shades in the dining room were drawn. Everything was in order. The house was so quiet she could hear the children’s even breathing all the way to the kitchen. It wasn’t the dishes piling up in the sinks for three days that was disturbing her sleep. This wasn’t the first or even the fifth time this had happened over the past few weeks. So what was it?
She walked over to the corner of the dining room, to the sofa, her regular perch of late. The bottle of mango juice was still on the table. Maybe she should put it in the fridge? Yes, that would be a good idea.
Still, Chaiky didn’t move. She stared at the bottle and the full cup standing there, as though her two guests had left the house just a moment before. That indiscernible feeling choked her throat once again.
Noa. That was what this feeling was about.
Something about that visit was far too strange; she’d decided that last night already. But the new and alarming thought that popped into her mind now was that Elka had brought a social worker into her house without her knowledge. Perhaps Menachem was even involved, or her mother-in-law. If Noa wasn’t a social worker coming to check the way the house looked, or the mental condition of the residents there, then what was so interesting, for example, about that Clics prison cell that Dovi had built?
But the thought was almost stranger than the encounter itself: there was no reason to have to bring in a social worker in such an underhanded way. And besides, why would Elka be the one to bring her? Who had put her up to it?
Maybe some good people from the community had come together and decided to find out exactly what was going on in her house?
There was no reason for them to do that. The children came to school each day, dressed fine. They had food in their lunch bags, and Naomi even usually remembered to do her homework. So the house was messier than usual–so what? She had seen upside-down houses in her life, especially homes with working mothers who had high-pressure seasons. She couldn’t even call her house neglected, thanks to Sebilia, the cleaning lady her mother-in-law kept sending.
Unless her mother-in-law had become alarmed by the descriptions Sebilia gave her. Because if she described in detail how the house looked every time she arrived for her three hours weekly, then it really was quite worrying. Sebelia really didn’t think that Chaiky was much of a homemaker at all. Last Monday, she hadn’t been embarrassed to declare, “Mrs. Chaika, if you don’t wash dishes all week, at least put some water and bleach on them until I come.”
The insult wasn’t even accurate. She did wash dishes every so often, and they also ate off disposable dishes a lot. But there was still an accumulation, because she was usually too lethargic and listless to actually walk over to the sinks and start doing something with the buildup there. Who really cared? The children didn’t take an interest in how the kitchen looked, and she had other things to worry about, too many other things. Every woman had stronger times and weaker times, and to think that someone would send welfare officials to her just because the house wasn’t functioning in top form was a foolish thought.
Yes, it was a foolish thought and nothing more.
Chaiky looked at her watch and rose from the couch. It was three-thirty in the morning. She couldn’t call her mother-in-law now to find out if someone in the family had sent Noa to her home. But she also couldn’t go back to bed, because there was no way she’d fall asleep now.
Somehow, Chaiky found herself standing in front of the fleishig sink. It was already Friday; they would probably be spending Shabbos at home, so it would make sense for the kitchen to look reasonable.
Half an hour later, both sinks were empty, albeit not gleaming the way she usually liked them. Maybe she would tackle that later in the day, after the cooking. Or maybe she could start cooking now? Did she have ingredients? She didn’t think so.
She opened the freezer tiredly and pushed aside the various bags of frozen schnitzel that filled it. Was there any chicken here besides all the soy, vegetable, and corn schnitzel?
A neat stack of labeled boxes stood behind all the bags. “Grilled chicken and prunes,” “gefilte fish slices,” “salmon in sweet and sour sauce,” “green beans and carrot sautÃ©,” “coffee cake,” “pumpkin soup,” and “chocolate mousse.”
Who had put all these boxes here? It certainly hadn’t been Elka or Noa. So who was it?
It wasn’t her mother-in-law; she hadn’t shown her face in Chaiky’s home for nearly three months, which was understandable. Her own parents? This wasn’t her mother’s regular Shabbos menu. Her mother cooked carp slices, chicken soup with vegetables and noodles, roasted paprika chicken with potatoes, and compote. And besides, when would her mother have put the food in her freezer? When she and Chaiky’s father had visited two and a half months earlier? It didn’t make sense that Chaiky wouldn’t have noticed it until now.
Had someone sent this from the yeshivah kitchen? Who exactly? The rosh yeshivah’s wife? That also didn’t make sense, and the food hardly seemed to be typical yeshivah kitchen fare.
Goldie, her sister-in-law? That was more logical. As Shlomo’s oldest brother, Menachem felt responsible for what was happening with the family. He and Goldie had come a few times, and usually brought with them some cooked food for lunch and supper. These pretty, neatly packed boxes were certainly Goldie’s style, and it made sense that she was now sitting and waiting for a thank you call from Chaiky. Well, obviously not right this minute, but in theory, she must be waiting for that…
Chaiky shut the freezer door with a thud. A thank you! It was obvious that Menachem and Goldie were waiting for a thank you, but to open her freezer and stick things in without first finding out if she was even interested in any of it–that was quite irritating. What was this? An effort to atone for the extended family’s role in this affair? Why didn’t they first ask her if she wanted this food? Why did they think that if Shlomo was not home, she couldn’t cook? Had he been the one who usually prepared the food for the family? Did he do the shopping?
But Chaiky knew she had no choice. She had to call and be gracious, because even if someone was guilty, it certainly wasn’t Goldie. Perhaps she would call on Motzaei Shabbos, when she could also compliment Goldie about how delicious everything had been. And maybe at the same time, she could nose around to see if they had any idea who Noa was. She’d never heard of anyone getting a social worker into a house in such a convoluted way, so it was highly unlikely that this theory was anything more than some ridiculous nighttime musings. On the other hand, if they thought she was unable to run her household herself, and couldn’t even cook up a simple Shabbos, then it was very possible that they would try all sorts of courses of action…
Perhaps Dovi or Naomi had told Menachem what they had eaten last Shabbos?
“What’s doing, Menachem?”
“Baruch Hashem. Ima, have you been in touch with Abba?”
Dina Struk switched the phone to her other ear. “Not since yesterday afternoon. I think you were the last one to speak to him.”
“Yes, after his meeting with that Russian lawyer, nu, what’s his name…the one the Jewish community there recommended?”
“Right. Since then I don’t have any updates.”
“No, then I don’t either.” She looked behind her to make sure that her youngest children, the twins, were not standing in the kitchen doorway. “Menachem, have you been in touch with Chaiky over the past few days?”
“She keeps sending the kids to answer the phone when I call, or no one picks up. Goldie actually suggested again that we invite them for Shabbos, but there was no answer when she called. When I called and inquired gently about Shabbos, Dovi said that his mother didn’t know yet where they would be. Do you think we have to beg?”
“No, but I do think that you and Goldie need to continue to offer.”
“We’ve been offering and inviting for two months already.”
“And she agreed once.”
“Right, out of eight times, she said yes once. It frustrates Goldie; you have to understand her, Ima.”
“How much do we have to ask?”
His mother was silent. She herself could hardly speak with her daughter-in-law, so she really had no right to say anything on the subject.
“I wanted to do some shopping for them also, and Goldie even suggested that we send them some food for Shabbos if that’s what they’d prefer. But Chaiky sent a message through Dovi that they don’t need anything. So what more can I do, Ima?”
Yaakov and Yisrael, the ten-year-old twins, entered the kitchen at that moment. “Ima, Dovi didn’t come to cheder today,” they said in unison.
“One minute, Menachem,” she said into the phone. “What do you mean, Dovi didn’t come?” she asked the twins worriedly.
“We went to visit him during recess, and his friends said he didn’t come today at all,” Yisrael said.
“A week and a half ago, he was also absent once,” Yaakov pointed out.
She looked at the two devoted uncles. “Listen, boys,” she said with a sigh. “Dovi is allowed to be absent once in a while. You don’t have to keep such a close eye on him, alright?”
“Yes, but when he didn’t come a week and a half ago, he said the next day that it was because he was too tired. For no other reason–he was just too tired,” Yisrael murmured.
Dina Struk sighed again. “Did you hear, Menachem?” she spoke into the phone again to her oldest.
“Yes, I did.” His sigh was as deep as hers. “But there isn’t much we can do about this. We’re not going to send a social worker to the house to see if it’s functioning, or anything like that. Do you want to call and ask delicately how Dovi is doing?”
“That’s all I need, that she should think I’m sending the kids to keep tabs on them. As it is, we hardly speak. You know, she hasn’t told me this clearly, but she blames us for what happened, and I’m not so sure she’s not absolutely right.”
Yoel called on Sunday morning, half an hour after she’d sent the children off to school. They had been late, which was recently happening quite often, but it was still better than Friday, when she’d been unable to get up on time after her sleepless night, and both children had ended up staying home.
Something unpleasant rippled through her when she saw Yoel’s number, but she knew she’d pick up nonetheless. She only had one younger brother. She only had one brother at all.
“Chaiky, how are you? Everything okay?”
“Baruch Hashem, fine.”
“How was Shabbos?”
“Nice, thanks.” She couldn’t suppress the coolness in her words. The taste of their argument last Monday was still there–bitter, sour, and irritating.
“I thought of popping in to visit you today.”
“The question is, if you want me to.”
“You know I’m always happy when you visit, but…” Again Chaiky found herself in the corner of the sofa, near the round cushion.
“Not like last time,” she whispered.
“Was it so embarrassing?”
She didn’t know if he was being cynical or not, so she answered simply, “Yes.”
“Well, if you prefer I don’t come, then I won’t,” he said. She didn’t know if she was imagining the trace of satisfaction in his voice, or if it was really there. It was likely that his visit to her last week had left him with some unpleasant feelings as well. It wasn’t only her. And it wasn’t because the trip from Haifa to Yokne’am took longer than five minutes.
But what could she do? She felt so frustrated. His lack of understanding was astounding. He was no fool, her younger brother, so what had been so hard for him to understand?
It was Monday, and she didn’t know he was planning to come. He’d driven up by surprise a short time after the cleaning lady had left. Even before seeing him, she heard the voices outside. She had been trying to take a nap, but Rabbi Pesserman’s children had been playing outside, and the noise had disturbed her rest–another one of the drawbacks of living on the ground floor. Suddenly she heard a car stop, and one of the little Pessermans asking, “Are you the mailman?”
“No,” a familiar voice replied with a laugh, and she had leaped out of bed. Yoel had come? Without telling her in advance?
“So who are you?”
“I’m the Struk kids’ uncle.”
“How can you be their uncle if you have that shirt and a knapsack like the mailman?” The Pesserman child suddenly fell silent. Apparently his older sister who had been watching him suddenly realized what was happening and pulled him over to her–and she was standing right underneath Chaiky’s window.
“Yoni! We don’t speak to strangers!” she’d chided her brother.
“He’s not a stranger! It’s Dovi’s uncle! Even though he looks like the mailman with that green shirt, and he almost doesn’t have a beard, he has a yarmulke! I saw it!”
“So what?” his sister cut him off. “We don’t talk to people we don’t know, and now, come play nicely in the backyard.”
Chaiky heaved a sigh. Too bad they hadn’t thought of the backyard an hour earlier. There would have been a double gain from that: She would have been able to rest a little, and they wouldn’t have met Yoel, her brother who looked so different from what was accepted in this community.
She had watched him cross the entrance path to the house, his large canvas satchel hanging over one shoulder, and just then Rabbi Pesserman himself, the rosh yeshivah who was also her neighbor, walked out of his home. He nodded slightly at Yoel and continued on his way to yeshivah. Chaiky knew she had to go over to the door now, and welcome her brother with a smile, and marvel at his surprise–but she didn’t feel able to do it.
Biting her lip, she’d hurried to the door anyway and opened it just as he began to knock.
“Hello, sister dear!” he’d said, strolling in naturally and setting his bag on the floor. “Wow, this bag is heavy. At least the car schlepped it most of the way.”
“Good thing.” She didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but the effort not to was too much.
“Hey, it’s really clean here! How are you, Chaiky? Where are Naomi and Dovi?”
“Oh, too bad. I brought them a few treats. When are they coming home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did they go?”
“To one of their uncles.”
“Okay, so call them up and tell them that a different uncle came over for a surprise visit, and they should come home quickly so they could see him.”
“It’s not so major.”
At this point he had looked at her with hurt in his eyes. “What’s not major, for them to see me? Why? What happened?” he asked as he put his keys into his pocket. “Is everything okay?”
“You know that it’s not, and now it certainly isn’t.”
“What happened now?” He picked up his satchel and put it on one of the chairs, taking a seat next to it. He realized that he would apparently not be invited to sit down.
“And that’s not okay?”
“Not like this, Yoel, not like this!”
“What’s ‘like this’? With gifts for the kids?”
“Don’t play dumb,” she snapped angrily. “I mean, all this…your clothes. You couldn’t come dressed regular, less…” She groped desperately for the words. “Less different? And exactly when the rosh yeshivah and his whole family had to see you with this shirt and that messy bag of yours?”
“Actually, this messy bag has some things that will make you very happy,” he said, moving his yarmulke back and forth on his head.
It really wasn’t nice of her. Her brother had made the effort to come visit her, and this was the welcome she was giving him? “Thank you,” she said, trying to sound conciliatory, “but that’s not the point.”
“So what is the point?”
“The embarrassment, Yoel. You have to understand me.” Just now she realized that the door to the house was open. Wonderful, so all the Pessermans in the yard were partners to their conversation, just making it all the more humiliating. Couldn’t Yoel have closed the door behind him when he came in?
“As if it’s not hard enough for me,” she said quietly, stepping forward and closing the front door, knowing it was too late anyway. “As if I’m not talked about enough; as if they don’t ask my children enough ridiculous questions; as if they don’t look at us through narrowed eyes to begin with. I have enough hardship, don’t you realize? Why couldn’t you come with a normal shirt, instead of giving people even more to talk about regarding my life?”
“This is my normal shirt. And if that’s the way it really is, maybe it would be better if I leave.” He stood up.
Chaiky sighed. She had gone further than she’d meant to. “No. Please, at least take a drink of water.”
“I don’t need any water, thanks. My sister has already doused me with enough.” After a second he added, “You have enough hardship, I know. I also have enough, in case you didn’t know that.”
“What are you talking about?” Chaiky asked, walking into the gleaming kitchen that Sebilia had left behind. Yoel stood at the door.
“The story with Shlomo is no secret, you know? And what do you think, that my secular friends at work haven’t asked me about it?”
“How do they know that he’s your brother-in-law?”
“I told one or two of them.”
“That’s too bad–you shouldn’t have done that.”
“Oh, so you also say it would have been better for me to hide the fact that he’s my relative, huh?” He raised his voice a bit. “But I don’t believe in that kind of thing. For me, even if a relative doesn’t act exactly the way I want him to, I still respect him and his way. I wish you would learn to be like that, too.”
“So what did you tell your secular friends?”
“They began to attack me, saying that chareidim are like this and like that, and that things aren’t all that rosy with them either–and I heatedly defended my dear brother-in-law and told them all that he’s a great guy and I don’t believe a word they’re saying, and that it’s all lies and slander.”
She stood facing the sink, even though it was presently empty. Behind her back, she heard Yoel opening the refrigerator, feeling right at home, like he usually did.
Chaiky swallowed. Enough. She wasn’t being fair. Yoel had acted with good will–he had gone out of his way to come and visit her. She had to stop this argument already. “Do you want to drink something, Yoel? Eat something?”
“I told you already, no. You don’t have cold water anyway.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Are the kids coming back soon?”
“Only after supper, I think. My brother-in-law took them so they shouldn’t bother the cleaning lady.”
“Too bad. So I won’t wait for them. Give them regards and let them look around in this bag; we bought them all kinds of things.” He set down a bag emblazoned with the logo of a large toy store.
“That’s really nice of you. Tell Shifra thank you very much also.”
“Yes, but it would be better if we wouldn’t be nice–I shouldn’t have come in the first place, huh?”
“I’m always happy when you visit, Yoel,” Chaiky whispered. “You…you just don’t understand…”
Almost a week had passed since then, and now Yoel was calling as though nothing had happened.
“Are you going to work today, Chaiky?”
“We’ll see.” It was Sunday. If Sebelia would come again tomorrow, the house had to be a bit more presentable than it was last week. Especially since it was possible that every detail of what went on in her home was being relayed to her mother-in-law. “I have a lot of work to do at home.”
“That’s how it always is after Shabbos. How was Shabbos, by the way? You were home, Ima tells me.”
“Nu, so how was the food?”
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.