Once, far away in the land of Great Shoulder, and not too long ago, lived an unusually spiritual lady. One day, as she sat sewing a white satin Shabbos dress for her newborn baby girl, she pricked her finger on a pin, and a drop of her blood stained the fabric. As she ran for cold water for the dress, she blessed her child with this immortal blessing:

"May my child have ways which are as pure as this satin is white, and may her blood flow with strength for joy and chesed."

Alas, within a month the young mother was taken from this world by a hit and run driver, and her husband grieved long and hard. But he cared for little Levana, for that was the child's name, and reared her with Torah and love and fun in their Great Shoulder mansion, and in time he was ready to seek a new bride.

A new wife was chosen, a woman who superficially resembled Levana's own mother, but a woman who had a heart of basalt and eyes of steel. Her name was Lily. Lily prided herself on her appearance. She loved her furs and her jewels and chic black slit skirts, and her favourite moment was that moment, which was almost ritual, when she would go down to the mall, enter the classiest boutique, and stand before the perfect full length crystal mirror.

"Am I not the most glamorous woman in Great Shoulder?" she would declare. "You are fabulous," answered the proprieter, who was fond of her custom. It was, however, true. In shul, all heads turned as she passed, with her long, dark natural-hair sheitels and permanently dyed eyelashes, lips red as rubies and an aromatic zephyr which trailed her everywhere. The women pursed their lips and their men dreamed.

Levana's father, understandably, left his superficial wife. He tired of her vanity, and inwardly pined for his lost love. Naturally, he sought to remove his daughter from Lily's vampish influence, but, as a result of her vile machinations in the court room he lost not only custody, but visitation rights too. Lily succeeded in poisoning the minds of the judge and the jury. She told Levana that her father had simply left - she was too small to understand. Later she told her that he had been hospitalized for clinical manic depression, nebach.

Lily employed a nurse to take care of Levana- she had no time for such trivialities- and she did not want grubby little hands to touch the expensive fabrics of her wardrobe. The nurse was a kindly soul and Levana soon recovered from the grief of the loss of her father and was reared in love and peace and balanced discipline. Then, insidiously, catching Lily unawares, Levana became a teenager, and she bloomed as a lovely flower in the forgotten shade of life's forest. When Lily went down to the crystal mirror, the proprieter gave her a shock.

"Lily, you are astonishingly beautiful as always, but why not bring your daughter here too? I'm telling you, that girl is stunning. She's a winner!"

"She is NOT my daughter!" breathed Lily, as she brushed by and exited in a storm of inner fury.

Lily secretly watched Levana sing and dance in her room. Yes, she was lovely. She was a fresh sixteen with perfect complexion, perfect bone structure and perfect figure. Her hair had natural gloss and her eyelashes were as long and fetching as a doe's. An ugly hatred began to fester in Lily's guts.The next day, to Levana's immense surprise, her stepmother appeared, and, with her cruel, sweet smile, presented her stepdaughter with a large box of chocolates. Levana accepted it graciously, and Lily withdrew, cackling in her mind, but Levana was wiser than she thought. The next day Levana donated the entire box to the local cheder, "to reward the masmidim," she said.

Thus several boxes passed along and the plan to ruin Levana's complexion was foiled. Lily then gave Levana a television to atrophy her mind and body, but Levana scorned the gratuitous violence, the casual licentiousness and the banal game shows- and the passive sitting, and busied herself with T'ai chi, serious reading and other self-improvement programs, and thus perfected her figure and her mind. She tended her hands with vitamin E. and ate sourdough whole wheat bread with plenty of fruit and vegetables and lean protein. She visited the old and sick with fresh-picked flowers and home-baked goods - she tended the injuries of children in the park and found homes for dumped kittens. She rose at 6 a.m. and retired at 9 pm, she sparkled amongst her friends, sang as sweetly as a nightingale and received straight "A"s in school. She made Lily feel extremely insecure.

Lily's negligible tolerance snapped when a salesman came to the door. She had just finished grooming herself for a Chasene. Levana was dressed most casually and was busy shampooing the carpet. He nodded to the older woman with cold respect, and then turned his cavalier smile and suave salespitch on Levana. She blushed, sweetly excused herself and ducked away, back to her work, but as for Lily... when basalt melts it turns to lava.

Within a week, the malicious plans were made. Levana received her one-way ticket to Eretz Yisrael, with promises of money and a return ticket in due time. However, Lily had no such intent. She planned to abandon Levana in the Holy Land with no cash - and relished the idea of the harsh Middle Eastern sun drying and cracking her soft skin, the hardships wearing and robbing her body of its youth; alone and surrounded by a foreign language, hostility from the enemy and scorn for immigrants from the natives.

Levana was fair overwhelmed by such generosity and thoughtfulness and clapped her hands with joy and hugged her step mother. She packed dreamily, singing songs of Zion and Jerusalem, and repeatedly thanked her benefactress. Lily held down her bile, and focused on her secret mirth. Soon, the great day came. Levana travelled to the airport with the chauffeur - Lily had a lunch engagement - and was soon flying via El Al to the promised land.

At Ben Gurion airport Levana was assailed by the sultry heat and various clamorous aromas. Palms and eucalyptus stood stock still in the harsh brightness of the day. The grass had turned yellow and brown, scorched and dried to tinder. It would soon be Tisha B'Av. Levana planned to daven at the kotel on that day, and she had enough money to get to Jerusalem and pay for hostel board for the first night. Then she was supposed to call collect to let her stepmother know of her safe arrival. Lily had supposedly arranged to wire money to an account in a Jerusalem quarter bank.

In truth her arrival had not been uneventful. Her baggage had apparently gone astray. She had waited at the conveyer belts for an hour, and then gone to check at the desk. Apparently there was no record of the baggage. It was as if it had never been checked in. But surely her stepmother had seen to that while she ate refreshments in the cafeteria? Ah, well, it must be a kapara. She described the missing suitcases to a helpful police officer and dismissed the matter from her mind for the time being.

She applied her sunblock and she climbed aboard an Egged bus. Soon she gazed at the pine-covered slopes of the Judean hills, and her excitement mounted. The holiest city, in the holiest land in the world! Such a privilege! Would the thrill and the wonder of it all ever leave her heart? She prayed not. She pulled out her siddur and said tefilas haderech and some Tehillim. Then she read over the parsha and thought to herself - this is the holiest book, read in the very land it promised! She gazed out at the hot, tired and thirsty turtle doves, lined up on the wires by the road. She noted the scramble of cypress and olive on weathered, eroded hills. Such a perfect land!

When she reached the Central Bus Station she immediately went off in search of a bus which would take her to the Old City. Since she only had to shlep her hand luggage, she felt much freer to travel. She was soon aboard the number one bus, and chatting gaily to some of the other passengers.

Two young tourists, Sandy and Karen, took her to a youth hostel - a seedy joint at the end of a winding, climbing alley off the Arab shuk. She satisfied herself that the place had a kashrus certificate, met the hostel proprieter, who was a pleasant, though laconic fellow, and paid for board with the last of the funds she had brought. Then she set about finding a telephone. Lily was not home. Levana decided to take a nap till supper, and try again later.

Then, with the help of a handful of eager Chayalim, she walked over to the Jewish quarter to find her bank. The personnel responded to her charm with solicitous phone calls and consultation, but alas- there was no record of any money wired from the States in her name. Tired and bewildered, Levana made her way back to the hostel.

After a refreshing nap she tried calling home again, but again all she heard was an unanswered ring. She did not wish to impose on the parents of any of her friends, and trusted that her stepmother was simply out on one of her social visits. She still had plenty calls left on her phone card. She spoke to the airport police about her missing luggage but they had nothing to tell her.

She did not know that Lily was laughing to herself over a pina colada in Miami. Levana did not know that Lily had played one of her nasty tricks, she had simply abandonned the suitcases outside the airport.

Supper was included in the night's board, so she enjoyed leben and salad and boiled egg; and shmooesed with Karen, Sandy and a few other tourists. They were charmed by her sweet smile and pleasant ways and she was intrigued by their adventures in Europe. In the high-energy atmosphere it was easy to forget her predicament.

She had no choice but to sleep in her clothes, as her nightdress was in one of her suitcases. When the lights were out she explained her situation to Karen and Sandy, who gasped in sympathy. Karen immediately offered to take Levana to a cousin she happened to have in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, who would surely let her make a direct call to any of her friends in Great Shoulder. Levana at first declined this kindness, but when Karen persisted she graciously agreed and felt very happy and blessed.

The next morning she showered, ate breakfast and tried to call home again. Nothing. She didn't feel so surprised this time. A sense of numb dread was building within her. She went along with Karen to her cousins, the Wallaces, who lived on a charming courtyard in the Jewish Quarter. Mrs. Wallace could not believe that a mere child of sixteen should find herself with such problems, and welcomed her with helpful warmth.

Her best friend, Masha Feldbaum, offered to call back immediately because she was delighted to speak with Levana, out there in Eretz Israel, of all places.

"Wow, you're in Israel! I can hardly believe it! I thought both you guys went to Florida!"

"Florida? What do you mean?"

"What do you mean what do I mean? Your Ma went to Florida - that's what she said, anyhow. Didn't you both go to the airport? Well, I guess I misunderstood. Where've you been? Are you going to Yad Vashem? It's nearly Tisha B'Av..."

"Thanks for reminding me. I should try to get there. Tisha B'Av is just tomorrow night and I want to be at the cotel. Masha - did Mother give any address? Did she tell you the hotel she would be staying at? She must have told someone because she knows I have to call her."

"Nope. Sorry. Well it's great to hear from you but I gotta run! Tatty showed up and we're going skating right now! Send a postcard! Don't get too much of a tan - it's bad for the skin you know! And don't forget to drink tons! Bye! Lehitraot, as they say!"

"Someone must know!... Someone has to... Ohh. Masha hung up." Levana sighed. "She went to Florida." she said, deadpan. "How can I reach her?"

Mrs. Wallace had an idea. She knew of a Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim who had a Gemach for clothes - and suitable good quality stuff, too. If she would hear Levana's plight she would surely give her the basics. Mrs. Wallace would certainly do her laundry, and meanwhile, Levana was welcome to sleep on the sofa. Levana bashfully accepted, at least for the time being, and convinced Mrs. Wallace that she could follow a map. She did not wish to trouble anyone to accompany her.

So it was that Levana found herself, lost and bewildered, hot and thirsty, on the streets of Yemenite quarter. It was the early afternoon and most people were indoors, two inches from their fans, bathed in perspiration and trying to nap, but Levana had not anticipated problems. The first, major problem was that Mrs. Wallace's map was drawn from memory and had no consistent scale. Misleading side streets and corners existed in reality but could not exist on the map. As a result, Levana wandered for some time, finding nary a soul to consult, and became increasingly dehydrated.

Finally she saw a door on a side alley which was ajar, and which seemed to beckon her. She knew she needed a drink; she did not have money to buy any of course, and no one had thought of such provision back at the Wallace's. Perhaps the kind people in the house could give her water, and also direct her to the Rebbetzin.

She called, but no one answered. She was encouraged to see a handwritten sign on the door in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. The lettering was very neat but the message was not easy to decipher. It seemed to be a series of references in Gemara - obviously a fool-proof communication code. Without a portable Shas to consult, Levana shrugged and entered the dingy apartment, calling softly. Silence. She soon saw that no one was home, but surely the residents wouldn't mind if she drank a little from the faucet? She cupped her hands under the running water and gulped gratefully till she felt better. Then she looked around.

Squalor. It was appalling. Damp covered the ceiling, obscured the upper walls and made deep triangular shadows in the corners. Empty yoghurt cartons, flecked with green, were stacked like lego on the counter. The beds were not made, of course, and a plastic jar of opened peanut butter stood on the kitchen table with a knife still stuck inside. It seemed as if resigned to an indefinite wait. Fruit flies swarmed like dots before the eyes. There were a host of even less savoury details which assailed her at every glance. Levana struggled with a desire to revolutionise the room and a qualm against intervention. Rachmanus won.

In two hours she had civilized the place to such a degree that the furniture seemed astonished. She had cleared out most of the spoiled food from the fridge and opened it to defrost. She had taken out about five bags of trash and discovered that the cats were very territorial and not so friendly. She had removed most of the crust from the sink, and decided that the remaining stone was a job for a dentist. She swept the floor, beat out the rug, turned the mattresses and sacked the dirty laundry. She even applied a layer of economica to the damp. She opened the windows and scrubbed the mugs when she had finally found the scotchbright supply. It had somehow made its way a dusty space behind the gas balloons. Then she sealed her invasion of the territory by placing a bunch of wild flowers into one of the beer mugs. That would make a nice centrepiece for the table, she thought sweetly. Then she lay herself down and crashed out on one of the beds.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey ho" said Yaakov Daitch from his shtender. He glanced around and caught the eyes of his six flatmates. They looked up from their Gemaras and groaned in unison.

"Do we have to go through with this?" That was Yonatan Grunfarb, the cynical English bochur in the black V-neck sweater.

"We agreed to it" smiled Simcha Freilich, "so we might as well get it over with."

"I'm not going back to that hole. I'm allergic to something in there." said Hershie Oppenheim.

"That's the whole point" said Daitch, pointedly. "We have to do something about our living conditions. We have to discuss a cleaning roster, on site and point-by-point. "

"Oh, what's the point." shrugged Grunfarb.

"Can't we just hire a cleaning lady?" yawned Moishie Shlofman.

"That would be a tznius problem." said Sidikman, automatically.

"For you, life is a tznius problem" retorted Grunfarb.

"Shut up, Grunfarb" said five voices in unison. At that, all six of the bochurim put away their sforim and started towards the door.

"It's because the sefirah of Yesod is caught in the sitra achra," pronounced Dorfman in a spacey drawl. Then, when he realized no one had heard him he sighed, put away his sefer and followed the rest of them out into the night.

Seven bochurim entered their dingy digs in the Yemenite quarter. A few moments later, seven bochurim re-emerged into the alley way, looking somewhat perplexed. Daitch tapped his index finger on the cryptic note taped to the door. "This is evidence that this is indeed our apartment," he pronounced, whereupon all the bochurim disappeared inside, a little more warily this time.

"We've been robbed! Cleaned out!" exclaimed Shlofman, gaping at the fridge.

"Who put those there!" Oppenheimer waved at the table with the flowers, horrified, and reaching for his kleenex to prepare for the worst.

Freilich chuckled, Grunfarb sputtered in indignation, Daitch narrowed his eyes and took a good look around, Dorfman stood in wonder, awe and vague contemplation of something obscure to everyone else, and Sidikman screamed and fainted.

The cause of Sidikman's distress was soon discovered - Levana had unfortunately chosen his bed for her repose. Shortly, her eyes fluttered open to see before her a row of seven black hats, seven pale faces, one slightly paler than the rest, seven pairs of spectacles and seven bobbing adam's apples.

"Ohh! I'm sorry, I guess, well, slicha, I'm leaving right now!" she stammered as she backed her way towards the door. As she retreated, Sidikman, already fleeing to the spiritual safety of the street, almost collided with her. The strange young lady was changing colours rapidly and looked about ready to faint herself. Freilich decided it was time for remedial action.

"Hey, relax! Don't feel so bad! I guess you needed the place to rest. I'm sure it happens all the time. Is there anything we can do to help you?"

Levana took a deep breath, and explained her situation to Freilich and Daitch. The rest of them were busy adapting themselves to their new environment - apart for Sidikman, who, it seemed, had taken a walk. Both bochurim agreed to escort Levana to the Rebbetzin's house. They saw Sidikman on the way but he pretended not to know them. The Rebbetzin insisted on Levana staying the night - she would not hear of a sixteen-year-old child returning to the Old City so late, despite the gallant offer of further escort. Levana called the Wallaces to let them know where she was, but for some peculiar reason did not tell them every detail of her afternoon. She was, after all, a very reserved and modest young lady.

From that day, Hakadosh boruch hu smiled on Levana Goldwasser. The Rebbetzin was so enchanted by her that she requested that she stay as a house help. Levana happily agreed. She was delighted to mop floors, wash dishes and take grandchildren for walks, and let them teach her Yerushalmi-style Yiddish. She involved herself in the Rebbetzin's numerous chesed projects and absorbed some of the older woman's tremendous and simple emuna. Daitch, who finally realized exactly what chesed Levana had done, however invasive, invited Levana to clean the bochurim's apartment once a week while the bochurim were in the Bes Midrash. He gave her a promise of a weekly stipend and a spare key.

Levana lived with the Rebbetzin for two years, helping with chesed in her modest way, preferring to stay in the background, out of the limelight. In her free time she would visit the Wallaces, meet with Karen and her friends at the coffee shops, daven at the kotel, visit kevorim or simply stroll around the walls of the ancient city, making picnics under the olive trees and gazing over the valley of cypresses and Sultan's pool.

She felt perfectly content. The rebbetzin was beginning to talk about shidduchim. Levana sighed to herself at the thought. Of course she wanted someone who was sitting and learning, but she didn't feel quite ready for marriage yet. She felt mature enough for marriage, but how could she support a husband in Kollel? She knew she had a fat account in Great Shoulder, but how far would that go? She contemplated options as she munched her fruit, gazing across at the Windmill. Word processing? Nah, too boring, not her calling at all. Nursing perhaps? Now there was an oppotunity. If she couldn't access her account in Great Shoulder to finance it she could use her immigrant rights. With her grades she could get into med school but it would take so many years to qualify. She played around with the options in her mind and smiled to herself in excitement. Hashem was so kind to her, she reflected.

Meanwhile, at her favourite Miami swank (kosher) hotel, a sour middle-aged lady was examining herself in the mirror. Lily Goldwasser was flossing her teeth, and she did not like what she saw. "Imperfections!" she muttered, despairingly, "How can I smile? I should just get rid of them and pay for implants. Look at that skin. I have to spend the rest of my days with foundation and concealer - there isn't an inch of real skin I dare let the world see! The skin under my eyes is started to sag... and the skin under my arms - not to mention other places. At least I never had children. I'm still ahead of those nebachs. Ay! Why can't I just let go?"

Levana came then to her mind. Fair Levana with her soft, youthful skin and large eyes, with whites still the hue of pearl ... and lustrous hair. Levana, dancing freestyle in her bedroom with such natural fluid grace - the mental picture tortured Lily every time she looked in the mirror - at least fifty times a day.

"I can't wait for time and the sun to destroy her! Soon she will find a shiduch! They will just fall over themselves for her! Well, no, not pretty little Levana. Oh, no. She won't have such nachas! Not if I can help it!"

By the next afternoon Lily was aboard a plane for Eretz Israel. She carried with her a poison for Levana. The poison waited within Lily's own mouth.

Strange things began to happen over the next few months. In time it was enough to make even cheerful Levana feel paranoid. The Rebbetzin, who was herself a shadchanit, raved about Levana to all her colleagues in the matchmaking business and recommended her heartily to all the roshei yeshivos, but there were no offers. Not one.

As Michael Blum turned the corner into the administrative corridor of Yeshiva Ohel Tzvi he was briefly disorientated by a waft of almost violently musky perfume. He soon perceived the source of the blast - a tall woman in a slit black and crimson dress and embroidered Spanish shawl was disappearing in the direction of his father's office. Intrigued, as he had never seen a flamenco dancer in a yeshiva before, he decided to follow and listen in through a chink in the janitor's closet - a secret that only the son of a rosh yeshiva would know.

"Yes, I really hope you can help me, Rabbi Blum - I'm here from America in search of my daughter, Levana Goldwasser. Poor child, here all by herself." Michael heard a muffled sniffing sound. "Levana Goldwasser? Why does that name ring a bell?" His inner question was cut off by the continuing monologue.

"You see, it's really most awfully tragic, Rabbi Blum. My poor Levana was involved in a car accident when she was just fifteen. She had terrible internal bleeding and needed a blood transfusion. It must have been then when she caught... when she caught..."

"Here, Mrs. Goldwasser, please have some kleenex. Would you like me to buzz for a hot drink?"

"No, no I couldn't possibly swallow a mouthful, I'm just so worried. I've tried all the women's seminaries, but no one's heard of her. You see, when she had the transfusion - I tend to be cautious. You know that all kinds of down-and-outs come off the streets to sell their blood for the banks, so I insisted that Levana have a blood test - just to set my mind at rest. Then, when we learned that she was HIV positive, she ran away from home. I heard from her friends that she'd borrowed money and made her way to Israel, but then she went incognito. Now I hope to find her by contacting all the matchmakers... you understand why I'm so concerned. You see, I really believe, in fact, I'm sure that she wants to deny that she has such a serious problem....she's so young, you see. I think you understand why I really have to tell you this awful information. I would hate to bring tragedy upon any of your bochurim...

"Please, Mrs. Goldwasser, I understand completely. I'll call for coffee, I'm sure you could use it now. You did the right thing to come to me..."

"She's not actually sick yet, Rabbi Blum, she's just an... an AIDS carrier, but that's just as bad... ohh, Rabbi Blum, I havn't seen the poor innocent child in two years!"

"Daitch! That was it!" thought Michael to himself, suddenly alarmed. "Didn't he say that a girl called Levana Goldwasser was cleaning their apartment for the past two years! Oh no! Was there a chance...? A cut finger on the counter, perhaps? Nah, it wasn't that easy to catch... "

When Michael looked up he could not help but notice the smirk of smug satisfaction on the woman's face as she emerged from Rabbi Blum's office. Michael had left the closet earlier - he had heard all he needed to hear, and could not bear all the snuffling and sobbing noises after the awful narrative. But now he narrowed his eyes and wondered. This lady was one good actress.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"No-o! Baila! Why didn't you tell me when you first heard? Does everyone know? I noticed the Roshei Yeshiva were a bit cagey about her, but they wouldn't tell me why. No one approached me, but matchmaking is just a small sideline with me anyway....Rabbi Blum said I should know? He has a good head, that's for sure. You say she knows... yes... no, she didn't tell me a thing... she's such a sweet girl too.... "

The Rebbetzin replaced the receiver and wept. "Ribono shel olam, I don't understand Your ways. I don't understand how such a sweet, innocent girl could have such an affliction... but I trust You. Somehow, I feel sure, this is all going to work out for the best..."

* * * * *

"...You see, I don't believe her. "

"Blum, you're not making any sense. First you tell me our house help has AIDS. Now you say you don't believe her. Nu?"

"You should have seen her face when she came out of Tatti's office! She was acting! She's been going around crying in the office of every rosh yeshiva and matchmaker in Jerusalem - and everyone believed her - and she was enjoying it! Why?"

"First of all - the Rebbeim are not permitted to actually believe her - but they still have to be cautious...

"Daitch, they're leaving the girl high and dry, without any proof one way or another!"

"Wait a minute! Of course there can be proof. You and I are going to make a few phone calls. Then we shall speak to the Rebbetzin."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"...No, I never had a transfusion, Rebbetzin. I never even had a major accident! The woman who approached those Rashei yeshiva must have been an imposter. My stepmother was always generous and considerate to me. But why would anyone want to cause me such problems?"

"I don't understand it, child. Some people have very sick, vindictive minds. At a time like this you must have bitachon - there is no real power in the world but Hashem, and whatever happens to you is from Hashem. So don't worry! Your shidduch was ordained in Shamayim, and one day you'll meet him - you'll see! Just trust me. Certainly, some women have to wait many years - but I have a feeling that your yeshua is literally just around the corner.

"Well, if it isn't Reb Daitch and, goodness! Aren't you Rabbi Blum's son? Come inside, come inside, young men. Would you like a drink? and here are fresh kuchen that Levana made..."

* * * * *

".....So, Rebbetzin, we think that all that is necessary is for Miss Goldwasser to be officially tested - we thought it better to have negative results from at least two different labs. My father approved the plan. There would have been no real need for Levana, I mean, the young lady, to suffer at all if this had been done in the first place."

"Young man, you are quite right. I was coming to the same conclusion myself..."

* * * * * * *

"Remember what I told you, young lady," said the tall, sinister woman in the long dark sheitel. "You make sure she gets a positive result. You do as I say, and you get the rest of the money - but if you try being honest, your career as a head lab technician is finished!"

* * * * * * * *

The next three days passed agonisingly slowly for Levana and her friends. She herself was not actually so worried, as she knew the results had to be negative - but shadchaniot all over Jerusalem were saying Tehillim and pestering the Kupat cholim with useless telephone calls. The grapevines in the Holy City pass information faster than a weasel on a caffeine overdose, and soon every young lady in every women's seminary was also saying Tehillim, though they were not, of course, privy to all the details.

Daitch and his flatmates were especially tense - although, as we know, there was absolutely no purpose in telling the other flatmates, it's amazing how one can rationilise loshon hara l'toeles. Grunfarb immediately examined all the sharp kitchen knives for traces of dangerous blood, and poured Economica on every suspicious surface. Most of the rest of them simply stayed away from the apartment, which by then was as chlorinated as a public swimming pool. Dorfman made some obscure remarks and went to visit friends in Tzfat. Sidikman had "I told you so" written all over his face, and even Freilich was uncharacteristically downcast.

After the three-day required waiting period, according to the little white petek, the Rebbetzin made her sombre appearance at the main kupat cholim clinic, looking her most respectable and wearing her best green velvet hat, only to discover that the results had to be shipped specially from a lab in Tel Aviv and might arrive the following Yom Rishon. The private labs were a little better as far as service was concerned. From the first, the Rebbetzin discovered that someone called Goldie Levon had diabetes. It took fifteen minutes to intimidate the clerk into making a more extensive search; but the negative result was happily procured. The second lab managed to garble the I.D. number and the management had to be consulted. The manager was actually out on army reserves duty and the assistant manager was busily trying to solve a sholom bayis problem of his cousin in Nahariya while eating his lunch. After twenty minutes of shouting advice and munching on yellow cheese he deighned to find the result - also negative. Now there remained only the national insurance clinic.

The rebbetzin returned home on Yom Rishon, brandishing a printout and smiling broadly. "Negative!" she proclaimed breathlessly as she maneuvered her ample girth around the doorway. Levana provided a chair with accustomed deftness and the Rebbetzin fell onto it with a blissful sigh. "Oy, my feet. It feels like yetzias mitzrayim! Let's call Rabbi Blum right away!"

After the triumphant call to Rabbi Blum, Levana phoned home. She was delighted and surprised to reach, finally, a most concerned stepmother. Lily had returned to Great Shoulder immediately after bribing the kupat cholim head technician, secure and confident in the success of her vile plan. After the request for money, which Lily turned down with great regret - ("all my assets are tied up in foreign investments right now, darling. I hope in a year I'll be able to help you...") Levana told her of the recent attempt at defamation - including the wonderful negative results. Lily displayed shock at such impersonation, blustered that she would sue the perpetrator of the foul deed, and congratulated her on her final success. She then excused herself saying that she had to attend an important sisterhood meeting, and ended the phone call abruptly.

Lily immediately dialed a certain number she had kept in her handbag since her visit to the labs. Susan, the chief technician, was soon on the line.

"Girl - you are finished!" hissed Lily without preamble.

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"The positive result you promised me, and failed to deliver!" shrieked Lily.

"Oh, that! Lady, I didn't promise you anything!"

"Don't think I can't carry out my threat!" she intoned ominously.

"Lady, I didn't bother to tell you at the time, but I am independently wealthy, and my father happens to be the President. I mean, the President of Israel, not of kupat cholim. I work here because I like it. I donated your money to the psychiatric department. Maybe you'll benefit from it someday."

* * * * *

After Lily had finished gnashing her teeth, she called her travel agent to make her usual reservation for Miami. She needed a little R & R after her latest spate of vile vindictiveness. She needed time to think a little - to regroup her energies...

* * * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Michael, the Rebbetzin and Levana were discovering a new source of frustration. Despite the fact that the AIDS threat had been eradicated, there were still no offers of shiduchim from any of the major yeshivas. It seemed that no one wanted to deal with a girl who could possibly be related to or closely associated with anyone as lacking in basic decency as Lily Goldwasser. Rabbi Blum did actually find a few worthy candidates, but their families made discreet inquiries, then abruptly backed out. The rebbetzin's relentless pleas to everyone concerned availed her nothing. Levana was still the most unwanted elligible maiden in the city.

For her own part, Levana refused to get downhearted. She did not help her position, however, when she insisted that the woman who had been acting against her must have been an imposter. Her step-mother was sweet, generous and sincere, she claimed, and could not possibly have said such things. This degree of denial and\or incredible naivite was just not accepted from such an otherwise intelligent young lady, however sweet, generous and sincere.

Michael simply could not concentrate on his studies, and was regularly and soundly chastised for his negligence. He found, increasingly as the days went by, that he would just stare at his blatt gemara, registering nothing, and then he would just leave the bes medrash in frustration. He took to roaming the city streets at night, even pacing the midrachov to calm his troubled spirits. The lights and laughter of the coffee shop and the performers along the way did nothing to soothe his restless spirit. Rabbi Blum was fast losing patience with the lad.

In the Yemenite quarter Levana paid her weekly visit to the apartment of the bochurim, squashed the cockroaches and brown recluse spiders with her usual happy vigour, banished the latest collection of leben cartons, sang softly to herself. She was still trying to decide between dentistry and ophthalmics and wondering whether to risk making aliyah right away to finance a course, or to wait till marriage. Perhaps she would marry an Israeli, and would need her rights to establish her home? The fact that the prospects of marriage seemed to be below the horizon of China did not deter her calculations.

The Rebbetzin lost 25 pounds in her relentless efforts to reason with reluctant parents of wonderful scholars, nervous Roshei Yeshiva and matchmakers who "did not want to take sides," and more than once lost her cool at Levana's continuing denial of the lurid reality. Later, when it was all over, she reflected that the weight loss was not at all detrimental.

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile, in Florida, Lily also wandered, restless, from one beachcomber barbecue to the next. She slept little - old accustomed jealousy and a certain fanaticism fueled her weary system. She was still the most chic woman of her age at the hotel, but she became bitterly more aware of that qualification - "of her age." Whenever she saw young girls of twenty, careless in their bikinis, she would turn away, a painful stab in her guts - and was unable to look into a mirror for at least three hours afterwards.

On one such mindless afternoon she found herself in a labyrinth of rambling exotic gardens. Escaped parrots cackled at her through the palms, and she cursed the humidity - not for physical discomfort, but out of dread at the likely effects it would have on her facial and her sheitel, and on the fabric of her new chiffon gown. She roused herself from her nightmarish thoughts as an older couple hove into view, moving painfully slowly. She heard them chattering before she clearly made out their features - in itself a challenge since the woman's face was almost a harlequin mask of colour.

She was fretting because her husband would not let her pick a peony to put in her hair. She called him a party pooper, and pouted petulantly and peevishly, and then began to break off to return to the hotel for a good sulk. He stood there in his bermuda shorts and baseball cap (with built-in fan), looking helpless and forlorn, but with a look of resignation - as if this were a daily charade for him.

In her mind's eye, and fully against her will, Lily saw the faces of the Roshei Yeshiva and the Rebbetzin-matchmakers she had conned in Jerusalem. She saw wise eyes; she saw wrinkles and concern. She saw age and mellowing and a certain richness of spirit. While she lied and performed, these venerable faces had become ingrained in her inconscious gallery, and they all came to visit her now, as she saw the scenario before her.

She was suddenly filled with inexplicable rage. She surged forward and planted herself in front of the aged couple, dressed garishly in their floral clothes, her face livid and dripping with perspiration, her entire frame quivering with her fury.

"What is the matter with you people! Why don't you act your age? Are you senile or what!? Why don't you grow up?! Look at you! Pathetic! Don't you have any self-respect? Where is your dignity? How can you get so far along in your lives and still act just like kids in second grade! You're more ineffectual than second-graders!" She found she was panting from her sudden exertion.

"Lady," said the old woman, suddenly calm, "Why don't you just go take a look at yourself?"

* * * * * *

Michael Blum, Daitch and the other bochurim piled into their Yemenite quarter apartment one spring evening, hot pizzas and greasy paper-wrapped plum pastries at hand. Michael looked around in appreciation.

"Nice place you have here."

"Thanks to Levana," said Daitch with a wry smile. "The place is habitable on Yom Chemishi. After motzei Shabbos it goes into a bit of a decline."

"Well, don't try to insinuate that nobody else does anything around here," Grunfarb remarked, somewhat petulantly. "I dumped hot water and detergent down the ant's nest again the other night. Under your bed, Freilich!"

"I wondered why my socks were so soft in the morning..." mused Freilich.

"Ahem... uh... I've been thinking about Levana, I mean, Miss Goldwasser," began Blum, a little distantly.

"Oh yeah, what's the chidush?" smirked Daitch.

"She's still kind of left high and dry." continued Blum, forcing himself to ignore several poorly-concealed smiles. "People are still nervous... you know how it is. She's such a - a high quality girl, great midos, great balabatishkeit and frum-from-birth and, well, rich... so I'm going to request a shiduch for her... for... uh... myself."

Michael's announcement was met by a moment of stunned silence. For a few seconds all that could be heard was the soft thud of water drips on a yoghurt carton, echoing like a heartbeat in the old stone room.

"Wow, mazal tov!" exclaimed Freilich. "Let's break a plate! Oh yeah, I forgot, Levana chucked all our chipped ones..."

"Are you out of your mind!" Grunfarb broke in, "she's from a dysfunctional family! She'll be in regular psychiatric therapy by the time she's thirty!"

"Does that mean she won't be able to clean our apartment any more?" asked Shlofman, plaintively.

"Aren't you worried about what people will think?" This was Oppenheim.

"I think you are getting a little carried away!" said Sidikman, decisively.

"You know, I tend to agree with Sidikman this time," said Daitch. "This is all getting a little heavy, you know what I mean? Did you discuss this with your father?"

"No. I... It's funny, but he never suggested the idea, and I know he thinks a lot of Levana, I mean, Miss Goldwasser. He's talked a lot with the Rebbetzin about her. No, I will speak to him at the soonest opportunity. Now if you don't mind, my pizza's getting cold, and I'm starved ..."

"It's the nefesh behemis, distracting the neshama from the true dvekus." said Dorfman, solemnly. Everyone gave him a brief but significant look - and then went back to munching their pizzas.

* * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, in Miami, Lily Goldwasser gazed out over the ocean. She had been staring for a long while, so that she had lost track of time. Now she was simply lost in a stream of consciousness - her mind reflecting the silver flecks on the waves. Soon it would be Purim ... soon it would be Purim... The theme started to flow across her awareness like a mantra. Thinking too deeply was too painful. Thinking at all had too many implications. Action had to be a catharsis, and now she knew what she had to do.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Purim! Jerusalem was already caught in the universal lightening of spirit, though Shushan Purim was still a couple of days away. Levana, the Rebbetzin and women all over the city were cooking and baking for the seudah and for mishloach manos. Freilich and his friends were busy rehearsing a Purim skit- (they were playing with the idea of a frum take-off of a Grimm's fairy tale).

Meanwhile Michael Blum closeted himself with his father for a series of heart-to-heart talks. Indeed, it was a curious thing, but Rabbi Blum had not actually considered Levana, that is, Miss Goldwasser, as a shiduch for his own son. The more he considered it, however, the more he liked the idea. After all, the dreadful Lily Goldwasser had not actually taken any meaningful part in raising her stepdaughter.

* * * * * * * *

In Miami, Lily worked like a zombie. She sat in front of her mirror, wiping, scrubbing, cleansing. Her mind felt disengaged - she focused only on the actions of the moment. Acetone. Alcohol. Soap. Water. She set aside the glamorous sheitel. She stripped away false nails and false eyelashes. She exposed the pallid, chemical-weathered skin.

Above all, she kept a lid on her mind. She did not wish to give way to the humongous guilt trip that was threatening to engulf her. She also did not wish to break down emotionally - yet... Even in sincerity, Lily Goldwasser was manipulative.

When she had finished she draped a dark green tichel over her flattened real hair, and a matching green shawl over her shoulders. She wore a frumpy floral dress, orthopaedic shoes and leg warmers. Comfort in the Florida sun was not the issue. She adjusted a pair of bifocals on her nose (in place of her usual tinted contact lenses), and then attended to her basket. She had acquired a large wicker-handled model for her purpose, now filled to the brim with shiny red apples and cake in polythene wrapping. Shalach Manos, traditional style. She covered the goods with a checkered gingham cloth. Then she shuffled out of the door, bent over in order to disguise her height and to suggest a degree of osteoporotic infirmity.

She made her way to a certain condominium.

* * * * * * *

Chaim Goldwasser was busy in his condo kitchen, stir-frying traditional Japanese food for his Purim seudah. He startled slightly at the knock on his door, and muttered to himself in irritation. His guests weren't expected yet. It must be Shalach Manos. He took the wok off the fire and hurried to the door.

He peered at the strange woman curiously. "Shalach Manos!" she announced with a shaky smile. Chaim shrugged,as he had failed to recognise her without her cosmetics and other gear. Deftly, he prepared a shalach manos package to send back. Then he took Lily's perfectly polished red apple and polythene wrapped cake and placed them on the table somewhat gingerly, as if they might be radioactive - he had a weird feeling about all this. The woman had not moved from the door, and that was making him feel increasingly uneasy. He also wanted to get back to stir-frying before the food had much chance to cool and absorb fat.

"Don't you recognise me?" asked Lily, in a shy voice, looking him straight in the eye.

"Nope. Never seen you before in my life."

"It's Lily! It's me!"

After a shocked pause Chaim's face darkened and an involuntary scowl distorted his mouth.

"Get out," he snarled, pushing at the door.

"No, please, I need to speak to you. Your daughter needs help. I can do a part of this, but it's not enough. I need you to come with me. She needs you. Please, I'm serious! Come on!"

There was such a desperate quality in Lily's voice that Chaim found himself opening the door again. Certainly he wanted to hear about his daughter. He became aware of a terrible anger growing within him against this woman, for neglecting his daughter and allowing her to reach such a desperate state - such a state that would actually cause Lily to come crawling to him for help.

She stood in his doorway and cried such hot and bitter tears. She heaved such long, wracking sobs that her shoulders and chest seemed close to collapse. He watched her, coldly and cynically, silently, till she was done.

"Where is she?" he asked in a monotone when she turned her red-rimmed eyes to him again.


"O.K. We'll book a flight. But remember- I'm watching you. And don't think I'm going to eat your apple either, you rotten hag!"

* * * * * * * * * *

When Mr. and Mrs. Goldwasser arrived at Rabbi Blum's yeshiva, they discovered that he had left to attend his son's vort in the Yemenite quarter. Lily insisted on heading directly there rather than waiting for Rabbi Blum's return. They took directions and went on a journey of discovery.

When tHey finally arrived, after many wrong turns and much bickering about the true meaning of the directions, most of the guests had already left. One bochur with a black V-neck sweater was sweeping up the crumbs and chips of plate, and whistling a cheerful tune as he worked.

Two young people sat at a rickety little table with a beer mug full of flowers, gazing into each other's eyes- evidently the newly engaged couple. When the new calla caught sight of Lily, she jumped to her feet and rushed into the older woman's arms. She had recognised her stepmother immediately.

"Mother! Oh, how did you hear! Oh, I'm so happy you could be here! I knew you loved me! I knew!"

Lily shed a flood of warm tears on her stepdaughter's shoulder.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Chaim and Lily did not remarry, but Lily became Ms. Leah Stern - reverting to her maiden name at long last. She opened an orphanage in Great Shoulder, and became known for her warmth and wisdom in due course of time.

Mr. Goldwasser moved into an apartment with his daughter and son-in-law in a pleasant charedi Jerusalem neighbourhood. The apartment had everything a young married couple might need, as Leah had spared a good part of her considerable fortune to buy and furnish the place, despite the projected costs of the orphanage. She also financed Levana's medical education, as well as living expenses for the family in Israel for the next seven years.

Michael Blum became a talmid chacham and magid shiur, slated one day to be rosh yeshiva after his father retired. Levana Blum became a gynocologist, much to the collective joy of charedi women all over Jerusalem. She had an enormous clientelle within a week of opening her own clinic, and was able to pay back her step mother sooner than anyone could guess.

Levana had seven little children - all boys. Zaidy Goldwasser was a terrific cook and entertained the kids while their mum was studying or working.

- and everyone lived happily ever after.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © 1999 Gila Atwood

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