Shmuel hurried to get dressed. It was a few days before Pesach and his house was in full holiday preparation mode. His oldest sibling, Shaindel, had actually made a sign for the front door that said, “Warning! Construction Zone Ahead!”
As Shmuel navigated his way to the bathroom, he thought that the construction sign wasn’t a joke. Rubbermaid containers littered the hallways with old clothes, mismatched toys, and actual chometz that had been found in the bedrooms. Inside the bathroom, chometz soaps, deodorants, cosmetics, and cleaners were lined up along the sink waiting to be tossed out or locked up and sold with the other non Pesadik products.
Shmuel spit out the remaining toothpaste from his mouth, just as his brother Benji called his name from the hallway.
“Perfect timing.” Shmuel thought, reaching for a towel.
“Morning, Benji!” Shmuel said, as he stepped out of the bathroom and put his arm around his brother’s shoulders.
“We’re going shopping today Shmuely! Mommy said we’re going shopping today!” Benji was practically jumping with each step toward the staircase.
“Yep! You and me are going to fight the crowds to buy Mommy’s shopping list so she can finish cooking. Pesach is only three days away!” Shmuel smiled as Benji clapped his hands in delight. Shmuel knew that Benji had probably been awake since dawn. Benji often rose at the first hint of daylight, quickly dressing and remaining perched on his bed in restless anticipation until the rest of the house woke up.
Pesach was Benji’s favorite holiday. He loved asking the four questions and hiding the afikomen. Even though Benji, at 22, was four years older than Shmuel, he never lost his childish outlook. From the time Shmuel was a young boy starting cheder, he was like a big brother to Benji. The doctors had never given Benji a clear diagnosis. They only knew that he was developmentally delayed, but couldn’t say why.
Shmuel’s parents said that Benji’s condition was a result of a virus that their mother contracted while she was pregnant. That way, the community would know that Benji’s condition was not genetic and people shouldn’t worry about marrying the other kids in the family, who were all, Baruch Hashem, fine. What happened with Benji was a random tragedy that could happen to anyone, God forbid.
On the outside, Benji looked like everyone else. If someone saw him sitting on a park bench, they would assume he was there with his wife and kids, maybe learning a shtickle gemara while his family enjoyed playing on the swings. However, upon closer inspection, one would see that Benji wasn’t holding a gemara in his hands, but rather, his tzistzis strings. He would roll them between his fingers, twirling them into knots, rendering them non kosher. His rocking wasn’t a shuckle of prayerful ecstasy, but a rhythmic motion accompanied by groaning, to soothe himself in the open air.
Open spaces made Benji nervous. He preferred the indoors, which was why going to a store suited him. He needed walls to feel contained, so that he wouldn’t fly away in the wind. Benji thought that the wind was Hashem’s vacuum. That’s how people died. When Hashem saw them walking outside, he would suck them up to shemayim in his vacuum. Benji wasn’t ready to be sucked up yet. He wanted to stay down here with his family and have Pesach.
As Shmuel and Benji descended the staircase, a warm aroma of cinnamon and orange danced in invisible spiraling ribbons toward their noses. Benji ran to the kitchen, knowing that the scent could only mean one thing. Mommy was baking her famous Pesach sponge cake. A few cakes were cooling on the counter and Benji put his face up close to breathe in the heavenly fragrance.
“Mommy, can I have piece?” Benji begged. “Please, Mommy? Just one piece?”
“Benji, zeiskeit, you know that we can’t have any matzah before the seder. These cakes have matzah meal. Here, have some of the non gebrokts brownies. There’s no matzah in them.” Mommy adjusted the slipping turban on her head, matzah cake meal flour sprinkling the sleeves of her housecoat.
Benji’s face clouded over and reddened the way it did when he was about to have a tantrum. He eyed the prized sponge cake through squinted eyes, and opened his mouth as if he were about to say something more. Before he could speak, Mommy went over to him and put her hands on his cheeks. With a smile and sparkling eyes she said, “Do you know what Mommy bought for her Benji? Kosher L’Pesach chocolate milk!”
Benji’s sour expression changed to a wide grin. “Where is it? Can I have some? Thank you, Mommy!” He broke away from his mother’s caress and made a bee line for the refrigerator.
“It’s on the the top shelf, bubbeleh. Of course, you can have some now. What, do you think I bought it for myself? I bought it for my Benji!” Mommy got Benji a cup as he wrestled the cap off of the milk at the kitchen table.
Mommy picked up a piece of paper and walked over to Shmuel, who was making himself a cup of instant coffee. “Darling, here is the list of things I need today. I would go to KRM Kollel and see if you can get everything there. If not, maybe go to Gourmet Glatt. I hate to make you shlep around.”
“It’s not a problem, Mommy.” Shmuel said as he pocketed the list. “I’m happy to help.”
In a hushed voice, Mommy whispered, “Please keep a close eye on Benji. I have a doctor’s appointment with him over chol hamoed. Something’s going on with him. He’s been doing things when we go out that he shouldn’t.”
“What things?” Shmuel asked. He had been away at yeshiva for the past few months, and only returned yesterday for Pesach vacation.
“I don’t like to say. It’s not nice. I’m just asking you to keep an extra eye on him, ok?” Mommy looked down at the scuffed kitchen floor, and pushed at a chipped tile with her slipper.
“Sure, Mommy.” Shmuel looked at Benji, who had a chocolate milk mustache from his first cup of milk, and was pouring himself a second cup. “Finish up, Benji. It’s time for us to go!”
Seeing Shmuel heading to the front door, Benji gulped down his milk, shoved his chair back from the table, and began a mad dash after him.
“Benji, tatteleh! Go to the bathroom before you leave and brush your teeth.” Mommy said.
“Mommy, I already went!” Benji whined.
“Go again, zeis. You’re going to be gone awhile.” Mommy said.
“Benji, you heard Mommy. I’m not going anywhere without you. I’ll wait.” Shmuel said.
Benji trudged up the stairs, looking behind him to make sure that Shmuel was a man of his word.
“I’m still here, Benji!” Shmuel said with a smile.
After Benji came back down the stairs, there was another few minutes of negotiation to get him to put on his trench coat. He only agreed after seeing Shmuel put on his coat as well. “I’m anxious for the weather to get warm again too, Benj! Maybe over chol hamoed we’ll finally be able to go out without our coats.”
As they stepped out into the brisk air, there was the feeling of industrious purpose all around. Men in black trenchcoats, practically identical to those worn by Shmuel and Benji, walked quickly with plastic bags filled with silverware to be kashered for Pesach in giant communal vats of boiling water. Girls pushed strollers teeming with younger siblings, getting them out of the house so that their mothers could cook and clean uninterrupted for a few precious hours. Women half stumbled down the street, weighed down with shopping bags, already thinking about what temperature to pre-heat the oven and hoping that the soup pot hadn’t boiled over while they were gone.
Benji walked at a quick pace, and Shmuel had to grab his hand to stop him from getting too far ahead. Benji often went shopping with Mommy, and knew the way to the store by heart. “Wait, up, Benji!” Shmuel said. “Your legs are too long and I can’t keep up with you!”
Benji smiled, “You’re too short, that’s why!”
Shmuel laughed. Benji was a good two inches taller than Shmuel.
“You got the height, I got the good looks!” Shmuel teased.
Benji laughed and tugged Shmuel’s hand to go faster.
When they finally reached the store, they had to wait in an impromptu line to get a cart. Even at 8:10am, only ten minutes after their opening hour, it was busy. Benji dashed off to the side to grab a red hand basket.
“We don’t need that.” Shmuel said. “I’ll grab us a cart in a minute.”
Benji held the basket protectively away from Shmuel. “I want it! I want to carry some of the groceries myself!”
“Fine, fine.” Shmuel said. “Keep it.” It wasn’t worth a fight.
Benji smiled and started walking into the crowd with his basket cradled in both arms.
“Wait up, Benji!” Shmuel called, a cart finally in his possession.
At the sound of Shmuel’s raised voice, a few shoppers turned their heads to look at him. He put his head down and quickly wheeled the cart over to his brother, who was looking at bags of marshmallows.
“Shmuely, can we get, can we get?” Benji asked, simultaneously tossing bags of mini marshmallows into his red basket.
“You can get two bags, Benji. It’s not on Mommy’s list, but she told me last night that you can buy two treats. So, this is it.” Shmuel knew that in another few steps Benji would see something else he wanted.
“Ok, Shmuely! This is all I want.” Benji smiled in delight, looking at the cheerful picture on the Marshmallow bag.
“Pickled kolichel…” Shmuel read off the list. “Ok, Benji, we have to head over to the deli counter.”
Shmuel started off toward the deli, the wheels of his cart squeaking and turning pell mell, as he fought to steer it straight. As he turned down the aisle that led to his mother’s corned beef, he realized that Benji wasn’t behind him. Retracing his steps, he found Benji putting packages of jelly fish and little heart shaped jelly beans into his basket.
“Benji, you already picked your two things; the marshmallows. Remember? If you want these candies you have to put the marshmallows back.” Shmuel said.
Shmuel’s words had startled Benji out of his joyous reverie, collecting candies in the red basket. He forgot he could only pick two things. His brow wrinkled worriedly over this difficult choice.
“How about one of each? One bag of marshmallows and one bag of jelly beans?” Shmuel suggested.
Benji smiled. “That’s a good idea, Shmuely. You always have the best ideas!”
Shmuel quickly put back one bag of marshmallows and all but one bag of jelly beans. “Benji, let’s put your basket in the cart. There’s something wrong with the wheels, and I’m having trouble pushing it. I need you to push the cart for me, ok?”
“Sure thing, Shmuely!” Benji said, proud to be asked to perform a task that Shmuel was having trouble with. Benji was an expert cart driver. His mother said so whenever they went shopping together.
With a few distractions along the way, Benji and Shmuel slowly snaked through the aisles and completed their mother’s grocery list.
“High five, Benji!” Shmuel said, as they stood in the checkout line. “We managed to get Mommy’s entire shopping list at one store!”
Benji slapped Shmuel a high five. Waiting in line, there was an irresistible selection of batteries, mini flashlights, and kosher L’Pesach bubble gum. “Shmuely, can we get, can we get?” Benji asked as he pulled down some batteries.
“No, Benji. We don’t need those.” Shmuel was growing impatient at how slowly the checkout line was moving. A woman was trying to return a raw chicken that she had bought the day before.
“Smell this!” she said to the cashier holding up a package of raw chicken, whose plastic seal had been broken. “It smells spoiled. Can’t you smell it? Would you use this chicken?”
The cashier was paging the manager.
Meanwhile, Benji was fidgeting, shuffling his feet and leaning on the cart so that it inched forward.
“Ouch!” the woman ahead of them in line looked back angrily. She reached down, and massaged the backs of her ankles, encased in dark beige hose. “You pushed your cart into my legs!”
“I’m so sorry! It was an accident.” Shmuel apologized, his face getting hot.
The woman eyed them suspiciously, and tried to move as far as away from them as possible in the confined space, which wasn’t far enough.
“It wasn’t my fault! The cart is broken! Shmuely even said there’s something wrong with the wheels! Shmuely said!” Benji was breathing hard at the perceived criticism.
“It’s ok, Benji.” Shmuel said in a hushed tone. “It was an accident, the lady knows it was an accident. I told her.”
“But I didn’t do it!” Benji protested. “It was the cart!”
At this speech, the woman turned around. “Carts don’t push themselves! Just be more careful, that’s all!”
Benji’s face turned splotchy red and his eyes looked like they were about to spill over. Before he could say anything, Shmuel said, “Benji, it’s nice and sunny outside. We don’t both have to wait in line. Why don’t you wait for me outside the store. You can see all the people going in and out. When I’m done here, we can divide up the grocery bags and go home.”
Benji loved to watch people bustling on the sidewalk from their living room window. Maybe he would be entertained for ten minutes watching the customers go in and out until Shmuel could finish paying for their groceries.
“Ok, Shmuely. I’ll wait outside.” Benji suddenly felt an urgency to leave the store.
“Great. I won’t be long. Stay right out front and don’t go anywhere!” Shmuel instructed.
Benji walked out and smiled into the sun. He gasped as a crisp breeze suddenly slapped his face. The wind blew stronger and he began to feel nervous. Hashem must have his vacuum turned on. Shmuel told him to wait outside, so he couldn’t go back in the store. Benji walked a few steps and saw an alley with a large green dumpster. That could shield him from the vacuum. Hashem wouldn’t see him hiding behind the dumpster.
Benji walked over to the large metal structure and placed himself between the brick wall of the store and the dumpster. The voices of the people on the sidewalk seemed to grow quiet. He felt like he was alone. He also felt that same urgency below his belt that made him want to leave the store when Shmuel asked him to. He had to make pishy. Even though he made when Mommy told him to before they went shopping, he had to make again. No one was around…no one would see.
At the checkout counter, Shmuel quickly shoved his wallet back inside the back pocket of his pants. He pushed the cart, gaining momentum with every rusty turn of the wheels, and scanned the crowd near the entrance for Benji. He was nowhere to be found. Fighting the immediate panic that crept up from his stomach to his throat, Shmuel continued to push the grocery cart outside.
A store employee called after him, “Hey, sir, you can’t take the carts outside! Sir!”
Shmuel abandoned the cart and started running, first to the left and then back to the right, shouting, “Benji! Benji!”
Shmuel noticed a small crowd gathered a few feet away and he walked over with a sinking feeling. People were pointing and laughing. Two women in short wigs and pillbox hats were shielding their eyes and saying “Oy gevalt! Someone stop him!”
A man with a salt and pepper beard was shouting at someone, as yet unseen by Shmuel. As he approached, Shmuel saw the crowd was gathered around a large green dumpster. An arch of yellow urine was splashing against its sides. Oddly, Shmuel thought of a fountain or a monocolored golden rainbow. The creator of this unseemly work of art was standing, unabashed, a short distance away from the dumpster against a brick wall backdrop. His confused face turned to the outraged mini mob, as if he couldn’t imagine what they were doing in his private space.
Shmuel broke through the crowd and shielded Benji with his body. “What are you doing?” Shmuel hissed.
“I have to make pishy!” Benji anwered. What seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea a few moments ago, now looked like a bad plan. He had made people angry. Although, some people were smiling and laughing. They were even holding up their phones.
“Stop it right now! We don’t go pishy outside. You know that!” Shmuel tried to keep his voice calm, as he grabbed Benji’s hands away, getting urine splashed on his shoes in the process.
Keeping his back to the crowd, Shmuel put Benji’s clothing back in order, and quickly hustled him through the observing crowd.
“You should be ashamed of yourself!” The man with the salt and pepper beard yelled.
“We took your picture, you pervert!” a teenage bochur yelled out as they passed him. “We’re gonna put fliers up!”
“Please, don’t!” Shmuel half whispered, as he passed the boy. “He can’t help himself. He’s sick.”
The boy gave him a quizzical look, and then looked at Benji. “He looks ok to me!” The boy glanced over at his friends, who were looking at something on a cell phone while hooting and hollering.
Shmuel took Benji by the hand and scurried over to his cart, which was being hauled back inside the store by one of the grocery clerks.
“Wait! That’s my cart!” Shmuel called out, his breath coming in shallow pants.
“Good thing you came when you did. I was about to put everything back on the shelves.” the clerk responded.
Shmuel quickly took out the bags, giving over a few to Benji, who gripped his charges tightly. Shmuel didn’t know how many people had seen Benji and he didn’t want to find out. With his head down, he said, “Let’s go Benji. Come on!”
“Are you mad with me, Shmuely?” Benji asked, practically running to keep up with Shmuel now.
“No, Benji. I’m not mad. You just shouldn’t have done that. You know that, right?” Shmuel asked sadly.
“Mommy told me not to. I forgot. Mommy’s gonna be mad with me. Are you gonna tell Mommy?” Benji’s eyes looked wide and nervous.
“I don’t know, Benji.” Shmuel said. “Let’s worry about it after we get the groceries home.”
Shmuel and Benji hurried the rest of the way home in silence.
When they came home, Mommy cleared a space for them on the kitchen table to put down the bags.
“My boys are back! Did you get everything at KRM?” she asked.
“Yes, Mommy. They had everything we needed at KRM.” Shmuel said.
When Benji made a trip to the hallway to retrieve more bags, Mommy asked in a whisper, “How did it go? Any problems with Benji?”
Shmuel hesistated. He didn’t want to give Mommy any more tzores with everything she had to do before Pesach. Maybe now wasn’t the time to mention what had happened.
“It went ok.” Shmuel said.
Mommy looked relieved. “Good! Now bend down. What, your Mommy can’t give you a kiss on the keppeleh anymore! Just because now you have to bend down for me to do it, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it!”
Shmuel smiled and obligingly bowed down so that his mother could give him a kiss on top of his head, the way she used to do when he was a young boy.
“I’m going to wash up, Mommy,” Shmuel said, as Benji came back in the kitchen and heaved a few more sacks of groceries on the table. “I’ll be back to help you peel potatoes in a few minutes.”
As Shmuel went upstairs, he heard Mommy and Benji in the kitchen. “My big helper! I’m so proud of you, Benji! What would I do without my Benji to help for Pesach!”
Shmuel remembered his soiled shoes and took them off on the staircase. In the bathroom, he rinsed them in the sink and set them to dry in the bathtub. After soaping down the sink, he went into his room to change clothes. Grabbing his phone out of his pocket, he saw several messages. He opened them and saw the same heading, “Crazy chasid!”
Opening the first message, he saw a video file. Pressing play, he watched in horror as his brother Benji appeared on film, urinating against a dumpster. It seemed that hundreds of people had shared the video, and the numbers were growing.
“What a shanda!” one person commented
“This is hysterical! Typical chosid!” another person said.
“Isn’t he supposed to be studying in the beis medrash!” an astute viewer pointed out.
“The result of many generations of inbreeding, ladies and gentleman.” an anonymous critic proclaimed.
Seated at the edge of his bed, Shmuel bent over until his head was between his legs, his hands over his eyes. He didn’t know how long he stayed in that position, but his agonized meditation was broken by the sounds of sobbing in the kitchen.
Quickly, Shmuel took the stairs down two at a time, worried that Mommy might have cut or burned herself cooking. He found Mommy and his sister Shaindel looking at Shaindel’s phone. The kitchen was filled with a man’s angry voice hollering at Benji, people gasping in shock, voyeuristic laughter, all coming from the phone’s speaker. Although Shmuel couldn’t see the screen, he knew they were watching a visual recording of the scene Shmuel was trying to forget. Benji stood near the sink, a contrite and fearful look on his face, as Mommy cried with a hand clamped over her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to hold in the sobs, her Pesach preparations all but forgotten.
This story was inspired by a video clip I saw on someone’s Facebook page. It was a short viral video of a chasidish man “watering” a garbage can in an alley. People (other Jews) were laughing and using him as an example of what disrespectful and crazy people the chasidim are. A few people spoke up and said that this man is known around town as a “nebach case” who suffers from mental illness. He can’t help himself. It made me sad to think how there are mentally ill and intellectually challenged people who can’t take care of themselves or perhaps have no care givers to watch them. How sometimes the “candid camera” photos and videos that go viral and make people laugh are of folks who suffer from mental health issues. It’s really cruel.