Hair Club for Women

sheitelSHEITEL (n): $3000 strawberry blonde hairpiece employed by Orthodox women to preserve short matted hair for their husbands’ sole viewing. – Ortho Diction

A few weeks ago a Facebook friend, known as Ortho Diction, shared a glossary of terms he created. One which I found particularly humorous was his definition (see above) of a sheitel. It’s funny because it’s true. Even those of us who try to maintain a healthy head of hair under our wigs, still end up with our “outside hair” looking better than our “inside hair” most of the time. When your hair is only uncovered in the early morning or late in the evening it’s all too easy to get lazy about styling a natural mane that never sees the sunlight.

Today I happened upon this older article by Frieda Vizel called, On women shaving all their hair. In her article, Vizel recalls a poignant memory of being forced to shave off her hair as a young hasidic wife. She details how the community used her son as leverage to get her to comply with shaving off a growing head of hair by threatening to expel him from cheder and warning another local school not to accept him if she tried to circumvent the system. In the end, she reshaved her head, but the event heralded the death knell for her membership in the hasidic enclave where she was born and raised.

Vizel writes –

“But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless, because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.

I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.”

What struck me about this quote is that the same vulnerability exists in non-hasidic communities too. While there are women who enjoy the mitzvah of hair covering, there are many who feel confined by it. I’ve read of frum women who waited a long time to find their bashert and see hair covering as a much coveted right reserved for married women. Some older singles look forward to the day when they will purchase their first sheitel/head covering with immense longing for its greater significance – that they will finally be married women. Hair covering separates the women from the girls in orthodox Jewish society.

However, many other women either secretly or outwardly make it clear that hair covering is, to put it mildly, not their favorite mitzvah. I remember going to a lecture given by a very yeshivish rebbetzin who spoke about her puzzlement regarding women’s complaints over keeping the laws of taharat hamishpacha. She was a kallah teacher and found great beauty in the laws governing intimacy between spouses. She said that if Hashem suddenly decided that we could eliminate one women’s mitzvah of our own choosing, her first pick would be getting rid of sheitels!

I have had conversations with so many non-hasidic women who are unhappy about having to cover their hair. They cover not for themselves but to comply with the standards of their families, husbands, in-laws, friends, shuls, day schools, or those of their general community.  It’s easy for the modern orthodox or yeshivish women who cover their hair to recoil in horror at hair shaving stories, since this is not the custom in those segments of orthodox society. Although the most common rationale I have heard for hasidic women shaving their heads is so that no hair will accidentally form a chatzitza (barrier) in the mikvah, one of the obvious reasons must also be because shaving a woman bald ensures that she won’t ever be tempted to remove her head covering in public. However, even orthodox women who don’t shave off their hair, find that after covering for a lengthy period of time, natural hair can become so unpresentable that they would also be ashamed to reveal it publicly.

Sometimes having ugly hair is by design. For example, one time a friend and I decided to create the perfect “hair covering haircut.” We did find it, but unfortunately, it was hideous. My husband was devastated when he saw my long wavy hair had been replaced by this kisui rosh cut, shaved up short in back and slanted down to near shoulder length angles on each side. The short shave in the back prevented “camel hump;” a common problem when wearing longer hair in a ponytail or bun underneath a wig. The longer front and sides allowed for wearing snoods and scarves without short pieces sticking out, the way they do when a woman has an all around short hair cut. It was a look that I would have been embarrassed for the general public to see, but it worked well on a practical level.

Another time, after growing my hair back out, I was working downtown and wearing a sheitel for many hours each day. The center comb that attached the wig to the crown of my head had worn away into sharp points. Since it was my only wig, and I was a busy working mom, I didn’t have time to get to a sheitel macher and get the comb switched out. I continued to wear the painful wig until it pulled out a small front section of my hair where the comb had left me with a scabby red bald spot. It was quite an attractive look, as you can imagine. Certainly it was a time in my life where I looked better in my wig than in my own hair. Eventually, after fixing the comb and deciding to purposely uncover my hair at home as much as possible to give my follicles a break from confinement, my scalp healed and most of my hair grew back into the irritated spot. That area is still more sparse than the rest of my hair; a reminder of the price paid for years of hair covering.

Ortho Diction’s definition of the sheitel is ironically true. Often, an orthodox woman looks better with her wig on, than with it off. Her husband, who should be seeing his wife at her best, often sees her at her worst. Just as hasidic women would be ashamed to reveal their bald heads in public (not so much because a married woman should keep her head covered, but because she would be ashamed of her appearance), likewise, many women from non-hasidic segments of orthodox society would be ashamed to reveal their matted and damaged hair to the public eye. Surely, the cliche about “saving our beautiful hair for our husbands” is proven false by this common reality.  Essentially, we all belong to the same hair club for women.

I made a commitment to myself several years ago that I would always make an effort to keep my own hair nice enough, that were it to be uncovered, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have it seen in public (at least not after a good wash and flat ironing). I want to cover my hair because I choose to do so, not because I have to do so out of shame over what I’m covering. Unfortunately, many of us are forced into continued hair covering, not only by community enforcement, but because we have ruined our hair by the practice. In this sense, we really are no different than the hasidic women we “pity” who shave all of their hair off.

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Sharon has two mommies – Throwback Thursday

I’m one of the only people I know who has two mommies.  My first mother (not necessarily in that order) is my adopted mother, A”H, who passed away in 1997.  I’ve been saying Yizkor for her since that time.  My second mother is my biological mother, A”H, whom I had never met.  She passed away last year, two weeks before I was reunited with my birth family.  I’ve also been saying Yizkor for her since last Yom Kippur.

I was thinking about how unusual my situation is as I stood murmuring the Yizkor prayer with my congregation on the last day of Pesach.  As I said the names of my two mothers, I thought about their strengths and weaknesses (concerning my biological mother, my musings were based upon second hand information).  I thought about how I couldn’t have been given life nor stayed alive were it not for the partnership between these two women who never knew each other.  Although they didn’t necessarily view it this way, they collaborated to make a person.

Below is a post I wrote in 2007 that memorialized my adopted mother on her 10th yahrtzeit.  Later this year will be her 17th yahrtzeit and my biological mother’s 1st yahrtzeit.

Princess Diana’s Yahrtzeit

candleI remember walking into the hospital room. I wasn’t sure if she would be awake or not. The past few days she had been in and out of consciousness. Although the room was dark, the hospital TV atop its ceiling mount flickered light across my mother’s sunken features. She didn’t turn her head until I came up to her bed.

She smiled when she saw me, her cheekbones stretching the thin skin into a shiny mask. The death mask, I remembered the phrase. She smelled different, like antiseptic or iodine. She had needles and tubes coming out of her arms and was attached to a heart monitor. She gave me her hand and I squeezed it, careful not to disturb the oxygen monitor on her finger, which reminded me of the thimble she used to wear when sewing clothes for me as a child.

“Did you see the news?” she asked. “It’s awful. Princess Diana was killed in a car crash.”

“I heard about it.” I said, turning my head toward the flickering TV set which was set to mute. My mother couldn’t hear without her hearing aides. I supposed the nurses had them as she couldn’t sleep with them in her ears. She could, however, read the tickers along the bottom of the TV screen, describing the awful car crash in Paris which killed the Princess and her wealthy boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. She could make out what I was saying if I stood close enough for her to read my lips.

On the screen was a dark Paris tunnel strewn with broken glass and crushed metal. The view switched to daytime in London, people crying and bringing bouquets to Buckingham Palace. They showed the gates piled high with flowers, cards, and banners.

“Do you want me to turn it off now?” I asked, both because she might be tired again and also because it was a depressing scene.

“Yes.” she said.

As I held her cool hand, I made chit chat about my day at work, about taking the baby to the park that morning, about Mr. Frumhouse and his hectic schedule. I told her about how I was feeling and how I had to drink one Slurpee on the way to work each day to ward off the nausea of morning sickness.

I kissed her goodbye, her skin like fragile paper beneath my lips. I told her I would be back tomorrow, as long as my in-laws could watch the baby. Before I left, I washed my hands. I stifled the urge to hold my breath until I reached the outer corridor of the ICU, knowing that it wouldn’t protect me from any illness. I was paranoid about going to hospitals with sick people while pregnant, but there wasn’t a choice in this matter.

Ten days later, the time came to mourn my own mother. Interesting how popular culture can affect your own life. I remember the english date of my mother’s passing, but rely on the yearly reminders from the funeral home as to when her hebrew yahrtzeit falls out. However, right before I get the mailed notice, there are usually media tributes remembering the death of Princess Diana. Although the Princess did many charitable works, to me, her passing is forever linked to the memory of my own mother’s deathbed. There were no bouquets and throngs of mourners at my mother’s funeral and shiva. There was a small crowd who paid their respects to a quiet woman who lived her life for her family and with a royal dignity. This year is her 10th yahrtzeit.

A solution to homosexuality that every Orthodox Jew can agree upon

chastityA male chastity belt used in England during the time of Queen Victoria in the 19th century.  This metal device was created for “masculine self-control in support of the bourgeois ideal of domestic life.” photo from bbcamerica.com

Celibacy. It’s an easy solution that was right in front of everyone’s face. Lifelong celibacy is the answer. Gay Jews can be out and proud and be accepted by a community comfortably assured that no rumpy pumpy is happening behind closed doors. This is the premise of an article I read this morning written by a gay orthodox Jew, who says that it is entirely possible and preferable for homosexual Jews to lead celibate lives. Of course, the article is written by someone who already sowed his wild oats in a formerly non-frum life, is now middle aged and no longer a hormone crazed teen or young adult, and who seems to be able to satisfy his need for male companionship through close friendships with chavrusas, community members, and the occasional non-sexual massage from a straight masseuse.

It’s a win-win situation all around, because our gay brethren can officially take themselves “out of the parsha” with a valid excuse and no longer have to endure the constant overtures of shadchans, pushy friends and relatives, and surplus female victims of the shidduch crisis. Gay men can openly admit to same sex attraction, while at the same time, assuring the rest of the community that, of course, such attraction is merely theoretical.

IF gay Jews were halachically permitted to date, fall in love, and marry other men, they would do so. However, since halacha never has and never will permit two men to be together in the same way a man and woman can be together, being gay is just a philosophical label. Practically speaking, no gay activity will ever happen in an orthodox gay man’s life. No heterosexual activity will happen either, which in this scenario of eternal celibacy, is the main purpose of “coming out.” To let people know to back off in terms of shidduchim or expecting a gay man to father children with a woman. It’s not going to happen – unless of course, there is a trace of bisexuality there that will permit these mitzvot.

Really, the solution to the “homosexual problem” in the orthodox community is to create a new subset of sexuality – asexuality. People who vow to never engage in sexual activity with anyone – not with the opposite sex (who they are not attracted to anyway, and who they would be lying to if they engaged them in a relationship without disclosing their true sexual preference) and not with the same sex (with whom they would be violating Torah prohibitions if they engaged in such a relationship).

Orthodox Jews can finally be “politically correct” in our open acceptance of homosexual (read “practicing asexual”) members of the tribe. The politically correct bandwagon isn’t something that we orthodox Jews often get to ride on in the 21st century. Here’s our chance to be trendy! We can feel good about asking an openly gay man to daven for the amud, give him an aliya, hagbah, or ask him over for Shabbos and yom tov meals. Heck, there might even be a rush to include homosexual Jews into services and into our homes to show just how accepting we are! As long as there’s no mailman knocking on the backdoor, it’s all good!

If you think that expecting lifelong celibacy (and for an orthodox Jewish gay man, of course that means masturbation as well) is cruel or inhumane, you are falling into the patronizing attitude common among the heterosexual population.  Don’t bring your own issues into the discussion! Just because YOU wouldn’t be able to keep it in your pants for the next 120 years, doesn’t mean someone else isn’t capable, dang it! If you doubt the word of a frum homosexual man that he is remaining completely chaste, whether through his own hand or the hands of others, than you are simply a judgmental person who has never learned to be dan lchaf zchus and maybe needs to go back to cheder for this basic lesson.

Chazal have said, “There is a small organ in a man. When it is well-fed, it is hungry. When it is starved, it is satiated.” The less you use it, the less you need it. Therefore, maybe we can all take a page from this new movement of homosexual, or practicing asexual, Jews. Perhaps it is holier for all of us to suppress our sexual urges, and do as Chazal says. After a certain period of starvation, we will all eventually lose our sexual urges, and be practicing asexuals – free from sin, free from discrimination or discriminating, free from our yetzer hara, and as an added bonus, free from needing contraception!

Gone Viral – Short Story

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.

“Shmuely! Shmuely!”

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.

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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.

“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

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Photo from charlottebrentwood.blogspot.com

Today’s post is a departure from my usual topics about Jewish life. I was invited to participate in a virtual blog tour discussing “My Writing Process” by Goldie Goldbloom at www.goldiegoldbloom.com.  Goldie is a writer, teacher, lecturer, activist, mother, Jew, and also a new friend! She asked me to answer the following four questions (a shout out to the upcoming Passover holiday, perhaps?).

1. What am I working on?

I am currently working on my blog, Kol B’Isha Erva, where I discuss social issues related to the 21st century orthodox Jewish community. Sometimes I write straight up social commentary, but often I use other literary devices as methods to get my point across. My 1 year blogoversary is today, and I hope to focus more on fiction writing in the upcoming year. I am considering publishing a book idea that I’ve been working on, called Oria’s Song, in serial form on Wattpad. I love working on short stories, but my dream has always been to write a long novel. I can’t seem to gain my footing on such a large project, so maybe breaking the story up into a serial form will make the achievement of this goal more manageable.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think my work differs in two ways. The first way it differs is because of the various mechanisms I use to get my point across – whether it’s Op-Ed style prose, poetry, satire, fiction, or even writing in a different voice that has readers questioning my very identity. The second way I think my work differs is that I am an orthodox Jewish woman critiquing the orthodox Jewish community. Most bloggers who are critical of orthodox society are male. While there are many talented female orthodox Jewish bloggers, not many openly criticize the leadership or societal norms of our community. The women writers I am aware of who give harsh critiques of the orthodox world have left the orthodox community. As such, they no longer have as much to risk by speaking out about its problems.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I started writing because of the polarization I saw happening within the orthodox Jewish community. I’ve been a part of the orthodox community for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen such division between the various segments of orthodox society. The right wing is moving swiftly farther to the right, the left wing is rapidly moving farther to the left, and the center is quickly being evacuated into nonexistence as people feel compelled to pick sides. Of course, as everyone is rushing to their opposite corners, no one is paying attention to those who simply abandon the game altogether. I suppose my writing is a way for me to digest current events and figure out where I fit in. Sometimes writing about these issues helps me to form an opinion. Other times, writing just brings up more unanswerable questions.

4. How does your writing process work?

It all depends on what I’m writing about. Sometimes I’ll read a news article that evokes an immediate passionate reaction. In those cases, I’ll feel inspired to quickly write a response in a stream of consciousness manner. Other times, such as when I’m working on a fictional short story, I will have an idea percolating in my head for weeks before actually writing it down. Sometimes I do background research, whether it’s a literature search, throwing out an idea on social media, conducting a phone interview, or even posting an ad on Craigslist and weaving a character or plot device from the responses. When the story finally comes together, I might work on it over the course of a few days, changing details and dialogue around, so that the characters have an authentic voice and the plot flows in a natural and believable way. I am used to writing with the expectation of a short turnaround time. That’s why working on a longer novel, with no clear end in sight, will be my next challenge.

Although I don’t have the same guidance as I did as a college student attending writer’s workshops, I enjoy the freedom of “going rogue” and writing about anything that strikes my fancy.  The road is wide open and all I have to do is pick a direction and step on the accelerator.