Broken Things| April 3, 2023
What does that feel like, to be at peace with your lot in life, even if that lot is standing at the corner of Kikar Shabbos and Malchei Yisrael on a cool Jerusalem morning, annoying everyone within a ten-mile radius?
I won’t open the door. I sweep right up until the doorframe and then stop, so I’m nose to nose with the light pink wood. For a nanosecond, I envision flinging it wide open, then standing aside, so the ghosts and memories and dust swirl past me, leaving the room… empty.
I stay there for a moment, lost in time, broom dangling limply in my hand. I startle when it clatters forward, knocking into the door.
Stupid broom. The light pink wood now has a thin scratch on it. I rub at it viciously but it won’t budge.
I need to go to the hardware store. This minute.
Twenty-eight minutes later, I’m standing in the paint section, looking at swatches.
I want to be at the grays, comparing Pavestone and Dovetail. I should be at the grays. But instead, I’m at the pinks. Rosy Outlook, that’s the color. I remember debating with Aryeh the merits of Millenial Pink and Faint Coral before we agreed on Rosy Outlook. Shvil hazahav if you will.
I stare at the swatch, clutching the handle of my wagon. I want to move, to ask a worker to help me load my cart with Argos. But instead I’m crying, surrounded by the happiness of bright colors.
I stop at Beauty Express on the way home for a manicure. I park in a side street near Rechov Yaffo, hope I don’t get towed, and jump out of my car, already rejuvenated by the mere thought.
I hesitate outside the blackened windows. They’re covered for privacy, but they remind me of covered mirrors. See, I’m not supposed to be getting manicures. Not halachically, of course. Socially. Society has decided on my behalf that I must crumple into an unkempt, desperate huddle, sink onto the floor of my home, never to brave the sunlight again.
I keep my sunglasses on and enter. Lila comes bustling to the front.
“Sheeeera! Metukah! Pick a color, yes?”
Ahh, the irony. Apparently today is all about those color choices. I pick up what I think is Marshmallow and take a perfunctory glance. Baby’s Breath. I shudder and drop it; thankfully it doesn’t break.
“Do you have Marshmallow?” I ask. She nods, maybe alarmed at the pitch my voice has taken. She leads me to a chair and begins rubbing my shoulders.
And I know, with utter certainty, that if she continues being so nice, I am going to shatter into one million pieces in her nail salon.
“I need to go,” I squeak.
She doesn’t stop. She needs to stop. I feel my pain slipping and sliding its way to the surface. This can’t happen.
“Selichah, Lila!” I squeak, and I run from there before my pain can crawl out of the fireproof box I’ve locked it in.
So much for self-care.
I think about what I can do that will make me feel taken care of and decide on takeout dinner. Kosher Krysp has a good hechsher these days, no points for classiness, extra points for affordable. I blast Ishay Ribo on the ride home, snack on some fries. They taste like tears.
I bump into Aryeh in the lobby of the building.
“Yum,” he says by way of greeting. “Pastrami hot dog?”
I wink. “On a pretzel bun.”
He pumps his fist. “Yes!”
We laugh and enter the elevator. See, we’re normal. We’re okay.
“Glad you did something nice for yourself,” he says as we enter the apartment. I smile and toss my wig over one shoulder.
He doesn’t have to know about the can of Rosy Outlook in my car trunk.
I want to punch something. The pastrami dog from hours earlier is still stuck in my throat, dry as sandpaper. I have no idea if it was good or not. Halfway through, I’d wanted to vomit, just have everything come pouring out so it won’t sit and sit and sit inside me along with everything else.
Shira is washing dishes, on the phone with her sister. How does she do it? How is she laughing, chatting about the Pesach hotels of her youth, the Granit and that one in Connecticut?
I look at my phone as it rings. That will be 33 missed calls as of this afternoon. I’m going for a record; when I reach 50, I’ll shave. Eh. No, I won’t.
But it’s Ma. Of course it is. I pick up.
“Hi, Ma, what’s doing?”
“Aryeh, sweetie, how’s it going?” She’s using that measured tone that makes me want to put my fist through a cabinet. I don’t hang up. Kibbud eim and all that.
“Baruch Hashem, and you?”
“How was yeshivah, sweetheart?”
Her breathing gets deeper.
“Aryeh, we’d love for you to come back. Come, stay in the basement suite, it’d be so good for… uh… Daddy. You know, he’s so bored these days, he doesn’t know how to enjoy retirement. He could use the company.”
Sure. Dad needs company like I need another pastrami dog.
“I’m sorry, Ma. I need to finish the zeman here. Commitments to my chavrusa….”
I trail off. Ma’s big on commitments. Her breath turns ragged. Time for me to hang up, too bad I’ve lost the best excuse in the book.
I guess Shira is my backup.
“Shira needs me. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
And I hang up on my mother.
I go looking for Shira, half hoping I’ll find her in the room. But the light pink door is firmly closed, and Shira’s curled up on the couch with a magazine. She gives me the slow smile that means she’s dragging herself out of an imaginary world.
I sink into the recliner. “That was Mom. She wants us to come home. To run away. Like because we… lost her… we need to leave everything behind, and start over. Can you believe that? Shira? Isn’t that insane?”
But she’s looking down at her magazine again. I can’t see her face from this angle.
“Sorry, Aryeh, I’m really trying to just like relax and have some me time.”
And she doesn’t look up again until I leave the room.
Shivah was the easy part. I didn’t have to speak. I could just sit there, holding a crumpled photo of Chayala, and cry. Never mind that I haven’t cried since I broke my arm snowboarding when I was 14. The tears wouldn’t stop during those seven days, and I welcomed them, each one a tiny release from the pain stabbing my insides.
But once we’d gotten up, stretched, walked around the block, the tears stopped. And now it’s just me, slowly dying of heartbreak. Alone. I know Shira, I know her pain. I hear her tears in the night, the sobs through the bathroom door. But the fact that she won’t let it consume her… I can’t understand that. If anything in life should consume you, this should be it.
He went into her room again last night. I woke to find his blankets on the floor, but I didn’t look for him.
I think what it would be like to join him.
Is he on his knees by her crib? Is he lying on the rug, crying? I could do that. Sink to the floor, looking, searching, for a whiff of baby powder, a tinge of that lavender lotion I’d slather on her after her bath. Flushed cheeks, wide eyes, gummy smile… I breathe in deeply, shuddering on the exhale.
No. I’m not. I won’t. I can’t.
Flicking on the nightlight, I reach for my Kindle. Time to zone out. A little Anne of Green Gables or Cheaper by the Dozen comfort. Something classic, something light, and something far far away from here and my husband and the scratched light pink door.
“Have a great day!” She hands me a muffin in a yellow paper bag. Such a Shira move. No plastic baggies for her, everything is cute and mindful.
“Thanks.” I grin at her and give a little salute.
The smile is gone by the time I reach the elevator. And after I pass a garbage can on the street, so is the muffin.
Jerusalem traffic is bustling, taxis beeping, hasaot short-stopping. And everywhere I look, tatties are taking their children to gan.
I eavesdrop on them.
“Sari, you’ll use the bathroom at morah, let’s run.”
“Kaila, you’re going to learn parshah! It’s going to be so much fun.”
“No, Binyamin — stop before the street!”
The last one registers, and I half-tackle the blonde boy headed straight into the Sderot Eshkol morning traffic. The panting father grabs the toddler and hugs him close.
“Yasher koyach,” he says sheepishly, pumping my hand.
His is trembling.
I force the corners of my lips upward.
“Lots of nachas,” I say, then walk away as fast as my legs can carry me.
I enter Beis Yisrael, and it’s like I’ve burst through an invisible barrier. I instantly feel calmer. I close my eyes, listening for the kol of talmidei chachamim that fills the streets if you know how to listen.
But what I hear is not the kol Torah.
“Kol mi sheyesh lo smartphone hu kazeh miskein, mi sheshover hu Yehudi kasher….” The jaunty tune of the anti-smartphone regime is catchy, and I hum along. My neighbor Chezky walks by.
“Aryeh! You want me to give up my smartphone? For you, I’ll do it.”
He whips a kosher 3G Nokia out of his pocket and waves it at me. We laugh, and he rushes off to his chavrusa. I watch him turn right, with purposeful strides.
Yeshivah is to the right. The music is coming from the left, closer to Shmuel Hanavi and Geula.
Go right, I tell my feet.
Nope, they reply. I turn left; the music is louder. I pass one shopkeeper rolling up the metal grate on his storefront.
“Meshugaim,” he mutters, gesturing toward the two guys holding up large signs on the corner. I shrug and keep walking.
“Kol mi sheyeish lo smartphone… Everyone who has a smartphone is a nebach. Everyone who breaks it is kosher.”
The next store is a smartphone store. The salesmen inside look both annoyed and nervous about the singers camped outside.
I think about stopping, talking to the storeowners, asking them how they feel in the face of such protest. “Do an Aryeh” is what Shira used to call the out-of-the-box sense of adventure I used to be so proud of. Something flickers, interest maybe, or excitement, but it fades just as quickly. I pass the store silently.
The music is louder, the men in sharper view. The one holding the sign has his arms stretched upward like Moshe Rabbeinu; the other’s eyes are tightly closed as he sways back and forth. The swayer must be at least 50 years old, though his movements are young and spry.
I want to talk to them, to ask why they do this, why they throw sand and expect it to turn into bullets; their efforts are probably fruitless. But they look so content. That’s the thing that throws me. What does that feel like, to be at peace with your lot in life, even if that lot is standing at the corner of Kikar Shabbos and Malchei Yisrael on a cool Jerusalem morning, annoying everyone within a ten-mile radius?
I look at my watch, still so shiny, so new. Ten-fifteen. Poor Mendy. Long-suffering chavrusa that he is, he’s absolutely refused to dump me, despite the fact that the guy holding up the sign against smartphones would probably make a better chavrusa than I’ve been lately.
Yeshivah calls out to me. I can still make it there and have a long, full seder. The idea is so tempting, so rose-colored.
I look at the black-and-white sign. The guys are packing up, lifting their 1995 boom box and walking down to Meah Shearim. Yeshivah will have to wait.
I wake up and know: today is the day. Aryeh is still at Shacharis, he’ll be home in ten minutes, and then I’ll have until one-thirty. He one hundred percent cannot be home during the process, although I’m going to have him be the one to bring the bag to the gemach.
He needs to be a part of this. It’s necessary.
I wait for him to leave clutching the yellow paper bag with a muffin. He looks like a third grader. I need to get regular plastic bags.
And then I’m alone in my empty apartment. Just me and the walls. Ninety-two days ago, there had been an entire ecosystem here: an Exersaucer and swing and Gerber Puffs crumbs, burp cloths and a Diaper Genie and wipe warmer, a bottle tree and scrub brush. And the clothes. Tiny little things, hanging and folded and draped. And it’s all waiting for me, in the storage room, next to the suitcases. Ma had packed it up during shivah. And today, Aryeh is going to bring it all to a gemach. He just doesn’t know it yet.
I enter the machsan, breathe in deeply, and splutter on the scent of damp and mildew. The boxes are there, in the back, airtight and weatherproof and so benign-looking.
I can do this. I can do this.
I can’t do this.
I turn, leave, head for the kitchen. I flick on all the lights, the heater, the ceiling fan. Anything to make noise, create warmth, and somehow, cover the gaping hole in my life.
I bake brownies.
Aryeh notices only later, after supper.
“Did you go to the machsan?” he asks, taking a brownie from the Lucite biscotti tray.
I nod, then shake my head, my sheitel flicking me in my made-up face. I’d tried a new contouring trick before work. It’s amazing, I now have high cheekbones and sun-kissed skin.
He puts the brownie down.
“Come. I’ll go with you.”
I look at him, at the brokenness all over his unshaved face, at the searing pain in his wide brown eyes. I swallow the rising bile.
“I can’t,” I whisper. “I’m sorry.” And I flee the room to wash off all the prettiness.
I knew she wouldn’t be able to go through with it. But it’s okay, I get it. I haven’t been to yeshivah in two days. I follow the smartphone guys around town instead. It’s become a bit of an obsession, and I’m very aware of that. I don’t actually care though.
I want to know what makes them tick, what goes through their minds as they stand there, enduring society’s ridicule. Why are they so stoic, so sure? Who do they turn to, who infuses them with the passion to carry out their misguided mission, day in, day out?
I’ve followed them, but they just stand there, and I need to get home for lunch. Today I park myself under the Brizel’s Bakery sign, watching them. They’re on the corner. The guy from the first day is back, the 50-year-old, accompanied by a much younger man. They’re both swaying, eyes closed, faces set in a silent plea as the song reverberates around Geula.
Kol mi sheyeish lo smartphone….
And then the older guy says something to the younger one and turns and heads down a side street.
And before I can ask myself what’s happening to me, I’m following him into the recesses of Beis Yisrael.
He’s walking briskly, it’s all I can do to keep up. After around eight minutes or so, he disappears into a small building. I hesitate just for a second — too far down the rabbit hole now — and then I walk in as well.
I feel like a spy who discovered the villains’ lair. It’s obviously the headquarters for the anti-smartphone establishment, that much is certain.
I enter a large room, and in the center is a platform with a hammer on it. Scattered around the floor are broken pieces of what used to be smartphones, I guess. I step forward… and the man steps out of the shadows.
“You followed me here,” he says.
It’s not a question so I don’t answer, just shrug.
He smiles at me, and I can’t tell if he’s really kind or really unwell.
“Welcome to the yeshivah.”
I look around at the altar, the hammer, the smashed phone. There are no seforim or siddurim to be seen; although to be fair, this is just an entranceway.
“The ‘yeshivah?’ ”
The man nods, his smile wide, accepting. “Yes. The yeshivah. I am Chaimke. You are?”
I hold out a limp hand. “Aryeh.”
He shakes it like he’s the president, firm and gentle. It’s a great shake.
“Aryeh, wait here. I’ll get the Rebbe.”
I perch on a Keter chair, suddenly exhausted. The room is hot and stuffy. I want to close my eyes, slide into oblivion, but apparently, I’m about to meet a rebbe.
And then there they are, Chaimke and a man with a long auburn beard, auburn peyos, and blue eyes that glint in the dim lighting.
His voice is musical, lilting, and I understand how a request from this man can make someone go stand on the street corner in the morning chill.
“Aryeh, you found us. Baruch Hashem.” His English is stiff, formal.
I nod, uncertain. Was I looking for them? Only in a snooping, curious, half-mad way.
He seems to know what I’m thinking. “You may not have been looking, but you were searching.”
And just like that, I’m tired of him.
“I wasn’t searching.” My voice is jagged. “I was running away.”
He nods patiently.
“Yes. To us.”
Now I’m angry.
“No,” I shout. I stand up; he’s taller than I am. “No,” I say again. “I was running away because my baby… she died. And now it’s just me and my wife and this horrible, claustrophobic quiet. And I can’t breathe there.”
I’m crumpled on the chair again, crying.
“Reb Aryeh.” The Rebbe’s hand is on my shoulder. “Reb Aryeh, sometimes we are the most broken just before we are the most whole.” And while I know that his words they don’t really mean much, I can’t help feeling comforted by them.
“Come,” he says. I stand, drained.
“Today, Reb Aryeh, you can do the honors.” He gestures at the altar. I step closer. There are three smartphones lined up, side by side.
Where am I? What am I doing? I’m a nice boy from Far Rockaway, how did I get here?
He places the hammer in my hand.
“Now yell ‘l’Sheim Shamayim’ as loudly as you can,” he commands. More men join us, they come out of the woodwork, entering from doors I now notice around the perimeter of the main room. There’s an excited murmur, a sense of anticipation. Is this for real? Are they for real? I look round for a smirk, an eye roll, but they’re all one hundred percent committed, excited.
Okay, then. The Rebbe nods. I raise the hammer in the air and bring it down with a ringing whack onto the first smartphone. A piece breaks off and smacks me on the forehead; I welcome the pain. The crowd is cheering, encouraging me. I feel alive. I feel good. I feel purposeful.
I get it. I get why they do this.
For the most part.
After I smash the third phone, it loses its novelty. I look at the hammer in my hand and blush. What am I doing? But they’re just getting started. I wait until someone else seizes the hammer, then back out of there.
If I hurry, I’ll make it home in time for lunch.
There’s something wrong. I can tell the second he walks in the door. He’s breathing too hard and he’s sweating and there’s something unsettled about his presence. But Aryeh doesn’t offer any information and I don’t ask. I serve him eggplant parmesan and salad and freshly squeezed juice. I should join Instagram just to document how gorgeous his plate looks.
“Nice spread,” he murmurs. He glances at my phone for some reason. I look at it, too. Batya is trying to Facetime. I ignore her call, she’s been obsessively checking on me ever since… well, for the past few months.
Tell me what’s going on in your world, share what happened today, I say telepathically.
“More juice?” I ask aloud.
He shakes his head, pushes his yarmulke down over his eyes. I resist the urge to roll my eyes, and we finish lunch.
I want to tell him. I want to share with him how Batya is driving me crazy, how Dr. Stein at work still talks to me in this horrible sweet voice, how I saw the Horowitzes hurry down a side street with their double stroller when they saw me walking toward them. But if I let him in, he’ll yell with me, stew with me. And I’ll never get out again.
“Why smash smartphones?”
I’ve come back every day this week, but the Rebbe hasn’t been here. Now he is, and I can finally ask the question that’s bothering me. “How is that the answer?”
The Rebbe’s posse looks startled, like it’s an outrageous but brilliant question. Apparently, they’ve all been hit in the head with the hammer once or twice.
The Rebbe looks unruffled; his face glows, his eyes are serene.
“Because, Aryeh’le, smartphones are an addiction. And the only way to fix an addiction is to break it.”
The answer is basically a sieve, it has so many holes.
“But is addiction the main problem in life?” I ask tentatively. It’s hard to question someone holding a hammer.
For the first time, the Rebbe looks upset. “Yes. Yes it is, Reb Aryeh. Addiction kills. It ruins. It destroys. So many beautiful neshamos, completely destroyed by it. Why do you come here, every day, if not to witness the destruction of these things?”
I’m at a loss how to explain that it’s not the addictions that draw me, but the growing pile of broken things. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Chaimke. The older man looks at me, cocks his head to the side. We go outside, walk to a decrepit park. I place my hand on a rusted swing chain, push it back and forth.
“I’m broken,” I explain to Chaimke.
I’ve never said it aloud before. It feels oddly good to hear the words.
“My head. My heart. They don’t work anymore…” I trail off. Does he understand? My Hebrew isn’t great.
He opens his mouth. “I am also broken. My son, he also went back to Hashem too early. It was my fault. I didn’t watch him, didn’t notice… the Rebbe explained it to me now, addiction. It is sickness. I didn’t know, I didn’t stop him. But now I stop others. As a tikkun. As a tikkun for Shmuel Shmelka ben Chaim Tzvi. Say it with me, it should be a tikkun for Shmuel Shmelka ben Chaim Tzvi.”
And I look at him, the complacency on his face, the combed beard. He’s found peace with all of this. His rebbe has taken the broken parts of his soul and stitched them back together with his nonsense.
“I’m sorry, Chaimke.”
I place a hand on the man’s shoulder, and we stand there together, between the swings in a park deep in Meah Shearim, and we cry.
He looks at his watch. “It is almost bein hasedorim. You must go; your wife wants to know all about first seder, eh?”
He crooks an eyebrow, proud he’s figured out where I run to everyday.
I don’t leave.
“Chaimke, there are other things to do, you know? Learning and tzedakah and chesed and…” I stop. All the things I haven’t been able to do. I haven’t even been able to talk to my wife.
Chaimke shrugs. “I need this, the bushah, the kapparah. For not seeing what Shmuli was going through. I am his father. And I couldn’t save him.”
I suddenly want to tell him how sometimes, Hashem sets it up so we can’t save them. How sometimes, you can do everything right, no loose blankets, a sleep sack, lay them on their back, but if Hashem wants it, He will kiss them back to Him, leaving you behind with empty arms and a heart that no longer works.
But I don’t have the words.
Not here, not today.
It’s getting really late. Shira is going to worry.
“Goodbye, Chaimke.” I grip his hand, and he understands; I’m not coming back.
He shakes it, hard. “Hatzlachah, Reb Aryeh.”
I look back at the yeshivah once, and then I run.
He’s coming from that place again, wherever it may be. Mendy’s wife had been super casual in the makolet, asking me if Aryeh’s sick, Mendy misses him.
I’d played it cool, rolled my eyes about stomach viruses. I didn’t tell her, as she tried to block her carriage from my view, that right now my biggest worry is the fact that she’s just revealed to me that my husband is leaving the house every day, clutching his muffin and Gemara, heading who knows where.
Aryeh looks windswept now, and wan. But he doesn’t give off that same aura of desperation. Today, I’m not afraid that he’s going to walk away and leave it all behind.
“Shira,” he gasps, falling into the chair across from me. His fork falls to the floor. I resist the urge to pick it up.
I look at him, carefully keeping my face blank. I’d made sweet potato boats garnished with basil and a leafy spinach salad.
“Shira, I haven’t been to yeshivah in two weeks.”
I unfold my napkin and put it in my lap, oh so calmly. “I know.”
He looks startled. “You know?”
“About the yeshivah and the hammer?”
Now he’s lost me. “No, just about you not learning with Mendy. His wife told me.”
“Ah.” he looks sheepish.
“What about a hammer?”
He puts his face in his hands, rubs it up and down, up and down, stretching the skin in both directions.
“Shira, I’ve been with the smartphone guys. The ones who stand on the street corners with the signs.”
I must look as horrified as I feel because he laughs, a harsh sound. “I’m not joining them, don’t worry. But I wanted to spend time with them, see why they’re so passionate. I wanted to feel alive again, like my life holds some meaning.”
My eyes fill with tears. “Not to sound too biblical, but am I not better to you than ten sons?” I ask bitterly.
He looks sad. “Shira. I’m…”
I wait, I wait to hear what great revelation my husband will share after spending two weeks with crackpots and crazies.
I raise my eyes to meet his.
“I know,” I gulp. “So am I.”
I try to breathe.
“Aryeh. I want us to be sad together. I want us to be there for each other. I refuse to be that stupid statistic that the death of a child comes between spouses. But your pain, it’s too rough, too deep — it scares me. Mine is a nightmare, but it’s right here, where you can see it. On days I feel good, I wear a sheitel and cook healthy foods and chat, and on days that I’m lost, I’m in the abyss and I stay in shmattehs and eat Kosher Krysp fries.”
Aryeh nods, bloodshot eyes understanding.
“Sometimes… I feel angry. So angry, Shira, that I want to rip things apart.”
The blood drains from my face. “At… me?” I whisper.
His mouth drops open. “No. Not at you! At everything. At the world. At this plan. Like I said, Shira, I’m broken. That’s why that smartphone yeshivah, with its mountain of broken, smashed things, called to me. It still does. But I can’t waste my time there. It’s not living. But I want to go back.” His face twists into an ironic smirk. “Stupid catchy song.”
And I don’t know why, but he starts to laugh.
I look at him, at this bearded, damaged stranger in front of me. And I realize that as much as his pain scares me, as heavy as it is, it’s something we have to carry together, or we’ll never truly be together again.
“Aryeh,” I whisper. And I’m shy, because dramatic declarations are not my thing. But I also feel a rising desperation, the sense that if I don’t say this right here, right now, I’ll lose him to the recesses of his pain forever.
He’s looking at me, tears sliding silently down his nose.
“I’m here for you, okay? I’ll let you to be as broken as you need. You can fall to pieces; cracked, smashed pieces. And I’ll be here. You don’t need to wander around… you don’t need to go looking for someone else who understands you more, who understands broken things.”
I breathe deeply, in and out, gathering my thoughts as I continue.
“Only I can understand you. And only you can understand me. And I won’t shut you down, and you can help me in the machsan. And we’ll just… we’ll just be here together, okay?”
And I don’t know if I’m begging or if I’m promising, but either way, Aryeh clutches his napkin in a shaking hand and nods.
They say healing takes time. That the Healer of Broken Hearts does His part, and you need to do yours and keep living. I’m waiting for that, waiting for the sharp dagger in my gut to fade to a butter knife.
It hasn’t happened yet, but every day, as I enter the winding streets of Beis Yisrael, I hum along with the song — it’s ridiculously catchy — say a perek of Tehillim for all the lost souls of the smartphone yeshivah, and turn right toward mine.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
Oops! We could not locate your form.