Her Dovid has been relentlessly bullying Shmuli, and I’ve had enough of her, “Oh, Dovid doesn’t mean anything by it,” lackadaisical attitude
MY phone pings, and I know it’s Rafi sending me a #doubletrouble meme of the day.
Yup. Sighing, I click on the image.
I have twins, therefore I need twice the caffeine.
There’s a gallon-sized coffee mug in the background.
Oh, ha ha.
I hate memes. But like, I hate them. I feel like they’re an umbrella you stand under to share dysfunction instead of actually, you know, becoming functional. Don’t send me a two-liner about how we yell at our kids and have dirty dishes but hey, that’s mom life. Don’t chuckle about not sleeping, ever. Just sleep train your child. Or you know, stop looking at memes, and go to sleep. I mean, you’ve identified the issue, now find a solution.
Rafi, on the other hand, loooves memes. He also receives around 100 a day from his close friends, casual acquaintances, shul guys, dry cleaners, and optometrist. Rafi’s friends with everyone.
Me, not so much.
Yes, we are an “opposites attract” shidduch. No, that does not make marriage easy. But hey, no one has ever accused me of looking for easy.
I type back a quick LOL to Rafi, add a smiley face emoji, and move on.
The big boys make it to the bus by the skin of their teeth. We are definitely waking up five minutes earlier tomorrow. I’ve already reset my alarm and filled my water cup.
Chaim and Tehilla are ready to go to morah, they’re practically pawing at the front door like puppies. I resist the urge to scratch them on the heads and instead buckle them into the double stroller. I’ve been losing the baby weight by opting for a walk over a drive whenever possible. Thank you, South Florida, for the year-round walking weather. No snow day excuses to get out of exercising. I love that.
The self-hate and weight-obsessed conversations in the park are almost as bad as memes. If you feel heavy and tired, take vitamins, exercise, get some natural vitamin D. Don’t just sit around and kvetch, please. And also, nobody’s ever really gained anything from park bench advice.
At least I haven’t. Rafi used to think it was strange that I don’t have girlfriends. When I told him he was the first best friend I ever had, the mixture of pity and pride on his face was comical. But now, 12 years later, he doesn’t think it’s as cute.
His refrain of, “She wants to be your friend! Call her!” is ultimately exhausting. I’m just not a friends-person. I’m a “Let’s go to shiurim and brunch and discuss drawer dividers” kinda girl.
“Come, cuties,” I say to the twins, my voice light and airy. Rebbetzin Klein always says that kids should be able to hear in your voice how much you enjoy spending time with them. I love Rebbetzin Klein; I’ve been going to her since Shmuli turned three.
The weather is gorgeous — summer on its way out and the oppressive heat has finally lifted. I stick my Stanley into the cupholder, adjust my cap, and thank Hashem that sneakers are in style. I nod at Mr. Yarkoni, smile at Mrs. Kaplan. I feel great, the babies are yummy, and Bluma Kurtzer pushed our appointment off till tomorrow, so technically, I have a day off. Although I should use the extra time to work on the Birnbaum kitchen, but hey, maybe I won’t. Even though I really do like Pori Birnbaum, she’s light and easy, like the new Scentify my last client gifted me. I take a deep breath, turn right on Oak, and that’s when I see Devora Levine.
I mean… no, I do mean yuck. Her Dovid has been relentlessly bullying Shmuli, and I’ve had enough of her, “Oh, Dovid doesn’t mean anything by it,” lackadaisical attitude.
Dovid definitely means something by it.
Because in all honesty, Dovid is right.
Shmuli is awkward. Shmuli is clueless. Shmuli is different.
But still, Devora. Get a grip on your kid.
I smile tightly at her, and turn into Morah Esther’s driveway.
If I don’t turn around, maybe she’ll go away.
“Leba! Leba Nadel!”
Ugh. I turn slowly. “Oh, hey Devora, sorry, my music was on. How are you?”
And the best actress award goes to….
Devora comes closer, her eyes giant in her small, pointed face. She looks like an elf, but in a very put-together way.
“Leba, how are you?”
I resist the urge to inhale deeply and instead smile brightly.
“I’m great, baruch Hashem. What’s doing, Devora?”
She smiles back, just as bright.
“Greeeat. Leba, I just wanted to tell you I’m so sorry about what happened in school yesterday. I think it was all just a misunderstanding, you know?”
School? What happened at school? Omigosh, what happened?
I want to shake Devora by her tiny shoulders, but instead I wave an airy hand, say, “It’s all being taken care of, thanks, Devora,” and knock resolutely on Morah Esther’s door.
I glance sideways. Devora is gone. I hand the babies over to Esther, give her instructions by rote, and practically run back home.
He comes out of the kitchen, holding a mug of coffee and his tallis bag, eyebrows raised.
“Rafi, I think something happened at school yesterday. With Shmuli.”
His face turns white. “What? What happened?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know, but Devora Levine told me it was a misunderstanding, so it was obviously awful.”
Tension turns his features ragged.
“Devora Levine should not be taken at her word. Ever. Call the rebbi and find out what’s going on.”
I give him a look over my shoulder, ear glued to the phone.
“What do you think I’m doing?”
He heads back into the kitchen, one hand pressed to his forehead. He’s going to be late for the daf. I want to tell him everything’s going to be okay, but honestly, I have no idea if it will be.
* * *
The hammock is barely moving, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that I’m sitting bolt upright, spine straight, shoulders back. Rafi is on a lounge chair, legs straight out in front of him. I don’t think two people ever looked less relaxed in the history of time. He’s now super late to his “pleasure before business” daf shiur, but sometimes even I break schedule.
Especially if we’re having very overdue nervous breakdowns simultaneously.
“Dovid Levine pushed him and then Shmuli broke Dovid’s glasses.” My voice is a monotone, and very, very calm. Which is surprising, since I feel like kicking and screaming and also, randomly, like pushing one of the patio chairs into the pool.
“Why didn’t he tell us?” I look at Rafi beseechingly. “Why? Are we that terrible?”
Rafi shakes his head. “We are not terrible. We’re great parents, Leba. We try our best. We love them. You go to Rebbetzin Klein and do so much hishtadlus. No, he didn’t tell us, because Shmuli is… Shmuli. He’s… locked. You know? Quiet. He doesn’t really share.”
Which I know. But somehow, when Rafi says it, it sounds even sadder.
I look out at the pool. It looks so perfect, so unbothered. It says a lot about my mental health at the moment that it reminds me of Shmuli. I’m not really a metaphor person.
“He needs to open up,” Rafi says.
“He needs professional help.”
“Leba… he needs to see a therapist.”
My lip curls in disgust. “Oh, gosh. No. He’s not going to sit in some stuffy old room and share his feelings with some lady wearing glasses on a chain around her neck.”
Rafi looks at me. “That’s oddly specific.”
“He’s 11,” I plow on. “Please. He just needs to learn some social skills and some coping skills.”
Rafi went for therapy after his father passed away suddenly five years ago and ever since, he thinks he’s practically a PhD. It’s not a little annoying, it’s a lot annoying.
I, on the other hand, spent many a Monday afternoon in Dr. Stern’s office back in tenth grade when my parents split up, and it was even worse than the divorce itself.
“Nope,” I say again. “No therapy. No prying and pulling and wheedling.”
Rafi falls back against the chaise pillow, laughing. “Wheedling? Where do you get these words?”
I refuse to allow myself to get pulled into his lightheartedness.
“Rafi, focus. What should we do?”
We sit in silence for two minutes. The day is getting hotter, pretty soon Tammy will be home from playgroup.
Rafi snaps his fingers so loudly, I practically fall off the hammock. How does he do that?
“I have it! Yoel Gletzer told me his son takes horseback riding lessons and that the stables also offers therapy. Let’s sign Shmuli up for some lessons.”
I have a sudden mental image of Shmuli looking gorgeous in the most Ralph Lauren-like ensemble I can find, with a riding helmet and boots. “I like it…” I say slowly. “Let’s do it. Shmuli’s going to love it!”
Spoiler alert: Shmuli doesn’t love it. Shmuli hates it. Shmuli is terrified of large, snorting animals, apparently.
I think we need to add trauma to the list of reasons Shmuli needs help.
* * *
Organizing the pantry always soothes me. I fill containers and racks robotically, my mind sifting back through the years. Shmuli needs help, yes, but he’s 11. I was 17 when I went to therapy, and I hated “opening up” and “delving in.” Yuck. It made me feel exposed, vulnerable, anxious. I spend most of my life making sure I never feel that way again — no way I’m putting my own son through that.
Rafi pokes his head in.
“Swimming therapy,” he says by way of greeting.
I put down the Costco box of Nature Valley bars and look at him. “Eh?”
“Manny Burgess told me he goes to swimming therapy. Apparently he suffers from PTSD since the car accident.”
I click open the faux wood cover of my storage container and pour the bars in. Only once they’re all standing upright, with the labels all facing frontward, do I turn back to Rafi. “Okay, fine, but Shmuli swims all the time.”
He reaches past me for a bag of potato chips. “True, but this is like specific exercises and, um, talking? And then like… okay, I actually have no idea.”
I robotically tell him not to eat chips; I made meatballs. It’s a daily routine, because Rafi needs to snack when he comes home from work.
I picture Shmuli standing next to the Zeidies from the bungalow colony, snapping at people for splashing him. But I’ll try anything.
Except apparently Shmuli doesn’t like how the pool smells. Which is weird, because we have a pool. Although, to be fair, I keep ours in far better shape than Golden Waves does.
The next day Devora Levine waves at me at the grocery; in my favor, I hold back from running her over with my shopping cart.
But friendly I am not.
“How’s Shmuli?” she calls across the produce section.
“None of your business, you terrible person,” I don’t say.
I just wave back as if I can’t hear her and whack a melon a bit too hard.
Shmuli is… silent. The kid won’t talk. I’ve tried baking with him. I’ve tried long car rides and Slurpees. Midnight snuggles, hiking, and watching fireflies. Nada.
He’s been to woodworking class, riding therapy, swimming therapy, and, for around five minutes, music therapy.
Apparently he takes after his mother, and hates loud noises.
Pori Birnbaum waves at me from across the cereal selection. I have a sudden mental image of me unburdening myself to her, right here in the grocery. Which is super weird, because: a) I don’t unburden myself, b) I barely know Pori. There’s just something about her….
It’s when I’m checking out my groceries that I see the poster.
Express Yourself, Empower Yourself, Be Yourself
With Our Powerful Combo of Boxing and Mental Health Counseling
I get so distracted, I forget to actually take my bags, and the cashier needs to remind me. Mortified, I grab my change, gather my bags, and walk over to the bulletin board.
Our trauma-sensitive program combines the physical benefits of boxing with the emotional and mental benefits of therapy.
Express your power and overcome life’s challenges in a safe and supportive environment.
Tap into your inner strength and resilience, heal from past traumas and overcome emotional obstacles right in the boxing ring. With the guidance of our experienced coaches and therapists, learn to channel your energy and emotions into the physical practice of boxing, while gleaning valuable tools for mindfulness, emotional regulation, and self-care.
Oh, Maor, I am calling. Right now.
Maor tells me to come at five the next evening. Now the question is: How do I get Shmuli to agree?
“Trick him,” Rafi says wisely.
I gasp; what would Rebbetzin Klein say?
“Just do it,” Rafi says tiredly.
So I trick our son. You know, for his own good.
But when we arrive, he takes one look at the words BOXING emblazoned on the building in front of us and glares at me, betrayal emanating from his beautiful face.
“This,” he says, “is not ice cream.”
I sling my purse across my shoulder and hop out of the car. I open his door for him, he hasn’t moved. “No, it’s not,” I say briskly. “Quick stop, then ice cream. Okay?”
He still doesn’t move.
Shmuli, I beg him silently. Please. Please let me help you. I need to know that you’re safe when you go out into the world, okay? I brought you here and I need you to be okay. I need to know you have thick skin, that you’re strong, above things. Please don’t quit on this before you try.
But all I do is look at him, my eyes blinking back tears, and maybe he hears my silent plea, or maybe it’s the sight of his normally forever-moving mother frozen under the weight of emotions, or maybe it is just an open miracle, but either way, he sighs deeply and unbuckles his seatbelt.
Oh, thank You, Hashem.
Maor is waiting for us past the registration desk.
“Welcome, Shmuli,” he says, smiling brightly. I look at the man clad in workout clothing, barefoot on a blue mat, and think this is never going to work.
It can’t. It won’t.
Shmuli was born different. He doesn’t respond to stimuli in a regular way. I was worried for years about ASD, but he’s not. He’s just “wired differently.” He’s never going to go for this. It was a stupid idea. Really, why should he learn to punch? How will that make him any better than Dovid?
I close my eyes, lost in a tidal wave of hopelessness. What will be with my eldest? What will be with his bar mitzvah? Yeshivah ketanah? Shidduchim?
“Mom?” My eyes fly open, I squint at Maor. “Mom, can I invite you to wait in the waiting room?”
I look at Shmuli, he looks… terrified? No, determined.
“I’ll come inside, thank you,” I say firmly.
Maor nods; he’s probably used to crazy moms.
I keep my hand on Shmuli’s shoulder until he reaches the mat, then I go perch on a white plastic chair.
Maor stands across from Shmuli and smiles at him. “Shmuli. You’re a brave guy. I’m happy you’re here.”
Shmuli looks at the ground. C’mon, Shmul. C’mon. Eye contact. Please!
I squirm. Then Shmuli looks up and then looks back at me. I wait for his mouth to open, for him to say, “I don’t like boxing,” to add Maor to the list of exhausted instructors and helplines. But he just looks at me then back at Maor.
“My mother said I need to,” he mumbles.
Maor winks. “You have a smart mom. She wants you to be happy, yes? So let’s get warmed up. Enough talking, yes?”
Yes. No talking. Talking does nothing. Move. Action.
There’s great music on, I feel it pulsing. The toe of my sneaker goes tap-tap-tap. Mortifying; I force it to stop.
“Shmuli, I want you to warm up. Swing those arms, okay? Back and forth. Just let loose.”
Ha, yeah right. Shmuli doesn’t let loose. Shmuli doesn’t… well, Shmuli doesn’t do much. Is that terrible to say? Am I terrible? Omigosh, I am.
And then I watch while my locked-up, silent son swings his arms like an aerobics instructor.
And when Maor says “lean into it,” well, Shmuli leans.
I love watching him move. It’s so healthy; exactly what the doctor ordered.
* * *
“The divorce is not your fault.” Thank you Dr. Idiot, why in the world would I think my parents yelling and slamming doors and that one memorable fire was my fault? What do their abandonment issues and fears of commitment have to do with me?
It hadn’t even occurred to me until the good doctor put it out there.
And once it was out there….
I can’t say I believed the actual divorce was my fault, but I did wonder why I wasn’t enough to keep my parents together. My siblings were little, like a litter of cute bunnies, but I was big. I had a personality and feelings and opinions, and why was my well-being not enough to keep them together? Why wasn’t my happiness enough? The knowledge that a given like your parents living together could be taken away at any moment cracked something deep within me.
I hung back in social situations. I found I was on edge, always, waiting for whoever I was talking to or chatting with to get up and leave. Cliché, maybe, but what can I say, I’m a rule follower. And I think at some point I realized that if I never gave anyone a reason to leave, then maybe they would stay. In order for that to happen, relationships could never get messy. And the only way that could be accomplished was if all my relationships remained in perpetual honeymoon phase.
See, I’m self-aware even without spending my days yapping in therapy.
I blink and the room slides back into focus. Shmuli is taking deep breaths and then emitting puffs of air. He sounds like a car.
“Let it all out,” Maor says.
Shmuli nods, his little face thoughtful.
“Now we punch,” says Maor. “First, what are you thinking about, Shmuli?”
I smirk. Nice try, Maor. Shmuli’s not going to tell you what he’s thinking.
“That I shouldn’t have let Dovid Levine think he won me.”
The words are so quiet, they’re barely words. More like a deep murmur.
I freeze. Maor adjusts Shmuli’s posture. “There are no ‘shoulds’ in boxing, Shmuli. Just here and now. Here, now, what do you want?”
Shmuli straightens, puffs like a dying engine. “To punch Dovid Levine.”
Maor throws back his head and laughs. “How about just being able to punch Dovid Levine without actually doing it?”
And a smile breaks out across Shmuli’s face, like the sunshine after a tornado. Weak and pale but so, so bright.
“Good enough,” he mumbles.
And I think how I’ve kept all my relationships at good enough, because I was scared what would happen if they ever became actually good. Mental exhaustion creeps in. I’m practically a textbook case study on abandonment issues. So embarrassing.
* * *
The Birnbaum kitchen is a saga. She wasn’t kidding when she said she hadn’t organized in years. I’d be surprised if she had organized ever. I’m pulling screwdrivers out of the cutlery drawer and toilet paper rolls from the paper towel basket. It’s a mess and I’m in my element. I love this. I love taking things from where they shouldn’t be and putting them where they should. There’s so much beauty in it, so much joy.
Pori Birnbaum comes into the room; I steel myself. She’s so nice, but she chats. Like, a lot. I don’t honestly know what she wants from me. Rafi would snort and say she’s probably after a kidney. He always says that whenever I wonder why people do the things they do.
C’mon, I’m not that interesting.
I pull out my label maker.
“Ooooh,” Pori breathes. “Show me!”
I show her. We have fun, coming up with names for the various drawers in her spacious island.
We have: It’s Been a Long Day, What Diet?, Mommy’s Only, Tatty’s Only, Please Throw Out, and No Adults Allowed.
We probably won’t use most of them, but we’re cracking up. At one point, I have the urge to type the word “friend” into my handy dandy machine and stick it on Pori Birnbaum.
Which wouldn’t be professional at all.
* * *
I find myself breathing deeply during the bedtime stress. What is that? I smile when I suddenly let the breath out in a puff. Hmmm.
The next time I take Shmuli to Maor’s boxing ring, I don’t have to trick him. He’s excited and actually chats a bit in the car, which has happened exactly never times.
I play it cool, saying, “Oh, yeah?” “I hear that,” and one super chill, “mm-hmmm.”
But by the time we arrive at the therapy center, I’m practically skipping.
Shmuli unbuckles and runs in, I bite my lip and whisper mizmor l’sodah.
Maor gives Shmuli a little head bob; Shmuli mirrors his movement. I don’t bob; I hope that’s okay with everyone. Waving, I go perch on my chair.
Maor faces Shmuli, and they do more of the deep breathing and arm swinging. And then they talk. At one point, Shmuli sits on the floor, and just talks. I resist the urge to fly out of my seat and plop next to him, listening as he speaks.
It’s not a stream, it starts and stops, like a leaky faucet. But it’s there. A flow of Shmuli.
“I don’t know what Dovid wants from me,” he says to Maor, and I want to scream, to tell him that there will always be Dovids and at some point, they lose significance.
But I remain on the sidelines.
Maor cricks his neck, stretches his arms way over his head.
Shmuli does the same.
“Does it matter what he wants?” Maor says.
Shmuli thinks about this. “I don’t know, does it?”
Maor shrugs, smiling. “You tell me.”
Shmuli looks at the man. “I guess it doesn’t. I’ll never be his friend. He’ll never want me to be.”
I blink back tears. I’m social; I have a great relationship with my husband, my sisters. I have friends I go out with, more than enough people to grab coffee with or head to the gym, if I would be that sort of person. But I won’t ever go deeper. I’ve never believed anyone would want. Today, for the first time, Shmuli reminds me of myself.
“I love boxing,” Shmuli says quietly on the way home. Which is amazing and everything I’ve been davening for, except for one little thing: Shmuli hasn’t actually boxed yet. He and Maor move a lot around the mat, changing positions, doing different breathing exercises, changing the music. But Shmuli hasn’t even donned gloves yet.
“That’s great, Shmuli,” I say neutrally. “I’m so glad it’s working out for you.”
I spy on him in the rearview mirror. There’s a little smile on his face; his eyes seem more focused. Or maybe that’s what I want to see. But still. He looks good.
Rafi is waving a colored piece of paper around like a flag when I walk into the house. I check on the babies who are sleeping on the kitchen floor — insert dad babysitting memes — call out hi to the other kids, and grab the paper from his hand.
Neighborhood Chol Hamoed Succah Hop. Count me out.
“Nope,” I say, handing it back to him.
He tapes it to the fridge. “Maybe the Birnbaum lady will be there,” he says.
I give him a look. I knew I shouldn’t have shared my whole “label as a friend” moment of weakness with him.
“Maybe she will,” I say. “There will also be 20 other women, with loud opinions, private jokes, and so very many questions. Not interested.”
Groups of women make me feel inadequate in the deepest way. I just feel like they’re a red rover chain, and I’m trying to break in.
Rafi looks so let down, I almost tell him he can go instead of me. But I bite my tongue. Yay for self-control.
Of course, when Esther, the twins’ babysitter, texts me later about making something for the succah hop, I answer enthusiastically. See, I have a method. Never let them know you’re antisocial. If you do, you become some do-gooder’s target. No and thank you.
Instead, stay in the thick of things. Bake. Cook. Even host. Just somehow always manage to have your mom’s 65th birthday party the day of the actual event.
That’s why I’m making 50 lulav-shaped cookies for a succah hop I will not be joining.
* * *
Shmuli is silent all the way to boxing, and I don’t know what it means. I tap nervously on the steering wheel, and hit the brakes a bit too hard at a red. He doesn’t even flinch. Where is he, what happened since he’d waved goodbye that morning?
I settle on my chair, heart racing.
Maor smiles at Shmuli, a big easygoing grin that usually has Shmuli mirroring, but today Shmuli remains stony.
“Teach me to punch,” he says coldly.
Maor starts to swing his arms gently in tight circles. “You want to punch?” he says lightly.
Shmuli slaps his own thigh. “Yeah. Yeah I do.”
Maor nods. “Warm up with me, then we’ll punch.”
I listen to Shmuli breathing, watch him swing his arms, puff his air. And I can practically see the tension leave his body. I lean forward. What does that feel like? What is it like to let go of an emotion instead of locking it into a pretty box and carrying it with you wherever you go, untouched and unreached?
I see Maor watching Shmuli, too.
After 20 minutes, he drops his arms. “So, Shmuli, now it’s up to you. We can punch out whatever is bothering you. Or we can talk it out. Or we can do both.”
And I watch as my small beautiful son makes a decision that I haven’t yet found the maturity to make.
* * *
Rafi doesn’t understand what I’m babbling about.
“Frost,” I say, handing him the bowl of green royal icing. He fills in the lulav lines, I drizzle green sugar around their edges. “All I’m saying,” I repeat, “is that maybe I’ve had it all wrong? Maybe I wasn’t doing my best by trying to conquer my emotions and just focus on turning out the best possible outcomes. Maybe I was just playing it safe.”
Rafi looks down at the bowl of icing. I see his lips twitch.
“Let me guess,” I snap, “your therapist already told you this about me. It’s old news. To everyone but me. Am I right?”
He doesn’t answer, but I know I’m right. Uch. Just uch.
So I’ve played it safe. Why does that bother me so much? I drop the cookies off at Esther’s, make a pouty sad face because Rafi’s sister’s Simchas Beis Hashoeivah is the same night, and I’m so sorry I won’t be able to come to the succah hop, and wave goodbye.
Tippy Toe is a zoo of humanity for the young and frum. I tell the boys to sit and don’t move and I go find some help. I’m hurrying back with a not-so-eager salesboy when I spot Dovid Levine. And he’s heading right for my Shmuli.
I can’t hear exactly what he’s saying, but I hear what he’s calling Shmuli loud and clear. Loser.
Shmuli faces Dovid, eye contact clear and strong. His hand balls into a fist, his breathing comes in rapid spurts. Oh, gosh, no, not here, Shmuls!
And then he drops his fist, smiles calmly at Dovid, and turns away, leaving Dovid looking both shocked and pretty stupid.
I’ve never been so proud in my whole life.
* * *
“I’m sooo happy your sister-in-law switched her party,” Pori Birnbaum says, giving me a light hug.
I smile. “Me, too.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at one of these before,” she muses.
“So strange,” I say, biting into a rugelah, determinedly not meeting anyone’s eyes.
Esther comes over. “Your cookies are a huge hit with the kinder.”
Waving a hand modestly, I turn and look for the kids. They’re running free, happy, hopping. I look for Shmuli. He’s over at the side, showing a group of boys how to perform a front jab.
I look at him, sharing, teaching, interacting with others.
Taking a deep breath, I exhale shortly, and then turn to Pori. I can do this. I can do this. Jab my way through the fear and all that.
“Did I tell you ladies,” I volunteer, “that I just started boxing classes?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)
Oops! We could not locate your form.