| Fiction |

The Vilification of Azi Stein

You may not agree with our choices, but why are you punishing my son?

Chapter 1

I pulled my cardigan edges tightly and hugged my arms to myself in the cool, late-summer air, craning for the sound of footsteps. I turned back toward my house across the street, as if by looking I could tell whether Azi had woken up and was looking for me. Then I knocked. I could hear happy voices inside, a bubble of excited sound even through the heavy door. I knocked again, loudly, and finally, Suri pulled the door open. Tziri and Devorah were there, on the couch, Tziri’s toddler at her feet, slamming Magna-Tiles together, and Devorah’s five-year-old daughter on her lap, sucking her thumb and twirling her hair.

“Hi, Suri, sorry to bother you again,” I said, proud that my voice faltered only a little bit. “Would it be okay if I heard Havdalah here tonight?”

“Oh, hi, Chayala,” she said, sugar in her voice. “My husband isn’t home yet. Come back and check every few minutes, ’kay?” She turned to respond to something Devora had told Tziri about playgroup morahs. I was out of place.

“Thanks,” I said quietly and turned back home.

Once a week, at least, I’d wonder aloud how on earth my life ended up this way. I’d started out on the normal path; I went to the established local Bais Yaakov — which, now that more people have moved into town, is considered such an elite school I probably wouldn’t be able to get my own kids in today, if I had daughters. I spent a year in Israel at a great seminary, learning from genuinely incredible teachers and focusing inward, giving myself the space to grow and mature, figuring out what type of boy I wanted to marry and what kind of home I wanted to have. I only dated three boys, and I got engaged after three weeks of dating the guy I thought was everything I ever wanted.

I guess that’s where things took a hard left. Within a year of our wedding, I was alone, expecting, stunned, and miserable. Many of my friends were still single, but I was weeks away from being a single mother; just 20 years old, with no income and no hope.

My parents are really incredible, and they did everything they could to encourage and help me. I moved back into my childhood room. When Azi was born, they encouraged me to focus my energy on setting my life up for success, which was exactly what I needed to focus on. Life with a newborn and no husband was incredibly challenging, but as soon as they could, my parents urged me to find a career that could support me and Azi. They’d always been especially generous, and now they offered to reallocate the money they’d set aside to support me and my husband in kollel to pay for me to get a good education so I could eventually earn enough to be completely independent. They knew me well — setting my sights on a tangible, albeit challenging goal was the perfect distraction for me. I didn’t have time to dwell on what could have been; I was way too busy to focus on what could be.

My baby brother Shmuel was 12 at the time, the kind of kid who wasn’t volunteering for extra mishmar. He loved excuses to be home to take care of his cute newborn nephew, and I was incredibly grateful for the extra hands to rock my fussy baby while I was writing papers for my undergrad degree in finance. Eventually, it morphed into Shmuel playing Tee-Ball with Azi while I studied for my MBA, and then, when we finally moved out, Shmuel popping over to babysit Azi in my tiny basement apartment.

Obviously, my life had diverged quite a bit from the expected path. Out of my graduating high school class of 120, there were probably 30 girls who went into special ed, more than a few who went into speech therapy, a handful of OTs, and a ton of girls in office jobs. I was the only one working in a hedge fund, for sure. Also, the only divorcée. Listen, not everyone’s life is a picnic; I knew that. But it sometimes felt like other people had the privilege of being able to keep their struggles to themselves, while my dirty laundry was flapping in the wind for the world to see.


Chapter 2

When I bought my house, I thought my mazel would finally change. I’d been working crazy hard, but baruch Hashem, it had paid off. Azi and I had been living as modestly as we could, and I’d finally closed on a great house. Actually, the house was basic — kitchen, bathrooms, family room, bedrooms, nothing super special. What I was excited about was the block. It was one of those blocks people call a bungalow colony, a quiet cul-de-sac off a long road of frum families, mothers sitting outside in a loose circle of patio chairs, kids running from house to house, sticky and stained with ices, happy. I’d done my research. There were at least four boys within a year or two of Azi’s age, and I was thrilled for him to have block friends. It felt like it had the potential to be a real community for us.

Soon after as we’d moved in, though, I realized that I’d been a bit hasty in constructing this gilded fantasy. Suri, Tziri, Devorah, Zissy, Hindy…. They were nice, for sure, but it was clear I wasn’t about to be welcomed into their circle, neither literally nor figuratively.

There wasn’t anything I could put my finger on at first, just sidelong glances and super sweet small talk. Everything felt kind of surface, like they were sizing me and Azi up. It was clear they were very interested in what “type” I was; obviously I wasn’t exactly like them, but how much variation was there in the shades of gray?

I’ve spent my adult life being hyperaware of how others perceive me. Are they wondering how much of my divorce was my fault, how good of a mother I can possibly be, how my son will ever turn out okay? Can’t blame people, I’d reason. I wondered about all those things, too. And the rest of them were so similar; they seemed to agree on everything, from what recipes to cook for supper to the style of shoes their kids wore. I felt like I had missed the last ten years of social currency and was scrounging for a dollar while they were more than comfortable.

Once I tried to explain to Tziri how difficult my job was; maybe it was ego, but I was somebody at work, making a difference, managing projects, designing buildings, and here on the block I was lowest on the social totem pole.

I wondered if it was in my head; maybe everyone else thought I fit in just fine? But then they would complain about their husbands, or heatedly discuss some inane topic I had no interest in participating in, like the local store’s return policy, and I’d feel like I was an alien from another planet.

Azi doesn’t overthink things like I do, b’chasdei Hashem, and he dove into his newfound block friendships quickly and easily. He’s adaptable, easygoing, and a total sponge. I relished our bedtime routine (sacrosanct) because it was our schmooze time, and he would regale me with the tree-climbing, baseball-playing escapades of his day. He got along really well with the other kids, and they liked him, too; his big, quiet playroom with tons of space for Playmobil setups and no little siblings to mess them up, his story tape collections (on an old-fashioned CD player so he could work it himself), and, I hoped, his sweet nature.

As Azi got older, I realized how badly he needed a male role model in his life. We’re super close with my parents, but they’re the type of grandparents who talk to little kids like they’re little, and when Azi would go on and on about whatever new toy he was excited about, they would exclaim in delight for a few minutes, then let him play quietly alone. He loves them dearly and feels comfortable with them, but not in the way I thought Azi needed.

That’s where Shmuel came in. Shmuel was a great kid. Well, not really a kid anymore, already 22. Shmuel would sit on the floor with Azi for an hour and get fully immersed in whatever Lego thing Azi was obsessed with at that time. And they would talk; Azi would open up to Shmuel about how his rebbi would talk about tatties in yeshivah, ask Shmuel questions about his own tatty and why he wasn’t there. I coached Shmuel and made sure he knew how to respond, and I was thrilled that he was around and so accessible to Azi. Shmuel was dependable, he was kind, and he was steady as a rock — all things Azi needed to see in a male role model.


Chapter 3

Day-to-day, things were going okay, mostly. Hashem had blessed me with an incredible son, a supportive family, and a steady parnassah. It was so much more than some people had, and I focused on that as much as I could. There were moments I barely kept it together, sure. But everyone struggles, I reasoned. I’m not special, even if I’m different.

The moments that were hardest were the times that I couldn’t be both father and mother to Azi, and we both knew it — at PTA, for example, when his rebbi would give me a report on Azi’s learning and behavior while looking determinedly at a spot somewhere two feet to my left, that was a tough one.

But the hardest, for sure, was Shabbos. I liked being home, in my own space, but having formal Shabbos meals, just me and Azi, felt like the weirdest kind of farce. He had no one to go to shul with. I know it wasn’t any of the neighbor’s responsibilities, but yes, there was a part of me that wished one of the kids would knock on my door Shabbos morning and urge Azi to join them.

Instead, after we spent a bored morning at home, I’d coax him to sit at the table while I made Kiddush and served a meal that slowly but surely morphed away from “regular” Shabbos food. What, I should make a whole cholent for Azi to take two bites? I should go through all the effort of a potato kugel just to make a serving for two? It seemed like completely unnecessary effort, when all Azi wanted was challah, maybe with some schnitzel, and all I really ate anyway was salad.

Then a long afternoon, followed by a hunt to find someone to make Havdalah for me — something I never felt comfortable doing myself. We both looked forward to the times when Shmuel would walk over for lunch; he would keep Azi at the table with his stories and jokes and do chazarah with him after the meal. It was a lifeline for me, and pure chesed on Shmuel’s part.

I could say the problem started with the present Shmuel got Azi for his tenth birthday, but really, looking back, it was inevitable that something was going to happen. We were just too different from them, and we all knew it.

There’s only one way to describe Azi’s face when he saw that smartwatch, with its soft-touch, blue rubber strap and the smooth black face; it lit up. His eyes widened in delight and shock, he beamed at Shmuel and almost knocked him over with a hug.

“This is the best present I ever got,” he said breathlessly. He tore open the packaging and pulled out the manual. “Ma, look! It has games, look! And a camera!” he read through it hungrily. I eyed Shmuel, who winked at me and turned his attention back to Azi.

“Shmuel!” I hissed. “Is that Wi-Fi enabled? He’s ten!”

I kept my tone light, but really, my mind was already racing ahead to figuring out how I could convince Azi that he should not sneak the watch into yeshivah. Shmuel’s such a great guy, but he didn’t go to a super yeshivish mesivta and beis medrash, and he doesn’t consider every side of an issue before he decides how he holds. He’s also loved spoiling Azi since he was a baby, and now that he’s working, I should have known he’d kick it up a few notches. I winced. I should have asked him in advance what he’d be getting Azi.

Shmuel laughed.

“Relax, Chayala, I did my research,” he said, clearly thrilled with Azi’s reaction. “Azi, you know how you always say that you wish you could call me whenever you want? Well, now you can. Chayala, you can chill. There’s parental controls, all you need to do is download the app. And you can track him and call him or text him, how convenient is that?”

I paled. “Anyone can text him?”

“No, hello! What do you take me for?” he asked. “You can program it for approved contacts only. It’s actually really well rated and recommended for safety. You’ll love it.”

I smiled weakly. “You shouldn’t have, Shmuel,” I said. I glanced at Azi. “You love it, tzaddik?”

He nodded, an exaggerated up and down motion — the kid was no dummy, he knew I wasn’t so gung ho on this.

“Okay, Az. Let’s play with it and see what it can do, then we’ll make some rules.”


Chapter 4

Obviously, he couldn’t take the smartwatch to yeshivah, so we settled on some ground rules I thought we could live with. He could wear it after school, but I tried to explain to him that it’s always better to be inconspicuous. He didn’t have to hide it from his friends, but there was no need to show it off, either. The kid is a savvy ten-year-old, so I figured I only have so much control over what he does, but I needed to try, at least. I enabled the extra functions that shut it off at bedtime. It felt like I was managing.

I will say, it did come in handy. I could text Azi to let him know to come home for dinner, and he took to checking in with me when he would go around the corner to play — he never used to, which was a pet peeve of mine. The watch also had some games, which he played instead of following me around the house moaning how bored he was during the long hours between suppertime and bedtime. L’maaseh, after all my worrying, it turned out to be pretty harmless, and even a help.

Except, the neighbors didn’t see it that way. Two weeks after Azi’s birthday, on a Sunday afternoon, I pulled into my driveway after a lightning round of errands. I’d gotten carried away with a super intense research project I’d been asked to spearhead at work — yes, on a Sunday morning — and realized just on time that I had to hustle to get my errands done and beat Azi’s car pool home. He’s okay to be home alone for a few minutes now that he’s ten, but he gets a little nervous when he doesn’t know about it in advance.

I jumped out of the car and started unloading, cognizant of some frozen items that had already been in my trunk for 20 minutes — I’m not above bribing the block kids to think Azi is the best with some fancy ices.

Suri was sitting on a chair on her lawn, directly across my house, schmoozing with Hindy and Devorah. I could hear the girls shrieking with laughter from somewhere in Suri’s backyard, and their toddlers splashed in a water table within reach. Suri had obviously noticed me pull in, because she waved and motioned me over.

“One sec,” I called, a grocery bag full of milk and juice cutting into my wrist painfully. “Unpacking this stuff, be there soon.”

I saw her glance at Hindy and Devorah meaningfully.

A few minutes later, I’d put away the perishables and loaded my kitchen table with all the rest of the stuff that needed unpacking, then I grabbed a can of flavored seltzer from the fridge and went back outside.

“So, how are you guys?” I asked, wondering why I’d been summoned. They were usually content to sit in their circle and wave when they saw me without encouraging me to join.

Suri cleared her throat.

“Um, well, we noticed Azi’s new watch,” she said, cutting right to the point. “I thought it was just a camera watch, but then my Bentzy said Azi gets calls and texts on it?”

Her voice turned up at the end, but I didn’t hear a discernible question there, so I waited for her to finish.

“It’s just, well…” She glanced at Devorah and Hindy, who were both nodding. “You know our boys, they get very excited about these things. We just don’t want them to be jealous, you know? And we try so, so hard to keep these little kids sheltered from this kind of stuff. I’m a little worried they’re being exposed to who-knows-what!” she finished in a rush.

Devorah chimed in. “Right, we don’t need the boys begging for these things. And how does it even get calls? Is it on the Internet?” she asked, worried. “How do you know Azi can’t use it to access all kinds of things?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Naive, I guess, which is ironic, considering what they all thought. I took a sip of my sparkling water to disguise my reaction, the bubbles popping almost painfully on my tongue.

“Well,” I said slowly. “I hear what you’re saying. I can talk to him about keeping it at home,” I said. “There are pretty strong controls on it, though, so you don’t have to worry too much. He can’t call anyone besides me, his grandparents, and my brother. And he can’t access anything online at all,” I clarified.

They exchanged another loaded glance.

“I think… it’s more the principle of it,” said Suri. “We really go through a lot of effort to keep the kids sheltered. You know how it is in this day and age,” she said meaningfully, and I nodded, mostly to end the conversation.

“I hear you. It was a gift from his uncle,” I added, like it would make a difference to them. I don’t think it did.


Chapter 5

Azi had a hard time understanding why he couldn’t wear his watch when he was playing anymore, but after a few rounds of explaining and arguing, I told him a rule is a rule, and that was the end of it.

I didn’t have time to argue it on a daily basis; I was juggling my regular workload plus managing my new research team, and working more hours than usual. I did what I do: planned the next two weeks as much as I could and asked my parents and Shmuel to help me out with Azi more than usual for the short term. My mother was amazing; she either brought Azi dinner and kept him company after school while I worked late, or she brought him back to her house. Shmuel was an incredible help, too — helping Azi with his homework, buying him a huge ATV Lego set that they worked on for a week straight, and taking him for ice cream.

I knew there was probably some screen time, too, which we didn’t have at home (tiny smartwatch screen notwithstanding), but I had spoken to my rav about it, and he was of the opinion that it was okay for standards to be a little more lax at the grandparents, as long as certain hard lines weren’t crossed. I knew he watched a few sports games, and some of the old sports movies that Shmuel had watched as a kid. YouTube and streaming apps were a hard, firm no, and I know Shmuel respected that.

I didn’t really have the time to be overly focused on it, though. Work was crazy, and two weeks passed in a stressful blur, until finally, we had approved plans and the permits we’d need. Baruch Hashem, my firm was thrilled, the client was happy, and I knew I could look forward to an end-of-year bonus with a little extra padding. That would definitely make saving for Azi’s bar mitzvah easier. Things at work had wrapped up on a Thursday, and I took the Friday off to reset myself and my house. I lost myself in a few hours of organizing and cleaning, loving the mindless work for a change.

A few hours later, Azi ran off the bus in a great mood, dumped his knapsack and grabbed a snack, then ran outside.

He called, “Moishy got a new football!” over his shoulder as he sprinted to what I assume was Tziri’s house.

I chuckled, taking a minute to thank Hashem for the blessing of easy friendships. Turns out, I spoke way too soon.

Ten minutes later, from deep within the laundry room, I heard the front door slam shut, then angry stomps. A second later, Azi’s door slammed. Uh-oh. I hefted the wet towel load into the dryer, then set it to start and went to investigate.

“Everything okay, Bud?” I called tentatively, through Azi’s door.

“Leave me alone,” came the reply, muffled but furious.

I sighed heavily, wishing for the millionth time that everything wasn’t always on me. I turned the knob and stuck my head inside the door.

My heart broke. Azi was lying on his bed, face pressed in a pillow and shoulders shaking with sobs. I sat down on the edge of his bed and traced slow circles on his back, but he shrugged me off.

“Azi, tzaddik. What’s wrong?” I asked gently.

He could be a sensitive kid, for sure, but this wasn’t like him. I sat there for a few minutes more, until the crying subsided, and I tried again.

“You can always talk to me, sweetheart,” I murmured soothingly.

Azi sat up, his face blotched and tear streaked.

“They— they hate me!” he blurted out.

“What? Who?” I asked, confused, still hoping that Azi was blowing something minor out of proportion.

He looked up at me, through devastated eyes. “I went to Moishy’s house,” he hiccupped. “Tzvi and Bentzy were already there, and as soon as I came, they stopped playing and told me I can’t play with them anymore!” He ended on a wail.

“But why not, Az? What happened?”

I couldn’t understand. The kids had played together nicely on — was it Wednesday? That was two days ago. What could have happened?

He squeezed his wet eyes tight and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. I didn’t comment.

“They told me their mothers don’t let them play with me anymore. They said I’m bad, and I’m a bad influence.”

Azi’s face was so sad, and my inner mama bear stirred with the outrage that anyone could hurt my precious baby like this. Who could call this innocent kid bad? Hadn’t he been through enough?

“What did I do? Why can’t I be like everyone else?” he cried, dissolving into tears all over again.

I hugged him and rocked him and cried with him, and I promised I would take care of it.

Things were worse than I’d considered, however. I marched myself across to Suri’s house and knocked on her door — whatever had happened had taken place at Tziri’s, but Suri was the epicenter of the block. I assumed she knew what was up. My hunch was correct.

“I’m sure you understand,” Suri said silkily. “Azi’s been talking about all sorts of movies and talking about the games he watches with the boys. It’s been happening for a week already. First, we tried to look the other way. But then Bentzy started singing the song to a Burger King commercial. He said Azi has been humming it, it comes up when he’s watching football or something. You know, we do everything we can to keep the boys sheltered, especially in this day and age. First thing, it’s a treife commercial. Who knows what’s next? I don’t need Bentzy repeating something awful he’s heard from Azi to my other kids, or in yeshivah. I don’t want people thinking I let my kids watch….” She shuddered. “I know you understand, we’re all mothers. We all want what’s best for our kids, right? I just think it’s better this way, for Bentzy.”

I looked at her in utter disbelief, barely controlled rage simmering under my skin. “What could he have possibly said? He doesn’t watch anything inappro—”

“Oh, so you know his uncle lets him watch.” She cut me off. “I didn’t realize that you’re so permissive, I thought maybe just since you’re not always around to watch him, he’d gotten into something behind your back.”

Shock at her brazen words paralyzed me for a second, long enough for her to fill the silence.

“It’s obvious we’re doing the right thing for our boys. It’s not going to work out for Azi to play with Bentzy for a while. I know Tziri and Devorah feel the same way, and probably Hindy, too.”

I found my words, finally. Thankfully. “Suri,” I ground out. “Whatever good you think you’re doing here is completely misguided. Azi is a good boy, and you know it. He’s been through Gehinnom on this earth, and he deserves a little patience, at the very least. What you’re doing is disgusting, plain and simple. Thank you for showing me your true middos before my son had a chance to get influenced.”

I spun on my heel and walked away, slamming my front door behind me. I could feel myself shaking, and I sank onto the couch, my brain racing.

My instinct was to be defensive, to call Shmuel and let him have it, but in my heart, I knew that wasn’t fair. He was doing me a huge favor every time he helped with Azi, he knew I knew about the occasional screen time, and I knew that whatever Azi had watched had been age-appropriate.

It wasn’t the content that was the issue, it was the concept, and that wasn’t Shmuel’s fault. It was mine: for picking a husband who would walk away from a wife and child, forcing me into the long domino effect of circumstances that ended with Azi being vilified as the neighborhood bum. I had no one to blame here but myself, and that feeling might have been more painful than the divorce itself.


Chapter 6

The summer dragged on, and every day I saw Azi shrink into a smaller, sadder version of himself. The kids on the block had all taken up the battle cry. “Azi’s a bad influence,” they would say to each other any time they saw him.

What ten-year-old boy talks like that? It was clear the refrain had been repeated to them, often. Besides Azi’s former friends, who would scatter when they saw him coming, Moishy, Tzvi, and Bentzy all had younger siblings who got a kick out of running up to Azi and yelling it to his face.

Azi stopped leaving the house unless it was strictly necessary, and even then, it was a fight. He’d trudge off the bus after day camp, already dejected and withdrawn, and spend the long daylight hours left lying on the couch with his feet swung over the armrest, his feet swinging as he stared into space, or moaned how bored he was.

By that point, I wouldn’t let Azi play with those kids no matter what, but I watched in disbelief as they moved on without sparing their longtime playmate a passing thought. For Azi’s sake, I wanted a resolution. I called our local rav to beg for help, but he didn’t think I had much of a taineh. In fact, he thought they were right.

“It’s tricky,” the rav said. “These parents have the exceptionally difficult achrayus of keeping their children sheltered and pure. They’re protecting themselves against outside influences and it’s commendable.”

I felt the argument bubbling up inside me, but tamped it down.

“It was one thing if they heard schmutz from a construction worker, and they could tell their children, ‘Yingelach, that’s only how a goy talks.’ But you’re asking them to teach their children a very difficult concept — this is how a Yiddishe boy talks, but you can’t do it, too! And that is not something we feel children have an easy time understanding.”

I explained how that played out, that Azi was being publicly ridiculed and ostracized, and it was killing him, but the rav’s opinion held firm. I tried calling other askanim; people known for resolved machlokes, but ultimately, no one was able to intervene in any meaningful way.

In the end, I felt I had no choice but to sell my house and move on, feeling a tremendous amount of resentment, sadness, and anger at the self-righteous neighbors who had hidden behind a claim of insularity and ruined a child’s life without a spare thought. We’d only been there for two years, but the last three months had tainted whatever positive memories we’d had, and we both needed to start over.

The day the real estate agent hung the for-sale sign in my yard was a bittersweet day. I was relieved at the next chapter opening, but some part of me hoped the neighbors would see it and realize that their actions had driven a single mother and her son out of their home, then come crying for forgiveness to Azi.

It never happened. The day we moved out, I tried making it exciting, pumping Azi up for the future, but he just put his hood up and slouched down so the kids wouldn’t see him. He didn’t say a word as we left that block forever.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 890)

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