This year’s 25th Annual Yachad Family Shabbaton is scheduled for May 13- 15. The first time my family decided to attend such an event was five years ago; a real eye-opener with 600+ others. Each family present had a special needs member, but I doubt any of us newcomers expected to walk away feeling quite so connected to so many strangers within a short 3-day period. Following Saturday night’s Melava Malka, our son was invited to participate in a promotional interview and by the next morning, word had circulated about the “Josh Schur – Mattress King Saga”
A little background here: to fully appreciate the story, think Rain Man – the 1988 award winning comedy/drama starring Tom Cruise as a self-centered fellow who suddenly discovers he has an institutionalized adult sibling. Dustin Hoffman, as the older brother, fabulously portrays an autistic-savant whose idiosyncrasies are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Most parents of special needs children can identify on some level with the obsessive or compulsive behaviors of Hoffman’s character; it seems to be a common phenomenon among individuals diagnosed with a broad range of disabilities. So when our son, who isn’t autistic, began making certain pronouncements at a very young age, such as, “On Tuesdays I eat Chinese,” I could only look at him in astonishment and think of Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt.
Josh is now twenty-four and about to move into Libenu, Chicago’s first Orthodox Jewish community housing project for special needs adults. He was born with cerebral palsy, but over the years he’s done numerous behavioral versions of Rain Man. And while it’s often been a subject of deep concern and frustration for us, it also acts as a source of real amusement and comedic relief. My best piece of advice to families who are new to the process of raising a special needs child is simply this: You don’t have to look for reasons to cry. In order to survive, you must look for reasons to laugh.
I could write memoirs in the style of Bombeck, Cosby or Barry about some of Josh’s obsessions, but his most enduring, endearing (and expensive) compulsion grew out of an unusual friendship with a man named Phil. Phil is a real tzadik of a guy, affectionately known in our community as the “Mattress King” since he was in the business of selling them years before specialty bedding stores started to proliferate. As a youngster, Josh would visit Phil’s house, get together with him for a bowl of Chana’s goulash or catch weekday rides home with him from shul; during which, the Mattress King would patiently listen to, and then answer, all of Josh’s detailed questions about beds and box springs. Finally, Josh became something of an expert himself, a real connoisseur of high-quality sleep ware.
The day Josh turned 13, two burly delivery guys showed up at our front door with a little gift from Phil. Oh, those cultural rites of passage into male adulthood! The Native Americans give their brave young warriors a headdress-worthy eagle feather, while members of the Jewish tribe buy Waterman or Montblanc for their future lawyers and accountants. But only our kid ended up with a bar mitzvah mattress from the Mattress King himself!
And this is when our problems truly began. Most top of the line bedding comes with a 90-day trial warranty and you can return the merchandise if you’re not fully satisfied. So every three months, our independent special needs son scheduled a mattress pick-up and then arranged for an upgraded model to take its place. I kid you not, for the next six years this boy slept on 24 different mattresses, but hey…do the math.
The real height of all this lunacy occurred one summer, shortly after we shipped Josh off to an overnight camp in Michigan. Within three days we received the following message on our answering machine from one of the program’s administrators: “Please call us at your earliest convenience. We don’t want to alarm you and Josh is just fine, but are you aware that a custom mattress was ordered and delivered to the campgrounds this morning because Josh didn’t like the quality of our beds?” And the following summer I was told that a Mattress King truck pulled up to Josh’s Wisconsin camp on the very first day. Out jumped one of Phil’s assistants with a measuring tape in hand to make sure Josh’s order would fit the bunk’s dimensions.
Eventually, Phil retired and Josh started hanging around some of those big name bedding stores that have been multiplying like Starbucks in recent years. Suddenly the word “Tempur-Pedic®” entered our son’s vocabulary and this was all he could talk about until finally he raided his own private stash of cash. He was actually ready to lay out a cool grand based on fairly sound logic: what’s good enough for NASA’s space program was definitely good enough for his bedroom. Phil got wind of what was happening and graciously came out of retirement long enough to place a friendly call to a well-connected distributor. The distributor then arranged a generic substitute at less than half the cost, but that mattress only lasted for a single night. The next morning Josh deemed it a second-rate imitation and in his own unique vernacular, he began calling it the great “Phil-O-Pedic Rip-Off.”
Eventually the “Phil-O-Pedic” was gifted to me. I’ve been sleeping on it for the past five years and the dreams are sweet. Josh went ahead and paid full price for the real deal. Sometimes you get what you pay for in life, because my son has been happily snoring away on the Space Foundation’s certified mattress ever since. Which leaves us with only one minor dilemma: Josh will take his Tempurpedic when he moves into Libenu’s house, but he’s still planning to register for Yachad’s Yad B’Yad Summer Program in Israel. So Josh has placed several calls inquiring about international mattress delivery rates and yes, it is actually possible to ship bedding to Israel!
In Psalm 121 we read, “Behold the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers.” But who knows? With Josh in Jerusalem and Phil-O-Pedics available in the holy city, perhaps even the Master of the Universe will finally get a good night’s rest…after all.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.