In the evening shadows, an elderly man comes up the steps of the shul. “Ich bin a tateh fun nein kinder,” he says, meaning “I am a father of nine children.” “Ivrit, Yiddish?” He asks me if I speak Hebrew or Yiddish. “Ivrit, Hebrew,” I answered, though I actually speak both. “I had a nituach”—surgery, in his words, a “hoperation,” he says in a breathy, winded Yiddish-ized English-Hebrew as though he had just run a half mile.
This man might have been my grandfather; his hands were parched like ears of corn, his nails yellowed most probably by psoriasis. I quarrel with myself: How much to give? $1? $5? A man looks like a walking heart attack, comes halfway around the world, and you give him $5? All I had were 20s. I hardened myself. “Do you have change?” I say. Of course he has change. He puts down his papers, a sheaf of papers he carries in a leather folder, like something from Bernard Malamud’s Magic Barrel. You could swear he smells of fish. Seeing his exertion, I told him to keep the $20 bill.
The motif of the beggar, both the holy and unholy ones, is firmly ensconced in Judaic lore, from the Talmud all the way through Hassidic tales. Begging intensified when we were forced to live in ghettos in Europe in the period following the Middle Ages. This continued in the shtetl. We were all one family then, staggered as we were by the waves of brutality visited on us by the gentile nations. This was the golden age of beggardom, which begat a new kind of beggar—the “schnorrer.” “Schnorrers” refer to those beggars who have an air of entitlement, as if they were exiled monarchs, gifts to civilization, who have the unfortunate position of having no money.
Every Tuesday morning at my synagogue, by the coffee urn just inside of the entrance, sit three elderly Russian men. They literally have their hands out. A dollar here and there, a few coins, a Yiddish turn of phrase, a mixture of gold tooth smiles and plaintive requests. One dollar buys you a torrent of blessings from them: A gut yahr, na zdrovie, they say. Spraznikom.
I love these men, with their blue-eyed, lined faces. Perhaps they are veterans of the Great War, remnants of the Red Army’s drive on Berlin. One of them is old enough for sure, but no one is quite sure why they are there.
And those are just the regulars. There are a host more who make cameo appearances, often from Israel. They make impassioned, sometimes anguished speeches beseeching donations for one important cause or another or for themselves. These men, anachronisms in human form—they would have been at home in the shtetl, with their dirty caftans, patched jackets, and stale cigarettes. Their faces, some of them, convey a world of dust and famine, feet in run-down boots that tread in gutters muddy with dirty snow and ice. These men (and they are almost always men) come in the modern equivalent of droshkies (Polish for horse-and-buggy taxis) beat-up car services and livery cabs.
Not too long ago, one young man from Israel asked me if he could take a few minutes to make a plea for funds during one morning minyan. I told him he could do so, after the aleinu. I knew this was after some of his customers would have already left, but the minyan was running late. It hurt me to say no, but I did.
He fumed. Afterward, I asked him how much money I caused him to lose—he told me $25. I gave it to him. He embraced me in gratitude, but I saw he wasn’t happy. Later someone pointed out to me that he may have “needed” to tell his story. I had robbed him of the opportunity to klop on the bimah and tell his tale. It wasn’t only the money. Without his speech he was painfully invisible.
One man I know appears at intervals and faithfully recites his tale with pathos, inveighing with all manner of fire and brimstone all that has befallen him. “I used to have parnassah, pay bills, have a business, but now …” His story is dear to him, so dear that in his mind it trumps davening. A tug-of-war develops between him and the shliach tzibbur, or leader of prayers, as to whose voice will triumph. “I have to make chasunah”—wedding—“now for three children …” is pitted against “Amen Y’hei Shmei Rabboh,” the climax of the Kaddish prayer. Some rush to shush him while others hear him out, pressing dollar bills and fives dramatically into his hands as he sings his song of sorrow. He can break your heart even if you think he is not telling the truth.
In my Passaic, N.J., synagogue, a benevolent attitude has formed toward worthy and non-worthy vagabonds alike. Everyone is given something and sometimes a little more than something. Not too long ago I struck up a deep conversation with Baruch. A man in his fifties, a seventh-generation Yerushalmi, Baruch took his tea with tons of sugar as we schmoozed. He had the visage of a holy man. He carried an album with him with photos of his parents and his children. Ten of them lived in a three-room apartment in the old city of Jerusalem. He was marrying off his third son, and he was begging and borrowing to do it. The man had such charm, had such Jew-holiness about him, I would have emptied my bank account into his, if I had anything.
Together we worked up a cozy steam. On his mother’s side, they came from the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia, where my ancestors are from. In his way, he was a devoted father and grandfather. He would provide by hook or by crook. I respected that. So what if his family was a lot larger than he could handle? Who hasn’t over-reached? Besides, there were already grandchildren. How could a Jewish child be a mistake? It was all very touching. Besides, he quoted from Talmud at a page a minute, and I matched him quote for quote. We had a jolly old time.
I can’t remember if this is actually so, but I believe he made himself as the Yiddish expression goes, ze’er ba’kvemt—very, or too comfortable. Perhaps he took out a cigarette and made smoke rings or maybe he downed a plate of cookies, I can’t remember exactly. He asked if I knew anyone who would be sympathetic to his plight. I actually did know someone, a wealthy hotelier who once told me that he wanted to “twin” his daughter’s wedding with a poor man’s wedding in Jerusalem. “Is he observant?” the Yerushalmi wanted to know. He was not observant, I told him. With a horrified look, my Yerushalmi friend said that he could not take the money of someone who was not observant.
You had to admire him in a perverse way. Here was a beggar and a chooser. At any rate, we both paid lip service to the coming of the Messiah, and I gave him $100. But after I did that, I asked him casually, if his children had any plans for making their way in life, like you know, working.
Without even a trace of irony he waved his hand and said, “Ze lo bishvilanu la’avod,” or “It is not for us to work.” At that point, I realized that we were both crazy—I for giving him money, and he for expecting me and the rest of the world to provide for all the children he sired pell-mell—without the slightest plan. We shared a bond as members of the same tribe, but our worldviews were wholly incommensurate with each other.
Nevertheless, somehow in the people’s yiddishkeit, in the precincts of the shul and the beis medrash—a world where virtue and piety rule the high seas of human thought and behavior, we are, all of us, as if in an opium den, rendered into holy fools.