A long time ago I read the book “Number Our Days” by the late anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff.
Her book tells the story of a group of elderly Jewish women and men living on the edge of poverty in Venice, Calif., in the 1970s. They meet regularly at a community center, where their indomitable spirits persevere as they laugh and cry with one another and react to the world around them.
This book, which I read more than 40 years ago, made such an impression on me that I find myself reaching into its lessons over and over again. Here’s one:
At least once a week, I pass a certain homeless man at an intersection near our home. There he paces with his handmade sign and bags of possessions, soliciting from people whose cars have stopped at the traffic light.
I try to remember the suggestion from my friend Gilbert to bring fruit with me in order to feed hungry people on the street, and it’s possible that after a long time of interaction, this fellow may recognize me (or my crazy car) and knows he’ll get an apple or banana from me.
He spoke to me only once. “I like fruit!” he said. I took that as my marching orders.
Last week, I was the first car at the red light. When he (let’s call him Man One) came to my car, I handed him an apple. He thanked me and put it in the large shopping bag he was holding.
Just then, another homeless man (Man Two) started to cross the street in front of us. Unlike the apparently younger Man One to whom I had given the apple, this new arrival looked ancient and moved unsteadily, coughing, disheveled and leaning heavily on a makeshift cane, trying to hold on to several plastic bags at the same time.
He was slow but determined to get across the street before the light changed.
Even though drivers on all four corners noticed Man Two struggling to get across the wide street, he was oblivious to everything around him. It took all he could muster to keep moving. I saw that Man One spotted him, too.
Was Man One going to overtake Man Two and help himself to whatever was in that man’s bags? Was Man One going to make sure that Man Two didn’t stay to claim the corner, ensuring that he, the more pitiful one, would be chosen to receive money or food?
It would have been so easy to take advantage of the other’s weakness.
In a flash, Man One reached into his shopping bag, grabbed the apple, leapt over the curb and stopped Man Two just as he made it to the other side. The light changed, and the honking car behind me let me know that I had to drive on. As I made the turn, in my rearview mirror I saw Man One hand the apple to Man Two.
A few days later, I saw Man One at the intersection as usual. I was several cars back, but he got to me just in time to receive two apples. He thanked me, but we didn’t speak.
I don’t know whether he remembered helping someone needier, but he was now equipped if he happened upon another person who was hungry.
In Barbara Myerhoff’s book, she shows the chesed, caring kindness, of elderly people who share a common culture. Myerhoff describes the collection of tzedakah at the community center each week. Even the poorest Jews give something, sometimes pennies.
For these men and women, it is natural to help others, to feel responsible for people who are even needier than themselves. In their world of connection to all Jews, it would be inconceivable to do otherwise.
My grandfather used to say, “Leap to do a mitzvah!” I wish he had seen that man on the corner jumping over the curb to give away his apple.