“If a man puts his hand out on the street, you have to put something in it.”
My Dad said that often. I think of him when I’m running around town with not a minute to lose and suddenly a person looms up, blocking my way, mumbling blessings and holding out a hand. All I want to do is brush them aside and keep going. Most times though, I swallow my impatience and dig through my purse for loose change. The beggar thanks me, but it’s Dad’s humanity and sense of justice that merit the thanks.
Foolish, sentimental, useless charity disturbs an American relative who comes to visit sometimes. When a beggar approaches her, she shudders elaborately and hurries away in disgust. She argues that the most effective way to give is through worthy organizations – that the State takes care of the poor… well, maybe. Well, maybe I’ve lived in Israel too long, but her attitude disturbs me.
I wonder what forces oblige people to beg in the streets and if they ever get used to exposing themselves like that. I wonder if they can survive on the coins people give them. My relative has forgotten the word tzedakah. Tzedakah does not mean “charity.” It means justice. Whether the beggar moves you to pity or offends your sense of smell, a few pennies fulfill your obligation and relieve a little of the misery in the world. And – this is my private feeling – I believe that the blessings of a poor man will echo again in Heaven someday.
I was in Jerusalem recently, hurrying to catch a bus. Something about this man sitting at the exit of the underground passage at the Central Bus Station drew me, and I stopped in front of him.
He was selling poetry. His own work, in English. His name is Robbie – Reuven Bramel, and he is an Englishman who’s lived here for many years. Once Reuven had a responsible teaching job and owned his home, he said, but a series of escalating disasters destroyed his health and brought him to selling his poems on the street. He explained his circumstances matter-of-factly. I felt a little guilty, as if he felt obliged to exchange his life’s story for my money. But there’s no self-pity in him, and his strong, cheerful spirit won’t be put down. Could I confront life and fight back like that? I don’t know, and hope I never have to find out.
Robbie handed me a patriotic poem (“My interpretation of HaTikvah”), which he then recited for me, rolling the r’s impressively. He also has a poem about the irises of Gilboa. Whatever I might think of his poetry, I respect him; he’s still battling, drawing on the poor resources he has left to earn a living. I told him I’d give his home address to anyone who wants to buy his poems (whatever you want to pay), so here it is: Reuven Bramel- Greenspan St. 10/25 – East Talpiot – Jerusalem.
Street musicians come from another place, and have different destinations. There are talented, professional musicians busking on our streets. They also have what to give in exchange for your coins – a lively klezmer tune, an aria from Carmen, Yiddish folk songs calculated to squeeze the heart a little.
All of us feel the effects of the worldwide recession. Here in Israel, we are also busy surviving a war. In these parlous times there are ever more calls on our willingness to give. But don’t pass the street people by. The coins you drop in their hands (or their hats) will weigh the scales in your favor, later on.