Grapevine, October 9, 2020: Beggar blessings

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
During the months of Elul and Tishrei, many people are more conscious of giving charity than they are the rest of the year, seeking perhaps to vindicate themselves before the Day of Judgment.
In bygone years, this was also a time when the beggars of Jerusalem were more aggressive than they were this year, and because of the dire economic situation more grateful than usual for even the smallest donation.
One of the greatest concentration of beggars is in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, where they are grouped at the Jaffa Road entrance and along the main drag of the open-air market. There are a few in the covered market, but not many, because the aisles are too narrow, and there’s nowhere for them to sit other than in the coffee shops and eateries, whose proprietors shoo them away because they’re bad for business.
That problem didn’t exist last Friday, as all the coffee shops in both the covered and the open market were closed. Ordinarily on a Friday, the tables and chairs at Aroma are all occupied as early as 7 a.m. Other establishments open a little later but fill up very quickly. It was sad to see that none was open.
As I made my way along the open market, popping coins into plastic cups, every single beggar gave me a blessing without my asking for it. I felt like Rothschild, so wealthy was I in terms of goodwill.
I was reminded of my first visit to the United States many years ago when I stayed with my ultra-Orthodox friend Nina and her husband in Williamsburg. Nina took me to a wedding, and before we left the house, she gave me a purse full of nickels and dimes, and took another for herself. Responding to my quizzical look, she explained that the coins were for tzedakah (charity). When we arrived at the wedding venue, there were two rows of beggars standing outside. We went up one row and down the other, distributing our coins in each and every outstretched hand.
Afterward, Nina said to me: “Look how much tzedakah you did today. Look how many people you helped – even by a little bit.”
Charity is an intrinsic Jewish value, and it sounded great, given our environment at the time.
In my native Australia, I hardly ever met a beggar. People were generally too proud to beg, aside from which, when I was growing up, begging was against the law. Beggars were allowed to sell knickknacks such as notebooks and ballpoint pens for prices that were often determined by the purchaser, who paid a slightly more generous sum than the item was worth.
When I first came to Israel, I was horrified by the number of beggars, and gave something to each one whom I encountered. It never occurred to me that some of them were con merchants, and I actually fell victim to a few of them, reacting to sob stories that I discovered later were not true. My Sabra husband alerted me to some of the scams.
Even so, Nina’s words always rang in my ears. “It doesn’t matter how little you give, so long as you give something.”
On one occasion, I was in town, waiting to meet my friend Sonia. I was standing with her mother, when a beggar came up to ask for a handout. I was about to put my hand in my purse, when Sonia’s mother stopped me. “He’s got a packet of Marlboro cigarettes in his shirt pocket,” she said. “If he can afford to smoke Marlboro, he doesn’t need your money.” For many years there was a woman who used to stop passersby on Ben-Yehuda Street and Hillel Street and tell them that she had four young starving children whom she couldn’t afford to feed. At one stage, I reminded her that children have a tendency to grow up, and that by now her children should be doing army service. She disappeared and I never saw her again.
There was always one beggar to whom I gave more, and for whom I searched, if I did not see her. She was apparently homeless and very ill. She had tubes attached to her, and she lay on a thin mattress on the pavement outside Berman’s Bakery on Agrippas Street.
She has been written up several times in the Hebrew press, with journalists wondering why the social welfare authorities had not found a place for her to call home.
She was there again last Friday, chatting to another beggar, but this time, due to the paucity of passersby, she wasn’t lying down, and there were no tubes attacked to various parts of her body. She was sitting up, laughing and talking normally.
Realizing that she had perpetrated a very successful scam, I was tempted not to give her anything this time, but again Nina’s words rang in my ears. “It doesn’t matter how little you give. It’s the mitzvah of giving that’s important.”
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■ THE MEMBER of the Herzog family that one usually hears about in Israel is Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog – but he’s not the only Herzog of renown in his generation. His older brother, Michael Herzog, a retired IDF brigadier-general, who is an international fellow of the Washington Institute, was this week the guest speaker of the Jerusalem Press Club, discussing the new Middle East and the Israel-Syria-Lebanon talks. All the events featuring guest speakers at the Jerusalem Press Club are accessible on its YouTube channel.