It was him, again! Somehow he always showed up at the worst times. I was walking down Jaffa Street and had no time for him today. I needed to get to work as soon as possible, so I ducked into a bookstore. He almost always asks to borrow money from me. A few Shekels at a time, but it adds up and he never pays me back. Please God don’t let him have noticed me.
I always wondered what evil I had committed to have deserved the punishment of constantly being harassed by Shmulik. He never shuts up, never gets the hint, and is always talking about how such and such Hasidic rebbe was the greatest righteous man who had ever lived. Shmulik was always schnoring money from people to pay for his annual trip to this rebbe’s grave over in Europe. Fortunately I never gave him any money for that as I heard from just about everyone that he not only kept on collecting money after he had more than enough, but he did not even go in the end.
I was humped over a stack of books on sale with my back to the door, hoping beyond hope that he had not seen me, when I heard it:
“Gildik! I thought that was you!” His voice is so annoying!
My heart sank when I realized that he had seen me. I just wasn’t in the mood for him. Shmulik’s the kind of guy who can get on your nerves sometimes and make you laugh at other times. But this day, a cold wet winter day where my feet had already gotten soaked from the puddles all over, when all I wanted to do was get into the heated indoors, was not a day for Shmulik.
“Hi Shmulik,” I said with a polite smile just to acknowledge him. If I was lucky, he didn’t have one of his long stories to bore me with. If I was that lucky then it would be a sign to run out and by lottery tickets. I wasn’t.
“Gildik! You’ll never guess who I just saw in the street.” I didn’t care to guess and when will he stop calling me Gildik?
He actually waited for me to try and guess as I sifted through the sale pile of books hoping he would think me too busy for this. Stupid me for thinking that he was capable of taking a hint. I looked up and saw him waiting for an answer so reluctantly I asked, “who?”
“Elijah the Prophet!” Shmulik said holding up his right index finger with an expression of triumph.
Elijah the Prophet? I though to myself. The one man who, according to the Talmud, never died. The man who stood up to the evil King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, as recounted in the Book of Kings. God’s prophet who the Talmud says has walked the Earth for centuries waiting for God to decree the end of days. When the time comes, it will be Elijah the Prophet who will reveal himself to the world and anoint God’s Messiah.
That Elijah the Prophet!
I must admit that Shmulik certainly surprised me this time. I was a bit intrigued, but still annoyed and wanted Shmulik to just get to the point so I asked, “what?”
“That’s right! Elijah the Prophet! I just saw him in the street.”
“OK Shmulik, how did you know that it was him?” I asked with a tone that implied, “just get to the point already.”
“I was walking down Ben-Yehudah Street and I saw him, sitting in the rain, begging for money. That’s right, he was begging. He was filthy, old, and his clothing was all torn. At first I thought nothing of it. Then I looked away for a second and when I looked back he had changed. Now he was a young man in a wheelchair. I thought that I just, you know, made a mistake, but then some people crossed in front of me. After they had past, he had changed into an old woman.”
It was usually hard for me to resist the temptation to just tell Shmulik to shut up already and leave me alone. Now, I was really getting mad.
“Look Shmulik,” I said. “I really need to get to work. I’ll see you later.”
“Gildik, don’t you understand? Elijah the Prophet spends his time amongst us pretending to be a beggar. He does this everywhere. Here, Tell Aviv, New York, everywhere! Every beggar that you see in the street anywhere, no matter how filthy, no matter how young or old or whether he’s in a wheelchair or not. That’s Elijah the Prophet. He’s testing us. He’s waiting for a time when no one will ever ignore a person whose been left so hopeless, without anything, not even the smallest bit of pride that keeps the rest of us from ever thinking about begging.
“How many of these people have you passed in the street without thinking twice. So don’t give them money. Just smile at them and ask how they are. Just treat them like people. When Elijah the Prophet sees that every one of us cares enough about those people, then he’ll tell God that its time to send us the Messiah.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know that Shmulik could be so deep about things like that. He didn’t even say goodbye. He just left the bookstore. Some people say that you should always judge people on the side of good, that there is at least some good in even the worst of people.
They say that God will judge each of us on how we judge others and if we do not look for at least something redeeming about everyone then he will also judge us for the worst in ourselves. So I guess now I found a reason to judge even Shmulik for the side of good.
I could only think about all of the beggars and crazies that I always see around town.
Like the Towel man. He goes around town with an old towel wrapped around his head like a turban with two long chopsticks sticking out over his ears. For some unknown reason, he wraps scotch tape around his arms in two places: one just above the elbow and one just above the wrist. He’s about sixty years old, six foot four inches tall and has a mostly grey beard. His hair is probably grey too, but you can’t see it under the towel. He speaks mostly English with a British accent.
Some people call him the towel man. Other’s call him the Messiah, albeit sarcastically. I just call him the crazy old Englishman who makes a nuisance of himself wherever he goes.
He’s always filthy and smells really bad. You have to pull your shirt up over your nose whenever he gets too close. The last time that I saw him was in Zichron Moshe. Zichron Moshe – everybody calls it Zichron for short – is a shteiblach, a minyan factory as one of my teachers in high school used to say. It never closes and has 5 different rooms. There’s a new minyan starting there every five minutes all day long in one of the rooms. Four of the rooms are small, but in the middle is an entrance to the large shul. In it are shelves with many books and it can hold a few hundred people. I sometimes go there in the afternoons when I need a place to go to study.
That’s when he came in. I had actually never seen this one of the many colorful crazies who call Jerusalem home. It was about 3 in the afternoon and I was buried in that day’s page of Talmud study. I was sitting in the back row of the main shul when I heard someone speaking English with a British accent. He was being too loud for the place – like someone shouting in a library where people are only supposed to speak in whispers– and I raised my head to see who it was.
I looked over at an American man sitting near me and we both gave each other the same look that said “only in Jerusalem.” As the Towel Man made his rounds through the shul he got close to me. I cringed at the thought of his trying to talk to me. Towel Man didn’t just beg for money, he also tried to engage people in conversation. He skipped by me and I gave a sigh of relief.
I will always remember what a rabbi taught my class in high school about giving tzedaka – charity — to people in the street. He said that you should never assume that they are faking it and pretending to be sick or handicapped. If they are and you give them money, then God still gives you credit for giving tzedaka. But if you do not help them when you can and they are not faking it, then it will be on your head.
But it is very hard to feel that way about every person who you see. Like this one man who sits in a wheelchair all day at the entrance to the main part of the shuk – the open air market in Jerusalem. He begs for money all day, but I’ve seen him get up from his wheelchair and walk over to a kiosk to buy beer with the money which he collects.
Then there’s the High Priestess. She’s an American woman who hangs out on Ben Yehudah Street in downtown Jerusalem. She wears an all white dress in the style of clothing from the time of the Second Temple. She also wears a strange hat with some Hebrew markings in gold. And there’s the breast plate; this is why she’s called the High Priestess. She wears a cardboard rectangle on her chest with gold colored symbols that resemble the breast plate worn by the High Priest at the Temple thousands of years ago. It’s not clear what she’s doing there. She never asks for money or tries to preach.
I also thought of the man I once saw at the Hillel Café on Jaffa Street. I was sitting in the corner reading the paper over a cup of coffee when I noticed the manager scold a man, about fifty years old small of build and with a light touch of grey in his hair. “I told you not to do that here!” The manager shouted at the man. The man was taking the left over food from tables where people had not finished their meals. He ate the food straight off the plate, including half eaten sandwiches. It was truly a sad sight. This man did not seem to be mentally ill or challenged in any way.
He spoke competently to the manager. “All right, I’ll buy something!” He said. The British man then bought the cheapest drink on the menu. He had all of half a Shekel coming to him in change and said to the barman, “keep the change!” as if he were being generous.
I always wonder about people like that. What separates them from the rest of us? Are they crazy? Have they always been that way? Did something happen that pushed them over the edge? Was it just a series of bad breaks? Are they Schizophrenics? Are they just people who kind of snapped later on in life? Does it matter? I really don’t know how far apart I may be from them. How little might it take for me to also cross over into that world?
Right in front of my old college campus there always stood a man who looked like Moses and who must have been as old as Moses too. He wore an old cloak and only lacked a sandwich board that read, “the end of the world is nigh.” The Messiah, as he was known, enjoyed engaging the students in debates about religion. He was clearly very smart and well educated. The one question that I always had about these people was, “are they crazy?
I remember the one time that made an attempt to do something for homeless people. A man had come to speak at my college. He was a rabbi and worked with charities, helping them to raise money. There was one thing that he said that I’ll never forget: “Don’t ever say, ‘but I’m just one person. What can I do?’ If every single person who ever thought that actually did something then there would be millions of more people out there doing something. No matter how small the act, no matter how little the spare change donated, it all adds up. Remember, once you’ve put enough drops in that bucket you’ll have filled the bucket.”
That speech moved me personally to commit my one act of selflessness that, if I’m lucky, will keep me out of Hell. It was a few months after that Rabbi’s speech, Purim. On Purim we have a commandment to get drunk and eat a huge feast. But we are also commanded to give gifts to the poor. That year I went to the nearest market and bought bags filled with fruit. I then went up and down Broadway and gave Bananas and apples to homeless people lying in the parks between the two sides of the street.
One elderly black man cried after I gave him a few bananas and said “I ain’t got nothin’.” I’ll never forget the look on his face.
For some reason it’s hard for people to care about the homeless and the street beggars. We generally seem to able to care more for a stray cat then the destitute. Why? Maybe it’s because when we see these people we fear that we might end up like them and this thought so disturbs us that we avoid them. Maybe it’s because we think that they somehow deserve their fate, that they have done something to end up that way. But what if Shmulik was right? What if God is watching us and waiting for us to give a damn about all people.
So each and everyone, even Shmulik, should be judged for their merits, no matter how few they may have and no matter how much they may do us harm.
It took me a moment to remember that I didn’t really want the books that I was holding. I put them down on the table, hoping that the woman behind the register wouldn’t see that I didn’t bother to put them back in their places.
When I went outside, I saw a beggar at the corner of the street, just sitting in the rain with no umbrella, just getting wet. As I got close to her, I thought of what Shmulik had said. She looked so sad.
I was about to give her some change when I felt in my pocket that the smallest thing I had was a ten Shekel coin. “Too much,” I thought and so I passed her by. But then I felt guilty and so I looked back and saw that she had disappeared.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and thought, just for an instant, that it might be Elijah himself. Unfortunately, it was Shmulik.
“Gildik! Can you loan me five Shekels for the bus? I’m short on money today.”
I handed him the ten Shekel coin that I had in my pocket, still feeling guilty that I had not given it to the woman.
“Thanks! Do you see that woman beggar over there?” he asked pointing at the same old woman who I could not see a few seconds earlier because two people were blocking my view of her.
“That’s the one I was telling you about the other day. I know her from around town. Don’t bother giving her money. She’s a real faker.”
I hate Shmulik.