The Day I Learned About "Tzedaka"
By Gerard Meister
You don't always learn everything there is to know about tzedaka from a Rabbi's sermon or in Hebrew School. Take the day when I first learned about tzedaka
It was summer's end in 1940 and the High Holidays were fast approaching. Papa, who had been sick and out of work for over a year, was feeling better and looking forward to going to shul. The problem was that he didn't have a new suit to wear, or an old one for that matter. Every stitch of Papa's clothing disappeared along with the boarder Mama had taken in to help pay the rent while Papa wasn't working.
When my mother wondered out loud how we were going to manage clothes cost money and we didn't have much, certainly not enough for a new suit Papa told her not to worry. "Let's go to a men's store," he said. "I just know something good will happen."
We got all dressed up for the occasion: Mama put on her Shabbos dress and white cotton gloves and I wore my finest knickers. Papa didn't have a suit or a jacket to wear, but he did have white shirt and tie that the boarder (or that oysvorf [scoundrel], as Mama called him) somehow missed stealing. I thought we looked rather spiffy as we marched over to Stone Avenue where many of the men's stores in Brooklyn were located.
We started window shopping and stopped in front of this one store where a mannequin in a green tweed suit caught Papa's eye. We weren't there ten seconds when the proprietor popped out, looked Papa up and down and said: "For you I got a suit!" Who could resist an invitation like that?
But as soon as we got inside, Papa said: "Balabus, I have to tell you one little thing." And went on to explain our misfortune to the shopkeeper, how the boarder, that oysvorf, had skipped out, not only with the week's rent of three dollars, but also with all of Papa's clothes.
"Did you call the police?" the merchant asked with obvious concern.
"No," Mama chimed in. "We were ashamed to tell the police that the boarder, a Jewish boy and a litvak yet [an elite Jew], could be such a goniff. "
"But I do need a suit," Papa said. "Last year I was in the hospital for the High Holidays, and this year both my daughters they're married now are coming over with their husbands. Can you help us? It would be a real mitzvah, my friend, and I can put down two dollars and pay the rest off; I'm going back to work on Monday."
"Well," the merchant said, as he stroked his chin. "I really can't afford it, but what can I do? I'm obligated to help a Jew in need, that's the meaning of tzedaka. The suit will cost you fifteen dollars, two dollars down, if that's all you can manage, and the rest when you have the money, but don't take too long or I'll need tzedaka."
Papa shook hands with the proprietor and gave him the two dollars. "Tell me something," Mama said, as Papa slipped into the suit for his fitting. "Does the garment come with two pairs of pants?"
"That, too?" the merchant said, his eyebrows rising halfway up his forehead. "That'll cost you an extra three dollars."
"Fine," Mama said. "We'll take it and you won't be sorry. I swear."
"You don't have to swear, I'm sure you'll pay me back when you can that too is part of tzedaka."
"Did you learn anything today, sonny?" Papa asked me as we left the store.
"Yes Papa, I did," I said proudly. "Tzedaka comes with two pairs of pants."
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine