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The Beggar’s Disguise

Dvorah Zuckerberg

And then there were the stories I read about the lamed-vav tzaddikim — the 36 righteous people in whose merit the world exists — made invisible by their unassuming facade. I would search for them among the poor and homeless Jews who roamed the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Some of them I recognized as just beggars. But others …

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

open handShe was a young woman, but she was really an overgrown child. Tall, taller than her mother, somewhat overweight, she had a confused, forlorn look on her face, as if she were a stranger in This World. As her mother led her by the hand, her eyes darted back and forth like a trapped bird.

I would see her walking on East Broadway, or find her sitting on a crate in front of the fruit store or the chicken market. Her mother would stand nearby, urging passersby to drop some coins into the rusty can her daughter held. People dropped a coin and averted their eyes; I couldn’t look away. Her hair was a tangled mess. Who is she? I wondered, as my hands rose to my head and my fingers combed through my hair to make sure there were no knots.

He ran around the streets, always in a hurry, like a big businessman late for an appointment. Like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, except that he did not have a watch and he did not disappear into a hole. If we came face-to-face, he would block our way and pierce us with his eyes. I would move back and intentionally drop my eyes; it was like pulling down my shades so he wouldn’t be able to look in.

I remembered my father talking about a meshuggener in his town before the war who could look through a person and expose all his flaws. People had run from him in fear.

This man, thankfully, was not interested in anyone’s flaws — only in how much money he could get. Yet we, too, would avoid him, crossing the street when we saw him from afar. 

There was a quiet, gentle one who intrigued me. I remember him as gray. The hand-me-downs he wore had faded to gray. An elbow peeked out from the hole in his jacket. He shuffled when he walked, for his shoes were torn and a few sizes too big. He would sometimes lean against the wall of our building or sit on the floor near the stoop. He seemed oblivious to the cold, the hunger, the hard paving stones he called home.

Unlike the other homeless people, he never asked for anything. When my mother handed him some change or some food, he accepted with eyes cast down, his lips moving inaudibly as he nodded a thank-you.

At other times I would watch through our living room window as he stood, leaning against the lamppost. I hid behind the curtain so he would not feel my eyes on him. Was it the gusty wind that made him sway or was he praying, his soul soaring to the upper spheres? Was he one of the hidden 36? My mother found me standing at the window staring, and I voiced my suspicions. She smiled wistfully, as if she, too, might believe it. From all the stories I had read, I knew that we were not allowed to blow his cover, or he would disappear. He became a topic of conversation in our home. We called him the Silent One. My parents decided to invite him up for a Shabbos meal. I was very excited; this would give me a chance to observe him closely and I might even be able to catch him at being a tzaddik.


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