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Windows: Beggar in the Basement

As told to Leah Gebber

The name Berel elicited a sigh — apparently, it wasn’t easy to help Berel. He was too rich, too poor, too independent, too much of a nebach

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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B erel is crazy.

Berel is a tzaddik.

Berel is probably unsafe.

Berel is definitely weird.

I don’t know who Berel is. Only that he has been living in my aunt and uncle’s basement for the last seven years.

It’s not a finished basement. No beautiful guest room, no wide playroom. It’s just a space. Stacked against one wall are cartons of teaching materials: lesson plans on Chumash and Navi, endless quizzes. There’s a treadmill (broken), two mountain bikes (forgotten), and an antique rocking horse that’s in perfect condition but is too expensive to let kids ride.

And then there’s Berel.

Berel used to sell tchotchkes from the trunk of his car. My uncle would stop, hover over the display of cheap merchandise. He knew he’d be overcharged for subquality goods, but he bought anyway. As his two children were grown, he’d buy gifts for us: a doll for my little sister, a pen that would work for maybe half an hour, a compass that never pointed north.

One day, as he picked up an alarm clock, noticing as he did that the clock hands spun crazily, he also noticed a thick quilt stuffed into the car’s passenger seat. And sticking out of the dashboard was a toothbrush and toothpaste.

My uncle invited Berel for Shabbos.

I never knew for sure, but I think Berel’s usual previous Shabbos accommodation was a pile of forgotten coats thrown onto the floor of the ezras nashim, a roll of paper towel, under his head to serve as a pillow. Certainly, he knew the security code for the shul’s front door. And I guess there’s enough food lying around: eierkuchen and schmaltz herring, cold potato kugel and olive dip, all washed down with last week’s cola.

That Shabbos, my aunt put Berel in the guest room. But the thick carpets and orthopedic mattress weren’t enough to make Berel feel at home. Motzaei Shabbos, he returned to his car and my uncle hit the phone.

He called up the local askanim. The name Berel elicited a sigh — apparently, it wasn’t easy to help Berel. He was too rich, too poor, too independent, too much of a nebach. He had lived with his grandmother for years, taking care of her in her old age. No one knew what had happened to his parents. No one knew what had happened to the house — there was talk of some machlokes, Berel had given away his half of his inheritance. Or maybe he never had a claim on it to begin with.

He’d been sick. He still was sick. No, he was fine; get him into new clothing, and he’d look hale and hearty.

No one was sure of anything, just that he wasn’t easy to help. For six months longer, Berel skirted my family’s radar. And then there was a snow storm, and my uncle went out into the frigid night, looking for the beat-up car. I don’t know how, but he came home with Berel. When he tried to settle him into the guest bedroom, though, Berel thumped down the stairs into the basement. “I’ll sleep here,” he said.

There was no heating down there, no bathroom, but Berel insisted. All that week, as the snow drifted down, he stayed. He left for shul in the morning, stayed out all day, until at 10 p.m. precisely, there was a bang at the door. He’d refuse all offers of dinner, but in the morning, the chicken and rice my aunt left out on the counter were always gone.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 585)

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