#149 (s5760-49/22 Av)  


The holiest of our seedier citizens is not a beggar.


by Chana Besser

Like any small town, Safed has a few professional beggars. None of them are drunkards, thank G-d, or homeless, G-d forbid. They just beg for a living. It's their job, and they work hard at it. They keep regular hours, and each has his own territory. Some of them work for religious organizations, like the fat guy who limps and carries a pushka (collection can), or the spry, skinny, little guy on the Midrachov, our cobble stoned main street. He sings Yiddish and Hebrew folksongs and even dances around waltz-like on a good day, gentle and grateful, giving a bracha (blessing) and a sweet smile to every generous soul. Then we have a few others who are self-employed. They put out their hand, or an unlabelled plastic jar. Most of our beggars are clean, although I'm sure that some of them believe that they will have a more successful day if they look a bit down in the collar. But everyday, there they are.

Not that many years ago, I would turn my back on such sorts, suspicious of their need. Once I asked my Rebbe, "How do I know whether they really need the money? I'll bet some of them are better off than I am." His wise reply was, "If they ask, then they need it, even if only in their own minds, and you should give." So I give to them all every time I see them, which is usually every day, just ten agurot, our smallest coin, worth about three cents, or a half-shekel, about 12 cents. It's the best bargain in the world, I figure -- a blessing for a few cents.

But the holiest of our seedier citizens isn't a beggar. When I first saw him loitering on the Midrahov in old, torn clothes, with big holes in the heels of his socks that protruded far above the tops of his shoes, I thought he might be homeless, down and out. Then I started seeing him around regularly, often sitting at the cafe tables hanging out with friends. Were they feeding him, I wondered?

Then the annual Safed Klezmer Music Festival happened. Tens of thousands of people flock to Safed to enjoy musicians playing in the streets, in the squares, in the parks, in every nook and cranny of town. I saw him there, at Klezmer. But he wasn't a spectator. I was attracted by the sound of the music, and I fought through the crowd until I could get close enough to see what they were watching. It was him. He was dancing. Michael was dancing all by himself, entertaining about a hundred spectators, all captivated by his grace and improvisation. His thin body was celebrating the ecstasy of the music. His deeply lined, tanned, old face was glowing from an inner light, his eyes dancing from the joy of pleasing the crowd. He danced like Anthony Quinn in "Zorba the Greek", his hands raised above his head to punctuate his movements. A Chasid all in black garb jumped up to dance with him. There they were, the two of them -- young and old, religious and secular, respected and unrespected, yarmulka and stocking cap -- dancing together before the crowd. Michael was putting so much of himself into his dancing that I felt like I was looking at his soul.

I didn't see him after that for a while. Then one day, I saw only the familiar, tired yellow knit cap. Adjacent to my house is a common site in Safed, a "horva", a ruin. Destroyed in the last earthquake that devastated the town, apartments or entire buildings are abandoned and inhabited only by stray cats and worse. I was coming into my courtyard through the back gate, and suddenly the old, metal gate of the horva slammed shut! A hand was reaching out, face and body hiding out of sight, to fasten the heavy chain and padlock. But his hat was visible. It was Michael's hat.

What should I do? I didn't know. I was afraid to tell anyone. They might have the police come and evict him. There was no electricity, no water, no heat --there weren't even any windows. How could he sleep there in the cold Safed nights? I figured that he showered daily at the Shul down the street, where many of the men went every morning to use the mikveh (ritual bath house). That would explain how he was able to always look so clean. Was he dangerous? Was it because of him that people locked their doors? I had heard talk of a "few rotten apples" in the town. Could he be one of them? Was I safe?

But I had seen him dance. Others might view him with suspicion. But I had seen him give himself to the people, holding nothing back. I decided to leave things as they were. He didn't know that I had recognized his hat. He was old enough to receive social security. If he wanted to live in a ruin, I wasn't going to meddle. I would keep his secret.

Winter turned to Spring and quickly into Summer. Gradually, I figured out that almost everybody in town knew that Michael was living in the horva next door to me. They say that he works. So instead of being a bum, he's an eccentric. But there is one more story to hear about him, the best story of all.

Michael saw a friend one day who was sitting at an outdoor cafe on the Midrachov. He was crying, his head down on the table, buried in his arms. Michael sat down to console him and asked what was wrong. The friend said that he was in a lot of trouble. He had divorced, and had not paid any child support. He hadn't paid in years, and now the authorities had caught up with him. He needed about $20,000 immediately, or he would go to jail. Michael reached into his shabby pants pocket. He took out a worn, crumpled Lotto ticket. Fingering it once more for the hundreth time, he showed it to his friend. Michael said, "Look at this. You don't have to cry anymore. You don't have to go to jail. I won this Lotto game. This is a winning ticket. It's worth $20,000. All week, I've been wondering, 'Why did I win it?' I knew I didn't need the money, so I figured that there must be some reason why I won. Well, this must be why. So take the ticket and your troubles are over."

Perhaps you are wondering whether the story is true or not. Really, it doesn't matter so much. What is most important is that people here tell these kinds of stories. It tells us a lot about the kind of people who live in Safed. Even our bums and our beggars are holy. Perhaps they are the holiest of all.

Copyright by Chana Besser safed@canaan.co.il
Do not publish or circulate without permission from the author.

Chana Besser was born in post-war Germany, grew up in Chicago, and raised her daughters in Denver, Colorado. She made aliyah in 1995 to Safed, where she teaches, learns Torah and occasionally writes.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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